Monday, April 14, 2008

Welcome to the "American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon!

As announced a month or so ago, this is a blog-a-thon to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, one of my personal favorite books on film and one of surpassing influence. Starting this week (and hopefully beyond), you'll be seeing entries on directors since 1968 from all around the blogosphere. If you want to contribute something, feel free to email me at or leave a comment on this post. I'll add pieces by category below as they come in.

Links without authors attached are by me. Names without links are my personal entries that I plan to write.

About Sarris and The American Cinema
Discovering The American Cinema by itsamadmadblog2's Joseph B.

The Pantheon
Robert Altman
Paul Thomas Anderson by Acidemic-Film's Erich Kuersten
John Cassavetes
Frederick Wiseman

The Far Side of Paradise
Woody Allen
Hal Ashby
Francis Ford Coppola
Jonathan Demme by Burning Emulsion's Phil Ward
Spike Lee
Michael Mann by Radiator Heaven's J.D.
Steven Spielberg

Expressive Esoterica
John Carpenter
Alex Cox
David Cronenberg by The Sickness' Cinema's El Gigante
Elaine May
Sam Raimi
Paul Verhoeven

Fringe Benefits
Lars Von Trier by Project Film School's Gina Telaroli
John Woo

Less Than Meets the Eye
Ron Howard
Wolfgang Petersen
Ridley Scott

Lightly Likable
Mel Brooks
Joel and Ethan Coen by MovieZeal's Evan Derrick

Strained Seriousness
M. Night Shyamalan
Oliver Stone

Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers
Lucky McKee by Coffee coffee and more coffee's Peter Nellhaus
Richard Rush

So Far Uncategorized
Sam Peckinpah by The Agitation of the Mind's Neil Fulwood

Strained Seriousness - M. Night Shyamalan (1970- )

FILMS: 1992—Praying with Anger. 1998—Wide Awake. 1999—The Sixth Sense. 2000—Unbreakable. 2002—Signs. 2004-The Village. 2006—Lady in the Water. 2008—The Happening.

The Shyamalan universe, with writer/director/producer/actor Shyamalan at the center, is rapidly contracting with each passing film. Two low-key, earnest efforts preceded his commercial breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, but even then aims of cultural and spiritual redemption appeared that far exceeded his technical and artistic grasps. Those stories of a disaffected Indian teen and a spiritually jaded young boy were marred by, among other things, narrative shortcutting and simple inexperience. What made Sense such a success was an able blending of pop mysticism, calculated moodiness, and advantageous casting at the service of a genuinely affecting conceit. One would be hard-pressed to claim that each film’s “twist ending” is not its raison d'être, no matter what other virtues it may have; the difference with Sense is the wholeness it gains from Shyamalan’s off-balance, ambient spookiness and the still revelatory naturalism of Haley Joel Osment. Compared to this film, M. Night’s two follow-ups contain equally taut handling of continually more schematic narratives, and Sense remains his only film that rewards multiple viewings because of its ending.

A Shyamalan film refers to nothing outside itself yet strives higher. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs start from narrative foundations of collective pulp memory: ghost story, comic book, and alien invasion, respectively. To his major credit, Shyamalan then elides most of the traditional genre thrills, leaving us only glimpses of vengeful spirits, superheroics, or UFO landings. The fact that audiences responded so well to such resolutely melancholy, unexciting genre fare proved that Shyamalan’s was a distinctly new pleasure in the multiplex landscape at the turn of the millennium. Underpinned by vaguely religious themes ranging from transcendence to sacrifice to Manichean duality, Shyamalan’s first three successes (even the explicitly faith-centric Signs) balance moderate artistic aspirations and overriding commercial considerations. His stab at social relevance, The Village, despite effective work from Bryce Dallas Howard and cinematographer Roger Deakins, thwarted an interesting utopian plot with unnecessary contrivances and the almighty twist, never mind the absurd studio advertising. This relative failure led to the unfortunate fiasco-cocoon of Lady in the Water, an amalgam of Shyamalan’s most solipsistic auteurist quirks: his biggest on-screen role since Praying with Anger, the barest of generic frameworks (this time a "bedtime story”), and the conveniently rushed acceptance of the fantastic by the average person. What began as a successful genre entertainment/spirituality hybrid, with only touches of over-ambition, has reduced itself to egotistical, Shyamalan-as-savior shtick. The swallowing of his own hype grew steadily more evident post-Signs, and audiences and critics seem to have caught on. The three successes, however, still carry considerable cachet, and whether Shyamalan can parlay that residual good will with another crackerjack plot remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Le Beau Serge (1958, Claude Chabrol)

Equal parts overbearing Catholic allegory and interesting, visually unadorned on-location examination of the inhabitants of French village Sardent, Claude Chabrol’s debut Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge), considered one of the opening salvos of the French New Wave, starts out strong and richly textured but eventually succumbs to an overly schematic and redemptive conclusion. Jean-Claude Brialy portrays Francois, a theology student returning to his native town after years away to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. It isn’t exactly how he left it, especially his childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain), now a drunk with a troubled past and marriage. With the town pastor having resigned to let the village spiritually crumble, Francois takes it upon himself to redeem his friend and oppose the corrosive and entangled influences of the other villagers. The bourgeois town hides an underbelly of mortal sins and squandered promise.

The film has an obvious narrative trajectory towards redemption, even if it is complicated by similarly religious stirrings of guilt and transference, modes that would play more decisive influences on Chabrol’s subsequent thrillers. Themes of incest, rape, and congenital deformity bring a sordid reality to bear on the film’s otherwise Catholic overtones, diluting the protagonist’s faith in human nature and transformation. Nineteen-year-old Bernadette Lafont played a two years younger sexpot, reflecting the distasteful possibilities that awaited Serge’s stillborn son and upcoming child, just as Serge and Francois are the same train running on separate, parallel tracks. This doubling, as well as some brutal violence between the former friends and a thorough investigation of the dark side of French village life, reveals Chabrol’s literary and cinematic debts to Hitchcock and such sturdy native genre directors as Clouzot and Duvivier.

What also separates this debut from the likes of Le Boucher or Les Biches ten years later is also what animates the other first films of Nouvelle Vague directors: a nod towards neorealism by respecting and utilizing personal, lived-in space and performers. Indeed, how less dynamic would The 400 Blows or Breathless be without their genuine locations? Serge’s bravura opening sequence of Francois’s arrival allows the viewer to effortless gain their bearings and to situate himself in the naturalistic milieu. Even if the narrative becomes overtly symbolic and a few of the performances are mannered, Chabrol stays true to the location’s obscuring simplicity and its constricting impact on the inhabitants’ worldviews.

Yet for all the efficient if superfluous camera movements, Le Beau Serge is resolutely a young novice’s film; wildly inappropriate music overtakes perfectly subtle moments, and the ending undeservedly concludes on a hopeful note, despite the undeniably nuanced and problematic interactions throughout the film, for the sake of bludgeoning thematic significance. Perhaps knowing what would come later forces me to underrate the work, for Chabrol would certainly develop as a screenwriter and filmmaker even if the technical skills were there. As it is, Serge remains a merely good film with great timing.

IMDb page

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Announcing the "American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon, starting April 14

About Andrew Sarris

About The American Cinema

The gist of the blog-a-thon

Known as the bible of American auteurism, Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 turns 40 this year. A compendium of critical commentary and categorization of cinema (sorry!), this enormously influential and eminently readable text tackled the history of American film as a history of dominant personalities that tend to take the production role of director.

An expansion of his article from Film Culture 1963, the explicitly polemical The American Cinema evaluates, analyzes, and ranks the major and the minor directors of the past according to the ever-elusive personal expression of mise-en-scène, borrowed, like the term auteur, from the French writers of Cahiers du cinéma. In his terrific run through of Sarris' career from Film Comment, Kent Jones encapsulates the "daring" of shifting these ideas to the US:
To embrace American movies and moviemakers in Paris was one thing. To embrace those same movies and moviemakers in the country that had made and marginalized them in the first place was a far riskier proposition. This was a systematic destruction and reconstruction of the standard view of American cinema and, by extension, all of cinema, an insistence that cinematic beauty did not come from without (the right subject, actors, set designer, cinematographer, etc.) but from within, and that it was a matter of simple logic that it was the director rather than the writer or the performers from whom the final result was generated.
The power and usefulness of Sarris' ideas, bolstered by his public persona as a major American critic, inaugurated a director-centric aesthetic movement in the heads of moveigoers that, in some ways, we are still existing in. It seems more than reasonable now to be "obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist," to "look at a film as a whole, a director as a whole," as Sarris states that an auteur critic will, in "Toward a Theory of Film History," a lead-in to The American Cinema. Even since its original publication in 1968, we're still grappling with the "tantalizing mystery of style" that Andrew Sarris in no small way helped bring to the forefront of thinking about movies in America.

Andrew Sarris The American Cinema

But this blog-a-thon will be more about the book than about the man himself. The American Cinema was published forty years ago and itself encompasses about forty years of cinema history. Therefore, understanding that I wouldn't want Andrew to shift focus from his continued prose at the New York Observer, it could still use an update. So I propose to enlist the fine cinematic blogosphere to write up the next generation of The American Cinema by tackling the careers of auteurs since.

For those who have never read the book in question, there are three components to every entry: a complete filmography, a completely subjective subset of which is italicized as the director's most personal works; a concise but thorough discussion of the filmmaker; and a place in one of the book's hierarchical categories. Those were:
The Pantheon: "These are the directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." Originally these included Chaplin, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, and Welles, among others.

The Far Side of Paradise: "These are the directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems." Aldrich, Capra, Cukor, Fuller, Minnelli, Sirk, Von Stroheim, et al.

Expressive Esoterica: "These are the unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both...they are generally redeemed by their seriousness and grace." Boetticher, Donen, Dwan, Penn, Siegel, Tashlin, Tourneur, et al.

Fringe Benefits: "The following directors occupied such a marginal role in the American cinema...but a few comments may be in order." Antonioni, Buñuel, Eisenstein, Polanski, Truffaut, et al.

Less Than Meets the Eye: "These are the directors with reputations in excess of inspirations." Overrated, basically. Houston, Lean, Mamoulan, Wilder, Wyler, et al.

Lightly Likeable: "These are the talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness." Berkeley, Curtiz, Korda (both), Whale, et al.

Strained Seriousness: "These are talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness." Brooks, Dassin, Frankenheimer, Jewison, Kubrick, Lumet, Rossen, Wise, et al.

Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers: "These are the eccentrics, the exceptions and the expectants, the fallen stars and the shooting stars." Boorman, Cassavetes, Coppola, Lupino, Nichols, Peckinpah, Watkins, et al.
There are also "Subjects for Further Research," "Make Way for the Clowns!," and "Miscellany," but let's stick with the major categories.

By no means do you need to write or think like Citizen Sarris. I just hope to achieve some creativity in the framework that he set up forty years ago. Basically, pick a director who either debuted or had significant work in the period since 1968; several big names, from Coppola to Kubrick to Cassavetes, have minor write-ups in Sarris' tome but produced major works since. One of Sarris' most likable qualities is his openness for reevaluation, and even in the cases of the above, he's about-faced on some opinions. Feel free to choose anyone related to American filmmaking, and write about their about their career up to this point.

As an example, I could envision writing about John Woo in the category of "Fringe Benefits" by delving into the differences and similarities between his American and Hong Kong work. Conversely, someone like Ang Lee, despite having released several foreign-language films, has always been so firmly entrenched in the American filmmaking scene that he merits inclusion in a different category.

So whether or not you're an avowed auteurist, feel free to pick someone you love, someone you hate, or someone you just want to jot down some notes about. If you want to participate, email me or comment to let me know who you want to write about, and optionally in what category you're planning on including him or her in, or if you even want to invent your own category, just so that there aren't a million repeats and, if you email, to keep things a secret. This is the first blog-a-thon I've tried to host, but I'm confident in its potential. Have fun, and I'm looking forward to any and all entries.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Qu'est-ce Que Le Cinéma? Une Réponse #1

The first in hopefully a series of images, sounds, and videos that, for this moment, capture the essence of "movieness" for me. Shout-out to if charlie parker was a gunslinger... and André Bazin for inspiration and a title.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm Not Mishima: Artistic (Auto)Biography

How to present a real person’s life? This is the central quandary of the biopic genre, and too often the answer according to filmmakers is to smooth out the unquantifiable human experience to fit the constraints of traditional dramatic structure. While not fully eschewing this linear, arc-filled mode of storytelling, I’m Not There (2007) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) take more holistic, personal approaches to the biopic, envisions a plethora of existence within the artistic individual, full of mystery, complexity, symbol, and contradiction. The ostensible subjects of the films are Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), American folkie-cum-electrified rock star, and Yukio Mishima (born Kimitake Hiraoka), prolifc Japanese author and intellectual; both writers, performers, and celebrities with ambivalent ties to the political and artistic worlds of their day. Each film is divided into intertwining but discrete segments with their own stylistic idiosyncrasies. I’m Not There presents six individuals who represent, to put it simplistically, the “personas” of Bob Dylan, ranging from a black boy playing Depression-era folk songs to an aged, hiding Billy the Kid; and Mishima weaves straightforward dramatizations of Yukio’s final day and private and public lives with stylized visualizations of three of his major works, that sometimes verge on Dogville-like abstraction. Both movies illustrate that truism from Midnight’s Children that, in order to understand someone, “you’ll have to swallow a world.” Those who deem either film as too challenging or academic are missing the immediately sensual and intellectually gratifying rewards that come with the experience of one artist grappling with, and finding camaraderie in, another. Neither film is the epitome of the traditional biopic, but the choices made by the makers of I‘m Not There and Mishima could nonetheless be learned from when approached from that context.

The directors and co-screenwriters of the films are Todd Haynes (writer with Oven Moverman) and Paul Schrader (writer with his brother Leonard, along with translation assistance from Leonard’s wife Chieko), and the films represent clear intersections between director and subject. A semiotics graduate, Haynes treats the many elements of Dylan’s existence as signs to be playfully reinterpreted in various settings (like he previously did by making Karen Carpenter into Barbie or by pushing the limits of Sirkan melodrama) in just the same way that Dylan himself capitalized on classical and cultural allusions, or maybe just the sound of the words themselves, in his songwriting. As others have pointed out, I’m Not There moves not unlike a Dylan song, riding cadences and feelings of the visual rather than verbal variety to arrive at a point unencumbered by the limits of conventional logic and drama. It’s not that the songs steer clear of stories or sense, but that his hyperliteracy forges fascinating connections and synthesizes influences in a way that is indebted to poetry rather than to songwriting. Yet there is a tradition being followed, from Thomas to Rimbaud to Guthrie to Elliott, and the past and the present converge in Dylan’s oeuvre just as the phases of Dylan’s own life interact in I’m Not There.

That said, I don’t believe that watching the film is like reading a factual written biography on the singer just with the pages rearranged. A world is, after all, impossible to really swallow, and similarly I never found I’m Not There particularly enlightening as to the whys of Dylan’s artistry. Both it and Mishima feature scenes of the protagonist writing, yet the work is less output than outgrowth, less a compiled end product of experience than a fragment of that experience itself. For Haynes, Dylan’s work is as much grist for his semiotic investigation of DYLAN (as a thing, as a representation of the person/time/place/forebears/influence) as Zimmerman’s real biography is; for Schrader, who took his material in a more rigorously formal direction, Mishima’s unabashedly autobiographical literature is but one facet of his life (and death), the committed, personally cohesive artistic statement of honor and individuality that ultimately pitted him against the politics and culture of his day.

Paul Schrader’s cinema encapsulates manhood and morality, stemming most likely from his Calvinist upbringing but entailing secular repercussions in such films either written or directed by him as Blue Collar, Taxi Driver, and Affliction. Yukio Mishima, about whom out of the four artists intersecting in these films I know the least, combined politics, history, and discipline into a controversial but celebrated career that refused to separate art and life, which ended in ritual suicide following a failed political coup. Despite a dramatic through line that unfolds regarding his sexuality, beliefs, and stringent self-restraint, Schrader’s film rearranges chronology and designates certain sections of Mishima’s life with stylistic motifs that almost do more to present the man’s life than plot points ever could. Opening with a reserved but portentous scene of Mishima dressing for what he knows may be his last day of life, the film slowly builds a somewhat impressionistic portrait of a man fashioning his own artifice out of the world around him, not unlike Dylan, and facing the consequences. The incarnations of Mishima, ranging from a scrawny kid to his literary alter-egos to the stately central performance by Ken Ogata, coalesce finally at the time of death, a life having been lived uneasily yet unapologetically. Where Dylan continues to wander the byways of America in the guise of a resurrected outlaw, Mishima finds peace in the outmoded traditions of imperial Japan.

If every person is made up of a world through associations, connections, and history, this doesn’t mean that every person controls what world he or she is made up of; it took calculation and authority for Mishima and Dylan to construct themselves as they did. The films depict artist-celebrities who both shun and crave attention on their own terms, at times antagonizing their audiences (and themselves) for failing to keep up. Some may feel that Schrader and Haynes similarly forge their personal, literate portraits of heroes or kindred spirits without worrying about audience reception, but both films are as much cinematic autobiographies as biographies. Perhaps this is what ultimately separates I’m Not There and Mishima from the standard biopic fare: just as the most creative and cogent forms of criticism illuminate the critic as much as the work being criticized, so too some of the most enthralling, fascinating films visualize the entangled intersections of artist and subject. As illustrations of influence and creative possibility (the working title for I’m Not There was Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan) the movies resonate by positioning their subjects as founts of inspiration, the filmmakers moored with one foot in the dirt of “facts” and the other in the pool of freeform imagination.

There's more than a fair share of I'm Not There articles online, but here's the recent Great Movies entry for Mishima by Roger Ebert.

Additional thoughts, as of 1/19:
-The stunt casting of Cate Blanchett as electrified rebel Jude Quinn goes surprisingly unremarked upon in the film considering the director of Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven. Schrader of Hardcore and American Gigolo on the other hand presents all of the sexually contradictory sides of Mishima, even if they spring from his literary doubles.
-Both films mix and match music while relying on a single source: the multiplicity of Bob allows for originals and covers to stand side by side (except for the intrusion of a Monkees track), and Philip Glass's magisterial score for Mishima uses varying instruments depending on the segment.
-Haynes' freewheeling (sorry for the pun) visual tactics include aping such Dylan docs as Don't Look Back and No Direction Home, as well as referencing Fellini, another artist whose career's formal shifts perplexed some and delighted others. Schrader picks from a more conservative set of influences, especially Japanese theater.
-Although a mere mix-up over narration recording prevented a Japanese speaker from hearing a Japanese narration, at least until the most recent DVD release, Roy Scheider's voice actually speaks to the multicultural nature of the project: two American brothers, steeped in Japanese culture (both writers of The Yakuza), tackling a figure quite controversial in his native country. Spiritual affinity is more the issue than cultural similarity. Ben Whishaw's ruthlessly quotable Arthur Rimbaud on the other hand serves as a distilled example of Dylan's penchant for wordplay and ambivalent spokesman status.
-Both films rely on certain standard narrative filmmaking techniques, most notably match cuts on faces and entrances/exits, in order to effectively conjoin the various worlds on display into at least a visually coherent whole.
-Another challenging, formally daring cinematic autobiography: Takeshis' (2005).

Here's a mash-up I made of the Schrader and Haynes films, illustrating some visual motifs and parallels, as well as favorite moments and sometimes intuitive musical editing: