Boomerang, a street scene from this film noir, docudrama(1947)
From Part 3, The Bomb, The Untold History of the US by Stone and Kuznick
Dear friends and readers,
More from the PCA/ACA conference.
Though I didn’t count the number or work out what percentage of the total number of panels film studies represented, I’ll hazard a guess it was at least one-half. Sometimes the film study was in service of some other agenda or exposing some conflict, but the session’s prime documents were films. You might say this was a conference of very intelligent people who had put away their books to concentrate on films.
There are themes running through the group. First, fidelity criticism is useless except insofar as a comparison enables us to bring out the film-makers’ contrasting purpose. That films can be a reflection of a single maker’s vision, but is so much more likely to be a group mirroring of a set of themes thought appropriate by the financial backers, in their interest. They are (most of the time) cultural barometers of what is socially acceptable that year. Gov’ts typically and without having to act directly exercise control or the film-makers bow to what they think the gov’t wouldnot want. The way to analyze films is to study the shots, the filmic techniques as well as the kind of source material and the psychological baggage associated with their stars.
If I were able to make the choice again, I would probably not spend so much of my day on film studies. If the PCA/ACA ever comes to town (DC) or close (Philly or NY) again, I’ll be sure to go to children’s literature and fashion sessions. There was a session on a comic book retelling Austen’s Sense and Sensibility which I missed.
There was a paper by Zara Wilkinson “Defending Jane Austen: Rozema’s Mansfield Park as a narrative of abolition” (Thursday, at 1:15 pm, No 2436, “Adaptation”, V: Race and Adaptation”), but as bad luck would have it, that was on against another one I really preferred to go to as my friend was giving her paper then.
I offer brief accounts of papers in a day-long immersion in film studies.
Wednesday at 4:45 pm, “Shakespeare on Film and TV 3 (1337) offered three papers on Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus.
Vanessa Redgrave was Coriolanus’s undoing
Noel Slobada in “Riding the Lonely Dragon” began by insisting there was something odd in Fiennes choosing to film this play. It’s rarely done, unfamiliar, and abrasive; Caius Marcus might be Shakespeare’s least sympathetic hero, he’s a dynamo of violence, cannot articulate an idea, distrusts words, despises those “beneath” him. It has no subplot; it ends on an assault and utter crash. The Shakespeare text was severely trimmed by John Logan, and what we are left with is a man who cannot re-invent himself in the way Fiennes, the actor, can. Even at the close Vanessa Redgrave as the mother says to Fiennes as Coriolanus: “you are too absolute.” Slobada felt Fiennes was attracted to this figure as someone who cannot remake himself. No redemption at the close; the politician’s life a nightmare.
Rachel Hogg saw Coriolanus as an outsider, a lonely, going it alone, risk-taking. He only commands language when inciting other men to kill. He destroys his home. He’s a man without a head, a sort of cast off which leaves him vulnerable to violent brutal treatment. The dismaying (revealing) thing about the session was how unwilling the people were to discuss the women, and leaving them out of such a paper was to leave out a core part of experience. When I brought up Volumnia and Vanessa Redgrave’s role, one of the panelists insisted she was not a woman but a commanding officer. They wanted to forget the sex scenes with his wife, to cut the film off from contemporary politics too. Again and again during this conference I saw people take on a masculine point of view as universal.
Jessica Chastain chosen for her sexiness and soft femininity
Finally, Kimberly Huhn: this play “is not reassuring,” shaped by “emotional immediacy” and action. The camera was often hand-held in 2005. The hero not reflective, not super-handsome and sensitive, but someone who can do terrifying things and attracts terror. One man came who was interested in Shakespeare and had read the play (as had I) but the speakers were not interested in talking of how this production differed from other filmed Coriolanus’s, nor the usual psychoanalytical analyses.
Carrying on the theme of war and reality in film I went to “Film and History II: the great War,” on Thursday, 9:45 am (2244), Jamie Schleser presented the new trend in films to combine commercial fiction with powerful non-fiction (then not limited by the code). As the war came on, film noir combined with crime docudrama to create films of pessimistic uncertainty. Most of these in the 1950s had themes of active persecution of supposed communists; the popular pres showed the absence of due process as a miscarriage of justice. The code in such movies is you are “guilty until you are proven innocent,” even if you don’t go to jail.
Boomerang, earnest hero and sarky heroine (Jane Wyatt)
She analysed two movies, 1947 Boomerang with Dana Andrews, Elia Kazan and Jane Wyatt and many non-professional people; Call Northside 777 (1948), with James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte. (I noticed how she left women out.) A man is wrongly given a life sentence and Stewart comes to his rescue. Both films show devious politicians in a culture of pervasive corruption. They filmed an actual film Schleser argued that the use of real events helped carry the social message as you could not as easily argue to censor something that had actually happened.
Northside 777: Jimmy Stewart filmed inside a real prison
The last paper of this panel, “The best and worst of times for American cinema,” was read aloud by three people, Joe Moser in the dominant role. They had watched over 100 films and charted the presentation of war in film over the course of the early past the mid-20th century. They discovered significant trends; early on in WW1 the US presented itself as neutral, but during that time German foreign films could not get over here. Then as the US entered the war, films began to be used for propaganda and showed open sympathy for the allies. Pearl Harbor exploded into a culture of killing, with the Japanese presented as evil. Films discussed included Big Parade which was against privileges, A Very Long Engagement about mental breakdown trouble.
She seeks him no matter what … again heterosexual romance at the center — this paper made me long to read the book, and in French.
I asked if there were difference between America and European gov’t and was told the US gave people more fair warning. European gov’ts and groups treated film more respectably and it was seen as an art; European art saw the war from a social collectivist point of view, where the US consistently sees each story as individual with individual heroes winning out (or losing), epitomizing the culture. It seemed to me there was not enough on this business of cultural reflection but what the panel was interested in was the depiction of history on film. How successful does film tell history; are films history itself in the way they intervene and influence people.
I had meant to go to at least one panel on Indian film but it turned out only one person showed up for two panels (5 could not get Visas — why did they wait until the last minute). I did hear some talk about how Indian films at their close are always redemptive. The gov’t would not let anything else through and the average person would be shocked not to have some happiness at the close, some security. This is ultimately a religious censoring, in favor of a benign providential pattern.
When that was over, I hurried off to a nearby panel on Teahouse of the August Moon. Still Wednesday , 11:30, “Film Adaptation III (3340).
Marlon Brando carefully made up to look Asian
I came only in time for the last paper on the infantilization of Okinawa and Okinawness by Risa Nakayama but heard the basic thesis of the others, about the story based on the play by John Patrick and the novel by Vern Sneider. The point was made first the play was to be done by one actor and director, but when Brando showed interest in the project, he replaced the original actor, chose a different director, changed the age of the female lead, so that a sweeping transformation was undertaken. The end result was one which differed significantly from the play and the novel. In one clip we watched a man playing an American sergeant berate Brando as Sakini for not having a goal in life, nor “get up and go.” Brando was de-sexualized. The actress, a successful singer on American TV in the 1950s was presented as a child hanging laundry. A kind of fake version of Asian music was played to which some traditional dancing was done. If an attempt was intended to cross cultures and make US viewers understand and sympathize with this culture through “charm” (and Brando had been involved in serious ventures in On the Waterfront), it failed utterly. We are invited to laugh at stereotypes.
I learned a lot in this session. As with all the sessions I went to, there were few people in the room, this time perhaps 4, all from Okinawa. I did not know that the US still controls this island as a military base. I was reminded of how we bombed and destroyed much on the island during WW2 and learned of how little was done for the people when we took over. For example, no schools were built as had been promised. One woman in the audience was old enough to have been on the island in the 1950s and told us of what she experienced. In 1962 there was a cholera epidemic, and mob scenes over vaccination. The question was asked, If there is any value in any of this material. They seemed to suggest that the novel won the Pultizer prize was worthwhile. The play won the Critics Circle award.
I was startled when I saw the film. I did see it in the 1950s and after all this time (I must’ve been about 9) I half-remembered something. Now it just appalled me.
I stayed for Film Adaptation IV and went on to V that afternoon (3440, at 1:15 pm, and 3543 at 3:00 pm).
A scene from upper class British berth in Nazi Titanic
Sethuraman Srinivasan read a paper on a Nazi film about the sinking of the Titanic. Gramsci said socialism can get nowhere because an agenda of capitalism is enforced from the time of everyone’s earliest years of childhood. The ruling group asserts intellectual and cultural hegemony. We see this in the way Goebbels took over the cultural industry in order to influence people; his aim was to monopolize the media, to control the artists, shape the audience, appoint the financial group, enact a fascist state agenda. The film industry was nationalized, undesirable artists arrested. He knew he had to make a movie entertaining too. He especially liked to use history as for the average person what is said to be true will be taken as more convincing in argument so like other people he turned to the Titanic for its mythic power A large budget of 16 million to make anti-British propaganda: passengers attack heroic crew; wealthy are saved first, people in steerage left to die. The accident could have been avoided, but the crew was taken orders from a corrupt financier; mercantile alliance cared more for enriching themselves than the people aboard. There were heart-rending scenes of horror in this film, and much eroticizing of women. It does not seem to have been popular.
I found of great interest Kathleen Turner’s paper on making films from Young Adult fiction because she described the fiction too: it often shows a search for an identity; a need for connection to others and yet to be left alone; most often it’s narrated by a teenager, so a subjective self is at the center of the film. She conveyed the tone of these books; it’s often violent and there are intense zigzags in the stories. She wanted to see what was transferred from Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, Golden Compass to their respective film adaptations. The problem with her paper was when she looked for evidence of 1st person narrator and subjectivity in the films she became vague, had not clearly identified analogous filmic techniques except for voice over.
Pip looking up
Tien-Ai Chin gave a fine paper showing how David Lean used light and darkness (artificial candle-light and shadows), profile photography, together with gloomy splendid architecture and parallels shots and outfits to convey the moral world and themes of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Profiles (Lean felt) make us feel people are hiding from their pain She began with the opening still of Pip coming to Miss Havisham & ended on the repeat closing still of Pip and Estella escaping, going through the film at key points. Estelle is filmed to show her replicating Miss Havisham, others to show them humiliating Pip who is caught off from warmth.
Pip with Estelle in Miss Havisham’s place
By the end of the film Miss Havisham knows she has done great harm to Pip, and as she does the sunlight begins to be felt. I could see that Andrew Davies in his Little Dorrit had for the characters of Mrs and Arthur Clenham imitated Lean’s film.
A very complicated abstract paper on remediation in films was read by Darren Zufelt. If he was trying to teach what is meant by remediation, he certainly went about it using the most difficult abstract language one can find. Basically you take something found in one medium (say theater components, say a painting) and adopt it into the new one. Example: we see a book being read inside the movie and then the camera moves into the book. We have to place the film adaptation on the same level as its textual source, and interpret its web of intertextualities or re-makings (remediations). Some texts resist remediation more: for example a play whose words have become important to us. At the end he discussed new media; his example was audio books. Listening to a book read aloud dramatically by a single person changes the experience.
There was good discussion after these papers. I contributed the idea from my S&S book that when a movie is seen mostly from a single character’s point of view, when he or she is in every scene we have an equivalent of first person. I suggested the power of the 1995 S&S with Emma Thompson is she is in almost every scene and the way the camera is used suggests we are seeing everyone from her point of view.
There are normative moments in the The Piano Teacher
David Young had a hard sell. He argued that in Michael Haneke’s films, violent, cruel, out of alienated points of view, we repeatedly have instances of tender love. In Amour the elderly man loves his wife so selflessly that he kills her because she wants this. He cannot himself bear to lose her. We see humane acts in their daily routine. In the Time of the Wolf where there is such terror, savagery, nonetheless a feral Rumanian boy witnesses love and compassion between a man and wife; people attempt to survive and join other survivors. Young found love within a scene where a man axes a family fish tank and watches the fish slowly suffocate. I must say I missed the “small act of relentless love” he described. Even The Piano Teacher where love is shown as alienated sex and the ending is a brutal rape, we see that Isabelle Huppert wants to be loved; she prefers the hard relationship because she fears being hurt. Young quoted Haneke: “In general everyone has an expectation of love … most of the time I do not care about your expectation, I just care about my own.” This is what he studies, and when people do care for another.
For the last film paper I heard, Michael Rennett on Judd Apatow, a TV producer, director, screenplay writer, and Stone and Kuznick’s presentation of Part 3 of Untold History and question and answer period afterward see the comments.
Read Full Post »