Monday, November 18, 2019

Lost Innocence

God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master. (Aeschylus, Agamemnon - the Browning version)

Reading a post recently on the Criterion web page devoted to Martin Scorsese, who just turned 77, I stumbled at the headline: "Wishing a very happy birthday to the incomparable Martin Scorsese! Here he is with Kent Jones in conversation about his 1993 romantic masterpiece THE AGE OF INNOCENCE." With all the deference I could summon on the occasion of the birthday of an old American filmmaker who has spent much of his life risking a great deal more than his vanity on projects that were guaranteed to fail, I cannot see how on earth anyone with any critical acumen could think that The Age of Innocence was a masterpiece, let alone a romantic one. I accept the fact that even Criterion, an enterprise devoted to the discovery, preservation and/or restoration of examples of film art from far and wide does so for profit and that not every film they submit to the Criterion Treatment is going to meet my own exacting standard of worthiness (looking through their catalog provides me with equal amounts of pleasure and pain). But The Age of Innocence? A film that, if he is as honest as I expect he is, even Scorsese should look back on with mixed emotions. And even after considering that he only remade Cape Fear to please his producers long enough to persuade them to let him make The Age of Innocence, it was a misstep for Scorsese - honorable and laudable for a filmmaker who was eminently entitled to a misstep.

Even if I were to accept that, at the age of 77, Scorsese is deserving of the title of Master filmmaker (how many former masters have there been? Scorsese is eager to inform us of his own choices for the title), that doesn't mean that every film he made is a masterpiece. I would be happy to argue that about 90% are not masterpieces, and had I the time and the inclination I could demonstrate why. But the problem has nothing to do with the application of critical standards. It's about the limitations of scholarship and how some of the greatest film scholars make the lousiest film critics. The two disciplines can rarely even touch each other, for quite basic and important reasons. Film scholarship and film criticism are distinct - and sometimes antithetical - pursuits. In the film Le fantôme d'Henri Langlois, Langlois himself stated:

Since like everybody else, I was full of silly prejudices I missed out on incredible things. Salome with Theda Bara was for sale. I thought, 'Fox, Theda Bara, American spectacle...who needs it?' Now the film is lost forever. It was probably quite good. From that point on, through trial and error, I saw that people, intent on triage, who think they have taste, me included, are idiots. One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what's of value.

So, the moment that Langlois made a value judgement on material that he had the power to preserve or to consign to oblivion, he made an enormous mistake. Thanks to the efforts of archivists like Langlois and to scholars like Kevin Brownlow, whose magnificent books beginning with The Parade's Gone By, the idea that films of the past are deserving of preservation is popularly accepted. But film scholarship, which is the dedicated study of the who, what, when and where of films, has the responsibility to tell us everything we might need to know about any given film except the success or failure of its design. If it was intended to entertain, does it stand or fall? And if it was reaching for something higher, for art, for instance, does it make it or fall short?

A perfect demonstration of the difference in disciplines came about with the publication in 1966 of Donald Richie's landmark book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa. In his review of the book, Dwight Macdonald wrote of Richie:

His book on Kurosawa is comparable in scholarship, mastery of detail, interpretation and good writing to Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce. I don't know any other study of a director's work that approaches its scope and intelligence ... He goes into technique so extensively that I should think the book would be useful as a practical exposition of film-making regardless of one's special interest in Kurosawa.

But this impressive praise (with which I wholly agree) is followed by the point Macdonald was getting to and where Richie's book comes up conspicuously lacking:

A masterpiece of scholarship, but not of criticism. Perhaps the very qualities that make it the former prevent it from being the latter ... There is almost no qualitative discrimination between the twenty-three films: all of them are valued on the same (high) level, which is untrue to life, artists being men, not gods, and therefore fallible.

But how was Richie going to attract interest to an all-too-human artist who reached his peak in 1954 with Seven Samurai, and then rode his roller coaster slowly - if circuitously - back down to earth?

Looking over the films of Scorsese's that I have seen, there is a clear distinction that can be made between those that succeeded in realizing the filmmaker's intentions simply by being coherent and resonant as statements, regardless of the relevance of the points he was trying to make, and the others that were made to satisfy one producer or another. At some point in the 1980s, Scorsese attained a mastery of technique that made it possible for him to say and do whatever he wanted with the medium. It's easy to distinguish his commercial work from his personal work. In the latter category you can find Mean Streets (1973), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (1997), Gangs of New York (1992), and Silence (2016). Each of these films is intense in a way that most of Scorsese's films are - intensely conceived (at least in visual terms), intensely executed, and intensely framed into a whole. But even here, with his most personal, most individualistic works, problems arose, on every occasion, in the writing stages of each film. I have always had the conviction that Scorsese is a filmmaker most completely at odds with the commercial constraints of American film, but that he is happy to be known as an American filmmaker - partly because of his reverence for a tradition that I don't believe exists in American film. Had Scorsese been making films in Italy, like the filmmakers Rossellini and Visconti, whose work he most reveres, we would certainly have had a greater appreciation of his formidable abilities and have been spared unnecessary work like Cape Fear, Casino, and the films of his deplorable DiCaprio phase, like Shutter Island. Stanley Kauffmann wrote of Scorsese that "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." His work is, I think, the most telling chronicle of the extreme difficulties of a film artist in America.

Yes, masterpieces aren't possible without masters, but lonely is the master with all his masterpieces a long way behind him.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Real End of the Great War

Primo Levi gave the title The Truce (La Tregua) to the second volume of his memoirs. It deals with the events in his life from his liberation from Auschwitz to his eventual arrival in his native city of Turin. The book's alternate title is The Reawakening, but it ignores the point that Levi was making with The Truce. In his Paris Review interview, Levi spoke about an incident that had an effect on his understanding of war:

Have you read my book The Reawakening? You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But of course he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war."(1)

The end of the war for Primo Levi, then, was only a temporary suspension of hostilities, a truce. This is an especially sobering reminder on this Day of Remembrance, marking 101 years since the armistice that ended the First World War, the "war to end all wars," as Europeans disingenuously called it. Another survivor of the war against fascism, a Pole, is represented in the fictional film The Real End of the Great War (Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny - 1957). Juliusz Zborski is liberated from a concentration camp (2) physically and mentally enfeebled, unable to communicate beyond smiles and nods to everyone around him. His wife Róża, who had given him up for dead, is compelled to become his caretaker. The film opens like a horror movie - a woman (Róża) is disturbed by someone, or something, fumbling at the door handle of  her cluttered bedroom. She runs to the door and presses against it, speaking as if to a child on the other side to let her sleep. The noise stops and the woman turns to face us with tears in her eyes. She returns to bed, closes her eyes and we fade in to a 1938 New Year's Eve party where the woman, the camera taking her place, is dancing with a smiling handsome man. The dance finished, we return to the woman in bed. She turns out the light. And we realize that the person trying to open the door is Juliusz, the same man with whom Róża was dancing.

The following morning we are shown the sleeping arrangements: Juliusz is exiled to the sofa, and Róża sleeps in the bedroom behind a locked door. Róża has moved on, just as Poland did when the catastrophic war was over. Early in the film, when Juliusz runs an errand for the housemaid (who dotes on him), we are shown Warsaw in the process of recovery, with construction cranes prominent against a morning sky. Juliusz wanders, smiling, across a bustling construction site. He had been an architect before the war (the camera shows us the nameplate on the front door of his flat), and two men on the construction site recognize him and address him. He merely nods and smiles at them, and walks away. 

Before the war, Juliusz was also a man who loved to dance. The scene of him leading Róża in a dizzying waltz at the opening of the film is shockingly mocked in the film's first flashback to Juliusz in the concentration camp, with the camera spinning, this time from Juliusz' perspective. The prisoners are forced to hobble and twirl in a mad, exhausted imitation of dancing, while a conscripted band plays. And they must dance until they drop. Juliusz is the last one standing - dancing, as the guards stand around and laugh at him. The flashback is provoked in Juliusz when, at a party, a guest tries to dance with him. When she turns her attention to tuning the radio to a suitable station, Juliusz drops the glass platter he was holding and, to everyone's alarm, begins to spin on the spot where he stands, the room spinning and dissolving in flashback to the camp.

Róża is tentatively involved with a colleague, Professor Stęgień. She is still young and attractive, and she wants to be happy. Lucyna Winnicka, the actress who plays her in the film, was the wife of Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who directed. She would later appear, to international acclaim, in Kawalerowicz' Night Train and Mother Joan of the Angels

The Real End of the Great War never had a theatrical release in the U.S., probably due to its baleful subject. Because it never had an American distributor, the film couldn't find its way to home video. Way back when I was a dedicated and intrepid filmgoer, I was tantalized by a review written from Europe by Vernon Young that called it "a Polish masterpiece": 

Kawalerowicz is one of a nucleus of Polish film-makers which, mainly within the last four years [this was written in 1959], has produced a half-dozen films equal to any which have emerged from Europe since the rise of Italian neo-realism over a decade ago. The True [sic] End is the most deeply disturbing of those I have seen (and each of them disturbs, by either its crucial violence or its wounding sadness). Were it not for Kawalerowicz' dazzling virtuosity, I would be moved to acknowledge the film as virtually insupportable, since it conveys an ordeal so painful as to refute that vestige of belief which the most professedly disenchanted among us nourish in their hearts - the belief that there is a finally discernible compensation for the infliction of extreme suffering.(3)

I got on with my life without seeing the film, all the while keeping it, as I've grown older, on that ever-shrinking list of "films to see before I snuff it." I found it not long ago and I watched it over the weekend. I wasn't disappointed - it's everything I expected it to be. Kawalerowicz' triumph is in not passing judgement on any of the characters. Juliusz tries to reach Róża in any way he can. But he fails, and when he sees how complete his failure is, he takes the only way out that he knows. Róża is freed, but in the film's final shot, as she and the maid in their mourning dress walk past the waiting Professor Stęgień, she shows us her commitment to Juliusz. 

The three flashbacks are presented somewhat too expressionistically, almost as if Juliusz were changing into Mr. Hyde. But the camp scenes themselves are presented exclusively from Juliusz' perspective, dancing deliriously. Until the guards pick him up off the floor in the last flashback, an SS orgy with topless girls, and throw him through a window. Everything else in the film is presented with the utmost subtlety.

Vernon Young noticed the resemblance in the film's last scene to the last scene of The Third Man, with Alida Valli walking away from Harry's grave past Joseph Cotten:

She walks on by, as all those bloody leaves fall, and that, too, is an image that will remain ... When Europe stood aghast at what it had done to itself, that was the hour to make a film on the subject. Later, it was too late without overreaching. I think the only other film that expresses a phase of the tragedy as deeply is The True End of the Great War (Kawalerowicz) but its so unbearable one can't see it twice. Many I know couldn't sit it once.(4)

The obscurity of Real End of the Great War is unpardonable. It deserves a place beside the best films on the subject of the aftermath of war, which are actually very few in number. It invokes neither history nor politics in its portrayal of unheroic ordinary people suffering the after-effects of war.

(1) Primo Levi, The Art of Fiction No. 140, The Paris Review.
(2) There were 23 main German concentration camps in Poland, with hundreds of "subcamps".
(3) Vernon Young, "A Condemned Man Escapes: Five Films on the Subject," 1959.
(4) Vernon Young, "A Sad Tale's Best for Winter: On Re-seeing The Third Man," 1969

Monday, November 4, 2019

Harold Bloom

"The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced." Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, 1962.

How hard it must be to be a polyglot like Harold Bloom in an age as stupid as ours. His enemies hated him because, from their low perspective, he was nothing but a big bully, punching so far down at them that he had to get down on one knee. He was smarter than his harshest critics, but that didn't make him invulnerable to criticism. Polyglots - and Bloom was one of the best - simply cannot be experts at everything. His intellect was imposing and wide-ranging, and he followed it into areas like Talmudic scholarship that were presumably safely hermetic. He claimed, for example, that some of the first books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, had been composed by a brilliant woman from the highest echelon of royal society. Of course, his claims are are entirely speculative and ultimately unprovable. Similarly, Samuel Butler claimed that Homer's Odyssey had been written by a woman. 

Bloom's close textual analysis was best applied to literature, and it was as a literary scholar and critic that Bloom made his greatest impact. He only came up with such a short list of 26 literary works that he regarded as essential to any Western canon off the top of his head to satisfy his editor. It was a mistake that trivializes every great book on the list and further marginalizes all the ones he left out. But Bloom knew that it was a terrific conversation starter. As cranky as he seems in some of his interviews, I am not alone in noticing how he sometimes resembled Zero Mostel.

He lived through, fighting all the way, the steady decline of what is now known (mostly with contempt) as High Culture, i.e., not just the culture itself and its standards, but our understanding of what it is and of what it consists. Harold Bloom acknowledged that there are sometimes dramatic shifts in taste. But he held firm to his conviction that our culture's bedrock is made up of solid blocks of creative achievement that haven't shifted in centuries and that they are unmoved by modern political fashions. George Orwell saw the beginnings of a movement that tried to marginalize literary work that was at variance with certain contemporary radical tastes. Orwell saw the importance of aesthetic standards, whereby a literary work cannot be considered good one day and bad the next. But he also insisted on praising good work that presented a worldview or a political agenda that was markedly different from one's own. However, Orwell would've called Bloom's insistence on a strict avoidance of political partisanship as just another political position.

It wasn't that Bloom lived too long - though it may have looked that way to him. He went down fighting, which explains the coolness of so many of the eulogies. It has been sad, but also a little funny, to watch how so many of the people who wrote notices of his passing had to stand on their own necks trying not to seem to praise him. I can't see how not praising him is possible. He hurt people's feelings, people who were trying to forge new standards by smelting all the old ones. Some of them were so cheapjack that they didn't survive a single generation. But I doubt that Bloom took much satisfaction from watching them fall by the wayside. He called out the ignorance he saw all around him because no one else would. He didn't have to alert some of us about the poverty of popular fiction, but he would never have taken up the subject if some intellectuals who should've known better hadn't gone slumming. He only punctured overblown reputations because he wanted, above all, to be clear about what was good in the midst of everything that was plain bad. 

Is it even possible for a wise old man to not come across to some as patronizing? I think that our feverish fidgeting for total equality may not have much room for teachers - people who know more than we do and who are appointed, even if only by nature, to help us up to their knowledge. The erosion of literature has a strong American streak of anti-intellectualism. Bloom deposited entire libraries in his own head and was free with the expression of his knowledge, solicited or otherwise. He was opinionated and he held firm to his opinions. Someone I knew in the Army paid me what I took to be a backhanded compliment - he told me that I had probably forgotten more than he'd ever know. Harold Bloom probably held in his memory, to the last, more than the rest of us will ever forget.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Magician

Ingmar Bergman's films roughly classifiable as comedies were rare but sometimes marvelous. Think of Waiting Women (1952), little known though sometimes splendid, in which four women wait for their husbands to join them at a summer lodge. While they wait, each of them tells a story from their married lives which the film then shows us. The last story features Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck getting stuck in a stalled elevator. Björnstrand and Dahlbeck were experienced at comedy and decades later Bergman wrote: "For the first time, I heard an audience laugh at something I had created."

When she reviewed The Seventh Seal, Dylis Powell wrote "Whenever Scandinavian cinema has five minutes to fill, it burns a witch." Ingmar Bergman doesn't show the witch in The Seventh Seal being burned. Blok, the knight played by Max von Sydow, stops to question her before a monk tells him to clear off. When The Magician was released to audiences hungry for more from Bergman, it took them by surprise. It is as close as Bergman got to real gothic. Here was a film that played out as a black comedy, but that opens with mystery and ambiguity. We meet what appears to be a troupe of players travelling by coach in a forest shot with much chiaroscuro (supplied by Gunnar Fischer). Looking at the scene in a high contrast print, it's only figuratively dark. Despite everyone acting frightened by the strange noises and their inability to make out what is spooking them, the whole scene is well enough illuminated: the coachman Simson halts the horses and jumps down from his seat, joining the others inside the coach. Only Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow) is unafraid, and he leaves the coach to investigate. He finds a man on the ground with tattered clothes and a broken hat who identifies himself as Spegel (the same Bengt Ekerot who played Death in The Seventh Seal) admittedly incapacitated from drink. "Brandy is my disease, but also it's cure," he tells Vogler, who gives him a dram from his flask. Spegel claims to be near death, and lying back (after falling in the water) he says, "I have always yearned for a knife. A blade with which to lay bare my bowels. To detach my brain, my heart. To free me from my substance. To cut away my tongue and my manhood. A sharp knife blade which would scrape out all my uncleanliness. Then the so-called spirit could ascend out of this meaningless carcass."

Vogler helps him to the coach. Vogler, the "magnetist" in The Magician, is as troubled at the meaning of it all as Blok in The Seventh Seal. Inside the coach, when Spegel announces that he feels the approach of death, Vogler looks intently at him. But just as he is telling him, "Death is ..." Spegel - seemingly - expires. Disappointed, Vogler leans back in his seat, another opportunity to discover the truth about life and death missed. The troupe arrives at a border crossing, where the coach is stopped and redirected into the courtyard of a grand house. Vogler and his entourage are ordered out of the carriage and into the house where a local dignitary and the chief of police are anxious to meet the famous magnetist. Also among them is Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), who seems determined to debunk the supposed "powers" of Vogler.

Bergman's title for the film was The Face - Ansiktet. The Magician is a more descriptive title, perhaps too programmatic, but it's an improvement, I think, on Bergman's, which makes it sound like a horror film.(1) Bergman admitted that he intended to make a much funnier film, "but then during the filming I suppose I must have gone rancid." The film is generally regarded as a statement about the role of the artist in society. Bergman advanced the argument that the respectable, unfriendly audiences he directed plays for in Malmö in the Fifties were represented in The Magician by Consul Egerman (who becomes alarmed when his wife throws herself at Vogler), the police chief occupied the place of his critics, the worst of whom was Harry Schein, on whom Bergman took his revenge by representing him as Dr. Vergerus, who antagonizes Vogler to the extent that Vogler takes his revenge on him by ripping off his smug rational face and terrifies him with his "hocus-pocus."(2)

Bergman placed great emphasis on the ambiguous role played by Ingrid Thulin. When we first meet her she is "Aman," Vogler's apparently male assistant. She is, in fact Manda, Vogler's wife. When Vergerus catches her with her hair down (so to speak), and tries to blackmail her, Vogler thrashes him. Bergman so subtly stages what appears to be Vogler's death when the "stableman" Antonsson reacts violently to Vogler's attempt to mesmerize him and he tries to choke him, that some inattentive viewers actually believed that Bergman was suggesting that something supernatural has occurred. Vogler's concentration on Antonsson is interrupted by a chiming clock. Vogler's momentary "spell" broken, Antonsson grabs him by the throat. Vogler falls, Antonsson tears out of the room, Vergerus's wife screams and faints, and when everyone leaves the room, Simson, on cue, locks the door. A handy coffin is moved beside Vogler, lying motionless on the floor and Tubal and Manda begin to strip his "body." The coffin is the giveaway. Earlier, Spegel, who wasn't quite dead, sneaks into the house and finds Vogler in his room. Holding Vogler close, he delivers one of Bergman's telltale lines: "Step by step by step we go into the dark. Motion itself is the only truth." Then Spegel steps dutifully into the trick coffin that Vogler uses as a prop for his act and dies. When Antonsson strangles Vogler, the same coffin, containing Spegel's body, is slid beside Vogler. We don't see them do it, but Manda and Tubal switch Vogler with Spegel's dead body before Simson unlocks the door and Vergerus enters. Vergerus examines the body and pronounces him dead. Starbeck orders an autopsy - with Vergerus presiding, and Bergman has successfully - cleverly - set us up to witness the undoing of Vergerus. Later, left alone with the corpse of Spegel, which he selectively dissects, Vergerus is astonished when he is confronted with a living Vogler - and scared half out of his wits.

Bergman satirizes not just the sometimes impossible feats that we expect from the artist, but he satirizes the artist as well, who performs his tricks knowing how stupid the audience is, but goes on performing them, all the same. When Vogler plays with life and death to scare Vergerus, he fails again because Vergerus refuses to admit that he was taken in by Vogler's illusion and that he was genuinely afraid. We - the viewer - saw the terror in his eyes and laughed. But it was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Bergman spoke eloquently about the illusions that the filmmaker exploits:

And even today I remind myself with childish excitement that I am really a conjurer, since cinematography is based on deception of the human eye. I have worked out that if I see a film which has a running time of one hour, I sit through twenty-seven minutes of complete darkness - the blankness between frames. When I show a film I am guilty of deceit. I use an apparatus which is constructed to take advantage of a certain human weakness, an apparatus with which I can sway my audience in a highly emotional manner - make them laugh, scream with fright, smile, believe in fairy stories, become indignant, feel shocked, charmed, deeply moved or perhaps even yawn with boredom. Thus I am a conjurer. I perform conjuring tricks with (an) apparatus so expensive and so wonderful that any entertainer in history would have given anything to have it.(3)

Yes, Bergman is Vogler - but a Vogler whose conjurings have given us so much more than facile laughs and frights. He has shown us with the film apparatus the truth about human beings. Through artists like Bergman, the film medium is fulfilled.

(1) Think of the schlocky Fiend Without a Face, but also the art-film creepshows like Franju's Eyes Without a Face and Teshigahara's The Face of Another.
(2) Images: My Life in Film (New York: Arcade Publishers, 1995).
(3) Four Screenplays: Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician (New York: Touchstone, 1969).

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Are you talking to me?

What is cinema? is suddenly a question on people's lips. But how many of the people asking it really want to know the answer? Last weekend Martin Scorsese opined that the superhero movies released by Marvel Studios don't meet with his definition of cinema, prompting a backlash that was surprisingly overblown, revealing just how sensitive filmmakers and fans of the Marvel films are to accusations that, while they're phenomenally popular, they're far from what cinephiles would call art.

Now another old cineaste, Francis Ford Coppola, has joined the fray with comments that are more blunt: "When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. . . . I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.” 

What Scorsese actually said was part of his David Lean lecture hosted by the British Film Institute: "Theatres have become amusement parks. That is all fine and good, but don’t invade everything else in that sense. That is fine and good for those who enjoy that type of film and, by the way, knowing what goes into them now, I admire what they do. It’s not my kind of thing, it simply is not. It’s creating another kind of audience that thinks cinema is that.”

In 2017 Woody Allen made similar remarks in a Deadline interview: "I think movies have gone terribly wrong ... And the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don't see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters. I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It's terrible."

I noticed the trend as far back as 1977, when George Lucas's Star Wars was released. Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whose Jaws was an enormous hit in 1975, were two filmmakers who, ironically, were working diligently to establish their independence from Hollywood studio interference. They founded production companies of their own, Lucasfilm in 1971 and Amblin Entertainment in 1981. Even then, however, Hollywood recognized there was a difference between what sells and what was good: while Star Wars (budgeted at $11 million, box office of $775.4 million) was nominated for the 1978 Best Picture Oscar, it was beaten by Woody Allen's Annie Hall (budgeted at $4 million, box office of $38.3 million). The success of Lucas and Spielberg created the blockbuster syndrome, that became the dominant practice. Instead of spending $100 million producing ten movies whose revenues would offset losses and show an aggregate profit, the blockbuster syndrome taught producers the lesson that a single movie budgeted at $100 million could potentially bring in several times the initial outlay. But those nine other modestly budgeted movies never got made.

The volume and shrillness of the reaction to Martin Scorsese's statement proved at least one of the points that he was trying to make (Coppola contributed nothing to the conversation and probably did his side a great disservice). He was expressing his concern that the Marvel films were cultivating an audience that has had no contact with the films that have come to define what he calls "cinema" and that their ignorance is of a hardness and unwieldiness that cannot admit dissent. The filmmakers who have rushed to Marvel's defense must know that they are on the winning side, that Scorsese picked a fight that is grossly unfair and that they are punching down at him.

I went back to the summer of 1981 when Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark was in release. I was 23 and I hated it. Stanley Kauffmann, who was in his 60s, saw it and wrote his review of it. What he wrote needs repeating:

I won’t pretend that I got no thrills or tingly laughs out of Raiders, but the more it happened, the more it irritated me. (Bernard Shaw said it happened to him when he found himself laughing at certain comedies.) Raiders, as bruited, is the Saturday-afternoon serial in excelsis. It was directed by Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and one of the executive producers and authors was George Lucas (Star Wars)—two of the brightest young successes in Hollywood. But the more spectacular the sweep, the more stunning the special effects, the more ingenious the editing, the more my irritation grew until it toppled over into depression.

What’s depressing me most in all this is the future. I mourn no lost paradise of film. I know that, in a good year, 95 percent of the world’s films were trash, four percent plus were good entertainment, and there was a small fraction of seriously good films. In a good year. But that small fraction seems to be shrinking. Economic and cultural conditions all conduce to shrink it. What’s grim in the film world, as Raiders attests, certainly in the US and gradually becoming so elsewhere, is that the stringency of filmmaking conditions is making the talents with the best possibilities want to revel in the movie-ness of the past. Yeats worried that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” But Spielberg and Lucas, as far as ability goes, are among our best, and they are full of passionate intensity.

Another irony. Thirty years after Kauffmann wrote this, George Lucas sold the rights to future Star Wars sequelae - and prequelae - to Disney and retired from making blockbuster films. Shortly after that, however, he began to object to what Disney was doing to his creation, prompting many to effectively disenfranchise him from the franchise. 

Via Instagram, James Gunn responded to the objections raised by Scorsese and Coppola by referring to clueless grandfathers and great-grandfathers. I don't know how tall Gunn's grandfather is, but Gunn would have to stand on his shoulders to be big enough to kiss Scorsese's arse.

Friday, October 11, 2019

A Moveable Manhattan

Woody Allen was seen recently in France where his latest - and 48th - film, A Rainy Day in New York just opened in theaters. Regardless of its distance from Manhattan, the place where he has lived for most of his 83 years and the setting of so many of his films, France has had to function as Allen's base of operations because of the rising tide of opposition to him and to his films in the U.S. One by one, actors who have appeared in one or more of his films have come forward, because of allegations made by his adopted daughter, Dylan, that Allen sexually abused her when she was seven years old, to announce their regrets for working with him or to affirm their continuing support for him. The MeToo movement has cost several prominent figures in the entertainment industry their careers, and Allen could be another one. Allen, however, has continually protested his innocence and he even expressed the view last month that he should be the "poster boy" of the MeToo movement:

“I’ve worked with hundreds of actresses, not one of them has ever complained about me; not a single complaint. I’ve employed women in the top capacity for years and we’ve always paid them the equal of men. I’ve done everything the MeToo movement would love to achieve.”

Allen has enjoyed a quite unique position in American film. He has had a prolific career making what are by definition "little" films (now known as "niche" films); character-driven comedies whose only distinction is their avoidance of virtually everything that would attract a larger audience. Allen knows his audience better than anyone, and they have rewarded him with an independence that very few filmmakers have ever enjoyed. This time, however, Allen is embroiled in a lawsuit against Amazon, who agreed to finance four new films written and directed by him. A Rainy Day in New York is the first of the four films to be released, but it may not be released in the U.S. because of Amazon's decision last year to back out of the agreement due to all the negative publicity around Allen. Undaunted, Allen has since completed production of his second film under the agreement, Rifkin's Festival, and is suing Amazon for $68 million, the amount of the original deal. (Try to imagine any other famous director delivering four films for just $68 million.)

Allen insists that it doesn't matter if his film isn't released in the U.S., that even if he is prevented from making films and writing plays and books, he would continue doing what he's been doing since he was sixteen - writing. Europeans have always welcomed his films, and A Rainy Day in New York is no exception. The French have been rather resistant to the MeToo movement, with some famous French actors announcing their opposition to it as yet another aspect of the politically correct American Revenge Culture, which recently condemned John Wayne for statements unearthed in a 1970s interview that were decidedly unWoke. But Allen is beginning to resemble that ultimate European exile from Hollywood, Roman Polanski, the man who defected twice - first from Communist Poland and the second time from capitalist America when faced with extended jail time after being found guilty of sexual misconduct with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski has managed to keep his career going for forty years without ever setting foot in the U.S. or any other European country that might arrest him and extradite him back to American justice. It doesn't seem to have seriously impaired his ability to attract audiences and win awards.

When I watched Polanski's The Ninth Gate twenty years ago I noticed the early scenes in the film that were set in Manhattan and wondered what subterfuges Polanski had to employ to incorporate in his film shots of New York City locations in which he can no longer set foot. Allen doesn't suffer from such a disadvantage, but the drift of public opinion is making it harder for him to persuade well known actors to appear in his films. Writing about A Rainy Day in New York in Le Monde, a French critic noticed a bitter note in the film's ending: “As if the director had a premonition that he was on the verge of being banned from a city that he might have filmed for the last time."

Rachel Donadio, the author of an article in The Atlantic about Allen's new film, wondered about how the French insist on a separation between the artist and his work: "there’s something cartoonish about how the French cultural establishment, or at least part of it, tends to celebrate art as if it were totally divorced from the artist."(1) Yesterday, The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Peter Handle - for his sometimes superb writing and not for his often appalling politics. The Swedish academy was clearly acting on their conviction that an artist and his work are separable. Writing about Robert Frost's treatment at the hands of one of his biographers, Clive James commented: "Luckily not even America—still a puritan culture in which an artist’s integrity must be sufficiently unblemished to impress Oprah Winfrey—has proved entirely devoid of critics and academics who can handle the proposition that the creator of perfect art might be a less than perfect person."(2)

The last Allen film I've seen was Wonder Wheel (2017). I thought it was pretty awful. Hearing Kate Winslet struggle valiantly with Allen's stilted dialogue underneath her coached Brooklyn accent was sometimes painful. The last of Allen's films that I remember with pleasure was Everyone Says I Love You (1996). That doesn't mean I wish that he hadn't made the twenty-four films he's made since. Every artist, even the greatest, if they live long enough, goes into decline. Ingmar Bergman, whom Allen has always revered, fell into a sharp decline after his last great flourish in the '60s (Persona, A Passion). Allen's nostalgia is understandable, but it's not for the '70s or '80s when his work was the most challenging. I still think his masterpiece is Zelig (1983). But that film was looking back to a time before Allen's birth, to the era of his favorite jazz music. A Rainy Day in New York will make its way in some form - probably online streaming - to America. The back and forth about Allen's alleged abuse of his adopted daughter, not to mention the new revelations of his possible, as yet unsubstantiated, ties to Jeffrey Epstein, will never be settled in court. So the only thing that matters is the number of people who haven't settled the case of Woody Allen in their own minds.

(1) "The Disparate Reactions to a New Woody Allen Film," The Atlantic, September 26, 2019.
(2) "The Sound of Sense," Prospect Magazine, January 23, 2014.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Revenge of the Superheroes

In my last post I mentioned how Martin Scorsese had made dismissive comments about the slew of superhero movies that threatens to engulf the American movie industry. Not surprisingly, his comments weren't taken by the makers of those movies with much magnanimity. I'm fairly certain that Scorsese made his comments offhandedly, not meaning them to be taken as a final word on the subject. The way they're reported makes him sound rather apologetic, as if he were sorry he had nothing positive to say.

However Scorsese intended his comments to be taken, they have provoked a surprising furore in the official movie industry. Samuel L. Jackson, who, I suppose, feels obliged to act as the spokesman for them, remarked: "that’s kind of like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. You know, everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. I mean, we happen to, but everybody doesn’t."

James Gunn, director of some of the superhero movies, tweeted: "Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favorite living filmmakers. I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging my films in the same way." This statement is ridiculous. Scorsese was expressing his opinion, not telling anyone else to think the same way. What bothers Gunn is how much authority Scorsese's opinions command. The picketers outside The Last Temptation were puritans who were trying to deprive potential viewers of the film of the pleasure Scorsese's film would've provided them. Scorsese has neither the time nor the inclination (not to mention the ability) to deprive any of the millions who stand in line to see Gunn's movies of their pleasure.

Some of the other directors who have made movies for Marvel also felt the need to chime in. But the uproar over Scorsese's comments sounds exactly like a similar fracas inspired by comments made last July by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín when he was asked what he thought about detective fiction. Without knowing what a hue and cry his opinion would provoke, he said, "I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV." This was taken as a direct insult by the writers of detective fiction, along with the legions of fans who devour it. As I recall, Tóibín didn't retract his statement or apologize for it.

I don't believe that Scorsese, like Tóibín, intended his remarks as a kind of sneer at fantastically successful movies - the kind of success that Scorsese can only dream of. His interviewer at Empire Magazine could just as easily have asked him what he thought of K-Pop. But the fact is that Scorsese and James Gunn belong in two different worlds of movies: Scorsese's is one in which talent is committed to the realistic portrayal of characters and situations that resemble, as close as his talent is capable, real life and Gunn's is another in which talent is committed to the engineering of imaginary and/or fantastic creatures that seem to exist in our world, but only as long as it takes them to destroy it piece by agonizingly realistic piece. People like Gunn throw every bit of their energy into devising ways to make the impossible somehow possible, if only for the duration of a movie. But the impossible for them is making the ultimately shallow, juvenile inventions of comic books so realistic that we might take them seriously. The problem is, the shoddiness of the superhero characters' conception is increased by the care with which they are recreated on screen. And the more money that's lavished on special effects only exposes the hollowness of the underlying ideas.

James Gunn and his colleagues simply cannot have it both ways. Their films can guarantee enormous box office returns but they can't guarantee critical approval. If they don't know this simple fact by now, they don't know anything about film. Are they even aware of the fact that the greatest American film ever made - Citizen Kane - was a box office flop? And that its failure to attract an audience commensurate with its artistic greatness effectively wrecked the rest of Orson Welles's career? The producers who backed Scorsese when he made The Last Temptation of Christ knew what they were getting into, but they got into it anyway, knowing full well they would probably not make money. Ask the producers of Scorsese's Silence what they expected their box office returns would look like. But Scorsese made the film anyway. He also made a string of films with Leo DiCaprio that made substantial profits, but that contributed nothing to Scorsese's prestige as a gifted filmmaker. Orson Welles once said that every discussion of film art is compelled to bring up the subject of money. Any discussion that didn't was a waste of his time. But no one mentions how much Federico Fellini's net worth was at the time of his death. What was the total value of Bergman's estate? His house on the island of Fårö was sold for €3-4M in 2009. But it's only because it was Bergman's house, with enormous cultural and now historical value in Sweden. In contrast, Roland Emmerich, director of a slew of forgettable blockbusters, now inhabits the palatial home of Hollywood pioneer Thomas H. Ince. I seriously doubt that "Roland Emmerich slept here" will be one of the selling points when the property is again up for sale.

It is true that many - if not most - filmmakers aspire to one day be established professional Hollywood film directors. François Truffaut once admitted in an interview that what he wished most was to have been a Hollywood director like Raoul Walsh, making hundreds of films entirely on assignment, finishing a movie on a Friday only to find the script for his next film delivered with his Sunday newspaper.

But what puzzles me - and probably puzzles Martin Scorsese - is how some filmmakers who attain complete independence from financing worries (I'm thinking of someone like George Lucas) never seem to take advantage of that independence by making films that are in any way different from the ones on which their financial independence is based. As more than one critic has pointed out, there are two Steven Spielbergs: the one who makes Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park and the other who makes Schindler's List and Lincoln. There was once another George Lucas - the one who made American Graffiti (which I think is his best film). But that filmmaker got lost in the Star Wars franchise and was never seen again.

Movies are a business, as everyone must know by now. They have made some people extravagantly wealthy, and they have left some others dead broke. But some have managed to produce a film that, in a hundred years, will be remembered and talked about and celebrated. Scorsese, I think, has accomplished this against incredible odds. What it comes down to is: what do you want a film to do for you? A few days ago I watched Eddie Murphy in Disney's The Haunted Mansion. It was inspired - if that is the word - by a Disneyland ride. If you want a ticket to anywhere but here then you can't be interested in art - which is based on human beings living on a terrestrial earth, in Brooklyn or Tokyo or Rome. When Scorsese called a superhero movie a "theme park" he was being rather perceptive. He had given the subject some thought, which is far more credit than I can give the movies' makers or their fans.