Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Howard Hawks: Cahiers du Cinéma 1956 Interview

In the current world of film criticism where, with some exceptions, there is a a narrow representation of contemporary film tastes on the internet and a lack of space dedicated to film history in print, it's important to return to its history to read, or re-read, its major texts to have a better perspective on where it's today.

The following is one of the first major interviews with Howard Hawks from Cahiers du Cinéma from 1956. Scott Breivold in Howard Hawks: Interviews writes about it,
"The "discovery" of Howard Hawks began in the 1950s (ironically not in America but in France) with the publication of Jacques Rivette's 1953 essay, The Genius of Howard Hawks in the journal Cahiers du Cinéma. [...] In 1956, some of the French critics conducted what is regarded as the first important interview with Howard Hawks. [...] The 1956 Cahiers interview is a good foundation for discovery of Hawks, exploring his choice of subjects, genres, techniques, and early influences."
In the interview Hawks discusses his films The Land of the Pharaohs, Scarface, Viva Villa and Paid For Love as well as he emphasizes the humor in his films. Saul Austerlitz in his book on film comedy, Another Fine Mess, would highlight the Hawksian "farcical good humor" of the performances and especially the ones by Cary Grant. This interview is also frequently cited (cf. Bill Krohn's The Making of Land of Pharaohs). - D.D.

Interview by Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Francois Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma, N.56, Feb. 1956). English translation from Interviews With Film Directors by Andrew Sarris.

“The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius,” we had recently written. It would have been an exaggeration to pretend that this evidence was accessible to everyone; and critical unanimity is happily far from being settled on the genius of one of the great American cineastes: it is clear enough that our own evaluation has not changed.
            It was not a question of interrogating Hawks on his “genius”; no metaphysical speculations; nothing that could distress the champions of clarity or common sense; at least, let us hope that each will find here his own account, and that includes the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians” of pure obedience.
            When we arrived for our interview, we found Hawks conversing with whom? Jacques Becker, one of our old friends. The auteur of Casque d’Or courteously took his leave of the auteur of Sergeant York when we protested his departure: since Jacque Becker was a friend of Howard Hawks, the interview could only gain in interest. Furthermore, Becker’s fluency in the language of Griffith made him more than an interpreter, a valuable collaborator.
            Since our interview transpired a few days before the release of The Land of the Pharaohs, our first questions quite naturally dealt with that film.

Howard Hawks: I made this film for one simple reason: Cinemascope. At the time I was approached to direct a film in this new screen size, I was considering as a project the story of an astonishing feat of construction in China during the war. The American Army wanted an airfield which the engineers estimated would take eight months to construct. The Chinese supplied twenty thousand men and women, who carried stone in little baskets on their heads, and this huge airfield was completed in three weeks. I was about to abandon this project because the political situation made cooperation with Red China impossible; the producers then considered shooting the film in Thailand. It then occurred to me that the building of the pyramids was the same kind of story – it too demonstrated what man is able to create with his bare hands from sand to stone. This kind of story appeals to me tremendously. We thus wrote our script on this one theme: the construction of a pyramid.
Cahiers: What part did William Faulkner play in the development of the scenario?
Hawks: He collaborated with Harry Kurnitz in the writing of both story and screenplay. As always, he contributed enormously. He’s a great writer; we are very old friends and work easily together. We understand each other very well, and any time I need any sort of help, I call on Faulkner. He has done three or four scenarios for me, but he has also helped me on many others. The story of The Land of the Pharaohs because his imagination was challenged by these men, their conversations, the reasons for their belief in a second life, how they happened to achieve these tasks for beliefs we would find it difficult to understand today, such as the slight importance attached to the present life in comparison with the future life, the rest that was to be assured to the Pharaoh in a place where his body would be secure…
Cahiers: For ages, or even…
Hawks: For eternity, for eternity. For all these reasons, Faulkner was the man for the assignment: he has an affinity for these ideas. They are what he is made for.
Cahiers: We would like to know how you transported your imagination back to an age so remote as the ancient Egyptian.
Hawks: We were assisted by several historians in Egypt’s Department of Antiquities, and above all by a Frenchman who has lived and written numerous books on Egyptian history in a little house in the shadow of the great Pyramid – the exact spot on which we shot the picture. He and the other authorities instructed us in the ways and customs of the Egyptians. I’m afraid we paid attention only to hat best suited our picture. It is possible to reconstruct the furniture and dress, and even some of the ritual, of the Pharaohs from the hieroglyphics and drawings on the tombs. We know what the soldiers’ uniforms looked like, what musical instruments were played, and what utensils were used. As for the architecture, Trauner did a great piece of work. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest scene designers in the world. We tried to reproduce Trauner’s visual conceptions exactly.
Cahiers: Did that French Egyptologist see what you shot each day?
Hawks: He saw some of the rushes, I think. He was very interested in some of the schemes we concocted for moving and transporting the blocks of stone. According to him, it was quite possible the Egyptians had thought of the same stratagems. For example, we were in agreement about the use of a ramp to get the stones to the summit, and the subsequent dismantling of the ramp once it was no longer need. The method by which stones are raised from the ground and lowered onto the boat in the film is our invention. So is the way the pyramid is sealed after its construction. The scholars were quite intrigued. We employed a hydraulic process which is quite modern, but instead of water or oil, we used sand. Thus, we had a huge stone rest upon enormous wooden pilings. Each pile was sunk in a hole, and each hole was filled with sand. For each block of rock to fall into place it was necessary merely to open a small hole which allowed the sand to run out. As the sand did so, the huge block settled down slowly into its final position. This is probably the method the Egyptians used. We don’t know for sure.
Cahiers: Then you have tried to make a realistic film?
Hawks: As realistic as possible, but that didn’t stop us from using camels, even though very few camels were in Egypt at the time of our story. Our justification, shaky on purely historical grounds, was that camels did seem integral to our image of Egypt. There were many other things we could only guess about. That’s why we had the workers be free at the start of the pyramid and slaves at the end. We reasoned that the employment of 10,000 men on a pyramid for 30 years would drain the country economically and that after the first few years of exaltation, discontent would smolder into collective rage and the workers would have to be enslaved to make them continue. This thesis is an integral part of our film.
Cahiers: You ordinarily avoid stories with a long time span, and the notion of continuity plays a great role in almost all your films. Were you bothered by the fact that this story extended over thirty years?
Hawks: Bothered, no, but handicapped. It was difficult to devise a story that lasted thirty years while maintaining an acceptable continuity.
Cahiers: What have you concluded from your experience with Cinemascope?
Hawks: We have spent a lifetime learning how to compel the public to concentrate on one single thing. Now we have something that works in exactly the opposite way, and I don’t like it very much. I like Cinemascope for a picture such as The Land of the Pharaohs, where it can show things impossible otherwise, but I don’t like it at all for the average story. Contrary to what some think, it is easier to shoot in Cinemascope – you don’t have to bother about what you should show – everything’s on the screen. I find that a bit clumsy. Above all, in a motion picture, is the story. You cannot shoot a scene as quickly in Cinemascope, because if you develop a situation quickly, the characters jump all over the wide screen – which in a way makes them invisible. Thus you lose speed as a means of exciting or augmenting a scene’s dramatic tension. You have to proceed differently. What you lose on the dramatic plane, however, you gain on the visual plane. The result can be very pleasing to the eye. You have to decide what seems best. Have you seen a film entitled The Tall Men with Gable?
Cahiers: No, not yet.
Hawks: My brother produced it. It’s Red River, but in color and in Cinemascope, and it’s a very pleasant film to watch. It’s not a great film, but a good film. It made me regret not having Cinemascope when I made Red River. John Ford and I made some anamorphic attempts around 1926, but we didn’t care for the results. I always think that the artist who paints a scene in a certain manner must, in changing his manner, change his scene.
Cahiers: And Africa?
Hawks: For this film we must use portable cameras. For certain scenes even hand-held cameras; the Cinemascope gear would be too difficult.
Cahiers: Will this be your next film?
Hawks: I don’t really know. We can start shooting, the scenario is finished, but I must make another film before; we won’t go down into Africa before next September.
Cahiers: Could you tell us a little about this other film?
Hawks: It’s difficult, we are only beginning to work on it. I can’t tell you very much, because we haven’t even decided on the main plot line. I don’t know what form it is going to take. I don’t even know what genre of film it will be. Its point of departure is a true incident that I’ve heard about, but it might never become a film. It depends.
Cahiers: All your films are based on events which tend to show a man in action, his effort and struggle. Even considering the wide variety of your projects, these themes keep recurring in almost all your films. Do you think this is so?
Hawks: That may be true, but I am not really aware of it. I make movies on subjects that interest me: That could be automobile racing, airplanes, a western or a comedy, but the best drama for me is the one which shows a man in danger. There is no action where there is no danger. It follows that if you achieve real action, there must be danger. To live or to die! What drama is greater? Therefore I have probably chosen this direction because I have gradually come to believe that it matters more than anything else. It’s very easy to make a movie knowing that everyone will love it, but that doesn’t count for much. What one should do, what one must do, is try to anticipate what the public is going to like. I don’t think that these people are producers; they make a picture because somebody makes a picture that is successful, so they make one like it, you know?
Cahiers: Yes, too many films exist only as imitations of others.
Hawks: That’s true. We made Scarface because the violence of this particular era was interesting. Scarface is still being copied – and hence still lives. There were fifteen murders in Scarface, and people said I was crazy to have so many. But I knew that was the story: violence made the story. Also, in practice, all the gangster movies that have followed Scarface only reiterated the same material. Similarly, when I made Red River, I thought an adult western could be made for mature audiences, and now everyone is making “intelligent” westerns. And a film like Twentieth Century… have you seen Twentieth Century?
Cahiers: Helas non!
Hawks: It was the first time the dramatic leads, instead of secondary comics, played for laughs. I mean we got the fun out of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. It was two or three years ahead of its time.
Cahiers: We think that a film like Monkey Business has renewed American comedy, and is undoubtedly more ambitious than it seems…
Hawks: Oh, probably, yes. Because of its general theme: the laughs are born out of the inhibitions that restrict each of us and are here abruptly removed by rejuvenation. It was a good story. Perhaps we pushed the point a bit too far for the public. From this point of view, it is less amusing than Male War Bride or Bringing Up Baby. Monkey Business went too far, became too fanciful and not funny enough: this is my opinion.
Cahiers: And Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?
Hawks: Oh, that was just … fun! In other movies, you have two men who go out looking for pretty girls to have fun with. We pulled a switch by taking two girls who went out looking for men to amuse them: a perfectly modern story. It delighted me. It was funny. The two girls, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, were so good together that any time I had trouble figuring out any business, I simple had them walk back and fort, and the audiences adored it. I had a staircase built so that they could go up and down, and since they are well built… This type of movie lets you sleep at night without a care in the world; five or six weeks were all we needed to shoot the musical numbers, the dances and the rest.
Cahiers: What period of work do you prefer? Script, shooting, editing?
Hawks: I hate the editing.
Cahiers: But you do the editing of your films?
Hawks: Oh, yes! Simultaneously with the shooting, if possible. When I started out in this profession, the producers were all afraid that  made a film too short because I didn’t give them enough film for editing. And I said: “I don’t want you to make the movie in the cutting room, I want to make it myself on the set, and if that doesn’t suit you, too bad.” That’s not to say that editing isn’t a chore, particularly when you haven’t done a good job wit the shooting. Editing is a horror for me because I look at my work for a second time and say that’s pretty bad, and that, and also that – The difficult work is the preparation: finding the story, deciding how to tell it, what to show and what not to show. Once you begin shooting you see everything in the best light, develop certain details, and improve the whole. I never follow a script literally and I don’t hesitate to change a script completely if I see a chance to do something interesting. I like to work on the scenarios. Some of my best movies were written in very little time. Scarface took only eleven days, story and scenario.
Cahiers: Does that include the dialogues?
Hawks: Everything. The whole thing took eleven days. I know because I paid the writers who worked for me by the day.
Cahiers: Who gave you the material, the basic facts?
Hawks: The facts came from several reporters in Chicago, many books, and magazine articles. The outline was done by Ben Hecht. He didn’t have to do any research. All he had to do was ask me about this or that detail, and I would rattle off the information because I had read a lot on the subject. For example, I don’t know if you recall George Raft flipping a “nickel” in his hand? There are actually been a large number of murders in Chicago, where, as a mark of disrespect, the killer stuck a nickel into the hand of the corpse. Raft’s character being that of a killer, he always had a coin in his hand. We also exploited another little known fact: The papers that published the photos of a murder indicated “X marks the spot where the body was found.” So we designed fifteen or twenty scenes around the X, finding all sorts of ways to use the X when a murder occurred.
Cahiers: Each time someone was killed, there was an X?
Hawks: Yes. X.
Cahiers: Did that have something to do with the scar on Muni’s face?
Hawks: Yes. Once you start off on that path, why not go all the way? Do you remember the scene in which Boris Karloff is bowling? As he lets the ball go, he’s hit; the pins all go down. An X for a strike is marked on the scorecard.
Cahiers: And the cloud in Red River, was it intentional or accidental?
Hawks: We saw it coming just as Wayne began reading the prayer over the grave. We told him to hurry reading so that we could catch it at the right moment. This was a case of seizing an opportunity as it presented itself. I don’t think we would have held up the scene to wait for a cloud.
Cahiers: You were the producer of The Thing without getting credit as a director, but you undoubtedly supervised the production very closely.
Hawks: Oh, yes. The direction was handled by my editor, but I was on the set for all the important scenes. It was a very pleasant assignment. We wrote the script in four and a half days. I had read the story in Germany, in Heidelberg, where we shout Male War Bride. We only used four pages from it. I bought the rights and hired tow good screenwriters. The story interested me because I thought it was an adult treatment of an often infantile subject.
Cahiers: Many critics have complained about the big differences that existed between the Hemingway story To Have and Have Not and the film you shot from it. Why did you change so much?
Hawks: Hemingway and I are good friends, but whenever I tried to persuade Hemingway to write for the movies, Hemingway insisted that he could be a good writer of books, but he didn’t know whether he could be a good writer of movies. Once when Hemingway and I were hunting together, I told him that I could take his worst story and make a movie out of it. Hemingway asked me what was his worst story. “To Have and Have Not,” I said. Hemingway explained that he had written the story in one sitting when he needed money, and that I couldn’t make a movie out of it. I said I’d try, and while we hunted, we discussed it. We decided that the best way to tell the story was not to show the hero growing old, but to show how he had met the girl, and, in short, show everything that had happened before the beginning of the novel. After four or five days of discussion I left. Faulkner and Jules Furthman then wrote a script incorporating the ideas Hemingway and I had evolved on our hunting trip. In fact, there was enough material left over for another movie (Michael Curtiz’ The Breaking Point) which was pretty good.
Cahiers: Your career has been divided equally between adventure films and comedies. The adventure films seemed optimistic and the comedies pessimistic, but there always seemed a lesson to be drawn from the humor in both genres. Are you more interested in the mixture of genres within your subject or in the clash of genres?
Hawks: Perhaps I can best answer in the following manner. Life is very simple for most people. It becomes so routine that everybody wants to escape his environment. Adventure stories reveal how people behave in the face of death – what they do, say, feel, and even think. I have always liked the scene in Only Angels Have Wings in which a man says “I feel funny,” and his best friend says “your neck is broken,” and the injured man then says “I have always wondered how I would die if I knew I was going to die. I would rather you didn’t watch me.” And the friend goes out and stands n the rain. I have personally encountered this experience, and the public found it very convincing.
             But a comedy is virtually the same as an adventure story. The difference is in the situation – dangerous in an adventure story, embarrassing in a comedy. But in both we observe our fellow beings in unusual situations. You merely emphasize the dramatic or the comical aspects of the hero’s reactions. Sometimes you can mix them up a bit. My serious pictures usually have their comic sides. You’ve seen The Big Sky? You remember the scene where they amputate Kirk Douglas’ finger; it was really funny. I had already wanted to do that scene in Red River, but John Wayne had said that I was crazy to want such a scene played for comedy. I said okay, I would do it in my next picture instead. When Wayne saw it, he phoned me and said he’d do whatever I wanted to in our next picture together.
            It’s possible to do comedy scenes even at very tragic moments. I once told a Spaniard I was thinking of doing Don Quixote with Cary Grant and Cantinflas, and the Spaniard said it was impossible to make a comedy out of a tragedy. I asked the Spaniard to tell me the story of Don Quixote, and after the Spaniard had done so, I said, “You’ve just told me the story of three of Chaplin’s best pictures.” He looked at me and said, “You’re right. Let’s go make a comedy.” And that’s pretty much the way I see it. The only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view. That’s the only way I know how to answer your questions.
Cahiers: The question has been answered.
Hawks: You know the story of The African Queen? I turned down an invitation to direct it because I couldn’t see any humor in the situation. It pleased me to see how they made it a comedy. There were some silly things it, but it went. Whenever I hear a story my first thought is how to make it into a comedy, and I think of how to make it into a drama only as a last resort. Do you remember the story about the man who wanted to commit suicide and stayed on a window ledge – Fourteen Hours? They wanted me to do it, and I said no. “Why not?” they asked me. “It’s a great story.” I told them I didn’t like suicides, and I told my friend Henry Hathaway that I didn’t like the film he had directed. The public didn’t like it either, and Zanuck told me I had been right. I told Zanuck: “I might have done it if it had been Cary Grant getting from the bedroom of a woman whose husband had come back unexpectedly and after he was found on the ledge he pretended he was contemplating suicide.” Zanuck asked me if I wanted to start on that one the next day.
Cahiers: You’re not interested in abnormal characters?
Hawks: Sometimes I get interested in the encounter of a normal person and an abnormal person. Almost all my caprices, my manias (like the way I am playing with key chain while I talk to you), I like to think that these are abnormal things. To see the difference in the way of thinking makes good scenes, but to tell a long story about a nut isn’t easy. Besides, I don’t like theoretical situations. I like stories like Viva Villa! which I wrote and half of which I directed. The Villa in that film, like the Villa in real life, was a quite bizarre man. So was Scarface. Ben Hecht wanted to make the Capone-like character a Caesar Borgia and Capone’s sister like Lucretia Borgia. This analogy permeates that script, and every intelligent person sense something unusual, something that can’t be brought out into the open, but affects all the scenes.
            Pancho Villa had a very complex personality – that’s what made him interesting – but these subjects are rare. Fox wanted me to do Zapata, but the script was all wrong about the character. Zapata was the worst murdered Mexico had ever seen. Had Fox been willing to tell the true story of Zapata, I would have been interested. But they made a sort of Santa Claus of him and had him riding around the country giving presents to poor peons.
Cahiers: In short, you’re guided in your work by an intentional reaction to what is going on around you.
Hawks: Exactly. I’ve already said that it’s easy, when one sees crowds rushing off to see a movie, to make another movie almost exactly like it. What is more fun is trying something new, and hoping it will work. That’s how I hit upon the tempo of my movies. I made a film called His Girl Friday in which the characters spoke so fat that the characters kept stepping on each other’s lines. The public liked it. Moreover, the tempo in Scarface was faster than usual in that period. I generally work with a faster tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less force. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm. Similarly, when you have a scene with two characters, don’t always use a close-up. When you use close-ups sparingly, the public realizes that they are important. I hate movies which, without any reason, are composed completely of close-ups. I don’t like them. I don’t want to say that they’re necessarily bad movies, but I don’t like that particular style of film-making.
Cahiers: Have any particular directors influenced you?
Hawks: In the beginning, I was very much impressed by Murnau’s Sunrise, particularly for its camera movements. I once made a film in this style – Paid to Love – with a great many camera effects, but I have never used such trickery since that time. I try to tell a story as simply as possible with the camera at eye level. Since I had directed Paid to Love at a time when the public was easy to impress, the result was well-received. But I don’t believe the future is in that direction. The other directors who have most impressed me are John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, and Leo McCarey; these are the men who, in my opinion, have been the best.
Cahiers: What do you think of the young directors: Nicholas Ray, for example.
Hawks: I’ve seen several of Ray’s films, and find them very promising. He is one of those directors of whom it is said: “I will go see everything he does because he is a good story-teller.” But the actual situation in Hollywood is hard for young directors. They don’t get the freedom we older directors enjoy. Young directors are told what to direct, where to shoot it, on what day to be finished. It’s hard. However, the more successful a young director’s movies, the more freedom he will be give.
Cahiers: What would be your ideal film, that which you would make for yourself alone?
Hawks: I have no desire to make a picture for myself. There has never been a picture so good the public didn’t care to see it. I like to make comedies because I like to go into a theater and hear people laughing – the more laughter the better I feel. I have no desire to make a picture for my own pleasure. Fortunately, I have found that what I like, most people also like, so I only have to let myself go and do what interests me.
            I am actually thinking about a subject for a movie. For four-fifths of the picture there is only one person on the screen. A girl, cut off from all contact with humanity by avalanches and melting ice, bears a child and cares for it for three moths before she is found.
Cahiers: Do you always work on your scripts?
Hawks: From the beginning and for all my films.
Cahiers: If you had to choose three or four of your films to be saved, which ones would they be?
Hawks: For sentimental reasons, my first talking film, Dawn Patrol, then Scarface and probably Twentieth Century; but … there are many others I would like to save. Dawn Patrol was very interesting because it was my firs experience with sound. I had not worked since the coming of sound because the producers didn’t know if I could work with dialogue. I had never had any theatrical experience. I myself wrote almost the entire scenario, and during the shooting, everyone kept telling me: “It’s not good dialogue, it’s not dramatic. Everything is flat. Everything you’re doing is going to be flat.” No one liked the film because none of the characters cried or screamed. When the editing was finished, the studio had so little confidence in the movie, they dispensed with the premiere. They preferred to release it discreetly, and then it turned out to be the best film of the year, and then they got into the habit of screening it for other directors and saying: “That’s what good dialogue is like.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

John Ford: Multiple Perspectives (Costa, Comolli, Gallagher, Straub)

In discussing John Ford with David Jenkins at Mubi, Pedro Costa praises Ford for his film's documentary and poetic quality, "It makes me dream and it makes me come back. I felt so right when I saw a film by John Ford and I'm in front of those people. It was a dream thing. It was a real thing." It's hard to isolate what exactly makes Ford's film so special and why his influence is so vast. Throughout the history of cinema there has been a plethora of of diverse directors that have praised Ford's cinema: Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Jean-Marie Straub, Maurice Pialat, and the Ross Brothers (River). To just name a few. And, of course, Ford is equally as polarizing, and other directors, like Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino, have reacted against him.

In an interview with by Daniel Fairfax with Jean-Louis Comolli, "Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...", Comolli brings up Ford in the his recounting of the conflicts between Cahiers du Cinéma and Cinéthique in the late 60's,
"They distinguished themselves by radically rejecting practically the entire cinema. Personally, I have always been concerned with saving the cinema, including the most ideological films. The idea behind "Young Mr. Lincoln" was to save Hollywood. [...] "We proceeded from the idea that, if forms have a meaning, it could be – and this is the case with the great Hollywood directors – that this meaning is not that of the characters, or the story the film tells. It could be that this meaning comes from the mise en scène, and there, all of a sudden, forms take on a meaning at odds with the énoncés of the film’s logic. In the end, Young Mister Lincoln is particularly striking because it is a film which, if you read it rapidly, tells us of the Lincoln myth, of bourgeois, mercantile America. Everything is there, justice, absolutely everything. But as soon as you dismantle it, as soon as you deconstruct it, you perceive that it is infinitely more perverse than that, and that the filmmaker manages, on the basis of his work, or his own genius, to endanger, and even squarely overturn, the énoncés which are in the film. This can lead to a much more subtle reading, which in the end shows the film as fiercely critical of Lincoln’s position. This is what is interesting: Lincoln is there, like a statue, and at the same time he is something much more problematic, none of his weaknesses are concealed."
In an interview by Toni D'Angela with Tag Gallagher for La Furia Umana, Gallagher speaks about Ford in regards to the structure of his films,

"He made “experimental films” (at least according to Straub and me). Sometimes he experimented more in one direction, sometimes in another. [...] Ford is virtually the only filmmaker in Hollywood between the wars who exposes and denounces racism and the nature of the military, […] more Brecht than Brecht, as Jean-Marie Straub says."
Gallagher might be one of Ford's staunchest defender and in his writing he ocasionally brings up Jean-Marie Straub admiration for Ford’s cinema. 

In Gallagher’s incredible John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press) he further elaborates on Straub's describtion of Ford as "Brectian" in Footnote #703 (pg.566-567). 

Here it is: 

Any effort persisted in becomes corrupt. The sense of duty that sustains
Ford’s individuals (and also their sense of faith) commonly leads them astray
into aberrations or death. Duty-bound, they invade others’ privacy, and
arrogate knowledge of higher good, right and judgment: judges, ministers,
soldiers, outlaws, priests. Thus racism, war or any form of intolerance
becomes a function of society. In tracing Ford’s pictures (particularly Judge
Priest, How Green Was My Valley, This Is Korea!, The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance) we have seen how people (and governments) act from feeling, not
from logic. People are made of dreams as much as reality. And we have
seen how Ford, in awakening around 1927 to cinema’s ability to be art
through total stylization, awakened simultaneously to his art’s high task: to
help us free ourselves from determining ideologies. Art, after all, has the
capability of making us understand things through emotion that we would be
absolutely incapable of understanding through the intellect. Within a determining 
milieu, particularly when that milieu is challenged, free will,
human nature, life’s worth, a benign divinity’s existence, all must necessarily
be posed in question. And so Ford pictures ideally construct in minute detail
a social set of apparent homogeneity (thus often military-like) in order to
analyze that society within its historic moment, and in order to demonstrate
how the garments of society, together with history itself, operate on the
individual. It is for these reasons that Jean-Marie Straub has called Ford the
most ”Brechtian” of all filmmakers.703
703. When Straub made this remark to the author in 1975 (after seeing Pilgrimage
and Donovan’s Reef) he was referring not so much to Ford’s acting style —in that
sense no films are truly Brechtian — as to Ford’s manner of stripping naked social
ideologies that are elsewhere unacknowledged. To Joseph McBride, Straub said Ford
is the most Brechtian of filmmakers, “because he shows things that make people [making] the audience collaborate on the film” (McBride and Wilmington,
John Ford, p. 108). McBride analyzes Fort Apache in this light, pointing out how
Captain York donning Colonel Thursday’s hat at the end is a Brechtian device [like
the cardinal donning the Pope’s robes in Brecht’s Galileo], and that we see clearly
that an insane system needs the dedication of noble men to perpetuate itself.) Less
simply, one might call Ford Brechtian because every element in his cinema is
engaged dialectically with every other element (whether one speaks of elements of
— or between — style, content, myth, ideology, or whatever), with the result that
Ford’s movies are self-reflexive and transparent in their workings.
This notion — essentially the thesis of this book — flies violently in the face of a
recent [1980] critical tendency to regard the “classical” cinema of Hollywood as a
monolithic system that sought to mask its “codes” (e.g., its montage) in order to
create an apparently unmediated representation of the real world; it sought to
entertain passively and left unacknowledged its own governing ideology. (Cf.,
Stagecoach: my argument with Browne (“Spectator-in-the-Text”); also Burch,
Distant Observer; Robert Phillip Volker, The Altering Eye [New York: Oxford, 1983];
Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres [New York: Random House, 1981]). “Modernist”
(i.e., some post-1960) cinema, on the other hand, subverts our absorption in
emotion, story, or character, and exposes its “codes” (e. g., by showing the camera,
discordant editing, having an actor speak directly to us), in order to force us to relate
intellectually rather than through emotional identification.
In these circles, Straub is admired as epitomizing “modernist” cinema, while Ford
is often derided (although not by most of the above-named critics) as a sentimental
reactionary. Thus Straub’s comparison of Brecht and Ford caused considerable
head-shaking. It is, of course, generally agreed that many movies cater exclusively
to an audience’s desire for passive spectacle (e.g.. Star Wars, some of Hitchcock);
and all research shows that audiences generally watch movies in order not to think.
Nonetheless, the fallacies of “modernist” critics are multitudinous (even including
their arrogation of the label “modern”). Firstly, their premise of a monolithic
classical system is a pure fantasy that reveals little sensibility for the complexity of
pre-1960 cinema and almost no acquaintance with the actual films themselves.
Secondly, they naively assume that audiences can be forced to think, whereas
“modernist” techniques soon lose their initial shock and audiences happily reimmerse
themselves into the fictional worlds of even the most determinedly
antipathetic movies. Thirdly, because their basis is exclusively materialist, they, like
Grierson and Aristarco before them, distrust emotions and aestheticism and would
destroy the art of cinema in favor of a cinema of political propaganda.
An examination of Brecht’s 1930 table, in which he gave cursory comparison
between the (bad) “dramatic” and the (good, Brechtian) “epic” theaters, will, in the
light of Straub and this book, show Ford very much on the “epic” side — the
Dramatic Theater                                           Epic Theater
plot                                                                  narrative
implicates spectator into drama                         makes spectator an observer
wears down his capacity for                             action arouses his capacity for action
provides him with sensations                            forces him to make decisions
provides experience                                         provides a picture of the world
involves the spectator                                       confronts the spectator
suggestion                                                         argument
feelings are preserved                                        feelings are propelled into perceptions
man is assumed known                                      man is the object of inquiry
man unalterable                                                 man alterable and altering
suspense about the outcome                              suspense about the progress
each scene exists for another                             each scene for itself
linear development                                            in curves
evolutionary determinism                                   evolutionary leaps
the world, as it is                                               the world, as it becomes
what man ought to do                                       what man is forced to do
man as a fixed point                                          man as a process
his instincts                                                       his motivations
thought determines being                                   social being determines thought
(Brecht did not intend, obviously, that epic theater be absolutely one way and not at
all the other way; it is a question of tendency.)
Tag Gallagher

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Two Rode Together (John Ford, 1961)

"Puisque nous avons la chance d'avoir affaire à un des rares cinéates qui méritent vraiment le beau nom de classique, les meilleures raisons d'aimer Ford seront encore les simples; et le fait est qu'elles ne sont pas sensiblement différentes de celles qui faisaient Delluc s'embraser pour Rio Jim, il y a quelque quarante-cinq ans. Ce sont donc des raisons vieilles comme le cinéma lui-même. Mais, dans Les Deux Cavaliers, non seulement il n'y a nulle contrainte, mais Ford nous offre son film le plus débridé, le plus désinvolte, en un mot, le plus libre. Le classicisme y appraît comme ce qu'il est vraiment: la souveraine maîtrise d'un art, le libre épanouissement qui autorise l'abandon des contraintes jadis utiles, et dont il est la suprême conquête. N'ayant plus rien à apprendre, le créateur se livre tout à la joie de sa création, et donne, sur le tard, ses oeuvres les plus surprenantes: les dernière pièces de Corneille, le Second Faust. Ainsi Les Deux Cavaliers sont-ils à La Chevauchée fantastique ce que Suréna est à Polyeucte." - Philip d'Hugues (Cahiers du Cinéma, N.127)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Love 'Em or Hate 'Em: Controversial Directors in Nayman's Terms

The film class Love 'Em or Hate 'Em: Controversial Directors in Nayman's Terms is going on through the month of May to early June, each Mondays (except for the 20th) at 7PM at the Miles Nadal JCC. The class on Paul Verhoeven on May 27th will be the highlight since Adam Nayman has been working on a book on Showgirls (ECW Press).

Friday, May 10, 2013

Emerging Women Filmmakers: McKenzie, Goyette, Bohdanowicz, Litz, Supnet

Two of the following films When You Sleep and Le Futur Proche will be playing at 8:00PM on May 10th at the Innis Town Hall as part of the Breakthrough Film Festival, which is devoted exclusively to short films by emerging female artists. - D.D. 
The Nova Scotian filmmaker Ashley McKenzie has made two short-films and is currently in post-production on a new project Stray. Her films are made with her artistic collaborator Nelson Macdonald through their production company Grassfire Films.

McKenzie's short-film's Rhonda's Party and When You Sleep at first appear to be very different but a closer look reveals some similarities. Even though their settings are a world apart - a nursing home and a low-income apartment building - what is explored are women in moments of crisis. Both of these films center on a death - Margaret's and a rats - and how they effect the people around it.

In Rhonda's Party the principal leads are Rhonda, a reclusive nursing-home resident who is grieving over the death of her friend, and Amy, the inexperienced young nurse who needs to comfort Rhonda while still doing her job. In When You Sleep the principal leads are the young adults Jesse, whose messy apartment has a rat infestation, and her boyfriend Lee, who is being a jerk.

To better understand McKenzie's films a good point of comparison would be with the films of Mike Leigh. The two share an observational filming style that poetically presents bleak social realities. The hospital scenes in Rhonda's Party are reminiscent of the ones in All or Nothing. The gritty living conditions in When You Sleep are reminiscent of Leigh's kitchen sink realism. While the lead characters in McKenzie's films seem cut from the same cloth as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky or Mary in Another Year.

In the Québécois film magazine 24 ImagesSophie Goyette’s newest short-film Le Futur Proche was included as one of the top ten Québécois films of 2012. Philippe Gajan writes about it
“Like in her previous short films (La Ronde, Manège), Goyette captures an intermediate state in the lives of her protagonists, an instant suspended between a before and an after, which are never really evoked. If this cinema appears at a first glance to be realistic or psychological, it is especially impressionistic.” 
The other films included in the 24 Images list are Rebelle, Tout ce que tu possède, Trente tableaux, Laurence Anyways, Pieces and Love All to Hell, La mise à l’aveugle, Le grand ailleurs et le petit ici, Camion and Sur le rivage du Monde. Helen Faradji would also include Sophie Dupuis' Faillir.

I would actually compare Le Futur Proche more to Denis Côté's Bestiaire, another great Québécois film from 2012, for how they blend documentary with fiction. In Côté's Bestiaire a narrative is created around a rural zoo through its filming style which blends a Wiseman institution overview with a Benning use of long-takes. In Goyette's fiction film Le Futur Proche the story of a pilot at an aerodrome is treated like a seventies NFB documentary of a professional at work.

The pilot of Le Futur Proche flies a small plane for industrial and personal customers. The pilot Robin describes the world as chaotic from the ground level but beautiful from his plane. What elevates Le Futur Proche to a higher level, in terms of quality, is its aerial subject and scope. The film is full of impressive aerial photography of the rural and urban, which is effective on an aesthetic and a character level.

Like in La Ronde, the protagonist of Le Futur Proche shows subtle signs of depression over the death of a parent. Robin's sorrowful underpinnings are illustrated through small visual cues. There is one screw on the plane that is loose and which needs tightening. There is a shot of a gyrating ceiling fan which is held for an extended duration. Robin is distant from his peers and he eats his lunches all by himself. His maintenance duties are performed with a silent authority that recalls some of Tony Scott's blue-collar heroes.

Robin perceives memories of his parents everywhere. Le Futur Proche ends with Robin taking an older couple over Montreal to celebrate their 40th anniversary. There is special moment experienced as Robin flies his plane over some fireworks with this nice and familiar couple. This scene seems to represent the character's optimism for the future that are paradoxically saddened by memories of the past. Or as Robin puts it, “Je suis en route pour quelque que chose d’autres, mes je ne sais pas encore quoi.

Sofia Bohdanowicz’s three credited short-films are Falling with Force, Dundas Street, and the newest Modlitwa. Her most famous short-film is Dundas Street which is inspired by Bohdanowicz's grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s (1895-1965) poems. It is less a narrative than they a visual poem. There is also a religious quality to it that recalls the recent films of Terrence Malick.

Dundas Street, which is co-directed by Joanna Durkalec, is narrated by an elderly Polish woman who is unable to adapt to her new urban landscape. It follows her efforts to find meaning in a inhospitable and unfriendly city. She speaks fondly of the fruit merchant Cornelius. In one stunning shot as he is cashing out, the lighting brightens, and he sings a sorrowful song.

Modlitwa stars Maria Bohdanowicz (1930-2012), who the film is also dedicated too. Modlitwa builds upon the former through Bohdanowiczowa's poetry. Its Catholic wisdom is humbling: “Be Kind to those who suffer, oh good Lord. To those who labor through life toward death.” Maria's routine of taking care of her urban residence is contrasted with that of a dream of a nature and peace. Its imagery is as equally as touching and beautiful as that of Dundas Street.

The actress-turned-director Nadia Litz has an impressive resume. She has worked with Reginald Harkema (Monkey Warfare), Daniel Cockburn (You Are Here) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Fear X). Her first feature Hotel Congress, which she co-directed with Michel Kandinsky, was made as part of Ingrid Verninger's 1K Wave. Its setting offers one of its first surprises as it takes place at the real Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona. An American setting is surprising for any Canadian film but especially one with such a small budget.

Hotel Congress is described as "a romantic film for the unromantic," and as a study of women and men relations it belongs up there with the films Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Eric Rohmer. The film beings with an intertitle that describes the story in short-form:
“A man and a woman meet at a hotel in Tucson. One of them believed in true love and found none. One of them didn’t believe true love was possible and found it. Both of them were stuck in the desert.”
The woman Sofia (Nadia Litz) and the man Francis (Philip Ricio) both have romantic partners but decide to test their love by escaping with one another to have an affair. What makes the plot interesting is how it isn't cynical and the two of them don't cheat. Instead they have many great conversations which has an emotional cathartic effect on them. The conversations include just about everything but most prominently romance, philosophy, and culture. The witty conversations and the great performances give life to a sophisticated script. In some ways Hotel Congress plays out like the reverse-shot and the missing dialogue track from Malick's To The Wonder.

Leslie Supnet makes these great short animated videos and super 8 films. The animated graphics are cute and simple. They're of these women characters that are working through their personal demons and there is a fantastic quality to them that is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki. They are made in collaboration with Clint Enns who does the sound design and edits them.

Supnet has made over a dozen short videos, in varying lengths, but the ones that are the most visually stunning are: You Are Here, which was made as part of a Helen Hill tribute, and is full of cute imagery of death; Gains + Losses, which is full of situational vignettes of day-to-day anxieties; and Fair Trade of a girl sitting on a bench and where she scratches open her stomach and then all of her bad thoughts come out.

Supnet's newest projects are the collaborations with Glen Johnson, The Idea and A Time is a Terrible Thing to Waste.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jeunes cinéastes français on n'est pas mort ! (Cahiers, N.688)

The dossier in the April issue of Cahiers du Cinéma (N.688) is Jeunes cinéastes français on n'est pas mort! which is about a new generation of young French filmmakers who are incorporating a new lyricism in their films. These new directors are in the process of completing their first or second full-length feature and have previously only made short films.

"This group isn't exclusive, but it just goes to show that a new spirit is being created, and that Cahiers is in demand for this newness," writes Stéphane Delorme. And he elaborates on the magazine's position, "this is why here at Cahiers we will not accept the label that we are too severe. No. It has to precisely do with these other films, that are not being made or shown, and by supporting these young filmmakers, who would otherwise loose their force and spirit, from not finding any allies. This forces us not to lower our standards."

This is one of Cahiers' best recent issues as it seems to epitomize their championing of an open-aired lyricism against the asphyxiation of cinematic academicism. Every article in this particular issue, and within the magazine in general, seems to address this issue, in some way, and what is impressive is its consistency.

The feature article that best addresses this is Delorme’s Comment redonner de l’élan au jeune cinema français: Du lyrisme!Building upon their Onze stations pour une histoire poétique du cinéma français (N.682), Delorme traces the history of a poetic lineage in French cinema, from Leos Carax’s Holy Motors to its roots, with its developments and pitfalls, along with its accompanying intellectual life and attitudes. Delorme is arguing for a shift in tone for the films. Similar to their Les dix tares du cinéma contemporain (N.684), instead of French filmmakers solely making naturalistic dramas about class and social issues, Delorme is arguing for films to be made with breathing room that allow for improvisation and poetry: des films quite chante. One of Delorme’s points is that “To sing, one must be able to love; and that today, there is a grand inability to love.” This is a crisis not only for cinema but in life, too.

Some of Delorme's points are (and you can also hear him talk about it on France Interthough he is unfortunately cut short):
"The observation of social classes give certain filmmakers the impression of being political. But it is lyricism that is revolutionary! [...] The great political cinema is lyrical: Eisenstein, Marker, Godard, Rocha. [...] In France, it is the older filmmakers that are truly lyrical! Coeurs, Sicilia!, Les Plages d'Agnes, Histoire(s) du Cinema. [...] That isn't right! Are we only good for this? Where are the grand, generous, enthusiastic, and tragic gestures? Where are the films that push the limits? [...] Naturalism and auto-fictions, hand in hand, have reduced lyricism to practically nothing, it is reduced to narcissistic confidences and wining. [...] Une trousse de secours pour brulers au second degrer, si le cinema n'est pas ca, a quoi bon en faire?"
The Événement: Jeunes cinéastes français is full of articles and it is illustrated with behind the scenes pictures, stills, and director portraits. It is divided in several sections. À l'attaque! (on seven young filmmakers who are finishing their first features): Yann Gonzalez (Les Rencontres d'après minuit), Justine Triet (La Bataille de Solférino), Djinn Carrénard (Donoma, Faire l’amour), Guillaume Brac (Un monde sans femmes, Tonnerre), Antonin Peretjatko (La Fille du 14 juillet), Thomas Salvador (Briques, Vincent), and Rebecca Zlotowski (Belle Épine, Grand Central). There is a text manifesto Le SMS de Cologne by the actor-director Vincent Macagine A section on four actors Têtes folles (who have acted in the previously mentioned director’s films): Estéban/David Boring, Laure Calamy, Laetitia Dosch, and Nicolas Maury. There is a section for five short-film directors: Jonathan Vinel, Shanti Masud, Mati Diop, Vincent Dietschy, and Louis Garrel. These texts are written by some of Cahiers’ important writers like Delorme, Jean-Philippe Tessé, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, Nicolas Azalbert, Joachim Lepastier, and Florence Maillard.

The issue seems to coincide with Cannes as on their Facebook page Cahiers posted that Rebecca Zlotowski's Grand Central will be in Un certain regard, Antonin Peretjatko's La Fille du 14 juillet will be in la Quinzaine des réalisateurs, Yann Gonzalez's Les Rencontres d'après minuit will be in la Semaine de la critique, Justine Triet's La Bataille de Solférino will be in l'ACID, and that the acteur Vincent Macaigne will be at the Croisette in three films: La Fille du 14 juillet, La Bataille de Solférino and 2 automnes, trois hivers by Sébastien Betbeder (ACID).

The April's Cahiers critique, to cite Stéphane Delorme’s ratings, are: Promised Land by Gus Van Sant (***), La Belle Endormie by Marco Bellocchio (***), Mud by Jeff Nichols (**), Les Amants passagers by Pedro Almodóvar (*), Clip by Maja Milos (**), and Orleans by Virgil Vernier (**). And in their Notes sur d’autres films section they review 18 other films including The Act of Killing, The Grandmaster, Hannah Arendt, Paradise: Faith & Hope, Pietà, La Playa D.C., and Survivre.

There is a dense Le Journal section: an inteview with Isabelle Glachant on Chinese cinema, a review of the Berlin festival, coverage of the film festival in Bobigny, an article about Israeli cinema, a spotlight on how Cahiers was censored in Algeria (for a still of In the Realm of the Senses), a memorial for the former Cahiers du Cinema-Japon editor Yoichi Umemoto by Thierry Jousse, a memorial for David Dewaele by Druno Dumont, a memorial for Alexeï Guerman, articles about Adolfo Arrietta's Flammes, Mario Monicelli’s Larmes de joie, and Howard Hawks’ Red River; articles about Paul Wendkos and Serguei Paradjanov; and their new two-page international film news section.

Finally there is also an interview with the producer Saïd Ben Saïd, a dossier on Philippe Garrel, and an inteview with Jean-Francois Chevrier (L'Hallucination artistique) whose unique reading of Bazin brings him towards surrealism and hallucinations.

The May issue of Cahiers has now been announced and it will be interesting to see how they build upon this previous issue. The table of contents already lists the Événement to be Cannes 2013 and Convention Collective, the Cahiers Critiques are for the new Kurosawa, Peretjatko and Gondry; and there is a multi-article dossier on the South by Southwest film festival.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mark Peckmezian's portrait of Derek (Contact Photography Festival)

During the month of May the Contact photography festival will be going on and there will be plenty of exhibitions, shows, panels, workshops and events. Some of the major exhibitions includes the work of Sebastião Salgado, Erik Kessels, Arnaud Maggs and Martin Parr. There will also be works by some renowned filmmakers like Michael Snow (The Viewing of Six New Works), Chris Marker, and Jerry Schatzberg.

One of the highlights is the exhibition Portrait by the photographer Mark Peckmezian at Harbourfront Centre. The exhibition includes a dozen portraits of interesting and stylish young people. The models are framed in a way that seems both defining and elusive. They are defining in regards to how they are able to convey a sense of the model's personality while also being elusive as there is still the sense that something remains hidden.

The photograph that best illustrates this, and which is one of the more striking, is a portrait of Derek Bogart from the movie Tower. It is a portrait of Derek from the back set against a grey background. In it his head is tilted to the left, revealing his bald spot and shaggy brown hair swept to the right side.

There is a photographic film criticism element to the portrait as through its portrayal of Derek it is able to succinctly highlights some of Tower's themes. The single gray background is like the blandness surrounding Derek's day-to-day routine. Derek's bald spot is emphasized which is one of his many insecurities. Derek's shaggy hair brings to mind the furry animals in Tower, like the dogs and the raccoon. And his faded denim jacket is just one item from his unique wardrobe, which is another thing that makes him stand out. But then there is the photograph's soft lighting that gives it a mysterious aura. Derek is also looking away, which suggests the unknowability of his character.

The mysteries of Tower still inspire contemplation and its meaning has yet to be fully revealed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pierre Berthomieu on Steven Spielberg

One of the gems of the Cinémathèque française video series is Pierre Berthomieu's Présentation du cycle Steven Spielberg. To accompany their Spielberg retrospective L'Intégrale Steven Spielberg, which ran from January 9th to March 3rd 2012, this was just another video lecture and is described as "Pierre Berthomieu présente l'œuvre du cinéaste américain à travers cinq de ses films majeurs," which translates to "Berthomieu presents the oeuvre of the American filmmaker by way of five major films." But Berthomieu, through this guise, is able to achieve something far greater. He probes preconceived notions of Spielberg's oeuvre, placing him in the context of neo-classicism and offering fascinating close readings of the director's most personal films.

Berthomieu's enthusiasm and speaking style is contagious, which explains why the video, at forty-eight minutes, runs longer than those usually posted by the Cinémathèque. Where other speakers are shy in front of the camera - reading their notes, looking away etc. - or deliver twice-told reiterations of the most commonly known director overviews, Berthomieu possesses personal charisma and originality of argument. He speaks really quickly and is rarely at a loss for words. He has a knack for changing topic mid-sentence, annotating what he is saying, and then smoothly returning to the original subject, which makes his argument even stronger and complex.

In a lot of these video lectures the speaker is either filmed in an office, against a wall or in an auditorium. But instead of this setting Berthomieu is filmed in a café. What does this add? It adds a cinematic dimension to the video as you can hear all of the background noises such as staff doing prep, conversations can be overheard, a phone rings, and cutlery falls. There is a shift in framing halfway through the video where instead of having his back to the wall, in a cut, Berthomieu changes positions to having his back against the windows of the café. This is significant as by the end of the lecture when Berthomieu is talking about the more serious and existential themes in Spielberg's films, nightfall slowly darkens the setting behind him - a visual compliment to the seriousness of the discussion.

The Berthomieu video also continues in a Positif tradition - in some ways it is similar to Michel Ciment in the great Billy Wilder documentary Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect’ Man - which blends film criticism with literary criticism in a setting where a sophisticated review is an end in itself.

Berthomieu has been a contributor to Positif since 1993. A general survey of his contributions would have to include: his reviews of Shakespeare adaptations; Classical Hollywood films (DeMille, Leissen, Welles, McCarey, Whales, Stahl, Ford); films by directors like Claude Lelouch, John Carpenter (Village of the Damned), Robert Lepage, Guy Maddin (Careful), Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Psycho), Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls), Michael Winterbottom, James Cameron (Titanic), Ridley Scott (G.I. Jane), Joe Dante (Small Soldiers), Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight), Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, John McTiernan (Thirteenth Warrior, Thomas Crown Affair), and George Lucas (Star Wars: Episode I & III). Berthomieu's only official Spielberg reviews in Positif are for The Lost World (N.411), Minority Report (N.500) and War of the World (N.535) even though he does bring him up sporadically. Now Berthomieu mostly contributes to the magazine's dossier section though his two most recent reviews were for Oliver Stone's Savages and Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.

Berthomieu is a film professor in France (some of his past students have even made him a fan page) where his official title is Maître de conférences en études cinématographiques à l'université Paris-Diderot (Paris Vll). He has also realized a medium-length feature, the action adventure Le Temps des Géants. Berthomieu's newest book, Hollywood moderne - le temps des voyants, builds upon his previous Hollywood classique - Le temps des géants, and will be part of a trilogy. Jean-Loup Bourget in reviewing Hollywood moderne - le temps des voyants in Positif  (N.604) writes,
"The reader who is familiar with Berthomieu will recognize his great and numerous merits: his encyclopedic knowledge of an immense corpus, which is rebellious for its risks of erasing hierarchies - Berthomieu doesn't worry about having a chapter on "Hollywood pornographique" - he excels at the art of reconciling macro- with micro-analysis, his is a global auteurism that nonetheless remains attentive to the roles of actors, collaborators, directors of photography, decorators and especially composers; there is a historic precision tied with a sensuality of description and a lyricism of writing; and a demonstration tied to illustrious pictures [...] The way I see it, Berthomieu's best quality is hisromanticism and his generosity."  
Berthomieu has also written books on the Star Wars series, Kenneth Branagh, Rouben Mamoulian, John Williams, and the role of music in films.

Finally, Berthomieu's video lecture stands out because it is the summit of all of the great French language Spielbergien film criticism (something that is sorely lacking in English language criticism). Other great essays on Spielberg in French include those in Cahiers by Jean-Sébastien Chauvin (cf. Attrape une image (si tu peux), N.577) and Stéphane Delorme on A.I. (c.f. Stanley Kubrick, 1990-1995, N.666) or in Positif by Robert Benayoun (cf. Le retour du plaisir, N.246) or Christian Viviani on Lincoln (Les moyens de la fin, N.624). Berthomieu seems to have synthesized all of the latter's points to be able to seriously and joyfully speak about one of today's greatest filmmakers.

The following is an abridged translation of Berthomieu's Présentation du cycle Steven Spielberg. - D.D.


I don't think that I need to present Steven Spielberg too much but regardless there are some biographic and historical factors that would be useful to know. Some people say that Spielberg came about during the New Hollywood period, grosso modo, which was a period of renaissance in Hollywood during the end of 60s to the 70s, along with directors like Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. The people that associate Spielberg with the New Hollywood, which is already contestable, say that Spielberg ended the movement. The writers that say this, there are some of them who are talented and others without talent, and this depends on what side of the Atlantic they are on, and the talentless writers are in the United States. The argument is that Spielberg with Close Encounters and Lucas with Star Wars ended a decade of creativity, the adult years of Hollywood, that was brought towards an infantilization of films and the public.

These theories are nuanced. I would say that Spielberg is a lot more classic. Especially compared to Scorsese, Lucas, de Palma and William Friedkin. Spielberg's early career is different then these other directors because he started out in TV. He started working when he was really young directing TV for Universal, which is unlike the path of the other directors. Spielberg started out directing TV at the end of the 60s working on shows like The Name of the Game, Columbo, and Night Gallery for Rod Serling from the The Twilight Zone. His episode Eyes of Night Gallery starred Joan Crawford. At the time Spielberg was starting out in television it was the medium that was the heir of classic Hollywood cinema where you can find all of the older generation actors and technicians. This distinguishes Spielberg from the other filmmakers, who are discovering cinema at university, like Lucas or others, that are trying to work and pour their anguish into their films, like De Palma or Scorsese. This, I think, is a strong point and a big difference.

The fact that he is working in the television medium, with all these older generation technicians who have worked on Classic Hollywood films, will come to really define his sensibility. Spielberg even at the beginning of his career up until now has always been a profoundly classic filmmaker. He does not try to be innovative like a Scorsese or a Friedkin or a de Palma. Spielberg would joke with his peers at the time when he was only in his twenties while everyone else were in their sixties. Spielberg's relationship with his long-time collaborators like his editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams are guys who are now in their eighties. These collaborators are older than him and come from a different generation than him but this is what Spielberg identifies with. There is also Janusz Kamiński who Spielberg met in Poland filming Schindler's List.

Spielberg's taste in films, as he is often associated with, are those of a passionate cinephile, just like Scorsese. But this does not happen at an early age. It is not until the 70s that Spielberg starts talking about his primary admiration and influence. The person who Spielberg says he feels the closest to is John Frankenheimer. The director Frankenheimer, who also came from television, is most known for his 50s films that include big action films and political thrillers. Formally the debt is evident: the real, the visceral, the urgency, and the physicality, which is at the heart of genre action cinema. This is all there in Spielberg like in Close Encounters, which is further elaborated by Spielberg in Munich, whose sort-of model is Frankenheimer's Black Sunday. This is the first influence.

Spielberg's style, even though it would evolve, has kept some of its fundamental characteristics. It would in some respects be built upon the following: his affinity for Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments (which is spotted on the TV in Close Encounters, and which influenced its story), and then finally the great Hollywood directors Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks. Spielberg would take the luxury to put this into his style, the irreconcilable mix of Ford and Hawks. From Ford there is the cinema of hierarchy and regimes, eulogy and tombs, and memory. From Hawks there is the direct characters who are falsely cynical and worried about doing a good job. Spielberg is able to bring the two of them together.

All of these examples demonstrate how Spielberg is a classic director, which presents a filmmaker who is different than people like Scorsese, De Palma, and Lucas. So when Spielberg made Close Encounters, which is a marriage between 70s filmmaking and Walt Disney, this might be seen as the end of New Hollywood, but instead it is just a heritage that is finally being completed and how his cinema is being transformed. So after Close Encounters, if you look at the first Indiana Jones ('81) by Spielberg and Lucas or E.T. ('82), this can be seen as a new beginning in the career of Spielberg: more openly expressive and flamboyant, more lyrical, and more detached from the realism and quotidian of the New Hollywood.

If you look at Spielberg's films from the 80s to the 00's from a broad perspective then they are impossible to characterize. Even though he returns to certain genres - science fiction films, action adventures - it is in no way systematic. He makes atypical films like Catch Me If You Can, films on sadly famous historical events like Schindler's List and little known historical events like Amistad - an uprising that would lead to the American Civil War - Spielberg would also make Empire of the Sun and continue his Indiana Jones series. So it is hard then to characterize Spielberg's fidelity to any one genre the way it is with, say, Hitchcock. Spielberg is loyal to his own sensibility, that of lyricism and flamboyancy. Those that don't like him would probably call these traits sentimental and naive, but for those that do, they call it lyrical and flamboyant and expressive. Though this isn't too important.

What I find to be important about Spielberg as a director is that he chooses strong projects from which he makes models and forms. To make E.T.. It is sad that it would probably be hard to make it today by a young filmmaker, but to have such a young filmmaker like Spielberg make it when he did, as well as Close Encounter, this was Spielberg throwing new forms into the science fiction genre. Indiana Jones was really influential and so was Saving Private Ryan. All of these inspired aesthetic changes in their respective genre. Saving Private Ryan specifically affected the war film genre with its slow motion and extremely detailed shots. This was started by Spielberg. A lot of contemporary TV, so shows like Spartacus, or Zack Snyder's 300 owe their dept to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

By being a creator of forms and by throwing these models out there on a regular basis, Spielberg slowly became indifferent to trends and other models, as it can be said of Sergei Eisenstein and Cecil B. DeMille. So now in the 2000 years Spielberg is making a performance capture film Tintin after James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis made theirs. And it isn't like that there is a high demand for the American public for a Tintin film as he is a comic book hero that is practically unknown there. Spielberg's world is disconnected with the contemporaneous one.

Because the post-production was taking so long for Tintin, I imagine Spielberg got bored, and because he likes to film with a certain reality, he decides to make another film. War Horse, the story between a young man and his horse during the First World War. Yes, he could make it, but it has nothing to do with contemporary times. Spielberg is a director who is indifferent to all trends and models. Just like a few years after Saving Private Ryan he made Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, and then following in the pessimistic world cinema trend by making War of the Worlds and then to do something different again he makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and then Tintin and then War Horse. So I would say that Spielberg is a cineaste that has remained loyal to his temperament and who remains at a royal position where he can be indifferent to trends.

If I had to be a historian of cinema and had to pick Spielberg's most important films... There is Duel because it is his first full-length feature and where a lot of his style is already there. Then Close Encounters because it is important as his themes and the masterful style is already there. And then there is Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan as examples of the important subjects that he tackles, where he looks to history for its lessons and their moral example. Spielberg looks towards these fraught moments in history for situations that can be seen as examples. In these moments of spiritual crisis and within so much darkness, for example during the Holocaust, Spielberg tries to find one moment of spiritual illumination. In Saving Private Ryan, there is the one mission of saving amongst all of the war and destruction. Do eight people need to die to only save one? There are no easy answers.

This is one official-like representative overview of his films, but there is a lot else to like and to discover in the films of Spielberg.

I think one of Spielberg's regrets might be that he never made a musical. I don't think that he regrets being a filmmaker but he is someone who has said if he wasn't a filmmaker he would be a chief of an orchestra or musician. This has never happened and the reasons might be because he never had the opportunity or perhaps it had to do with a lack of talent. Though Spielberg has always wanted to make a musical and perhaps the closest film to this is Hook, which he wanted to make into one with John Williams who had already made a score for it. He did it punctually in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Cole Porter song but he has never did it in a large scale.

I think that even if a filmmaker makes something different and outside of his comfort zone, you can still spot what makes him unique. So when Spielberg does not have the historical force of grand subjects and he can only film a person in an airport, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal or the woman who lost her partner in Always, he has never been as intimate.

Spielberg is firstly a scenographer. He is good at editing and mixing, but most importantly he is great at set design. The Terminal is a perfect example, which reflects the Bush era United States through an airport. The story is about a Eastern European immigrant stuck in an airport terminal, who discovers English from the television while watching footage of the American Civil War, and he can't return to his country or go into this new one. But I think that this is a film that reflects Spielberg's relationship with space: he takes a comedian who is a star, Tom Hanks, a nice guy, in the tradition of films from the 30s he will be playing a European immigrant, and it will be about his romance with, in a fairy tale style, a rich woman Catherine Zeta Jones. The set design of the film will then into a lyrical mode, a romantic register, and then towards the burlesque while the characters go back-and-forth in the airport.

The mise en scène is exemplary, it has a sort of perfection. I think that this is a film that Spielberg holds dearly. First off, because it is the only film where his signature, and that of his collaborators, arrives at the ending of the film. It was a small little film without a big subject and that wasn't commercially successful. So what is the Tom Hanks character's goal in the US? He has a little box, which he says is for his father, which is full of jazz memorabilia. The father is dead and Hanks as a good son is there to get one last signature from one of the greats, Benny Golson. Because a signature is the trace of something singular that once existed. Hanks gets the signature but doesn't stay in the US - this is a longer subject - he goes for the jazz and then he leaves. So there is a equilibrium in the film between the scenography and how important feelings arise from these moments of little forms.

The Terminal also shows Spielberg as a master of tonal variations. This does not mean the mixing of genre but instead the variation of tones. One example, Hanks invites Jones to dinner in a scene that blends the tones of a romantic comedy with those of a fairy tale and with the bitter overtones of discovering that Jones is having an affair with a married man. So they are at dinner together and Hanks is anxious about her cellphone maybe ringing. Now in the background there is the Indian cleaner who is now improvising as a server, and not a good one, and who is spinning plates and then drops them. So now in background there is some burlesque, and in the foreground there is romantic-comedy which is verging towards melodramatic cynicism.

We wouldn't expect this shifting of tones from the Spielberg of Close Encounters. We might have guessed it around Indiana Jones, where in an interview he says, "I want to mix the style of Michael Curtiz with that of Preston Sturges." And I think that in the 2000 years it is the most complete marriage of this tendency as we can see it in films that we wouldn't expect like Minority Report. It's a science fiction film. Tom Cruise with a new face goes to see the precogs and to get in he has his original eyes in a bag that he will need to scan - we are now in a scene of urgency, which was preceded by one of action - and he is scanning his eyes and then one falls down and rolls away and he now he has to chase it. We are now in the burlesque. This is an audacity that few filmmakers can let themselves have, because when they do this, they then need to reorient the public. Spielberg can do this in a way that is extraordinary. More so in The Terminal than in Minority Report.

Spielberg is a scenographer, a mixer of forms and tonalities. So lets then look at his less known films and try to find what is essentially Spielbergian about them because they just might be the more representative of his personality. I'm thinking about a film like Always in particular.

Here is a contrast that I like to make: Always came out in 1989, a period that is seen as a low point for Spielberg, when he is searching for something else, and it comes right before the third Indiana Jones - a series that he is masterful at - and after Empire in the Sun and The Color Purple, which are films that are perceived to be his attempt to be a serious filmmaker, as perceived by Academy where he is nominated for Oscars. When Spielberg makes movies about giant sharks or dinosaurs he isn't being serious, but when he is dealing with racism or WWII he is being serious. And by the way, Spielberg has won Oscars for these serious films.

But I think that Empire in the Sun is an essential film for Spielberg's filmography. It is the film that inspired him to look at the 40s, the years of the war and the after-war, that best reflect his sensibility, for the moral and the existential problems that these times pose, as for the innocence that existed, which doesn't mean the same thing as a naïveté, but a way to balance the times of harmony with those chaos, which have a specific consequence. That is what works so well for him.

After these two films, Spielberg is trying to find his way. Always is perhaps his most unknown film, some people don't even know it exists.The French title of Always is Pour Toujours. Three years later Spielberg would make Jurassic Park which is one of his most famous films.The contrast here is between Jurassic Park, which if I would like to talk about, I would bring up the mastery of his technical and formal abilities. I remember seeing it when it came out with the sensation that I just saw something that was perfect, and how American cinema excels at telling certain stories, which might sound like an exaggeration, but here we are talking about Spielberg. I'm specifically referring to how effective information is disseminated in each frame, the rhythm, the themes of the film, the gaze, and the dinosaurs. And then there is Richard Attenborough, an adult-child, who is practically cradled by John Williams' score.

Always on the other hand might seem imperfect. I see it as attaching and poignant: you can see the variations of tones, there is the burlesque via John Goodman whose performance is reminiscent of silent films, and there are the aviators and the fire prevention pilots. Always is a remake of a film from the 40s by Victor Flemming, A Guy Named Joe. In Always Richard Dreyfuss is a pilot, and he has difficulty telling his girlfriend that he loves her, and the day that he does say it to her from the plane, the jets are so loud, that she can't hear him. He goes on a mission that would be his last. He dies. He goes to heaven where he is addressed to by Audrey Hepburn and is given the task to accompany his girlfriend as she is grieving, who will never be able to see him because he is a ghost. While he is doing this he discovers who she is now dating. This successor, some have said was a mistake of casting, which doesn't happen often with Spielberg as he knows what works and what doesn't. He knows what the public likes and because he takes risk in terms of mise en scène - which is why some people like him and others not - he does not risk with actors. He isn't like a Kubrick or a Scorsese that go for an extreme expressiveness when it comes to actors, Spielberg is more tame and he encourages them to be more natural, more in vein of Classical Hollywood. Some people say this successor character is mediocre, a fad or just ridiculous. But if we expect him to be a character that is just a fad or ridiculous, so there, it works now.

Always is a film that is about the after-life and bereavement. The structure forces Spielberg to be more intimate, and in it he is able to capture some great sequences. In one scene Holly is listening to their song, but Dreyfuss is right there, and she dances to it, and they dance together without touching. Spielberg is great at choreographing that they are dancing together, and that she doesn't know it, but the presence of the spirituality is there. Never has Spielberg done anything this intimate or strong before. There is another great sequence at the end, where Holly Hunter is in a cabin speaking to herself, but with the ghost of Dreyfuss also in the room.

Spielberg uses these tales to touch upon a spirituality. He uses tales, like WWII or the Holocaust, that show examples of saving and terror. He uses these tales to provide access to moments of spirituality, revelation, and a shaking up. A movie like Schindler's List is a story of a conversion, a conversion of a man who is an opportunist, but he is hit by the spectacle of the terror, and becomes a man. This might explain some of the more problematic aspects of the film but in this awfulness a spirituality can be found.

So Always is in this territory, it broaches at these moments of spirituality, grief, and the intuition of thinking that the deceased person is still there, and it is about this ability to connect with a past loved one. It also has Williams' first minimalist score. Always was made in a period of metamorphoses in the cinema of Spielberg. It is a shame that too few people went to go see it, perhaps the variation of tone was too much.

Some people have said that the death of Stanley Kubrick did a lot of good for Steven Spielberg as it got rid of a parent figure that was intrusive. Though Spielberg admired him, he never tried to be a clone or take too much influence. You can say the one film by Kubrick that most inspired Spielberg is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also influenced many other science fiction films. And the one Kubrick film that Spielberg says that he prefers is Paths of Glory. But when I say that it was a good thing for Spielberg is that when Kubrick died the rank of the world's best filmmaker was now empty, according to the press and the critics. And simultaneously Spielberg's films, perhaps because of their more serious subjects, has been getting more favorable reviews, and were getting further analyzed. This takes place in the early 2000s. So for the critics after seeing Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg has become a more serious and adult filmmaker who isn't scared to go towards the darker areas of his imagination.

I partly agree with this new approach to Spielberg that takes into account his darker outlook towards America and politics. But in reality the somber and misanthropic aspect of his work has always been there since the beginning. Spielberg was always inspired by war, chaos, and monsters. He was never too luminary or bright. He is a utopian and an idealist but this is compatible with his misanthropy. Spielberg paints the worst in people and also the capabilities of people to do the best thing, which is to save a life. But this does not counter-balance their worst tendencies. I don't know if the 2000 years have necessarily changed that, but it might be that more of the critics started noticing this, in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

If you look at a film like A.I. which is one of Spielberg's most impressive and important films. The films of Spielberg's that I like the most are those with a virtuosity of mise en scène like Always, The Terminal and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But A.I. is one of the rare Spielberg films that I went into with some doubt. The other one was The Lost World, which I asked myself why is he making a sequel? Hasn't he already said everything there was to say about this subject? As a matter of fact, no, as he takes it into another direction. But with A.I. I worried that since Spielberg inherited this project from the master that he might be just fall under this syndrome, as if Spielberg would be directing with the ghost of Kubrick looking over him. As a matter of fact, no, it is not that.  

A.I. is a film of three voices: we can't ignore the Kubrick themes, which Spielberg would build upon, it is also very Spielbergian - with Close Encounters, this is Spielberg's only other original screenplay - but there is also Chris Baker who created the film's concept art and story boards. The sets in A.I. are just as precise and detailed as anything in Fangorn. Now I think that its first half is quite cold which is Kubrickien and that the second half with its fairy tale is quite Spielbergien. And then there is its last sequence that confuses a lot of people. This is one of Spielberg's most complex structures. Here Spielberg is inspired by the ideas of Kubrick which brings him to explore the dark territory of misery and metaphysical anguish. The boy's plight poses a lot of questions pertaining childhood and family troubles, which Spielberg holds dear.

A.I. asks serious questions about what it means to be a human. What is the difference between a a man and a robot? And the film does this complex thing where by the end we are identifying with the robot. A.I. asks questions about what is man and spirituality. This has been a question that has been asked in philosophy for a long time. John Williams in describing the film puts it quite nicely, which is how does one end this story? David has to end in a suicide. The fairy tale ends in a tragedy. So A.I. asks these essential metaphysical questions. The Ben Kingsley voice-over is actually that of a robot who is alive after all of the humans are now dead and gone. The android David is being viewed as one of its last human artifacts. The distinctions between what is a human and a robot have been blurred. Where does spirituality fit into all of this? These are some of the metaphysical enigmas that make A.I. such a rich film.

Pierre Berthomieu