Sunday, November 04, 2007


A Recent Throughline

"...[D]oes anyone here know [Scott Eyman's] Ford bio? I find it hard to read because of his rather appalling lack of appreciation of many Ford movies, especially late Ford movies like Donovan's Reef [1963], Cheyenne Autumn [1964], and 7 Women [1966]. Eyman is simply not the guy to deal with directors in the later periods of their careers, and I'm not surprised he would take this kind of attitude. Give him a Laura [Otto Preminger, 1944] or a Stagecoach [John Ford, 1939] and he'll appreciate it, kind of in the old, familiar way.

"Preminger's ambitious 60s films deserve discerning viewers, and I know they have many here so won't press the point. I personally agree that Hurry Sundown [1967] (for example) has a lot of merit and is consistent with most of the things I like about Preminger. And far from being one of his worst, I believe The Cardinal [1963] is his greatest movie.

"But more to the point than one's preference of individual films, I have no patience with "critics" who cannot stick with an artist as he evolves throughout his career. Of course, a director can miss and a late phase of his/her work can be troubled for any number of reasons, but it's rarely the case there is nothing interesting or of value in even lesser works of someone great. And more often, critics reproach directors for not making the same films they admired before, as if an artist should not be free to move in a new direction, to simplify, or conversely, to become more elaborate. [...]

"It seems to me that with all the things one could write about in cinema, if one were to write a book, shouldn't it be about someone or something one is especially sympathetic to? That doesn't mean you need to like every film equally, but I just don't see someone as a sympathetic critic for a director if they take the narrowest kind of view of "decline" and "failure" and such things, and are basically ready to give up on a director when that director does not simply repeat the exact same kinds of things he or she did that once enjoyed a wide consensus as being successful.

"Rather, I'll take someone's view of a film as a failure, less than the best work of that director, if I think their overall view of the director is sympathetic, if they enjoy seeing the director venture on into new territory in different phases of their career, challenge their own aesthetic in different ways, evolve in the ways an artist must. And I do think every critic does their most penetrating work on the films they love and not the ones that they dislike or casually dismiss. By the same token, they'll have the deepest sense of the director and not just some sense of that director's most readily appreciable virtues and easy to see stylistic qualities. [...]

"A certain kind of critic does especially like to jump on late periods of directors, and there is an undercurrent at times [...] of "This artist has become weak, diminished, but I, the critic, remain strong and powerful..." I'd really rather someone err on the side of sympathy, especially with someone who has had the kind of career that has earned it."
—Blake Lucas, at a_film_by

Orson Welles on Parkinson, 1974
(Thanks to B. Kite for the tip) —

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Jonathan Rosenbaum interviewed by Mara Tapp on the CAN TV special Unseen Orson Welles: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum, October 2007 (excerpt; the complete 1h 10m interview can be viewed at Google Video here
thanks to Andy Rector for the tip) —

"I think this [i.e., certain critics' insensitivity toward evolving shifts in concern and aesthetic in a great director's later- and even mid-period works -CK] originates with the snobbish attitude "serious" critics of a previous generation had towards film. They cobbled together knee-jerk notions of a director's "best" (almost invariably one or two early films) and then insisted on an ironclad "decline" narrative, with no if's and's or but's.

"As is obvious all sorts of factors come into play with any filmmaker's career [...]. All the usual blather about Welles's "decline" doesn't get in the way of the fact that he not only made great films besides
Citizen Kane [1941], they were great VERY DIFFERENT films. Touch of Evil [1958] and F for Fake [1974] are easily the equal to Kane and for my money in both cases superior. But you'll still get blank stares over that."
—David Ehrenstein, at a_film_by

Trailer for F for Fake by Orson Welles (1974) —

"Back in 1968, Jean-Pierre Gorin suggested the idea to Jean-Luc Godard of creating a political cinema in the tradition of the early Vertov, that of Man with a Movie Camera [Chelovek s kino-apparatom, Dziga Vertov, 1929] — a machine of war against old notions of political filmmaking and their propagandist connotations. This resulted in a series of films that today, rid of the false hope that an increasingly Marxist left wing had placed in them, demonstrate a rare beauty and vitality, closer to Griffith and Vertov than to the militant cinema of their day. Gorin eventually settled in San Diego, California, where he began to teach filmmaking and made three great films: Poto and Cabengo [1979], Routine Pleasures [1987], and My Crasy Life [1995]. Last night, a capacity crowd gathered at the Filmmuseum to listen to his improvised lecture on Vertov and got more than their money’s worth. A summary in four points:

"1. There are no genres in cinema, only multiple polarities (fiction, documentary, diary, experimental, essay) between which every film finds its own balance and invents its own machine.

"2. Any film worthy of the name is a machine, with its functions, its dysfunctions, its own operations. The interest of a film does not lie in its message or in its story in the literary sense, but in the operations it executes, in the articulations it keeps making and unmaking between form and meaning.

"3. What sets the essay apart is its ability to unveil its own operation and articulations, more so than its subject or contents. This way, the image attains a special status in the essay:
“it doesn’t pass but it revisits itself, resisting its own temporal nature, its own passing,” as Gorin writes in the catalogue that accompanies the retrospective. He also states that the essay is a form of energy, the energy of the termite, of an insect always busy digging and breaking through barriers, “an energy that constantly redefines the practice of framing, editing, mixing, freeing these from their habitual allegiance to genres.”

"4. Based on the kinds of operations they execute, films can be divided into two broad categories: those that tend toward unity (of message, of form) and those that try to divide, to propagate division and a dialectic — of the image, of ideas, procedures, and operations."

—from Un journal de Vienne [A Vienna Diary], 26 October 2007, by Cyril Neyrat (translation by Tom Mes) at Cahiers du cinéma

Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972:

Excerpts from an interview by Robert Phillip Kolker with Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1973:

GORIN: [...] One of the questions about Jane had to do with this: You are coming to France to make Tout va bien [Everything's Going Fine, 1972] with us; you just made Klute [Alan J. Pakula, 1971]; after Tout va bien you are going to make another Klute; and maybe you are going to Hanoi. Along with many filmmakers and people in the media, we wonder if in order to go to Hanoi you have to make Klute. Maybe to make Klute is the wrong way to go to Hanoi. That's one of the problems we are trying to settle in Letter to Jane. [...]

KOLKER: You criticize the expression on Jane Fonda's face. What would you rather have her do?

GODARD: I'm not the director in Hanoi. We can only direct her in Paris. We asked Jane to come to France in order to act in something staged by us, which was titled Tout va bien. Two months later, the North Vietnamese asked her to come and play in something they staged, which was entitled "Victory over America." In Letter to Jane, there are two pictures, the old Jane Fonda and the new Jane Fonda. We have to see the differences between the old and the new because we are interested in differences. This is an aesthetic, this is a movie dealing with aesthetics understood as a category of politics. We prefer to speak of aesthetics and no longer of politics. We are only interested in knowing about a kind of expression. If I were in Vietnam, looking at a dead Vietnamese child, I would have exactly the same expression, as would Nixon and John Wayne. [...]

GORIN: [...] You have spent one hour looking at a film about a still you would normally look at for two seconds. I think we could have spent ten hours on this still. Looking for two seconds at the still there are a million things happening. The media, information, is something very effective. It leads you to be the way you are in your life, the way I am in my life. I live in a world where I'm subjected to a thousand sounds and images a second. I want to see how this works. That's the question raised by Letter to Jane. I could have spent the time doing a film on an ad.

GODARD: A one-dollar bill.

Le Mépris [Contempt] by Jean-Luc Godard, 1963:

"Besides Disney, Lionsgate, MGM and (most recently) Paramount now offer a limited number of film titles on iTunes. But the offerings seem mainly to point up what's missing. The iTunes "staff favorites" on Sunday night included Paramount's 1962 John Wayne romp, "Hatari"."
—from "Facing Competition, iTunes Revs Up Its Film Section" by David M. Halbfinger, in The New York Times, October 23, 2007

Hatari! by Howard Hawks, 1962:

Jean-Luc Godard's Ten Best Films of 1962 (from 1962) —

10. Ride the High Country by Sam Peckinpah
9. Une grosse tête [A Big Head] by Claude de Givray
8. Sweet Bird of Youth by Richard Brooks
7. Chronicle of Flaming Years [Povest plamennykh let] by Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Yuliya Solntseva
6. Vivre sa vie, film en douze tableaux [To Live One's Life: A Film in Twelve Tableaux] by Jean-Luc Godard
5. Le Signe du Lion [The Sign of Leo] by Eric Rohmer
4. Jules et Jim [Jules and Jim] by François Truffaut
3. Through a Glass Darkly [Såsom i en spegel] by Ingmar Bergman
2. Vanina Vanini by Roberto Rossellini
1. Hatari! by Howard Hawks

Donovan's Reef by John Ford, 1963:

"Slight events partake of epiphany; accord is inevitable; meanwhile, Donovan's Reef unravels like necessary ritual. Mythicizing lighting transforms all — emphasizing depth, extending shadows, endowing persons (and occasionally a prop) with consecrating illumination while darkening surroundings, so that actions assume sacerdotal significance. Donovan's Reef is close to a cinematic experience of pure form (particularly its last third), moving stubbornly twixt chaos and (repressive) order toward harmony, inexhaustibly gifted with visual beauty (dynamic form). Idealistic and artificial, Donovan's Reef is a love affair with a best of all possible worlds. [...]

Donovan's Reef is of the suitelike, operatic Ford. [...]

"To some,
Donovan's Reef showed signs of dotage. Ford once got set up to shoot a scene only to be reminded, when he called for action, that the dialogue had not been written yet. Back stateside, crews readied studio retakes, only to have Ford walk in, yell, "Finished. Pau!" and walk out. On the islands, so many old friends and children were present, that the affairs took on airs of a last reunion rather than of a film production. Indeed, Donovan's Reef is a picture whose claims to greatness seem recognizable only to the initiate, and by no means even to many of them. The comedy seems often terribly broad, the children overly indulged in, and, as may happen while watching a movie, the presence of two or three weak and relatively inane sequences tends to elongate and devalue the entire movie. Lastly, there are those who find the scene of Wayne spanking Elizabeth Allen to be inexcusably offensive.

"Yet flawed as it is, and perhaps
too deceptively shallow, Donovan's Reef ranks with Ford's sublimest work for at least 89 of its 109 minutes. It combines and advances upon thematic and articulative figures from The Hurricane [1937] (nature as mysterious transcendent), The Fugitive [1947] (theocratic labyrinth, expressionism), Wagon Master [1950] (moral grace, use of music), The Sun Shines Bright [1953] (social analysis, racism), and Mogambo [1953] (man and nature). Donovan's Reef is the reverse of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1962]: tragedy / comedy; black-and-white / color; man comes west to establish order and kills liberty / woman comes east to steal and discovers liberty; continent / island; repression / anarchy; pessimism / optimism; long shots and scenes / fast paced; verbal / pictorial; looking / acting; death / birth....

"Perhaps, as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet once observed, the operative comparison is with Jean Renoir's
The Golden Coach [1953]. Both have somewhat similar pictorial styles, ethereal musical movements and gestures, and a commedia-dell'arte-like stylization of stereotypes and situations. Both are symbolic in anthropology and politics; both are materialist, Brechtian-like critiques of reality and society."
—from John Ford: The Man and His Films by Tag Gallagher. Newly revised, full-color edition, 659 pages, available as free PDF download here. (This is the best book ever written about John Ford.)


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