Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Images to Infuriate Delacroix: Jack Cardiff, 1914-2009

Jack Cardiff, the supreme genius of Technicolor, has died in Kent, England, age 94. Cardiff said that if he hadn't become a filmmaker, he would have been a painter. With him dies another link to a film process that gave us images like this.



The people at Technicolor, wrote Michael Powell, had usually encountered filmmakers accustomed to black-and-white, people who listened while the Kalmus crew told them what Technicolor could and could not do. The Technicolor folks had a surprise in store from Cardiff, who had worked in the laboratory for years and was "able to tell Technicolor where they could get off."

"Now," said Powell, "they were dealing with painters, which was a very different thing."




For his inventions, imagination and sheer audacity, there has never been another colour cameraman like Jack Cardiff. Georges Perinal was the best camaerman I have ever worked with, both in black and white and in colour, but Jack was something apart. The skin textures in the close-ups of Colonel Blimp would have delighted Fragonard, but Jack's lighting and composition in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes would have infuriated Delacroix, because he couldn't have done any better himself, in imagination or in chiaroscuro.
--Michael Powell, A Life in Movies

122 comments:

X. Trapnel said...

Not to be pedantic (oh, hell; yes to be pedantic)about his Michael P, but Delacroix's technique is not based on chiaroscuro (he was hostile to sculpturesque rendering) but construction via color and separation (not blending) of tones. That is to say, the beginnings of impressionism. Take it away, Pierre-Auguste!

Still, those are stunning images.

X. Trapnel said...

typo: THIS Michael P

Campaspe said...

XT, I will take your word for it. I like Delacroix but remember little of his technique from my art history. Still, I do think Powell is right and old Eugene might have gnawed off his arm over these...and they are just the first ones that struck me on a search.

Tony Dayoub said...

I've never understood how he went from photographing things like his Powell films or African Queen to drek like Conan the Destroyer, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Million Dollar Mystery.

Black Narcissus is my favorite.

X. Trapnel said...

Fair enough, but Delacroix is a household god chez Trapnel and his journals holy writ.

Is the banner from Black Narcissus? It's ravishing and I think Delacroix would applaud.

Campaspe said...

Tony, I suspect it's analogous to the kinds of roles Bette Davis took late in life. Some people simply cannot bear to stop working.

XT, in no way do I mean to disparage Delacroix, indeed I am sure Powell meant it only as a compliment to his DP and not a slam at the gentleman who gave us Liberty Leading the People

X. Trapnel said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to sound ill humored. I just wanted to be Frank McHugh to Delacroix's Cagney.

Vanwall said...

A real loss, as he was and is unmatched at his prime. Painterly films like "Black Narcissus", "the Red Shoes", and more recently, "The Duellists" and "House of Mirth", seem to deliberately invoke certain artists, for good or ill.

I think Byam Shaw would be a better comparitive arm-gnawer to Cardiff, as the Pre-Raphs seemed to have many of the same palette colors as the dwellers in Kamlus-land, and he was, IMHO, the best colorist of that lot.

X. Trapnel said...

Vanwall, I'm clearly in an obnoxious mood today (please forgive), but Byam Shaw comes way after the Pre-Raphs, but I agree he was a better colorist (and draughtsman!) than that sorry lot. If you like him (I sure do) check out his contemporary Herbert Draper. There's a powerful element of eccentric, highly colored fantasy in English painting in the Edwardian era that I think seeped into the Powell aesthetic, see especially Gone to Earth.

Vanwall said...

M X - Agreed, he lived and died well after them, but he also lived and died as a disciple of their work and name, and carried their same baggage as an outsider by then, much like Godward. (Who painted a thrillingly human Campaspe, BTW) And yes, Draper is just as sadly forgotten, a better composition and color master would be hard to find.

X. Trapnel said...

Ah, Vanwall, I see you are a connoisseur. Do you know the work of the strange unto madness Charles Sims? If not, look for his "To Julia, A Night Piece" (yes, it's based on Herrick); this is my favorite thing among the whole bunch.

Bob Westal said...

Well, to quote Woody Allen, "I don't know art, but I know what I'm supposed to like" -- but no one has to tell me to be enthralled by Cardiff's work on "The Red Shoes," "Black Narcissus" and especially the just about perfect "A Matter of Life and Death", which I only recently reacquainted myself recently. Such indelible images.

Vanwall said...

I like the colors that Sims played with, altho a bit more Impressionistic than most of his contemporaries in that style would've allowed, but lovely work nonetheless - perhaps that unto madness was insight into invisible colors and shapes that were set down on canvas as best as possible.

X. Trapnel said...

Sims had an uncanny way with vaporous light (like Draper), but his figures are weirdly etiolated (there's a particularly creepy portrait of George V) or have a strange way of dissolving into atmosphere. He was totally bonkers in his last years painting in a style that suggests Kandinsky+Chagall on quaaludes.

Yojimboen said...

I'm sorry X - I'm definitely in Bob Westal's camp here, I only like what I'm s'posta.

("Approval of what is approved of, is as false as a well-kept vow."
Betjeman)

So you're going to have to tell me what's wrong with this (click to enlarge). I think it's rather sweet.

P.S. I've actually seen Sim's George V in Edinburgh - as an anti-royalist Brit, I find it no more - or less - particularly creepy than the other depictions of the chinless Hanovers.

X. Trapnel said...

Monsieur Y: On the topic on what we're supposed to like, well, I liberated myself from obligatory tastes and feelings long ago, treating both with cheery contempt. I will not go into ecstasy over crop-headed Falconetti clutching those pepper mills (or is it a tire iron?), the Odessa steps, wrong-note facetiousness by Stravinsky,
anything having to do with Bloomsbury, self-destructive Ab-Exers, or the firm of Cage, Rauschenberg & Wormhole. And of course "Marilyn." The quicksand of boredom is ever rising.

Jeez, did I misspeak re "Night Piece to Julia"? I LOVE that painting (don't you think she looks a bit like Loretta Young?)

Sims' George V in his imperial robes looks like a squid being devoured by a giant oyster.

I wonder what might have happened if the chinless Hanovers had mated with the banana-jawed (see Velasquez for details)Habsburgs.

Yojimboen said...

I can't resist: Jay Leno, Joan Sutherland and Charles V walk into a bar...

The bartender says: "Aww, why the long faces?"

I'm here all week.
Try the veal.

Campaspe said...

AHEM. Gentlemen. Mr. Cardiff? Anyone want to bring up Pandora?

gmoke said...

"The Long Ships" was on cable a couple of weeks ago and it's still a very enjoyable popcorn movie with a lot of good actors have a great time. Cardiff was a decent director too and will most definitely be missed.

Campaspe said...

Gmoke, welcome back, it has been a while. I haven't seen The Long Ships but I should because I have a weakness for that type of historical movie. You should check out the Wikipedia article on The Long Ships; I just did and I think it may have been Babelfished straight from the original Swedish.

Noel Vera said...

Going from The Red Shoes to Rambo? Simple--there are images in Rambo, particularly the jungle sequences that make one's hairs rise up the arm. Yes it's crap, but under Cardiff's eye it's gorgeously photographed crap.

And his work on John Irvin's The Dogs of War is filmmaking at its Greenest.

Gerard Jones said...

Those are some mighty pretty pictures, all right. Even reduced to jps and exhibited on my laptop screen. Thanks, Campaspe. I was somewhat aware of Cardiff's name as that of the color man behind the most stunning of the Powell movies, but I had never looked into him a separate artist. I suppose that's one good thing about death: it inspires obituaries and retrospectives.

The Delacroix line is too bad. Powell was obviously trying to give Cardiff the highest praise he could but he decided to do it with a clever line and an artistic reference he didn't really understand himself. Sometimes it's better not to try to be clever and just get to the point. This Cardiff was good.

Yojimboen said...

I saw Pandora very recently (was it on TCM?); a bad print, maybe even 16mm, it looked so muddy, so I look forward to seeing the restoration.
Though I'm loathe to admit it, I've always been less fond of Technicolor London processing than Technicolor H'Wood or Rome; London was always too contrasty for my taste.

Compare African Queen (a fun romp, but those travelling matte shots were an embarrassment even by contemporary standards) with War and Peace; it's like two different cameramen.

No question, Jack C was a giant of the trade, I just wish he'd shot more on this side of the Atlantic. But nobody made Ava Gardner look better than Mr. Cardiff. Nobody.

Scroll down to the last image of this linkJack and Geoff.

Vanwall said...

Actually, on the previous Lewin thread I mentioned Cardiff's hypnotic effect on me while watching Pandora and that Dutch chap first time out, so I'm bass ackwards, Siren, and I apologize profusely. Cardiff really was a painter with film, a high point few reached, and he gave every single film he was associated with a little, or a lot, of that genius and by doing so, gave even the worst of them a soupçon at least of artistic merit.

Ah, "The Vikings" - a boy's own film if ever was - it looked freakin' incredible and say, there's Marty as Shaggybreeches, and altho I've heard my share Scandahoovian, that ScandaBronxian that Tony Curtis was speaking was sure new to me. This film should be followed by "The Long Ships" as a second billing, BTW.

My buddy took every chance he could over the years, to find something to leap upon, claiming it was the high cliff overlooking the fjord, and thru hands cupped to his mouth, would blare out Great Horn sounds which became the opening notes to the theme music from "The Vikings". It was usually at a totally inappropriate moment, which always added to the silly fun of it.

Campaspe said...

Noel, that's an excellent point -- even though I loathed Rambo II when I saw it and had no interest in DPs at that point, I did think many of the jungle images were quite something.

Gerard, I'm not sure Powell didn't understand the reference he was making; his book is full of art history references so he may simply have disagreed with XT. In any event I knew exactly the cinematographic quality in Black Narcissus that Powell was describing, which was why I chose the banner I did.

Yojimboen also backs up Powell, in a way, when he refers to Technicolor London as "too contrasty." That is a visual quality in the P/P/Cardiff films that I like. However, I am totally on board with any attempt to give praise to War and Peace, a film whose beauty is seldom given its due.

Vanwall, The Vikings is tremendous fun and exactly the kind of film I was thinking about when I confessed to my weakness. Had forgotten Cardiff shot that too--gosh, what a long career he had. When I was writing this brief tribute I couldn't decide whether to refer back to my old Pandora post and the Lewin discussion and finally decided I was just going to go for simplicity. Once I found that shot of Kathleen Byron I knew anything else I added would probably be superfluous.

X. Trapnel said...

Just took a sampling of Fanny (the only Cardiff I own), lovely color, very strikingly shot night scene (wharf, Marseilles, lovely Leslie, unlovely Horst), some interiors that might make Bonnard chew Delacroix's arm off.

Despite all this visual splendour (such colour deserves the grace note of the British "u") one thing is clear: Joshua Logan is Pandro S. Berman's ideal director.

Yojimboen, ha, ha, ha, about Charles V et al.

Peter Nellhaus said...

There is no mystery to Million Dollar Mystery. Richard Fleischer and Jack Cardiff must have really enjoyed working together even when their careers were waning.

Gerard Jones said...

I've never paid any attention to Pandora, only vaguely knew it existed...but after the comments here I've been looking at images from it. Caramba! No fooling Cardiff knew how to shoot Ava Gardner! I'm going to have to track this thing down...

Noel Vera said...

All this talk of Powell, someone ought to acknowledge an excellent craftsman/minor artist: John Irvin, whose clean style has graced many a genre picture, from John le Carre to Christopher Walken in Africa to Vietnam shot in the Philippines to arguably the best Schwarzenegger film ever made. Even liked his recent picture with Harvey Keitel and Stephen Dorff.

Yojimboen said...

Case in point, Gerard:

(For some reason the hyperlinks aren't working tonight; afraid you have to cut n paste.)

Go here for Ava by Cardiff:

http://www.cinematographers.nl/GreatDoPh/Films/PandoraDutchman.jpg

And here for an in-depth obit from the Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers:

http://www.cinematographers.nl/GreatDoPh/cardiff.htm

Yojimboen said...

That didn't work.
Try this:

Ava by Cardiff:

http://www.
cinematographers.
nl/GreatDoPh/Films/
PandoraDutchman.jpg

Cardiff obit:

http://www.
cinematographers.
nl/GreatDoPh/
cardiff.htm

(URLs should be continuous with no spaces in between.)

Arthur S. said...

Interesting Powell mentions Delacroix because Cardiff always maintained that Vermeer was the key influence on BLACK NARCISSUS, especially in the opening scenes where the light reflected through the window creates the tension between the mother superior and Sister Clodagh.

And also in the final scenes, the use of that strange pinkish beige colour pulsating through that convent.

D Cairns said...

Cardiff also talked about the dissonant colours in Van Gogh, creating a sense of tragedy, so he used reddish light and green shadows at the climax of BN.

That sequence, where the music was recorded first and the action played to it, is one of the first expressions of Powell's idea of "the composed film", and the colour is practically scored along with the music -- the sudden intensity of the hues behind and around Kathleen Byron when the door swings open, as the choir freaks out on the soundtrack. Shivers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcTW_ledZic

X. Trapnel said...

Vermeer indeed, a great master of chiaroscuro (the big discovery of the Baroque). In the banner, Vermeer's diamond-like window panes become glowing sapphires. This image is mesmerizing, can't stop looking at it.

Campaspe said...

The Siren is out and about today, but I'm dropping in to highly recommend the screen caps at Glenn Kenny's place, just follow the link. The image from War and Peace makes me wish I could sit down and watch that movie right now.

Arthur S. said...

Hitchcock's UNDER CAPRICORN is cited as a bad experience overall for Cardiff(who said that the experience nearly destroyed his career) but the cinematography in that film is beautiful. And of course one of Cardiff's greatest coups is of course that famous scene where Michael Wilding shows Ingrid Bergman her reflection in that window, the first time the character has seen her self for years. You can't call that painterly because it's impossible to concieve on the still canvas. But the effect is in spirit very much like an Impressionist painting.

That still from Mr. Kenny's blog, the one of Deborah Kerr, that pink colour on the right hand top is what I am referring to. It's never left me.

Regarding WAR AND PEACE, Tag Gallagher's article on Vidor, Ford and Hawks at Sense of Cinema has small stills from the film which is even more gorgeous and tantalizing.
http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/07/42/vidor-hawks-ford.html

Especially the ball.

Cardiff cited working with Vidor as a negative experience saying he was too timid and not as encouraging as Powell. He shared cinematographic duties with Aldo Tonti(Rossellini's man who later shot Nicholas Ray's THE SAVAGE INNOCENCTS).

Vidor once listed THE RED SHOES among his ten favourite films by the way.

Arthur S. said...

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_023.jpg

This painting The Officer and the Laughing Girl seems to be a key Black Narcissus inspiration. That girl looks astonishingly like Deborah Kerr especially in that headdress.

And as is common in Vermeer, it's next to a window.

X. Trapnel said...

I've been mentally cataloging the types of light and color in all the Cardiff images So far:

Fanny: Soft, suffused (few shadows), evenly distributed, tapestry-like. But Logan's camera setups ("Everyone, look at the camera and smile!") are so flat, that the result is mere prettiness.

War and Peace: Solid, classical, definning the architectonics of an eastablished world in the interiors (Vanwall: this is the Classical Revival look that Leighton and Alma-Tadema set up against the Pre-Raphs; B. Shaw and Draper tried to combine them). The barren Landscape is superbly tonalist (silvery gray-blue; Whistler would chew on Audrey Hepburn).

Black Narcissus: Yes, Vermeer, but the light source is ambiguous. Vermeer's color and light is cooler, more crystalline, built with glazes over gray. I'm sure there must be shots with raking light (A la V. and Caravaggio) from a single, naturalistic source. (Dear god, I must see this film; I'm half in love with it already)

Vanwall said...

M X - Good god, you haven't seen BN? Your eyes will jump out and roll around on the floor like you were hit with the Tex Avery stick.

X. Trapnel said...

V, I've just ordered the Criterion edition. My only excuse is sheer inattentiveness. I had mentally classed BN with The Nun's Story, Heaven Knows Mr. A, (trials and tribulations of bringing J.H. Christ to brown people) and god knows (He does, doesn't he?) what else. Who is Kathleen Byron? My god (Him again?) does she look sexy in that shot! (Deborah Kerr's wimple looks shocked.

I am a recent convert to the Archers; the arrow struck my cinema bullseye with Gone to Earth. Small Back Room after BN

Arthur S. said...

BLACK NARCISSUS isn't about religion. Powell said that the film was about eroticism and that the eroticism was there in the film. Jesus Christ is of course referred to here and there but it's not a Christian film in the least.

It's not at all like LOST HORIZON where those colonial explorers find a paradise and spiritual enlightenment in this fantasyland place. Here they become more unsettled and uncertain and all their repressions come out to tragic effect.

Arthur S. said...

GONE TO EARTH I don't like at all. It's very visually striking and obviously very Archeresque but the characters aren't very deep.

X. Trapnel said...

Gone to Earth suffers from the poor casting of Jennifer Jones (the heavy hand of David O. Selznick strikes again). It's a tall order to be both earthy and feerique (JJ couldn't manage feerique alone in Portrait of Jenny) though I'm not sure who at that time could have. Mary Webb's bizarre novel is an unstable Bronte/Hardy compound and neither Hollywood nor the UK have been able to do much in this line, then or now (the filmic/cultural reasons are complicated). I imagine Powell and Pressburger looking at each other and MP saying, "All right, Jennifer darling, that's very good." She doesn't even run convincingly. Still, Cyril Cusack is magnificent, a non-star holding a long film together with a convincing dream of passion (see his first awestruck sighting of JJ). The social class issues are also handled in an interesting way (Cusack is a Nonconformist minister; David Farrar would never treat the local vicar with such insolence; droit de seigneur lives in Shropshire, apparently).The film could also use better music (oh, for a Vaughan Williams score! RVW had done (memorably) The 49th Parallel)

Goose said...

XT, You are in for a real treat in Black Narcissus!

Kathleen Byron did not attain the career she deserved from this erotic beyond belief performance alone, but was splendid in The Small Back Room as well. This shot looks to me, without knowing better, that she is contemplating a red fruit.

Goose said...

Hey XT, don't be so hard on Jennifer Jones. She was very versatile and delivered the goods on Portrait and elsewhere, at least to me.

Nevertheless, it is too bad that Ms. Byron did not do the part in Gone to Earth. (Sigh!) Maybe she was not big enough box office.

X. Trapnel said...

Goose, the problem in Portrait may not be JJ herself; I suspect that Selznick didn't want her to be too sexy (just as Hearst didn't want Marion Davies doing comedy). Recall that Selznick thought that Laura wasn't good enough for Jones. He may have suffocated her as an actress at the most crucial point in her career. I'm very fond of Portrait of Jenny, but it skirts around the issue of romantic/sexual obsession. Jenny never becomes sexual (I don't mean this in any blatant obvious way)even as a grown woman. Like Leave Her to Heaven it doesn't, in the end, have the courage of its own weirdness. We have to wait until Vertigo for that (yet another film with an eerie/beautiful painting).

D Cairns said...

For Cardiff, Black Narcissus was about the failure of the nuns' spiritual mission because of the insistent beauty of the landscape. Eroticism was part of it, for sure, but as cinematographer he loved the idea of making a film about the fatal power of beauty.

Kathleen Byron was Powell's mistress -- and the relationship, and collaboration, were stormy.

Apart from a tiny scene in AMOLAD, BN and Small Back Room are the only films we can really appreciate Byron in, although she turns up in stuff as varied as The Elephant Man and Saving Private Ryan (Mrs Ryan, in the graveyard.)

I love the music in Gone to Earth, but agree with all the other criticisms. Powell didn't seem to be able to explain its failure, but felt something in the book eluded him, and maybe couldn't be filmed anyway.

Yojimboen said...

I just got my unworthy hands on a Blu-Ray DVD of Black Narcissus.

If I may revisit some of the reservations I expressed yesterday re the relative strengths and weaknesses of Technicolor London:
T'is my hat I was talking through... Seen in Blu-Ray detail, Cardiff's imagery may be unmatched in the history of colour cinematography.

X - have some digitalis on hand; the first appearances of little 17 year-old Jean Simmons and/or the flashback to Sister Deborah Kerr in civvies (and hip waders!) have been known to stop men's hearts.

You have been warned.

Goose said...

And Ms. Kerr's red hair erupting on screen in the flashback.

X. Trapnel said...

Yojimboen, you should be surgeon general; thanks for the warning. I'm wondering if it was the nun threads that gave Hollywood the decidedly bad idea to put white gloves on Deborah Kerr and matronize her lovely Celtic hair.

I keep staring at that stray lock kissing Kathleen Byron's right eyebrow. From such do passions grow.

gmoke said...

Black Narcissus is explicitly about the power of beauty. Flora Robson growing flowers in what is supposed to be the vegetable garden is only one example. If memory serves, David Farrar even has a speech about it.

X. Trapnel said...

Flora Robson too? This is going to be great!

As I read these entries, it seems to me more and more that Powell is a late romantic in his conception of the subversive ("Beauty shall be convulsive or it shall not be"--Andre Breton) and life giving power of beauty. Modernity/modernism had deemed beauty inefficient or deceptive. One place it took refuge was in film.

rudyfan1926 said...

Pandora is on KINO for those who need to know.

Yojimboen said...

And now Ken Annakin is gone. Not a good week for 94-yr-old Englishmen.

I knew Mr. Annakin slightly; not much beyond exchanging a 'good evening' pre or post BAFTA screenings here in L.A., at which he was a fixture these last few years.

I had one semi-extended conversation with him a couple of years ago at a BAFTA garden party - I made the point (as many people did) of sitting down for a few minutes for a 'chin-wag', and asked about the early days. He was delighted to talk about the highlights, but true to form like most unemployed directors, no matter their age, was more willing to talk about a script he "was rather excited about".

Ken was always pre-seated for screenings - we the general membership bunched at the doors, waiting for them to open and rush to get good seats, would find Ken already sitting there, nodding, smiling beatifically.

I like to think his special treatment was not just because of his age or increasing fragility, but also out of respect for his position as nearly the most senior BAFTA-LA member (2nd only to Ronald Neame - who was 98 yesterday).

Annakin and Jack Cardiff did one film together, The Fifth Musketeer; it's not a great movie, but I have a particular fondness for it because of the cast: Cornel Wilde, Jose Ferrer, Alan Hale, Olivia de Havilland and Rex Harrison - definitely worth the price of the ticket.

R.I.P. Ken and Jack.

Goose said...

What is it about British cinematographers and longevity?

Christopher Challis – born 1919 – The Tales of Hoffman, Sink the Bismark, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Douglas Slocombe – born 1913 – Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lion in Winter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Oswald Morris – born 1915 – Moby Dick, Lolita, The Man with the Golden Gun

R. Neame was one, too.

And let’s not forget F.A Young (1902-1998) – Good-bye Mr. Chips, Lust for Life, Lawrence of Arabia.

Karen said...

I'm going to stay out of the art discussion for fear of making a Michael Powell of myself, so I will simply say that this news fills me with as much sadness as Cardiff's work gave me joy. No films have ever looked like the films he created for P&P.

I just saw this news a few moments ago at a comics blog I read and raced over here, as I knew that our lovely host would have some fitting tribute.

Truly the end of an era. A unique and focussed era.

DavidEhrenstein said...

About two years ago Mr. Cardiff was in L.A. for a special screenning of a digitally-restored version of Black Narcissus. He autographed my Japanese laserdiisc of the film.

That was quite a set in that Mr. Powell was leaving Kathleeen Byron because he'd just fallen in love with Deborah Kerr.

And they wonder why people want to become film directors!

X. Trapnel said...

Ken Annakin's finest half-hour: The Colonel' Lady from Trio (or was it Quartet?). Funniest (very English) moment: The book party, when a distressed Cecil Parker is set upon by the jovially clueless Wilfred Hyde-White as quavery Ernest Thesiger intones, "Naked, throbbing passion!"

Frank Conniff said...

Is it okay that in all this talk of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and A Matter Of Life And Death nobody is mentioning Emeric Pressburger? He did co-direct those movies, didn't he? I don't think Powell shared credit with him to be nice, from everything I've read they were true collaborators. I'm just saying.

Anyway, rest in peace Jack Cardiff; he was indeed pretty friggin' great.

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks to all for the links and leads to Pandora. Even in these minimal media it's pretty impressive.

And yes: why does everyone talk about "Michael Powell movies" and not "Powell and Pressburger movies"?

Arthur S. said...

Well it's well established that Emeric Pressburger didn't really do much on the directing front. He was more the producer and screenwriter, and also gave suggestions regarding the music and the editing but the actual directing i.e. mise-en-scene, working with actors, movement and timing was done by Powell.

Cardiff being the DP is closer to the directing side. So there isn't much context to talk about Pressburger I guess. The other thing is that Powell is the auteur of the films. Even non-Pressburger films like PEEPING TOM and THE EDGE OF THE WORLD show the same themes, motifs and visual style as his Pressburger work. None of the 40s masterpieces would be concievable without Pressburger but I see it more that Powell brought out the best in Emeric.

It goes without saying that Emeric is one of the greatest screenwriters in film history and a giant of British cinema. It was Pressburger who wanted to adapt BLACK NARCISSUS(Powell was on general principle against adapting literature) and it was Pressburger who incorporated the real life inspiration for the film that became Powell's favourite - A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and of course Pressburger's favourite THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP has some autobiographical touches vis-a-vis Walbrook's character. But then as Paul Zimmerman said of THE KING OF COMEDY, ''it's your baby but it looks like "Marty"'', the same with these films, they all look like Powell.

D Cairns said...

Basically second what Arthur said. I'm always leery of the term "auteur", and it could of course be argued that Pressburger's work away from Powell likewise demonstrates some similar themes and outlook. Powell explicitly ASKS for joint authorship to be attributed by using the "written, produced and directed by" shared credit -- that's how valuable Pressburger's writing skills were to him. When matched with Leo Marks, Powell could achieve comparable heights of delirium, but without a strong co-writer, you get stuff like Honeymoon, where the narrative lags far behind the visuals.

Arthur S. said...

Well auteurism isn't about similarity of themes, it's about the dominating figure on the films as revealed cinematically. If you take a screenwriter like Philip Yordan there is similarity on three films he has credit - THE BIG COMBO, JOHNNY GUITAR and MAN FROM LARAMIE you do find similarities in all three in that it looks at groups politically that is how this group relates to a whole and the film is about the conflict between the groups. But as films there are heaps and heaps of differences between auteurs like Joseph H. Lewis, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann which span over Yordan's great input on these films.

The Archers obviously pose a challenge to auteurism because of it's openly collaborarative banner but then auteurism has always favoured challenges that's why Nicholas Ray is an auteur while Stanley Kramer is not. Scorsese(who's pro-auteur) always talks about these films focused on Powell(but then he's his brother-in-law, more or less).

Frank Conniff said...

In the history of film, there are many instances of filmmakers (especially writers) either not getting credit for work they did or getting credit where none is due (and because he operated during the blacklist it is my understanding that Philip Yordan's credits are somewhat murky). But in the case of the Archers, there is nothing ambiguous about their credits: Powell and Pressbuger took equal credit for writing, producing and directing because they both agreed that this is what they were both doing in the process of making of their films. There was no antagonistic outside force like a producer or an arbitration committee forcing either of them to take half a credit; it was a mutual decision on their part. Therefore I feel it is respectful to both of them to always refer to their movies as Powell & Pressburger films.

Yojimboen said...

Can anyone enlighten me on the background details of Thief of Baghdad (1940)? IMDb lists Powell as one of six co-directors (three uncredited). I’ve known and loved the movie since childhood, but know next to nothing about the production of it. Anyone know who shot what? And why is George Perinal – listed as “Chief Photographer” on the film’s credits - not accorded the DP credit on IMDb? No one is. Seems rather unkind to a cinematographer of his stature, no? Mystery to me.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Powell syas the big eye on the ship's prow was his idea, and he shot much of the genie sequences as they were done in California. But it's hard to say who did what as it was a production on the run. Korda began the film in England but the Blitz forced him to relocate to the U.S. For all the different hands involved there's a remarkable cponsistency to to the film, which as I may have said has always been of profound importance to me. Growing up the only person in the movies who looked like me was Sabu.

And in The Thief of Bagdad he had the best part in the world!

Making a filom like this on the run from the Nazis marks it as political in the exteme. In the midst of horror Korda created the most perfect of childhood fantasies.

Ultimately two children defeated Hitler: Anne Frank and Sabu.

Gerard Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerard Jones said...

Boy do I hate that word "auteur"! The mere fact that it's French shows that someone's trying to put something over on us. I mean, I love France and the French: but when a foreign word is needlessly substituted for an English one, it's likely that some sort of intellectual evasion is in the works. Like when American psychoanalysts substituted the Latin "id," "ego" and "superego" for the ordinary German words for "it," "I" and "higher I" so they could seem like they were in possession of esoteric foreign mumbo-jumbo instead of just talking about intuitively graspable terms of identification. If you can't make a convincing argument describing Howard Hawks or Michael Powell as the "author" of a film, then you don't have a good argument. That's what I say.

Obviously there are movies "authored" primarily by their directors, but I think we get badly misled by our desire to simplify and categorize. It's fun and satisfying to roll out all the Hitchcock movies as a body of work, but even when you try to do that with Hawks, darling of the first-wave of auteurists, you get into trouble. (And I think the Cahiers gang was pretty guilty of looking for ways to give themselves permission to like factory-made Hollywood movies while still asserting their credentials as anti-corporate left-wing critics.)

Sure, you can make Ball of Fire into a product of Hawks' authorship, if you pick the right elements. But in terms of theme, character, structure, most of what we'd call authorship, it's even more a Brackett-Wilder movie. If I want to watch an authorial vision developing I'll feel much more gratified by watching it in the context of Midnight, Ninotchka and The Major and The Minor rather than Only Angels Have Wings and Red River. But the conventional auteuring of movie history would lay those all along separate paths: a "Hawks movie," a "Leisen movie," a "Lubitsch movie" and a "Wilder movie." (Poor Charlie Brackett! Never even gets mentioned!) Such a cockeyed history that makes.

Sometimes actors were authorial forces equal to or greater than the director. The fact that Ball of Fire feels as though it was created by an utterly different author than A Song Is Born isn't due just to the fact that it was turned into a musical and the script was messed with. Gary Cooper turned the first into a Gary Cooper movie, Danny Kaye turned the second into a Danny Kaye movie. Howard Hawks would have been powerless to prevent the transformation even if he'd tried (and Goldwyn had let him). Even had the original starred Henry Fonda and Ginger Rogers instead of Cooper and Stanwyck it would have become a pretty different thing.

Of course producers can be authors. A Selznick movie is a Selznick movie (usually), no matter what collection of three or four directors he corralled into making it. Even the movies he hired Hitchcock for are as Selznicky as they are Hitchcockian. My friend Jennine Lanouette (a film criticism teacher now writing her first book--watch for it!) makes a good case for Sam Spiegel as an "auteur." Even when his movies were directed by such powerful individuals as Huston, Kazan and Lean, there are unmistakable shapes and themes and meanings that run through most of Spiegel's work.

And, although it frustrates all of us who want to see the single human hand behind all art, studios can be authors. There are dozens of Warner Brothers movies from the '30s that are nothing so much as that: Warner Brothers movies. Swap William Dieterle for William Wellman and it's the same basic movie. I guess you could argue that that would make the author Zanuck or Wallis, but I'd bet that they didn't even pay much direct attention to a lot of those movies. There was a corporate culture, a set of collaborative tricks and group expectations, that shaped everyone's work more powerfully than any individual.

In that way, movies are a fascinating challenge to the ways we want to see art. We want to feel we're being spoken to by one artist. We want to be able to comprehend each work as the message of one artist. We want to be able to niche and list by one artist. And, as part of a larger 20th century glorification of the individual, we want to believe that nothing can truly be art unless it's the product of one person's vision.

But the truth is, some of the best movies have multiple authors. Studio, producer, writer, actors, director all weighing in and fighting it out. And in that sense they have no authors at all. Which, if we want to pursue it, says a lot about our concepts of art and the self, much of which doesn't rest easy with the way we modern Westerners like to see ourselves.

Gerard Jones said...

Whew! Made a stupid mistake in my comment, but was able to copy, delete and repost before anybody could point it out!

Yojimboen said...

Nice piece, GJ - but with respects, the so-called Auteur theory isn't that simple. It's not really even a theory.
(I've said before on these pages, Andrew Sarris has a LOT to answer for.)

It was offered, not as the semi-dictatorial polemic it has evolved (or shape-shifted) into on this side of the pond, but simply as a way of looking at film as art, entertainment, philosophy, politics, whatever...

It's no secret anywhere that movies have always been too much of an art to be a real business, and too much of a business to be real art; so movies have to be approached with kid gloves (okay, some with a Haz-Mat suit) from all sides at once, which is what I think Truffaut & co were attempting.

I recognize your opening jibe against things French is made in fun, but it's indicative of (for us Europeans) the very, very strange American attitude towards the French. It's way too complicated to get into here except to say in their defense that they - the French - have produced some fairly smart thinkers over the last couple hundred years; and it's possible the Cahiers 'gang' was simply following that intellectual tradition. Granted, they had a political agenda, but don't we all?

May I suggest we cut them some slack, and accept the vague possibility that their liking Jerry Lewis or 'B' Movies from H'Wood isn't necessarily meant to be a nose-thumbing or slap in the face at the Yankee Imperialist running-dog - maybe they just like these things?
As in sometimes a Gauloise is just a Gauloise.

I submit it might be useful for all of us, me included, to get back in touch with the Politique des Auteurs;
here is
Part 1and
Part 2Again, a nicely-written piece, Mr.Jones; dazzling scholarship as always.
(Goddam, but this is a great blog!)

Vanwall said...

I'll submit that movies have always been much, much more of a business than ever an art - it's sheer, dumb luck that any sort of artistry is involved at all, and that creative people have any say in the process. Cooking the books, busting guilds, flim-flamming investors, dubious stock manipulations, flouting of labor and safety laws, why, say it's either a sort of organized crime, or a sort of Enron with pretty pictures.

For a mere hundred years or so, the business needed live bodies to survive. When, and sadly not If, they ever get completely computer generated films, from top to bottom - that means no humans involved, and yup, no catering tables, either - the businesses that call themselves Studios, or Entertainment Conglomerates, or whatever, will finally reach the apogee of their version of "movies" - money-making based on rote action alone. Don't hold out hope this won't happen - the tipping point has passed already, AFAIC.

Pete Lawson said...

Yojimboen: Not that Gerard needs me defending him, but as I read it he was simply attacking the English speaking world's tendency to co-opt foreign words in order to sound more important. The fact that he used a French term as a springboard wasn't especially significant.

(Or did he edit a load of francophobe vitriol out of his phantom post?)

I’ve little to add to the manifold discussions, except to seventieth the Powell/Pressburger/Cardiff love. I re-watched Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes recently, and as always, they’re just splendid.

Gerard Jones said...

Yes, thanks Pete, that was my intent. Which is exactly why I used a German-to-English example to make my point, so that no one would think I was expressing any specific feelings about the French.

Gerard Jones said...

And Yoj, yes, thanks for reminding me that the "auteur" notion was more complex in the beginning. But it's come to mean what it's come to mean, and I think it's become more of a hindrance than a help in understanding or even really appreciating movies.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It all depends. Surely no one is going to chaallendge the centrality of Hitchcock in the creation of his films. But even here there's much to sayb about such key collaborators as Bernard Herrmann, Cary Grant, James Stewart, et. al.

Moreover even if one approacxhes all of cinema through directors each and every one is quite different. Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette all came up together but each has a very different approach to filmmaking.

On this site it's obvious that we've been talking abouit far more thna directors the better to grapple with cinema. Our extended discussion of George Sanders is a perfect example of this. it's not that he's The Greatest Actor in the Wolrd, but an examination of his career yields all sorts of important insights about films and the way they work.

Arthur S. said...

The thing is an actor like George Sanders is doubly important because he has worked for so many auteurs - Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, Sirk, Mankiewicz, Rossellini. He isn't the greatest actor in the world but his career is far more intriguing and fascinating than say Gregory Peck.

Then James Mason was admired in his lifetime for similar reasons Sanders is admired today amongst the denizens herein, he was liked as a character actor and a heavy but we know him from his work with auteurs like Ophuls, Ray, Mankiewicz and others to be a much more powerful actor. So auteurism has certainly played a key role in the way these actors are looked at today and the same with other actors.

Like Gary Cooper is known for Sergeant York and High Noon but for those in the know the key Coop films would be - Design for Living, Good Sam, The Fountainhead and of course Man of the West.

So I don't think auteurism's scope is limited just to film-makers. In fact in the original Cahiers reviews, you find that many pieces go into details about actors and collaborators. They didn't credit everyting just to the director like how people misunderstand today.

X. Trapnel said...

I'm in partial agreement with Vanwall; film is more of business than an art. But go to a used book sale and look at the bales of dusty, unbought, no longer readable stuff; flip through an auction gallery catalog and ask yourself how much of this stuff you'd like to see on your wall everyday. In cultural matters (all matters?)90% of anything is mediocrity or dreck. Even so, I find artistry always breaking in to one degree or another in film if only through the incalculables of talent (never a quantifiable thing), the mysterious capturing of a mood (sometimes generated by an actor's personality, the musicsl score [or not--notorious and Strangers on a Train have mediocre scores], or the evocation of the emotional climate of a period in history, etc.). These things make emotional and aesthetic claims on us that fall outside of the realm of business. Casablanca is more than entertainment and less than art. On the other hand, cultural tradition would deem, say, Death of a Salesman as "art" (the Theeyaytah, after all), though I wouldn't hesitate to place Casablanca above DoaS (ok, Incident at Vichy) on almost any scale of aesthetic or cultural value. I'm in sympathy with the Cahiers folk and Sarris because in spite of many dubious judgments and means (foreign words, for instance) they broke down a pernicious cultural barrier and got people to look more intently. As Conrad says, the task of the artist is to make you see. We wouldn't be still watching and seeing if there was no artistry we wouldn't be still watching--and seeing.

Gerard Jones said...

No question that the French New Wave directors were authors of their films. They conceived them, they sought financing that would leave them in control, they wrote them or co-wrote them, they assembled their own talent, they had no higher authorities looking over their shoulders, they supervised the editing. And I think (although I'd have to look this up) they even shared ownership or held some proprietary rights in them under French laws more favorable to creators than American. I think it's safe to save that most post-war European directors can claim authorship, for similar reasons.

And it's clear that Hitchcock, along with some other directors working in the US, was able to demand enough independence and control to assert a significant amount of authorship.

But, to my mind, when we start wanting to see Wyler or Hawks as the authors of the films they made for Goldwyn, we're starting onto some thin ice. From what we know of Goldwyn's approach and temperament, he simply wouldn't have allowed anyone else to take the authority required to author one of his movies. Of course his directors shaped the material, set its pace and tone, gave it most of the style and nuance that brings those movies to life--but even then within the context of what the boss demanded of A Samuel L. Goldwyn Picture. It may be that everything we love about those movies was brought by the directors, actors, writers and others. But, at least in terms of process the lead author was unquestionably the producer.

Which doesn't mean he was the only person we can say authored them; those directors, actors and writers were co-authors. Nor does it mean we can't talk about The Best Years of Our Lives as, in some ways, an expression of Wyler's sensibility. But too often we movie lovers prefer to avoid looking at the political and economic realities that shaped those movies. The desire to see the director as author in the American studio system usually requires wishful thinking of Homeric proportions. In the end, it just doesn't make sense.

(Note how stubbornly I insist on translating auteur back to "author." Suck on that, Yojimboen!)

Gerard Jones said...

Also I want to say that I know that no one here is pushing the old, simplistic director-as-auteur argument. But for me, the very word auteur leads us down that slippery slope. I think we'd all be much clearer-headed commenters if we'd just give it the old heave-ho.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, your argument is a necessary dash of cold water on some of the overheated aspects of auteurism, but you concede almost everything that matters ("everything we love") in the end, to the directors, actors, writers, composers, etc. "Process" is a matter for film historians, not unlike the relations between painters/sculptors and the church/aristocracy from the 15th through most of the 18th century. artists had to work in accordance within the exacting strictures of AUTHORity. Auteurism comes from a romantic conception of authorship and to give the Cahiers/Sarris people a neasure of credit they tried to be discriminating between artists and artisans.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well let's not throw the baby oout with the bathwater.

Auteurism is a means to a series of possible ends, not an end in itself.

Gerard Jones said...

Nicely put, X. Although to counterbalance my own "everything we love" statement a little bit...let's not place the money guys entirely in the camp of the church and patrons. Goldwyn knew movies and knew how to make them good. Zanuck was a writer himself. Pan Berman (I just looked this up) came up as an assistant director and editor before producing. So the producer and studio executive as authors is about more than just finance and power. They were filmmakers too, in some cases legitimate co-authors of good work, even if they did all their work behind a desk or in a screening room.

One thing that influenced me toward noticing the creative power of producers was doing some writing for Silver Pictures back in the early '90s. I'm not going to argue that anything Silver made was cinematic art--when I was there, the bills were paid by the Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Predator franchises, the disastrous Ford Fairlane had just wrapped, the equally disastrous Hudson Hawk was in production, and the forgotten Ricochet and Last Boy Scout were the big items in development. At best they were "fun machines," to use a Kael phrase.

But for me it was very interesting to discover how the entire company and everything it made was an outgrowth of Joel Silver himself. Just by talking to people in meetings, pulling out ideas that interested him, setting projects in motion, doing a few script notes, saying yes or no at strategic moments, he set the overall shape and tone of every project. And because everything working for him was entirely focused on pleasing Joel (because nothing would get made if you didn't), everything had to resonate ultimately with his sense of humor, his narrative pace, his self-loathing, his muddied concepts of right and wrong.

Of course, Joel didn't hire "auteurist" writers and directors. Richard Donner was his big name director, then came Renny Harlin and Michael Lehmann, and then guys whose names I can't remember. His favorite writers were Shane Black and Steve DeSouza. Obviously if a producer hires Wylers and Wilders and Hawkses he's knowingly bringing in forceful creative personalities who will impinge on his own authorship. But still, I'd venture that Goldwyn had far more to do with his films artistically than the Pope had to do with the Sistine Chapel.

And I think I'll take back that "everything we love" and make it, say, "most of what we love." Because Goldwyn's work (and Wanger's and Siegel's) shows some artistic coherence. I think it would be illuminating and even somewhat heartening to look more at the creative power of producers and executives. (Not like it hasn't been done, of course: Mordden's Studio Style, Schatz's Genius of the System.

Gerard Jones said...

I meant The Hollywood Studios by Mordden. Should look at the shelf first.

Gerard Jones said...

I meant The Hollywood Studios by Mordden. Should look at the shelf first.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard. comparisons to the popes and patrons was no denigration; very often they were connoisseurs and like Goldwyn knew what they were getting when they hired Michelangelo, Titian, et al. Even so, I'm going to stick with your original "everything we love" point because ultimately it leads us to the only thing that matters in the end: The stand-alone quality of the film. Let's say Goldwyn had the good sense to realize that Best Years needed an American-sounding score or understood (as nobody at MGM, say, ever did) that music is an important and integral part of the total aesthetic effect of a film (this is a tough question; is Strangers on a Train diminshed by Tiomkin's wretched music?). So Goldwyn is the knowledgable pope (I like that idea, especially since I often sense the presence of that old hag Aunty Semitism behind contempt for producers), but Hugo Friedhofer's creation is what counts most.

Gerard Jones said...

I too think our old Aunty S has a role in this mocking of producers. Although there are other caste hostilities in there too: in the Lewin-Berman anecdote above I see a replay of the old educated-Manhattan-Jews vs. reared-in-the-industry-Hollywood-Jews battle. And of course the first generation of Jewish moguls, all those peep-show proprietors and ladies-garment salesmen, were despised by the college-educated artists and artisans they hired, whether Jewish or not. (I've wondered if there was a symbolic father-son conflict there. Surely many of those artists and artisans were the sons of uneducated men much like the moguls. And of course the moguls sent their children to the best schools so they could become like the "college boys" they scorned.)

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard,
I've never read Neal Gabler's book on the subject, so I don't know whether he explored how each of the studios reflected the specific aesthetic outlook of individual producers and how deeply it shaped the films (I am not much interested in which L.A. country clubs would not admit Harry Cohn nor who's ne'er do well brother in law was given an office, a secretary, and nothing to do). What you've outlined in a few sentences would make a damned good book.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Joel silver actually knows a lot about Hollywood history and movies in general. But he has no taste, no imagination and no soul.

I shall pass over the "self-loathing" in semi-discreet silence.

Neal Gabler gets it half-right. Yes Hollywood was run by Jews -- but they all longed to be giys. Mayer especially. Andy Hardy was his proudest achievement.

I often think Mr. Cukor was so popular with the moguls not simply because of his manifest talent and ability to work with big stars but because he was the most goyish Jew of the 20th century.

Gerard Jones said...

Thank you, XT! And I've meant to say for a while that I do wish I had your ear for (and knowledge of) music. Writers moan about being neglected co-auteurs, but they get far more attention than the composers who were so central to how we experience a movie.

I like Gabler's book, although it feels sort of hastily cobbled together in places. There are stretches where it feels like notes written up instead of a clear narrative, and there's one huge, weird gap: he describes Zukor's attempt to seize control of the business, takes us right to the brink of his big move....

And then never mentions it again.

He also does, indeed, say more about country clubs than the nature of the movies themselves. He does talk about the wannabe-goy element of the moguls, and does a fairly decent job of placing Andy Hardy in that context, but I was left yearning for more sense of how the movies were a product of this "empire."

Gerard Jones said...

David: I'll give Joel some credit for imagination. I saw it at work a few times. But the no taste part kills him every time. He has a love of ugliness that pulls his movies downward. And something that was either laziness or contempt for the audience or both that keeps showing up in his sequels.

The state of his soul I'll leave to him and his Creator.

Frank Conniff said...

Joel Silver may have been the driving force of his films, but if director John McTiernan hired Anthony Pellicano to wiretap Silver's conversations about "Die Hard" and then implement Silver's ideas on the set before Silver had a chance to, doesn't that make McTiernan the "auteur?"

Noel Vera said...

Soullessness is relative, I think. Joel Silver did some pedestrian action movies but also did Executive Decision (best Steven Seagal film ever made), Demolition Man, helped produce Hill's The Warriors, and did the fitfully entertaining TV series Action!

He hired Richard Donner and Renny Harlin, but I think Michael Leahman did interesting work, along with his onetime collaborator Daniel Waters.

Anyway, compared to Simpson and Bruckheimer he was a frigging David Selznick.

Campaspe said...

I'm enjoying this turn in the conversation so much I am keeping my mouth shut. Just popping in to say that while Gabler is an excellent writer and his book is fascinating and well-researched, indeed you do wish he had said more about the studio style.

Noel, here I will say that I like all the Joel Silver movies you name in your first graf, particularly Demolition Man.

Gerard Jones said...

I like several of Joel's movies, actually. The first Die Hard was exactly what it was supposed to be. (But the sequel was horrible. And Joel wasn't as much involved with the third one, which I liked a lot.) I thought the first Matrix was fun, if you don't try to take it seriously. (Those sequels also being horrific.) Demolition Man yes. I really liked most of Action. I wish he'd do more satire of Hollywood.

And I think he deserves some credit for trying to shake things up and not just sticking to the formula like Bruckheimer. Hudson Hawk was pretty awful, but I admire the willingness to do, basically, a live-action cartoon by the Heathers team. (Unfortunately Danny and Michael never quite seemed to recover.) I think the reason people bother to talk about Joel is that he shows the capacity to do some interesting things. Unfortunately he keeps falling shy of the vision of himself that I think he holds in his mind.

Gerard Jones said...

But Frank...you're making that up, right? I remember that McTiernan got in trouble for being involved with Pellicano somehow...but surely he wasn't really cribbing Silver's Die Hard notes...?

Vanwall said...

I can't seriously discuss any of the Silver films mentioned, as I try to avoid them at all costs - they have never really done anything for me, perhaps it was the force feeding from action-movie fans, like oh, yeah, No. 2 Son. They are some of the most egregious producer-as-auteur driven products, and I wince when I'm watching one out of politeness, much like the frat-boy flatulence that takes valuable screen space and money away from more deserving films. They are also indicative of the general direction of film, tho, and as more creative money becomes concentrated in fewer hands, and less and less live bodies are involved, more and more crap will get put out as a mega-giganta-budget whizbang, and the art, writing, and director auteur-ship will matter little. Bean counters and yes, the ever-present producers, will determine which explosive video-game based comic-book action flick starring the pop tart of the moment and whatever underwear model they can dredge up we will be graced with, in their carefully controlled environment - that is, until they get the cheapest 3rd world computer animation servers going full speed, then Katie bar the door.

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, action movies aren't my thing as a general rule but all of those Noel mentioned are actually quite good, with more than meets the eye.

However, I hated The Matrix with the white-hot passion of 10,000 suns.

Arthur S. said...

THE MATRIX is not really a film, more like a kinetic catalogue of tech fantasies. I liked it when I saw it because I was chuffed up to recognize all on my own, the direct influence of Roland Barthes' work on a film. Especially that scene where Joe Pantoliano talks about eating a steak and knowing that it's totally synthetic but liking it anyway. I will make no comment on the "sequels".

Much of the modern action films have no interest for me. Save maybe Spielberg on occassion. Rather thought MINORITY REPORT was fun,(especially that chase in the mall at the end).

X. Trapnel said...

Gerald and Siren, you've both confirmed my suppositions about Gabler's book. If one were to attempt a study of the style, aesthetic, and worldview of a studio as it relates to the sensibilities and experience of the producers' themselves, Warner Bros. would be the place to start: restlessness and energy,urbanism, a deep nostalgia for Europe, respect for and belief in art that goes beyond assimilation anxiety (Stefan Zweig wrote brilliantly on what liberal humanistic culture meant to newly assimilated Jewish businessmen). City for Conquest or Deception, neither "great" nor auteurist films, but deep-dyed WB and pulsing with emotionw ould make great object lessons.

Siren, bless you for your words on The Matrix. Usually I make it a point of honor (point d'honneur) to actually see films I detest. In this case I don't have to.

Gerard Jones said...

Reading Vanwall's comment it struck me that when I was a young thing in the '70s and first starting to think about all this, it was TV drama that was rote and mechanical and seemingly inhuman--Mannix and Medical Center and all--and the movies where passion, pain and violence were explored surprisingly and singularly. Now they've traded places. It's the theatrical releases that are hampered by risk-reduction and economic formula and the producers and writers of the better TV shows who get to take chances and make something distinctive. Maybe no TV show is quite as personal the best films, but they're far ahead of the studio stock-in-trade.

mndean said...

I'm sort of on Vanwall's side here. I think about 90% of action pictures I see are dreck, and protofascist, sexist dreck at that. Some that aren't have the physics-defying ludicrousness that gets on my nerves (taking physics in university made me aware of how far my suspension of disbelief will be stretched - when I'm dealing with pure fantasy, I'll accept it, otherwise no.) The rest are okay for a good time, but I wouldn't call them deep. Other highly lauded films in other genres (including my bete noire, Requiem For A Dream) are such ridiculous crap that I can't believe the praise heaped on them. It was around that time that I walked away from current Hollywood films because I knew there was nothing there for me anymore. I'm not 22, so few films are aimed towards me. I can't see how I missed much.

X. Trapnel said...

Even "serious, adult" fare these days seems less like film as I understand it and more like yuppie accessories.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Silver Age of "action film" is over. Hollywood nnow primarily produces cartoons.

Gerard Jones said...

If they made cartoons I'd be happier. I like cartoons!

DavidEhrenstein said...

They make bad cartoons: Shreck, Monsters vs. Aliens, et. al. ad nauseum.

Gerard Jones said...

Oh, those cartoons! I've blanked those out. People I trust tell me Wall-E's good, but I haven't been able to get to it because I'm afraid it will hit me with all those awful, self-conscious gags and plot tropes that Disney has pounded into the form.

I liked Coraline. And Ratatouille, a few years ago.

X. Trapnel said...

a while ago a friend insisted I see Finding Nemo to show me how "advanced" and "sophisticated" animation has become. Thank god I grew up on Bugs Bunny.

mndean said...

David,
You can call them cartoons, but only at your peril. Graphic novel adaptations is the proper phrase. Of course I still call them cartoons, but I'm not in the biz. Of course, I didn't consider most action films to have any more depth than a cartoon to begin with.

Don't think I don't hold older films accountable for their faults, either - I saw a Universal James Whale film last night on TCM that was about the most gruesomely sexist piece of tripe of the precode era. It was one of those films that makes me appreciate Paramount, MGM, and Warner precodes even more.

Vanwall said...

I don't mean to wholly malign the action adventure genre, certainly "Ronin" and the "Bourne" series are favorites of mine for that stuff, and "Sin City" was a nice rendering of the original graphic novel series, but M's Ehrenstein and mdean are both quite right - after 100 years of development and this is what you have to offer? Seagull, Uh Rock, and Van Dammit, or Dreck, (not Shreck), and High School un-Musical, instead of "The Train", "Bob le Flambeur",
"Pinocchio" or "Singin' in the Rain" !!! Oh, the humanity....

DavidEhrenstein said...

WALL-E only serves to demostrate that Gene Kelly's Hello Dolly! is grievously underrated

Campaspe said...

I was not impressed with the dark and dour Finding Nemo, but I adored Wall*E. It resurrected not only Hello Dolly, but Chaplin.

Gerard Jones said...

I'm a little confused. By cartoons are we talking about actual animation or are we talking about "cartoony" live-action movies? I'm not a big fan of "cartoony" to mean flat and brainless. There's more art and thought in What's Opera, Doc? than in Michael Bay's entire body of work.

(Phew! I almost typed oeuvre! What a hypocrite I'd look like then!)

I enjoyed Nemo pretty well. Saw it with my son, which changes one's critical standards. But even then I was seeing what had once been a fresh Pixar approach become a made-to-order formula. I'm glad they have Brad Bird, who still brings something unique.

I second the good words for the Bourne series. They are a cut above. And there are some action movies that, although not "artful" in any "serious" way, are clever and fun and actually hold me through engaging plots and amusing characters. The third Die Hard is high on that list. So is the third Mission Impossible. Both cases of most of the original movers and shakers leaving after the first (and awful) sequel and someone younger and less pretentious coming in to give the franchise a new spin.

I even liked the third Jurassic Park, although I've found that I'm as lonely as St. Anthony in that.

Frank Conniff said...

If there is a "Genius of the System" in this day and age, it is Pixar. All of their movies are made with artistry, integrity and total respect for the audience. The creative decisions are made by the artists themselves and not by marketing executives. And the public has embraced their work in an almost unprecedented way. They have proven what all the other studios refuse to believe: that leaving creativity in the hands of creative people is good business; it's a smart and profitable way to make films. There is a lot that is wrong with modern mainstream moviemaking (just about everything) but Pixar is one of the things that is wonderfully right. I know that on this blog we all like to look back at how much better Hollywood was in the past, but make no mistake, at this moment in history, Pixar is a great studio at the peak of its golden age.

Yojimboen said...

Madame Sirène, I didn't mind Wall-E, but I think I liked it better when it was called Zardoz.

MovieMan0283 said...

God, this looks like a damn interesting thread. I'll just add a hearty R.I.P. Cardiff to the mix and note that I just read Gabler's book in January and X. Trapnel's statement "I am not much interested in which L.A. country clubs would not admit Harry Cohn nor who's ne'er do well brother in law was given an office, a secretary, and nothing to do)" pretty much sums up why some chapters in the book were more absorbing than others. In particular, I could have done without the detailed rundown of various L.A. rabbis, but when Gabler touched upon the reflection of the moguls' personalities in their studio product, it was quite fascinating (there was unfortunately a bit less of this than I had expected when I bought the book years and years ago).

I really want to jump into the auteur discussion to but I should read the whole thread before doing so. As for The Matrix, it's a well-done movie for what it is but it kicked off the whole post-'99 cold, mechanical, nihilist trend in cinema which was where I kind of got off the train of history (despite still being in my teens at the time).

Noel Vera said...

Waters is interesting in that he's never really written a script that wasn't interfered with on the way to the screen. His Heathers had its ending altered (I'd love to see the original filmed--hell, the cast is still alive), and his Batman Returns--my nomination for best live-action comic book movie ever made, along with Altman's Popeye (David E would throw in OC Stiggs) and Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik (check that out, comic book non-fans!).

As for animation the only decent Western animated film I've seen recently is Brad Bird's Iron Giant, Selick's Coraline, Burton's Corpse Bride, and Parks' Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Beyond that you'll have to go to, oh, Miyazaki's Spirited Away and I'd argue even Howl's Moving Castle, Oshii's The Amazing Adventures of the Fast Food Grifters, or Mamoru Hosada's The Girl who Leaps Through Time, Ari Folman's Waltzing with Bashir, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis for decent animation.

No, I don't feel Pixar qualifes--too sentimental. I prefer the Spongebob Squarepants movie to Finding Nemo, and Oshii's Fast Food Griftes to Ratatouille. And think Wall E is basically a reash of Chaplin.

Campaspe said...

"And think Wall E is basically a reash of Chaplin."

Yes! And that's a good thing, Noel! Who else is trying for Chaplin? What's wrong with trying for Chaplin? Not one damn thing, truly. If we get really lucky next time someone at Pixar will decide to go for Keaton.

Gerard Jones said...

The one Pixar I couldn't stand was Cars, and it felt like such a cannibalization of Pixar's own approach that it's colored my whole view of the company since. Maybe Wall-E will raise my esteem. Anything that's accused of ripping off both Chaplin and Zardoz has to be worth seeing.

Vanwall said...

Chaplin has had a bit of a redux in a lot of recent films - I was never more amazed than seeing the ending of "Waitress", where Keri Russell walks away down the lane with her character's little girl (played by the daughter of the late, great director Adrienne Shelly, no less) in a deliberate Chaplin tribute. His visual work fits in so well, even in modern times. (Couldn't resist that, sorry)

I really can't get into a lot of anime, it generally hurts my eyes and bothers my persistence of vision alot, altho "My Neighbor Totoro", is an almost perfect children's film. I've always thought "Watership Down" was my measuring stick for modern animated films, and it takes a lot for me to enumerate the few that reach that high of a bar. I do agree about Pixar and it's own kind of peak, which leads to a lot of slavish imitation and dubious releases - great animation is timeless and not anchored to greatness by topical dances or songs that will be viewed as dated pretty much right after they entered the writer's head. Me, I'm just waiting for "Roger Ramjet" movie, which must surely be right around the corner, at least according to my wildest dreams.

Arthur S. said...

The PIXAR movies that I have liked best include the first TOY STORY and RATATOUILLE. The latter film was about the most fun I had in a mainstream commercial Hollywood film in a while. I especially love how Peter O'Toole's mean old critic gets a spark of redemption in the end and that terrific Proust reference(when he tastes the Ratatouille, his mind is directly transported to his mother's kitchen in his childhood).

surly hack said...

Why do I always get here so late?!

Powell's dream was combining the best of the various arts into a unified whole--and it was primarily Powell that did the combining.

All pictures are collaborations, with studios (at least in the old days with their production staffs, look and methods) producers, writers and actors having varying levels of input. But there's a reason that the director signs them last. The closer a director is to an auteur the more their films are worth looking at.

Noel Vera said...

The crime isn't emulating Chaplin; the crime is emulating Chaplin poorly.

Wall-E practically begs for your mercy; he's like a dog on your leg, humping away, refusing to let go. Chaplin at least had a chaotic spirit to him--he may at times tug at the hearstrings (at times too insistently) but he's quick to follow it with a gag that undercuts the pathos. Wall-E--well, I keep thinking of that dog on my leg...

There are bits and pieces of Pixar that creeps me out. In Wall E there's the scene where Eve shuts down, and Wall E insist on taking her out on a nonconsensual date--seems a touch necrophilic. Cars is even creepier--where are all the humans? Seems to me that before this heartwarming comedy (the best moment of which, where the cars survey the world from a great height, comes straight out of Miyazaki's emotional territory) there must have been a scenario worthy of Stephen King, where th ecars massacre the humans, and every other living animal.