Bonnie and Clyde

May 14, 2010

I must say that I really enjoyed Matthew Bernstein’s article, “Perfecting the New Gangster.” I’ve always really loved Bonnie and Clyde, yet I hadn’t really read much on the film, this was a great article. I knew that Truffaut had been interested in making Bonnie and Clyde, but I didn’t really know the story behind it. I’d always known Arthur Penn to have a very artistic style that seemed influenced by the New Wave, but it was nice to see it confirmed in this article. I’d previously seen the film Mickey One (1964), which was a sort of surreal noir film that deals with a stand up comics paranoia of feeling he is going to be assasinated at any time (which also starred Warren Beatty). But Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde takes on the generation, as something more defining. Like Bernstein’s article points out, both Bonnie and Clyde represent the 60s youth culture and flower children. In some ways, Bonnie and Clyde can be seen as a precursor to Easy Riders characters who meet a similar fatal end. Both evoke a similar spirit concerning America.

David Newton and Robert Benton created a timely script in the wake of the New Waves interest in the 30s and 40s gangster film. Previous films like Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Godard’s Band of Outsiders played with ideas about romance and crime, it makes a lot of sense that Bonnie and Clyde would appeal to them, yet Truffaut’s input in the script was a real surprise to me. Through all the massive re-writes it seems that they hit the perfect balance of an early gangster film mixed with a modern New Wave approach.

The films sexuality seems to be a curious one, with Clyde being impotent homosexual and Bonnie being the sexual aggressor. The film seems to be examining the changing sexual identities of the youth of the 60s, while crating anti-heroes out of criminals (the film the Harder They Come would do the same thing a few years later). The characters criminal exploits make them enemy outsiders of a bigger establishment (the banks), which American the youths of the 60s related to. Bonnie and Clyde’s pace can be seen as modernist in approach, as the editing crucially gives the film a hectic speediness right up to the bloody final. The ending was a real jaw dropper for me when I first saw it, for I was not prepared for the bloody shoot out.

Charulata

May 7, 2010

Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) is a cinematic masterpiece dealing with female modernity. Charu is presented as a lonely wife, who observes her surroundings through binocular opera glasses. Unable to connect to her surroundings (her home is made up of British colonial furniture and paintings) and her husband (Bhupati)  is a workaholic for the Sentinel newspaper. Her husband’s cousin Amal arrives and ends up showing her the attention she has been starving for. Through their interactions, Charu begins to express herself through writing, and eventually gets published in a respected newspaper.

Charu represents the dutiful wife who can be seen embroidering her husbands initial on a handkerchief during the opening credits. The misplaced identity of Charu’s hands and her husband’s initial, fuses the two together, creating a woman whose existence is owned by her husband. Even when she takes to Amal, the first thing she does is stitch him a book so that he can write, yet her motives are strangely self serving, for she only wants Amal to write to her and not publish it. It is actually on Charu who is strong and brave enough to identify her love and be visibly open about it. Amal runs away, as not to upset her Bhupati, and Charu breaks down expressing her deep sadness. Though the film ends with a suspended scene of unification, I suspect her husband will be able to understand and forgive his wife due to his own negligence in providing attention. Yet what is left for Charu? Does she continue to live life as observer? I love that Ray shows the scene of Charu’s hand swaying with binoculars, to the hand swaying with her writing. It’s as if Charu has transformed from observer to participator. Will she continue to express herself through writing?

Charu seems to be most alive during the scene that is set outdoors and she is swinging. It is the first time we see her outdoors, and the first time she seems to be expressing an exhilarating sense of freedom. It is only when she returns to the swing, that the place of symbolic freedom gives life to her imagination and she begins to write. What she writes about the viewer does not know. I wonder if it’s a future prediction or a past thought, or possibly both.

The New Wave period between 1958- 1967 is quite possibly the most exciting period of cinema for me. Modernist approach seemed to take over across the world, and the films released between this time were artistically and politically challenging. For the first time, many young directors emerged with either the benefit of film criticism or film school. Newer approaches in cinema style were being tested, either in editing (Godard’s jump cuts), cinematography (Raoul Coutard’s noir influenced photography), directing (Antonioni’s director’s gaze), storytelling (Truffaut’s autobiographical Antoine Doinel series), choreography (Demy’s poetic and lyrical musicals), and characterization (U.K.’s brooding social melodramas). This period defined artistic stylizations, that would pave the way as well as reshapening Hollywood in the 70s.

Film History’s Chapter 20 breaks down the different countries contributions to this period of filmmaking. The most written about directors of this period seem to stem from France, and quite a few of the directors got their start writing for Cahiers du cinema. Truffaut and Godard also tend to be the poster boys of this movement, yet I’ll add that it was Claude Chabrol who produced the first film of the bunch (subsequently he’s made the most films) and  yet his strongest work tends to start at around 1967 and continued until the early 70s. Due to DVD releases, Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales series has gained more admirers recently, yet Jacques Rivette’s work is curiously impossible to find (Rivette’s 1971, 773 minute “Out 1” is an absolute Holy Grail for me). The wonderful Agnes Varda has been gaining newer admirers as well, as she continues to create ground breaking work.

One director that undeservedly gets little attention is Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski’s Identification Marks: None, Walkover, Barriers, Le Depart, and Deep End are all amazing films that challenge sexuality, politics and obsession. Yet to this date none of his early films have had either VHS or DVD releases, leaving one to wait for a retrospective at an arthouse cinema (Anthology Film Archives finally had one a couple of years ago which was amazing!) Skolimowski’s first three films challenged Poland’s political state, which inadvertantly halted the release of one of his films (“Hand’s Up”) for nearly 10 years. He’s a director that should be evaluated a little bit more.

This is a really fascinating time for cinema that I urge everyone to check out.

Double Indemnity

March 12, 2010

James M. Cain’s bitter, melodrama, became a crime masterpiece under the guidance of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s edgy screenplay. Yet it is Wilder’s brilliant direction that transforms Double Indemnity into  a quintessential Noir film. With Fred MacMurray as the loser protagonist, Barbara Stanwyck as the cool femme fatale, and a cigar chewing Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s boss and amateur sleuth, all the essential elements of Noir conventions are in place. Double Indemnity would almost be a parody in Film Noir, had it not taken itself so seriously, which it does for there is very little humor to fill the dark shadows.

MacMurray is a cocky, self-assured life insurance sales man, who is first introduced to Stanwyck at her home. As Stanwyck’s feet descend down the stairs, salesman MacMurray is transfixed by her ankle bracelet, which cuts into her skin. She gives mention that she was out sunbathing, yet very little sunlight can be found in this film from here on out, for as her intentions to kill her husband and collect on the freshly written insurance plan, there can be no more sunny days as darkness engulfs the characters. Though Stanwyck represents a sort of spider woman who catches MacMurray in her web, I find it interesting that she refuses to glimpse at her husband when he is being murdered.

Wilder’s direction plays a lot with darkness and shadows, which can be seen as a form closely resembling German expressionism. Throughout the interiors, reflections of Venetian blinds are projected upon the characters, as well as other abstract shadowy patterns. The constant foreboding atmosphere is for-shadowed when MacMurray limps on to the train acting as Stanwyck’s injured husband (who is actually at this time dead). Just as MacMurray steps into the husband’s identity, he also steps into his fate. Not only does he embody a victim, he must ritually go through the motions of the victim’s death. Making conversation with a passenger and then jumping from the train, MacMurray, then places the dead husband on the tracks where he has just jumped. It’s interesting to note that an insurance salesman has not only stolen a man’s wife, but has stolen his very identity right on down to his actual fate.

It should be noted that director John Cassavetes’ last film Big Trouble parodied Double Indemnity in the 80s at around the same time that Lawrence Kasdan was paying serious homage to it with his film Body Heat.

When watching Citizen Kane, I’ve always felt that Gregg Toland’s input was always understated in history book. Yet, through recent years Toland has been receiving more and more credit for his cinematography on Citizen Kane. One only needs to watch his earlier cinema graphic efforts (like Dead End. Wuthering Heights and Grapes of Wrath) to see that the look of Citizen Kane is more Toland than Welles. Carringer’s article does a good job bringing to light Toland’s efforts. Though through the article I also realized that maybe Welles had more input than I’d previously thought. With such ground breaking techniques as deep-focus, log takes, low-angle and a variety of compositional camera angles, Citizen Kane revolutionized movie making as a true art form.

Tolland was not just a cinematographer but a technical innovator as well. Carringer refers to Toland as a “gadgeteer” who could make any gadgets work for him. Many processes and devices that are in use to this day were invented by Toland. Toland made good use of BNC camera, which allowed him to film action in close proximity. Despite typical halo effects derived from shooting directly into light, Toland was able to eliminate this effect by removing the sliding aperture from the lens and added an insert that was normally be used for still photography. This was called a “waterhouse stop.” During Citizen Kane, Welles would often encourage Toland’s tinkering.

Despite all that Toland brought to the filming of Citizen Kane, it was through Welles’ encouragement that Toland was able to master many of his experiments. Where in earlier film like The Long Voyage Home, some of Toland’s work is at odds with the directors intentions; Citizen Kane works a harmonious integration between director and cinematographer. A new sense of reality is born in the film, mixing Toland’s reality with that of Welles’ showmanship.

Though Toland’s work is remarkable in Citizen Kane and he was nominated as best cinematographer by the Academy, he lost out to Arthur Miller for How Green Was My Valley. It is through this decision that makes obvious the resentment that the Academy felt about Citizen Kane, which is possibly due to Hearst, who had been trying to put a stop to the film upon its release. Apparently, Hearst was upset at the way his wife was portrayed in the film (see documentary on Hearst Vs. Kane). Though after so many years, Citizen Kane is finally recognized as one of the crowning achievements in film history.

I’d first introduced myself to the work of Preston Sturges back in 1990, when I got my first video store job. Though to this day I have not seen all of his films, I have seen a good portion of them. Interestingly, the film that I love the most by him is barely touched upon in the article by James Harvey. Sturges’ 1942 film Sullivan’s Travels is for me, Sturges’ greatest realized work. With everything that Harvey writes about Sturges, it’s surprising to me that he fails to see comparisons between Sturges’ life and that of Sullivan’s Travels. The film begins with a film director who wants to make a gritty film about human suffering which the producers would like to talk him out of. Interestingly the film Sullivan wants to make is called “Brother O, Where Art Thou?” which the Coen Brothers slyly borrowed as the title for their 2000 release with George Clooney (was their film to be the realized work that Sullivan wanted to make?) Sullivan’s Travels was to be Sturges’ cult classic that which has been written about in the Cult Movies 2 book by Danny Perry, yet the film is merely mentioned by Harvey; as “a film about a filmmaker- was too unorthodox a picture to be really popular.”

Most people I’ve spoken with concerning Sturges’ work tend to site Lady Eve as their favorite, and I can see why. Lady Eve is a prime example of a screwball comedy, and both Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are in top form (Henry Fonda is especially effective with his pratfalls), yet I prefer Sullivan’s Travels’ chemistry with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Joel McCrea always seemed like a modern actor for the time and Veronica Lake has never looked so beautiful. Even when Veronica Lake is dressed like a male hobo, Joel McCrea responds, “you look about as much as a boy as Mae West.” The film is filled with many funny great lines, yet at the heart of the film is an extremely serious tone that probably confused audience expectations.

When reading James Harvey’s piece on Preston Stuges it’s amazing to me how personal Sullivan’s Travels seems. Like the director in the film, Sturges appears to have tried to tackle more serious topics in films, but only to fall back on comedies. And as John Sullivan (the director of the film) sets out on his journey of self-discovery, he finds that after living a hard life with people he intended to make his gritty film of human suffering for, he realizes that they would rather laugh at a comedy then be subjected to more misery. Never has a film taught me the importance and necessity of comedy as entertainment. I imagine that Sturges himself must have had some kind of similar revelation. The fact that the character John Sullivan is a divorcee also draws parallels between character and director, I’m sure Sturges had a few axes to grind after his divorces.

Preston Surges is really one of the very great directors of the 40s, and I highly recommend everyone to check out more of his work. Many that have discovered his work have become big fans and for good reason. Most of Sturges’ films are really funny but more than that they have something to say about our society (Sullivan’s Travels), politics (The Great McGinty), advertising (Christmas In July), wealth (The Palm Beach Story) and sexual one-night-stands (The Miracle of Morgan Creek). In my opinion Preston Sturges is an exciting discovery for anyone interested in screwball comedies or just good films.