Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clash of the Cults - Nolan and Fincher

At any given point on the internet, chances are pretty good that someone will be deconstructing a director or film while others support or detract, usually in large and vitriolic numbers. When this happens I find myself generally disengaged from the discussions, debates and diatribes taking place, usually because I'm a little late to see the movie. Other times I simply lack the energy to get in the middle of another 1,000 comment forum fight. However, just because I don't get obsessed about debating the merits of one director or film over another doesn't mean I don't appreciate the folks who do.


And when it comes to obsessively arguing the merits of one director over another one can hardly do better, or worse, than the cults of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. It's not enough that they make good movies or excellent ones and sometimes mediocre or bad ones, no, that won't do. It must be proven that one is a cinematic genius (Fincher) while the other is an incompetent fraud (Nolan). Fortunately, this is one of the few debates or discussion or whatever the hell you want to call it on which I can authoritatively opinionate as I have seen every movie, save Following, that both directors have ever done. So far, just that one eludes me and maybe I'll watch it this week just to get it out of the way.

I will admit, here and now, that if I was forced to choose one over the other I would, without hesitation, choose Fincher. He seems to me the better director. I will further admit that I agree with many of the criticisms of Nolan, the principal being that he is visually clunky, or to put it another way, I find his films utterly lacking in visual grace. Action sequences can often feel visually awkward to say the least, what with all the going back and forth and coming in from the wrong angle after position has already been established. This means, in the movies, that when you establish a plane is flying from the right side of the screen to the left because it is going to California, you then show it from left to right when it is returning, only Nolan would show it going the same way both times and claim he was filming the plane from the other side on the way back so it was still correct, but visually clunky, awkward and confusing. That's pretty much Nolan visually. Sometimes, it really does feel like he's a blind man behind the lens.

But!

I would not go so far as to say Nolan's films are, on the whole, much better or worse than Fincher's. In fact, my main beef with Nolan is his visual clunkiness but I'd say he gets good performances out of his actors and paces his films well. Now, I know, having a strike against your visual ability as a director in cinema is a bit like having a strike against your throwing ability as a quarterback in football. It's kind of the main thing you're expected to do, and do well. However, Nolan can throw well, just not consistently.

His sense of visual consistency seems fine in movies like Memento and Insomnia and The Prestige so I'd have to restrict my criticism to say his main visual clunkiness seems relegated to action sequences, and, as a director, that's an acceptable level of incompetence, especially if you're not in the habit of making action movies. Of course, Nolan is in the habit of making action movies and that's the problem. He keeps making movies that exploit his primary weakness as a director. It seems a very odd thing to do, consistently return to your weakness, but in all fairness, plenty of modern filmmakers don't shoot action very well so Nolan's not even that unique on this front. And so, even though I think action's a problem for him, I find "takedowns" of his work to be generally unconvincing, hence the scare-quotes.


This "takedown" of Inception by A.D. Jameson, a movie I didn't like, works a lot better if you haven't seen the movie. Once you've seen it, many of the 17 points don't seem to work. Now, don't misread me here: I don't think Jameson is being dishonest at all in his piece, nor do I disagree with it on the whole (I'm about half and half in agreement/disagreement with the piece). I think Jameson honestly sees all of these things but I question how much of it could also apply to a director Jameson liked. Rather than go through the entire piece (please go to the link and read the whole thing for yourself) I will discuss the first six points and then jump to some points with which I agree rather than continuing to deconstruct all the points with which I disagree (five of the first six).

The first point is how much dialogue there is which leads into the second point about how "relentless" Nolan is with expository dialogue. He criticizes Nolan for using too much dialogue, in which the characters explain everything, and writes, "His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception."

I didn't get that watching the movie. I watched it and found it had as much, or as little, dialogue as any other movie, including long sequences with no dialogue. He then provides this fairly weak example of how characters explain everything for the audience:

the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.

First of all, the way Cobb phrases it is obviously meant to signal that he knows Caine is full of shit when he tries to say Cobb could be extradited. Like if someone said to me, "Greg, I just caught the latest Pixar movie. Can't wait to see the review on Cinema Styles," and then I responded, "Now, you know I don't review Pixar movies on Cinema Styles." Of course they know, that's why I said, "Now, you know..." It's a common colloquialism. If that's the best example Jameson can come up with, and he alludes to the fact that it is, then you have to put a hash mark in the Nolan column on that one.


Then he complains that Nolan's characters repeat everything three times for the audience, you know, like in The Godfather, where Sonny and Tom are talking about how Sollozo must be dealt with and then Michael repeats this and explains how he will deal with it and then when they've decided on it, at a later time, Sonny goes over it with Sal and then Sal with Michael until the audience has been notified four times that Sollozo will be killed. You know, like that. Or how the director/reporter in the screening room in Citizen Kane says not once, not twice but three times that they need to find out what "Rosebud" means. Oh, but wait, those are two universally acknowledged great films, I probably shouldn't have used those examples. Or maybe those example are fine because it's only bad when Nolan does it. Again, I didn't notice this "flaw," a historically common enough device in cinema, any more here than with any other movie.

His third point chides Nolan for using too many insert shots, i.e., when Cobbs wife is mentioned we see a shot of her or when he's talking to his kids on the phone and when they speak we see images of them. Well, sorry, but insert shots are as common in cinema as the closeup. I can see to a small degree Jameson's point, which is that Nolan uses too many, but frankly, complaining about insert shots in cinema feels a lot like splitting hairs.

His fourth point is about the quality of Nolan's dialogue and here we fully agree. I was never engaged by the characters and much of this was due to all of them speaking like characters in an action movie rather than like people in the real world.

Point five is the weakest, I think, of all seventeen. He starts by saying, "Herr Wunderkind Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do!" and then outlines the fourteen shots used in the opening scene ("1.slow motion pan of waves crashing against a rock 2.slow motion shot of waves 3.close-up of Cobb’s face as he lies on the shore 4.point-of-view shot of a boy on the beach making a sandcastle 5.reverse shot of Cobb’s face..." etc).

Again, I read this and immediately thought, "Fourteen shots doesn't seem like a lot for establishing an opening scene." Not every movie can start with a clean unbroken crane shot, ala Touch of Evil. In most cinema, cuts are pretty common. I went to Netflix Instant and started going through classic movies from the fifties and before, a period known for slower pacing and longer shots and I'll be damned if everybody still didn't use multiple shots to set up an opening sequence.

As an example, I picked one I felt would be unassailable, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. It sails so far past fourteen it's not even worth counting. Let's see, first Dean Martin opens the door and looks in. Then, we see what he's looking at (the bar). Then we see him walk along the back of the saloon. Then he looks at the bar again. We see what he's looking at (Claude Akens, taunting him by pouring whiskey he knows Martin wants). Then we see Martin again. Then Akens again. Then Martin, again! Then Akens, AGAIN! Then. Martin. A-G-A-I-N! Then Akens... AGGGGAIN!!! Now, from this point until Akens shoots and leaves, we have fifteen more shots to come. That's a total of twenty-six shots, way past fourteen. So does that mean Howard Hawks was incompetent or this kind of thing is beyond common in establishing story and character? That's a rhetorical question by the way.


At point six ("Much of what is mechanically and prosaically explained to the audience throughout the film’s first hour—the set-up—turns out not to matter.") he quotes Jim Emerson asking why Nolan puts all the amazing visuals up front and then go prosaic during the climax of the actual dream sequence? Emerson asks, "Why would Nolan intentionally stick the movie’s most tantalizing images up front, instead of saving them for when the real action gets underway?" This isn't a bad question but, for me, I'd say it's because it would confuse the action too much (I know, I know, Nolan does that anyway) and as explained very clearly in the film (remember, apparently one of Nolan's faults is that he over-explains things) Cobb wants his dream architect, Ariadne, to create a realistic environment, not a dream environment. They make that pretty clear and the early phases of walking her around the surreal environments is a way of getting it out of her system in one regard and using the valid teaching method of pointing out what you shouldn't do, in the other.

In other words, what was "mechanically and prosaically explained" in the first hour does matter. The second half looks as it does because it HAS been explained in the first half. That was the point of the exposition and if one followed the exposition, one wouldn't ask the question that Emerson asked, which is a puzzler because Emerson described it in enough detail to prove he did pay attention. So, yeah, you got me on that one.

Now, this could go on but I should get to some more of Jameson's points that I agree with as well. Number four was one, number twelve is another, in fact, the biggest one for me, which is Nolan's too literal-minded storytelling. Jameson writes, "as is always the case with his movies, disappointingly, one can bank on things moving toward the simplest solution." Again, read the whole piece to get a better idea of that but, basically, Nolan doesn't go in any unexpected directions. For those who haven't seen the movie, here's a general example. Let's say you're watching a mystery. At the start, a body is found and the butler is seen standing over it with a bloody knife. Now, the story could provide all kinds of twists and turns and multiple characters with motive, were it in the hands of someone like Agatha Christie. However, in a Nolan movie, a detective shows up, asks a bunch of questions and then arrests the butler who, in fact, was guilty just as the opening sequence showed him to be.

Like in The Prestige (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT), another of Nolan's films. Our lead character (Hugh Jackman) goes off to find Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) to discover the mysteries of teleportation. Tesla seems a bit flaky, runs some tests that don't work then, suddenly, is shown to have inadvertently created cloning. Our lead buys the technology and goes back to his show. Now, the audience wonders, has he been conned by Tesla? Did he kill that drunken double he used in previous shows to frame Christian Bale? If he did, how did he manage to get Bale to go backstage the night he killed him? Maybe the double killed the magician. Wow, that would be a turn of events! Oh my, so many questions, there's no way we can possibly figure this out. And then... it turns out he really was cloning, just like we were told. No surprises, no twists. In other words, everything - EVERYTHING - in a Nolan movie can be taken at face value. He is, to a fault, a literal writer. If a character says what his motives are, that's what his motives are. There is never misdirection. Never. So if you see The Prestige after knowing this about Nolan, the second you see Bowie produce all the hats and explain they were cloned, you know that cloning is real and that the solution to the murder frame-up is that Jackman is killing his clones each night. At the moment you see the hats, you can stop watching because you know that Nolan never misdirects. End of movie solved. Nolan just told you.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing but it is a dull thing. It means once you've seen a couple of Nolan's movies, you stop expecting to be surprised. When the characters say, "We want to get this guy to break up his father's company," that's what they want. They're not conning Cobb, there is no setup, there are no red herrings. There is no twist in which Cobb is actually the one having info extracted from by the bad guys but being made to think he's the one in charge. Nope, they are doing exactly what they say they're doing and when they're done, the movie will end, and does.

So, I agree that Nolan has his faults but none so overbearing as to warrant him being called out as vehemently and as persistently as is the case.

On the tail end of this coin is David Fincher. He has the opposite problem of Nolan in that I read all too many writers who see a lot of magical qualities in him as a director that I don't. As I said above, I'd pick him over Nolan anytime because I think Fincher is an excellent director but not a particularly ingenious one. I find that Fincher's fortunes rise and fall with the quality of his scripts more often than not. If the script is, say, Zodiac, everyone agrees, Fincher is a genius. If the script is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, not so much.


When I look at Fincher's credits (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Alien³), I don't see the resume of an all-time great but a skillful director with a lot of potential. And in The Game, he even uses the same literal, face-value storytelling that Nolan does (in other words, yes, it is, in fact, a game). With Fight Club I see immaturity (philosophy for people who never quite grew up or took on adult responsibilities), Panic Room a ho-hum thriller, Se7en, the same and so on. What happens with Fincher is exactly what happens with Nolan: the movies that don't fit the bias get forgotten. With Fincher, all those other movies are ignored in the face of, say, Zodiac and The Social Network, and with Nolan, any movie that doesn't quite fit his takedowns, like Insomnia, gets ignored too.

And, hell, I'm fine with all of that. But when Fincher gets a good script, suddenly he's a genius again. This piece by David Bordwell gives so much credit to David Fincher, based primarily on the making-of documentary on the DVD, I can't really take it seriously (although Bordwell does make excellent points about actors' faces and how they're used throughout the piece and I highly recommend reading it). Bordwell focuses on the eyes and eyelids and eyebrows of the actors in The Social Network and says Fincher guided how they used them. I did theater in Washington, D.C. that was performed for several different school groups who would get to ask questions of the actors after the production in an onstage forum. Let me tell you, in all shamelessness, actors and directors promote themselves and what they do to ridiculous heights and we all play along with it. I can just see Fincher and lead actor Jesse Eisenberg going on about how David said to use the eyebrows in this way and tone them down in that way and... har, har, come on! Bordwell sees actors doing things that, in reality, would ruin a good performance. If an actor really did decide to pay attention to every tiny, minute detail of their face while trying to give a performance they'd be as wooden as Sherwood Forest during the dry season.

Those eyelid expressions and eye dartings and everything else come from an actor who knows how to instinctively put a performance together and a director who knows how to let them do it. Once an actor starts thinking, "Okay, now, when I say this line I'll curl the left side of my lip and lower my right eyebrow. When I react to the response, I'll narrow my eyes..." he's sunk. Now, he may still do those things and in that exact order but not because he focused on them but rather because he is acting as he believes his character would and those things naturally come out of that performance.

So what am I left with, after all this back and forth over Christopher Nolan and David Fincher? Pretty much nothing except my opinion, which is this: I found Inception to be fairly boring and I didn't like it. But guess what? I didn't dislike it because I thought Nolan was incompetent as a filmmaker, I disliked it because it was an action movie with a lot of explosions (another thing Jameson and I agree on) and that will usually bore me every time.

Also, I liked The Social Network and Fincher's amazing eyebrow magic aside, found little in it that I would call startlingly innovative and, believe me, I expected to because its most ardent supporters treated this goddamn thing like the Holy Grail of Cinema. It's a very well-crafted film, much better than Inception but if next year, Nolan had a movie that was much better than a Fincher movie I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, nor dismayed. And yet I know, if that happens, the Nolan haters will ignore it completely or attempt to explain to those of us too blind to see why it really isn't very good at all, using arguments that could apply to everything from Casablanca to No Country for Old Men. And I'll show up, late to the party and with no horse in the race, still wondering why I care at all.

*************

I recommend, again, reading both pieces referenced here in their entirety, Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception and The Social Network: Faces Behind Facebook.

I also recommend this review of Inception by Ed Howard and this review of The Social Network by Bill Ryan. In both cases, they pretty much sum up my feelings on both films.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Frankensteinia for the Rondo

The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards are entering their ninth year and remain fan-based in both their nominations and awards. One of the awards handed out, the one that concerns this piece, is for Best Blog. One of the 25 nominated blogs, Frankensteinia, run by Pierre Fournier, has my support to win the top honors this year, as it had my support last year, though it did not win. Last year that honor went to Max Cheney of The Drunken Severed Head, an excellent blog in its own right. This year, Max e-mailed me to let me know he was endorsing Pierre and hoped I would again, which of course I do.

Frankensteinia is a blog of superb distinction and the amount of detail, devotion and love that Pierre Fournier pours into it deserves, at long last, to be honored. I have rarely come upon a blog so thorough in content, so pristine in quality and so sincere in devotion to its subject as Frankensteinia. If you find yourself obliged to vote for the Rondos, please make your way to the ballot for Best Blog and cast your vote for Frankensteinia. Thank you.

And While We're At It...

See the post above for my support of Pierre Fournier of Frankensteinia for the blogging award from Rondo. But if I may bitch for just a second...

I have some blogging buddies, four in particular, not nominated that should have been. See, what bugs me is that there are 25 nominees and yet no room could apparently be found for Arbogast on Film, Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire or Billy Loves Stu. Cinebeats wasn't nominated either and even though I have always viewed Kimberly's excellent blog as a period blog rather than a genre blog (Kimberly doesn't focus on horror any more than I do) she still writes about it as much as some of the nominees and, well, she's better at it and has more passion than most of them put together so I say, "Nominate her!"

But I also want to say this about Arbogast on Film, acknowledging that this in no way takes away from my love for Kimberly or Pax or Kate and the excellence of their blogging pursuits: Arbogast of Arbogast on Film is one of the best goddamn writers out there! One of the best writing about film you will find anywhere, in fact. His insight, style and wit are wonders to behold and if an entire group of horror fans can't muster up enough intellect to see that then to hell with all of them.

Seriously, the blogs nominated make for some good reading and good analysis but next year, dammit, can we get some freakin' love for Arbo, Kate, Pax and Kimberly please?!

The Week in Retreat

The For the Love of Film Noir winds down today but please, keep giving if you can.

This past week represented a slight retreat from the blog for me as I let the blogathon, run by Marilyn and Farran, take center stage here. I was going to write more, much more, but then pulled back at the last moment.

My wife and I saw Scarlet Street at the AFI a couple of months back as a part of a noir retrospective touring the country and I was going to write that up but then noticed several Scarlet Street posts and realized I'd add nothing new except how awesome the movie-going experience was at the AFI, which isn't exactly news to anyone coming here as I regularly sing its praises on these pages.

And I saw more Oscar nominees and decided that, once again, I feel out of step with the passion guided towards some movies and the apathy towards others. I found myself upset at the state of writing in print and online and decided I was going to write about that, and the nominees, all together in one big mess of a post. And I will, though perhaps not all at once. I found myself bitching to friends about all of it, from Bill to Arbogast, and making jokes on Facebook about this week being "Anger Week" at Cinema Styles as I vent all my frustrations.

Of course, as expected, given time, much of the anger dissipates. Still, I've got a few things I'd like to say, and will, this week. But more importantly, give whatever you can to the Film Noir Blogathon. I know times are tough (my wife and I still haven't recovered from me being out of work for a year and trying to get a kid through college) so any amount is okay, and welcome. Thanks.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

DONATION LINK FOR BLOGATHON

*****IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT DONATION LINK*****


There's a problem with the donation link for the For the Love of Film Noir blogathon that's causing dead ends when people click to donate. I've commented at a few blogs about this but the problem persists so let me address it here. First, it is not the fault of anyone doing the linking, the problem is that the PayPal url for donations is a secure link, and so it changes once you are at the donation page. This means that when people go to the page and then copy the url, it is the wrong url. Our apologies for this hiccup in the system but here's the fix. If you are using these links on your homepage or know a blogger who is but doesn't see this, here is the correct link:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=LAWFPAB4XLHAW

If the link being used is longer than this and doesn't end in "LHAW", it is the wrong link. The correct link ends in "LHAW" and is listed above. Please change any link you have for the donations to this one. Thank you so much for your patience and assistance.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Film Noir is not a genre..."

So says Paul Schrader in his famed 1972 essay, Notes on Film Noir. He follows that statement with this:

It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film “noir”, as opposed to the possible variants of film grey or film off-white.

And that, I suppose, is a fair enough judgment call except that, as briefly covered here, genre isn't relegated to setting (a musical, science fiction or horror film can take place anywhere). The main problem is that he immediately follows that statement with this statement:

Film noir is also a specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave. In general, film noir refers to those Hollywood films of the Forties and early Fifties which portrayed the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption.

The problem there, you may have noticed, is the word "also." He said it wasn't a genre and is now, for the first time in the essay, defining "film noir" in a concrete way with the word "also" as if, immediately preceding, he had defined it another way. One only uses "also" if, prior to the definition one is now giving, there was a previous definition. For instance, let's say I'm writing about Singin' in the Rain. If I start by writing, "Singin' in the Rain is a comedy," and immediately follow that with "it is also a musical" two statements have been made, one following the other, in perfectly logical fashion. If, however, I write, "Singin' in the Rain is not a drama," immediately followed by "it is also a musical" I have poorly communicated an idea that seems confusing, nonsensical and vaguely contradictory all at once. He said, "It's not a genre but it's also a period." That's a bit confusing.

So, why does Schrader write "also?" My guess is that he accepted that both statements were true (that "film noir" is both a genre and a period) but let this slide past his subconscious undetected. To state that film noir is not, at least in elemental form, a genre is a touch too ornery (although there's never been a clear answer on the noir genre question). Clearly, it is different from a crime film or mystery in the mold of Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes and also different from the gangster films of the thirties. It has definable archetypes, from the world weary detective (either professional - Sam Spade - or amateur - Jeff Bailey) to the femme fatale. There are visible, identifiable patterns of character development and methods of storytelling that clearly can define it as a separate genre, in a pinch.

Nevertheless, Schrader muddies the waters further:

Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up. Personal and descriptive definitions, however, can get a bit sticky. A film of urban night life is not necessarily a
film noir, and a film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption. Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?
To restate, Schrader writes, "Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre..." But it's not a case of "rather than" because they're not mutually exclusive. Genre is generally how characters are developed and how their stories are told. In film noir, that method relies heavily on mood and tone. Musicals tell their story through song, but can take place anywhere and have any tone. Westerns use the loner/roamer against the established and settled, or the one man against the system and also relies on tone. It's why Outland, a loose remake of High Noon, can be classified as a western, even though it takes place in outer space, not the American West. Some would classify it as science fiction too, since it uses a technology versus man idea but only in the thinnest of ways (drugs of the future used to get men to work longer and harder). Still others would classify it as science fiction based on it being set in the future and in outer space and, again, referring back to this post, they would be on the thinnest of ice of all three of the definitions.

So, again, Schrader, seems to be short-selling what genre is, or at least, beyond a nominal identification with visual cues ("He's wearing a cowboy hat and they're in Montana. This must be a western.") what it can be. Genre, at its most narrow, can include setting, costumes and even types of musical cues but at its deepest, genre is about how a story is told and the atmosphere, or feeling, of that method. In other words, its tone. To write, "...film noir is defined by tone rather than genre," is a little like writing, "perfume is defined by aroma rather than scent." For film noir, tone is the genre.

However, the genius of Paul Schrader's piece comes in his discussion of "film noir" as a period because this it was as well and all noirs made later, from Chinatown to Blade Runner to Mulholland Drive, exist in their own separate noir periods, not the original period Schrader is discussing. It is the period itself that bestows something extra, something special and unique upon the noirs made at that time. There's a cynicism and weariness present in The Maltese Falcon of 1941, at the very beginning of the period, that simply isn't there in The Maltese Falcon of 1931 (shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies for the curious). By 1941 the world had been mired in a depression for years, Hitler seemed capable of complete European domination and competing political philosophies battled to win over the millions of desperate souls looking for answers.

All of that can be reasonably imitated in something like Chinatown, but there's a difference between imitating it and living it and if Chinatown was simply imitating it, it wouldn't have worked as well. Chinatown is, through and through, a film noir but not a noir of the original period. Its cynicism comes from the second cycle of noir in the seventies.

As Schrader goes on to discuss, films within a noir period (for his purposes, the forties to the early fifties), contain within them elements of darkness and cynicism regardless of whether or not their plot deals with crime in any way at all. And so The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentleman's Agreement, The Snake Pit and even All About Eve, contain the cynicism of film noir, the tone that defines the genre, without containing much of the plot points or story telling methods (although All About Eve does have one hell of a femme fatale in its title character). Since these films were made in the noir period, rather than the period of extended optimism that immediately followed it in the fifties and favored technicolor over shafts of light and shadow, they had a cynicism that would be absent from film until the late sixties and early seventies brought it back. Not surprisingly, the most famous neo-noir, Chinatown, was made in 1974.

And it is the period of the forties to the early fifties that is too often neglected by simply being shoved into the all-encompassing "Golden Age of Hollywood" period, which wasn't really a period anyway but an era of studio domination that ran from the late teens through the mid-sixties (hence the term "age"). Some definitions of the Golden Age start with the advent of sound and go through the fifties right before the French New Wave but, either way, "The Golden Age of Hollywood" is an essentially useless moniker applied to several decades of varying styles in the existence of Hollywood. Too many different ideas, styles and national/international moods came and went for anyone to assume such a large chunk of time could reasonably define the movies made under its umbrella.

In his piece, Schrader acknowledges a new period may be starting but pulls back at the end:

American movies are again taking a look at the underside of the American character, but compared to such relentlessly cynical film noir as Kiss Me Deadly or Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the new self-hate cinema of Easy Rider and Medium Cool seems naive and romantic.

Schrader even breaks down the cultural events that brought about noir in the first place, his "four catalytic elements" which are: WAR AND POST-WAR DISILLUSIONMENTS, POST-WAR REALISM, THE GERMAN INFLUENCE, THE HARD-BOILED TRADITION.

The first two go hand in hand in which America is disillusioned after millions die in a war fought for years all over the world. This combined with returning vets and millions of hardened civilians finding non-realism harder to take in adult dramas to produce a deeper sense of realism in the cinema. This, in turn took the hard-boiled detective fiction and combined it with the shadowy expressionistic style of German Cinema to create the tone of noir.

He then goes into STYLISTICS and THEMES in which he, unknowingly or not, lays out the basics for defining film noir as a genre separate from any one period. Statements like, "Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western and so on," belies his premise that film noir is not a genre as he is, at face value no less, comparing it to other genres. Of course, what he's saying about the noir genre feels so right that the contradiction is welcome. I can't imagine any way to possibly prove his statement but, somehow, it seems correct. Or to put it another way, off the top of my head, I can think of more bad movies in any other genre than I can in film noir.

Fortunately, the neglect of film noir that Schrader bemoans in the piece seems to be a thing of the past. When he writes of the prejudice of film critics in accepting bigger budget A films over lower budget B films, he concludes

"This prejudice was reinforced by the fact that film noir was ideally suited to
the low budget “B” film, and many of the best noir films were “B” films. This
odd sort of economic snobbery still lingers on in some critical circles: high-
budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash, and to praise a “B” film is somehow to slight(often intentionally) an “A” film.

This seems to have been truer in the past than in the era of independently made and distributed films that often garner higher praise these days than anything churned out of the Hollywood movie mill.

A lot has changed since Schrader wrote this piece almost 40 years ago and, indeed, the seventies produced a new kind of cynicism that harked back to the days of the film noir period. There was no World War but there was a war in Vietnam that had dragged on for years. There was no depression but there was economic hard times brought on by clashing monetary policies in the early seventies, oil embargoes and government enforced price freezes. And a Vice President resigned facing bribery charges while a sitting President resigned facing corruption charges. Cynicism was in the air and a second noir period was born, and although it ran for only a few years, just like its predecessor, it produced many great works.

In 1974 there was Chinatown, the most famous of the seventies neo-noirs but there was also The Conversation, Night Moves and a reconstruction/deconstruction of the whole idea, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye all within a three year period. Into the early eighties came Blade Runner and Cutter's Way and gradually, just like before, the cynicism faded, the movies grew more optimistic and the second great noir period came to an end. Will there be a third? Will noir as a period happen again? Will it keep recurring, every thirty or forty years, as a reaction to hard times and economic downturns? Are we in the third noir period right now but just don't recognize it because we have no distance from it?

Noir films, in the genre sense, will continue to be made in every decade, but noir periods only occur under specific conditions, when mood and spirit and fatigue combine to create a feeling of unease, distrust and shaken confidence. It turns out it's not a period specific to any set of years but specific, instead, to a set of societal conditions, and thus, can recur regularly and infinitely.

One has to go through hell to get there, but once it arrives, it's the stuff dreams are made of.
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This post is a part of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon and Fundraiser for the Film Noir Foundation to help preserve our film heritage. The Blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. Please make your donation by clicking on the button below. Thank you.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon
Starts Monday!

And here's where you can make a difference.




Just click on the button above and you'll be whisked away to PayPal where you can give in support of the Film Noir Foundation.

AND... follow this link to go to the place where you can find five different sizes of this button in both landscape and portrait for either within the post (as here) or on your sidebar (they're also, of course, listed below) as well as ads and posters for display on your website. Don't forget to visit Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren for all the details.

Now download the posters and buttons, put up the link and let's get this thing started!*











*To use the buttons within a post on Blogger, simply load the picture into your post as you would with any picture in a post, then click on it and hit the link button where it will allow you to put in the url for the Film Noir Foundation. I plan to put the button at the end of each post in this manner.

If you plan to use a donation button on your sidebar in Blogger, it's simply a matter of loading it up under gadgets and putting the url in the place where it asks what link you want for the picture.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Weighty Situation: DeNiro, Bale and Acting

This will be brief and it should be more than obvious to anyone who comes here but I want to say it anyway because it's happening again.


Back in 1980, Robert De Niro packed on 60 pounds to play the older, retired Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Two things were said, and said often, that irritated the hell out of me as an actor: One, by his detractors, that it was a gimmick. Two, by his supporters, that it was so incredible(!), which is to say that, somehow, packing on pounds made his acting better. How many times have I heard from someone mentioning Raging Bull, "Oh my God! Did you know he gained 60 pounds to play that role?!" Yes, I did know that. Want to know why he was so good? Because he's Robert De Niro! A hundred other actors could've packed on the pounds and sucked.

The same thing is now happening with Christian Bale. He lost an amazing amount of weight for The Machinist back in 2004 and has done it again for The Fighter from last year. Neither of these make his performances excellent, it's his acting talents and skills that do that. The weight loss does, however, show a stunning command of will and discipline within his craft and he's right to be annoyed at anyone claiming it's a gimmick. To wit, you try and lose 70 pounds when you're not even overweight to begin with until you're within millimeters of being able to see your organs by holding a flashlight against your back!

Let's lay it on the line: Priscilla Presley could've lost 70 pounds to play the title character in Sophie's Choice but I can't imagine her performance existing in anywhere near the same hemisphere as Meryl Streep's. In fact, in an indirect way, Streep is kind of associated with this phenomenon. Surely I'm not the only one who's read or heard comments complaining about her constant use of accents, as if that was either pretentious or a gimmick. Gee, sorry she's not lazier as an actor for you.

And on the gimmick side are the folks who seem to take offense at an actor devoted to or maybe even a little obsessed with his craft. What the hell is so wrong with that? I happen to think someone devoted to an art form is a good thing.

So, to check the scorecard one final time, 1) the weight loss/gain isn't a gimmick, it's discipline and devotion to the craft of acting and 2) the performance is measured by the talent and skill of the performer.

Thank you for allowing me this little acting rant. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go raid the fridge.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

We Disagree, Therefore, You're an Idiot

Look, a controversial movie we can all disagree on. Hooray!

Every now and then on these very pages I've flown off the handle to wildly rage against a movie that I feel is unjustly loved by millions, more often than not something born of the Pixar factory, that tireless purveyor of cinematic snake oil, lapped up by eager, gullible fans. And I feel justified in doing this because, after all, this is my space to write in, not yours. If you want to go off on how stupid everyone is in the world, except you, start up a blog. It takes barely a minute and it's free. Seriously, be my guest.

But you know what really gets me fired up? When someone else does the same thing with a movie I love! Don't they know they're stupid? Don't they know they're wrong? Don't they know I'm offended by their post? And if they know this, why'd they do it? I mean, it's me. Do you really want to offend me? Look at me, I'm lovable. I've got the puppy dog eyes and the little pouty mouth and, I mean, come on! I'm adorable, and you owe it to me to like the movies I like and hate the movies I hate. Asshole.

So, here's what's happening, okay? I finally get around to seeing Black Swan, a good month or so after everyone else has seen it because I'm on top of things that way. And I know it got a lot of nominations and a lot of people love it and I know some other people don't like it so much. And none of that matters anyway because all that matters in the end is what I think, but you already knew that.

So I watch it, and I'm excited to finally see it but that's nothing special because I love movies and, as a result, I'm excited to see pretty much anything. Seriously, seeing a movie is exciting to me because it's such an incredible art form and I love it so much that the anticipation of watching any movie holds some kind of a thrill for me. Okay, so I'm excited and I watch it. I get about half way through and I'm thinking, "When this thing gets to the climax it's going to be really special, I just know it! Because so far, man does this movie suck!"

And that's the honest to god truth right there. When I watch a movie and it's not going well, I stick with it always thinking somehow, someway this movie is going to right itself. So that's what I'm doing with Black Swan. I'm all like, "Okay, so far I got some adolescent fantasy shit and lots of faux-deep dark obsessed artist stuff but, brother, by the end, this fucker's going to wow me!"

And so, yeah, I got to the end and it didn't. But now at least I know what Darren Aronofsky thinks about when he goes to the bathroom to do his "business." And that's something, right? I mean, now I don't have to wonder anymore, not that I ever did, mind you.

Cake porn!


So here's where we are: I thought Black Swan was pretty flat as a movie and pretty meaningless as an examination of a tortured artist. And when I hear about its style I just think, "Do they still classify 'swirling around the actor with a steady-cam' as a style? 'Cause I think they officially dropped that designation 12 years ago."

Ahahahahahaaaaaaa!!! See what I did there? Did you get that? You got that, right? I don't mean the clever line about the movie's style, although, that was pretty good. No, I mean the way I took my opinion of the film and expressed in such a flippant, condescending and smug manner as to make it look like if you liked the film, you're an immature idiot. See how I did that?

Of course you did because you've done it too! We've all done that, and, trust me, I could go on but I don't think I could do much better than my previous implication that the whole film was just a two-hour act of masturbation by Aronofsky anyway so why bother. That pretty much hits the perfect balance of smugness and clever repartee so I'm done with that section.

Thing is, they're plenty of folks out there who like it and say I'm the idiot for not seeing what they saw in it. They're wrong and we all know that because I don't like it and, admit it, when I don't like a movie and you do, don't you kind of, just for a second, think, "Hmmm, maybe I'm a complete moron." Come on, you do, right?

You know who else didn't like it? Armond White! Ha, yeah, that's right, Armond White didn't like it. And guess what? I don't think he even understands what a movie is! I hate that guy and he's on my side. Man, things couldn't suck much worse than that. But that's okay because Mick LaSalle did like it, and he's an even bigger idiot! Here's what he wrote:

"For all its ham-fistedness, it captures something about the tyranny of the ballet world and, by extension, the neurotic imprisonment of female body image."

Ahahahahaaaaa!!! Take that Black Swan lovers! You've got Mick LaSalle on your side. Mick LaSalle! Hahahahaaa.

"But wait," you say, "We've got Roger Ebert and Glen Kenny too and guess who you got Ferrara?"

Oh, you calling me out?! Oh, all right, who then?!

"Rex Reed! Rex Reed didn't like it either!"

Damn, man, this was all kind of fun until you took it too far. I mean, Rex Reed. Shit, that's like finding out the only other person that agrees with you that the restaurant everyone loves is actually mediocre is the crazy guy who eats his own poop and everyone calls "Dogman."

"Damn, your neck is long! What's your secret?" "I eat like a bird."


Okay, so I got Armond White and Rex Reed but let's talk bloggers, baby! I got Marilyn Ferdinand, peeps, and Sam Juliano and that ain't no weak shit, motherfucker! But wait, you got Tony Dayoub and Ed Howard and, I don't know, maybe Bill. Or maybe I have Bill. I can't really tell, honestly. I read his review and... well, I think you've got Bill but I bet I could have Bill if I messaged him a few times on Facebook and sweet-talked him. But I don't really know.

Here's what I do know.

Sometimes, we disagree. Quite often, actually. And it probably doesn't do anyone any good to say that they don't know how to judge a film just because we disagree on something.

Unless it's you. You know who I'm talking about. Yeah, that's right, you!

You're an idiot.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Wanderers: Paul Benjamin

It's been a while since I've done a Wanderers post so for those unaware, it's a feature here at Cinema Styles celebrating actors who aren't generally known to the casual movie-going public (although the last one I did was Robert Forster who's probably as big a name as you'll ever get on this feature but that's the point). So many writers, critics and movie fans in general (myself included) spend an inordinate amount of time celebrating the stars and major character actors who filled the big supporting roles that the journeymen, I call them the wanderers, get overlooked. They're the actors who appear in movie after movie and fill various small roles on television but never become familiar by name to too many people.

Regular readers are probably already well aware that I love celebrating uncelebrated actors, and write about them often, whether it be for this feature, the short list or just a particular actor I want to single out, like Len Cariou.

Well, recently, when thinking about an actor I wanted to write about for The Wanderers, one actor kept popping into my head: Paul Benjamin. Despite most of his roles in movies being small enough to barely qualify as minor supporting, he stands out and when you show him to someone unfamiliar with his name they immediately recognize him, or at least his voice, his marvelous, inimitable voice.

Paul Benjamin first made an impact on me in the late seventies in Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz. I can still hear him talking about the "counts" at the prison:

"Sometimes I think that's all this place is. One... long... count. The prisoners count the hours, the bulls count the prisoners and the king bulls count the counts."

It was that voice of his and his undeniable screen presence that stuck with me and years later, he's still the main thing I remember about the movie, despite the participation of Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan and Fred Ward (all very good, of course).

He continued to pop up in movies and on television through the eighties, always a welcome sight, before landing the role most would associate with him forever, the street corner commentator known as ML in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Joined by the late Robin Harris in the middle and Frankie Faison (an easy contender for another Wanderer post) on the right, Benjamin was the philosopher of the group, the de facto leader and brains of the outfit. While Harris and Faison provide the reactions, Benjamin provides the substance they are reacting to, and does so exquisitely, bringing to his statements an underlying tension that is mirrored by other characters throughout the movie.

Here's one of his more famous scenes from the film, which starts here (click for first part) and finishes here (click for second part).

After Do the Right Thing Benjamin found more work on television, playing a recurring character, homeless man Al Ervin, on E.R. and even took time away from his acting to write plays as well. Benjamin continues to work steadily and even if his name is not as well-known as it should be, one thing is certain: Once you've seen him perform, you never forget him. His talent and presence won't allow it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir)
The Trailer

This year's For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon is only two weeks away and with the start of February it's time to get the ball rolling. Visit Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren for further details and if you still need promotional banners or signs, visit the blogathon's banner hub here.

In the meantime, here's the promotional trailer I put together to hype the blogathon and, if the mood strikes you, visit YouTube and embed the video on your own site to help spread the word. Enjoy the video and start preparing those posts on film noir for the blogathon, running February 14th through the 21st.