Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Death of the Day of CFU
It was a long time coming. The January 11 cessation of the very existence of the CFU (Classic Film Union) branch of the TCM website, came as not only a blow to the evolution of genuine communal discourse about cinema, but also the opportunity for a merging of populist and artistic critical sensibilities which might have proven a useful procreative auger for both burgeoning and seasoned writers alike to parry with equal, spirited vitality. That this opportunity was squandered is a useful example of the seductive but destructive nature of the Internet, and of a vast corporation’s complete lack of foresight and intuition in how to manage their own creation. (If there emerged any element of a disruptive power games among certain elements of the membership, such behaviors could have been effectively nullified by the simple elimination of the “private messaging” function on the site; the essential tool for corrosive communications while maintaining one’s own anonymity; an elementary solution which would have been obvious to a site sponsor who was even remotely aware of their own property.)
The cancellation of the CFU came at the very time when the TCM enterprise itself seemed immersed in a systemic flux, redefining what they are and what they offer to the wider public, with little apparent concern as to how these changes might affect the rabid core base of followers, many of whom comprised the membership of the CFU. Realistically, since the network and all of its ancillary manifestations are (One might wish to refer to an earlier editorial relaying these caveats in very precise terms, at https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com) are entirely the proprietary baby toe of the greater Turner Broadcasting System, itself a subsidiary of the hollow colossus Time Warner. However, the recent changes invoked, both as the last vestiges of a pretense that TCM is anything but a shill corporate entity, using a popular passion for movies as an increasingly transparent excuse for the marketing of suspiciously slight cruise trips and- the most blatantly offensive and irrelevant of all movie tie-ins -the TCM Wine Club, a cynical enterprise whose only possible excuse for its formation is in a long overdue admission that much of the dross presented is elevated through the haze of drink. (Though no psychogenic enhancement could possibly elevate the insufferably smug, self-congratulatory brayings of that shameless but exemplary model of critical retardation, Ben Mankiewicz.)
The current model of Turner’s programming, in its move toward more contemporary cinema, is a disgrace in that it contextualizes its offerings in the same pandering and shallow commentative thinking (as opposed to the critical variety of which the network has struggled long and hard to disguise with “personalities” and self-engendered celebrity) by which it elevated the vaulted vastness of aspiring mediocrity representing the greater portion of “Golden Age” Hollywood production, to heights best appreciated by those whose evaluative thinking is limited to the pliable marketing conception of “classic” as an automatic right of passage in regards to vintage.
What TCM fails, and always will fail to publicly acknowledge (being that its operating stratagem is clearly and solely economic rather than cultural), is that serious critical analysis was never part of their endgame, is with film, similar to wine, vintage often exposes an eye-opening, bitter degradation often unearthed in the unreliable relationship between nostalgic taste and quality. The less said the better regarding such remaining features on the regular TCM website, including those protean oafs who call themselves Moorlocks. May their opinions best be relegated to the one fathom subterranean resting place.
Presumably, what had begun as a beneficent offering to devotees of the cinema- a place of casually luxuriant social intercourse whose only cost of entry was an honest and sincere enthusiasm for film -has been reimagined as a continuation of the callously mercenary monetary leeching of TCM’s more devoted and, regrettable to admit, gullible followers. Replacing, in essence, the CFU is TCM’s latest brainstorm: TCM Backlot, a “movie lovers” (the company adores that term, being that it fosters a convenient blind devotion as opposed to sharpened critical acuity) gathering spot which, in many ways, serves less than the function of the CFU, but with a high admission price. Also, in lieu of the functional gathering spot with which the members were encouraged (by the implications of the site’s design rather than any formalized mandatory direction) to express their individuality in both idiosyncratically friendly personal page settings and in a constructive breadth of schematic design nurturing of a healthy diversity of thematic interests, the new TCM Backlog appears to be little more than a promissory shell game in which members are directed by corporate calculation rather than individual enterprise. Offered in the cost of a hefty membership are such translucently deceptive offerings such as “influencing programming” (which can be done freely by logging onto the TCM website and clicking on programming suggestions), “Meeting TCM Talent on TCM Cruises and at TCM Festivals” (which can be accomplished without any ancillary memberships), “attending events” (ditto) and “taking a TCM studio tour” (granted, few things in live appreciably elevate the elevation of the cinema as an art form as much as the opportunity of an in-person communion with Robert Osborne’s teleprompter, and then only if you happen to live within commuting distance of the studio).
Surely the most curiously revealing shiny object dangled before the glazed eyes of the idolizing masses is the “chance for one lucky winner” (making this the most expensive lottery ticket in town) to co-host a filmed segment on TCM; an offering that is quite revealing for its disregard in recognizing the division between critical professionalism and enthusiastic fandom, reinforcing the obvious indiscriminate paucity of the network’s own standards of cultural insight. (Was there ever an observation expressed- pre or post film -that ever rose above the most elemental of reference sources?) Indeed, it would appear as if TCM.s continued intellectual condescension to its audience has come with a rather unintended admission that such an attitude is unquestionably undeserved. So too is TCM’s assertion that the celebration of film is preeminent before considerations of profit. Surely, any organization who might dissolve such an entity as the CFU with the blithe erasure of a wealth of years of material generated in goodwill and born of dedicated labor, through the invitation of the owners of said enterprise, has demonstrated a a calculated callousness to its patrons bordering on the immoral.
State of the Cinema: Why Movies Seem As Bad As They Probably Aren’t
They Shoot Bad Movies, Don’t They?
First of all, if we follow the general route of the Internet and limit our discussion on the current state of Cinema by primarily spotlighting the most commercial and (not coincidentally) the most egregious offenders of qualitative standards, then the entire line of thought has already been rendered moot. Does anyone who is foolish enough to support Hollywood’s general deadening of active thought by paying dearly with both money and time to attend a third, fourth or fifth installment of an empty computer generated whiz-bang bauble really deserve any better than they get? It’s similar to stripping down and jumping into a cactus patch, only to later complain that it hurts. The results are both predictable and far outside any reasonable entitlement for sympathetic response. Isn’t it possible that many of the people who seem magnetically attracted to the flotsam of Hollywood and who are using the excuse that they are compelled to stay updated with and must report on the quality of the weekly Hollywood franchise chapter, 3-D offense or artificially enhanced IMAX con, actually enjoy them, but protest loudly after the fact merely to disguise their embarrassment over what, by many, would appear as a regressive lack of judgment? Hollywood has always been a producer of insulting and moronic product and it takes the sensible mind to weed out the useless from the worthy. But what is the cause of such attraction? Is it simply that works that are more challenging demand too much concentration, analysis and sheer thought, while the CGI infused cinema is complimentary to the lazier, and more common, conceit of movie reviewing as opposed to film criticism, allowing such noxious offenses as a simpleton “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” mentality to ease the audience away from a more substantial and rewarding artistic experience? This requires a human characteristic which has become unfashionable and antiquated ia world of increasingly disposably regarded culture: it is something that used to be called taste.
Some call it steak, others call it horse meat.
With the use of contemporary technology, it is now possible to draw upon an inexhaustible catalog of film from all era, all nations, of all manifestations- whether commercially viable or the most independently experimental. This wealth of content, rather than a resource for learning seems to have become both an excuse, within the wide cinematically inclined Internet community, for both a cultural elitism and cultural laziness, with genuine critical interest somehow sandwiched in between: a smothering of Critical Thought. One cannot experience everything, and with the inconvenient backlog of cultural artifacts mouldering in archives both material and digital, why not take the easy road out and experience only the newest, the most marketed, the most glaringly gaudy of what is available, since it will certainly include the viewer in a wide circle of discussion (Who wants to see some new thing by a guy named Frederick Wiseman and who ever heard of him anyway?) that will keep their voice relevant to the current fashion? This, of course, makes that voice as trivial and irrelevant as each weekend’s box-office tally; quickly subsumed into the fiscal mire of never-ending lucre which seems to preoccupy an alarming amount of “cinephiles” as opposed to the significance (or lack thereof) of what’s actually on the screen. The need to stay culturally relevant is understandable, but the serious critical mind must seek to make their own voice relevant, initiating lines of thought rather than catering to the whims of trendy populism. A dismissal of all but the most flamboyant of current cinema will lead to a naturally similar dismissal of the importance of the breadth of genuine artistic achievements- or even those that conspicuously aspire to such heights -of the past.
With the willful limitations of cultural curiosity comes a companion laxity in the demand for a recognition of legitimate artistic standards. That which temporarily amuses is met with a generous cordiality while that which might incite perplexity, contemplation, uncertainty or outright befuddlement is dismissed with a casual sniff of the air, if given attention at all. Thus the demands of the market are recalculated to meet the demands of a lowered level of expectations. If films which fill the dreaded multiplexes- think mass cattle pens leading to the proverbial slaughterhouse -are designed to deny the appetite for intelligently conceived film desired by the rapidly vanishing serious audience (who are not a dying breed but simply ignored and who don’t find the prospect of a mere eight dollars for a Zagnut bar sufficient enticement for a night at the movies) then they are designed to cater to the taste of that mass audience who might rail at the continuous foul quality of the current cinema, but shuffle like the proverbial zombie to those same films nonetheless.
In the Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is still half-blind.
The popular cinema, therefore, becomes a self-invention of increasingly tired high-concept spectacle endlessly repeated in a cycle which becomes more and more transparently self-cannibalizing, traveling a quick road from the shallow to the vacuous. Is it any wonder that film has no longer become the drawing card of the populist cinema without the attachment of gimmicks and novelties such as IMAX and 3-D, the first being the modern day version of such idiosyncratic formats as Cinerama, but equally limited to specially configured theaters, the latter example a previously tried-and-abandoned gimmick on which several occasions the audience was quick to show its impatience with a blatant marketing lure designed specifically to entice viewers without compensatory added value to the individual feature or the artistic form, a gimmick which in its latest incarnation has shown an alarming staying power with the current audience’s patience in conceding to the most calculated of empty affectations to masquerade the otherwise gloomy box-office indicators. (Not that economics can ever be confused with Art, but since this is the rationale by which the industry operates, a hard look at the trends are unavoidably suicidal.) In the old wild, wooly days of the corporate takeovers of the studios, the standard operating procedure for films that in pre-release form dismayed the powers-that-be would be to start chopping away in the editing room, the logic being that reduction was a cure-all for what ailed either a problematic production or one which reached artistic heights beyond the scope of the newly minted non-industry bean counters who were now running the major art form of the Twentieth Century (a study of the tenure of James Aubrey at MGM is a nightmarish tale even an Eli Roth would squirm from dramatizing) and to therefore editorially lobotomize said offense from the annual release schedule as to not cause increased consternation to the corporate Board of Directors; one can always explain away failures as the price of doing business, but let’s not try to excuse a costly film which does not grab at the widest- read: lowest common denominator -audience. Ironically, a film which reached (planned or unplanned) an elevation of artistic integrity was less likely to see the light of day intact, as- in the corporate view -there’s no easy way to replicate Art while trash is easily assembled. Yet has there ever been an instance where random chopping of footage has resulted in an improved film? (Godard’s “À bout de souffle”? Though this is a case of self-evisceration.)
Pardon Me, Haven’t We Met Before? And Before? And Before?
If Hollywood currently appears to be trapped in a creative gully, producing an endless stream of remakes and revisitations of material previously either rendered with relative success (“Oldboy”) or some which probably shouldn’t have been attempted in the first place (“Endless Love”), this is a matter of skewered perception (and a clue to the writer’s unfamiliarity of the often inglorious history of the American movies) less of a strictly recent phenomenon (see: State of the Art: To Re or Not to Re) and more of a strategy of prudent recycling to a new generation who often brazenly declare anything which came before its period of personal attentiveness; though a greater portent of imaginative stagnation is the alarming rate of franchises which threaten to close off the availability of any open screen in a theater to any film which doesn’t carry with it the predisposition of a “guaranteed” audience (Often an assumptive fallacy, but Hollywood is willing to excuse the occasional misstep of a copied previous success crashing into an ocean of red ink since its easier to justify such production decisions rather than sticking out one’s neck to support an artistically noble effort that meets with equal financial failure: the first is regarded as the cost of business while the latter is emblazoned with the scarlet letter of fiscal recklessness.) and thus strangulate the audience from seeing the wider range of film- from around the world -which are being produced but can find no screen on which to be seen. The popular audience with its lemming-like disposition toward the familiar has become the harbinger of its own stunted cultural existence: supporting only that which will be repeated ad infinitum in increasingly diminished renderings. One cannot fault the iceberg for sinking the ship if one deliberately steers the vessel into it.
The dirty little secret about revisionism is that it rarely provides the intended setting for demythologizing without creating, not a revealing truth, but a substitute mythology.
The move toward revisionism in the western film genre is generally identified in earnest from the early to mid 1960’s onward, with the last years of the 60’s earmarked as the time in which the traditional western met a prematurely announced demise while supplanted by revisionism in the form of both a vastly more cynical vision of the West (which, in itself, is not specific to the definition of revisionism, but more a result of violent cultural mood swings) in the American cinema, the continuing influence of Italian spaghetti westerns (which in regard to a discussion of revisionism may be relevant if the discussion is limited to aesthetic exaggerations rather than a general rethinking of the contextual constructs within the traditional western form) and the sudden growth of a societal bent toward introspection by way of publicly pronounced shame built on a sense of forced historic guilt, which was not specific to film, but whose strangulating tentacles would nevertheless eventually cripple open expression as much as the then-recently jettisoned Production Code. This, however, predisposes the theorem that westerns are entirely intended as historical documentations, an erroneous assertion which fails to account for the very formulaic tropes which define the genre, and if taken into account the elemental half dozen or so monomythic thematic threads which essentially characterize all western films, it might be truthfully said that there hasn’t been a genuinely ‘new’ western in decades, merely shadowy variations of the same drama. The true Art within the genre, if indeed it may exist (and let’s presume it does) in a film type born of such a seemingly restrictive formulaic nature, might be found in finding ways to reach beyond that formula, not through cosmetic aesthetic alterations, but in an elevated expression melding new contextual priorities within the increasing predictability of the genre. (All films genres are beholden to the same type of adherence to formula; perhaps with only the noir film approaching as strictly rigid a guiding set of foundational strictures.)
And history is far too precious a mistress to be left entirely to the capricious whims of Art.
The myth that most classical Hollywood westerns are (now) culturally unacceptable cowboys vs. injuns affairs is patently untrue, as most westerns make no reference to so-called native Americans at all, instead enacting elemental morality tales of a timeless nature which have their roots going back to Greek theater, yet made particularly American in flavor by the introduction of the geographic setting of the West itself, as a player, and as a catalyst defining a pioneering psychology steeped in an undercurrent of Manifest Destiny; the vast mountains, plains, valleys and deserts with which an inevitable isolation from civilization is created, instills a sense of primalism in the stories, with resolutions to conflict ground in primordial survival instincts rather than an institutionalized canon separating right and wrong. So basic are the western tales, inevitably enacted by mythically embroidered archetypal figures, that the tales take on an almost Biblical resonance; situated, as they are, in a distant world, removed both historically and environmentally. However, not unlike the ancient tales of Greece and Rome, the West is also powered by a deep and abiding spiritual aspect which predisposes the Hand of Divinity: the concepts of redemption and damnation, of Heaven and Hell run deep in the western. The Western model of John Ford is replete with the depiction of communal religious ceremony usually weddings or funerals, suggesting a spiritual bond necessary to hold together society in an anarchic environment, a point emphasized in “The Searchers” when the outsider Ethan Edwards abruptly interrupts a funeral service to begin his lengthy trek fed by an obsessive neither understood nor condoned, though relied on, by the more “civilized” of community elements. It is the fracture between this spiritual righteousness and civil responsibility which is at issue in Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon”; perhaps the genuine beginning of the treading ground of irreversible western revisionism.
The pioneering psychology of the abandoned threads of civilization is inherent is some form in every western, often times taking a greatly mutated form- almost a parodisical shape -of that very civilization abandoned. This most often takes form in a altered state of societal unity. Despite the pretense of a controlling law and order, the West becomes its own world of disorder, especially in those areas defined in territorial terms, from which there is always an escalated conflict involving landed power brokerage involving the self-interested (i.e., the selfish possessor of the majority of resources: usually water rights) who only curb (or masquerade) their felonious behavior long enough to seduce the dangling prospects of statehood, and with it an inside track to corruptive influence. Thus, the singular dramatic conflict in the Western is graced with an increasingly profound psychological provenance: the potent series of psychodramas by Anthony Mann were phenomenon waiting to happen, the strains of expansion evolving far more deliberately in the films of John Ford– but still present -only buried under the signature layers of his own pronounced strain of dramaturgical artifice- his characters rarely veering from the archetypal, which explains the violent canonical schism erupting with the emergence of his Ethan Edwards, an atypical figure in his oeuvre, but one that would color the remainder of his westerns (especially in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, which is a wild variation from Dorothy M. Johnson’s love story into an awkward criticism against the very mythologizing that the director had himself promoted) in a way Ford was no longer able to control with a steady artistic temperament.
The elemental nature of the western plot is comparable, in literary terms, to the fable, and as such are fated to always be about something bigger than the characters within the drama (however, the moral simplicity of this structure does satisfy the viewer’s hunger for closure), though beyond the fundamental thematic context, the sobriquet “horse opera” is also highly apropos, as the grandiosity of emotions at play is equivalently in evidence with that of the theatrical excesses of opera: the prominent use of gunplay as a social fixative is a perfect representation of the extremities of chronic failures of reason left unchecked that descend into courses of violent primitivism. Again, noir is a sibling genre in which violence is forever a means to an end, no matter the demonstrations of moralizing preceding it. (The gun used as a symbol of strength, serious intent and masculinity: a weaponless tenderfoot may make a courageous- if foolhardy -stand against the forces of evil, but they generally are killed or saved by a more worldly practitioner of persuasion by flying lead, as in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”.)
If the Biblical comparison is apropos, so to are comparatives to the selectively justifiable violence characterizing many Shakespearean characters. Have there been more filmed stories with the obvious influences of Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V, Julius Caesar and especially King Lear than in the western? The elemental nature of the classical American western may appear morally simplistic due to a contemporary prism through which older time periods are attributed with less sophistication than current history; however, this is merely a distorted but comforting illusionary digression, as every generation relegates a certain quaintness to those preceding, as if this will substantially elevate the current generation’s sense of self in relationship to history, an attention to which- in part due to the lax mental investment which supports the disreputable content of the Internet to supersede patient scholarship -is becoming a fatality of misplaced prioritizing. There is a palpable smugness with each successive generation, increasingly removing the complexities of character and event from the context of a more profound view of history, into the ease of the creation of the historic archetype to which might be ascribed the more a simplistic level of values in which equally simplified situations are settled. This was especially true of the distancing from reality of the historic west- which to many, even at the time was already filtered through the deliberately romanticized prism of mythology through the popular western dime novels of Ned Buntline, Karl May and others. The people of the West did not lack sophistication nor complexity, merely creature comforts.
If the failure of the majority of the westerns of the first half of the 1970’s (this regards financial failure rather than artistic, but as such, a cause more sympathetic toward the corporate execs turning an eye away from increased scheduling of new western projects) finds a root catalyst, it may be useful to regard the casting torch being passed to a younger generation of actors with whom the saddles found themselves filled with both physically and histrionically insubstantial substitutes for the classic Hollywood western mold. In place of the taciturn men of action played by the likes of Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and- later – Clint Eastwood, an industry hungry for imagine lucre from a vast youth market, imposed fresher faces to the prairie, assuming the new face of Western iconography to be fronted by the likes of Charles Martin Smith, Gary Grimes and Barry Brown; not exactly a ringing endorsement of the continuation of the image of masculine pioneer figure, unless one is willing to substitute the branding iron for a pillow fight.
STATE OF THE ART: To Re or Not To Re; The Question of Film “Revisits”
To listen to Internet movie sites, one would think that the greatest offense now being committed by the American film industry is the perceived proliferation of the “remake”; so heinous a cultural offense to the millions of films buffs floating in the ether, as a revisitation of previously filmed materials is looked at primarily as an attack against the filmgoer’s personal affections toward the original movie vehicles. Seldom is there a subject which generates so much passionate vitriolic discussion within the realm of the cinematic without compensatory lucid conclusions. To the nostalgic Populist, remakes are regarded as an endgame to Hollywood creative vacancy: a sign that an industry is bereft of ideas. This, of course, is nonsense and speaks more of the offended bringing little to the argumentative table than of an entire cultural entity being trapped in an expressive vacuum.
The favorite example of derisive attacks on the subject is Gus Van Sant’s notorious 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, an exercise in studio production pointlessness if ever there was one, although in an ironic sidebar, those same “classic film” purists who excoriated the film for its incomprehensibly cloned content also railed with equal fervor over the few instances where the new version veered from carbon copy forgery. This is a disingenuous argument, as if picking the most egregious example as the basis of any argument settles the matter across the board. (Using this skewered logic, one might condemn the entirety of the musical genre on the basis of the hideous filmization of “Mame”.)
The fact is, remakes are nothing new and are not an invention of the contemporary movie scene. The obvious example to illustrate this would be the 1941 version of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” in which John Huston’s notable directorial debut was enshrined within the third version of this same novel, filmed within a ten year period. Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” was simply a gender spun retelling of the successful Lewis Milestone version of “The Front Page in 1931. The 1938 George Cukor film “Holiday” was the second film version of the Philip Barry play, following the more faithful 1930 version- both featuring Edward Everett Horton in the same role! One might be less inclined to include other notable early examples as there seems to be a generosity accorded film versions that span from silent to sound eras, though the retreading of major silent features such as “The Unholy Three”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, all successfully remade in sound by 1939, surely would have reminded Hollywood of a vast catalog of tested motion picture properties that could be reintroduced in the wonder of the new sound technology.
Within the silent era itself, the amount of remaking makes the modern era of film pale by comparison, with new versions of certain vehicles cropping up every few years, many first as shorts and later as features. There is hardly any major silent vehicle that wasn’t blatantly retread every few years with different emerging stars, with sometimes three and four different remakes, not including those versions that would find production- sometimes repeatedly -in the sound era. That the same criticism of this flagrant reworking of material is not equally criticized in the silent era is both telling as the bending of the flexible yardstick of serious critical consideration by which this era of film is judged (and inferior films far too often excused), and the excess of tolerance afforded an era in which the producers and studios subsequently self-abused their filmic legacy through careless disregard, if not outright scandalously callous disposal (as in the case of the complete “Greed”).
Over the years, it was not only whole film properties that were subject to reinterpretation but theme and plot outlines would be casually lifted and interpolated into subsequent features that on first inspection might bear little relation to an earlier version. A flagrant example of this is D. Ross Lederman’s 1938 foreign legion B-picture quickie “Adventure in Sahara” featuring a stolid Paul Kelly in what is essentially the Fletcher Christian role from “Mutiny on the Bounty”, opposite C. Henry Gordon’s desert version of Bligh, the sadistic Capt. Savatt, who like Bligh, was cast adrift in the wilderness with his scant crew of loyal men; only in this version, the exile is into the burning desert with insufficient water rather than a rowboat in the raging seas. The parallels with the Gable/Laughton film are unmistakeable, and doubly curious as the source of the 1938 film was purportedly an ‘original’ story by Samuel Fuller!
Subsequent highlights in the checkered history of film retreads are voluminous, including many films beloved by the same vocal Populist critics who otherwise energetically campaign against current cinematic revisitations. For example, the much-admired vehicle “A Star is Born” has actually seen four different manifestations over the years, first in the 1932 George Cukor film “What Price Hollywood?” (Not officially associated as an original version, but so closely similar to subsequent versions, one would have to be legally blind not to note the obvious “borrowings”; Hollywood’s cozier nickname for plagiarism.), then the 1937 William A. Wellman version (Which inexplicably won an Oscar for Best Story, proving Hollywood does have a sense of humor.), the 1954 George Cukor (!) version and the 1976 Frank Pierson nee Streisand version, with a rumored musical fifth version planned for the near future. Cukor is not alone in A-list directors reapplying new faces to previously trod materials (his own final film being 1981’s “Rich and Famous”, a retread of the 1943 Vincent Sherman feature “Old Acquaintance”), with Alfred Hitchcock filming his “The Man Who Knew Too Much in both in 1934 and 1956, Frank Capra filming “Broadway Bill” in 1934 and again, as the 1950 musical “Riding High”, Cecil B. DeMille filming “The Ten Commandments” both as a silent vehicle in 1923 and again as a Technicolor super-spectacular in 1956, and Howard Hawks essentially making the same film in the span of eleven years (and all starring John Wayne) with the overpraised “Rio Bravo” in 1959, the superior “El Dorado” in 1966 and the tired “Rio Lobo” in 1970. Even John Ford, in filming his 1949 Western “3 Godfathers” was revisiting material that had been previously filmed no less than five times, in 1916, 1919, 1921, 1930 and 1936!
The remake bug is not even limited to Hollywood filmmakers, as global film artists are susceptible to the same temptations to reinvent the wheel (so to speak) as their American brethren. In a notorious example, the Italian director Sergio Leone (The discussion over whether he may indeed be considered an “artist” is still open to debate, though the available evidence may challenge that designation.) blatantly lifted the scenario of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 jidaigeki “Yojimbo” for his 1964 spaghetti western “Per un pugno di dollari”, (Often mistaken as the first Italian western, which could probably more accurately ascribed to Ricardo Blasco’s 1963 “Duello nel Texas”.) which was subsequently subjected to a successful legal action by Kurosawa. Both the Turkish and Indian Bollywood film industries are such blatant copiers of specific foreign films, the examples so legion, it doesn’t serve the argument justice to even list a few examples.
Still, Hollywood has always been at the forefront of redressing foreign properties to suit its own domestic audiences. Often foreign films were made in different versions simultaneously for both the European market and the American marketplace, often with many of the same actors participating in both versions; an example of this being the 1933 German-U.S. co-production “S.O.S. Eisberg” (titled “S.O.S. Iceberg” in the U.S.) directed by “mountain film” specialist Arnold Fanck and starring Gustav Diessl, Ernst Udet, and Fanck’s protégé, the notorious Leni Riefenstahl, who also appeared in the English-language version directed with alternate sequences by Tay Garnett but co-starring Rod La Rocque and Gibson Gowland. (Interestingly, the Eskimo village footage would later find its way into another Universal film, 1957’s “The Deadly Mantis”.) The seemingly current trend of copying foreign cinema is nothing new and was a feature of American filmmaking since the beginning of the industry (One needs only to scan Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 Italian epic “Cabiria” to see the blatant influence it would have on D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” two years later.) and only seems currently magnified as many foreign language directors are assimilating the “Hollywood” style into their own vehicles, making for an attractive target for an American remake, and favorably saving studios the sometimes astronomical cost of developing a project from scratch. Critical favorite Fritz Lang (whose own 1930 masterwork “M” would see a surprisingly interesting reworking in 1950 with Joseph Losey’s version) would also enter the remake arena with his 1945 “Scarlet Street”, a reworking of Jean Renoir’s 1931 “La Chienne”, proving that differing artistic temperaments might still be drawn to the same material, as proven by other esteemed directors reimagining the humanists initial conceptions, with Luis Bunuel reworking Renoir’s 1946 “Diary of a Chambermaid” (Not to mention Bunuel’s reinterpretation of Pierre Louys’ novel La femme et le pantin as “That Obscure Object of Desire”, the fifth film version of the book, including Josef Von Sternberg’s “The Devil is a Woman”.) Both Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa found Maxim Gorky’s play “The Lower Depths” of sufficient interest that they boh produced a film version: Renoir’s in 1936 and Kurosawa’s in 1958.
Curiously, there seems to be far less critical opinion from the Populist camp concerning remakes of foreign-language films, possibly because product outside of the English language variety is more often than not dismissed as an entirely separate cultural entity. Apparently, in the case of the reworked film, familiarity is what breeds contempt, and so many films that have the basis in superior foreign language sources [“Algiers” (1938), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “Victor Victoria” (1982), “Twelve Monkeys” (1995), “Scent of a Woman” (1992), “Insomnia” (2002) and “The Departed” (2006)] are given a pass, while a remake of a vintage Hollywood mediocrity such as “Sabrina” is looked at as such an act of blasphemy, it virtually killed the Hollywood career of Julia Ormond; ironically one of the few young actresses possessed of both the talent and the glamor to have been a star in Golden Age Hollywood.
The remakes of recent foreign-language films are specifically the kinds of vehicles that should rankle the ardent cinephile, as these are films which actively intensify the resistance toward American distribution of the original work in favor of a usually watered down (i.e. dumbed down) English language recreation supposedly more acceptable for the American, and ultimately world, marketplace. What are the odds that anyone who frequented the local cineplex to see the Helen Mirren thriller “The Debt” will feel compelled to seek out, or even acknowledge the existence of, the original 2007 Israeli version? There is certainly something to be said for the spiritual solemnity of the original, carrying the burden of that particular nation’s historic angst, as opposed to a more sleek, commercialized version with major international stars that cannot help but reek of high-toned playacting in comparison. Even, a cult favorite such as the Spanish 2007 horror film “[REC]” is plagued by an almost shot for shot 2008 English language version (almost generically and stupidly retitled “Quarantine”) that matches in Hollywood slickness what the original achieved in the illusion of almost pathological spontaneity.
Films with noirish characteristics seem to be particularly fruitful targets of reinterpretation, and not merely within the boundaries of their own particular genre. For instance, the 1948 John Farrow film “The Big Clock” with the backdrop as the world of magazine publishing was later intelligently transplanted (and improved upon) into the world of Pentagon espionage in Roger Donaldson’s 1987 “No Way Out” and the 1948 Edward G. Robinson vehicle “House of Strangers” was smoothly translated from banking to Old West with the 1954 Spencer Tracy film “Broken Lance” and later, somewhat less successfully into the circus arena with the 1961 James B. Clark production “The Big Show”. William Keighley’s 1948 “The Street With No Name” became Samuel Fuller’s 1955 “House of Bamboo”, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 “Out of the Past” became Taylor Hackford’s 1984 “Against All Odds”, Rudolph Maté’s 1950 “D.O.A.” became both a 1969 Australian thriller “Color Me Dead” with Tom Tryon and Rick Jason, and an abominable 1988 vehicle starring Dennis Quaid. “Double Indemnity” was basically remade as “Body Heat” 1982, and “The Big Sleep” was made both in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart and in 1978 with Robert Mitchum, the latter film transposing Raymond Chandler’s importantly L.A.- based Marlowe to an unforgivably inappropriate London! And the list goes on and on…
The emergence of black artists and the subsequent popularity of blaxploitation in the late 60’s-1970’s opened the gate for revisitations of classics material (especially in the exploitation rich horror genre) such as “Blacula” (and it’s sequel “Scream, Blacula, Scream”), “Blackenstein” and “Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde”, as well as the remake of “The Asphalt Jungle as “Cool Breeze”, “The Defiant Ones” as “Black Mama, White Mama”, “Odd Man Out” as “The Lost Man” and “The Black Godfather” based upon the film…you guessed it.
Within the current glut of filmic revisitations of material, perhaps no source is more egregiously abused than movies with their basis in comic books, which due to the ease with which reality is faked with a comfortable artificiality thanks to the proliferation of increasingly disreputable CGI effects, has been repeatedly mined over and over again with the same story varying only in the Hollywood seems to find itself stuck in a production variation of “Groundhog Day” by rebooting not only the same characters with maddening repetition, but far too often in the retelling, time and again, of their origin stories; revealing one of the great secrets of the comics industry: their “heroes” are quite dull, for outside of the details of their initial emergence, there isn’t a great deal to tell but an endless succession of bone crunching fights either on a cosmic level or, more often than is comfortably noted, good old-fashioned fisticuffs. Watching any of the modern comic book incarnations is reminiscent of the cheaply made 1943 Columbia serial of “Batman”, in which a fistfight every three and half minutes throughout the twenty chapters, was standing operating procedure; though without the exorbitant outlay of hundred of millions of dollars to disguise a street brawl as something cosmically profound. If The Dark Knight is supposed to be the “world’s greatest detective” (as modestly described in the comics), why is it he exercises his deductive powers in every mystery with a punch to the face or a kick to the solar plexus?
Classics, both literary and theatrical, take on an entirely new life in the cinema, with the ardent fan-based populists adhering almost lunatic levels of loyalty to vintage versions of these properties, whether or not they have merit as reasonable representations of the written originals, based solely on the basis of their production vintage amid the hypnotic spectacle of Golden Age Hollywood stars and studio production values. Fidelity to the original artistic values of the written source materials is immaterial in these matters as original literary properties are granted little more esteem than as “screen stories”. Artistic adherence is no match against the casting of fan favorites such as Bette Davis or Greta Garbo in key roles, whether or not they are legitimately suitable. Consideration for Shaw is secondary to being enamored of Vivien Leigh, whether or not she successfully represents the author’s conception; after all, she once played Scarlett O’Hara and that’s good enough for the populist wing.
Adaptations of classic literature benefit mightily by nostalgic affection of vintage Hollywood cinema, as the populist cinephile is likely to consider success measured by way of participation of a favored star or director, regardless of fidelity to the original literary source; familiarity with the novel having little to do with the perceived merit of the film version. After all, it’s far easier to sit through even a mediocre adaptation of “War and Peace” than to brave the densely populated text of Tolstoy’s novel. Similarly, a splendid work such as Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” is unlikely to inspire many admirers to tackle the bulk of James Fenimore Cooper’s Longstocking Tales, nor might the peculiarly popular David Lean Classics Illustrated abridgement of “Doctor Zhivago”- despite the rush in the tissue industry it inspired -instigate a reading frenzy directed at Boris Pasternak’s popularly purchased but seldom read book. Still, “classic” film enthusiasts rail against any modern film interpretations of literary classics, if that book has already been brought to the big screen, whether or not that interpretation did the book justice or not; the very fact of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall display an on-screen chemistry, spilling over into a personal relationship of Hollywood legend, is sufficient for the classic film enthusiast to ignore the fact that the film is hardly a slavish translation of the book (Hemingway’s works were particularly ill-treated by the studios, perhaps the best Hollywood adaptive work to be found in Curt Siodmak’s 1947 “The Killers” which, instead of tackling the entirety of a novel, seized upon one of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories as a building point, though the most faithful filmization surfaces from an unlikely source: a 1956 Russian student film made by a trio of fledgling directors including a young Andrei Tarkovsky.) and therefore subject to a proper reinterpretation by a filmmaker with the interest, though such an announcement would, no doubt, set the ire of the populist classic cinephile set ablaze with venomous prescience that any new version must be, not only an unnecessary abomination but a sacrilege, not against the memory of Hemingway’s novel, but the memory of Bogart and Bacall!
However, where both legitimate theater and literature are mediums divisible from the cinema form, it stands to reason that any filmization of a published work is insignificant to the meritorious legacy of that work and that no matter how successful the adaptive translation, it is still merely one possible representation of the original work, hardly precluding any number of interpretations. For cinephiles to brandish condescension upon even the idea of new interpretations of literary or dramatic works is an attitude of narrow mindedness contrary to the advancement of the cinematic cultural form. Why is a succession of film adaptations of a particular literary work less legitimate than constant revivals of theatrical works with variations of stagings? Granted that a film differs from a live performed staging in that the results of a film production are preserved (or so goes the theory) for endless visitations, whereas a live performance (unless filmed) is lost forever and necessitates repeated performances. But, why then the variables of staged performance? For the sake of purity of the writer’s intention, would it not be prudent to adhere to the original text’s stage directions without variation, to replicate the experience of the first staging of the piece, even over centuries? Is not every different production independent of the original and therefore an exercise in artistic reinterpretation? It then stands to reason a similar philosophic course of revisitation also bears legitimacy in literary materials adapted into filmic terms, regardless of the narrow-mindedness of the classically enamored cinephile who base their outrage of revisitation on a violation of their personal affection and loyalty toward specific stars, directors and the very idea of the so-called “Golden Age” Hollywood machine. (A fine example proving the surprising results which may result from a fifth theatricalattempt at filming a novel is Gillian Armstrong’s enchanting 1994 film of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, superior in every way to both the misguided Mervyn LeRoy’s MGM “all-star” version of 1949 and the much lauded 1933 version featuring the efforts of classical cinephile favorites George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn.)
Now, if reasonable cause for a reworking of materials exclusive to filmic elaboration can be justified, can the same be said of material exclusive to the cinema form: films based on material directly written for the screen? There are several schools of thought, and two of the most common being: (1) the material was mishandled in its initial incarnation and a new version would attempt to exploit the material to its fullest potential, and (2) that even if the original version were of recognizable merit, the evolution of the cinema in terms of acting technique, technical considerations, expansion of the visual and directorial vocabularies and the elimination of censorial limitations. Both are valid arguments, though needlessly unnecessary as an art form. by its very nature, is evolutionary and as such is subject to subject to a certain level of reinvention, while film is also a matter of commerce and as such is subject to influence finding an unpragmatic alignment with purely artistic goals. (This would also presume that all film makers should be considered artists, simply by their participation in the creative process within an art form, as impractical a designation as making a similar connection between a tot who scrawls refrigerator art to Monet.) Clearly a more practical perspective must be granted the cinema in terms of its reliance on financial business interests to both survive and flourish, but this also true of every major art form tied to the necessity of financial solvency: theater, ballet, opera, all making the same compromises, though not as publicly or overtly (in the public eye) as the cinema; the perception of film as a mass medium invites the Populist camp to assert a peculiar sense of entitled possessiveness on their favorite films.
This is not a judgment on whether a remake can be justified (and why would the public be involved in such decisions anyway?) as necessary or not- usually fueled by the self-interested defensiveness of individual taste (“It’s one of my favorites, so why do they have to tamper with it?”, as if a remake alters the value of a separate interpretation.) -or whether there is justification in submerging the reaction to a remake with suffocating comparison to the original, to the point where criticism without prejudice becomes impossible. William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer”, a reinterpretation of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “Le salaire de la peur”, is the best American film released in 1977, yet was savagely excoriated upon release, primarily due to the perceived out-of-bounds hubris of the director for daring to tread the ground of a recognized masterpiece (that claim entirely overlooking the many flaws of the original which are generally minimized most generously, if not ignored entirely, but that’s fuel for a different time). All commercial cinema is inextricably fixed into that target of impractical artistic snobbery that is the bane of practical economics. Film is an Art Form, but movies are a business: the Sisyphean enigma which beleaguers the artist but endangers the journeyman into conceding to a path of continuous, ruinous compromise.
None of this is intended as a fixative nor an absolving balm to the many cases of creative copycatting or outright plagiarism that has plagued the film industry, but only as a brief primer (a proper examination of the subject would necessitate a book length treatise) illustrating that the widespread industry attractiveness toward cannibalizing its own past is a practice far from new, and in fact. has been practiced since the very beginning of the cinema form. Current anxieties as to the seemingly paltry pickings of works original in concept might be alleviated by supping of other than the current mainstream Hollywood multiplex fare and seeking out a nourishing menu of world cinema.
A Brief Rumination on the Modern Cinema and the Demise of Classical Dance in the Movie Musical
At what point in film history did the movement of dancers in a musical film become an impediment to the director’s visual leanings?
In the classical Hollywood studio era musical, the frame is carefully composed to elicit a full view of the entire dancer’s body; no matter the contextual limitations of “Golden” era Hollywood, there was a mindset of practicality and efficiency in the fundamentals of assembly line film making, and in the case of the subject at hand, the applicable guiding principle was in ensuring that the expense and energies expended on producing a musical number would find realization fully on display onscreen. The dancer’s body was logically regarded as a complete instrument of musical interpretation, and as such, it naturally followed that during the preparation of a dance sequence, the performers and choreographer worked in synchronous harmony with the director and cinematographer in planning to properly shoot the performance properly recorded to ensure the time, energies, talent and expense (keeping in mind that the movies were and are a business, the studio moguls were adamant that the monies expended be reflected on the screen) be seen clearly and effectively. The contemporary propensity toward a resistance to exhibiting the dancer’s entire body in motion with a fluid camera unimpeded by jarring edits. without aesthetic justification, nullifies the intent of the choreographic efforts. The deliberate fracturing of the moving image, in this context, results in similar damage of perspective as a dance sequence designed for a wider spatial view (i.e., “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” or “It’s Always Fair Weather”) that faces a disruptive alteration through the use of “pan-and-scan” editing.
If we properly consider the dancer’s body as a means to the physical manifestation of a poetic expression of emotion, then the excision of any part of this expression changes the raison d’etre; it is viewable but unsustainable as the original objective of artistic expression. Profoundly expressive movement is still possible under the camera’s gaze (the form has not changed, only the method), yet the current trend is one of reduction. Dance has been reduced to gesture. Empty rhythmic movement. Broken, isolated gesture seldom expands the profound conveyance of emotion. Yet, by its nature, the cinema offers greater boundaries for choreographed movement than theater as the proscenium arch, while a natural framing device, suffocates a truly free plane of expression that the open field of cinema can provide; recalling the many instances of the inexact and absurd expansion of the dance field from stage to airline hangar proportions as the performance arena in the dance sequences of made famous by Busby Berkeley (a Hollywood bit of make-believe borrowed by the wartime Hollywood-enamored German film machine, finding its greatest expression in the 1944 Marika Rökk vehicle “Die Frau meiner Träume”). But where cinema, in theory, may offer a greater plane of movement than the legitimate stage could ever provide, the contemporary temperament aims at an expressive microcosm: narrowing the visual sight line to meaninglessly abbreviated spastic tic and flexed, disembodied limbs is not even a suggestion of gesture as part of a greater organic whole, but random movement, and certainly not dance. Instead of a long shot featuring a dancer, we have MTV influenced montage featured in ill-conceived yet unfathomably lucrative films as Rob Marshall’s unwatchable “Chicago” (above). Neither is this a technique used- as proffered in disgracefully insulting examples of excuse making against the “artist’s” intended audience -to entertain the attention deficit, but rather it is actually a useful tool to subvert the challenges of making a proper (not just musical) film.
The creatively amateurish have found an ally in Hollywood and what better way to mask mistakes in shooting, ill-considered technique, poor visual planning and perhaps an outright absence of talent, than to cut any scene into unintelligible guitar picks, translatable only by pious explanatory exclamations of: “you don’t understand what I’m going for.” Musicals are not suis generis in this, only the most blatantly damaged genre example. (Can we be surprised at this, when for years dubbed singers replaced genuine talents capable of filling theaters with any number of emotionally charged renditions, sacrificed for a modern preference for exalting the talentless for their professional “daring” in exposing their vocal deficiencies to a defenseless public?) Oddly enough, as musicals were being badly shot and edited to death, Disney was reinventing the genre back to its roots by animating musical numbers in full proscenium arch framing with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. So much for the industry protesting the young audience’s limited ability to sustain focus.
On an ironic note, several years ago, Boston had the good fortune to play host to legendary tap dancer Charles ‘Honi’ Coles whose nightly performance in a pre-Broadway show eclipsed the lesser quality of the production with regular demands of dancing encores during the show and the curtain calls. It was a rare opportunity for an entirely new generation to view this legendary performer dance onstage and the anticipation of seeing this man’s vast (and egregiously ignored on film) talents finally preserved for posterity on the large screen, in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” was thrilling prospect. Imagine the disappointment when Coppoola’s inept staging cuts the man in two: first, showing Coles dancing only from the waist up and then cutting to his disembodied legs. And this largely unmerited “genius” is/was/ever was considered a directorial visionary?
STATE OF THE ART: A Brief Polemic in Consideration of the Cinema’s True Creative Pulse
Those who have partaken of my critical rambling will note that there is far less attention paid to the physical production and visual quality of a film and more regarding the structure and balance of the narrative, the ingenuity of the thematic conception and the development of full-bodied interesting characters who will be nourished by a happy confluence with the first two elements. From the Art Form’s very beginnings the influence of writing was nothing less than that of Stanley Kubrick’s great, goofy monoliths on the mind’s of the primordial ape: for when a camera was focused on an arriving train, it signaled the arrival of a glorious new form of photography, but it was with the introduction of the idea- the written concept -that the cinema was born.
While I have plentiful admiration for the individual accomplishments of both director and actors, there is no rational reason to mount either on a pedestal nor to canonize either with that most offensive of grotesquely overused embellishments: genius (ugh!). I will, however, champion those who seem little remembered by critics, the general public, and even (curiously, considering the expressive nature of the beast) by the majority population of so-called cinephiles finding safe refuge on the Internet, and that is the writer.
The writer, without whom there would be no cinema, no material for the craven egos of directorship to grasp with both hands the absurd and undeserved title of Auteur, nor dialogue or delineated characters to fuel the ego-driven piety of the actor (or worse: celebrity posing as actor) who later claims to have improvised their choicest lines. (Just watch these same wizards when the teleprompters fail on awards programs to see what spontaneous Shavian wits they truly are.) Thank you, I’ll stick with the writers.
The writers, who have always been pushed aside, poorly paid, disregarded for their work or contributions and disrespected by both an illiterate corporate film industry and sensation seeking public. The writers, who traditionally excoriated as the first and most obvious cause of any film’s failure, yet is never included in the reception line for credit when a film succeeds. The writers, who have always assumed (despite the lack of professional security) the role as the most vocal, courageous and reactionary faction in Hollywood; one might note they were the first to organize into a permanent union against the studios (the WGA) and by their very display of outspoken ideals were the natural first target in Hollywood (and effortless sacrificial lambs of the moguls) of the HUAC. And yet, these same writers, while suffering the abuse of blacklisting and the insidious humiliation of the forced use of “fronts”, were knowingly paid even lesser wages by the odious studio heads, who openly denounced the very people of whom they were “secretly” taking full advantage. (Think about that the next time you wish to mindlessly celebrate the “Golden Age of Hollywood”.)
The 2013 Annual Critical Establishment Readers SurveyAll readers, bloggers and film enthusiasts are encouraged to participate in the following 59 question survey. ________________________________________________________________________________ 01. Who/what do you feel is the most overrated actor, actress, director and film? 02. Who/what do you feel is the most underrated actor, actress, director and film? 03. Do you read film magazines? If so, which titles? _________________________________________________________ 04. Do you generally prefer cel or computer animation? 05. Do you generally watch foreign films? 06. Do you have a favorite film genre, and if so, what is it and why? ___________________________________________________________________________ 07. What do you think is the most representative film from the following countries: a) France? b) Spain? c) Italy? d) Russia? e) Japan? f) China? g) Great Britain? h) Germany? i) Australia? j) India? k) Ireland? l) Scandinavia? m) Greece? n) Africa? o) Canada? p) South America? 08) What, in your mind, is the most successful film translation of a piece of literature? 09) Do you feel there has ever been a film remake that has exceeded the quality of the original? Is so, what film and why? ________________________________________________________ 10) Name three films you feel contain the most impressive achievements in screenwriting. 11) What film most disappointed your expectations? 12) What film most exceeded your expectations? 13) Do you feel artistic achievement in film is separate from entertainment value? 14) Do you feel films were better or worse for being produced under the Production Code? _____________________________________________________________ 15) Do you think there is such a thing as “an important” film, and if so what film would that be? 16) Do you generally read film criticism? If so, which critics do you follow? 17) Do you feel film criticism has changed with the advent of the Internet? If so, how? 18) If you read film criticism do you usually read it before or after seeing a film. and why? 19) If you see a film based on a book, would you be more likely to read the book before or after the film? ————————————————————————————————————- 20) Do you follow the Auteurist theory? 21) When seeing a film do you feel more forgiving of a performer or filmmaker whose past work you have admired? 22) In your opinion, in what order are the most important participants in a film, beginning with the most important: writer, director, producer, actor? 23) In foreign films, do you prefer subtitles or dubbing? 24) What do you think has been the most valuable technical contribution to films? 25) What do you think has been the most damaging technical advance to films? 26) Do you have a preference between black and white and color films? 27) What do you think was the most significant Movement in the history of films? 28) Do you think that a vintage film which contains, now-perceived inflammatory “politically incorrect” material should either be unreleased or re-issued under altered conditions? 29) Do you read collected volumes of film criticism? If so who do you read? 30) Do you feel television critics are as creditable as traditional print film critics? 31) Do you feel internet bloggers are as creditable as traditional print film critics? ____________________________________________________________ 32) Do you feel the emergence of internet blogging has strengthened or weakened Critical Thought in film? 33) Can you name a film you feel was badly directed and yet you still regard as a good film? 34) Can you name a film you feel was badly written and yet you still regard as a good film? 35) Do you generally prefer to watch sound or silent films? 36) Do you feel there is legitimacy in “staging” events in documentary films? 37) Do you favor DVD presentations with additional features? If so, which features are important to you? 38) Do you listen to DVD commentary tracks? __________________________________________________________
39) Do you believe Populist opinion should have any relevance in Critical Thinking? 40) Are you more likely to see a film if it has won awards at festival competitions? 41) Are you more likely to see a film if it has been nominated or has won “major” commercial awards (Oscar, Golden Globe)? 42) Are you more likely to see a film that has received raves from critics? ____________________________________________________________________ 43) Do you feel it is possible to be regarded as well-rounded in the cinema without paying attention to foreign language films?_______________________________________________________________________ 43) Do you believe a star rating for films has value? A numerical rating? A thumb rating? 44) Do you believe film critics have merit in relation to populist interest in film? 45) Do you believe film critics have merit in relation to aesthetic concerns in film? 46) Of the generally abandoned regular features of yesteryear that would be shown at theaters, which would you most enjoy making a comeback and why: Short subjects, newsreels, cartoons or serials? 47) Do you make generally use film guides for research references? 48) Do you believe extreme violence may be used effectively in a film? If yes, state an example. 49) Do you believe explicit sexuality may be used effectively in a film? If yes, state an example. 50) Do you read books about film? If so, what are your greatest areas of interest? _____________________________________________________________________ 51) Do you listen to or regularly purchase soundtrack albums?_____________________________________________________________________________ 52) Do you feel it is incumbent upon critics to help establish standards of excellence in film as an artistic enterprise? 53) When watching a film on a home screen as opposed to a theatrical venue, do you find your disciplinary habits in watching a film without distractions is increased? If so, do you feel this detracts from the fullest attention you would otherwise give the film? 54) Have you ever attended a drive-in movie theater? ______________________________________________________________________ 55) Do you feel songs used on a film soundtrack enhance a film or are they simply an overused device for marketing purposes? 56) In your opinion, what is the greatest artistic achievement in American cinema? 57) In your opinion, what is the greatest artistic achievement in non-American cinema? 58) Do you believe in the concept of the “guilty pleasure”? If yes, do you have one? 59) Do you regard Film as an Art Form?
Thank you for participating in the 2013 Critical Establishment Readers Survey. Participation is an exhausting task so please avail yourselves of our complimentary orange juice and cookies and please lay still for about fifteen minutes before moving about as you may experience a sensation of dizziness and vertigo. Our attending staff will call a nurse if you need further assistance. Again, thank you for participating.
A Year in Purgatory: The Road to Hell is Paved With Mediocrity- Notes on Joining a Major Film Website
Movies are supposed to be fun. Films are supposed to be artistic.
Movies are escapism. Films are aesthetic works.
Movies are popular entertainment.
Films are an Art Form.Clearly there are divisions between Populist and Critical points of view. However, the presumption would be that both perspectives might find a home on the Internet at a large website whose sole purpose is the celebration of the Cinema. Right? Well…not so fast. Let’s begin our journey with a most basic query: Is Film an Art Form? This is one of the most relevant questions to cross the paths of a cinephile, and it’s examination is capable of raising the conversational level to extremely stimulating heights, dealing as it does with the very nature of the Cinema itself, the boundaries of Art, and the differing parameters of the purely aesthetic versus the intentionally commercial. Yet, when these elemental principles of film thought are advanced at the Classic Film Union on the TCM website, if not met with outright scorn, they are summarily dismissed as if they didn’t exist. Under the guise of friendly inclusion (accompanied by perpetual self-inflating proclamations of their Union being the most civil and respectful of all Internet film sites- notwithstanding their blatant snipes at their own Message Boards- pummeling non-believers and rookie members ad nauseam, with the ferocity of a Jim Jones Kool-Aid seminar) the general tone is promoted as open and breezy, as long as you toe the line; for in the overwhelming Populist viewpoint expressed most vociferously at this site, entertainment value will trump artistic merit every time. Films produced outside of the Golden Age Hollywood Studio Star System are generally dismissed (if acknowledged at all) as “cultish”, “obscure” and (best of all) “those movies”. Now, perhaps that’s not an unexpected position as film, of all of the presumed art forms, is the one whose viability is based on popularity without the necessity of developed taste; but it’s a fatally limiting viewpoint for any congress of presumably independent intellects whose interest is dedicated exclusively toward the Cinema Form. The site is a rather beneficent extension of cable television’s Turner Classic Movies channel, no doubt intended to generate a cadre of excited and enthusiastic followers who will spread the good word about film and, more importantly, the channel. Whether by accident or design, it is the latter of these interests that pollutes the purity of what might be, as the channel itself becomes a type of cultural Rosetta Stone in which the fanbase mentality of the Populist extreme finds a home that flourishes with an uncomfortably defensive self-interest. Immediately one will recognize the abundant member complaints that they feel excluded and isolated from either peer groups or society in general with their interest in film, which might seem unfathomable on the surface (who doesn’t like a good movie?) until you read further and explore the restrictive boundaries which they put on their interests; boundaries that often read as micro-obsessions. More often than not, it is not film in general these members are keen on, nor even good films, but purely vintage films (and then only American Golden Age Studio vintage films and perhaps a smattering of British cinema, especially if they feature stars transplanted to or from Hollywood U.S.A.; but the remainder of world cinema need not apply), or more specifically (as designated by the leading Union voices) “classic” movies. Now, since the source of the obsessively focused passion at the site is the “classic” film, how is that designation defined at the site? What well thought out characteristics might directly hit you in the eye and declare “yes, I am a classic film!”? Well, that’s a bit of a problem, since that’s a subject that has been gone over again and again and never reached a satisfactory resolution, although the most accepted parameters seem to be (a) any American film before 1961 (which is too ludicrous a definition to even draw a discussion on) or (b) a film 30 years old or older, which means we have the early cinema of Michael Bay to be enjoyed at classic film retrospectives any day now. In general, the Union membership takes it’s lead from the sponsoring corporate entity, Turner Classic Movies under whose umbrella films are attractively marketed as candy coated commodities; shiny baubles which delight the undiscerning taste buds, emblazoned with meaningless collective titles as: Studios, Directors and Stars of the Month, all of whom are elevated (often, coincidentally, coinciding with a TCM DVD release) to Olympian status without even the tiniest hint of qualitative insight that might suggest that a portion of the films shown might not only be mediocre but outright trash. However, within the hypnotic myth-making marketing of TCM, all of these films are regarded as historic “treasures”, and this indecently anti-critical perspective from which they are marketed fuels the blindly ravenous atmosphere of idolatry that is at the very heart of the CFU. Were we speaking of an individual with an opinion so transfixed, the result would be unfortunate, but magnify that to an exponentially expanding collective mentality and it becomes a popular mindset destructive to the aesthetic standards of an Art Form. Oddly, one area which stands out in particular as a growing concern- peculiar in this day and age, but invaluable in it’s continuance in the study of Cinema History as a whole -is the silent film, of which there is a fortunate increasing field of interest at the Union; no doubt stimulated in part by TCM’s less frequently, but sensibly numbered, scheduled screenings of pre-sound films. Yet, even this enthusiam toward a more obscure boundary of the Cinema is tempered with a general reservation toward a greater interest toward the American cinema than even the far more interesting and innovative output of Sweden, Germany, Russia and Italy. Surely, the excuse cannot be made in this instance, for an impatience with subtitles (the intertitles being translated into English, after all), however, with the exception of a “landmark” silent such as “Metropolis”, the general mindset of the group seems comfortable with appropriating the credit for all meaningful developments during this period as being from Hollywood. At the CFU, a non-entity such as Corinne Griffith will always be celebrated over a true pioneer such as Victor Sjostrom any day of the year. Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton will be canonized whereas Max Linder barely rates an eye flutter. Is this a matter of cultural snobbery or of an ignorance of the medium celebrated? This is not an inconsequential question at the CFU, but one that would be met (again speaking generally, as there are a few brave souls who rise above the fray and burrow in the shadows to avoid public emasculation) with scornful arrogance that refuses to admit any gaps in expertise, but more importantly, finds it an actual act of hostility that any suggestion be made to close those gaps. In the eyes of the CFU membership, blind worship of TCM, host Robert Osborne (and lately the dependably unimaginative Ben Mankiewicz) and any film they schedule in their broadcasts is tantamount to a Ph.D thesis on Cinema Arts; be damned that most of World Cinema is ignored in favor of the romance novel-level turgid melodramas of Golden Age Hollywood being recognized as the pinnacle of a much-abused Art Form.
But isn’t this all rather harsh? And if an Art Form is to be truly studied and celebrated as it merits, are not so-called Golden Age Hollywood films to be included in the mix? It’s almost a foolish question. One could no more ignore Hollywood in a study of Film than one could remove oxygen from the act of breathing. But in that same regard, the remainder of World Cinema is equally and often more important. It is a matter of practical balance, which the vast majority of CFU members refuse to recognize as a cultural imperative.
On the Death of Andrew Sarris and the Future of Auteurism
Scholarly, erudite, possessed of a staggering memory for cinematic detail, eminently readable; these are just a few impressions one may conjure when reminded of the name Andrew Sarris. Yet he was also the person most associated in popularizing the Auteur Theory within the arena of critical discourse in America and with his passing of on June 20, there is legitimacy to the query as to whether the absence of the undisputed patriarch of American critical Auteurism will also denote the passing of the man’s beloved filmic theorem championing the assertion that the director is the sole “author” of the film and therefore the central (and if we’re to follow this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion- the only) artistic voice in which the resultant elevation of a film to true Art is a consequence of their direct creative participation.
Though initially theorized by the youngish (and one might conclude naive) coterie of writers, initially mentored by the renowned André Bazin, writing for the speciously influential film journal Cahiers du Cinéma- their thoughts cementing additional legitimacy by the fact that many of these critics would themselves turn to film making, forming what has become commonly labeled the French New Wave -the Auteur Theory, a misguided critical anomaly at best, radically altered the future of criticism (especially as adopted by young “critics” such as Peter Bogdanovich, a perhaps more obnoxious voice for Auterism than Sarris but lacking the status at the time) and would become an attractive ideal further supported by film students-cum-directors such as Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas who would naturally grasp toward any alteration in the cinema canon that would elevate their own sought position on the Pantheon of self-annointed celluloid Gods.
With the emergence of the Auteur Theory on American shores, film criticism hit a point of major division, with a generation of new, young critics who would follow the rather lackadaisical parameters of Auteurism, eventually eroding the critical standard down to what can be more accurately described as reviewing rather than criticism; with Auteurism criticism took a dangerous, erosive step toward a collective perspective and commencing a slippery slide away from idiosyncratic analysis. Regardless of the merits (if indeed there are any) of the fundamental conceits in Auteurism, such an eagerly embraced shortcut to individual insight mistakenly instructs the critic that intellectual laziness ignited by a questionable canonical outline may yield as rich a result as genuine insight resulting from a lifetime of educated, dedicated application to the art form. This one-theory-fits-all approach to critical thinking led to spirited argumentation between major voices in the field which in itself were occasions for stimulating insights into the critical process itself as much as about a specific film; though these arguments in themselves often led to a wearing distraction of personal acrimony as a substitute for focused critical acumen. In many instances, the philosophical duels became far more distracting than insightful and thus degenerated the critical climate into one of dueling brickbats rather than useful discourse.
The problems inherent in applying any singular theoretical crutch, including the Auteur Theory, is that the critical yardstick becomes a dangerously indiscriminate standard which adheres to the dictates of the chosen theorem rather than against an organic canonical ebb and flow of an art form’s presumed evolution; rendering irrelevant a consistency of applied critical standards when (in the case of Auteurism) examining a new film if that film would be regarded (again, under the auspices of the applied theory) as a continuation of a body of predetermined work, rather than as a singular entity. This is borne out in Sarris’ own collection of reviews “Confessions of a Cultist: On the cinema 1955-1969” wherein, due to the obvious influences of Auteur immersion, his reviews of both Charlie Chaplin’s “A Countess From Hong Kong” and John Ford’s “Seven Women”- both final works of former masters, but clearly mere shadows of former stylistic glories -were almost mind boggling exercises in pretzel criticism: where the instead of applied analysis based upon past standards, the rule of the day is a critical contortionism that is borne more of excuse making than acumen. If one were to believe Sarris’ arguments in favor of “A Countess From Hong Kong”, then instead of elevating that tepid film, such devolved standards call for an occasion to actually diminish the reputation of Chaplin’s genuine masterworks as lauded by the same critical voice.
The indications seem to be that despite Sarris’ passing- he seems to have become as irrelevant a voice to the general public as have most veteran critics with the obscene exception of that most worthless of Eberts -the Auteur Theory and its subsequent progeny of profundity-by-way-of-shortcuts have actually found a comfortable home in both the current culture of celebrity for its own sake and an Internet culture that operates on the mistaken assumption that shelling out ten bucks for a ticket instantly imbues the viewer with a profundity to which the whole world must hold sway. In fact, the current fashion of dismissal of the critical corps as a bunch of indivisible gasbags whose “opinions” are no more creditable than the man on the street, shows an absence of judgmental savvy that should forever discredit the source of such unrepentantly ignorant brayings, except that the usual collective retort is an almost unanimous agreement indistinguishable from a parade of bobbing head dolls marching straight for the lemming’s cliff.
That the most influential critical voice among the popular masses is a person to whom the entirety of their acumen may be wired to his thumb, one must pause at the degenerated state of cultural affairs. The natural tendency for any mass cultural movement is in the direction of an absence of difficulty, a homogenization of expression that is easily understood and doesn’t tax the faculties. In its own way, the natural cultural path, if left unattended by legitimate critical guardians, is toward a virtual socialization of culture: a one-size-fits-all aesthetic that satisfies no artistic standards, and yielding rather self defeating results in a diminishment of the art form that dissatisfies the audience that fueled the process in the first place. If one finds the need for a structure of critical thinking in the arts- and that is an essential element to any culture that flourishes -any process that promotes popular theory over idiosyncratic critical thought is doomed to follow the inevitable downward spiral of regressive aesthetic standards.
That the Auteur theory was promulgated into the American cultural maelstrom by a critic of genuine eminence, giving weight to a movement toward a lessening of critical standards is an irony unto itself, though prevailing trends indicate that the norm of nationally recognized criticism is tantamount to intellectual pablum spoon fed to an undiscerning audience that prefers not to be annoyed by such “elitist” concepts as artistry but finds simultaneous disaffection toward the mediocrity their disinterest in cultural standards engenders. No, the Auteurist Theory is in no danger of disappearing with the death of its patriarch; with American popular culture already embracing unending exhibitions of both empty celebrity and vacuous representations of art forms under the camouflage of either “popular” or “commercial entertainment”, the Auteur Theory has already become irrelevant (substitute “instant Celebrity” for “Director” and you get the point), a victim of an unfortunate turn in cultural evolution, replaced by succedent regressive points of critical degeneration which have contributed to the inevitable slide down to a widespread popular apathy toward a more profound cultural appreciation.