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Monthly Archives: September 2016

The book cover of Edward Baron Turk's Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema

Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema by Edward Baron Turk, 1989, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0 674 11461 2 Available here.

“Who invented the cinema?” In some circles the answer to this question is still disputed, but the first instance of the film as we know it is generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (original title: La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon). In the wake of this breakthrough effort, the Lumière Brothers’ home country of France has spawned a wealth of inspired cinema. To say the least. However, despite plenty of auspicious films pre-dating and following it, what film historians refer to fondly as “The Golden Age” of French cinema lasted no more than 15 years—from the start of the 1930s until, roughly, the end of World War II. Many cinephiles are likely to have their favorite relevant directors—anyone from Jean Grémillon, to Julien Duvivier, to Jean Renoir, to Jacques Feyder, to René Clair, to Jean Vigo, to name a few. But it’s difficult to talk about this era at any length without bringing into consideration the films of Marcel Carné (1906-1996). By all accounts Carné’s filmography was marred by unevenness. And during his life, most famously in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, he was tarred and feathered as more of a “craftsman” or taskmaster-type director than a full-on “artist” or semi-autonomous auteur. And yet, despite his ups and downs, and despite falling in and out of favor with the critical establishment, few astute film buffs would deny the late Frenchman’s best work.

Carné first made waves in the 1930s taking cues from German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau and films like Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, arranging tableaux that were often bathed in light and shadows, inscribed with a palpable sense of atmosphere that could be very foggy and damp. This brooding visual aesthetic was married with sharp dialogue and dazzling scenarios penned by expert-level screenwriter Jacques Prévert. Along with production design by Alexandre Trauner and the help of some of the most capable screen actors of the day, the Carné-Prévert partnership resulted in a series of cool moody classics often characterized by melancholic longing, engaging twists and turns, doomed love, and a uniquely French strain of fatalism. These films have been described by many as examples of “poetic realism,” though it’s to Carné’s credit that everything but his first film Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche was about as far removed from documentary film production values as can be. From the onset, Carné’s most celebrated film, Children of Paradise (original title: Les Enfants du Paradis), was destined to go down in history. Made during the Occupation, at times covertly, it was released just after the war and hailed as a pièce de resistance of not only French cinema but French art in general. Children of Paradise adeptly mingled “high” and “low” culture by way of portraying 19th Century French theater, its performers and patrons, while homing in on an elusive seductress and four disparate suitors who vie for her affection. Though Carné’s career didn’t end there, the near-universal appeal of the film was never quite repeated and his last popular success was 1958’s The Cheaters (original title: Les Tricheurs), an excellent film that unfortunately has yet to receive a proper reissue in the English speaking world. Lamentably Carné’s fall from critical grace in the post-war era and eventual inability to get new projects off the ground made some declare him, in later years, France’s greatest “living dead” filmmaker.

On the subject of Marcel Carné, his career, and the changing historical milieu in which it took place, there’s little likelihood of finding a more worthy book than Edward Baron Turk’s Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema. It might not be the final word when it comes to rating the films in question (if such a thing were to exist), but Turk’s book does stand as a doorway of sorts through which anyone interested in the subject should feel compelled to pass. There comes a point at which doing such a worthwhile era justice requires going beyond the received wisdom of “ambient data” and the readily available, pre-existing literature. In other words one has to dig much deeper, comb through lots of French-language ephemera, watch a lot of cinema hidden from public view, and interview the people who were there, including the director himself. Reading through Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema it’s not hard to tell that Turk did just that.

It should be noted that Turk’s evaluation of Carné’s life and oeuvre does sometimes seem more psychoanalytically inclined than I would normally care for. And at times he almost seems too critical of the better films discussed, most of which I tend to like in very broad, affirmative terms (having seen mountains of cinema that pales in comparison). But none of this matters. The great thing about reading Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema is that even if the reader doesn’t see eye to eye with Turk on his assessment of a given film, the writing is so informed and detailed that she’ll be learning new things at every page. On that score it’s an invaluable resource.

To account for all of the material covered in the book would be difficult. But here are a few things I learned about and found interesting: how Carné got his break working as an assistant director for Jacques Feyder, whose wife Rosay treated the young protégé like a surrogate son; how Carné fatefully met Jacques Prévert whose early screenplay L’affaire best dans le sac caused such an outrage, when it was filmed by his brother, that Pathé ordered all prints of it destroyed; how Carné was gay but unlike his peer Jean Cocteau he wasn’t quite “out” and this lead to certain tensions, in his life and in his work; how 1946’s Gates of the Night (original title: Les Portes de la nuit) — my personal favorite of the Carné-Prévert films — was a commercial flop upon release, due most likely to it being set during the Occupation, which French audiences were largely anxious to forget about; how Carné’s elaborate production aesthetic and careful methodology came to be regarded as outmoded and overly extravagant by the new guard of French filmmakers represented by Cahiers du Cinéma, whose low-balling of Carné’s work at the time has affected its stature to this day; how François Truffaut, once one of the most vocal attacker’s of Carné’s work, in said publication, lived to regret this and eventually tried to make amends, keeping in touch with the filmmaker and his new output, and once famously declaring “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise.”

As one might gather from the above (which only scratches the surface), Marcel Carné’s career had all of the makings of a compelling “rise and fall” type narrative arc. Reading about his later years — when the director had outlived most of his contemporaries, but couldn’t get funding to make a new film, despite being highly honored for past achievements — it would be easy to conclude that said arc is emblematic of a minor kind of tragedy. However, reading about the exciting fashion in which many of Carné’s films were made, and then watching the better films themselves, the more dominant narrative that emerges is one of triumph over adversity, a case of finding dignity and poetry in uncertain times. For mapping out this terrain, in matter-of-fact detail, it’s hard not to find Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema an essential film book.

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The front cover of Raymond Durgnat's book Films and Feelings

Films and Feelings by Raymond Durgnat, 1967, The M.I.T. Press, ISBN 0 262 54016 9 Available here.

As its title suggests, Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings isn’t concerned with establishing an inflexibly “objective” account of the many movies discussed within it. Instead the book seems to place more of an emphasis on mapping out how these films, and films in general, make the author (and likely many other viewers) feel… which is no doubt more fertile territory. In a 1969 review of the book in Film Quarterly, Ernest Callenbach aptly notes that Durgnat’s criticism could be said to endorse the position that “a film is not what is on the screen, but what happens between the screen and the viewer.” As a consequence of this Durgnat is cut loose from “the idea that criticism is an evaluation of a fixed and finished ‘object.’” Despite this underlying principle, however, Films and Feelings is not the kind of film book governed by an overriding thesis. Instead it functions as a window into the late film critic’s vigilant sensibilities as they relate to a wide array of films and their perceived import, in turn addressing tangential issues concerning (among other things) film style, auteur theory, and spectatorship.

But the preceding paragraph probably makes Films and Feelings sound a lot less fun and occasionally humorous than it really is. To read the book is sort of like being a fly on the wall during a long, inspired lecture by the kind of cool Marxist college professor who’s just as critical of academic sophistry, snobbery, and stuffiness as he is of unstimulating cinema. Thinking of why I find Films and Feelings worthwhile, it’s much less the case that I agree with Durgnat’s opinions and share his political outlook than I enjoy reading a book so densely packed with ideas! In the interest of doing the book justice here, it is necessary to quote some passages of Durgnat’s prose, so here’s a handful of choice excerpts…

Concerning the perennial “content vs. style” debate:

…The question whether style is more important than content is a misleading one. Style is simply those pieces of content which arise out of the way the artist makes his basic points. These may (as often in painting and poetry) be only a pretext, a wire on which to “thread the beads”. If style is “manner of doing”, then we can say that the way a thing is done is often a way of doing a different thing. To say “sorry” superciliously is doing a different thing from saying “sorry” courteously or servilely, etc. Certain tones of voice make “sorry” mean: “Look where you’re going, you clumsy imbecile.” “It ain’t what you do it’s the way you do it.” “Le style, c’est l’homme.”

Concerning the traditional differences between Hollywood and European cinema:

Although many of Hollywood’s directors are auteurs it is quite possible to speak of an overall Hollywood “style”—in that, whether the narrative is fast […] or slow […] there is a certain tautness, a spareness of intention, a lack of distraction from the principal story points. There are none of the asides one finds in, say, Renoir or Becker, and which European directors generally are more inclined to entertain. Hollywood would never have invented such “European” ideas as the temps-mort, or the stylistic potpourri of Truffaut. American films seem to be enclosed by their subjects, and the dramatic tensions are calculated with a Protestant rigour. European directors often deliberately relax the story so as to dwell on the sprawl and irrelevance of “off-moments” (which after all constitute 80 percent of life).

Concerning a film’s presentation of experiential insights:

We have come a long way from the “literary” conception of a film as “explaining” or “analyzing” people’s psychology. The film’s job is not so much to provide “information” about the characters’ minds as to communicate their “experience”, whether intellectual, emotional, physical, or a blend of all three.

Concerning Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves:

But “cold and plain” is the key. The streets down which the workman searches for his stolen bicycle have a bland, callous indifference to the desperate individual. In endless successions, skeins of terrace houses, lofty apartment blocks, become symbols of a society built out of privacy, indifference and a human “absence”. De Sica’s sense of Rome reflects his curious blend of Franciscan sentimentality and Marxist hard-headedness. And the “coldness” of his films prefigures Antonioni’s, whose evocation of “alienation” transposes this critique of capitalism from the proletarian-economic sphere to the bourgeois-spiritual.

Concerning a film’s use of “non-professional” actors:

Unlike the “legitimate” stage, the cinema can accommodate complete amateurs (to whose authenticity or spontaneity the director can contribute the necessary artistic control) and it can accommodate actors who can’t act in any real sense but have an emotional vibrancy of some sort […]. But if the popular cinema can manage without actors, it couldn’t manage without personalities…

Concerning so-called “pure” cinema:

Ever since the cinema began, aestheticians have sought to define “pure” cinema, the “essence” of cinema. In vain. The cinema’s only “purity” is the way in which it combines diverse elements into its own “impure” whole. Its “essence” is that it makes them interact, that it integrates other art forms, that it exists “between” and “across” their boundaries. It is cruder and inferior to every other art form on that art form’s “home ground”. But it repairs its deficiencies, and acquires its own dignity, by being a mixture.

Reading the above quotations, it’s not hard to tell that Raymond Durgnat gives the cinema a lot of thought here. To reiterate, the value of Films and Feelings is not so much that the reader is compelled to agree with the author at every juncture, but rather that the book puts forth a host of insights to brush up against and negotiate oneself in relation to. And in addition to providing a lot of “cultural commentary” or opinions, the book often functions as a fount of information. One example of this is the chapter entitled The Cinema’s Art Gallery, in which Durgnat rates a variety of documentaries concerning visual artists of note. Working my way thought it the first time, I couldn’t help but read it while in tandem checking out various clips of the films on Youtube, which in turn lead me to “discover” Living One’s Life, Evald Schorm’s excellent cinematic portrait of Czech photographer Josef Sudek.

All in all Films and Feelings has a lot to offer. Its main drawback is that it doesn’t cover cinema after 1967, but for most cinephiles that shouldn’t be a deal breaker. And of course it helps to have seen a number of the movies featured in the book before reading about their nuances, though personally speaking I was able to follow most of the book despite not having seen many of the titles discussed. Is Films and Feelings the film book to end all film books? If such a thing were to exist, not quite. But having said that, it contains multitudes, and is, at the very least, a worthy addition to any film buff’s bookshelf.

Some clouds in the Midwest, in September of 2016.

In the past few months I’ve felt inclined to read more film books than usual. This is likely because at its best I view movie watching as a form of engagement, and additional reading can up the ante a bit, serving as a springboard toward appreciating films on a higher plane. Or maybe it just feels like a worthwhile pastime to learn about intriguing movies and related individuals that have been consigned to a rather neglected status as far as much of the world is concerned. Either way, I’ve found that, overall, delving into more supplemental reading than usual has had a nourishing effect, and it’s been fun.

However, not all films books are created equal! Indeed, some can be very dry or so steeped in the theoretical that reading them becomes more of an exercise in engaging with critical theory than it does in thinking about cinema and its possibilities. Other times a writer’s ability to string a sentence together is fine but his or her taste or personality leave something to be desired. Suffice it to say it is that special author and film book that get the balance just right.

What follows here and in the subsequent two blog posts is a discussion of three of the best titles I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. By no means should this be construed as having been drawn from a comprehensive sampling of what’s out there. Rather, what follows is just a small handful of film books I happened to encounter recently that have stood out as being far too full of interesting content to go unmentioned here.

The front cover of Nikolaj Lübeckers book, The Feel-Bad Film.

The Feel-Bad Film by Nikolaj Lübecker, 2015, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978 0 7486 9799 Available here.

Last August, in keeping with his regular habit of turning his friends on to various media and cultural events that he deemed significant, the late, great Dave Monroe of Milwaukee, WI brought this curious book to my attention. Dave emailed me (and a dozen other friends of his) a PDF of its introductory chapter, mentioning that he’d enjoyed the book in its entirety. From the onset the title of Nikolaj Lübecker’s book sounded intriguing, as if drawing a line in the sand—The Feel-Bad Film… was this not an unspoken genre? Well, maybe not a full-on genre, but at the very least a category of cinema. Witness, for instance, the countless Hollywood movie trailers proclaiming the polar opposite, that their latest offering was “the feel-good hit of the Summer…” Surely it stood to reason that the existence of such a thing as a feel-good film implied its antithesis. But what of it?

Lübecker’s book, as I would discover a little less than a year later when I purchased a copy and promptly read it, is a thoughtful examination of a largely recent corpus of work made by filmmakers who deliberately aim to engender feelings of displeasure in the viewer. According to Lübecker these films usually tend to either create an atmosphere of unease (as in the case of Alain Resnais’s brilliant Muriel or the Time of Return or Todd Haynes’s more recent film Safe), or they escalate discomfort to the point of rendering the film experience a downright assault on the spectator (as in the case of Michael Haneke’s rather deplorable Funny Games, “unwatchable” titles like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, and Godard’s classic feel-bad detour Weekend). For Lübecker a hallmark of the feel-bad film experience is that it subverts traditional notions of Hegelian mutual recognition, often attacking the viewer through her body in order to get to her mind. Though the individual works can vary widely in content and approach, a common characteristic of a feel-bad film is that it presents the grounds for a Hollywood-style catharsis and then ends up deadlocking its realization, which of course yields frustration in the viewer. The most typical sensation here tends to be one of claustrophobia, which often goes hand-in-hand with mounting unrelieved desire.

In his chapter on Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Lübecker correctly notes that what makes von Trier’s film patently feel-bad — not to mention highly manipulative — is that it sets up a protracted narrative arc leading toward the inevitable desire for a catharsis, then it finally enables the catharsis but at the very end mocks the viewer for identifying with it, drawing attention to what von Trier deems her inner svinehund. The ultimate feeling the film leaves is one of disappointment, perhaps chiefly with oneself for having partaken in it. Lübecker traces the roots of the feel-bad film experience back to the more confrontational strands of the historical avant-garde, though he seems to suggest that a disproportionate amount of feel-bad cinema has sprung up within the last fifteen to twenty-odd years, which indeed seems curious.

One of the many interesting revelations in the book is the author’s assertion that labeling a film “feel-bad” isn’t to place a qualitative value judgement on it—just as feel-good films can range from the saccharine (Forrest Gump or Mr. Holland’s Opus) to the sublime (Alice in the Cities or Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), feel-bad films run the gamut as well, from the ineffective or just plain awful to the successfully articulated. Lübecker also rightly notes that the existence of feel-bad film experiences should never lead us to confuse the ethical sphere of the movie house with that of the real world outside it—something that both those in favor and against such works of art can easily forget. The author also observes that the existence of feel-bad films isn’t unhealthy and rejecting them outright can be similar to denying problematic contemporary realities, and sometimes even lead to unforseen disastrous consequences.

In general what makes The Feel-Bad Film book work is Lübecker’s empathetic tone and lucid outlook combined with his ability to discuss the various films in relation to concurrent issues in philosophy and current events. This is a well researched, well written book that can be appreciated by both hardcore cinephiles as well as more general viewers who just might be wondering why they’ve felt “swindled” or confounded at the end of a feel-bad film experience. It is a necessary document. High marks.