motion picture, it's called

Friday, February 18, 2005

Robert Ryan - The Face of an America We Didn't Want to See

Robert Ryan is perhaps the most under-rated of the great stars of classic Hollywood.

Most attribute this merely to the fact that Ryan tended to play villians. This underestimates that Ryan's acting tapped into places where audiences often didn't want to go: places of obsession, places of darkness, places of hatred, places of danger. This made is what drove directors dedicated to going precisely those places to hire Ryan for great picture after great picture.

Ryan's big career break came as a virulent anti-Semite in Dmytryk's Crossfire.
Ryan's acting was soon noticed by Nicholas Ray, who needed Ryan's abilities in his dark and ferocious dramas. Ray highlighted Ryan to maximal effect in Flying Leathernecks and On Dangerous Ground. Ryan was also selected by the likes of Fritz Lang (Clash by Night), Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach) and Fred Zinneman (Act of Violence ).
The mid Fifties were the highpoint of Ryan's career, as he starred in one excellent movie after another, including: Mann's The Naked Spur and Men in War, Bad Day at Black Rock, Fuller's House of Bamboo, Walsh's The Tall Men, and De Toth's Day of the Outlaw.

Ryan's career declined in the 1960s, as his roles (though quite lucrative) became enmeshed in a series of overblown war movies. Still, Ryan turned in many interesting performances, particularly in Ray's King of Kings, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die and Aldrich's Dirty Dozen. To some extent, Ryan (and Lee Marvin)'s careers at this time show how Hollywood's decline accelerated the growth of decadent forms of once-transgressive B-genres.
Ryan ended his career in a spectacular fashion with his performances in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Executive Action and The Iceman Cometh.

Beyond the pure joy in seeing Ryan's performances, Ryan's greatest contribution was to embody the the visions of the new, combative, intentionally sleazy, violent, obsessed and even cruel school of filmmakers in Fuller, Ray, Aldrich, Mann and Boetticher. In addition, he and Lee Marvin allowed American male acting to reach into regions previously unexplored and previously unheralded.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The futility of the Oscars

I mean, why should anybody care anymore about the Oscars?
1. The Oscars are essentially an event where 5 or so American studios pick which of their products they like best that year. It's essentially the same thing as an "IBM Prize for best new IBM product". Certainly, that would be interesting to employees of IBM, but why would non-IBM employees care?
2. If they're not going to consider all movies from everywhere, why would I be interested? It's like an invitation to "The Track and Field Meet for people from our block whom we like". That might be amusing, but it doesn't get us anywhere to determining what the best movie of the year is (or even what a good movie of that year was).
3. Incredibly bad track record: Taking the last 15 years, many of the Best Picture winners were either outright bad or mediocre (Titanic, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves, Shakespeare in Love). One of the movies was absurd and objectionable garbage(Braveheart). Only American Beauty and Unforgiven were great films, and I still don't think they were the best of those particular years. And the track record before then isn't much better. This is a process that selected the trash Titanic, when Cannes picked the masterpiece Taste of Cherry.
4. The other main festivals have simply done a much better job. In 1997, Cannes picked Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, Venice picked Kitano's Fireworks, both of which incomparably better than Titanic. In 2000, Cannes picked Trier's Dancer in the Dark, which is interesting even though it's not a favorite of mine, Venice picked Panahi's The Circle.....the Oscars selected failed Spartacus-wannabe Gladiator. So, what's the point?

The Oscars are an isolationist, increasingly anachronistic (as fewer and fewer movies emerge from major Hollywood studios, the event is losing any representation it may once have had to the actual complete cinema-world), a display of bad taste and foolishness.

Frankly, it's a waste of your time to try and see movies just because they've been nominated........the fact of nomination is more a guarantee of dishonest yet "serious" films rather than of any actual quality or inherent interest.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Films Noted

Well, I haven't got time for a full post, but here's what I've seen in the past few days:

Godard's Helas por moi (1993)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Nun va Goldoon (aka Moment of Innocence) (1996)
Almereyda's Twister (1990)
Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958)
Robert Weine's Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1920)
Ozu's Passing Fancy (1933)
Jean-Francois Richet's Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
FW Murnau's Nosferatu (1922)

All were very good, particularly Nun va Goldoon, except for the nearly impenetrable Helas por moi.

Yes, I watch too many damn movies. I should have some comments soon on Assault on Precinct 13 cobbled together from my posts at

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Grand Opening: Motion Picture, It's Called

"[after viewing film shot by Fritz Lang]
Jerry Prokosch: You've cheated me, Fritz. That's not what is in that script.
Fritz Lang: It is! (He pulls the script away from Jerry, who is attempting to grab it out of his hand.) Oh, no!
Jerry Prokosch: Get the script, Francesca. (He reads the script and then changes his tone... )Yes, it's in the script. But it's not what you have on that screen.
Fritz Lang: Naturally, because in the script it is written, and on the screen it's pictures. Motion picture, it's called."

The first order of business is to welcome you to my blog "Motion Picture, It's Called". In this blog, we'll be mostly dealing in questions and not in very many answers. The first question you probably have is: why did you name the blog the ungrammatical "Motion Picture, It's Called"?

The above dialogue is from a critical scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963). While I don't believe Jean-Luc Godard is the greatest director of all time, he is the most intense explorer of film of all time. Though every Godard film is a cutting exploration of what cinema means, Contempt is particularly more so.

The scene above is above all fascinating because the entire history of film is being examined in one short sequence. A group of charcters is reviewing daily rushes on a film. Godard, the ground from which post-1959 film grows, is filming the collision(s) between:
1. classic art cinema as symbolized by Fritz Lang (a fictional director being played by the real director Fritz Lang himself)
2. the American studio system in the figure of the producer Prokosch (played by Jack Palance, himself a veteran actor and symbol of the Hollywood studio system)
3. the new cinema, both in the form of Godard (both directing this movie and playing a small role as an assistant director to Lang on the movie within this movie) and in Michel Piccoli, both in his on-screen character as a novelist highly ambivalent about movies and in the reality of Piccoli's own career as a central actor in the new cinema of Bunuel, Chabrol, Melville, Varda and Godard (among many others).
4. the recently (then in 1963) decline of Italian cinema - the scene is set in a screening room in an near-abandoned section of Cinecitta, the studio that had been the center of the Italian film-renaissance of the 1950s.
5. classical Greek art (Lang's film footage is from an in-process film about Homer's Odyssey, and we mostly see shots of classical ancient Greek statuary in Lang's rushes).

As you can see, every character and the very set has a meaning both in Contempt's fictional world and a reflection in reality. Thus, every word and action in the scene has (at least) three meanings: a meaning within it's fictional world, a meaning within our reality and a meaning on the level of film theory (or even philosophy, if we dare to call it that).

The scene is also about the inter-relations of money, power, art and eros. Prokosch has the money and power, as an American producer. He flaunts his power brutally, and Godard also highlights that Prokosch is personally brutal and coarse (comparing him repeatedly to the coarsest of Nazi figures) . Yet, Prokosch is also a highly attractive figure within the movie - women fall for his money and attendant power. Palance is the only conventionally handsome man in the cast. He is also decisive and active, whereas both Europeans Lang and Paul Javal (Piccoli) are hesitant, ambivalent and weak. Godard admits his fascination and attraction to America (Prokosch is the only character who drives a car in the movie, and cars symbolize America, money, beauty and freedom to Godard).

Prokosch intentionally treats Lang as an inferior. Lang accepts this treatment on one level - Lang does not have the money or power to make films on his own (a parallel situation Godard faced in the making of Contempt itself). The film-maker is subordinate to the people with the money. And this is the fundamental fact of film-making. However, Lang has more subtle weapons - his comments often subtly insult Prokosch (though Prokosch usually does not have the knowledge to be aware of Lang's insults). Lang leverages his knowledge, his taste, ultimately his wisdom to undermine Prokosch and guide events his way (though he hardly wins every battle).

The scene is filled with sex as well. Lang's Ulysses is filled with shots of gorgeous nude statues from ancient Greece, and also has a nude woman bathing. Notably, Prokosch is bored by the Greek statuary, but is cartoonishly aroused by the nude woman (a commentary on Prokosch's immature eros). Of course, Homer's Ulysses is ultimately an erotic story as well. In addition, both Lang and Javal are trying to impress the female Italian translator (Prokosch makes it clear in the most coarse way that he has already had her). Beyond that, soon Prokosch and Javal will be engaged in battle for the love of Javal's wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). The room is filled with the sexual tensions between the characters, between the characters and Lang's film of Ulysses and within the film of Ulysses itself.

So, why name my blog "Motion Picture, It's Called"? Beyond referencing and honoring Godard's great film, I want to highlight the future obsessions of this blog: film, politics, money, power, eros, wisdom. (Errr, you could ask what that would leave out, and that's a valid question........)

So, where to next?

1. We're hardly done with Contempt itself. Down the road, I'll play around with the multiple layers between text(s), image, and moving picture that Contempt explores. We haven't even touched on Godard's analysis of the relations between pre-modern art, classic motion picture and Contempt itself. Then too, I think analyzing the figure of Fritz Lang himself will be productive.

2. Here's some films I think I'll be talking about in the future (no guarantees, my friends):
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's City of Sadness, 1989
Jean-Francois Richet's Assault on Precinct 13, 2005
Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003
Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor, 1963
Alain Resnais' Stavisky..., 1974
Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Chorus, 1931
Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, 1972

3. I'm working with several film groups -particularly the University of Chicago Hillel on their film clubs. I need any suggestions on Jewish-related films that you particularly like.

4. Anything else that randomly enters my mind.