Monday, October 29, 2012

Brian De Palma at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 2000’s

Since Brian de Palma’s Passion premiered last month there has been a lot of talk about the filmmaker: Jim Hoberman praises him in his review of Passion (“De Palma’s movie is a playful, shamelessly manipulative movie about shameless manipulation — not least of cinematic forms.”), John Semley profiled the director in the National Post, and Daniel Kasman has a lengthy interview with De Palma at Mubi. I would also add that there was a lengthy reassessment of Redacted over at Elusive Lucidity.

There is also the new book Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible – one of the year’s best film books, along with Hoberman’s Film After Film – where Chris Dumas provides a historical summary of how De Palma’s films have been received in the American mainstream press. By summarizing key, and representative reviews and other relevant sources - most of them accusatory of sexism and exploitative violence – Dumas through a great feat of argumentation, finds faults in their claims, offering alternative readings, and through this lengthy self-dialogue - where he also pits De Palma in opposition to Hitchcock and Godard - the book elevates De Palma to the status of a major filmmaker whose films deserve to be reevaluated.

De Palma is usually brought up in relation to Cahiers du Cinéma, where the main reference point being how Carlito’s Way was voted to be the number one film of the 90’s. But little is actually written about what their critics have actually written in their reviews of De Palma’s films and what they have to say about the auteur himself.

I recently translated a round-table Douchet décortique De Palma from 1981, which I posited as the defining embrace of the filmmaker at the magazine. I’m also planning on publishing their review of Mission: Impossible. But for now, the following is an attempt to summarize their reviews of De Palma’s films from the 2000 years: Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006), Redacted (2007), and the most recent Passion (2012).

For the sake of clarity and to not spend too much time translating easily available synopsis, I will only highlight and translate what I think to be the key points from the French reviews and essays.
Mission to Mars, de Brian De Palma (Cahiers, May 2000, N.546), w/ an interview by Cédric Anger with De Palma, Stéphane Delorme reviews the film, Mission to Venus; and Emmanuel Burdeau discusses the body in De Palma’s films, L’intouchable.

Delorme’s review Mission to Venus brings up a lot of significant points and the following are translations of them, with further comments to contextualize them within the review and to better understand the film. 

“Because with De Palma everything is revealed in the first scene,” for Delorme this virtuoso long-take that opens up Mission to Mars is important for how it introduces the viewer to most of the astronauts that will go off to mars. But what is also important is how the scene itself excludes two members of the crew. In this group where no one is left behind there is actually two people that are missing: Jim McConnell, who shows up late, and his dead wife, who worked with the group to undertake this project. Which leads Delorme to the claim that for De Palma, “a scene is only as important as what it leaves out.” De Palma's images, and images in general, not only mentent (Godard: “pas une image juste, mais juste une image”) but they also manque: “If his cinema is bouleversant and not only virtuosic and critical, its because they show an empty place in the scene and that this place (that of death) rests empty.”

By addressing how images lie and what they hide, De Palma is addressing the question of visibility. “In Mission to Mars, what is lacking for De Palma, is a body. And that body is a feminine one. The movie that comes closes to this one finally is Obsession (and its model Vertigo), the woman isn’t there and it is this longing that decides the path of its male protagonist.” Its also like a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with the naïve ideology of Cameron’s Abyss.

“There is only one major event in life: that is of seeing the person one loves die.” And for the Depalmian hero, “he caries this death on his back, that of the woman that he loved; because he’s responsible for the death (The Fury), because he saw her die (Mission to Mars), or the two together (the hospital scene in Raising Cain).”

In Mission to Mars, when Terri turns away from her husband Blake, who was just petrified in space, “In this instant where Terri is obliged to advert her eyes, and leave her husband: turning her back on him to rejoin the world of the living. In front of this wrenching moment where Orpheus is rejoining us: how could anyone reduce De Palma to a virtuoso formalist?”
Mission: Impossible, “no doubt the most important American film of the nineties, the malediction of touching takes on these delirious and genial dimensions.” Burdeau expands, from L’intouchable,“Mission: Impossible (and afterwards with Mission to Mars) shows the dimension of profound tenderness of De Palma’s gaze (beyond any kind of voyeurism), with sight and sound (De Palma never forgot the lessons of Blow Out). These are bodies that are prolonged and excited stubbornly towards their exterior.” For Burdeau, “Since the beginning De Palma wanted a body that was beyond blood, flesh and vomit. The untouchable: which isn’t touched or touches. The nightmare of skin, synonymous with the death of the astronaut once he removes his helmet, isn’t born from Mission to Mars.” Burdeau continues, “What Mission to Mars realizes, and which was already there in Mission: Impossible (less so in Snake Eyes), it’s this rapport between people, between two bodies, that of two faces looking at one another, but which can no longer distinguish the form. At the heart of the matter is the relation images have to other images. The body as a mannerist object that is cracked and mistreated and scattered to the four corners of the films frame… but which gets reconstructed. It’s like that the image itself gets reconstituted. And, “The pleasure that is derived from his cinema has always been tied to the cycle of memorials and ruins, alternating from high and low altitudes, connected to a fanfare beginning (the bravura opening sequences), an average “heart of the film”, which plainly halts, and a finale that is designed piece by piece, stone by stone, like a building or a cathedral.”

Burdeau concludes: “The humanization and incorporation of the image, with it’s new proximity to man, is without a doubt the most decisive thing that’s going on today in American cinema […] science-fiction, progressively, is becoming the major genre of American cinema, to the detriment of action films, which is too attached to spaces and its laws, the cities and its walls. […] The most important filmmakers (De Palma, Ferrara) are trying to go beyond this simple distinction between a cinéma du corps, which is something that is warm, concrete, open to surges of uncontrollable desires; with a cinéma des images, which is something that is cold, abstract, produced by intelligence and destined to prioritize itself, and is a tomb: there is an erasure by way of an enchantment.”
Femme Fatale (Cahiers, May 2002, N.568), w/ an interview by Olivier Joyard and Jean-Marc Lalanne, Les vances de monsieur De Palma; there is Portrait: Rebecca Romijn-Ramos by Olivier Joyard (“In contemporary cinema, she’s the best at undressing: to slowly show her skin before taking it all off.”), and a review of Femme Fatale by Jean-Marc Lalanne, Histoire d’un oeil.

“More so than anything else, De Palma’s Femme Fatale is an optic drama, slowly laying out a series of episodes that have to do with gazes,” writes Lalanne. And on the opening long-take at Cannes, “in the time in which these magnificent scenes take place, we discover a humanity which has been blinded.” For Lalanne, what’s interesting about Femme Fatale, “It is in this faith of photography, where the missing scene – that of the redemption – is something a simple as sunlight, a ray of light that ricochets and transpierces the harmful character, and where the photographic trace leads to the finishing of him off.” Which leads Lalanne to conclude, “The image is a mirror and film is a purely reflexive material. The person who reflects: drowns.”
The Black Dahlia (Cahiers, Nov. 2006, N.617), w/ Hervé Aubron reviews The Black Dahlia, A plat.

“We would have preferred to have gone overboard, claim that Brian the master filmmaker is back. Except that this isn’t the case, at least for now – and it seems like it’s been a while,” writes Aubron, “though it should be said that Dahlia is perfectly equipped to delight the dialectician cinephiles that always prefer their films to be malade to “good”.” On Liz’s corpse: “De Palma seems apparently indifferent […] and when we find it, it’s in the background - hard to distinguish behind all of the cries and gestures. De Palma is already elsewhere.”

Aubron’s conclusion is great and poetic and I don’t think that I could do it justice, so here it is in French: “Engagé dans les terres arides du work in progress, le vieux rhinocéros met à bas son trésor et s’expose bravement à la traversée du dérsert: adieu orchidées capiteuses, riches bouquets du maniérisme, je m’ennuie à vous bouturer, je pars à la recherche de nouvelles oasis, avec juste un dahlia séché à mâchonner.”
Redacted. De Palma en Irak: la colère des images (Cahiers,  Feb. '08, N.631) w/ Événement Redacted: a review of Redacted, Les images sont là, and an interview with De Palma, both by Emmanuel Burdeau; Jean-Philippe Tessé's brings up the YouTube videos that seem to be the inspirations for the movie; and there are three other essays: Farce attaque by Stéphane Delorme, L’image de la fin by Hervé Aubron, and Cinema de conflit by Eugenio Renzi.

“This is exactly what Brian de Palma has done: he has just realized in digital, and with little known actors, a fabulous anti-war film where all of the images have a second-hand quality to them,” writes Burdeau. And on the use of digital video in Redacted, “It now needs to be said, unless it will never: Redacted marks the end of a rhetoric and the beginning of a new one […] We will no longer be searching for images under other images, instead we will be captures them in motion as they are presenting themselves to us […] Cinema is now secondary in how images are put together: what it does is it organizes how they are distributed, except that none of them belong to it.”

For Burdeau, what De Palma does with images is really important: “With this film, De Palma penetrates the domain of pure images: barely created, and already seen; barely gone, already worn out.”

Burdeau concludes: “De Palma achieves what is a great voyage. He has finally found what so many of his films have been searching for: these “zero-degrees images” that are beyond any suspicion, which are made by nobody in particular and everybody, seen by nobody and the whole world. He should feel joyous and a little terrified with what he has created. Immediate, perfect, and without any destination: the cinema that he has created with Redacted resolves all of his past’s ambiguities. This work of pyrotechnics is awe-inspiring and stuns.”
Redacted is surely the film our era,” writes Delorme in Farce attaque,Redacted hits hard. It’s a charge. And its principal weapon? Farce.” Delorme continues, “We are finished with the kind of criticism that come from “good intentions” (the fictions from the left about Irak), we are finished with popular ironic spectacles (Starship Troopers): farce destroys everything in its path.” And for De Palma, “Irak is the bad remake of the Vietnam war, more so than the Gulf war.”

In front of De Palma’s cinema, and which makes it terribly important, the spectator has only one choice: that of courage. Because, according to Delorme, “the moral question for De Palma is never the simple: “Would you have done this?” but: “What would you have done when this is what’s really going on?” What would you have done if you had to bear witness?” and there’s finally only two ways to classify the filmmakers who think about this ethical question: those that take it up through courage and that see evil as a flaw (De Palma, Lynch, Ferrara) and those that see in the wrong a temptation, an ambiguity, which is closer to something fatal. De Palma is clean, he doesn’t fog his vision, and his film is as clear as water from a spring. Only with a real blindness could one believe that all of these images are equal and that non show truths; they escape the cynicism which is so in abundance in this spectacle that we are living in.”
Passion (Cahiers, Oct. ’12, N.682) w/ Venise à deux vitesses, Stéphanne Delorme and Jean-Philippe Tessé bring up Passion in their La Mostra coverage.

“One of the most intense pleasures of the festival,” writes Delorme and Tessé about Passion, “which sometimes reaches the self-referential; it deals with a multiplicity of ideas, forms, and identities." And, "It’s drenched in memories of Femme Fatale, Body Double and Dressed to Kill, which gives immense pleasure for those that admire De Palma.” 

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Fakery of Brian de Palma: Truth Hinging Upon the Absurd

This is an edited version of my speech from this month’s edition of  the Toronto lecture series What We Talk About. Each month, three speakers are selected to talk about one theme, this month's being "fakes." The last event in this year's series is about Nemeses and will take place on Monday, November 5th.  – D.D.

What exactly does the word "fake" mean? The Merriam Webster defines fake as “a worthless imitation passed off as genuine,” and proposing synonyms like imposter and charlatan. These are the kind of adjectives that are often used to describe the American filmmaker Brian de Palma. Which makes him a great subject to discuss at length in this edition of What We Talk About When We Talk About "Fakes".

Before I go on and talk about De Palma and his relation to "fakes", let me give you some basic biographical information about him, which is relevant to better understand his films: he was born in Newark in 1940, and when he was young he excelled in his studies, especially in his science classes. His childhood was apparently traumatic: his father was a surgeon, and would take him to watch bloody operations. And his father was also philanderer, and after a young Brian caught him cheating (by spying on him and taking a picture), his parents would divorce. His mother, who used to be an opera singer, suffered from depression. His two older brothers, who were extremely bright, would get all of her attention, and she would ignore him making him feeling sad and lonely. De Palma would later on make a film Home Movies (1980), which would express a lot of his angry feelings towards his family.

De Palma’s most famous films are: Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Snake Eyes (1998). Though for cinephiles his cult reputation rests more so on Hi, Mom! (1970), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992), Femme Fatale (2002), Redacted (2007), and the more recent Passion (2012).

Of all the New Hollywood directors to emerge in the seventies – like Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Atlman, Friedkin, Coppola &c. – de Palma’s reputation might just be most disreputable. In his films people are drilled, slashed and chain-sawed, women undress, touch themselves, are in porn and so on. But nonetheless there is something really interesting which is going on in them, and which might be intrinsically linked to why their so disreputable.

But before I go on, how and why is de Palma a fake? The classic argument, via Andrew Sarris versus Pauline Kael, is that De Palma is simply derivative of Hitchcock - a second-rate suspense director who encapsulates the Regan era zeitgeist of style-over-substance. (Kael, otherwise, would argue, "He goes past Hitchcock's perversity into something gleefully kinky.") .

I would also argue that De Palma makes explicit what Hitchcock could only show implicitly due to the censorship of the Hays Code. If one looks at some of the pre-production stills from Hitchcock un-realized Kaleidoscope, which is about a necrophiliac serial killer in New York, it includes some of his most sexual and violent imagery: naked women, nudes in a park, bloody murders and so on. It is this Hitchcock and in this sickness, which De Palma would take to in extreme position in his films starting with Dressed to Kill.

So, yes, there are definitively elements of Hitchcock in his films, just as there are elements of Godard, Bunuel, Antonioni, Welles and Eisenstein - and he would probably be the first to admit it. But is De Palma's films just a matter of copy-and-pasting elements from the classics? Is he really no more than an avant-la-lettre Quentin Tarantino, picking-and-choosing what’s "cool" about the movies from the past and then trying to incorporate them in his own films? Is De Palma on a rampage that consists of constantly remaking Rear Window, Psycho and Vertigo over and over and over again?

Not only do his images seem rehashed, there is a lot in the stories themselves that are false. For example there are the three friends that exaggerate to try to avoid the Vietnam war draft in Greetings, the peeping-tom/activist who puts on a professional smile and pretends to be a bourgeois in Hi, Mom!, the fake movie-within-a-movie in Body Double, the “supposed” deaths in Wise Guys, the room which turns out to be a set and all of the masks in Mission: Impossible, the heist which turns out to be a ruse to betray Carlito in Carlito’s Way, the dream story of Femme Fatale, the fake friendship in Passion, and in Casualties of War when the Vietnamese woman who was raped and murdered, reappears - a la Vertigo - to give the soldier Erikkson some sort of closure: she does it wearing a fake prosthetic nose!

De Palma has also gone to do remakes of other films - official and not - and he has also gone to do remakes of some of his own films! His official remakes include Scarface being a loose remake of the old Howard Hawks film, The Untouchables as a re-boot of the old television show by the same name, Phantom of the Paradise is a psychedelic musical adaptation of Goethe's Faust, there is Dionysus in '69 which is a recording of a The Performance Group stage play, and Passion is a very close remake of Alain Corneau's Crime d'Amour. While the remakes of his own films and of certain key scenes includes the motif of voyeurism, which is that of a man looking from his room into the apartments across from him; which begins in Hi, Mom! and will re-appear in Body Double. There is the story of a lost lover who is haunting a man, which you can see in Obsession, Blow Out, Casualties of War, and Mission to Mars. And the only real difference between Casualties of War and Redacted is one is set in Vietnam while the other one takes place in Iraq.

It's relevant here to bring up a great new book on the director: Chris Dumas’ Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible (Intellect, 2012), which does more to argue for De Palma's place as a major filmmaker than anything that has come before it. One of his key points is in regards to De Palma’s attempt early on in his career to go from New York to Hollywood to make a “Hollywood” film, Get to Know Your Rabbit. Dumas thesis regarding it, is such, “his expulsion from Get to Know Your Rabbit is the traumatic moment at the core of the De Palma’s narrative, and everything that he does, every film he makes after this point […] will in some way refer back to this moment as a defining failure, a prima scene that must be endlessly replayed and that forms the horizon of what it is possible to represent.” From Get To Know Your Rabbit onward, Dumas argues, that De Palma pushes the limits in terms of peoples (i.e. the audience, critics) expectations of him. You want a Hitchcock film? Well here’s Dressed to Kill! You want gore? Well here’s Scarface! You want pornography? Well here’s Body Double!

What are we meant to take seriously in all of this? Dumas posits, is that, “we should take seriously the process by which we decide what to take seriously.”

It is relevant to bring up the political realities of the time to better understand De Palma’s movies. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November of 1963 is important – as political assassinations have appeared in a few of his films (Blow Out, Snake Eyes). Not only is the event itself important, but also how it is dealt with in the media, and what is the etiquette of filming after such an event. The Vietnam War is also very important (De Palma himself never went). You can get a stronger sense of this in De Palma’s early, Robert Kramer-like films.

The leftist historian Howard Zinn in his great book The Peoples History of The United States, writes about the eighties in terms of how, "Regan's victory, followed eight years later by the election of George Bush ('89), meant that another part of the Establishment, lacking even the faint liberalism of the Carter presidency, would be in charge. The policies would be more crass - cutting benefits to poor people, lowering taxes for the wealthy, increasing military budgets, filling the federal court system with conservative judges." While Dumas contextualizes the times and De Palma within the “the aspirations of the New Left and the continually evolving struggle for women’s rights.”

These historical factors provide the spirit of the times that flowed through and around De Palma’s films. And De Palma addresses them in a variety of ways: by being critical, ironic, cynical, satirical and so on. De Palma’s current marginality – his films are not huge commercial successes, and he isn’t a household name like Spielberg or Cameron – might be due to taking an unpopular stance towards a lot of these subjects (one just thinks of the anti-military message in Snake Eyes).

Perhaps this is why in the early twenty-first century his films seem as relevant as ever, which might just prove that he was ahead of his times. His all-seeing eye – like the camera in Snake Eyes, which photographed the true murder -, which watches all, is one of a critical position and skepticism. There is also a Brechtian quality to his images in that they heighten the viewer’s awareness that they are watching a movie, which also makes one more skeptical of what their seeing. For example, it is no coincidence that the second half of Body Double takes place in the porn industry: it’s actually a prescient signifier showing the viewer that images have become pornographized, and if one wants to move forward, one must acknowledge them as such.

But before I conclude I want to bring up the author David Foster Walace, and his important essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (1993), where in it he analyses television’s role in developing the mind-frame of post-50’s American writers. Foster Wallace brings up issues of medium-specificity, “what should literature be today?”, as well as tonal questions, “the nexus where television and fiction converse and consort is self-conscious irony.”

Though, the two points that I want to discuss in regards to De Palma is the idea of image-fiction, and what is the role of social protest in the arts. Foster Wallace describes the concept of image-fiction as, “The fiction of image is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose sort of accountability on a state of affairs.” And in response to television’s commercialization, Foster Wallace posits possible solution for creating works of social protest and that they are: 1) the one obvious option is for the fiction writer to become reactionary, fundamentalist; 2) adopt a somewhat more enlightened political conservatism that exempts the viewer and networks alike from any complicity in the bitter stasis of televisual culture; 3) finding a way to incorporate television’s pleasurable qualities into a work that tries to do something more meaningful.

These points illustrate the difficulty and complexity of the creative process after the televisual, and that one must position one-self within these positions. The current realities have multiplied a ten-fold, now in the second decade of the twenty-first century; when our culture seems addicted to new media and social-networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, iPhones and so on. One can no longer create and still be naïve about such matters. Though there are problems with this telemorphosis, which is going on, there are redeeming qualities to it. But I shouldn’t verge too off-topic.

Now when most of De Palma’s films are easily rentable, and that there is a democratization of film criticism– we no longer need the seal of approval from the gate-keepers of good taste - De Palma’s film have slowly found their champions and are being defended. The works themselves have outlasted the ideological battles of their initial release and stand on their own for their originality, audacity, and relevancy.

And if they offer a cynical viewpoint, it might have to something to do with the dark, and awkward times that we are living in. Dumas conclusion, which seems especially relevant, is that “in the end, there is nothing but the knowledge that one could have done better, but did not – and that, regardless of one’s success or failure in producing justice, the spectator will also fail.”  The reoccurring theme of De Palma’s films is that of a character who sees and is powerless to act in front of a bad situation. Watching is very unsettling. Which is something that is also very Hitchcockian.

Monday, October 15, 2012

But do you like him enough? (Brian De Palma, early on at Cahiers du Cinéma)

"Unlike Positif, Cahiers du Cinéma was a review by, about, and for the young. It is strange today to see the review attacked for being recondite, intellectual, and boring" writes Jean Douchet (French New Wave). While Serge Daney would probably add “There’s a great deaf dialogue between the U.S. and France concerning what’s good in American films. Cahiers has always defended the products which Hollywood wasn’t too proud of.” These two comments seem like a good place to start a discussion of Cahiers' relationship with the controversial filmmaker Brian de Palma.

When Cahiers returned to the format of a film-magazine, instead of being a political-activism journal, it needed to redefine its line of inquiry and find new directors that spoke through the gestes du cinéma. At first they were somewhat ambivalent towards de Palma. For example, in their first review of one of his films Bernard Boland writes about The Fury (April ’79, N.299): “Brian De Palma, one of the most energetic contemporary filmmakers, gifted at showing us the world of youth, with The Fury has become pessimistic about the future of our society.” This dismissive conclusion - Boland writes that the film has a "bad ending," too - would be a low point for de Palma at Cahiers before he would become one of their most defended filmmakers.

The following round-table, Douchet décortique De Palma (N.326), was the catalyst to take de Palma seriously at the magazine, which would last to the present day. This round-table, Douchet décortique, appeared in the newly inaugurated Le Journal des Cahiers du Cinema [the first one is from Jan. ’80 (N.312), and which goal was to “write journalism that corresponded to what’s actually going on.”], and it's place in the history of the magazine is important as the article would be brought up, and is most likely the reason for, how in their subsequent Made in USA issue (April ’82, N.334-335) Brian de Palma would be interviewed at length by Serge Daney and Jonathan Rosenbaum. 

As Daney would say, "il faux rester fidèle au visage de ce qui nous a un jour transi." In that case,  Douchet décortique is the Badiouian event that the magazine would remain loyal too.
Douchet décortique De Palma (Cahiers, July-August 1981, N.326)

22, April 1981. During the thirtieth anniversary of Cahiers and in front of a huge cake which is decorated like a scene from Rear Window, Jean Douchet, an old writer from the Cahiers Jaune days and current, attentive reader shares with us something that has been bothering him: do we like Brian de Palma enough? Have we seen Dressed to Kill? In light of this we have put together this round-table to talk more about him.

S.Daney: During the Cahiers party, you told us: Cahiers, it’s great and all, but you risk missing out on somewhere that I personally like a lot, and that’s Brian de Palma. Especially his latest film, Dressed to Kill. This sparked our interest, so Pascal and I went to go see this movie and evidently there is a lot to say. But before we go on, we would like that you go ahead and tell us what you like and think is important about it.
Jean Douchet: Brian de Palma isn’t someone that I know well. I was told that Phantom of the Paradise wasn’t that good, but by chance I went to go see The Fury for a review for the radio. I was stupefied by The Fury, so I went to go see some of his other movies. And I found them to be all fascinating, if only for how they literally rework Hitchcock, just like how Hitchcock would rework Lang's set-ups. This talent interested me to a great extent. So I then went to go see Dressed to Kill. Afterwards, I was equally intrigued by seeing so many bad reviews of the film just about everywhere: it isn’t possible that a film as evidently great as this one is so unanimously attacked. This is why I brought it up to you at the (memorable) Cahiers party.
P.Bonitzer: When you were telling us this, we could not help but think: well in that case, here goes! Because this is a worry for us, that of being cold about certain films, and on the contrary, that of overvaluing others that don’t deserve it. We totally agree with you about his capabilities, the virtuosity and reworking of an auteur like Hitchcock: it’s something that makes Brian de Palma especially singular and salient.
Jean Douchet: The citation-quality of his work is clear. In Dressed to Kill, the museum scene is right out of the museum and cemetery scene in Vertigo, and the whole film is based off of Psycho etc. Just like how Hitchcock presupposes a “Hitchcockian” audience, de Palma presupposes an audience that perfectly understands Hitchcock. Even deeper than this, what interests me about De Palma is how he works on the image. To only say it once – and which makes him a modern filmmaker – de Palma knows that the image is no longer pure. In the same way that he shows us this young girl who looks like a virgin just to brutally change our perception of her by showing her as a prostitute. Nobody is no longer that pure, especially the image. He will then show how corrupted images have gotten:  by showing us whole-heartedly what is “clean”, the normal American, this absolute desire for cleanliness will lead to the worst explosions of messiness and chaos. To use Hitchcock as a visual reference, for me, is a very a fascinating operation. And when we watch the movie, we see how far that he takes it, that de Palma works on the image in a very technologically sophisticated way by using the binocular lenses for shots – which decomposes the image by breaking it into two. It is ground breaking work and de Palma, in this sense, is one of the most formally inventive, and the one who asks, though very differently, the questions asked by Godard: what exactly is an image? If they are totally false and untrue, how far can we even take them into that territory?
P.Bonitzer: Wasn’t it for the same reasons that people refused the films of Hitchcock who worked in a very similar way: that is, of new forms but with very classic stories?
Jean Douchet: Exactly. De Palma works on the image purely like that of an object of publicity. Today, creating images without acknowledging that publicity exist, would be totally false. His films have a publicity photograph look - they are very clean. But at the same time, they contain this idea that, while acknowledging this, images still do have an explosive quality and which is inevitable – the explosion. The more that they get codified, stereotyped, made to look like publicity; more trouble will brew under the surface until it explodes. Explosions happen, especially in The Fury.
S.Daney: What’s also impressive, in regards to the Hitchcock/de Palma affiliation is Angie Dickinson, whose practically unrecognizable, and who changes from one scene to the next. We start to finally wonder if she isn’t the real transsexual of the film because, as with Caine, what we see is pretty much a travesty. While in the scene that opens the film, in the shower, where we go in a one-shot from the actresses face to her naked body – in a style which wouldn’t even be thinkable without Hitchcock – is troubling because it’s a famous actresses, a mask, a fake body, someone full of sexual desire etc. This troubling quality isn’t there with Hitchcock, as in Psycho, to the contrary, the shower scene is filmed in very close-shots, and without any nudity. In that case, isn’t there this other dimension:  de Palma is analyzing Hitchcock and rendering explicit what Hitchcock could only do implicitly? And while he’s at it, making the attacks on us a whole a lot more grizzly.
Jean Douchet: Yes. But even there the film returns back to discomfort and angst. There is a side to de Palma where he endlessly analyses Hitchcock. And this is exactly what also makes him Buñuelian. We realize, as time goes by, that there is actually a lot in common between Buñuel and Hitchcock, two filmmakers that were contemporaries while psychoanalysis was being developed and who both admired one another. And the re-apparition at the end of the film, heightening the fiction, making it about the impossibility of endings, is more aligned with Buñuel.
S.Daney: The nightmare never stops, and the same thing can be said about analysis.
Jean Douchet: There’s still more to say, like that of the social being. The social criticism is also more explicit in de Palma than in Hitchcock.
P.Bonitzer: That’s true. By the way, de Palma isn’t the only one to be haunted by the spirit of Hitchcock. There are others who share many affinities with him, on a superficial level and more like parodies (Mel Brooks, for example) but de Palma has kept what has been really important in the work of the British Hitchcock: and that is of the presence – in its triviality and massiveness – of people as social beings. But for de Palma, his films are set in New York. This is a real affiliation to Hitchcock, in opposition to, for example, Polanski, who is basically an academic filmmaker, and who doesn’t have any real connection to Hitchcock, and who for him there isn’t this formal preoccupation like there is for de Palma – there isn’t this uneasiness that is manifested formally, which fluctuates between the image and its gaze. This is what makes the young student in the film so interesting: Hitchcock in the electronic era, will create these youth that are gifted at creating the optical apparatus which will create new effects and who will be able to create these new forms of “voyeurism.”
Jean Douchet: This character in the film is of even more interest as they are the ones who are explaining how de Palma asks himself these questions of optical construction, by way of even showing within the film these image-making apparatuses.
S.Daney: In regards to this, we especially liked the sequence in the asylum, this dive that introduces what at first belonged to Hitchcock, the anamophosis process. One way to put in place a gaze like this, in this case, by showing us a stupid crowd and a maniac - who are themselves voyeurs who are watching a porno. This is profoundly enfeebling for the public, and this is also profoundly Hithcockian.
Discussion between Jean Douchet, Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Daney.
For anyone interested, I will be giving a talk The Fakery of Brian de Palma: Truth Hinging Upon the Absurd on Sunday October 21st, 7:30PM at the Drake Underground, as part of the reading series, What We Talk About. – D.D.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Serge Daney: early Cahiers du Cinéma writing

Nous aurons été les dernier à vénéré Serge Daney…

There is a lot going on regarding the French film-critic Serge Daney: his life was recently celebrated by the Cinémathèque française with a series Serge Daney: 20 Ans Après. There was the publication by Edition P.O.L. of a new book of his collected writing: the third in the series La Maison cinéma et le monde - Les années Libé II (1986-1991). In Cahiers du Cinéma, where Daney played an important role as a writer between 1964 to 1981, - he left the monthly magazine, to have a more direct, daily relationship with his readers at Libération – the magazine ran a feature Hommage: Serge Daney (N.679). In a recent issue of Trafic (N.82), a journal that Daney co-founded, they published three essays by and/or about him: Marché de l’individu et disparition de l’experience by Serge Daney, a critique of publicity and television regarding the corruption of images; Appartions de Serge Daney by Pierre Eugène, which is a really clever essay – perhaps as reflexive as the En Couverture series over at Nightswimming – where Eugène takes the subject of so many Daney analysis, the image, and interrogates Daney’s manifestations on them (in documentaries, and such); and Serge Daney pour mémoire by Marcos Uzal, who describes an emotional and intellectual ciné-filitation that he has towards Daney, while also addressing this phenomenons larger social impact.

In the world of English-language film criticism, Daney is most readily associated with Jonathan Rosenbaum, who regularly brings up his old French friend (I’ve seen Jonathan talk twice on panels, and on both times he brought him up). It’s unfortunate that his only translated book, Postcards from the Cinema, is out-of-print. But to make up for the lack of official translations of his work, the internet has spoken: a few film-blogs – some of the best ones out there, in my opinion – have picked up the slack and their writers have taken up the role as unofficial Daney translators: these websites are Serge Daney in English, Steve Erickson’s website, Kino Slang, Diagonal Thoughts and My Gleanings.

Here is my attempt to contribute to this conversation: the following are my translations of Daney’s first three contributions to Cahiers, which I think are insightful to better understand the spirit of Cahiers and his legacy which lives on in the world of film-criticism.
Petit Journal du Cinema: Retrospective Donskoy (Cahiers, April 1964, N.154)

The cinema of Mark Donskoy - as it was revealed at the retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française - affects us by its singular love for life. This tenderness which affects, this attachment towards everything alive, this predilection for kids: this is what separates him from the truisms of Soviet cinema. Donskoy, likewise for any great director, wouldn't mean anything to us if his tenderness didn't arise from cruelty, the tragedy of the pursuit of happiness alongside the suffocation of life.

Because he believes in the fatality of life, Donskoy shows what restrains and suffocates. Existence, feverish and precarious, always menaced, which is seized by a look of incomprehension on a child's face, brings us closer to Griffith then any other Russian filmmaker. He has a way to portray growing up by showings its contradictions and what prevents it - doing the subject justice - in regards to: political constraints (Mother, 1955), describing a stifling world (the Gorky Trilogy, 1938-39) and the condemned (Thomas Gordejev, 1959), a village of martyrs (Rainbow, 1943), the tragic tales of separated lovers, the injustice of man (The Horse That Cried, 1958). A thematic link between the films, but especially a major preoccupation for the filmmaker: it's when something is lost or when it's being fought for that it's truly there: hence, joy.

The same intention presides in the films form. If the constraint prides blossoming, only with discontinuity will we find any equilibrium. This is an art that affects us by its modernity: founded on oppositions, with ruptures of tone, a complexity of construction, and all of this without even mentioning the music. The cineaste goes as far as punctuating his films with interior rhythms, of camera-movements that respond to no other necessity then to establish a network of musical correspondences (Mother). An art whose effect, goes through breaks and dissonance, where one note, one melody, can cause a fervor: the final triumph of life: ultimate cavalcade (How The Steel Was Tempered, 1942), the rain on the tracts in Mother, the liberating combat that finishes Rainbow.

If sometimes this approach works to the detriment of Donskoy, in the less good films, misery that leads to boredom, this shouldn't take away from the merits of the filmmaker, but only should prove that for him, like with all inspired cineastes, beauty only stems from what’s going on in addition, independent of formulas. It is then in between an elegy and cruelty, between The Horse That Cried and Rainbow, where we need to place Mark Donskoy. If it's true, according to the cineaste, one must hate before one can love. - S.D.
Petit Journal du Cinema: Sirk A Munich (Cahiers, June 1964, N.156)

After Imitation of Life we hardly ever heard from Douglas Sirk. What had happened to him? A long illness forced him to abandon two cinematographic projects, Lady X and Streets of Montmartre (about the life of d'Utrillo and Suzanne Valdon, supposedly starring Lana Turner). He then left Hollywood and the New World, to return to the Old World (Switzerland, where he would relax) but where he couldn't help returning to his first love: the theater. For Residenz-theater (the national theater) in Munich, his first mise-en-scène was Cyrano de Bergerac, which was unanimously praised by the critics (they spoke of a "literal opera of speeches"). Afterwards, he would take on Exit the King by Ionesco, in a version very faithful to the original text.

It's then under the green and pink sun in Munich, eating sausages with sauerkraut and drinking two giant beers, that we had a chance to assist one of these plays. Even though Sirk was still in recovery, he seemed absorbed in his work, with his eyes on the lookout, hiding in the shadows of the empty hall to better survey, then sliding out on the stage, to mime actions to the actors, demanding them to put more of themselves into their roles, pointing to the French text before stampeding off of the stage. The stage set is fantastique (it reminds us of the house in Written on the Wind) full of unreal purple tints; the actors (of reputation in Germany) that we certainly know in France, like Kurt Meisel (who has appeared on the screen numerous times, particularly good in A Time to Love and a Time to Die) brings to his role of the king his unsettling presence and conviction.

That Exit the King responds to specific Sirkian preoccupation is without a doubt: the mise-en-scène insists (and the play wonderfully lends itself) that there should be the the collapse of the palace, on the deterioration of the decor, that it be constricting and hostile all the way to the end, up until the king is literately dead, until it closes in on itself. We then understand the importance of this work for Sirk, a prolongation of his cinema oeuvre, and where he could finally emphasize a tragic dimension, that he couldn't put in his films (he confided this to us) due to commercial reasons. But, finally, he doesn't plan on giving it all up for the theatre, as Sirk confesses to us, Hollywood still attracts him: it's likely that he'll make Lady X, and certainly Streets of Montmartre, which seems to hold a strong place in his heart, with the first of these films for Universal, and the second for a smaller, less important company. But, especially, he hopes to film in Europe. - S.D. and J.-L. N.
Frank Tashlin's Who's Minding The Store? : Frank and Jerry (Cahiers, June 1964, N.156)

Because cruelty and dryness always arises - a recurring Tashlin thematic - it's appropriate to imagine him differently: while he betrays more than when he liberates. Lets talk less about America, and talk more about Tashlin. It's true that America is always the subject of his films. Even more so than that, they are its foundation: the cineaste needs to put back in place what he has seen, which is the condition for a new movie. Also, the last one in a series (and the best one in a while) isn't an exception to the rule: it's exemplary of its aim, rigorous in its manner, disturbing in what escapes it.

Tashlin was never tender when he looked upon an inhuman world; when he wanted to denounce artifice, he resorted - in all sincerity - to satire and caricature.  Between when he started his career to his days with animation, his detachment was thin and the ambiguity was immense: if the "American way of life" is a caricature of real life, as far as the genre of satire is concerned: both of them only exist in relation to something which is preexisting. In that case, Tashlin exist because of, and for, the monsters that he plans on destroying.

Because he goes to war with false arms, his successes are always conditional. This vision of a mechanical world where humanity is slowly devoured and overrun with quarrels about differences, and where a complicity (like the jaded world of the comics in Artists and Models) is no longer possible. Between the man and the machine, the inventor and the invention, the relations are no longer about submission but of uncertainty: when the machines win their freedom, the men loose their maturity. It is this relation that Tashlin pursues and highlights with an unflagging precision, which makes his cinema a cinema of cranks and wheels and where all that matters is social climbing.

Betrayed by his mise-en-scène, Tashlin falls prey to the traps of all mechanisms (similar, to the cause and effect laws of animation). And what happens to the systems? They crash and destroy themselves by the same rhythm and movements that make them up and which they assimilate. They have their own laws, which one can follow, and are a creation of the human spirit: but what is created by man can also be destroyed by man. And the only way out of this infernal cycle, which traps, would be then to specifically include the uncontrollable: life, itself. An anarchistic behavior, externalizing itself at each instant; in short, everything in Tashlin's oeuvre with Jerry Lewis.

The role and the importance of Jerry Lewis got stronger as the two of them evolved, which is now in parallel to one another. Between their own films and their reunions, like this one, we have reached a point where Lewis started to reign over Tashlin. The moment where the director gave the star carte blanche is also the one where he reached the limit of his art: life itself, in its most anarchistic form, can’t be created, just like you can’t really direct Jerry Lewis. This is what is achieved in this film.

Here, in the framework of a scenario that authorizes everything and excludes nothing (a superstore), the register is that of a joyous feeling: Tashlin disposes of his tools, Lewis drops the ball. When everything drops, this disorder is that of poetry and the fantastique. It is in all innocence that Lewis no longer recognizes the mechanism of a world where – despite himself – he can only provoke catastrophe. An object of curiosity (here, the whims of Jill St. John), he is embarrassed by a world where he reflects its faults (and also its strengths) - a humanity descended into mimicry, where grimaces reflect a scandalous fading of energy.

Unflappable and indestructible because he isn’t a creation, but an incarnation of nature, the force unleashed by Tashlin is to exercise his personal demons: the worry of the fate of being submissive and condemned. Therefore the only possible positive movement belongs to Tashlin and that is of being a destructor. This paradox is the best explication of Tashlin's drama which is that of being able to grasp man by certifying that there is a disappearing progression or by evoking animalistic and monsterous forms (Jerry Lewis).  Always by failing or exceeding his objectives (jaded episodes even in the warm films like Artists and Models), he is now closer to the object and closer to the animal, which forces Tashlin to show what really alienates man: what really makes him a caricature and an animated drawing.

With a bitterness and precision, this is the triumph of their latest film. All that is left is the purity of the drawing with its relentless movements, which precipitates each sequence towards its natural outburst. Behind this exasperation, what is also brought to light, is that it shows a worry that might admit to that sterility which exists (Charles MacGivern). This is what gives this light-hearted film it's grave tone. – Serge DANEY

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

That Jack Ford yells very loud, he’ll make a great director

How should one start a blog-post about John Ford? Mention some of the great actors and actresses that he’s worked with like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Maureen O'Hara? List many of his great films like The Informer, The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, When Willie Comes Marching Home, The Long Gray Home? Bring up how he made some of the most iconic Westerns like The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers, Sergeant Rutledge, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Bring up some of the seminal writing about him like Andrew Sarris’s entry in The American Cinema or his interview with Peter Bogdanovich?

Or try to describe why all of these old black-and-white films are as relevant as ever?

Today, in the early twenty-first century, when film production, distribution, and viewing is experiencing a seismic shift, accommodating itself to new technological changes; Ford’s cinema is a reminder of the great films that were being made in the Classical Hollywood studio era. Perhaps studying them might be rewarding to better understand and contextualize some of the films that are being made today? As Jean-Loup Bourget brings up in Hollywood, la norme et la marge, “the classical Hollywood forms are still alive in our time, even though, the truth is that they no longer have the same social function, nor without a doubt, the same significance.”

Eric Rohmer wrote about Westerns in Redécouvrir l’Amérique (Cahiers, N.54),
“There is certainly a touch of pedantry in evoking the Iliad while discussing a Western, but apart from the fact that certain commentators have had no qualms about comparing Chaplin or some Capra hero to the Percival of Arthurian legend, the obsession with antiquity is so flagrant in some masters of the American novel – Melville, James, Faulkner – that a parallel between the first colonizers of the Mediterranean and the pioneers of Arizona is no mere artifice of rhetoric.”
Rohmer is on the right path in bringing up the ancient Greek epic poem - along with highlighting terms like efficacy and elegance in discussing the form, and the genres preoccupation with destiny and morality - as in these Westerns, and especially Ford’s, these men, for their time, were experiencing the parameters of human experience. By choosing the colonizers of North America as his subjects, what we are being shown are the men and women that would go up against the empty abyss of a burgeoning country. They were literarily pushing the boundaries of their preconception of space. But there isn’t a rosy nostalgia to these pictures, as these social portraits hinge upon the collapse of civilized society into that of chaos or violence. One just thinks about the hold-up in Wagon Master, when this group of Mormons face exterior threats and a hold-up from within their group - the only way to fight back is with their guns. This is only one example of what’s particularly interesting about these films, and that is how the characters resolve these moral conflicts in face of humanity in extreme conditions.

The military seems to hold a strong place in Ford’s cinema. In Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford, McBride brings up that a young Jack Feeney as a young boy got all excited during his history classes. Ford felt proud when he discovered that a lot of Irish-American immigrants participated in the American Revolution (his father included). Joseph McBride, 
"His identification with the military ethos and his growing sense of himself as a national poet made him turn his postwar filmmaking efforts largely to themes of American history. [...] The result was a postwar body of work that became more nakedly individualistic, more deeply emotional, in many ways more pessimistic, fascinatingly and sometimes maddeningly self-contradictory, often defiantly quirky and self-indulgent to the point of perversity." 
One gets a sense that the military is viewed as a unifier of the population but also as a, perhaps, an inevitable period of misery and grief, before lighter times ahead. Just like how it takes a war and tragedy, in Drums Along the Mohawk, before there could be the creation of the American flag. So that there is something valedictory about how Lana (Claudette Colbert) would then compliment and admire it.

For more information about Ford’s biography a great resource is his grandson’s Dan Ford’s biography Pappy: The Life of John Ford. But for starters, here is a brief account of his youth and his early career.

Ford was born on the first of February, 1895 into a large family and whose parents were Irish-American bootleg saloonkeepers in Portland, Maine. His father John Feeney moved to America from Ireland, following his nephew Michael Connoly, who had already been living there, living through exciting times.

When he was young, a young Jack Ford played on his high school football team, and worked at Portland's Jefferson theater, a prime stop for road companies. He then moved to join his brother's company, the Francis Ford Serial Company, which moved to the new studio Universal City in 1915, "the first truly modern studio," where he would make his first two-reelers The Tornado and The Scrapper (both 1917).

"Francis Ford was John's first great teacher and his first great professional influence,” writes Dan Ford, “but it was John's teaming with silent star Harry Carey that paved the way to his eventual success." Ford would make twenty-three films with Carey. Dan Ford writes about how this collaboration made John Ford, "a first-rate action director." On an assignment for Universal to make another two-reeler, Ford, with Carey, would make Ford’s first full-length feature, Straight Shooting (1917). Irving Thalberg really liked it, and tthe success of Straight Shooting convinced Universal to get Ford and Carey to make more of the same kind-of films billed as "Harrey Carey's and Jack Ford's Just Plain Westerns". Their last film together is Marked Men (1919).

John Ford’s reputation was improving and he left Universal for the William Fox studios, where his wage would increase to six-hundred dollars a week. His first two films there starred Buck Jones: Just Pals and The Big Punch (both 1919). Ford worked with Tom Mix "the hottest western star in Hollywood" on two pictures: Three Jumps Ahead and North of Hudson Bay (1922). Dan Ford describes Cameo Kirby (1923) as his "first truly mature film."

Around this time in 1920, Ford married Mary McBride Smith and had one son with her, Patrick. But this time of joy would not last long, as then the Irish Revolution got Ford interested again in his Irish roots and he went to visit his family in Galway, Ireland.

Tag Gallagher does a good job at breaking up Ford’s career into different periods in his book John Ford: The Man and his Films. Gallagher divides Ford’s oeuvre into the following four categories: 1) The Age of Introspection (1927-1935), 2) The Age of Idealism (1935-1947), 3) The Age of Myth (1948-1961), and 4) The Age of Mortality (1962-1965). About these periods Gallagher writes,
"The first period tends to be relaxed, airy, concerned with being and with contemporary social life. The second period tends to be more manipulative, closed and formal, concerned more with mood and the past. The third period is brighter and more vital, formal but open, concerned with pilgrimage and subsistence. The fourth period, following a "season in hell," is eschatological, existentially and aesthetically."
It is also relevant here to bring up William K. Everson who in American Silent Film, in describing some of the more salient silent films, writes,
"The films of the early twenties concentrated more on beauty of camerawork and lighting - a beauty enhanced by the skilled utilization of tints and tones and by the increased and soon perfected use of gauzes, filters and glass shots. […] Through the twenties, the virtuosity of the purely pictorial aspect of film increased steadily, reaching its apex in 1927 and 1928 [...]  For quite certainly, the overall standards of the American film - both as entertainment and as art - were higher in the twenties then in any other period. It is in the twenties that we find the largest concentration of permanent classics of the American screen."
The films that Everson include in this group of “permanent classics” includes Ford's The Iron Horse and Four Sons, along with Borzage's Seventh Heaven, Griffith's Isn't Life Wonderful? and Orphans of the Storm, von Stroheim's Greed, Murnau's Sunrise, and von Sternberg's Docks of New York

Since Ford's career has spanned for over fifty-years, from the teens to the late sixties, there are many filmmakers that one could classify as his contemporary. He is usually discussed in terms of being a classical Hollywood director, and thus could be associated with many directors of the time. Some examples: Cecil B. DeMille, as they both worked through the transition from silent to talkies, and in both eras made epic-scale spectacles; Alfred Hitchcock, for imbuing their films with a working-class social texture; Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, with Capra for a shared sentimentalist-optimism though Ford wasn't as preachy, and with both for how they re-used a stock company from film to film; Fritz Lang, both directors have made films that share very similar stories, but where Lang was a pessimist, Ford was a humanist; and Howard Hawks, for making Westerns and creating some of John Wayne's most iconic performances.

It is interesting to note what Ford admired about his friend Frank Capra's films,
"His genius has been applied not only to the art of but to the business of making great motion pictures, and his name on the credits has assured rich satisfactions to bankers, exhibitors, stars, feature players, extras, cameramen, crew, and the theatergoing public for more than half a century. This he has accomplished without compromising his own exacting sense of the good, the beautiful, and the appropriate; without ever losing a friend or having a scene censored."
It is interesting to note that the business-side of movies is one thing that Ford admires, because he openly voiced his frustration and anger towards his producers. But if one looks further into why Ford’s films stand out is that he too was able to mix the best of both worlds balancing personal expression with studio resources.

"Capra has not only achieved a place of distinction in that select company of really fine directors - men like Bill Wellman, Fred Zinneman, George Stevans, George Seaton, Billy Wilder, Henry Hathaway, the late Leo McCarey, and (abroad) Jean Renoir, Fellini, De Sica, Sir Carol Reed, and David Lean." Ford continues, from his foreword to Capra's The Name Above the Tile: An Autobiography, "He heads the list as the greatest motion picture director in the world."

Ford’s films have a distinct style: the people in his films are characterized by more than just how they look and by their actions, but also by their behavior, glances and gestures; he usually films in long-shots so that there can be more things going on in the fore-, mid-, and background then just the primary action; there isn't too much editing and the camera movements - like dolly-shots to provide emphasis, or pans - are used sparingly (more like Ozu than Eisenstein). Ford continues in the tradition set forth by the D.W. Griffith of The Birth of a Nation by making films exploring the countries history and social problems. The French film-critic Jean-Loup Bourget refers to Ford as a “cinéaste classique par excellence,” and talks about his films as deriving their form from classical paintings. In Bourget's essay D’un classicisme l’autre: Poussin, Ford, Hawks, from the book Le classicisme hollywoodien, he writes, “It’s clear that the paintings that have been brought up by others aren’t “sources” (e.g. the paintings of the West by Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer) or punctual references, but more like that of similar world-views, that share an air of familiarity, where the reprisal of certain pictorial motifs are openly both visual and thematic.”

Ford is more than just as an auteur, but is a cineaste - a director conscious of making movies, and wanting to heighten their experience. One filmmaker that Ford admired and who had a great influence on him is F.W. Murnau. In the late twenties, Murnau was invited by the Fox Studios to come to Hollywood to shoot a movie Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Ford who was at the studio at the time was impressed by its many-fold visual tricks and distorted realism. Gallagher writes about the Murnau influence on Ford that, "Ford found cinema could be completely poeticized; he discovered movies might be art."

The Informer (1935) with its angst-ridden protagonist, stark lighting, titled camera angles and distorted sets; is one of the early Ford films to be influenced by the German Expressionist filmmaker. Murnau's Nosferatu was also was influential on Ford. Especially the shock effect that comes from the revealing of Nosferatu (Max Schreck) from out of the shadows into the light - where he's looking like a mixture between a rat and a vampire. Ford would appropriate this device when he would present luminary figures revealing hidden truths. One can think of the many court-room scenes in Ford's films where in a moment of suspense the onlookers would be shocked by someone revealing important information. As well there is the Nosferatu dazed-like wandering - a tabula rasa which watches and absorbs - that seems to be the primary influence for Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), from How Green Was My Valley, whose unchanged stunned look remains on his face as he wanders around the misery of the Welsh mining community.

The subject of American history plays a large role in Ford's cinema. A good description of his films could be that Ford gives life to history through the rituals of individuals within communities: marches getting ready and then taking place, ballroom dances in unison, military preparations and following orders, court-room procedures and so on and so on. Orson Welles said about Ford that at his best, "you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world."

In discussing industrialization Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, highlight that John Steinbeck and his book The Grapes of Wrath, “serves the function of creating an image of working class suffering, making society look different than it did before”. Where Steinbeck creates the social texture of the Great Depression through his prose, Ford presents the faces and the people going through these experiences. So in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and his family put a face to the plight of the migrating farmers, which was caused by their property being allocated by the banks. And one could include How Green Was My Valley as one of the great proletariat films. In Ford's films, to use two other examples Mary of Scotland and Cheyenne Autumn, Ford gives precedent to the victims and the defeated. There is something almost modern about the social criticism imbued within his historical portraits.

Where a historian like Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition describes the 19th century politician Abraham Lincoln in terms of being a self-made myth, both self-conscious of his poor and humble origins alongside being political ambitious. Lincoln’s views on slavery, as Hofstadter posits, was more a tool of electoral self-promotion then that of a humanitarian concern. While for Ford, in his rich, though perhaps naive, portrait of Lincoln: Ford emphasizes certain qualities of the Lincoln spirit, that of education, collectivity and the possibility of creating change. It’s almost a revolutionary spirit and you can see it in many of Ford’s films where Lincoln appears as a character or solely represented in a photograph (The Prisoner of Shark Island, the Calvary trilogy).

A good reference for discussing Ford's relation to the spirit of Lincoln is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, A collective text by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinema from August 1970, which is anthologized in Narative, Apparatus, Ideology. The essay is a Marxist-Freudian reading of the film, that analyzes it in the way that Walter Benjamin has insisted the discussion of arts as, “not as a reflection of the relations of production, but as having a place within these relations.” The Cahiers essay is useful for providing a brief history of the United States of America to contextualize Young Mr. Lincoln. Like how in 1938, under Democrat president Roosevelt, the fairly gloomy context of the Young Mr. Lincoln undertaking was that of “federal centralism, isolationism, economic reorganization (including Hollywood), strengthening of the Democrat-Republican opposition, new threats of internal and international crisis, crisis and restrictions in Hollywood itself." And that, “It is no doubt difficult, but necessary, to attempt to estimate the total and respective importance of these factors to the project and the ideological “message of the film.”"

So what is Ford's influence on contemporary cinema? and how do we remember him today? In a political climate where the truism of the past are snatched from their original meaning to promote false claims and distorted ideals, and in a culture that fetishes the new and novelty to the disregard to the old. John Ford’s cinema stands out for its humanistic concern and as a relic of mainstream mid-century American cinema. His movies today both move and are moving.

From early on, even while he was still alive, his work was already influencing other filmmakers, especially in terms of how he presented communities and his treatment of landscapes. Some directors, from the past to the present, that show a marked influenced by Ford include: Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman (the early, medieval films), Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Monte Hellman, Maurice Pialat (Van Gogh), Straub & Huillet, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, José Luis Guerín (Innisfree), Pedro Costa, and Andrew Stanton (John Carter).

When the language of film criticism has yet to catch up with the new realities of the twenty-first century, there needs to be some understanding of the past to better understand how to move forward. Two directors that admirably keep on with the Classical Hollywood tradition which was personified by Ford that I would like to highlight are Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. It is a shame then that some of their great new films like Lincoln and Trouble With The Curve are oddly dismissed as being anachronistic and out-of-date. While a regular, yearly output may lead to a variety in quality, the Hollywood tradition that Spielberg and Eastwood are engaging with; make me confident in the way that the movies are being made, and in the stories that they tell, and in the society that watches them.

David Davidson