Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Great Transition: World Cinema in the 1950s

One of the highlights of the last few months for me was a series at the Gene Siskel Film Center called "The Great Transition: World Cinema in the 1950s." A lecture series, it was curated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, a film critic I greatly admire. I was saddened to read that he's about to announce his retirement. To be honest, it's something I've been dreading. As head of the film section of the beleaguered Chicago Reader, he's assembled a team of critics like no other whose reviews I've come to depend on. Losing him is bad enough, but the question is, what will become of the Reader's film section without him? In my opinion, deputy critic JR Jones has grown from an interesting critic who often got things wrong into a great critic who's usually right, so I wouldn't mind seeing him in charge. But is that what we'll get? Does this change really mean we're losing Jones, Gronvall, Camper, Graham as well? Perish the thought. And what about the capsules from Kehr that Rosenbaum ran as editor?

Mr. Rosenbaum is one of those writers who has become like a friend for me, certainly like a beloved professor, his thought-provoking opinions something I'd miss terribly. I often disagree with him, but he's been consistent in the maturity of his views. With him you always feel his opinions are grounded and well thought out - an excellent source of support if you agree and an enjoyable opponent if you disagree. Though he is sometimes reduced to a leftist politico, this characterization fails to hold up under the laziest scrutiny. In fact, this lecture series has only reinforced for me the agility of his criticism, his deep impulse to resist the didactic in every way. He's long been an inspiration for me in transcending knee-jerk political thinking. Time and again I've found this charge of leftism to be the opinion of people who resent his aesthetics, his consistent championing of arthouse fare as well as Hollywood work. It doesn't matter than 99 out of 100 critics treat Hollywood as the center of the film universe, it is still too much that 1 critic has a different focus. Crazy. Such people are unfailingly unwilling to believe that he actually champions Hollywood pictures on a regular basis.

Rosenbaum caused two major controversies this year - the first when he wrote in the Times that Ingmar Bergman needed to be reassessed, the second when he ran a review that disagreed with the general acclaim for No Country for Old Men. (The latter piece strains for socio-political insight, but I agreed with the gist - a technically fine movie but spiritually dead. David Edelstein handled his criticism of the film better. I have a ridiculous amount to say on both controversies but will refrain for the time being.) Blogs and message boards oozed vitriol and the more opponents (including the convalescent Ebert) frothed, the worse they looked by comparison. Rosenbaum apparently is retiring because he's 65 and not because of these controversies or because of the sad financial decline of the Reader. He will also continue to write (including for the Reader web site), so I'm trying not to worry for the time being.


At any rate, I was able to attend a few screenings in the weekly series on 50s cinema, and I enjoyed them a great deal. I eagerly await the follow-up series about the 60s coming this Spring. The entire 50s series is listed on the Film Center's calendars (Sep., Oct., Nov., Dec.). They list these words from Mr. Rosenbaum by way of introduction:
In between Italian neorealism and the European new waves, one can find a ferment of creativity in many different cinemas around the world. This two-part series will investigate the phenomenon in all its complexity and diversity. Mainstream and independent films from the U.S., France, Sweden, and Japan will be among those represented. In Part One, devoted mainly to the 1950s, the critical writings of such critics and future filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Francois Truffaut will be discussed alongside many of the films they championed and wrote about, such as Nicholas Ray's PARTY GIRL, Robert Bresson's A MAN ESCAPED, and Howard Hawks's THE BIG SKY.
While this intro paints the series fairly seriously, I hasten to say it was actually a lot of fun. The overall aim may have been to explore a cinema in transition, but I got the feeling that our curator was at least as interested in simply sharing some favorite old films, to give Chicagoans access to some lesser-known films. Art Institute students enrolled in the series as a class may have gotten more of the advanced critical writings, but as a member of the public (and of the Film Center, which got me a reduced rate) I was able merely to attend the screenings I wished without worrying about note taking. I stayed for 2 or 3 lectures, wishing I could have attended more.

The first film in the series I attended was The Story of Three Loves, an example of that rather rare bird, the anthology film (in color, despite this picture). As I've become a Vincente Minnelli fan, it's probably no coincidence that it's probably my favorite of the films I saw in the series. The first story (directed by Gottfried Reinhardt) tells the story of a love between an impresario (James Mason, ugh, not one of my favorite actors) and a dancer (Moira Shearer, donning her ballet shoes for the camera once more years after her success in The Red Shoes). Agnes Moorehead added interest in a supporting role, and the story was romantic, melodramatic and only fairly good. Much more enjoyably, eleven-year-old Ricky Nelson plays a boy who wishes to be a man so he can escape his French governess (cute Leslie Caron) in the Minnelli directed second segment. A witch named Hazel Pennicott (so memorably played by Ethel Barrymore) grants his wish, transforming him into Farley Granger...for a limited time. Predictably yet enjoyably, as an adult he has much more appreciation for his governess. Delicious. The final segment (Reinhardt again) tells the story of a trapeze artist (FD fave Kirk Douglas) urging himself and his love interest (Pier Angeli) into a dangerous high-wire act. Awkward in spots (and Douglas, as so often, veers into overracting, not to mention those silly tights), the story builds a white-knuckle suspense when both cameras and actors move higher and higher into the air. The grown woman next to me was clutching her date and the armrest we shared. Rosenbaum discussed the way the storylines (esp., as I recall, the latter) evidenced the influence of French existentialism in pop culture of the time, an international trend that seems (to me) difficult to imagine happening now. Personally, I savored the queerness of the project - the emphasis on artists as characters, the casting (Moorehead, Granger), the melodrama. Very enjoyable.

I attended Party Girl because I'm a Nicholas Ray fan, but I'd have to say I felt this film was a bit of a letdown. Still, it is intriguing. Set in 20s Chicago (another reason to see it), it's the story of a dancing showgirl (Cyd Charisse) and a crooked lawyer (Robert Taylor) falling in love and trying to escape a mobster's control. Rosenbaum saw it as an intriguing example of Ray's theme of flawed lovers coming together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. With the "transition" theme in mind, I saw it as an interesting example of MGM's growing pains, going from the glory days of their musicals to something dramatic and serious. The aging Charisse shines when she gets to dance (she's still got it at this point), though the costumes will bring laughs now (as they did when I saw it), and I thought she was less than compelling otherwise. The violent conclusion is likewise ridiculous. It's not quite a case of actors wrestling rubber squid-monsters (a la Ed Wood) but they do act rather unbelievably. Of interest thematically for Ray fans, then, and not otherwise recommended.

I saw two Jacques Tourneur films in the series, and Stars in My Crown was the first. I have a weakness for both Joel McCrea and for these mid-century films of nostalgia (like Meet Me in St. Louis and Heaven Can Wait), so I enjoyed this very much, though I think many of us in the audience were surprised and uneasy to discover that the story included the threat of a lynching. It's handled quite well, though. Difficult to summarize, but the story, as seen through the eyes of the young Dean Stockwell, features a tough, good-humored Parson (McCrea) in a rural Southern town, a young science-minded doctor setting out to take over his ailing father's practice, and a rich mine owner (Ed Begley) looking to take advantage of an old black farmer. Alan Hale supports as the head of a big family of strapping farmers who provide some comedy. Some people online have described it as 'Americana' and as a Western, both of which do fit the tone. I loved it and found it thoroughly enjoyable. Rosenbaum highlighted the perennial Tourneur theme of the power of absence to engage people's minds (there's a letter near the end that illustrates this theme), not to mention the overall darkness of various episodes in a story which overall feels quite light and warm. From his capsule review: "recalls some of John Ford's best work in its complex perception of goodness."

Murder by Contract has a reputation as the best film by director Irving Lerner but also the only real keeper in his output. Still, the film looms large, an influence on Scorsese's career as well as on Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog. (Actually, a scene in a barber shop also made me think of Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.) It's fascinating, actually, one of those films you can't quite believe has never made it to dvd. A young and handsome Vince Edwards plays an ambitious young man who becomes a hit man--oddly, those ambitions are rather normal and middle-class: he wants to save up money for a dream house in the midwest. He's just impatient about getting it quickly. The script is witty, humorous even, without losing the edge of a crime drama. Perhaps it's a side-effect of its minimalism (employed effectively to make the most of a low budget--the film feels very independent), but the story raises all kinds of interesting, even bizarre questions. Again with the existentialism, and there's also something Nietzschean about Edward's character. Very much ahead of its time.

The second Jacques Tourneur film I saw in this series (and Tourneur was the only repeat director in the series) was Curse of the Demon. This was a mild letdown for me, but there was enough of interest that I didn't regret seeing it. It was a strange note to end on, but I was glad I stayed for the lecture/q&a this time as it really deepened the picture. It's a supernatural story based on M.R. James that involves a demon (that looks like something out of godzilla), a devil cult leader and an American doctor crusading against superstition. (Oh boy, you never want to be the rationalist in a supernatural story.) When I asked him what connected this picture to the other Tourneur (they're such different films), Rosenbaum again stressed Tourneur's consistent belief in the power of absence and darkness to fire power people's imaginations. (This reminded me of Cat People.) But I was also struck by the fact that in Stars in My Crown you have the pastor and the atheist doctor disagreeing on philosophies and here you have the rationalist and the occultist. (Later I watched I Walked with a Zombie in which I saw this conflict echoed once more.) Rosenbaum was surprisingly candid about Curse's many contradictions and flaws, but he was fascinated by the fact that Holden and Karswell are in many ways the same person and that at other times their behaviors seem the opposite of what they should be. The longer the post-film discussion went, the more oddities and nuances we found, so despite my slight disappointment, it's worth a viewing.

Update: Thanks to GreenCine Daily for the link. It's my favorite film blog, and I subscribe by email (as well as RSS) so I never miss an entry. A bit of a thrill to see my own words there. (I'm such a geek.)

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