Eavesdropping at the Movies: 229 – Fedora

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Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.

Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.

Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.

And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Ava Gardner’s Jewels in The Cassandra Crossing

The Cassandra Crossing (George Pan Cosmatos) is an all-star disaster film. Burt Lancaster, Sofia Loren, Ingrid Thulin, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson and Lee Strasberg headline along with Ava Gardner, who steals the show. She comes in swathed in furs and jewels with Martin Sheen as her young gigolo, walking two steps behind her carrying her dog and her luggage. She looks her age AND divinely beautiful, and she gives a wittily ironic performance that renders all of Martin Sheen’s method intensity practically invisible when together in the frame: MGM charm school plus experience wins out over Stanislavski.

Ava plays the wife of a rich arms manufacturer travelling through Europe with her gigolo who she thinks she has under her thumb but who is using her to pass class a drugs from country to country in her vanity case. To underline the wealth of her character, as part of her self-guided mise-en-scène of her own beauty, and as an added attraction to the film, the jewels she wears are real, mainly Van Cleef and Arpels and all from her famous collection:

 

You can have fun admiring her extraordinary beauty and matching the jewels in the images below from the film to those from the book above, with images from the auction of her jewels at Sotheby’s New York in 1989:

 

José Arroyo

Facelifts and Lawman

Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan in Lawman. Ryan was four years older than Lancaster. One’s had a facelift, the other hasn’t. And Burt in this film is the same age as Tom Cruise, so the technology has improved.

 

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Adrian Garvey has reminded me that male facelifts are much less commented on than female. Gary Cooper is the only star of the classic period whose facelift was noticed and much commented on, as you can see below, courtesy of Adrian:

gary cooper

The facelifts made him lose that bit of alquiline tilt at the tip of the nose that added to his gorgeousness as a young man.It’s a tiny thing, and seen only on side angles, but it has an effect.

José Arroyo

The Midnight Man (Roland Kibbee/ Burt Lancaster, USA, 1974)

Le_flic_se_rebiffe

 

With the exception of my much loved and much missed colleague, the late V. F. Perkins, academics  tend to shy away from the issue of badness, even when actively dealing with questions of evaluation:

Despite renewed interest in aesthetic questions, there remains a nervousness in our field about aesthetic evaluation, based on a fear that it must always and only set out to authorise sets of tastes and preferences which work to sustain privilege. In this view, reflected in a concern with the canonical, evaluation has a primary purpose to establish or defend orders of rank between the esteemed and the despised, to validate a scale that has such as La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) at its top, and such as Madonna of the Seven Moons (Arthur Crabtree, 1944) at its base. Against this concentration on preference and hierarchy (Shakespeare over Titanic? Oasis over Schubert?) I stress another aspect – evaluation as the articulation of value, the grateful effort to spell out the nature of a significant achievement.

I suggest also that issues of evaluation may be approached freshly and usefully from the opposite angle, through a consideration of badness. Is it our experience that movies may have the attributes of bad communications, being for instance bigoted, deceitful, vindictive, hypocritical or self-serving? If so, then surely it is necessary to find terms in which we may discuss the badness of films which are bad as works of art rather than in their presumed or demonstrated social effects. A scene from Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) provides an emblematic instance of cinematic badness which is distinct both from ideological offensiveness and (since it is made with great proficiency) from ineptitude (p.34).

The Midnight Man is not the ideal vehicle through which to discuss the nuances of the concept such as Perkins does in his analysis of Dead Poets Society. It is, if I may, too bad for that. Vincent Canby, who wasn´t an academic and thus didn´t suffer from its knotty compunctions, wrote in  The New York Times that it was  ‘the second worst film of 1974’ (Buford, loc. 3296). What was the first? Buford, doesn´t tell us and I´d love to know,

 

Thematically The Midnight Man is a noir. Burt Lancaster is Jim Slade, a cop fresh from jail after serving time for killing his wife´s lover. He goes to stay with Quartz (Cameron Mitchell) an old friend from the force, in a university town where his parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark) has gotten him a job as a security person. Whilst he´s there a young coed (Catherine Bach) gets murdered. The reason is a videotape that incriminates her father, a powerful senator, and other people in the university. The tape is being used for blackmail and Slade can´t resist trying to find out.

 

The film is a sordid, convoluted story, which would have made a punchy film had it been done properly. It was very much a joint venture with Roland Kibbee and Lancaster, co-writing, co-producing and co-directing. According to Robyn Karney, ´The film was a convoluted thriller….With a poor screenplay and impenetrable plot. The film, which Variety,  predicted had a fair outlook in the popcorn trade´, was a dismal failure. Kibbee gallantly shouldered the blame, saying that ‘It was a concession to me because I wanted to make some money. It certainly wasn´t the kind of project Burt would have picked out for himself…he has no taste for pulp fiction, and his reading is on a high level (Robyn Karney, p. 171

I began with the excerpt from Victor Perkins´essay on badness because this film is almost an ur-example of it, particularly in the clip I´ve chosen below, which appears almost at the very end of the film. Narratively, the film hasn´t dramatised or shown so for an interminable four minutes, Burt as Jim Slade has to tie up all the various plot point for us verbally. It´s really atrocious.

 

Howerd Kissel in Women´s Wear Daily, upon the film´s initial release, wrote, ´Íf the studios were still operating as they used to, there would have been whole departments to tell Burt´that the story had too many holes, his costume too many sags, the movie too many reels´. This might explain the difference in the quality of the direction evident in The Kentuckian, Lancaster´s previous work as a director, and here. The film does nothing visually nor rhythmically, and he´s not particularly good with the actors, who´ve all been better elsewhere. There are misjudgments of tone too. Do we have to see Cameron Mitchell´s ageing ass. What does it do to the actor. What does it add to the scene. If we´re supposed to find it cheeky and funny it fails.

 

Burford writes that Kissel then isolated what kept Lancaster, ethos or politics aside, from becoming some kind of older Eastwood variant (in the 1970s)’– his image was ´too heroic´for the ´cool, low-keyed style of today.´A hero in what he once called ´the hero business´, he was now an anachronism (loc. 5349). But that is at least arguable. Time for example, noted ‘Burt Lancaster (is) turning into an attractive, hard-working actor as superstardom fades.´ Time.

For Bruce Crowther, in his book on the actor, ´Lancaster does well enough but his role is an uneasy one, carrying as it does the burdensome problem of trying to be  incorruptibly pure and honest while swimming through a cesspool of sexual and moral depravity. Some of the muck should have stuck. it was a problem which did not exist in the novel because the Jim Slade character there is a private eye with no illusions about his own or anyone else´s morality (Crowthe, pp. 123-124)

 

What´s interesting to me is that even discussion of ´the second worst film of 1974), through up insights on cinema, on the times, on aesthetics, that are interesting.

According to Perkins:

Evaluation need not be a process of ranking the cinema’s achievements in a hierarchy, nor of praising one group of movies at the expense of another. Instead it is part of the effort to understand, to exchange and to share the understanding of the value that works of art have for us. Good criticism is motivated by gratitude for the achievement of the filmmakers. It tries to present an accurate and sincere account of the meaning that films have for us. Critical understanding is most importantly an understanding of excellence. Criticism is an effort that we join in together to explain why films matter to us. I believe it is also our communal attempt to reward the courage, wisdom and generosity of the artists. The goal is to understand and to give words to the precision and subtlety that film can achieve, and finally to reward the artist’s attention to detail with an equal attentiveness in the viewing.

 

I agree with all of that. Yet, we live in a world where we have much more available to see than we have time for. And sometimes evaluation can serve the perfectly simple job of saying, unless you are a Burt Lancaster fan or have some other concrete reason for watching this film,  like thinking through the various ways a film can be ´bad´,´feel free to give this one a miss.

 

José Arroyo

Tough Guys (Jeff Kanew, USA, 1986)

Tough Guys

Forty years after his debut in The Killers ( Robert Siodmak, 1946), Burt Lancaster toplines a major studio film (Disney´s Touchstone Pictures),  capping a legendary partnership with Kirk Douglas. They starred together in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947), Gunfight at the Ok Corral (John Sturges, 1957), The Devil´s Disciple (Guy Hamilton, 1959), Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964), did cameos for John Huston in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and appeared together in the Victory at Entebbe (Marvin Chomsky, 1976) ‘event’ TV Movie. This was their seventh time together and, as you can see in the charming clip below, they were widely perceived as a team by the public, appearing several times together at the Oscars and in this particular clip below bringing down the house with their banter and performance:

 

 

I saw Tough Guys when it came out and found it pleasant but not very good. This time around I enjoyed it even more. I now know their personas better, can flesh out all the echoes of and rhymes with the different epochs of their careers, get the joke when the film makes references to their previous films such as  Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on. But, if anything, I found the film even worse than the first time around.

Tough Guys is a very typical and typically overblown comic action movie of the 80s, with the gym sequence then so prevalent, the throwaway humour, the car chases, the things being blown up behind the protagonists as they throw themselves towards the camera, the action sequences tied together by a song  to add up to a video clip the producers hoped would get heavy rotation on MTV and help market the movie, the ugly synth score and the stuffing of the movie with songs so as as to have an extra revenue and promotion resource from the soundtrack (see the pre-packed ‘MTV montage’ below).

 

All of the above made me realise that stars not only develop and change over time, that meanings accrue and change, that they´re different for each generation of filmgoers and across social formations, but also that stardom inhabits forms. As argued and characterised above, Tough Guys is High Concept 80s cinema, it´s ‘Burt and Kirk as tough guys, but they´ve been in jail for 30 years so they and the audience can hark back to their film noir days in the late forties, and the comedy will come from age and cultural dislocation´. I could have cut the tagline to one sentence had I wanted to.

The plot revolves around Harry Doyle (Burt Lancaster) and Archie Long (Kirk Douglas). The film begins as they come out of prison after 30 years for a failed train robbery, the last attempt at one in America, with their late forties/ early 50s hats, sharp suits, and two-toned shoes (see montage of images above). The guard taunts them by saying they’ll be back within the week. Their parole officer, Richie Evans (Dana Carvey), a fan, quickly explains the set-up, sends Archie to a welfare motel and Harry, whose older, to an old folks home. Everything in this new world is strange to them and they can’t abide by the rules, which seem to infantilise and dismiss the old as asexual, brainless and without agency. Moreover, they have two people on their tail, a hit man who’d been hired to kill them 30 years before and has been waiting ever since (Eli Wallach) and the cop responsible for sending them to prison in the first place, who believes they’ll never reform and is merely waiting for them to set up the next hit (Charles Durning).

To pursue this idea of stardom inhabiting forms, just think of how the very first scenes immediately recall the 4:3 underworld of shadows and crime that is Lancaster’s first star persona, the guy from The Killers, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Kiss the Blood of My Hands, and with Kirk, also in a narrative about an ex-con let loose in a world he doesn’t recognise, I Walk Alone. 

Then think too about the ´Muscles and Teeth’ roles in The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, still in 4.3 but now in vibrant technicolour. One can also chart Burt Lancaster’s development as a star in Westerns, the move from the 4:3, black and white of Vengeance Valley in ’51, through the Technicolour SuperScope of Vera Cruz, right up to the Cinerama of The Hallellujah Trail, and then, as his stardom diminished, back to the then standard widescreen of Valdez is Coming or Ulzana’s Raid.

Think too of how the seriousness Burt Lancaster signified is so often associated with John Frankenheimer’s wide-screen black and white aesthetic, the experimentation with compositions and angles, as well as with the seriousness of theme. Or how seeing Lancaster pictured in Richard Aldrich’s  fractured, suspenseful and imaginative split screen in Twilight’s Last Gleaming also communicates aspects of Lancaster’s persona in the late 70s, purposeful, serious, committed, an old pro trying to be newly dynamic and ‘with it’.

In Tough Guys, Burt and Kirk are newly burnished for High Concept stardom but see above how the big spectacular finale, harks back to Westerns, but now with helicopters on the chases instead of Indians.

 

burt-and-kirk

Even from behind and past 70, Burt walks gracefully. Kirk is the other one. Kirk’s always doing bits of business, Burt is relatively minimalist, paired down: that’s why their chemistry is so good, perfect counterpoint. And that is and was evident to even those who´d never seen them in anything else together. The film is a very pleasurable, if not good, send-off to a legendary team.

 

 

Jose Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Jacob Buckley, ‘Musical Diegesis and Repression — Dancer in the Dark’

A daring, more experimental video, on the uses of music and sound, the push and pull of the combination of musical and melodramatic genres in Lars Von Trier´s Dancer in the Dark:

 

 

Creator´s Statement:

 

Drawing on various writings around the importance and diegesis of the musical number combined with research around Von Trier’s portrayal of the female, the Dogme 95 movement and drawing on Arroyo’s idea of the melodrama musical and the offset between expression and repression, I have created a shortened edited version of Von Trier’s 2000 musical Dancer In The Dark omitting the musical numbers from the film and Selma’s voice entirely to explore these above points. How integral are the songs to the story’s plot? Without the privileged view inside Selma’s head, do we feel she is repressed, both by herself and the world around her? What benefit do the musical numbers provide for us an audience and Selma as a character? In addition, I have mapped the sounds that begin each musical number in the film. By cutting the musical numbers the song can simply no longer be expressed and pass us by, instead the sound remains trapped, like a thought repressed.

Kirk Douglas models 80s fashions in Tough Guys

In 1986 Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas headlined a reunion in one of those big studio bombastic action vehicles of the period, with gags and fights and chase sequences and musical montages designed for MTV rotation like this one. Kirk Douglas modelling someone’s idea of 80s fashions is a sight to see. It’s exaggerated of course, and it’s there as a comic interlude to show generational dislocation…but one does remember seeing some of those outfits on MTV.

 

Some observations arising from Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Richard Aldrich, USA, 1977)

 

 

Finished Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and observing how often in this period Burt played in looser narratives that basically amount to ensemble pieces, and this whilst still being perceived as a box-office powerhouse and not because he needed to (as might be the case with Cattle Annie and Little Britches, say). And by this I don’t mean all-star pony shows like Judgment at Nuremberg or even Airport, but films like The Scalphunters, The Hallellujah Trail, Ulzana’s Raid. He’s a central character but he’s not the whole show like he was in Elmer Gantry or even The Train. These are more expansive more inclusive narratives. The other observation is how often they are direct commentaries on then current US politics, The Vietnam War (this one, Ulzana’s Raid), racism (The Scalphunters, Valdez is Coming) incipient fascism at the highest levels of government (Seven Days in May, Executive Action). It is a point of view of cinema as the US’s national theatre, there to spark a discussion of current ideas, though in Burt’s case to increasingly diminishing audiences. The other observations, on the film itself: a) has there been any other film with this much split-screen? b) The film believes that merely telling the truth and having it circulated is enough to create social change. Does anyone believe that now?

Chris Menges’ cinematography in Local Hero (John Forsyth, 1983)

I am now re-viewing films with Burt Lancaster I saw upon their original release. I well remember the charm and humour of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. What I had forgotten, and what the new remastered collector’s edition recently released by Film Four makes clear, is the astonishing visual beauty of the film, and not just because of its sublime natural locations but because of the extraordinary ways Chris Menges filmed them. Here is but a sample:

 

The Gypsy Moths (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1969)

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A sad film about parachutists, Gypsy Moths, who go from town to town risking their lives to make a living and who find meaning only in the physical thrill the derring-do provides. Burt Lancaster is Mike Rettig, the ageing star of the show, the one who performs the most difficult stunts. Gene Hackman, fresh from Bonnie and Clyde is Joe Browdy, who also jumps but is mainly the barker and looks after the money. Scott Wilson, fresh from In Cold Blood, is Malcolm Wesson, the youngest member of the troupe.

The film begins as they finish a gig in one place and move on to Malcolm’s old home town where his aunt Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr) still lives. They all go to stay with her and her husband, V. John Brandon (William Wimdom) whilst setting up the show. Mike and Elizabeth are clearly instantly attracted to each other, and act on it, something Elizabeth has done before and that her husband is fully aware of. Joe develops a thing for the stripper in the local club played by an appealingly blowsy Sheree North. And even Malcolm gets it on with Annie, a student who boards with the Brandons played by a very young Bonnie Bedelia. Everyone mates up but only Joe and the stripper seem to get any joy out of it.

The best aspects of  the film are the phenomenal areal stunts we see, including this magnificent star entrance afforded Burt Lancaster, which you can see below.

 

 

The advertising tag line was ‘When you turn on by falling free…when jumping is not only a way to live but a way to die too.. you’re a gypsy moth.’ It’s an ill-conceived film. The best thing about it are the stunt.  But ‘even Frankenheimer said at the time, “if anybody tells me this is a film about parachute jumping, I’ll feel like hitting them on the head (Fishgall, p. 267). We get a lot of background on young Malcolm: He was orphaned; his aunt had been in love with his father but he ended up marrying her sister instead; the aunt wanted to keep and raise him after the death of his parents but the uncle saw it as a constant reminder of who his wife had been really in love with and forbade it….We actually get a lot of information on almost everyone except Mike Rettig, who is meant to be the protagonist. Aside from not giving us much information, the film also kills him off 2/3rds of the way through, without really properly communicating to the audience the reasons why, just to ensure the audience leaves as disappointed as is possible.

Lancaster is brilliant, funny and charming as you can see below:

burt-demonstrates

Always, physically authoritative:

burt-on-plane

As Richard Schickel pointed out in Life, ‘Mr. Lancaster has developed a capacity, unique in established stars, to give away scenes that his status in the movie pecking order entitles him to dominate.. and he deserves full credit for his selflessness’ (Burdord 3296).  He also deserves full credit for what he does do. He communicates the attraction to Deborah Kerr’s Mrs. Brandon, instantly, with barely a look, and the audience immediately registers it. We know they’re going to get it together.

Gary Fishgall argues with some merit that ‘No one fared worse than Lancaster. The film needed somebody who could convey his character’s malaise, which is never articulated, someone who could fill the brooding silences with palpable emotion — anger, rage, frustration, something….All he could do was look weary, resigned, unhappy, and that was not enough. Even Kerr said in retrospect, ‘I don’t think he himself quite got it. I don’t know what he was after’ (Fishgall 267).

My own view is that what really sinks the film is how it depicts the reunion between Kerr and Lancaster. ‘We can hear the roar of the surge when they stand on the porch in Kansas,’ suggested the Newark Evening News with a gallant reference to the beach scene of sixteen years before’ (Burford, 3296) As Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times: ‘It’s a weekend of dimly articulated emotional crises for everyone, including Miss Kerr, an unhappy, highly unlikely Kansas housewife who had a brief affair with Lancaster, principally, you feel, because she remembers meeting him in From Here to Eternity‘ (cited in Crowther, 105).

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Kerr and Lancaster had been in a film together post From Here to Eternity in Separate Tables. But there Deborah Kerr was interested in David Niven and Lancaster still obsessed with Rita Hayworth, so the film didn’t offer the nostalgic possibilities of reunion The Gypsy Moths does. All of which makes the film even more tone deaf to audience expectation. Did it have to be such a joyless experience? Did the filmmakers have to undress a beloved actress pushing 50? It feels grim and uncomfortable with a nasty edge, which is not quite what the sex scene is supposed to convey. Lancaster’s Mike Rettig is meant to be so taken with her, he proposes marriage; she’s meant to enjoy the sex but unwilling to leave her husband and the comforts of home for the carny parachutist’s life on the road. As soon as Ms. Kerr is undressed, all thought of character go out the window and all one thinks is ‘how could the filmmakers do this to her’?

In spite of that, I greatly enjoyed the scenes of small town life, the real sense of watching Gene Hackman emerge as a star (he steals the show), the superb flying sequences and the incredible sense of space, in the field and in the air, that middle-of-the-century America seems to take as a given, the vast space a context and contrast to the narrowness of hopes, expectations, and possibilities proffered by, in this case, small town culture. John Frankenheimer, whose work I did not know well, is showing himself to have been a marvellous visual director and superb with actors. With The Gypsy Moths, however, I am still not at all  sure of his command of drama and pacing.

Burt Lancaster’s own view was that ‘The Gypsy Moths unfortunately was just not a good picture. An interesting idea, not well done, not well written, I would say’ (Fishgall, 267)

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Sheldon Hall informs me that: ‘This was ITV’s choice of peak-time film for Christmas Eve 1974’.

My cousin reminds me we saw this in the mid-70s in the Church Hall of a small village in rural Spain. I vividly remember the aerial sequences though have no memory of the go-go bar scenes or of Kerr’s nudity. I’m almost certain they were censored and I do wonder what exactly ITV screened that Christmas Eve pre-watershed.

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman, USA, 1976)

 

buffalo bill

Whether people like this movie or not depends on how much they like Altman’s company, his sensibility, voice, attitude. His films are the work of a jovial host at a party, slightly drunk, extremely sociable, good-naturedly prankish, always snooking a crook at certainties, pomposities, not always making sense but wanting everyone to have a good time, keep them all talking, sometimes simultaneously, whilst still making sure the conversation’s at a certain level and that the music is good.

 

Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, made in the aftermath of Watergate, takes on one of the great icons of American popular culture and explores how cultural myths are designed, generated and propagated, the difference between those myths and history, the inter-relationships between money, show-business and politics, and how the whole thing is a circus anyways.

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Shot near Calgary in Canada –in itself a sleight of hand worthy of the film — at the foothills of the Rockies, with the majestic mountains always in view, nature, certain and seemingly ever present,  a silent witness to the vagaries of culture, the film has a very American sense of space, spectacle here is not contained in a theatre but is outdoors with dozens of horses, hundreds of people, encampments, all by a river. Looking at the film it seemed to me that certain actors are graced with presence: Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, and Shelley Duvall need do nothing but be and, at least as seen through a camera, our eye would be drawn to and delight in them. Others, who do need to give a performance — Joel Grey, John Considine, Pat McCormick — give good ones and are a pleasure to see.

 

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The central problem in the film is the dullness of Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill. The role requires an icon, and he certainly is one. Moreover, he is a great actor. So what’s wrong here? I think part of the problem might be that he’s not playing to the camera. For a star such as he, the camera would normally find him, he would naturally be the central focus. But Altman doesn’t work that way, His is a roving camera, one that usually stays some distance away from the players and tries to include as many of them in the frame as possible. There are a lot of long and medium long shot and Newman’s is not a commanding physical presence at a distance. The role really requires an extrovert who’s not afraid of risking being ‘too much’. Burt Lancaster, who is great as  Ned Buntline, the writer and Legend Maker, would have been even better as Buffalo Bill; he would have given it the carny oomph that is simply beyond Newman.

See in the scene above what a showman Lancaster is, his removal of his glasses to get down to business, his pointing with his hands, ‘here you are in the glorious flesh’, the shake of the head, when he says ‘what a sight for sore eyes,’ the way his head tilts upwards and his arm reaches out when he says, ‘like planting a seed and watching it grow into a tree,’ the tilt of the head and the extension of the hand on ‘You make it easy Bill’. One could go on. Lancaster’s thrilling because he is always playing to the audience in the best sense; he’s aware of and in dialogue with it. In other movies, Newman can also be thrilling, because his purpose is always to inhabit character, and let the audience find the thrill in that. But he comes alive here mostly when the camera comes to him in close-up. But Bill Cody is meant to be carny, circus, showman, bigger than life, the outward outline of an advertisement that so persistent it becomes myth at the price of truth. Lancaster conveys that energy, that showmanship, that engagement with audience response, even his final exit, as his horse jumps the fence, is a flourish. And it’s that kind of flourish at the heart of the film that would made it even better than it already is.

The costumes are by Anthony Powell, the design is by Tony Masters, and Paul Lohmann is the cinematographer: the film looks smashing and is a real pleasure to see.

 

José Arroyo

Bibliographies and Books

Friends on mine on facebook were bitching about bibliographies on video essays; how some of them would be unacceptable even in a first year undergraduate essay, etc. Now, aside from noting that bibliographies might not be the best criteria via which to evaluate video essays, I just wanted to draw attention to the following: I’ve been ordering a lot of books on Burt Lancaster, my current hobby, and I just wanted to point to this full-length book, from a reputable publisher in 1991:

The whole book reads like a series of quickly thrown together blogposts by someone who has read a few interviews, a couple of bios, doesn´t look at the films too closely, offers summaries — some short, some extended; I imagine in relation to what was then available to view — and a judgment with no analysis.

Now, one doesn’t want to be ahistorical. There was no internet then. Information was hard to come by. I read these books avidly as a teenager. As Sheldon Hall has rightly pointed out: ‘This kind of ‘biography’ was pretty much the standard of ‘trade’ film books in the 1970s and 1980s’.

But it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves that first year undergraduate essays sometimes offer more real insight and more reliable information than many books by writers up to 1991 who were paid and who often thanked their research assistants in the acknowledgment sections, and that such inadequate and unsatisfying work was put into the world by reputable publishers, often with fanfare.

We’ve come a long way baby.

 

José Arroyo

Cattle Annie and Little Britches (Lamont Johnson, USA, 1981)

Cattle Anie poster

In the early 80s, pushing 70, But Lancaster top-lines and gets a star entrance in Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The film, based on a true story, is about Cattle Annie (Amanda Plummer) and Little Britches (Diane Lane) but Burt’s Bob Dooley is the legend, the lodestar, who they want to emulate and with whom they want to join. He’s no longer the romantic lead, but the film’s protagonists have their own non-sexual romance of and with him, and so does the film.

 

 

Mannerisms in actors are usually seen as a negative. That an actor resorts to old tricks and lacks the imagination to inhabit character in different ways. But what if those gestures of body and face, those stances that indicate bursts of energy are part of what audiences love and look forward to in an actor’s performance? In Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Burt’s mannerisms bring up whole eras of audience affection, evoke authority, and are shortcuts to character and a base with which to create something new. He’s too old in the film to play the romantic leading man but the film has its own romance with him, his stardom and his own legend that feeds into that of his character’s. And displaying his body is still part of what he does as an actor and a star, even if pushing 70, it’s now filmed through mist (Pauline Kael said he looked like an old water buffalo). Perhaps that’s why he was still top-billed and headlining in vehicles guided by intelligence and social purpose into his 70s and almost right through the 1980s.

Screenshot 2020-05-07 at 10.00.08

One of the reasons I pay no attention to all the Kael haters is that I vividly remember Kael’s review forty years after I read it, and this was a movie I’d never been able to see up to now. And now that I have seen it and re-read it, I agree with so much of what she says. And she’s so funny saying it. On Rod Steiger: ‘Rod Steiger is probably more contained than he has been in years. The last time I saw him—doing his padre number in “The Amityville Horror”—his spiritual agony was enough to shatter the camera lens.’

 

 

Pauline Kael is worth quoting at length: ‘here are some remarkable performances—Lancaster’s and Diane Lane’s, and, especially, the unheralded, prodigious screen début of Amanda Plummer. (Actually, everything about this picture is unheralded. It was finished over a year ago, but nobody wanted to release it, because a couple of other Westerns had failed. It wasn’t really released: it was just dropped into a Broadway theatre for a week, to plug up a hole before “Outland” arrived.) As Bill Doolin, Lancaster (who made this film before “Atlantic City”) is a gent surrounded by louts—a charmer. When he talks to his gang, he uses the lithe movements and the rhythmic, courtly delivery that his Crimson Pirate of 1952 had when he told his boys to gather ‘round. The great thing about Lancaster is that you can see the face of a stubborn, difficult man—a man who isn’t easy to get along with. He has so much determination that charm doesn’t diminish him. In his scenes with Diane Lane, the child actress who appeared in New York in several of Andrei Serban’s stage productions and who, single-handed, made the film “A Little Romance” almost worth seeing, Lancaster has an easy tenderness that is never overdone, and she is completely inside Jenny’s childish dependency. And when he’s by himself, naked, soaking at the hot springs (where the marshal traps him), he’s a magnificent, sagging old buffalo. Lancaster looks happy in this movie and still looks tough: it’s an unbeatable combination’.

The film itself is charming and a bit ramshackle. It’s unusual to see a film about women’s desires to be outlaws, one set in a period where those dreams were being shut down along with the frontier, and yet the film doesn’t makes those desires as central to the narrative as it should, constantly cutting to the bigger stars, Lancaster himself of course, but also Rod Steiger and Jon Savage — whatever happened to him? He seemed to be everywhere in this period — and even Scott Glenn (why didn’t he become a bigger star? He’s sexy, charismatic and so good here and in practically everything he did in this period). And the questions I ask above in relation to Savage and Glenn are even more worth asking regarding Amanda Plummer, a debut to compare to Hepburn’s writes Kael, and yet it seems American cinema of this period did not have the space for such an electric and original presence. Its loss. But this is a film that allows us to enjoy and mourn the magnitude of that loss.

According to Kate Burford, ‘critics would note that Larry Pizer’s cinematography glowed like a Frederick Remington vision’ (loc 2903), except for the clip of Burt’s entrance I’ve extracted above, where one can barely see anything.

 

In her extraordinary book on Lancaster, Kate Buford includes excerpts from a truly illuminating interview with Amanda Plummer on Lancaster’s acting in Cattle Annie that is worth extracting here in its entirety:

A bit of trivia: Steven Ford, son of the American President Gerald, appears in a small role as a man of the law and is very good.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 228 – To Be or Not to Be

 

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny lead chaos in 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic black comedy set amongst a group of actors turned resistors in occupied Poland. Considered to be in bad taste at the time, it was, to say the least, a bold film to make, one that mocked the very real and active threat of the Nazis to their faces. It’s also endlessly witty and truly hilarious, generous and kind. It’s a treat.

We think about it in comparison to other satire, in particular that of Mel Brooks, who José argues has an aggression and contempt that Lubitsch avoids, while Mike suggests that their work shares an absolute unambiguity as to the targets they set and the messages they convey. But there’s unquestionably a remarkable sensitivity of tone to To Be or Not to Be, as well as an effortlessly executed intelligence in plotting, with the love triangle of the opening leading cleverly, smoothly, and unpredictably, into the unmasking of a Gestapo spy.

José can’t speak highly enough of Lubitsch, above whom there sits nobody in the pantheon of the great filmmakers. And Mike likes him too.

P.S. Corrections and clarifications: Mike begs your forgiveness for incorrectly claiming that Sid Caesar famously played a comedy Nazi on television in the 1950s. He in fact played a German general. A comedy German general.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Polina Zelmanova — ‘Horrible Bodies: The (new) Politics of Horror’

A video essay that is densely textured visually and aurally, intellectually sophisticated, in dialogue with a rich body of feminist theory that leads to a brilliant analysis of Julia Ducournau´s Raw

 

Horrible Bodies: The (new) body politics of horror

In an interview, Tom Sherak once said, “Film is a reflection of society, both present and past.”[1] Indeed, by watching a film one can gauge a lot about its time – current events, social relations, structures, but also anxieties. This video essay focuses on the latter by looking at the horror genre which has been discussed as a metaphorization for social fears, permeating through its literal and metaphorical monsters.[2] While the cause of fears evolves as seen in some of the opening examples in the video, death and the human condition is always at the forefront. However, as Cruz convincingly writes, even more than death horror evokes anxieties surrounding the body.[3] Its autonomous, uncontrollable nature evokes fear, furthered by how much of our identity is associated with our body and what consequently happens to our understanding of who we are when our bodies are compromised. Despite this fear being common amongst all humans, when it comes to the representation of the bodies in horror the potential unity and identification with different bodies, evoked by the genre’s physical nature,[4] is replaced by the prominence of their difference. It controls who we can identify with, and ultimately reflects which bodies are socially positioned as the ideal human subject.[5]

The essay focuses on the female body as an example of a body that is othered in horror. The example is particularly interesting in that in film men are seen and heard twice as often as women with the exception of horror,[6] demonstrating their strong presence in the genre. Ironically, it is also the genre that has been most cruel to them. The history of women in horror has had an increasing interest amongst feminist academics in film and there have been several key texts published on the various tropes.[7] The essay narrows down the focus by concentrating on the female monster, due to the double-othering she experiences. While most postmodern horror explores the body as monstrous, tapping into aforementioned anxieties, feminist critique suggests that there is “a tendency…to generate paranoia about the social world around constructions of monstrous women”.[8] This is charted in the video-essay through the ways her body is presented as horrifically different in opposition to the white heterosexual male subject considered to be the ideal.[9] The video-essay concludes with a case study of a feminist horror film Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016) as an example of a film that draws on the history of representation in horror to offer a progressive take on body politics, paving a way to enforcing identification with the female body.

The first section of the video-essay is divided into three parts, demonstrating the othering at play in the female monster. It draws on Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory[10] to explain the emphasis on difference. This concept is first applied to female victims in slasher films, one of the most literal examples of disavowal. It then draws a comparison of the female’s difference to the monster who is equally responsible for castration anxiety in horror in that he is “a biological freak with the impossible and threatening appetites that suggest a frightening potency”.[11] However, while the male perceives a threat of difference, as Linda Williams argues, “the female look…shares the male fear of the monster’s freakishness but also recognises the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference.”[12] In the Phantom of the Opera (Chaney, 1925) example, the first mid-shot demonstrates Christine’s active look. This look is then punished through the horror she faces when the Phantom is unmasked, revealing his ‘freakishness’. The example emphasises their mirroring facial expressions which underlines their similarity within the genre.

The third part brings the two together in the ultimate iteration of castration anxiety seen in the female monster, or what Barbara Creed famously calls the monstrous feminine.[13] The term implies “the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity”[14] seen in the examples demonstrating a link of monstrosity to her sex difference through puberty, sexuality or the female sex organ.

The essay goes on to use Kristeva’s theory of abjection as another way of othering the female body. She characterizes the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system, order […and] does not respect borders, positions, rules.”[15] It works within patriarchal structures to separate the human from the other, the fully constituted subject from the partially formed one.[16] The essay draws on Creed’s application of abjection to monsters showing their disturbance of social systems through transforming monsters which are both man and beast, non-human monsters[17] or have a non-heteronormative identity.[18] The culmination of the two shows the monstrous feminine as doubly abject and therefore doubly other. The essay uses Carrie (De Palma, 1976) as a key example to demonstrate the connection. It begins with a strong male gaze embodied by the camera; however, with the sign of menstruation (a sign of abjection and difference) the tone shifts. The violence that erupts, evoked in the hand-held shaking camera, frames both Carrie and the previously sexualized girls as monstrous revealing “the horror of what might be seen when the penetrative camera glimpses the sight of sexual difference the male voyeur can’t acknowledge”[19] further distancing the female body. The video essay parallels Carrie’s realization of her monstrosity to the shower scene in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) emphasizing the parallel of the two monsters – a literal one (Psycho) versus the woman’s body (Carrie).

The emphasis on the female sex as a cause or link to her monstrosity others her, making her unrelatable for any audience: for men she is the threatening Other, and for women she is distanced by the male gaze. What Raw does then is use narrative and visual strategies to enable a female gaze, creating audience identification with the woman and monster, simultaneously shifting horror’s body politics as seen in the second part of the video essay.

The film follows Justine, an aspiring vet struggling to fit in to her new environment. After being force-fed a raw rabbit kidney during an aggressive hazing ritual, the life-long vegetarian awakens to unknowingly suppressed desires for human flesh. The film does several things to de-other the female protagonist’s body and re-instate her as an identifiable subject, challenging horror traditions shown in the first half of the video-essay. This is particularly done by taking the female body out of the patriarchal context, transforming it into a universally human one. The first is Ducournau’s choice of monstrosity as cannibal rather than anything supernatural, grounding her as a human. The essay shows several comparative examples of the othering of cannibals in films such as presenting them as scientific experiments (Rabid[20]), non-human (grandfather or distancing mask in Texas Chainsaw Massacre[21]) or primitive savages (Cannibal Holocaust[22]). As evident in the latter two examples, the shots frame them as a group whom which the human is pitted against.[23] In opposition, Justine’s cannibalism is presented as more natural – a biological reaction to meat consumption and unlike the traditional monstrous feminine not linked to her female difference.[24]

Identification with her body is furthered by Justine’s positioning as a victim of injustice and a violent environment, echoed in Rappis’s commentary on the film: “[its] absurdity is not found in a woman discovering she has an appetite for flesh, but in the disorienting environment she is forced to navigate before she can begin to understand what is happening to her”.[25] Additionally, Raw eliminates the male gaze by making the male protagonist a homosexual. The examples of his point of view shots demonstrate a neutral gaze, lacking Mulvey’s characteristics of the male gaze.

This close identification means that when Justine’s ‘transformation’ occurs, her body becomes relatable despite it being a female one and can consequently be used as a ground for the exploration of non-gendered bodily anxieties. This is furthered as seen in the examples of its trivial struggles which in themselves are more relatable. The video essay visually lists examples such as her rash, shivers, throwing up hair, hair pulling and need to climax, the close-ups and shallow focus of the shots enhancing the horror of the body, raising issues of anxiety of its uncontrollable nature. These images inspire “raw, unmediated reaction”[26] typical to the physicality of body horror.

By challenging traditional identification by creating a connection with a body that is other (both as monster and woman), the film questions the boundaries dominant power structures create in privileging certain bodies over others. The video-essay demonstrates parallels throughout the film between human bodies (including white, male subjects) and animal bodies, the similarities evoking abjection in the former, challenging traditions of the fully formed white, male subject. By the end of the film, Justine becomes more human than ever before, not because of her body but by placing her human identity into her moral choice of deciding not to kill, rather than relying on an uncontrollable body to justify her subjectivity. This is highlighted through one of the end images of Justine and Alexia’s faces merging in the glass between them – a symbolic crossing of the border between the abject and subject, emphasizing Creed’s point that “abjection is not something of which the subject can ever be free.”[27] The essay prompts how this progressive example necessitates a shift in the relationship of bodies with subjectivity, which can have wider implications regarding representation, identity and equality beyond the genre.

Filmography (In order of appearance)

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)

In a Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

The Shining (Stanley Kubrik, 1980)

Final Destination (David R. Ellis, 2000)

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

The Human Centipede 3 (Tom Six, 2015)

Rabid (The Soska Sisters, 2019)

Saw (James Wan, 2004)

Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)

Spider Baby (Jack Hill, 1967)

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bubuel, 1929)

The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones, 1982)

My Bloody Valentine (George Mihalka, 1981)

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

It (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, 1925)

American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1987)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer, 2010)

Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)

Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)

Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)

Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000)

Contracted (Eric England, 2013)

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2017)

Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1998)

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

 

Bibliography:

Anon, ‘Julia Ducournau: Cannibalism, Feminism & Growing Up’, 52-Insights 30 March 2017, accessed 19/11/2019

Anne Billson, ‘Does the ‘female gaze’ make sexual violence on film any less repugnant?’, The Guardian 2 August 2019, accessed 10/11/2019

Barnes Kateryna, ‘Monsters in Modern Horror Culture Reflect Social Anxieties’, Folio 30 October 2017, accessed 6/1/2020 https://www.folio.ca/monsters-in-modern-horror-culture-reflect-social-anxieties/

Beth Younger, ‘Women in Horror: Victims no More’, The Conversation June 26 2017, accessed 10/11/2019 https://theconversation.com/women-in-horror-victims-no-more-78711

Clover Carol, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2015)

Cowan Gloria & O’Brien Margaret, ‘Gender and survival vs. death in slasher films: A content analysis’, Sex Roles Volume 23, Issue 3-4 pp187-196 (see also Donnerstein et al. 1987)

Cruz Ronald Allan Lopez, ‘Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror is Biological Horror’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume 40, 2012, Issue 4

Donnerstein, E., Linz, D., & Penrod, S. The question of pornography: Research findings and policy implications (Free Press, 1987)

Erin Harrington, Women Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror (New York: Routledge, 2018)

GD-IQ results https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/geena-benchmark-report-2007-2017-2-12-19.pdf

Horeck Tanya & Kendall Tina, The new extremism in cinema: from France to Europe (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, c2011)

Jenkins David, ‘Julia Ducournau: ‘The way losing your virginity is portrayed in most movies is very outdated’’, Little White Lies 2 Apr 2017, accessed 18/11/2019 https://lwlies.com/interviews/julia-ducournau-raw/

Kristeva Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1980)

Lindsey Shelley Stamp, ‘Horror, Femininity and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty’, Journal of Film and Video Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 1991)

Kernode Mark, ‘Raw review – cannibal fantasy makes for a tender dish’, The Guardian 9 April 2017, accessed 18/11/2019 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/apr/09/raw-julia-ducournau-cannibal-fantasy-review-kermode

Kernode Mark, ‘The female directors bringing new blood to horror films’, The Guardian 19 March 2017, accessed 20/11/2019 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/19/the-female-directors-bringing-new-blood-horror-films-babadook-raw-prevenge

David Macdougall, The corporeal image: film, ethnography, and the senses (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Mulvey Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures 2nd edition (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Grant Barry Keith (Ed.) The dread of difference: gender and the horror film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015)

Palmer Tim, ‘Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body’, Journal of Film and Video Vol. 58, No. 3 (FALL 2006)

Rappis Sydney, ‘’Raw’ gnaws trough expectations of female sexuality’, Washington Square News, March 6 2017, accessed 9/12/2019 https://nyunews.com/2017/03/06/raw-gnaws-through-expectations-of-female-sexuality/

Rebecca Pahle, ‘Female Sexuality Has always been monstrous at the movies’, MashablaUK June 07 2018, accessed 17/11/2019 https://mashable.com/2018/06/07/female-sexuality-horror-movies/?europe=true

Shah Mbe Vikas, ‘The Role of Film in Society’, Thought Economics 19th June 2011, accessed 6/1/2020 https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-film-in-society/

 

Shepherd Jack, ‘Raw director Julia Ducournau talks cannibals, humanity, and fainting’, The Independent 30 March 2017 accessed 14/11/2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/julia-ducournau-interview-raw-director-cannibalism-humanity-fainting-sick-a7658651.html

Subissati Andrea, Films of the new French extremity : visceral horror and national identity (Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016)

Thomas Lou, ‘Raw director Julia Ducournau: ‘I’m fed up with the way women’s sexuality is portrayed on screen’’, BFI April 6 2017, accessed 15/11/2019 https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/raw-director-julia-ducournau

Thompson David, ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’, Film Comment 42(6): 42-45

Quandt, James, ‘Flesh & blood: Sex and violence in recent French cinema’, Artforum Print Issue: February 2004 https://www.artforum.com/print/200402/flesh-blood-sex-and-violence-in-recent-french-cinema-6199

Interviews:

Build Series, ‘Julia Ducournau Discusses “Raw”’, March 9 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b62YWx8xy0w

Film at Lincoln Centre, ‘’Raw’ Q&A | Julia Ducournau & Garance Marillier | Rendez-Vous with French Cinema’, 21 March 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nz-jba7x_JE

HeyUGuys, ‘Exclusive Interview: Julia Ducournau on the cinematic taboo of Raw’ April 6 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrbUcmMmDkk

Tiff Originals, ‘JULIA DUCOURNAU — Creating the disturbing world of RAW | TIFF 2016’ Oct 28 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJyXT3ArC64

[1] Vikas Shah Mbe, ‘The Role of Film in Society’, Thought Economics 19th June 2011, accessed 6/1/2020 https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-film-in-society/

[2] Jason Wallin quoted in Kateryna Barnes, ‘Monsters in Modern Horror Culture Reflect Social Anxieties’, Folio 30 October 2017, accessed 6/1/2020 https://www.folio.ca/monsters-in-modern-horror-culture-reflect-social-anxieties/

[3] Ronald Allan Lopez Cruz, ‘Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror is Biological Horror’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume 40, 2012, Issue 4

[4] On the physicality of the genre see David Macdougall, The corporeal image : film, ethnography, and the senses (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006)

[5] Macdougall referencing Barbara Creed talks about how horror’s bodily monstrosities are “at once the threatened body of the spectator, exploded or invaded or defiled by abject substances” but depending on what kind of body it is, it could also be “a reaffirmation of the spectator’s purity and bodily integrity.” (Macdougall 2006, p16)

[6] GD-IQ results https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/geena-benchmark-report-2007-2017-2-12-19.pdf

[7] Examples include Clover 1992; Williams 1996; Creed 1993

[8] Lianne McLarty, ‘Beyond the veil of Flesh’ in The dread of difference : gender and the horror film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p262

[9] This stems back to ancient Western philosophy (see Plato Republic)

[10] Mulvey draws this term in her description of a phallocentric society where the man holds the plce as ‘bearer of the look’ (Hill and Gibson, 1998; p119)

[11] Linda Williams, ‘When the Woman Looks’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: Univeristy of Texas Press, 2015) p22

[12] Ibid. p22-23

[13] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p65

[14] Ibid. p3

[15] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1980) p4

[16] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p8

[17] The example in the video essay is of the alien child which although is non human, disturbingly shares characteristics of a human creating an uncanny effect.

[18] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p11

[19] Shelley Stamp Lindsey, ‘Horror, Femininity and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty’, Journal of Film and Video

Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 1991), p35

[20] Cronenberg, 1977

[21] Hooper, 1974

[22] Deodato, 1980

[23] In Cannibal Holocaust an actual POV shot is used from the ‘documentarian’s’ perspective, and in Texas Chainsaw the long-shot of the cannibal family makes them the threatening force against their victim (the shot is also POV-esque as it frames them the way she sees them).

[24] Although there are two points when her cannibalism is triggered by a sexual interaction, I would argue that it is not inherently sexual. Instead the cannibalism in these incidents is merely reactionary to being so close in proximity to her hunger’s desire. Further evidence to this is Alexia’s road kill scene which has no sexual connotations.

[25] Sydney Rappis, ‘’Raw’ gnaws trough expectations of female sexuality’, Washington Square News, March 6 2017, accessed 9/12/2019 https://nyunews.com/2017/03/06/raw-gnaws-through-expectations-of-female-sexuality/

[26] Tim Palmer, ‘Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body’, Journal of Film and Video

Vol. 58, No. 3 (FALL 2006), p22

[27] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p10

Georgia Smithies: Wes Anderson and Fatherhood

How does Wes Andeson represent fatherhood? Georgia Smithies tells us in this lovely and perceptive video essay. That  ‘an Andersonian father, if he´s ruined his child´s life, must also be able to fix it in some way, dead or alive,´ is but one of the many insights offered in this enjoyable video.

 

Wes Anderson and Fathers – Author’s Statement

 

 

Wes Anderson is critically revered for his visual style, with his auteur status hanging on elements such as his use of symmetry, colour and, of course, the Futura font. Often overlooked however are ‘Anderson’s themes – While his films could be regarded as shallow and pretentious, the honesty and emotion with which Anderson and his collaborators write their familial dynamics should also be held with great consideration. Anderson’s fathers in particular stand out as key elements of his works, and are a continuous and repeated feature, with all nine of his films including some kind of element of fatherhood or paternity.

 

The Andersonian father, as argued in this video essay, is generally either a ‘surrogate’ or ‘absentee’ father, with almost all of his paternal characters fitting into either or both of these categories. A ‘surrogate father’ is a character who is not biologically related to their ‘child’, but forms a familial type bond with them, whereas an ‘absentee father’ is a character who is biologically related to their child, but is absent from their life either physically or emotionally. In both categories, fathers tend to be somewhat aloof, and are all invariably flawed, but are not difficult to like. A key aspect of Anderson’s narratives of fatherhood is that the fathers and/or their children grow as a result of their familial relationship.

 

Anderson also frequently touches on Oedipal themes, with both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Rushmore giving centrality to a complex love triangle between a father, his ‘son’ and the woman they both love. Joshua Gooch discusses Anderson’s Oedipal narratives, including his tendency towards ‘paternal castration’, however he also claims that these ‘paternal plots’ can be considered limiting  to ‘what his characters – and films – can do.’[1]

 

Anderson’s daughters could perhaps be suggested to be somewhat represented, which is here explored through Suzie Bishop in Moonrise Kingdom and, more primarily, Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums. Both women lack a sense of identity, tied in various ways to their strained relationships with their fathers. In particular, Margot’s loss of her fingertip – a representation of her sense of identity – while seeking out a family, is reflective of her inability to slot comfortably into any family she seeks out, with both her adoptive, biological, and marital families seeming unsatisfactory for her.

 

The establishing of an ‘intertextual fatherhood’ is key to Anderson’s films, as we recognise certain actors as performing specific roles – namely that of fatherhood for actors like Bill Murray. Murry is the most essential example of Andersonian fatherhood, as he plays a father character in at least four of the eight Wes Anderson films he appears in, and thus becomes emblematic of the paternal figure in Anderson’s work. This plays a significant role in The Darjeeling Limited, where fatherhood is a vital element of the plot – while the Whitman brothers’ father does not appear physically, he is ever present in the brothers’ hints of mourning for him. Murray, who appears only briefly in the film, is abandoned on a train platform by Peter Whitman in the film’s opening sequence, and according to Kim Wilkins ‘shadows the thematic presence of the Whitmans’ deceased father.’[2] This is illustrated through a comparison between the first and final scenes of The Darjeeling Limited. He thus eventually represents an abandonment of Anderson’s usual patriarchal characters when the Whitman brothers abandon their father’s suitcases on another train platform. Peter Whitman must abandon the influence of his own father in order to become one himself, his wife due to give birth to a son.

 

Anderson’s focus on fatherhood should thus not be overlooked when discussing his films as it often plays a vital role. While his visual style is one of the main draws of his films, Anderson’s narratives are capable of being deeply effective, owed in part to the attention he draws to fathers and their complexity17.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Kunze, Peter C. (ed.), The Films of Wes Anderson: Critical Essays on an Indiewood Icon, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

 

Gooch, Joshua, ‘Objects/Desire/Oedipus: Wes Anderson as Late-Capitalist Auteur’, in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, pp. 181-199.

 

Wilkins, Kim, ‘Cast of Characters: Wes Anderson and Pure Cinematic Characterisation’, in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, pp. 25-39.

 

 

Filmography

 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Dir. Wes Anderson, Prod. Touchstone Pictures

American Empirical Pictures, (2004).

 

Rushmore. Dir. Anderson, Prod. Touchstone Pictures, American Empirical Pictures, (1998).

 

Moonrise Kingdom. Dir. Anderson, Prod. American Empirical Pictures, Indian Paintbrush, (2012).

 

The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Anderson, Prod. Touchstone Pictures, American Empirical Pictures, (2001)

 

The Darjeeling Limited. Dir. Anderson, Prod. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Collage Cinematographique, American Empirical Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Cine Mosaic, Indian Paintbrush, Scott Rudin Productions, (2007)

[1] Joshua Gooch, ‘Objects/Desire/Oedipus: Wes Anderson as Late-Capitalist Auteur’, in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, pp.181, 183

[2] Kim Wilkins, ‘Cast of characters: Wes Anderson and Pure Cinematic Characterisation,’ in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, p. 33.

Jim Thorpe — All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951)

jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe — All American is one of three films Burt Lancaster did in the 1950s that explored discrimination against native peoples in the US and that in their modest way pushed the boundaries of representation in American popular culture. Apache (Richard Aldrich, 1954) and The Unforgiven (John Huston, made in 59 but released in 1960) are the others. ‘When white man lick Indian, he win battle’, one of Thorpe’s room-mates tells him, ‘Indian lick white man – ‘massacre’. The film’s very title harks back to Knute Rockne — All American (Lloyd Bacon, 1940), and the discrimination of native peoples, who should be equal by law, is the overt theme of the film, as indicated from the very first with Burt Lancaster’s star entrance (below):

 

Burt-star-entrance-Jim-Thorpe

The film is a sports biopic of Jim Thorpe, an Algonquin from Oklahoma Territory who went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to keep a promise to his father. With the help of football coach Glen Scobey (“Pop”) Warner (Charles Bickford), Thorpe, whose native name is ‘Bright Path’, became one of the legendary athletes of the day, excelling in football, baseball and track, for which he won several medals at the Olympics. He was stripped of those medals for having played baseball ‘professionally’ during the summer, although he barely made enough to cover food and rent whilst playing, underlining the class underpinnings of ‘amateur.’ He recovers professionally, overcoming the debacle with the medals and racial discrimination, only to be brought low once more by the death of his only son and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage. Near the end of the film we see him in full cigar-store Indian drag, desultorily mc-ing a  dance marathon in 1930. Burton is great at expressing a deadness in the eyes that speaks of struggles to maintain dignity in the face of alienation and humiliation.

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 07.10.21

 

Curtiz symbolises the break-up of Jim Thorpe’s marriage via the bed, and Burt, star that he is, manages to find the pin-lights with his eyes before collapsing in grief:

burt-finds-pinlights

Alex K. Rode, Cutiz’ biographer writes that ‘The picture received generally positive reviews and grossed nearly a million dollars over its cost. Jim Thorpe — All American was characteristic of Curtiz’ postwar Warner films: a well-made, profitable picture that quickly faded from the public’s memory’.

Curtiz was the top director at Warners in the classic period for a reason. The integration of stock footage into the banquet scenes that bookend the film and in the Olympics sequence are seamlessly integrated, and must have considerably cut down on the film’s budget. The editing of the sports sequence, often in mid-motion to give flow to Lancaster’s movement and whoever doubled for him, is also very fine. It has some lovely bits, such as here below with Burt, Phyllis Thaxter and the baby.

burt-with-baby-swoon

The more emotional moments are in striking expressionist shadows that are very characteristic of the ‘shadow’ pay one sees throughout Curtiz’ oeuvre.

Screenshot 2020-05-03 at 15.15.48

 

…and the compositions, superbly filmed by Ernest Haller, are original and striking:

 

In spite of all the above, the film also feels emotionally crude, pat, everything beautifully directed as to image and pacing but lacking in depth, understanding or delicacy. It vividly conveys the outline of feeling, but it always feels like it’s walloping the main point at the expense of the subtler, more complex, more contradictory dimensions of character and story. Burt Lancaster, who’s never given the credit he deserves, is superb.

 

José Arroyo

Jingyi Zhang on Parasite

Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about Parasite: a  video essay which succeeds in showing how camera movement and the recurrence of strongly symbolic images are deployed to demonstrate distinctions between classes in Bong Joon Ho´s Parasite. 

 

The Revelry in the Basement: Bong Joonho’s Parasite and Class discussion in films

 

With an explicit use of camera language and recurrence of strongly symbolic images, Bong has made a clear distinction between the two classes. I want to examine closely at the oriented camera angles, distinct lighting for each layer of space, meticulous design of spaces (with a reference to Bong’s previously internationally-well-known work, Snowpiercer, which has divided classes into three horizontal layers, while Parasite does the same thing vertically.)[1], and how people’s movements and interactions are limited and altered in the closed environments, leading to a discussion about the borderline between the classes, which Bong refers as smells.

Clothes, language and environment etc. are some of the more commonly used referents to iconographically denote class in film[2], since smell is a more abstract sense that cannot go through the screen for people to feel, but, in Parasite, Bong consistently brings up the discussion about smell, as a referent of the insuperable gap between the classes, and eventually, what triggers the poor to murder the rich is the simple action of the rich covering up the nose. What is the smell of the poor essentially? Are the characters aware of the smell because there is truly a smell of the damp semi-basement and the crowded subway, or their natural instincts and psychological suggestions imply so? There is more to question about.

While Snowpiercer has a more romanticized ending that a dystopia film could possibly have, in which the extremity of class struggle takes place on a train, isolated from reality, and ends with a destruction of orders, Bong pursues a more realistic and neutral approach in Parasite. Bong himself has described Parasite as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.” The name of the film, Parasite, also indicates a more mutualistic and symbiotic relationship between the two classes, rather than an absolute predominance of one over another. There is no overthrow or elimination of any class reached upon the denouement, because the fact of class solidification remains, not just in the film, but as a continuation into the actual social status in South Korea.

Bong uses many class-specified actions to make the audience sympathetic towards the destitute Kim family: Mrs. Kim(Jang Hye-jin) folds pizza boxes for a living; Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho) , unemployed; their daughter and son cannot afford going to university despite their intelligence; the tramp pees outside their window; the whole family scrambles around the house to find perfect spots to steal Wifi from their neighbors. It seems like the extreme of ignominy, but also the truest and simplest living condition a family in the lower class could possibly have. However, the audience are also unable to stand in total opposition to the wealthy Park family as the poor continuously take advantage of the rich’s innocence and their reliance on nepotistic relationship.

Some critics have described South Korea as a capitalist country in economy, a socialist country in social structure, and a communist country in mindsets, which might provide an explanation to the existence of the third class like the housekeeper of the rich, Moon-gwang (played by Lee Jung-eun), who has stayed in the luxurious villa even before the Park family moves in.[3] She is also the housekeeper of the previous owner, a famous architect. She stays in the house and accompanies the rich long enough to gain an illusion that she also belongs to the upper class, but her husband trapped in the basement continuously reminds her of the poverty and darkness. The sense of in-betweenness might be a more relatable feeling for most of the modern Koreans. Up until 2017, over 860000 people were still living in semi-basements in urban areas. They enjoy a little bit of sunshine from the small windows, but they also suffer from inundation when a storm comes. Shoplifters by Hirokazu Koreeda and Burning by Lee Chang-dong are usually being brought up in discussion with Parasite.[4] As the only few of the internationally recognized Asian films in recent years, these three have a realistic touch on the marginalized group without exception, and the issue of social solidification never seems to be resolved in any of them.

The film’s first significant climax takes place when the Kim eventually occupy the house for a hilarity when the Park are away, which I found an amazing resemblance in Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, in which the beggars also makes the house a mess when Viridiana and Jorge are absent. The social phenomenon of class solidification also seems to osculate in the two cross-time films, both winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Buñuel’s rather aggressive perspective towards the upper class was due to an almost authoritarian control of the church in 1960s Europe.

It seems to be a mutual false fantasy of the poor to enjoy the transient indulgence, and it generates a sharp contract with the birthday party of the Park’s little son in the latter part of Parasite. The rich always try to remain a superficial elegance, while the lower class often do their utmost to threaten and trample on each other if possible. They mock and despise the rich, because of their impuissance to break the boundary between classes, and they pry into each other’s secrets, and treat each other with malevolence.

Regarding a more general theme that the two films share, I’d like to cite Pam Cook’s idea of gendered power relations, not just within family structures, but in a broader context.[5] Maternal figures, although seem to be apotheosized or given a priority in a societal sense, ironically still being the vulnerable ones, and this is mainly due to their disadvantage in sexual relationship. Viridiana, although being introduced as a Mother Maria-like figure, trying to bring redemption to the homeless, becomes a victim, who is almost being raped by who she offers food and job, to indicate the collapse of religion.  Mrs. Park, as the hostess of the family, is almost in charge of everything, while her husband is absent from the kids’ education and daily life or the management of different housework, but when they are having sex on the couch, she begs Mr. Park to buy her drugs. Both female figures are innocent and powerless, and unable to take part in a bigger struggle.

Last but not least, Bong uses many symbolisms throughout the film, and they further serve the idea of class struggle. The smallest son of the Park family, Park Da-song, is the first to recognize the similar smells of the Kim family and the first to decipher the Morse code from underground, and such sensibility and consciousness are attributed to his experience as a boy scout, and such experience has made him almost obsessive with the Indian icons. Ostensibly, it is Bong’s salutation to his idol, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film, High and Low, in which a similar Cowboy and Indian’s game is played among the kids. Being put in the content of Parasite, it seems more like a metaphor of imperialism. The process of gradually replacing ‘the natives’ is similar to colonization, and in a broader sense, capitalism and class distinction that the upper-class advocates is a result of globalization.

The rock that Ki-woo’s rich friend gives him as a gift also changes from a meaningless decoration, to a symbol of luck, to a burden that reminds them about the poverty, to a threat to their own life and eventually becomes the weapon to kill, but what it essentially means is still a question I want to explore.

 

Bibliography

Bui, Hoai-Tran, Bong Joon-Ho Breaks Down That ‘Mission Impossible’ Scene in ‘Parasite’, https://www.slashfilm.com/parasite-scene-breakdown-bong-joon-ho/?fbclid=IwAR3S6o6ALxiVacDvlNCnRtc7tjtmLGhjKnh4k4t_FSa1IwRMfixs6k8U1Jk

Chen, Brian X., ‘Parasite’ and South Korea’s Income Gap: Call It Dirt Spoon Cinema, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/movies/parasite-movie-south-korea.html?module=inline

Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 1985

Hayward, Susan, Class, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2017), p.85-87

Lovelace, Grace, ‘Parasite’ Is ‘Snowpiercer’ For Families Across The Economic Divide, https://www.romper.com/p/parasite-is-snowpiercer-for-families-across-the-economic-divide-19198994

O’Falt, Chris, Building the ‘Parasite’ House: How Bong Joon Ho and His Team Made the Year’s Best Set, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/parasite-house-set-design-bong-joon-ho-1202185829/

Seong-kon, Kim, Is Korea a capitalist country? http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141118001115

 

Filmography

Snowpiercer. Dir. Bong Joonho. South Korea. 2013

Parasite. Dir. Bong Joonho. South Korea. 2019

Viridiana. Dir. Luis Buñuel. Spain, Mexico. 1961

Shoplifters. Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda. Japan. 2018

Burning. Dir. Lee Chang-dong. South Korea. 2018

High and Low. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Japan. 1963

[1] Chris O’Falt, Building the ‘Parasite’ House: How Bong Joon Ho and His Team Made the Year’s Best Set, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/parasite-house-set-design-bong-joon-ho-1202185829/

[2] Susan Hayward, Class, Cinema Studies : the Key Concepts(2017), p.85

[3]Kim Seong-kon, Is Korea a capitalist country? http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20141118001115

[4] Brian X. Chen, ‘Parasite’ and South Korea’s Income Gap: Call It Dirt Spoon Cinema, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/movies/parasite-movie-south-korea.html?module=inline

[5] Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 1985

https://vimeo.com/user70827005/review/414425105/437624ba98

A note and gif on The Scalphunters (Sidney Pollack, 1968)

The Scalphunters

 

The Scalphunters is anti-racist Western directed by Sidney Pollack. Burt Lancaster is the trapper whose furs, a whole winter’s work, get stolen first by Apaches, then by a gang of scalphunters led by Telly Savallas. Ossie Davis is the runaway house-slave hoping to get to Mexico and freedom. They have great chemistry and are very funny together. The film begins with Burt rescuing Ossie but planning to sell him, to them after a fight, encased in a mud that metaphorically erases their colour differences, sharing a horse and continuing in their quest to get the furs back. Shelley Winters plays the Western equivalent of a gangster’s moll, a completely stereotypical part, and is rather miraculous with it: nothing has dated about her performance except her hairdo. This gif, your daily Burt, is from near the end of the film:

 

Burt-and-Ossie