Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Martin's Lists

What is the role of the critic? This is a question that demands an answer today more than ever before. The vast majority of readers, concert-, theater- and movie-goers couldn't care less, since they obviously have no use for criticism. Their likes and dislikes are matters of entirely personal importance. They're never exactly sure why, but they certainly don't want a professional type like a critic explaining to them why they're right or wrong. Since they lead unexamined lives, why should they bother to examine their tastes?

But a few people, including artists, actually pay attention to what critics say, whether they put it into practical application or not. Last week I singled out one artist who thought so much of a critic's remarks about his latest work that he took the time not only to comment on them but to rebut them in a rather passionate essay of his own. Such a reaction from an artist to address his critics personally is always unwise. The reasons are quite straightforward, as I will try to explain.

Everyone should know by now that, aside from being one of the two or three best American filmmakers of the past 50 years, Martin Scorsese is also an avid student of film whose knowledge of the medium rivals that of any film scholar. He has been directly involved in various film restoration projects and is a tireless advocate of film preservation. 

For the past five years Scorsese has been a quite vocal critic of the current state of the motion picture medium, of the manner with which his own films, as well as the films of the past, are being mistreated and trivialized by a critical establishment that only seems to care about blockbusters and box office returns. Scorsese, who turns 75 in November, clearly loves the best that film has to offer, even if his career has had its share of commercial work.

In 2012, Scorsese was asked by the British Film Institute through its venerable film magazine Sight & Sound to participate in a poll by contributing a list of what he considered to be the Top Ten Films Of All Time. Scorsese was among hundreds of film directors to submit a list and the results of the poll were published as an adjunct to another poll compiled from lists submitted by hundreds of contemporary film critics. 

There has been a critics' poll every ten years since 1952 and a directors' poll since 1962. The first poll I became acquainted with was the 1972 poll. The results of the seventh and latest poll were published in 2012. I had my say about the polls in my blog pieces "Sight Unsound" in 2008 and "Poll Position" in 2012. I'm not altogether sure why the poll is conducted once a decade, but the results don't hold out much hope for the future of the medium since, as I've pointed out, the newest film on the list was made in 1968. I can't blame the majority of film critics who submitted their choices for having conservative, "safe" standards, but film art appears to be increasingly a thing of the past.

It's the critics' poll that gets all the publicity, with the directors' poll appearing as a kind of dutiful afterthought, leaving some readers wondering which one is more authoritative. Obviously, the fact that the polls are so different should signify something? For instance, why is La Régle du Jeu ranked the 4th greatest film on the critics' poll but tied for 22nd on the directors' poll? Why is Scorsese's own Taxi Driver ranked #5 on the directors' poll and #31 on the critics' poll? The biggest lapse is Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, #11 for the critics, but tied with fifteen other films (including There Will Be Blood, The Shining, and Jaws!) for #75 for the directors (this is especially unforgivable coming from a group of so-called filmmakers). The Directors' Poll is a Tale of the Ties: 7 films are tied for #30, 7 tied for #37, 11 tied for #48, and 16 films tied for #75 as well as #91.  

Since 2012, Martin Scorsese has been in a list-making mood of his own. After publishing the essay, "The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema" in The New York Review in 2013, Scorsese published a list of his twelve favorite films on the Miramax website, "The 85 Films You Need to See to Know Anything About Film" in Fastcompany Magazine, and, in response to a request from a film student, "39 Essential Foreign Films."

Though there is some unavoidable overlap in these three lists, they each seem shaped to a quite different purpose. Of the films on Scorsese's "85 films" list, which are, we are told, the "films that most influenced" him, only 13 are foreign films, and they're all directed by either Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti. It's an odd, idiosyncratic list, dominated by B-movie film noir like Gun Crazy and T Men, films by Robert Altman, Vincente Minelli and his contemporary Francis Ford Copolla.  

While the list made it clear that Scorsese was never much influenced by foriegn films (with the exception of Rossellini), he responded to a letter from a young filmmaker named Colin Levy with a list of "39 Essential Foreign Films" that partially compensates for the lacunaes in the 85 Films list. Scorsese's "85 Films" list is a revealing glimpse not just into the origins of his taste in films but how it shaped his choices in subject matter. It is a far better tool for understanding his approach to filmmaking than a critical guide. The same can be said for Sight & Sound's Directors' Poll. It provides us with the background from which contemporary film emerged. It tells us what films inspired a generation of directors, while making us wonder where the new Ozu, the new Welles, or the new Fellini may be hiding.

Some observers, including the directors themselves, believe that the Directors' Poll is more authoritative, since it is an insider's view. But what qualifies Scorsese to be an artist disqualifies him from being an effective critic. In his essay, "The Persisting Vision," Scorsese paints an illuminating picture of the time when he caught the film "disease":

My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.

And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives.

And that’s actually part of the wonder. Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as “fantasy” and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.

Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother.

Whenever I'm asked to provide a film ezine with a list of the top films of the past year, of the decade, of the 21st Century or whatever, I always decline. I'm simply not in the position to have access to the dozens of films worth viewing every year. The best I could manage would be a list of favorites. This is in no way a capitulation - allowing pleasure precedence over principle. 

George Orwell touched on the problem in his essay on Jonathan Swift, "Politics vs. Literature":

If one is capable of intellectual detachment, one can perceive merit in a writer whom one deeply disagrees with, but enjoyment is a different matter. Supposing that there is such a thing as good or bad art, then the goodness or badness must reside in the work of art itself - not independently of the observer, indeed, but independently of the mood of the observer. In one sense, therefore, it cannot be true that a poem is good on Monday and bad on Tuesday. But if one judges the poem by the appreciation it arouses, then it can certainly be true, because appreciation, or enjoyment, is a subjective condition which cannot be commanded.

This is precisely the problem with so much of what passes for criticism today. Many critics - certainly many of those consulted for the Sight & Sound Critics Poll - are closer to what I have called fans - unable to distinguish between what they like and what they know (or perhaps don't know) is good. No one would argue with the notion that every critical judgement starts out as a subjective emotional response. But even subjectivities can sometimes agree. This is how we have managed to arrive at the general consensus that Shakespeare is the greatest poet in English, that Rembrandt is a great painter, and that Schubert is a great composer. These agreements may only be starting points for a critic, but they are the foundation of critical thought - appealing to objective aesthetic standards. 

It's fine for a filmmaker of Scorsese's stature to write about how pleasure is his guide, but it's a disaster for a critic. It's the only way I can account for the steady rise of Hitchock's Vertigo to the #1 slot on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Or 2001: A Space Odyssey at #6, or The Searchers at #7.    

Spinoza wrote (italics mine): "Love is the feeling of pleasure accompanied by our knowledge of its cause." Who knew that love and criticism were synonymous? If only the critics who voted for Vertigo in the 2012 poll investigated the cause of the pleasure that the film gave them, they would've realized it was nothing but a boyhood crush and not true love. In one of his last statements on the subject of film criticism, a profession he helped to make respectable in the 1960s, John Simon wrote, "Reviewing has become largely simplistic consumer guidance, with the broader, more speculative view rarely in evidence and decreasingly in demand." 

The Sight & Sound Directors' Poll provides a unique window into what inspires current cinema. Whether they manage to measure up to it or not, the poll represents to directors an ideal cinema. The trend for the Critics' Poll is clearly away from an acceptance of principle - that, far from all of our pleasure-seeking, some films will endure as examples of film art, whether anyone still likes it or not. Who knows but that Citizen Kane, which is, to so many of the younger critics, a very old and complicated movie, may disappear from the precincts of the Top Ten, to be replaced by who knows what aberration?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Suffering in 'Silence'

In keeping with one of American cinema's oldest traditions, Martin Scorsese is responsible for some of the bloodiest films ever made. Unlike the blood spilt in the films of his contemporaries, like Coppola and De Palma, it isn't Kensington Gore - the trademark artificial blood that most closely resembles, in Technicolor, the real thing. In many, if not most, of Scorsese's films, blood is in abundant evidence, flowing stanchlessly from wounds either sustained or inflicted by his protagonists.

For at least the past thirty years, Scorsese has also informed us, through his choice of subject matter, that he is a devout Catholic. He turned Nikos Kazantzakis' guilt-streaked novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, into a vividly re-imagined, intensely personal film. Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul showed off Scorsese's down-to-earth casting choices and his efforts to bring the story home to his viewers. But Scorsese took some hits from the Roman Catholic establishment, including the Church's official banning of the film - which merely demonstrated that they never even bothered to watch it. Throughout a long career that includes much commercial work, work intended to appease producers who would not otherwise let him realize his most personal projects, a few of Scorsese's films have become monuments to his tenacity and to his integrity - ungainly, difficult projects practically guaranteed to lose money.

Scorsese has found it necessary, every decade or so, to scratch an old itch, to give in to his need to concentrate on subjects touching on America's rich culture, either the written (The Age of Innocence) or unwritten (Gangs of New York) or on matters of his Christian faith. His latest film, Silence, is the finished product of a thirty year fixation to realize his vision of 17th-century Japan after the Tokugawa Shogunate outlawed Christianity. In the story movingly told by Shusaku Endo (published in English translation in 1969), only certain individuals - captured Catholic priests - are spared immolation or crucifixion by being offered the choice of apostasy - renouncing their faith through some ritual like stamping on a sacred image of Christ and by abandoning celibacy by marrying a Japanese woman.

In his Times Literary Supplement piece, "Standing Up for Cinema," that I quoted from in my last post, Scorsese singled out two statements made by Adam Mars-Jones, the TLS film critic, in his review of Silence. I have since had a chance to read the review and it's clear to me that Scorsese misinterpreted and misrepresented Mars-Jones remarks.

Scorsese writes: "Near the end of his review, Mr Mars-Jones contends that 'even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration', and that the 'transposition' from novel to film 'can only amount to a distortion'. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form."(1)

I don't know exactly why Scorsese found these remarks objectionable, since they are an accurate assessment of how we experience a novel and a film. Mars-Jones's use of the word "duration" is important, since a film, just like music or theater but unlike literature, exists in time. Once a public screening of a film has begun, it continues inexorably until it is finished. When we read a book, we can stop, bookmark the page, continue with our lives, and return to the book later, starting where we left off. It becomes interwoven, as it were, in the fabric of our lives so that it becomes a part of it. Whenever I think of a great novel that I read many years ago, the characters and the action in the novel seem to be inextricably mixed up with events in my life that occurred while I was reading it. In contrast, we interrupt our lives to watch a film and we give our full attention to whatever is unfolding on the screen. Unless we walk out on the film, we cannot look away without missing something. Almost like a roller-coaster ride, we are committed to seeing a film through to the end once it has begun.

As for calling a film adaptation of a novel a "distortion," I think Scorsese interpreted the word in an exclusively negative sense. Most critics would agree that every translation of a poem or a novel from one language to another is a distortion. "Poetry," wrote Robert Frost, "is that which gets lost in translation." A film translates the novelist's words into images, which is an even more precarious distortion. This doesn't mean that translating a poem or a novel into another language or another medium is necessarily a mistake. Some translations, like Gérard de Nerval's translation of Goethe's "Faust" and Baudelaire's translations of Poe, are prized as great works of literature in themselves.

Many years ago, theater and film critic John Simon came up with a rule of thumb about adapting a work of literature to film (I'm quoting from memory): if it's worth doing, it can't be done; if it can be done, it wasn't worth doing. This seems like a somewhat draconian rule, but the evidence suggests that it actually isn't far from the mark. While there are a handful of quality film adaptations of estimable literary works (I think of something like Josef Heifitz near-miraculous film version of Chekhov's short story "The Lady with the Little Dog"), the vast majority of successful adaptations have been of inferior literary works (Carol Reed made a brilliant film of Conrad's minor second novel, An Outcast of the Islands). But in his "thoughtful" - Scorsese's word - review of the film Silence, Adam Mars-Jones was making another point about the differences between a novel and a film. Restored to their context, his judgement makes perfect sense:

"Even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for its duration. The transposition of a novel like Endo’s Silence into film, however 'faithful', can only amount to a distortion, an exaggeration overall however many elements of the book are represented. In the same way, Jonathan Demme’s film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, though full of imagination and craft, was so crushingly sad as to be oppressive beyond the possibility of entertainment. In a book, too, reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down. It’s not that those images can’t be richly inhabited by an audience, but their predetermined progress in a darkened space imposes mood insistently. Martin Scorsese’s version of Silence can’t fairly be called a failure, more a success in a key close to desolation."(2)

The ultimate point that Mars-Jones was trying to make was specific to Silence, both the novel and the film, and not intended as general statements about film. He was pointing out the way that the novel handled the very dark material and how Scorsese (mis)handled it. According to Mars-Jones, Scorsese's film succeeds in transposing Shusaku Endo's bleak history of the suppression of Christianity in 17th-century Japan, but in doing so it is in its final moments relentlessly, unbearably terrible to watch.

I'm not sure that Endo intended his tale to be edifying, to offer the reader some catharsis, no matter how conditional. It is an historical novel, reminiscent of Graham Greene's great novel The Power and the Glory, about a demoralized "whisky priest" in post-revolutionary Mexico. Roman Catholic Greene was telling a story about spiritual redemption, under circumstances of abject suffering. After the practice of Christianity was outlawed in 17th-century Japan, Catholic priests were smuggled in, despite the risks, because it was concluded that to abandon their Christian converts without any recourse to the sacraments would condemn them, as a consequence of their conversion, to a worse fate than they would've endured had they never been converted at all. By the end of the story, all outward evidence of the Christian religion is eradicated. Converts unwilling to renounce their faith, even after being brutally tortured, are killed. The ones who are left are forced to commit some sacrilege or other to prove their apostasy. The priests' defeat is shown to be complete. For the following three hundred years, isolated pockets of Christian believers survived, concentrated on the southern Japanese island of Kagoshima where, ironically, the second atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S., a predominantly Christian country, on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

In his fidelity to Endo's novel, Mars-Jones argues, Scorsese failed to offer the relief, however incremental, that Endo's novel provides from the "desolation" with which the story ends. It is almost as if Scorsese, like another devout Catholic filmmaker - Mel Gibson - was intent on creating his own Passion, a somber and brutal reminder of the man who, so the story goes, sacrificed himself so that our sins would be forgiven. Endo's novel ends with Father Rodrigues, have renounced his faith by putting his foot on an icon of Jesus, given a Japanese name and a wife, searching for some meaning to his defeat:

"I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. 'Trample!' said those compassionate eyes. 'Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.'"(3)

According to Mars-Jones, Scorsese failed to properly estheticize the suffering depicted in Endo's novel - suffering that Endo presented without leaving the reader in a state of distress. Another novelist, Hungarian Imre Kertész, survivor of a Nazi Death Camp, addressed the problem of approaching a relentlessly somber subject:

"I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon's head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can't ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors."(4)

I can't say for certain if Scorsese actually intended the experience of watching his film to cause discomfort. Quite disingenuously, Mel Gibson defended the unrelenting cruelty he depicted in The Passion of the Christ by insisting he was merely telling the story as St. Matthew presented it in his Gospel. But shouldn't an artist, like Martin Scorsese, find a way to distance the viewer from such brutalities? Isn't that the function of art, to avoid graphic, documentary-like realism in the representation of human suffering, to depict violence without doing violence to the viewer? Given Scorsese's apparent penchant for violence, on the infliction of pain and the spilling of blood, despite the fact that Silence is clearly meant to be taken more seriously, I have my doubts.

(1) Martin Scorsese, "'Silence,'" Letters to the Editor, The Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 2017.
(2) Adam Mars-Jones, "Subtle Absolutisms," The Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 2017.
(3) Shusaku Endo, Silence, William Johnston, translator (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
(4) "The Art of Fiction No. 220," The Paris Review No. 205, Summer 2013, Luisa Zielinski, interviewer.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Stand Up Guy

In 1944 W. H  Auden wrote to the editors of the magazine The Nation praising the weekly column by James Agee, calling it "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today," and that he "looked forward all week to reading him again." Agee was the film critic for The Nation, and Auden praised the "astonishing excellence" of his writing, regardless of the fact that, he found it necessary to point out, it "transcends its ostensible subject." For him, the film medium was "rather unimportant."

Seventy years ago, such an opinion of film as Auden was showing off was unfortunately all too common among artists and intellectuals. No one today, or indeed for the past fifty years, would be so obtuse as to question the artistic legitimacy of the film medium. You can disparage the sorry condition of the medium or the concentration of its resources and popular attention on trash, but no one would dream of being as dismissive as Auden was in 1944.

Last January, in the (London) Times Literary Supplement, Adam Mars-Jones reviewed Martin Scorsese's latest film, Silence. Scorsese found the review significant enough to respond in a letter to the TLS editors:

"Sir, – I wanted to write a brief letter to address a couple of points raised in Adam Mars-Jones’s review of my film adaptation of Shùsaku Endò’s Silence (January 6)."

After correcting a few factual errors made by Mars-Jones, Scorsese gets to the point:

"Near the end of his review, Mr Mars-Jones contends that 'even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration', and that the 'transposition' from novel to film 'can only amount to a distortion'. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form.

New York 10019."(1)

The Times Literary Supplement, doubtless intent on attracting readers who weren't necessarily interested in purely literary matters, asked Scorsese if he might wish to expand on his short remark about "the cinema as an art form," and Scorsese complied with an essay remarkable both for its passion and its insight into the mechanical process behind a film's ability to implant ideas in the heads of viewers and the similarities, not the differences, between the reader of a book and the viewer of a film. 

In an essay titled "Standing Up for Cinema," the examples Scorsese chooses to illustrate his thesis may be questionable (The Shining?), but his points are made neatly and effectively. He quite rightly expresses his distaste for the singling out of single images from a film, like we do with melodies from a symphony or an operatic aria, because that image alone, isolated from the images that preceded it and that follow it, is a misleading indication of the film's ultimate meaning. He explains how the language of film works:

"One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone . . .  This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making."(2)

Scorsese quotes from the otherwise "thoughtful" review of Silence by Mars-Jones some points that I've heard before and that represent what a quite disingenuous novelist might think of a film:

"'In a book', writes Mr Mars-Jones, 'reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down.' I disagree. The greatest filmmakers, like the greatest novelists and poets, are trying to create a sense of communion with the viewer. They’re not trying to seduce them or overtake them, but, I think, to engage with them on as intimate a level as possible. The viewer also “collaborates” with the filmmaker, or the painter. No two viewings of Raphael’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints” will be the same: every new viewing will be different. The same is true of readings of The Divine Comedy or Middlemarch, or viewings of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or 2001: A Space Odyssey. We return at different moments in our lives and we see things differently."

Scorsese's valiant defense of his art is heartfelt. I'm not sure that Mars-Jones' views are accurately represented by Scorsese, but if they are, Mars-Jones is being just as obtuse as Auden was seventy years ago. Scorsese makes an admission that I find a little hard to believe:

"Over the years, I’ve grown used to seeing the cinema dismissed as an art form for a whole range of reasons: it’s tainted by commercial considerations; it can’t possibly be an art because there are too many people involved in its creation; it’s inferior to other art forms because it “leaves nothing to the imagination” and simply casts a temporary spell over the viewer (the same is never said of theatre or dance or opera, each of which require the viewer to experience the work within a given span of time). Oddly enough, I’ve found myself in many situations where these beliefs are taken for granted, and where it’s assumed that even I, in my heart of hearts, must agree."

Avoiding, for the moment, the thorny subject of literary adaptation to film, film as art has come to us in many forms and from many sources. To name the titles alone is as much a pleasure as it is an absolute refutation of every insinuation of the medium's ephemerality or its unimportance. Though repugnant, Auden's comments about film are somewhat defensible when they are seen from a historical perspective. I think that what Auden was trying to say makes perfect sense in the context of 1940s American cinema: that James Agee's writing was too often far superior to the films that inspired it. I have often noticed that America has been far luckier in the quality of its film critics than in the quality of its films. 

Martin Scorsese is, I think, in a unique position as an American filmmaker. Ever since the appearance of his first messy, edgy films (Mean Streets being the best example) he has struggled to achieve and to maintain his creative independence. His struggle involved some compromises. If you look at his filmography, these compromises stick out like the sore thumbs that they are (Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, Shutter Island, q.v.). And it became clear to critics whenever Scorsese made a film to satisfy producers, and when he followed it with a long-cherished project like The Last Temptation of ChristGangs of New York or, lately, Silence. Stanley Kauffmann wrote what I think is the most accurate portrayal of Scorsese in 2003: "Patently his films are the work of a man who lives in cinema as a bird lives in the sky. He has invested himself with the history of the art in a way that empowers him without making him an imitator."(3) But Kauffmann also believed that Scorsese's reach was a little in excess of his grasp. In more than forty years of filmmaking, he has failed to make the one film that one could accurately call a masterpiece. 

And there is the larger context of American film that probably accounts for Scorsese's experience of prejudice against film as an art form. The vast majority of examples of American film art that I can name with great pride also give me a proprietary feeling. This is because there simply aren't that many American films since The Birth of a Nation that I regard as works of art. Notably, Scorsese is a student of Andrew Sarris, who is largely responsible for the elevation of dozens of American films (and their heretofore nameless makers) to a status comparable to the best films from abroad. Thanks to Sarris (and Manny Farber), Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, and William Wellman became filmmakers - or auteurs - as great as Renoir and De Sica. When I read somewhere that filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was "the Japanese John Ford," I realized that Sarris's influence - however odious - had come full circle. It's no wonder to me that so many of the people involved in American film production reportedly have such a low opinion of the medium. If they had their way, it wouldn't have become an art at all.

Since Scorsese answered Sight & Sound's request to supply them with his list of Top Ten Films in 2012, he has gone on a listing spree. I will comment on the content of Scorsese's lists and about how they are contradictory of one another in my next post.

Stay tuned.

(1) "Silence," Letters to the Editor, Times Literary Supplement, March 17, 2017. 
(2) "Standing Up for Cinema," Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 2017. 
(3) "Meaner Streets," The New Republic, January 20, 2003.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dying is Easy

Reading Theodore Huff's monograph on Charlie Chaplin, the existence of which evidently depended greatly on Chaplin's approval of Huff's generous assessment of his work, you come across paragraphs like this one:

"A Woman of Paris is the straight dramatic picture which Chaplin directed but did not star in, is a milestone in the history of the screen and appears on almost every list of ten best pictures of all time. It did not matter to Chaplin that it was not a financial success. It fulfilled an old ambition and brought him further prestige. A Woman of Paris initiated a new school of film art — sophisticated, intimate drama — and exerted a great influence on motion-picture style in general."

Such a statement would almost make sense if it had been written in 1931, when "film art" was still a rather nebulous concept. But it was written in 1951. Huff later declares Chaplin's biggest misstep The Great Dictator a total success, and even quotes Chaplin's defense of the film (which he certainly regretted later on): "I had to do it. They had their laughs and it was fun, wasn't it? Now I wanted them to listen. . . . I did this picture for the Jews of the world. . . . I wanted to see the return of decency and kindness. I'm no communist . . . just a human being who wants to see this country a real democracy and freedom from this infernal regimentation which is crawling over the rest of the world."

What the hell is he talking about? And why is he so dismissive of his own work - City Lights, The Circus, The Gold Rush, The Kid with "They had their laughs and it was fun, wasn't it?" Chaplin later admitted that, if he had known about the Death Camps, he would never have made The Great Dictator.(1) But it was the most profitable film he ever made.

As early as 1915, when Chaplin started making a "serious film 'Life,' which he had never completed because if the demand for comedies," Chaplin first expressed his desire to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Remember that 1915 was the year The Birth of a Nation was introduced to an incredulous world, a moment in film history when the medium took a giant leap toward artistic legitimacy. Chaplin, who had quickly become a master of the medium, clearly wanted to do something more with his mastery than elicit laughs. "It was his ambition," Huff states, "to do at least one big dramatic feature to show the world that he could be something else besides a clown." But Chaplin wasn't just a clown - he was the greatest film clown. Edmund Kean's famous last words were, "Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult." Chaplin's desire to make "one big dramatic feature" makes about as much sense as if we discovered that Sophocles had wanted to write a comedy.

Saying that this meticulously-made film has dated horrendously is stating only a part of the problem. Its subject must've seemed dated even in 1923 - by perhaps a century. The same can be said of D. W. Griffith's films. Although he was a true master of the film medium, a modern technology, Griffith's stories were all derived from the mentality of 19th-century theater. A Woman of Paris is much more literary, more like a novel than a play. But it is an early - and not very good - 19th century novel, and an American early 19th century novel at that, on about the same level as Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Within weeks of his appearance in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies, Chaplin became the master of his medium. He was given the freedom to direct his own films and he quickly learned the intricacies of film language - like the quite basic spatial idea of an object being thrown in one direction out of the frame and, in a cut to the next frame, entering from the same direction and smashing into something. As rudimentary as this may sound, it was an incredibly important discovery in early filmmaking. A Woman of Paris shows the extent to which Chaplin, as a director, was as much a master as Murnau or Lubitsch.

The problem is the same as it was with Griffith: while his technique was superb, Chaplin's ideas were as old hat as the Tramp's ubiquitous derby. For one thing, why is it A Woman of Paris? Why didn't Chaplin locate the story in a more familiar place, like London or New York? Obviously because the place name Paris is streaked with far more romanticism. London and New York are too prosaic, too down to earth, too workaday and mundane - too real for Chaplin's purposes.

CA Lejeune, in her 1925 review of A Woman of Paris, wrote that "He [Chaplin] selected the oldest and most hackneyed theme in the kinema, and determined to give it, for the first, and only time, life. (Whether it is worth vivifying is beside the point. Chaplin at least thought that it was.) A stock formula has arisen for treating the story of the country lovers, parted by misunderstanding, the lure of the city, the seductive villain with a flat at any lady’s disposal, the reappearance of the country lover, and his forgiveness of the girl’s indiscretion."(2)

Look at Chaplin's tramp. When he first appeared, the character was a somewhat devilish mischief-maker, always a few steps ahead of the police. Chaplin made the character more complex a year later by injecting "pathos," or sadness, to his stories, in the films The Tramp (1915) and The Vagabond (1916).(3) This more deeply emotional dimension of Chaplin's character was nearly always due to the appearance of a "love interest," invariably played by Edna Purviance, from her first appearance in 1915 in A Night Out until her last appearance with the Tramp in 1923 in The Pilgrim, Chaplin's last two-reeler. In all, she made 34 films with Chaplin, although she was never under contract.

With their personal relationship over and their professional relationship about to end, Chaplin wanted to give Edna something lasting, to create her post-Chaplin career: a star vehicle. But the film's failure at launching her as a star was complete. Chaplin based his story on the early life of American socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Born Margaret Upton in a town now a part of Norfolk, Virginia 1893, Hopkins-Joyce was, by the age of 30, one of the first people in America to become famous for being infamous, marrying three millionaires and having numerous well-publicized affairs. Her name appears in song lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In
Theodore Huff's book on Chaplin,  he makes the surprising disclosure that after Hopkins-Joyce paid a surprise visit at his studio,

"Chaplin was fascinated by this woman of the world, a type so removed from his previous loves. For two weeks, which included a trip to Catalina Island, they were inseparable. Then she departed for a New York stage engagement, Peggy with pleasant memories and Chaplin, in addition, with the idea for his next picture."

Chaplin's working titles for the film were Destiny and Public Opinion (its European title). Its original release title was A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate. But not even fate would've been as obvious as Chaplin's plot. Coincidences are presented, I suppose, as ironies. It worked for Thomas Hardy, but not for Chaplin. Chaplin handles the narrative with a remarkably light touch, making each cliché (and there are a great many) seem newly devised. The film is burdened with an atmosphere that, by now, is overwhelmingly heavy. We know to what extent Chaplin's tramp was a creature of the silent film. But his genius as a performer transcended his medium. A Woman of Paris makes demands on the viewer, and the rewards are genuine. But few moviegoers have the faculties necessary to fully appreciate Chaplin's vision.   

As everyone who ever worked with Chaplin discovered, including such accomplished actors as Henry Daniell, Marlon Brando, and Sophia Loren, his approach to directing was to simply demonstrate to his actors how to move, how to look, and how to deliver their lines; he would just act out the scene himself, all the way down to the subtlest gesture and voice inflection. The professional actors he worked with always chafed at his directing style. The reason why he directed like this is because he wanted to play all the parts himself, including the female parts.(4) Edna Purviance's performance was probably coached intensely by Chaplin, especially since she's the center of the film. But therein lies the problem. Purviance, without the onscreen support of Chaplin, is something of a cipher. She ultimately lacked the commanding screen presence that the role required. 

After the film's financial failure, Chaplin wisely returned to comedies. The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) each jockey for a place on nearly everyone's Greatest Films lists.

Interestingly, scoring the film for re-release in 1976 turned out to be the last creative project that Chaplin undertook. Purviance, who died in 1958, gave up screen acting after Chaplin's last attempt to make her a star, Josef von Sternberg's The Woman of the Sea (1926), was so clearly muddled that Chaplin, who financed the film, never released it. She spent the rest of her life under salary from Chaplin. Theirs was one of the most rewarding relationships in Chaplin's life, both personally and professionally. Since A Woman of Paris was never successful or widely understood, he needn't have bothered about reissuing it. That he devoted the time to carefully prepare it for new generations to discover shows how much Purviance meant to him and how proud he was of the last fruit of their partnership. Seen in this light, it is one of the most moving love letters a great artist has ever written.

(1) "Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis." Chaplin, My Autobiography.
(2) "Charlie Chaplin's A Woman of Paris reviewed," The Guardian, 1 March 1925.
(3) Looking at these two films, separated by just a year, the development of Chaplin's subtlety is striking. The Tramp seems unbelievably crude by Chaplin's later standards. He hadn't quite shaken off Sennett's knockabout style.
(4) "No other filmmaker ever so completely dominated every aspect of the work, did every job. If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role and ... sewn every costume." (David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, 1985.