Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sunset films, pt. 2

The French have a knack for inventing succinct film terminology we have no choice but to adopt untranslated because the English for these particular terms would be too wordy or awkward. For example, film noir neatly sums up the essence of the post-World War II American crime films that incorporated elements of hardboiled American crime literature and European expressionist film techniques, and mise-en-scene is a quick, elegant way of saying the wordy-in-English organization of visual space within the frame. This brings me to another, lesser-known French movie term that can conveniently describe many of the films I will be briefly discussing in this post.
Potter Stewart famously said he couldn't define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. In the world of non-porn film history, I'm often drawn to a disparate, varied batch of misunderstood, neglected films that share little besides a certain indefinable essence. I could never put a name on it, but I knew it when I saw it. Leave it to the French to come up with an appropriate nomenclature - the film maudit. This term, which literally means "cursed film," covers many different kinds of films in many different kinds of situations, but the one thing all films maudit have in common is that, at least at one point in their post-release history, they have been marginalized. Films maudit are the unfairly disrespected, neglected, misunderstood, forgotten, and/or publicly reviled films. This covers a lot of territory. It includes films that were ignored at the time but are now considered classics, lesser films in a major director's body of work, interesting films that failed to find an audience, films hated by critics but loved by the general audience, films that broke social taboos, exploitation films with some artistic merit, films that never came out on DVD or video, films that are lost or out-of-print, films hated by most critics but championed by an intelligent minority, films that aren't that great but have a couple of great scenes or performances, major box-office flops that were expected to perform well, quality films waiting to be discovered, etc.
I'm adding another specific subgenre to the film maudit universe, a subgenre I'm calling sunset films. A sunset film is a work made by a major director near the end of his/her career and/or life. I'm narrowing my focus even more to look at late films from Hollywood directors in the 1960s-1980s that failed to find a mass audience and were sometimes disliked by critics and even the filmmakers themselves. These films range from interesting failures to major masterpieces and are all worth a look. In possible future posts, I will write about foreign, independent, and female-directed sunset films, but in this instance, I'm talking about movies made by male veterans of the Hollywood studio system who are American by birth or European-born American citizens.
Besides the obvious reasons for grouping these films together, they also share startling formal, tonal, and narrative similarities. Most importantly, they place an emphasis on mood and character instead of narrative momentum and plot. These films take their time and have a deliberately relaxed, sometimes meandering pace. The characters and the actors inhabiting the characters drive the story instead of being pawns in a tight plot. Often, the directors play with the generic iconic images of actors they've used frequently, or they pass the baton to a new generation. For examples of the former, look at John Ford (with John Wayne and Lee Marvin) and Billy Wilder (with Jack Lemmon and William Holden) using their later works to comment on their own past working relationships with these actors on their earlier canonical films. For examples of the latter, see Howard Hawks use a young James Caan and Alfred Hitchcock tip his hat to the new breed by using Bruce Dern. Sometimes, particularly in Wilder's case, the new generation gets a kick in the ribs instead of a nod. All these films, even the comedies, exhibit a serious melancholic streak. Loss and sadness gently cover these films like a sprinkling of light snow, always present but never smothering or overpowering. Many of these directors, particularly Wilder, felt usurped by the new breed of Hollywood directors in the 1970s (Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg, Ashby, Rafelson, Friedkin, Coppola, etc.) and had trouble finding financing and promotional muscle for their later projects. Many felt they were being cast off by the studios and replaced by the new guys. Even though the new breed was influenced by these old masters, they were unfortunately and unintentionally crowding them out. These new guys were hip (except for Lucas and Spielberg, but they made bags of money), and executives love the hip and the new. (It's interesting to look at the later films of the 1970s giants and see a group of films that are far less adventurous than the later films of the classic Hollywood oldsters.)
I don't want to give the generation gap too much credit, though. These films aren't just melancholy because their makers were on the wrong end of changing tastes and times. The sadness bound into all these sunset films also reflects the mundane daily tragedy of getting older, weaker, and more finite. All our stories end the same way. We die. These movies are about old men facing the end of the road, even when they're not about that at all. The word "elegiac" is so overused in movie reviews (see also, "(insert name here) is a revelation in this role"), but these films really are elegiac.

Here are some of my favorite sunset films:

Donovan's Reef
(John Ford)
John Wayne and Lee Marvin meander drunkenly through this loose, nearly plotless comedy, which contains the immortal line: "The truth is, neither one of you remembers what started this annual drunken birthday brawl." Ford's Cheyenne Autumn is another intriguing sunset film, with some incredibly beautiful moments and terrible flaws.

(Howard Hawks)
John Wayne again, on safari in Africa, trapping animals to sell to zoos. Another very loose comedy, with tinges of sadness. I was on doctor-prescribed codeine when I watched this film, and I think it only added to the experience.

Man's Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks)
Another loose, character-driven comedy. Hawks wanted a near-retirement Cary Grant in the lead, but Grant turned him down, saying he was too old for the role. The part went to Rock Hudson instead. Hudson is no Cary Grant, but his performance as a sport fishing expert and writer who is secretly a lousy fisherman takes on a resonance it didn't have at the time, now that we know more about Hudson's private life than he wanted us to while he was still alive.

Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks)
A racing movie that added James Caan to the impressive list of actors given their first big break by Hawks, this movie failed at the box office, has never been released on DVD, is hard to find on VHS, and is hated by Hawks himself. It's not as bad as all that, and remarkably better. Hawks' structural emphasis on characterization and action over plot is right up my aesthetic alley, and this film is one of Hawks' shaggiest and loosest. Red Line 7000 is a film of beats, pauses, energy, and melancholy. It's a little sloppy, but neatness is overrated.

Avanti! (Billy Wilder)
This romantic comedy's cutesy premise is just the skeleton for a gorgeously photographed, deliberately paced, death- and sex-obsessed tour of the Amalfi Coast of Italy and the opposites-attract acting styles of Jack Lemmon's American and Juliet Mills' Englishwoman. A long, funny, elegant, broad, misanthropic, warm, strange film that never stops being beautiful to look at, with the possible exception of a couple nude shots of Lemmon's skinny, flat ass. If you get a chance to see this one on the big screen, go.

Fedora (Billy Wilder)
Wilder and William Holden revisit elements of Sunset Boulevard in this angry, tragic noir about a movie producer attempting to bring a reclusive starlet out of hiding. What this film lacks in narrative momentum, it makes up for with a handful of amazing stand-alone scenes, wonderful performances, and a beguiling, melancholic atmosphere. Marthe Keller may technically have the Gloria Swanson part here, but Wilder really fills that role as co-writer and director. His penultimate film is simultaneously a raging fuck you to New Hollywood and an acceptance of time as a destroyer.

The Human Factor (Otto Preminger)
Preminger's late films were sometimes surprisingly foolish and graceless (Skidoo's unintentionally hilarious attempt to capture the late-1960s drug culture zeitgeist with stars like Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, and Groucho Marx, and an American Deep South populated by the likes of Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Burgess Meredith, and George Kennedy in Hurry Sundown), but his final film is beautiful. Surprisingly overlooked, The Human Factor is a heartbreaking espionage drama based on Graham Greene's novel with a sharp Tom Stoppard script and an opening credits sequence designed by Saul Bass. The film, like all the other sunset films I'm discussing here, proceeds at a relaxed pace, but is not as loose as the late Hawks and Ford movies. The Human Factor slowly and deliberately builds in intensity, momentum, and emotion, and subtly earns that emotion. The actors inhabit these characters in a quietly lived-in way, and the odd-on-paper pairing of Nicol Williamson and Iman convincingly establishes the film's emotional center.

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock)
Consistently underrated, Hitchcock's final film is one of his best. With standout performances from Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, William Devane, and Karen Black, and a looser, more relaxed structure, look, and feel than Hitchcock was normally known for, Family Plot is a darkly comedic thriller with a surprising sweetness and warmth. Often regarded as a minor work in Hitchcock's oeuvre, Family Plot is, subtly and secretly, his last masterpiece. The film contains most of the trademarks of a classic Hitchcock thriller, but there is a lightness of touch here that previously only poked its head out in certain moments in North by Northwest or a lot of The Trouble with Harry. The lived-in, messy kitchen of Dern's and Harris' characters is a surprising detail from a man who normally stylizes every frame, and the way Hitchcock eases into the flow of this story is a pleasure to watch. The melancholy is always close, always hovering in the air, but in many ways, this is the most life-affirming and joyous film in the whole bunch I've written about in this post.

I've got more sunset films to write about later, but they fit in different categories. These particular films seem to belong together.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bruno S. 1932-2010

from Werner Herzog's Stroszek (1977) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser aka Every Man for Himself and God Against All (1974)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sunset films, pt. 1

Last weekend, a friend of mine briefly recounted a debate she'd had with an acquaintance about Hollywood remakes of foreign films (Let the Right One In, etc.). The acquaintance argued that these remakes have been unfairly maligned and are performing the valuable service of bringing a good story to an audience that would never see a subtitled film. I think this man's argument is interesting because it's so alien to the way I watch movies and the way most film buffs/cinephiles/obsessed weirdos watch movies. Well, maybe I should just speak for myself. It's alien to the way I watch movies. To this guy, a movie is a vehicle to tell a story, and story is the most important thing about a movie. There's nothing inherently wrong/evil/assholish about this argument, and I like a good story as much as anyone, but to reduce the essence of a film to its plot mechanics and events is to take away everything cinematic about a film. Film is a visual medium. I thought this was an obvious point, but it seems to get lost in mainstream discourse. Framing of shots, movement of camera, facial expressions and body movements of actors, inhabiting of characters by actors, color, light, shadow, structure, form, juxtaposition of shots, editing, use of visual space within the frame, interplay of music and sound, cinematography, the actors' voices and how they say the lines, character development, scenes that have no bearing on the plot, directors' obsessions and fetishes, overall effect of all these elements working together. All of these things are so much more important to me than the mechanics of plot and the events in the story. The how, not the what. (I should also point out here that there is a substantial canon of important non-narrative films that have no story at all. Some of my favorites include Bruce Conner, Hollis Frampton, Jack Chambers, James Benning, Oskar Fischinger, Al Jarnow, and, occasionally, Andy Warhol.) The directors and films I return to again and again give me indefinable atmosphere, texture, mood, pure visual experience. I don't care what these movies are about, I just care what they do. People understand this about music. Good lyrics are always appreciated, but when a person tells another person about a band, the question asked is usually, "What do they sound like?" Film and literature, however, get saddled with that dullest of questions, "What's it about?" This is a long way of saying that maybe those remakes are bringing a good story to a new audience, but what they aren't doing is bringing those movies to a new audience. The experiences are different. They are two different movies, made by two different people who organize that visual space in completely different ways, who frame the shots in different ways, who juxtapose scenes in different ways, who hire different actors who move differently, say the lines differently, and look differently. The sound of the languages is different, creating a different sonic texture and cadence.
This is also a long way of introducing a second post, which may be extended into other posts, about a neglected group of films I happen to love very much, and which I want to discuss in more detail. These films would mostly fail the conventional narrative good story test, but their virtues are overlooked by people who just want a lot of punchy events and three-act structures. I'm talking about an imaginary subgenre of film I'm going to call sunset movies because they occur late in the careers of established older directors in the late 1960s-early 1980s. These films were often ignored or scorned by the general audience and mainstream dullard critics but well regarded by film buffs and more interesting critics. They share a lot of surprising qualities, and I find them emotionally affecting and formally inventive. They're made by old men close to retirement (sometimes against their will), and often in poor health. I'm going to talk about some late films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger, among others, and I'll probably squeeze John Cassavetes in because I always find some way to include him. I would write more, but then I'd be up all night, so I'll get to these guys soon.

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