Sunday, March 25, 2012


“But as you know, when we like something, we like it… that’s all.” – Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is a bit of an oddity. Somehow that Nameless Gunslinger and Inspector Harry Callahan had become a filmmaker of grocery-store paperbacks: a Meryl Streep romance, a quirky court-room drama, over-long liberal-humanist war films, Angelina Jolie looking sour for two hours, a movie about Nelson Mandela that avoids all of Africa's social realities, and now a queer J. Edgar Hoover story. The diversity and range is immense. In his twilight years at the respectful age of eighty-one, it seems like Eastwood is out of step with contemporary trends. Even in France the publisher Capricci recently put out the book Clint Fucking Eastwood, which argues his decline as a filmmaker since the mid-nineties.

This might be accurate for some people but I don't think that it is the best way to approach Eastwood's oeuvre.

I will try to argue for an appreciation for Eastwood: he's a charming man and one of action. His brand of individualism is quintessentially American, which includes a faith in humanity - one just needs to remember the beginning of Hang 'Em High where he stops to pick up a calf that couldn't make it across a river. Whether it should be viewed as a nomadic pioneering spirit or a vein of sublime narcissism, in his films the society is viewed as a corrupt place while the main character - usually played by himself - is put in a situation to fix it by acting out and doing what's right. His films demystify legends as he shows them off as mere ordinary people. Eastwood has had a long and industrious career, so to share some rudimentary biographical information: he was born Clinton Eastwood Jr. in 1930 during the Great Depression (a subject of some of his films) and fought in the Korean War before returning to Hollywood to take acting classes before getting his first big break on the television series Rawhide. This was a time when the classic studio system era was ending so his career trajectory explored new territory: first television, and then Eastwood went to Europe to film the spaghetti westerns, and when he returned to Hollywood he continued to make films in the system (Where Eagles Dare, some Orangutang films) while also starting to work with an early mentor Don Siegel and also paving his own path as a director and by starting his own production company.

To discuss his style of film-making, in his most recent efforts, I would say it is of a gut-reaction simplicity and assurance. While some argue that the quality of his films depend too much on the screenplay, the other side of the coin, is that, like Alain Resnais, Eastwood picks and chooses his screenplay as a camouflage to explore new territory and subjects that interested him. Eastwood's films have a particular atmosphere - a seriousness that allows room for humor - and are filmed with a simplicity, an expressionist use of lighting and a freshness of performances that comes from a loose sense of improvisation on his sets. The Cahiers guys write about his approach, “We have the impression that you like to combine two styles: one form really established, that you have refined over the years with your team, as well as some liberties that you manage on set... In the last 10 years [1990-2000], you were able to affirm a veritable style, which has since simplified and refined: you pay so much attention to lighting, a real poetics of lighting. Absolute Power is a perfect example.” Similar to the greatest films, say, like Le diable probablement or Once upon a time in Anatolia, one gets a sense that Eastwood is trying to get at the ideas behind the subjects of the films; like the social criticism and historical revisionism in his recent period films, the peaceful anti-revenge angle of Invictus, and the Dickensian inter-connectivity of Hereafter. Eastwood's productivity of almost a new film each year (that might only be matched by Woody Allen) makes his body of work even more relevant to today's concerns and denser in associations. As well his engagement with new digital technologies and special effects is especially interesting.

Eastwood in France
Recently at Cahiers du Cinema, in their January 2012 issue (N.674), the event is C. Eastwood – Investigation. The well-illustrated feature includes a review of J.Edgar and an essay on Malpaso Productions, both by Stéphane Delorme, and a piece on Leonardo DiCaprio by Cyril Béghin (“DiCaprio is with Matt Damon one of the rare actors that still physically integrates himself in face of the digital malleability: never does a movie deform him through pixels, instead, and still today, it is through make-up, a method that is as old as Hoover."); and there is an interview with Eastwood and his director of photography Tom Stern (who is vocal about filming with an informed blackness), editor Joel Cox (who discusses speed, instinct, observations etc) and producer Robert Lorenz. On Eastwood, Delorme classifies his late period as the following: “the moment of the strongest crystallization of his directing abilities was around 1992-95, with the perfect triangle Unforgiven, A Perfect World, On the Bridge of Madison County... Then there are the darker films of the 2000’s: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima.” And on Changeling, Invictus, and Hereafter: “in terms of the image the filmmaker has become more blurry, fuzzy, if only in trying to engage in a purely melodramatic way.”

Since the 80's Cahiers has had a strong and durable relationship with Eastwood’s films and a major investment towards him occurred at the time of the release of Space Cowboys in September 2000 (N.549). Il Etait une fois Eastwood, is the the title of the issue, and the centerpiece is an interview between Eastwood and the Cahiers writers Nicolas Saada and Serge Toubiana. What is included in this feature are a few introductory text, a twenty-two page illustrated interview, a review of Space Cowboys by Oliver Joyard (“Eastwood forgets a priori what constitutes the story. He stops filming the elderly, but instead focuses on men at work, that are occupied with assuring their survival to realize their dreams, seeing the planet from the stars.”), and a discussion with a few of Eastwood's collaborators (it’s interesting to note the differences between both Eastwood issues, to see who changed in the Malpaso staff). Eastwood comes off as very candid in the interview, discussing a variety of subjects at length, always saying jokes, and he is similar to John Ford as he resists over-intellectualizing his work and process. Some interesting answers by Eastwood include his remarks on Don Siegel and filming Coogan’s Bluff which “Isn’t necessarily my best film that I acted in, far from it, but all the while it was an agreeable experience which we built upon in Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled.” And, “If my acting style stuck, from a few certain films that made me famous, it’s because sometimes you can do a lot without saying much and instead say a lot by doing these little things.”

Now onto J.Edgar: a mythological biopic on the man that created the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ruled it from from 1924 to 1972. The story centers around Hoover and the Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and their secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). The film looks at how Hoover's policies where shaped by an early political attack which led to a new police procedural system that included fingerprint investigation and more registering of information. Like Land of the Pharoahs for Hawks (an individualistic late film in career built on so many groups), J.Edgar seems atypical for Eastwood, as a director of so many anti-authoritarian figures now in J.Edgar Eastwood seems to be glorifying, or at least identifying, a man that has build an institution. And in this institution this man, Hoover, has been able to implement his vision for over forty years and where he was able to look out of his window towards a changing world to different times with new presidents and all. As well there is a reflexivity in the myth-making process as you see Hoover take charge of dictating his own biography.

Here I want to bring up both the Cahiers and the Positif review of J.Edgar to expand on the film and the differences in how the magazines judge movies.

One thing in J.Edgar that Cahiers narrows in on is the mother figure in the film. In a brief survey of Eastwood's films (Bronco Billy, Perfect World, Bridges) one can spot many mother figures, who are complex in their own way, but are important as providers of a moral center for their children. While in J.Edgar the mother figure is almost domineering as she guides her son on the right path. Delorme writes about how these intimate conversations in her room are the reverse-shot of the powerful man he presents himself in his office, “like the secret explanation of exterior wrong doing, everything outside of this room... This room, similar to the one in Psycho, is his confidential report, with the mother tucked away like a file in a drawer.” This reference to Hitchcock's film maudit seems especially appropriately for Eastwood and this film. As they are both about guilt-ridden sons. Hoover is shown as faithful son riddled by his insecurities, partly, caused by his domineering mother - he even throws on one of her dresses in an intense moment of despair after her death - and this personal malaise and paranoia would seep into the larger culture. Just as Hitchcock was able to create some of his darkest images in Psycho, like the rain crashing on the windshield when Marion Crane is driving out of town, the room full of taxidermy birds, or the skeleton mother revealed by a swinging lamp; Eastwood is also able to create some unparalleled images of sadness, misery and power in his oeuvre. As well there have been other references to Psycho in Eastwood's other films like how in Bronco Billy there is this rich blonde (Sandra Locke) who gets "killed" at this roadside motel and there is even a comedic cameo by Anthony Perkins at the motel in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (a Malpaso Productions). The references to Psycho illustrates Cahiers interest in characters who deviate from the norm, a film remembered by images, and the feelings - maybe that of horror - that one can experience watching a movie.

While at Positif, Franck Garbarz reviews J.Edgar and Michael Henry Wilson keeps up his rapport with Eastwood. In Garbarz interesting review, he discusses the other Hoover films by Larry Cohen, Rick Pamplin, and Oliver Stone; finds parallels with J.Edgar and Citizen Kane: a man who builds his own myth and who alters the American psyche through his empire, a man who collects and builds up an inexhaustible archive; and Garbarz has a spot-on conclusion, in describing the scene, between Edgar and Helen Gandy in the Library of Congress, while the Goldberg Variations is playing: “In this moment here, the palette, quasi-monochrome brightens suddenly. As if we could be believe in a form of relief and carefreeness. That, evidently, does not last long.”

That Positif compares J.Edgar to Citizen Kane while Cahiers compares it to Psycho says something about both magazines. It is relevant to show how Cahiers stands behind their cinema maudit while Positif's plane is more willfully artistic, Cahiers is more interested in intense images while Positif revels in a literary analysis, and that even though they are both auteurist publications it shows how both magazines have a different frame of reference.

"In my experience, I am always stupefied when I meet these guys that work in cinema and who don't know anything about it. We encounter both extremities. There are guys that are genuinely passionate about the history of cinema, like Martin Scorsese, who would be able to tell you what film George Marshall directed in 1938. And there are some people who are responsible for the studios, here, who wouldn't even know the name George Marshall. For myself, I was always a fan of Destry Rides Again." - Clint Eastwood

Eastwood - Cinephile
While reading the previously mentioned interviews, as well as Eastwood by Eastwood, it's interesting just to hear Eastwood talk about movies: to hear what actors, films and directors that he likes. As well to hear what are the little-known projects that he has been associated with or worked on. The discovery of many of these titles expands ones knowledge on the history of cinema and Eastwood's relationship to it.

Eastwood acted in William A. Wellman's Lafayette Escadrille (1958) and in Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). He has brief cameo in the friendly ghost movie Casper and David Gordon Green recently filmed him in the Super Bowl commercial Halftime in America. He admires the old actors Steve McQueen, Joel McCrea, Henry Fonda and James Cagney. Movies that Eastwood really likes includes Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, Howard Hawks' Sergeant York, the early Warner Bros gangster films, and, with his favorites being The Ox-Bow Incident, Paths of Glory, and White Heat. Other directors that he likes are Anthony Mann, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah and, who he even made a film White Hunter Black Heart based on, John Huston. On the films that have most marked Eastwood: "when I was a kid, and that I have the best memories of, were films that were modest. I adored Red River and The Searchers, but also Out of the Past, and films of that caliber that remained marginal.”

Of special importance to Eastwood was his early working relationship with Sergio Leone, who he talks about: “He admired a lot John Ford which shows in his long shots, he understood the importance of the landscape. And Leone's films with all of their violence are a real departure of the what was being made in Hollywood under the Hays Code" And, "I understood that Leone wasn’t making an epic western à la John Ford, because it wasn’t his temperament. Instead Leone focusing on parody, which interested me a lot. It suited perfectly the spirit of the times, or at least the 60s.” And on the rhythm, mood and music in Leone's films: “Leone has been one of the first to get it. He understood that and had an interesting way to increase the tensions before confrontations. The confrontations were fine, but the way to increase the tension was extraordinary. This had to do with the waiting… and the music by Morricone, of course. While we wait and we look at the faces…. Don Siegel proceeded in a similar way. He would tighten the frames right before the action and then would multiply them afterwards.”
"Clint Eastwood is an auteur: this has been said, here and elsewhere, always with good reason. But he is an auteur because he was able to create a system of production, unique in what it does, where experience and competence always contributes to his formidable institution of cinema." - Nicolas Saada

Malpaso Productions
You've probably seen the title before one of Eastwood's films: A Malpaso Productions. The name derives from the Malpaso Creek in Carmel, California (where Eastwood is from, and where he spent one term as the mayor) and the word is Spanish for a "bad step", which is what Eastwood was told when he was first going to film the Dollar Trilogy in Europe, so to spite this producer he gave his company that ironic title. Eastwood talks about the impetus in creating his own production company as a way to protect himself from studio negligence, the harassment from producers and to stay away from a world of eternal discussion. The Malpaso production company is genuinely known for making affordable films, quickly. It was founded in 1967 with the first production being Hang 'Em High, which was Eastwood's first post-Leone film. The Malpaso production company is usually associated with Eastwood as it produces his directorial projects and the films that he acts in. The Malpaso Productions offices and warehouse is in the Warner Bros Studios in Burbank, California. The new Eastwood issue of Cahiers has pictures of it and you can go on a mini-tour of it in Richard Schickel's documentary The Eastwood Factor.

There is an idea that is discussed in relation to cinema of that of a utopia: an ideal place, a visionary system, for artist to make their films. A place without any studio interference, where the goal is to create the film as the director conceives it. One imagines a studio piling together their resources to push the medium to its limits and create vibrant new films. In this utopia one would make movies for themselves and friends, about subjects that interest the creator. The dream would be that all of this would be sustainable within the industry. This idea of an utopia is most often associated with Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studio. Where in the eighties it was a place where art-house directors like Wim Wenders and populist filmmakers like George Lucas would come together. A studio that would be more a labor of love then it would based on capitalistic impulses. This Tucker-like factory is an ideal. It is also a collaborative ideal. So, like, when Coppola would run out of funds when he was filming One From the Heart his crew postponed their pay and kept on working. Since the bust of this utopia Coppola retreated from filmmaking, for a while. Until his resurgence in the late 2000s with his last three great films Youth without Youth, Tetro and now Twixt. These self-financed projects are personal films that he makes for himself - keeping on this utopian dream of a world where the movies are a place of creative self-expression, before being anything else.

This utopia of production is the somewhat what Eastwood seems to be doing at Malpaso. "You can't make a film to fit the presumed tastes of the audiences. You make the film in which you believe," says Eastwood. The collaborative nature is there as many of Malpaso's staff - so, like, Tom Stern, Joel Cox and Robert Lorenz - have a loyalty to the studio and seem to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to it. And it's economic streamlining production avoids the economic faults of other major studio. Through making films Eastwood has even been able to literally integrate his family and other interest, like music, into them. If Eastwood continues to be this prolific in his twilight years, the reason is the efficient production system that he has created and maintained. From Eastwood in the coming years you can expect from him, back in front of the camera, in his producer Robert Lorenz's directorial debut Trouble With the Curve where he plays a blind father to his daughter a baseball player (Amy Adams), and then a remake of A Star is Born featuring Beyoncé.

This model of having a small localized production company seems to be shared amongst the up-and-coming young independent filmmakers: like Josh and Benny Safdie from Red Bucket Films in New York, whose new short-film The Black Balloon is much anticipated; and Antoine Bourges, Kazik Radwanski and Dan Montgomery from Medium Density Fibreboard Films (MDFF) in Toronto, whose new films East Hastings Pharmacy (which is playing at Cinéma du Réel and Images Festival, so far) and Tower should be real event film experiences of the year.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stanley Kubrick by Michel Ciment: Part I

In anticipation of Adam Nayman’s upcoming and much anticipated class Kubrick in Nayman’s Terms which starts on April 16th and continues onwards every Monday at 7PM at the Miles Nadal JCC. Here at Toronto Film Review I will be reviewing Michel Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, which I find to be the Stanley Kubrick book. To get ready for this post, which will take me a while to write, I am going to post the Foreword of the book’s first edition, which can be found in the following section.

From this foreword I want to expand a little on Ciment’s approach to film criticism and the modus operandi of the most thorough and pleasant film journal Positif, which he is the chief-editor.

First off: choosing to write a book on Stanley Kubrick is no coincidence as Kubrick just might be the filmmaker absolute over at Positif. In Positif’s 30th anniversary issue the number one film in a poll on "what were the films that have had the biggest impact on you" was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The paperback edition of Positif 50 Years: Selected writings from the French Film Journal has a still from A Clockwork Orange on its cover. And at Positif the critics judge contemporary cinema in relation to Kubrick highlighting filmmakers that share his rigorous approach and singular aesthetic like Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nicolas Winding Refn, Lynne Ramsay, and Stephen Spielberg.

And just as Kubrick’s aesthetic and narratives have such a looming presence over contemporary cinema, Ciment’s brand of film-criticism has an overarching influence over at Positif and in contemporary French criticism. Ciment is highly esteemed as one of the Honorary Presidents of The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and as a professor at the Université Paris. Ciment, who started at the magazine in 1963, now usually provides the magazines editorial stance through his polemic editorials, interviews with directors and film festival coverage. Ciment also shares many anecdotes of being around revered filmmakers in a friendly tone (see his introduction to Film World: The Director's Interviews). While Ciment’s writing shows an interest in history, politics and culture wrapped in a Nabokovian prose which is mixed with humor. For example, he recently denounced documentaries for a preference for fiction films saying, in his inimitable way, that he prefers his Fay Wray to some faits vrais. The only other film critic that I could compare Ciment to would be Raymond Durgnat. Especially as Durgnat seems most in line with the old school vein of Positif surrealism and knowledge of psychoanalysis while also sharing many other cinematic interest. Durgnat also quoted, built upon and argued against Ciment over the course of his career.

Some things that are noteworthy that Ciment brings up in his Foreword includes the challenge of film criticism to find the perfect words to describe scenes from movies, especially when the films are so image- and sound-based. There is an emphasis on a personal response and to gut-reactions when it comes to the films and to not stoop to a snobery, when the focus should be on the films (also see Durgnat’s Films and Feelings). And Ciment brings up his time in London which might have something to do with his and Positif’s long-term championing of British cinema especially against many of the attacks against it from their rivals at Cahiers du Cinéma.

As well Ciment discusses the publication and design aesthetic that he uses that fully uses photographs to add to the criticism and expand on it, which is especially relevant as at Positif they have now started to include color photographs (N.611). And which can be viewed in other books like the Positif-contributor Michael Henry Wilson interview books with Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese.

These are just a few modest observations on the design and thought that goes into book and magazine publishing on film where Ciment and Positif are paving the way for many future endeavors. – D.D.

Michel Ciment’s Foreword to Kubrick: “Every critic, I feel sure, who has attempted to come to terms with Stanley Kubrick’s work has been made painfully aware of the limits of his own discourse. To describe films in words – which is to say, to present to the reader in conceptual terms a series of associations of animated images – is in itself a challenge. With films which their maker has always described as ‘a non-verbal experience’ the tasks is rendered even more difficult. And the refusal often shown by Kubrick to comment on his art comes from his desire to conserve a margin of mystery and uncertainty. His is an oeuvre that both demands and defies analysis.

As long as I can remember, by recalling my own encounters with his films – in particular, the night I wandered through the streets of London after my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, trying to collect my thoughts after an experience unique in my years of film-going – I have dreamt of a book about Kubrick in which images would play an essential role.

Such is the spirit in which this album has been conceived. The illustrations (often frame enlargements rather than a set photographer’s stills, as was Kubrick’s request for his later work) will not only conjure up a shot or lighting effect, a composition or gesture, but provide a critical commentary through unexpected analogies or internal rhymes. And the text itself both influenced and was influenced by the choice of photographs. The book does not claim to be exhaustive, but proposes a unchanging core of Kubrick’s art. Apart from a detailed bibliography and filmography, it consists of seven sections. In five of thses (Kubrick’s odyssey; Reflections on an oeuvre in evolution; Kubrick and the fantastic; Interviews with Stanley Kubrick; Interviews with colleagues), both words and pictures are used. In the other two (Eleven films; Directing), only pictures.

Afterwards, it will be up to the reader-viewer to pursue his own personal thoughts and impressions of one of the most demanding, most original and most visionary film-makers of our time.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Great Debate: Michael Bay Auteur?

"A film is the epitome of an artwork resting on style. There must be an author, an écriture. The author writes on the screen, expressing himself through the photographic shots of varying duration and angles. For an author worthy of the name, each choice is determined, dictated by calculation or instinct but not by chance." - Robert Bresson

On Thursday March 8th at 6:30PM, TIFF Next Wave will be hosting at the Lightbox an in-cinema debate about Michael Bay. Is he a modern day Griffith shaping the language of how films are made today or is he an incompetent hack whose use of explosive special effects is a cover for the nothingness of his films? The panel will consist of Adam Nayman (The Grid, Cinema Scope), two film students from the Etobicoke School of the Arts and will be moderated by Mark Little.

What exactly is an auteur anyway? For André Bazin talking about an auteur means “choosing the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference, and then assuming that it continues and even progresses from one film to the next.” François Truffaut gives his definition of the auteur in his famous essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français pointing out that the auteur should be considered as fully an artist as any of the great novelists, painters or poets. Jim Hillier highlights that there was a unique temperament to the 1950s auteur at Cahiers du cinéma: “it was not any world view but rather a particular world view that was being privileged.” John Hess further expands, “An auteur was a film director who expressed an optimistic image of human potentialities within an utterly corrupt society. By reaching out emotionally and spiritually to other human beings and/or to God, one could transcend the isolation imposed on one by a corrupt world.” The auteur would be recognizable by his mise en scène, which Fereydoun Hoveyda emphasizes, “The originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses, but in the technique he employs, i.e. the mise en scène, through which everything on the screen is expressed.”

When the auteur theory first emerged at Cahiers in the 1950s it was used as a polemic to argue the singularity of Modernist Hollywood directors in opposition to the novelistic qualities of the French films of the time and in a post-WWII intellectual climate of strong anti-Americanism. The term to describe these privileged filmmakers has changed over the years. Jean-Claude Biette in his essay Que’est ce qu’un cinéaste? in Trafic revised auteur for the term cinéaste, which has broader implications. While more recently Michel Ciment at Positif argues for the practicing of a politique de hauteurs. Where the question is not if a certain director is an auteur or a cinéaste, but let’s champion these directors best work and not let them just ride on their reputation.

So lets return the conversation to Micheal Bay, whose latest film is Transformers: Dark of the Moon: the story of Sam Witwicky (an over-compensating Shia LaBeouf) trying to find a job, when there aren't too many prosperous positions available, while his girlfriend (British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is working her way up nicely at a corporation. Everything quickly escalates out of control towards CGI Hasbro Transformers getting together with the American military to save the world from other "evil" Transformers. There isn't much depth to the story or to the characters and instead what you get are noisy robots hitting one another for an extended period of time. Go figure.

The Transformers franchise series and its embrace of the military-industrial complex, and whose Dark of the Moon came out on Independence Day, gives off the bad impression of resembling too much a long promotional video for a teenage demographic to go out and thoughtlessly join the American military. In Dark of the Moon the death of human life is reduced down to a mournful country song, the real attacks on the World Trade Center is reduced to a suspense gimmick, and the presentation of the Korean actor Ken Jeong is crude and stereotyped. In regards to form, Bay's shots don't feel determined and there is no sign of a visible artistry.

What does Bay have going for him? One can think of the iconic roles that he creates for his lead actors, an interesting balance of moods in the films, and he is building upon a distinct repertoire of associations.

But what one seriously needs to ask oneself: Is there anything left to Bay's films after the explosions have stopped and the dusts has settled?