a new low in topical enlightenment

Monday, July 20, 2009

Issue #3 (July 22, 2009)

In the waters off San Blas, Mexico

Photo by Doug Cawker


mister versatility
has turned to pedalling
since the prose
he was riding
got taken apart
by the pros
volcanic vales
oceanic blues
foundered vessels
and atolls for thee

a different prayer
for every sailor
lost at sea

(Chris Collins)

Cinematic Bits:

Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904)

French physiologist and pioneer of photography and cinema. His motion picture work primarily focused on bird and animal locomotion. See his film on blood circulation -– achieved by adapting his motion picture camera to a microscope.

We can’t have blood and not have some insects.

Dimitri Kirsanoff (1899-1957)

Born someplace in Estonia and started making films in Paris in the early 1920s.
Watch the opening axe murder from his most well known film Menilmontant (1926) –- told through all images, no titles. Superimpositions, abstractions, montage -- an interesting early experimental narrative.

Chips from the woodshed of Chris Collins:

Reviews written upon the release of a well regarded film are typically more illuminating. Vincent Canby's negative assessment of the Godfather Part II (1974) points out its main fault: the novelty of its twin narrative structure can't substitute for the relentless chain-of-events momentum which was original's great virtue. Beyond that, it doesn't have much to add. The moral transformation of Michael Corleone, the heart of the story, is for all meaningful purposes complete when the first movie ends.

"Lunch? This is bigger than lunch!"

The cinematic medium -- so capital- and manpower-intensive -- is not kind to the wholly impractical-minded. Director Michael Cimino's film Heaven's Gate (1980), conceptualized as something like the ultimate western, was hamstrung from the shooting stage by bad word of mouth and Cimino's cost-indifferent style. The final product, visually lush and dramatically slack, was purely his baby, and its quick, fruitless theatrical run pushed United Artists, the studio then considered most hospitable to ambitious filmmakers, into bankruptcy. The documentary Final Cut (2004), based on UA vice president Stephen Bach's book of the same name, is the story of one auteur's dream, one auteur's profligacy.

The Soviet Heaven's Gate?

Osvobozhdenie [Liberation] (1969), a little seen war epic, narrates -- over several hours -- the whole of World War Two from the Russian perspective, and looks to be as brash as Heaven's Gate is torpid. The battle scenes have the iron-and-diesel-fumes power of laborious pre-CGI cinema while the soundtrack mimics the crashing gigantism of Shostakovich. The clunky acting may not necessarily detract from the effect. Which sunk the Soviet economy, the arms race or this movie?

Here's a sample depicting the 1943 Kursk Offensive (Operation Citadel), Germany's failed bid to regain the upper hand following the debacle of Stalingrad. Watch, and consider the fact that many of the German officers and men captured in the war still languished in Russian captivity while this film was being made. They would never be released.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the hard-drive of Joe Carducci:

The history of non-professional actors is right there alongside the accepted official history of hall-of-fame Great Thespian Portrayals in the films as they run on TCM, at MoMA, the Siskel, and the Cinematheque. But as a tradition it’s invisible, completely swamped by Broadway gush about the Barrymores or Frank Langella, by Off-Broadway’s counter-history of Brando and Dean, and by studio nostalgia in all flavors of corn: MGM’s James Stewart and Clark Gable; Warner’s James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart; 20th Century-Fox’s Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy; Paramount’s William Powell and Randolph Scott; RKO’s Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum…. At least the nostalgists know the work of the players I’m talking about.

As film critic Otis Ferguson put it in 1940:

The movies had the means and the press-agent flamboyance to screen-test anything that could get out of bed and walk. They didn’t have to develop a school of acting. They accumulated, from all the fields of entertainment, including real life, a gallery of natural types such as was never seen on the face of the earth.
(Accent, The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, Temple)

Each studio had its own gallery of types. Universal made their comedies and romances but their gallery included star Boris Karloff to play the monster or madman, against support type Maria Ouspenskaya whose job it was to play spooky old hags from the Carpathian Mountains. Fox didn’t need one of those; they had Will Rogers so they needed Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit. Walter Brennan famously had one question when he was cast in a film, “With or without?” Brennan needed to know whether he was being cast with teeth or without teeth. Of course there was more to it – he set the standard playing helpless humanizing side-kicks to hardened heroes like Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) or James Stewart in The Far Country (1954), but he also excelled at playing frightening villains who drove the plot in films like The Westerner (1940), and My Darling Clementine (1946). Not bad for silent era stuntman.

Walter Huston, a lead on Broadway who came to Hollywood with sound, played more interesting characters for possessing a harder, older look than typical. He slipped to support roles but nevertheless resisted his son John’s entreaties to play the old prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) without his false teeth. He finally agreed and the adaptation of B. Traven’s novel was a great success. That bit of visual truth that changes the look of the face, the sound of the voice, that makes a character look and sound as if he’s lived a life that’s taken a toll, is not duplicable by mere method chops or make-up. Huston had played impressive, forbidding figures in excellent films like The Virginian (1929), Abraham Lincoln (1930), The Criminal Code (1931), The Beast of the City (1932), and Dodsworth (1936), but all it took was taking out the teeth and he’s cackling away at the existential absurdity as it drives the younger characters (Bogart, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett) mad.

I recently saw The Bad Man (1940) and its rogues gallery of types schtick their way through lines adapted to them and further polished by each actor: Wallace Beery as the bandido, Lionel Barrymore as the wheelchair-bound ranch owner, Henry Travers as the craven banker, Jack Conway as the swindler from the city, Laraine Day as the upstanding beauty, Nydia Westman as the homely ranchgirl who’d like nothing better than to be abducted to Mexico by Beery, Ronald Reagan as the man of the American southwest, Chill Wills as his trailhand, Chris-Pin Martin as the bandido’s henchman, and Charles Stevens as his second. Of course it’s not a real western, it’s MGM and based on a Broadway hit. But the Porter Emerson Browne play, filmed twice before, gives the stock character hokum smart shape as Beery not only heads off both the banker’s and the oil-man’s swindles, he also repairs the various crossed lovers to their proper mates. And the players work it for all its worth. All director Richard Thorpe has to do is match the exteriors to the sets and connect the dots in rhythm. It ends with Beery racing on horseback to stop Travers from filing the mortgage, and hauling Barrymore in his wheelchair behind him across the desert. No masterpiece but no-one asked for a refund.

One of the best summary descriptions of silent era film production as nickelodeon novelties became feature films is the Allan Dwan interview that Peter Bogdanovich conducted in 1968. Here the question is about casting:

I remember the first actor I ever knew was a fellow named King Baggott. He was a good movie actor in his day – a very third-rate actor in the theatre – but thoroughly ashamed of being in pictures. Yet he was a star and making good money. Finally he relaxed and said, ‘I guess this is my forte,’ and he stayed in. But our actors came from anywhere – we picked them up and trained them. They’d come to your gate in the morning to see if there was any work, and you’d bring them in. You’d ask one to do a little bit of business and he’d do it pretty well, and first thing you know there’s a fellow who’s intelligent, so you’d keep him in mind. He might turn into quite an actor. Girls were a natural. Children are great actors because they’re always making believe. As a rule women could make-believe more readily than men. A man gets embarrassed. But they learn and if there’s money in it, they’ll try. And, of course, our cowboys were cowboys, and they were very natural, very real. Nearly 90 percent of the Western actors in all pictures are fellows who at one time or another were associated with cattle.
(Who the Devil Made It, Knopf)

Russian director-writer-actor-film theorist, Vsevolod Pudovkin, lectured cinematographers in 1933 on his use of “non-actors” and considered that unlike on the stage, in film their performances “at times can serve as an example to be followed by experienced actors.” (Film Technique & Film Acting, Bonanza) The Soviet cinema had a cult for authenticity as well, at least until Stalin the cinephile stamped out formalist experiments for a “realism” that resurrected the hoariest stage-bound dramaturgy.

The writer Lillian Ross was a friend of John Huston’s and grabbed the opportunity to cover the entire production of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), starting at the shoot on Huston’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley, then to MGM in Culver City, and finally on to its parent company Loew’s offices on Broadway. It’s a fine book called Picture (Andre Deutsch) that was first a multi-part New Yorker essay titled “Production Number 1512” that ran in May and June of 1952. But the prime evidence of Huston’s bold vision, his cast (Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Andy Devine, Smith Ballew, Glenn Strange…) did not much interest her. Odd, given Ross’ other successful book, Player – A Profile of an Art, is nothing but profiles of 56 actors, again spun from her work in the magazine. Those profiles are naturally come from a New Yorker’s idea of actors – from the stage… song-and-dance men…. Had the film been one of the Huston-Bogart productions one imagines Ross would not have ignored the cast. Audie Murphy had no pretense that he was an actor; he wrote author Charles Whiting, “As an actor, I’d make a good stunt man.” (Hero, Scarborough House) But Murphy was inspired by John Huston here and later in The Unforgiven (1960). Ross manages to catch Huston comparing Royal Dano to his father Walter (they’d just made Treasure), but her book’s one bit of insight into Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII, then in the third year of his film career, occurs in the MGM commissary:

Drawing deeply on his cigarette, [Huston] looked down through the smoke at the table and brushed away some shreds of tobacco.

Murphy fixed his gaze on the windows along the far wall.

Huston looked at him. "Excited, kid?" he asked.

"Seems as though nothing can get me excited any more – you know, enthused?" he said. "Before the war, I’d get excited and enthused about a lot of things, but not any more."

"I feel the same way, kid," said Huston.

(Picture, Andre Deutsch)

Murphy grew up dirt poor in the large family of a drunk in east Texas; he rationed bullets by never missing the squirrels needed for dinner. He thence shot over two hundred fascists in Italy like they were squirrels. His boyish countenance was somehow convincing when claiming he’d never felt young, or when softly threatening a drunken, much larger Laurence Tierney at a party in Bel Air. In his book, To Hell and Back (Henry Holt) he boiled his strategy down to “Destroy and survive.” Fame hit him after he was incapable of excitement for deeds one doesn’t dwell on. From his one letter home: “I like the army fine so far, they let you sleep till 5:30. On the farm I had to get up at 4.” (No Name on the Bullet, Penguin)

In Hollywood he slept with a gun under his pillow, and gambled away his money just slightly faster than he made it. His friend Budd Boetticher told me he didn’t think Murphy’s 1971 death was an accident. They had both recently finished what was to be the last film for each of them, A Time for Dying (1971), which was in part a deal-within-a-deal to make good on Murphy’s debts; the film bombed, the plane crashed. Doesn’t seem likely, but given Murphy’s richness as a character himself, its testament to the need for this book, that Ross, even as a friend of Huston, did not understand there was anything to Murphy, or the rest of the cast. Instead her book details with New Yorker insouciance, the absurd world of the studio system already fretting about television. It is funny to hear the MGM-Loew’s apparats and majordomos trying to make sense of this Americana art film that Nick Schenck had let Dore Shary allow John Huston to make over the objection of Louis B. Mayer. Si Seadler, Loew’s eastern advertising manager is quoted,

The picture was beautiful but it was just a vignette. As soon as Mr. Schenck saw the picture, we knew it was a flop. Let’s just say it was a flop d’estime. I guess that’s the way Mr. Schenck would put it.
(Picture, Andre Deutsch)

And yet all male actors in the post-WWII era, when playing serious, somber, sober scenes are doing their best to channel the untrained authenticity of actors such as Carey, Wayne, Murphy…

Acting as metaphysical transcendence is easily overblown by voluptuaries like the Actor’s Studio’s James Lipton. CNN’s Larry King and PBS’s Charlie Rose fall off the deep end regularly too. TCM’s Robert Osbourne seems intimidated to have an actor before him on the set though he is best prepared. Public Radio’s Terry Gross is impertinent enough to get more out of her interviews for all her ignorance. Still I prefer how one of Raymond Pettibon’s screenplays channels or maybe tunnels the metaphysics of stardom. In the script, now the basis for a minor motion picture, a Cary Grant-type tells a young actor:

It felt funny, sitting there, front row center, getting studio-head head, while I’m watching myself from the screen. I was so nervous, it felt so eerie, that it took me forever to come, and when I did I left my body and entered the screen becoming my screen image, the stupid Canadian Mounties uniform and bright lipstick and all. I became him, it, myself… and with all my soul. I can still see myself up there, larger than life, and I can also see myself through those screen-eyes, pupils a foot in diameter, eyes perhaps… my best feature, but seeing eyes, too, and staring back into that screening room, lit by a projector I could feel my screen heart, a warm glow, like for one’s own umbilical, found somehow, reclaimed from the scrapings and heapings and reattached, too, like a lost button, by some fawning Dr. Frankenstein and what I saw I saw clearly, which was myself, dripping and blushing as I stared back at myself self-consciously, embarrassed, to be sure, more than a little, no doubts about it.
(Untitled – Relax. Get In.)

The power of film is metaphysical and it is the actors who most seem to give off this power. Often directorial touches and trademarks seem conceived in jealousy of the power actors possess. Flash concocted from behind the camera distracts the guileless audience, while pandering to those who watch films at a remove. One might learn a lot about film directing from Citizen Kane (1941), but really, whose need is pathological, the fictionalized William Randolph Hearst or the peripatetic Orson Welles behind the camera? Welles was a genius, but that is often a problem. However, Welles’ tragedy was that he was smart enough to correct for Kane in artistic terms, but not in terms of Hollywood career politique: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) as it survives gives evidence that Welles was immediately backing off of the busy fracturing of film space and attempting an organic if novelistic portrayal of characters in a place and time. But Ambersons was taken from him and re-cut and apparently cannot be put back together now for the profit of the destroyer’s corporate descendents at TimeWarner. It was to be a dark, determinist tragedy, but the set up is too bright to be fully Marxian about it. You like the Ambersons and their turn-of-the-century Indianapolis more than its possible to like anyone or anything in Kane.

The coldness of Citizen Kane is an imposition on the raw story material if you believe Louise Brooks’ account of her time flitting in and out of various Hearst beach-houses and mansions with her friend Pepi Lederer, Marion Davies’ niece. Brooks writes,

Mr. Hearst was not the ogre depicted by Marion. He did not devour pretty girl guests; he loved them. At San Simeon, I had run away from him twice – once when he came upon me drying my hair by the pool, and once when he found me looking at a rare edition of Dickens in the library – because his marked attention would result in banishment by Marion from the ranch and from Louella Parsons’ powerful movie column.
(Lulu in Hollywood, Knopf)

It wasn’t Kansas out there, but surely Brooks would’ve been among the last women to respect a home-wrecker’s mansion on principle – her own Kansas eden had had a snake lurking in it. But it was as if Welles worked from Marion’s worst nightmare – and she was basically a so-so comedienne whose tractionless career was juiced by Hearst’s favors. The talented Welles then, took the P.O.V. of an actress’s high suspicion of her own worthlessness in order to indict one of the more talented press barons of the age, presumably for his very dabbling in cinema. (If only he’d taken on pere Kennedy, another cinema dabbler, he might have done us all a favor.)

Welles’ use of his “Mercury Theater of the Air” radio actors is another error of his early films. Radio actors were a special breed, largely forgotten now. An actor’s voice coming over the radio worked best when it ladled inference onto ham. All the scenery-chewing of a Broadway blow-hard, only crooned into a microphone. Real bad. Something like a part being played by an announcer; any realism undercut at every syllable by unnaturally perfect timber and resonance of the voice. I guess this argues for just how good the singers who acted were since from Bing Crosby on, they all crooned into ribbon microphones, rather than keening to the rafters. And yet Bing, Dick, Frank, Dean and even Elvis did well in important films.

Silent films are gone but thanks to the comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin if no-one else, they’ll never be fully forgotten. Far more forgotten are the sound-only radio dramas that were once so prominent. Often the original casts of Hollywood feature films re-recorded one-hour adaptations of their current films, but most radio dramas were unique productions and in their heyday before televisions were in every house, they were ubiquitous in homes. There is an intense collector fandom that has organized surviving radio dramas and production information but compared to film history it’s a medium that seems to have just vanished from the pop culture memory.

Actors whose first starring roles were in radio dramas include Reed Hadley, William Conrad, and Jeff Chandler. Their too-fulsome, perfectly modulated Stradivariuses-of-a-voice could never quite convince as mere human in a drama no matter their talent. Tall thin Hadley might have had a more notable movie career but for that voice; in Dark Corner (1946) director Henry Hathaway actually seems to try to keep seventh-billed Hadley’s face away from the camera in his scenes, though this was a step up from merely narrating Hathaway’s House on 92nd Street (1945). Hadley played Zorro in the serial Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) and then “Red Ryder” (1942-44) on radio – maybe his best acting though its total kidstuff. Hadley spent the fifties as a lead in television (“Racket Squad” 1950-53, “Public Defender” 1954-55), both shows naturally featuring his deep dulcet narration as well. He was notably Sam Fuller’s idea of Jesse James in I Shot Jesse James (1948), though it’s Bob Ford’s story and Jesse gets back-shot at the twenty-five minute mark. Hadley also narrated Dept. of Defense films.

Wide-load Conrad had been able to play Matt Dillon on radio. For television the part required getting onto an actual horse without breaking the poor animal’s spine, so James Arness got the part. (“Gunsmoke” ran on radio from 1952 to 61, overlapping the television series which ran 1955-75, then intermittent made-for-TV films.) Conrad did bits in well-known movies, guested on television dramas, skillfully narrated both the cartoon “Rocky and his Friends” (1959-61) as well as “The Fugitive” (1963-67) and even directed films and television, but he didn’t become a star until the baroque phase of detective shows in the 1970s allowed him to play a fat detective in “Cannon” (1971-76) running from his car to pounce on bad guys in between fine dining experiences.

Jeff Chandler’s voice got him into radio dramas, first under his real name, Ira Grossel, then as Tex Chandler in “Frontier Town” (1952-53). He looked good in a fit, swarthy, gray-haired, gleaming, nostril-flaring way but his career was cut short when back surgery later judged malpractice led to hemorrhaging, more surgery, transfusions and blood poisoning.

The point is, however, these guys with their howitzer voices destabilized any movie scene they were in. Especially in a police drama where the mundane patter of professionals going through their motions is supposed to impress the viewer with a world far more dramatic than, though as routine, as their own workaday reality. Strictly speaking, I’d argue that the same went for radio, but I suppose radio was more forgiving since the voices and a few sound effects had to carry the load. What radio drama I’ve heard could’ve used less in the way of effects as fight scene noise and other effects seem to break the spell the actors struggle to achieve with their voices. But radio drama conventions were developed quickly and they worked for a long time.

I think the ideal actor’s voice for film is one that indicates a lack of self-consciousness by way of an “out-of-tune” delivery. You wouldn’t say it was actually out-of-tune, unless you’d call Johnny Cash’s voice out-of-tune as well, but the voice with a flat casual delivery is sure of itself and functional and not built up for dramatic effect. Not acted. And this helps the smart writer and director and sound engineer infer reality subtly by indirection. Actors who possessed ideal voices were Ben Johnson, Richard Farnsworth, Harry Carey, Jay Silverheels, Fess Parker, John Wayne and Charles Bronson. Just beneath them, slightly more tuneful, would be Jock Mahoney, Clint Walker, Jim Brown, Sam Elliott and others. Such voices can be heard as a special kind of music. Music is an encultured abstraction of speech over heartbeat. The speech of these men, over their even breath, communicates a certain frontier or rural, American ideal. I’m guessing the level speech patterns of the American Indians of the plains, mountains, and deserts might be the origin of this kind of flatted music, and that may be why it seems quintessentially American and works so well in westerns and other action-film settings.

In this country of immigrants there’s a lot of remaking of personalities as kids look around and see more and different types – geographical, class and ethnic – as they grow up. Within America people move around a lot and so there are a number of ways a man might arrive at such a persona. Of that first list of actors I think John Wayne and Charles Bronson are so constructed, whereas the others are probably more naturally occurring. Wayne grew up in Los Angeles and gophered and extraed his way into acting, taking decades to get larger parts and star vehicles. Bronson grew up in a large family of Lithuanian immigrants in a company-owned mining town in Pennsylvania that was so isolated he had to shake an accent just to feel he could pass for American in his own country! He later used that accent in The Great Escape (1963).

Tom Milne, in his book on Carl Dreyer, writes of “the perfect harmony between actors, setting and narrative,” which he judges Dreyer managed with The Parson’s Widow (1920), Mikaël (1924), Vampyr (1932), Gertrud (1964) and others, but not with The Passion of Jean d’Arc (1927), Day of Wrath (1943) or Ordet (1954), where he believes “the narrative… takes the upper hand, dictating the somber texture of these films, and crushing the spectator into submission instead of winning him by persuasion.” Milne means to defend Dreyer against his dour reputation based on these better known but more narrowly religious “narratives.” It’s interesting that for Milne it is the narrative, rather than the actors or the setting out of balance. Perhaps Dreyer has flushed out his critic’s discomfort with religion generally, or maybe it’s proof of an auteur that the story would be wrong while acting and setting were balanced. Dreyer began as a screenwriter in 1912.

Today only the directors believe they are auteurs. But it’s usually an act designed to push back against producers and get things done easier. Film settings are as grande guignol as affordable. The scripts are unwritten though over-edited, as in polishing a turd. Surprisingly, it is often the actors holding today’s films together. They make up their own backstories and walk through city streets and urban offices looking urgent and intense. As novelist and film writer Brian Garfield saw it in 1982:

Movies after the 1950s began to call upon actors with less and less experience and ability to do work of more and more demanding precision. The new fashion, influenced by the Cahiers attitude and the techniques of television commercials, required the sketchiest of screenplays with the emphasis on very brief scenes and rapid jump-cuts. Dialogue was minimized…. No longer is it used to reveal character; film becomes the medium of the meaningful silence, the pregnant pause, the ‘beat.’
(Western Films, Da Capo)

Mere pretense, in other words. Garfield finished his book just after the release of Heaven’s Gate (1980), that sprawling graveyard of the auteur theory and the counter-culture western. Those silences, written and directed by Michael Cimino, ended United Artists' independence (founded in 1925 as a quest for artistic autonomy and more money by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks) but they didn’t kill arty emptiness, though these have subsequently been produced at a fraction of the cost.

Actors obsess on the wrong acting school but in the moment only the worst of them attempt to dominate the setting and story. And they aren’t often to blame for the screenplays. Clint Eastwood will produce and direct Mystic River (2003), an acting nightmare that I guess he relates to as east coast ethnic realism which he is smart enough to keep himself out of. But that film’s Industry prestige-style success helped set him up for the smaller stuff to come, most recently Gran Torino (2008) where Eastwood plays opposite a largely non-professional cast of Hmong immigrants, a film the old New York Film Critics Circle of, say, 1970 might’ve had aneurisms over trying to decide who can’t act worse.

The problem with screenplays today is harder to see. I think the writer is treated no more contemptuously in Hollywood than before, but the studio-as-factory had a roster of writing talent braced against the cruel whimsy of studio-fate, but together getting some novel or play or first draft hammered into star-vehicle shape. The screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass discussed the thirties MGM m.o. at a 1971 AFI seminar:

[T]here were six of us writing Shearer, six of us writing Garbo, six of us writing Ruth Chatterton, six of us writing Robert Montgomery, and six of us writing Clark Gable. Which one would they choose? It was a great lottery.
(The Inquisition in Hollywood, California)

The lottery was for who got the onscreen credit, important to them and to anyone trying to write about who made these films, but what’s relevant here is Spigelgass’ off-hand description of writers working the line in a gilt-edged Hollywood factory.

Today only the big summer event screenplays might have six or more contributors. Most scripts today have the author of the source novel, then two credited screenwriters, plus an uncredited script doctor or two. But still they don’t often manage to contrive a dramatic center. They are merely polished voids. Nothing is wrong with them except there is no life in the writing.

One of my favorite films is The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). It plays like a spooky tone poem set in rural Spain after the civil war. It’s about a young girl whose miscomprehension of things around her come to be shaped by seeing the movie Frankenstein (1931). I’d rather have bought just the film on DVD but given Criterion it was only available “complete” with the-making-of disc, so I ended up watching the extras with director Victor Erice, producer Elias Querejeta, writer Francisco Querejeta, and the actors and I was struck how inorganic and mechanical was their process of story construction. They really just hammered the elements together. The parade of images nevertheless has the intended effect on the viewer, perhaps in part because of the censorship of Franco’s Spain that eliminated all overt righteous political intent. Censorship is not always an enemy of art, see Iranian and Chinese cinema as well. Or conversely, see today’s Hollywood productions.

The void today is left for the actors, the music, the steadi-cam, the fifty-to-one shooting ratio, the cutting, the CGI to fill. The hope being that stray resonances to older, better movies will occur often enough to keep the viewer engaged. Writers can’t direct and most of them know it. But the auteur theory leads directors to believe that their adaptive abilities qualify them to write, but they can only write around in the vicinity of a story. And their narrative sense, such as it is, develops in advertising, music videos or television. The producer has to throw the script at one of the handful of re-write men who have their hands on everything but credits on nothing. These are the best-paid writers, the ones whose credits ended years ago. Their number one job is to get the story told in under two hours – that is to lop an hour off the director’s inefficient formless meanderings.

Cimino did great work with Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); he directed his own script for Eastwood’s Malpaso company. And he earlier finished the script for Magnum Force (1973) when John Milius had to leave to direct Dillinger (1973), so Cimino had strangely enough been schooled in the Eastwood m.o., and Richard Schickel’s biography, Clint Eastwood (Vintage), recounts that production as a smooth one with no foreshadowing of trouble to come. But Cimino was no product of the depression. The Deer Hunter (1978) was bad enough in terms of being overblown and false, Heaven’s Gate was ridiculous. Here’s producer Steven Bach’s description of the early casting ideas:

Cimino termed his casting "extremely optimistic" but added "not impossible."

John Wayne was suggested for the part eventually played by Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges for the Walken role, and as the female lead, Jane Fonda. The minor characters… included as mercenaries Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Rod Steiger, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan. As immigrants, Cimino suggested Ingrid Bergman, Gene Hackman, George Kennedy, Richard Widmark, Jon Voight and Kirk Douglas, reserving the role of a U.S. Marshal for Joel McCrea, that of the governor of Wyoming for Randolph Scott, and that of a U.S. cavalry captain for William Holden…

(Final Cut, Morrow)

Bach, who died in March of this year, was head of production and senior vice-president at UA but he was a cultured person and his involvement in and enabling of the disaster gave him perspective on it. Of course there’s plenty of witnesses in Hollywood but there’s rarely the honesty to tell the story; what books come are more often ass-covering whitewash re-writes. But Final Cut, like Lillian Ross’ Picture is a classic study of the making of one film and the books stay in print.

I’m embarrassed to say I recognize half-baked post-sixties youth culture movie myopia when I see it. Cimino’s playing fast and loose with the historical truth of Vietnam and the American west was done with an intent to counter Hollywood’s own formula evasions and, these casting ideas suggest, redeem Hollywood. It was no simple arrogance, not if he expected to have the likes of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Joel McCrea participate. My dumb teen-age idea was to remodel Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where the law and the underworld in Berlin unite to hunt down Peter Lorre’s lone pedophile. I thought to have Eastwood the cop, Bronson the gangboss, and the pedophile changed to a Weather Underground-type bomber played by somebody like Peter Fonda. There was a lot of penny-ante terrorism at the time and it was common then to think of them as fighting the good fight. I consider myself fortunate not to have been indulged.

Cimino was so indulged over The Deer Hunter at the Oscars that for his next groundless airy masterpiece, when history in the form of the 1894 eyewitness account, The Banditti of the Plains – Or the Cattlemen’s Invasion of Wyoming in 1892 (The Crowning Infamy of the Ages) (Oklahoma), by A.S. Mercer, didn’t provide a massacre of innocents – the invasion never actually occurred – he just made up his own calumny where dozens, hundreds, a thousand civilians are beautifully shot down by the cattlemen’s hired guns in the magic hour just before dusk. (James Stewart was going to mow down farmers?! Rod Steiger, maybe…)

Anyway, the routine impugning of American businessmen, cops, soldiers, politicians, et. al., in the more seriously-intended movies is just displaced kvetching about Hollywood itself, made by people who know and care about little else. Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), and W. (2008), are not about their title characters at all. Shocking, I know….

(adapted from the forthcoming book, Stone Male – Requiem for a Film Style)

[Inset photos, in order: Ben Johnson, Audie Murphy, Jock Mahoney, Richard Farnsworth]

Work on this book includes watching a lot of films. Not everything turns out to be relevant but it’s all of some use, especially given the strangely impressionistic way the mind tends to “remember” films. Film study is a lot easier now, but there may be no less misremembering of details today than there was when you had to see the film when and where it was being shown, or else have a research budget to order up a screening at some museum or film library. When the “Ford at Fox” collection (21 discs, 28 films and extras) came out I bought just the five-film silent sub-collection (Just Pals, The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men, Four Sons, Hangman’s House) for reasons of economy and filling in the more gaping holes in my knowledge first. They are great films, well restored, and confirm Ford’s talent. They star Buck Jones, George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, and in the last we see John Wayne visible as an extra circa 1928. If anything, these are more consistent than his sound films.

But John Ford began directing at Universal in 1917. He followed his older brother Francis Ford to Hollywood where Francis was a successful filmmaker in the teens and twenties, directing, writing and starring in hundreds of films, almost all of which are lost. John changed his last name from Feeney to Ford as his brother had done, and handled props and did stunts for him. Harry Carey had been part of Biograph’s roster of actors before moving to Hollywood and becoming a western star in the mid-teens. Carl Laemmle suggested John Ford begin directing for Carey. These films are mostly lost as well, although one can see Straight Shooting (1917) which was the first feature-length film they made together.

Straight Shooting stars Carey in his ‘Cheyenne Harry’ character and it features striking framing effects that underline themes or relationships; something John Ford evidently had an eye for from the beginning. He was only twenty-three and so that might explain the one trick too many where he shoots point-of-view blurriness to indicate tears at a burial scene. Ford and Carey made about twenty more films before Ford left Universal for Fox in 1921.

I’ve seen many of the sound films in the Fox collection, the best of which are Judge Priest (1934), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and My Darling Clementine (1946). I’ve been able to borrow a number of those I don’t have on tape from Jon Boshard, with whom I ran the Thermidor record label. Of these my favorite is Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) which stars Will Rogers at his peak. The film begins as if Rogers and Stepin Fetchit are just going to make a movie up out of nothing but then the screenwriters, Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, begin to earn their pay as the leisurely plot gets in gear and Rogers offhandedly subverts every hierarchy that threatens to establish itself along the banks of the Mississippi. The worst one is no doubt When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950), which stars song-and-dance man, Dan Daily. It’s not even clear that it’s a farce until halfway thru as it’s so unfunny; and as the three deleted scenes are songs, it was intended as a musical comedy at that. Weird. Surprises in the set include Edmund Lowe’s interesting performance as an Italian gangster in Born Reckless (1930), the silent-era sentiment of Pilgrimage (1933) with its tougher-minded twist on motherhood, and Seas Beneath (1931) which features beautiful and expensive looking sea scenes of WWI-era sailing ships and submarines.

John Ford did notable work thru his Fox years on loan to other studios, and then in the fifties he left 20th Century Fox and worked project by project with the other studios. So as massive as “Ford at Fox” is, it isn’t everything by a longshot. But it does remind one that the image of John Ford as a director of westerns isn’t half the story. He made a discreet bunch of film that are Southerns, a bunch that were set in Ireland and Wales, his WWII documentaries, and then productive runs of titles with quite different male actors as hero variants (Harry Carey, George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, John Wayne) surrounded by his wider company of actors: Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Hank Worden and others.

In Harry Carey, Jr.’s memoir, Company of Heroes (Madison) he writes of seeing John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) with his father: “He hadn’t watched for more than five minutes before he leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Christ, Dobe, I did the same goddamned thing in Hellbent!’ And he kept that up until the end of the movie. ‘We did that in Straight Shooting; we did that in Cheyenne’s Pal.’” Carey was no longer a star in the sound era but he managed to appear in a number of good films (Trader Horn, Law and Order, The Last Outlaw, Kid Galahad, Souls at Sea, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Shepherd of the Hills, Among the Living, Angel and the Badman, and Red River). Ford cast Carey only once in the sound era, in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), but after he died in 1947 Ford began to cast his son, Harry Carey, Jr., in most of his films. Ford always cast his older brother Francis in small roles and bit parts until he died in 1953. Francis’ son Philip Ford directed films starting in the late forties and moved to TV work. John Ford died in 1973.

[Inset photos, in order: Francis Ford, Harry Carey, John Ford]

Attn: Ari
Thought of you, re this, since your brother Zeke is MD onboard health care nationalization. Their agent would have to do their thinking for them tho. First Hamas burned all five movie theaters in Gaza, then they produced a feature film.

It would be nice to believe this is the Mossad talking, but the calculus sounds about right, considering.

Something crooked me about New York
That bubbling babbling hell
I couldn't take the Bronx much longer
Some static in the air
Nearly cracked my neuroshell

On the streets of Burbank, California

Photo by Chris Collins

To receive a weekly update notice for the NV, send an email to newvulgate[at]sbcglobal.net with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. To stop receiving notices, do the same with the word UNSUBSCRIBE.

• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

No comments:

Post a Comment