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January 17 2020

So was there an actual box-office slump in 2019?

Kristin here:

Last May, I posted an entry responding to all the lamentations about a supposed slump in box-office revenues for theatrical films in the early months of 2019 compared with the same period of 2018. I pointed out that the cause of the slump was not due, or at least not entirely due, to a sudden lack of interest in movie-going resulting from the rise of streaming. The main reason was that most of the biggest BO hits of 2018 had been released earlier in the year than usual. As a result, most or all of their income came entirely within the calendar year. In tallying annual BO, however, money brought in after December 31 gets added onto the new year’s tally.

Thus the fact that the four biggest hits 2018, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, all came out in the summer or earlier No revenues from these films carried over into 2019. That almost inevitably meant that there would be a decline in 2019, but it wasn’t due to people deciding to camp out on their couches and watch stuff streamed to their TV sets. They had simply bought their tickets to those movies long before.

For some reason, pundits never seem to notice this. Or maybe some do, but, as I wrote last May, it’s much more dramatic to tear one’s hair over a dire slump than to point out that these ups and downs really don’t reflect any dramatic changes in the overall industry, at least not yet. Also, it’s more difficult to figure out and then explain the results of the fact that films still in release at year’s end have their grosses divided between two calendar years.

Assuredly there has been big shifts in the balance of power among the major studios. Obviously Disney is doing very well indeed, with seven films in the top ten domestic grossers for 2019, including all the top six. In contrast, Paramount, long ago the most powerful studio in the young Hollywood, is in a sad state. Quite possibly it will disappear into a larger firm, as 20th Century-Fox did. This imbalance within the current industry is not good for any of them apart from Disney, but it has so far had no discernible effect on the industry’s earning power as a whole.

Annual box-office totals, in numbers not adjusted for inflation, are percolating along as usual. There was no slump last year, just a little adjustment downward after a record year. Let’s take a look at what’s really going on.

 

Up and up, and down, and up and up

We’re barely into 2020 and already the trade papers are pointing out that the domestic box-office total for American theatrical films fell in 2019. Yes, but …

Here’s a chart from Box Office Mojo of the grosses since 2009, the first year when the figure topped $10 billion. (These figures are in dollars unadjusted for inflation. The three columns on the right side are number of features released, average take per film, and the top grosser of the year.)

Note for a start that there was a 7.4% rise in 2018 over 2017. In 2019 there was a drop of 4.8%. Now note that the decline of 4.8% in 2019 still left the total higher than it had been in 2017. Note also that this has usually been the case. The years of big growth–10% in 2009, 6.5% in 2012, 7.4% in 2015 and 2018–are followed either by smaller rises or by declines that do not wipe out the gains of the previous years.

If you look at the larger chart from which this was excerpted, it’s much clearer that theatrical income has risen impressively.

BO has nearly quadrupled from 1985 (again, in unadjusted dollars, so a significant part of that growth is inflation). In 1985 the total was a mere $3,041,480,248. Since then there have been 27 up years (though a few were nearly flat) and only 7 down years. Down years tend, not surprisingly, to come after record years. In 2014, there was a decline somewhat greater than that of  2019. Between 2014 and 2019, the total BO rose by 14.4%. About half of that, 7.4%, was in 2018, almost inevitably leading to a decline in 2019. But really, is a 4.8% decline that big a deal in comparison with a 14.4% rise? The basic point is that the BO continues to climb overall, despite these occasional “adjustments,” as business people would call them.

Moreover, note that 87 more features were released in 2018 than in 2019, and considerably more films than in previous years. Given the average box-office gross in 2018, that would add a little over a billion dollars. In fact the difference between the 2018 and 2019 totals was only about $570 million, so presumably some of those extra films brought in well under the average. Still, some of the record year was due simply to a greater number of films. Conversely a drop in the number of 2019 films to something closer to normal does not suggest a slump due to waning interest in theatrical movie-going.

Writing in Hollywood Reporter in November, 2019, Pamela McClintock made the 4.8% drop sound like a big deal, even while acknowledging that in fact 2019 would be the second biggest BO year in history (in unadjusted dollars, of course). McClintock’s figures differ slightly from the chart above, partly because final tallies were not in and partly because she used Comscore figures instead of Box Office Mojo ones.

With Dec. 31 fast approaching, industry leader Comscore projected Sunday that box office revenue in North America will hit $11.45 billion for the full year, a decline of 3.6 percent from 2018’s record bounty of $11.88 billion.

If Comscore’s rough estimate is correct, that would be the biggest year-over-year decline since 2014, when domestic revenue tumbled a steep 5.1 percent over 2013 to $10.36 billion. The North American box office rebounded in a major way in 2015, rising 7.5 percent to $11.13 billion.

The good news: $11.45 billion would represent the second-best showing of all time, besting the $11.38 billion collected in 2016 (a 2.2 percent uptick). Underscoring the cyclical nature of the film business, revenue was down 2.3 percent in 2017, followed by last year’s dramatic 6.9 percent jump.

While international box office numbers aren’t yet tallied for 2019, analysts expect worldwide ticket sales to match, or best, last year’s all-time high of $41.1 billion.

“Given the level of competition from a plethora of options across multiple platforms on an incalculable number of devices, it should be actually heartening to the industry that 2019 will deliver the second-best annual box office revenue in history,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

Yes, it should, but again, second-best is not as dramatic as a worrisome slump. After all, the threat of streaming to theatrical business is the big story of recent show-biz journalism.

 

Carry-over into 2020

Is there likely to be much carry-over of box-office revenues from 2019 films into 2020? In other words, is there likely to be a repeat of 2019, with too many big grossers released well before the end of the year? It does seem possible. My home-made chart above, derived from Box Office Mojo figures as of January 12, 2020, shows that seven of the top ten domestic-earners went into and out of release in the spring or summer, somewhat as the comparable films from 2018 did. Of the three films still in release, Frozen II and especially Joker seem to have already earned much of what they will earn. (Indeed, Frozen II has already slightly outpaced my prediction, based on the gross of the original Frozen in adjusted 2019 dollars, $441.8 million.) The Star Wars entry, the latest release in the top ten, is still going strong and should contribute a fair amount.

1917 will provide most of its income to the 2020 figures. It opened in only eleven theaters on Christmas Day, stayed at that level for two weeks, and went wide (into 3434 theaters) on January 10, meaning that all but $2,721,279 of its domestic income will count for 2020. The film’s surprise Golden Globes wins and possible BAFTA and Oscar awards may help land it a higher gross than many would have predicted. As of January 15 it had grossed $51,561,309 domestically and was still at number one.

It’s way too early to predict what effect all the as-yet unearned carryover money from 2019 films will have on the 2020 total we’ll be discussing a year from now. I haven’t yet bothered to survey the new year’s anticipated blockbusters and their release dates. If studios continue to scatter their big earners throughout the year instead of saving them for the November-December holiday season, then carry-over income will be less significant and will perhaps cause fewer ups and downs. If so, pundits will need to find something else to make us nervous as regards the future of movie-going.

That something should not be the extremely common claim by journalists that streaming is killing theaters. It has been shown that people who stream more movies also go to more movies in theaters.

 

A final point

While noting in passing that 2019 both suffered a big decline and was the second-biggest BO year, Rebecca Rubin of Variety pointed out that the global box-office haul for 2019 hit $31.1 billion, the first time it has ever topped $30 billion. This rise in part reflects the fact that nearly 70% of Avengers: Endgame‘s total grosses came outside the US/Canadian market.

Rises in foreign ticket sales don’t entirely compensate for declines in domestic ones. Not as great a percentage of the box-office income returns to the American studios from some markets–notably China, which pays back 25%, as opposed to closer to 50% from other markets. (Ryan Faughnder and Robin Dixon summarized that and other problems faced by American films in the Chinese market for the Los Angeles Times last February.) But any foreign income helps, and so far the foreign markets continue to rise, even as streaming penetrates more of them.

 

 

 

January 16 2020

Ein Buch des letzten Sommers: Niemand ist eine Insel von Johannes Mario Simmel

"Wie würden die deutschen Kritiker mich bestenfalls etikettieren?" fragte ich.
"Als einen vor nichts, aber auch vor gar nichts zurückschreckenden Trivialautor", sagte Ruth Reinhardt.

Simmel schreckt vor nichts, aber auch vor gar nichts zurück, nur dauert es eine Weile, bis man das merkt, beziehungsweise bis man merkt, was das bedeutet. Die ersten paar Kapitel sind langsam und ausgesprochen geschwätzig. Eine Ambulanz fährt durch Paris in Richtung Krankenhaus, es geht um Leben und Tod, aber sie kommt trotzdem höchstens mit zwei Minuten pro Seite voran, der Erzähler lässt sich von allem und jedem ablenken, eine Beschreibung, Seitenbemerkung, Charakterisierung jagt die nächste. Vielleicht geht es darum, uns einzuüben in eine Prosa, die zu allem und jedem etwas zu sagen und eine Meinung hat.

Nach 50, 60 Seiten nimmt die Erzählung Fahrt auf und ist fortan nicht mehr zu stoppen. Kein Wunder, es geht schließlich um viel. Simmel hat das Buch geschrieben, das ist auf der ersten Seite zu lesen, um auf das Leid behinderter Kinder aufmerksam zu machen, auf die Schwächsten der Schwachen. Das klappt nur, in sich ist das schon logisch, wenn man keine Hemmungen kennt.

Es geht also um behinderte Kinder, der Erzählbarkeit zuliebe erst einmal nur um eines, das ist dann allerdings nicht irgendeines, sondern die Tochter der schönsten Frau und populärsten Schauspielerin der Welt, einer Diva sondergleichen, von der außerdem eine Tonbandaufnahme existiert, auf der zu hören ist, wie sie - damals war ihre Tochter noch gesund - über, ausgerechnet, behinderte Kinder herzieht. Mit dieser Aufnahme wird sie jetzt erpresst, während sie in Cinecitta an einem neuen Film arbeitet, einer Adaption von Brechts "Der kaukasische Kreidekreis", die sich in Simmels Beschreibung absolut fürchterlich liest, aber natürlich zum erfolgreichsten Film aller Zeiten avanciert, noch vor Gone With the Wind und Star Wars. Das ist erst der Anfang. Später wird der Plot, nur unter anderem, mit einer Reihe von Doppelgängern angereichert und das Ganze endet, wunderbarerweise, in einer Nürnberger Bahnhofsabsteige, wo der nimmermüde Simmel auf den letzten Seiten eine der besten Figuren des Films aus dem Hut zaubert, eine geradezu exaltiert ordinäre Prostituierte.

Simmel ist ein Überzeugungstäter des Trivialen. Wie Til Schweiger vielleicht, aber umfassender interessiert an der Welt und vor allem technisch besser. Nach dem zähen Krankenwagenstart wird das Buch zum waschechten page turner, perfekt montiert ist es vor allem, Cliffhanger, Ellipsen, Rückblenden, alles sitzt. Der Exzess an Geschwätzigkeit und Meinung zu allem und jedem ist bald schon kein Ballast mehr, sondern Gleitmittel. Ab und an schwingt sich Simmel gar zu Miniaturen romantischer Poesie auf, insbesondere dann, wenn er das Loblied singt auf diejenigen, die im Dunkeln gutes Tun und keinen Dank dafür erwarten.

Die im Dunkeln, die im Hellen. Das verweist einerseits wieder auf die Doppelgängermotivik, andererseits auf die Abgründigkeit der Prosa. Denn die Erzählperspektive ist von Anfang an und rettungslos schief: Der da schreibt, das ist der Geliebte der Schauspielerin, ein Frauenheld und Taugenichts, der sie nicht liebt und nur an ihrem Geld interessiert ist. Der Erzähler selbst ist moralisch korrupt und er weiß es auch. Er weiß sogar, dass seine moralische Korruption die Prosa mitkorrumpiert, und er schreibt an einer Stelle, dass nur manchmal, ab und an, ein paar Zeilen lang, eine andere, bessere, echtere Prosa durch die falsche hindurchschimmern wird. Die Welt der Guten und Wahren bleibt ansonsten im Dunkeln, während er selbst die Welt der Schlechten und Falschen hell erstrahlen lassen wird, Satz für Satz, Seite für Seite.

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Große Freiheit Nr. 7, Helmut Käutner, 1944

A man's passion done in by automaton love. But he himself is part of the automaton world, he just doesn't want to admit it (to himself, first and foremost). Hans Albers as Hannes Kröger still thinks of himself as king of the high seas, although he's been stranded in St. Pauli's red-light version of the cultural industry for quite a while. Right at the beginning the mighty four-master is exchanged with a ship in a bottle. When in the end he reenters the world of seafaring, this doesn't feel like liberation, but rather like his giving in to an imaginary solution.

The melodrama in between never settles down on a constant tone; for all its musical and cinematographical brilliance (lightning and make-up turning Albers' face into a mask, transforming him into the most uncanny of the film's many automatons) it's first and foremost driven by gestures. Hilde Hildebrand leaning over the counter with the beer tap pressing into her chest; the automaton lover Hans Söhnker absentmindedly stroking the handrail while waiting for Ilse Werner, his automaton girlfriend; Werner squeezing the automaton egg between her hands, while holding it up over her head, creating a personal world of her own in just one single, simple shot.

Lac aux dames, Marc Allegret, 1935

A Ritrovato moment to stay with me for a long time, probably: Simone Simon and Jean-Pierre Aumont rolling around in a barn, bedded on a pile of grain, joined in a flowing movement of not-quite-lovemaking, which somehow is even more erotic than actual sex. All scenes with Simon's Puck and Aumont's Eric in the barn (a magic fairytale wonderland which might also be a fishing lodge) are absolutely marvellous, elevating an already freewheeling, joyfully frivolous youth melodrama into pure cine-ecstasy.

LAC AUX DAMES is a film of unpretentious, un-selfconscious, but at the same time completely unhinged extravagance. Aumont - who's a swimming teacher working at a strange, almost sci-fi-like public bath - isn't caught between, but both blessed and marked by three women: Or maybe it's one woman split in three, into the imaginary (Simon), the symbolic (Rosin Derean), and the real (Illa Meery). But that's just one among several possible layers, and Aumont himself is more spirit than human most of the time in this.

Les amours de minuit, Augusto Genina, Marc Allegret, 1931

Two escaped men meet on a train. One - young, nervous, curious - escaped from his boring day job, the other - lean, lanky, sleazy - from a penal colony. The train would bring the young guy directly to the harbour and to his ship bound for South America. The other one persuades him to dismount one stop earlier by promising him a night in town with lots of erotic attractions. For the young man, the train is transformed from a mere means of transportation into a machine that grants worlds, options, adventures. A sense of anarchic, but also modernist freedom which for me is strongly associated with early sound cinema, right now my favorite period in film history - by far.

The storyline might be rather straightforward, but the film isn't really interested in plot mechanics. Every scene is self-sufficent, every place a whole world in itself. Especially the nightclub: Several dance routines are filmed in their entirety, the buzz of the place is, for the most part, much more important than the conspiracy the young man might be caught in. A beautiful tracking shot floating alongside the bar counter: in the first row, men and a few women eating sanwiches, drinking beer; but there's a second row, comprised almost exclusively by women trying to snatch a quick bite or a drink for free.

Another great moment: the other guy, the bad, lanky one, and his mistress meeting in a revolving door. Her slight hesitation in joining him in the inside - her realizing that instead of meeting him she could just succumb to the dynamics of the door, rotate with it and get thrown out into the world.

By Candlelight, James Whale, 1933

At the same time true to its stage play source and completely cinematic, especially in its use of doors as sluices controlling both visual spectacle and erotic energy. The master / servant dynamic is very funny, especially because of Paul Lukas's natural air of superiority towards his boss, but like the magnificent THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, this is ultimately all about learning / unlearning the automatisms of romance. Although this time around it's set in a much lighter mood.

The key to the film (and to Whale's authorship) might be the only scene not set in enclosed space, though: a short sequence at a country fair. While I still don't really know what to make of these strange images, one thing is clear: no one could mistake them for "good honest people having fun". Instead (and completely unrelated to the plot) they have a ritualistic feel about them. The most important element of Whale's fair are clearly the masks. And the reason for the strangeness of the scene might be that the usual links between mask and identity do not apply. The people neither wear masks to hide their (real) identity, nor to reveale their (true) self. Rather, masking is a state of being in its own right, a sign of pure difference, free from all (bodily, social, sexual) restraints.

Jet Pilot, Josef von Sternberg, 1957

so it turns out technicolor has the power to turn sternberg into tex avery.

Phenomena, Dario Argento, 1985

ontogeny vs phylogeny. phylogeny wins.

The Comedz of Terrors, Jacques Tourneur, 1963

only peter lorre's and the cat's dignity aren't completely shattered to pieces in the end.

Exectutioners from Shaolin, Lau Kar-Leung, 1976

I don't know why I never watched a Liu kung-fu film except for 36 CHAMBERS. Maybe I unconciously held back until I was ready. EXECUTIONERS immediately won me over, not only because its Bazinian approach to action (coupled with a magnificent use of the zoom lens), but also because of its organic feel. A world, in which every thought, every impuls is immediatly translated into choreographed physical movement. Also a world which is thoroughly sexualized, but somehow never in an obscene way. In the end, everything comes down to the (dialectically mediated) opposition of clenching one's own thighs vs kicking someone else's balls.

Hiroshima 28, Patrick Lung Kong, 1974

A Hongkong film set exclusively in Japan, and telling an almost exclusively Japanese story with only one chinese character: a reporter interested in learning about the legacy of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945. Patrick Lung plays this soft-spoken reporter himself, signaling his personal commitment to the humanist venture the film is clearly ment to be. The main part of HIROSHIMA 28, however, consists of a dense family melodrama centered around two young women brought up as sisters which starts of somber and quiet but grows a lot more hysterical over time. (Spurred on by the dynamics of the interplay between the two main actresses - my favorite moment is energetic Maggie Li's long, slender fingers elegantly grabbing somnambul Josephine Siao's lunch).

On the macro level, the diverging ambitions of the film aren't all that well integrated on first sight with didactic sequences set at memorial sites repetedly interrupting the flow of melodrama. But in the end, the film manages to extract an essence of pure (and in the final analysis amoral) negativity from both strands of its story, with the furious conclusion of the melodrama somehow mirroring the harrowing flashback sequence at the beginning of the film - two outbursts of cinematic excess bracketing a story about fragile normalcy haunted by death.

Face, Tsai Ming Liang, 2009

A film that realizes that the statement "everyone's an artist" doesn't constitute a promise but a threat, or rather a curse, because it means that in the end everyone's hidden in the echo-chamber of his or her own artmaking. (Which explains why the scenes with Leaud are the film's strongest parts: he has both the biggest echochamber and the least restraint in making use of it.) It also means that in the end, sex is just another performance piece.

Also: A film that insists that art is completely outside of communication - fine with me in theory, but in this case I didn't understand the necessity to point out this incompatibility again and again. FACE is probably a logical endpoint for Tsai's cinema, and yet for me it's clearly his worst film. The visuals are imaginative as always but they just don't resonate as much as in the rest of his work. (I have similar problems with Hou's FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON; weird that the worst film of both directors was produced by Parisian museums).

Heaven and Hell, Chang Cheh, 1980

Not really a surprise that Chang Cheh would come up with only the flimsiest, cheesiest version of heaven, but with an eclectic, awesome, ornamental vision of hell. Still, I guess what I like best about this are the moments of irreverent pop art craziness barging in at odd moments, as if from a completely different film.

Il bacio di Tosca, Daniel Schmid, 1985

A film not about love, but of love, filming love as if it's a visible object.

The Flying Guillotine, Ho Meng-Hua, 1975

Even the birth of the hero's son is crosscut with not one but two flying guillotine beheadings. My kind of high concept film.

Circle of Danger, Jacques Tourneur, 1951

It's not surprising that CIRCLE OF DANGER is generally regarded as minor Tourneur because, at first glance, it's hardly more than an elongated, but not very elaborate, and finally rather pointless practical joke about a dull guy failing to avenge his brother despite trying terribly hard; and at the same time winning over a woman despite basically not even really trying.

Still, I'm completely in love with this strange little film. Ray Milland's dullness undermines the mystery plot from the start, yes, but this works for the film's advantage, because it allows for a not really disinterested, but in a way touristy gaze on all the odd details Tourneur assembles. Every character Milland meets carries his own little world around with him/herself, and although the stubborn protagonist doesn't notice this, remaining stuck in the past instead, Tourneur's camera is always attentive, in a quiet, controlled way. And when Milland finally gets together with Patricia Roc in the last scene (after the mystery plot, and with it the last gasps of the agency of the hero, vanishes in pure geometry), it's made clear that this isn't about him conquering her, but about her choosing him.

Les sept déserteurs ou La guerre en vrac, Paul Vecchiali, 2017

There's not a single soldier in sight in LES SEPT DESERTEURS AU LA GUERRE EN VRAC, and still it makes sense that Paul Vecchiali dedicates his film to, among others, Fuller and Wellman, the masters of the combat film. Because his film, like theirs, also uses war primarily as a mechanism of self-revelation through isolation. In Vecchiali's case, the war remains unnamed, and it takes place, in a very strict sense, outside the frame, and also (almost constantly) on the soundtrack, but never in the image itself. War can be told and heard, but never seen. Stray bullets may penetrate the frame and even kill the characters, but they never leave a visible trace on the actors, thereby delimiting another threshhold important for the film: between actor and character.

In a way, Vecchiali is even more serious about this seperation than Brechtian filmmakers like Straub / Huillet who always insist on the firstness of the performance and the profilmic. Because with Vecchiali it's not about priviledging the one (the actor / signifier) over the other (the character / signified), but about the co-existence of two realms: LES SEPT DESERTEURS is at the same time a gathering of seven actors, who meet on a single outdoor set supplemented by a handful of cleverly designed props, and are called up, first one by one, than in small, shifiting groups, to perform small acts, most of them very loosely structured around sex and death and all of them performed in a decidedly joyful, irreverent way, highlighting with proud stubbornness personal idiosyncrasies, especially in artfully stylized manners of speaking; and a film about a group of deserters and outcasts trying to escape from an omnipresents war. At least until the strange, magnificent last twist, there isn't a single rift between these two realms, as they are at the same time connected and seperated by the act of playing, which always involves a literal, materialist and a symbolic aspect.

The Crazies, George A. Romero, 1973

There are just two possible outcomes to the infection: death or eternal craziness. The only problem is that among all the people dying in the film, almost no one dies from the disease. And literally everyone is acting crazy, one way or another. But of course, the harder it becomes to demarcate, the bigger the need for demarcation grows. Both the ad hoc police state and the quickly thrown together rebel group are completely compromised from the start, and each new in-group friction feeds into the systematically escalating conflict.

As much as I enjoy Romero's zombie imagery in the DEAD films, its very absence, in combination with the vagueness and almost invisibility of the menace, makes THE CRAZIES into Romero's most radical film.

Even more than usual in early Romero, the barebones production budget works towards the films advantage: from the beginning the film renounces convernional world building in favor of a series of claustophobic, highly effective chamber dramas.

THE CRAZIES feels like something quickly assembled from hand-drawn sketches and cardboard boxes. At the same time it is a masterpiece, maybe Romero's best and almost certainly his purest film.

Pilgrimage, John Ford, 1933

There might be some earlier Ford films (JUST PALS and THREE GODFATHERS, especially), which are stronger works on their own terms, but for me, this is where it finally all flows together. The crushing force of public opinion and, necessarily opposed to it, the proud insistence on individual sorrow. The rejection of moralist stances of any kind. The elevation of myth over truth not as a function of ideology, but of psychology.

And, above all, the visual textures: The pictorialism no longer feels derivative, but is thoroughly bound to Ford's eternal, unresolvable investigations into ambiguities and paradoxes - the idyllic nature scenes at the start already being shot through with premonitions of decay and death. And the solid narrative flow almost constantly being offset by the gestural precision of the actors: Hannah Jessop's way of vehemently, almost aggressively feeding her chicken tells you all you need to know about her.

Charles, mort ou vif, Alain Tanner, 1969

Simon's nuanced and quietly excentric performance saves this from being completely dull, but in the end this is a perfect example of the kind of counterculture-infused drifter cinema I can't relate to. There's no sense of hedonism, of joy, of sex, of freemdom, of fashion... Charles Dé rejects his bourgeois existence solely because of a vague sense of ennui, his rebellion is a theoretical / philosophical stance, not a way of engaging with the world and with his own pleasure. Like in some similarly misguided Wenders films, the exploration of the outside world is rejected almost from the start, in favor of a suffocating sense of all-encompassing interiority, and an escape into hollow patterns of language - which also aren't allowed to become attractions in their own rights by evolving into pure wordplay, but are always bound to the strict psychological self-sameness of everyone involved. Watch Klopfenstein instead. (And Lemke instead of Wenders!)

Viva, Anna Biller, 2007

you know a film has its heart at the right place when one character hands another one an antique wooden duck as a souvenir.

Marjorie Prime, Michael Almereyda, 2017

What a wonderful film... The moment which stuck with me the most was the flashback in the middle. The dark, warm, post-coital glow of the images, the gaze gradually shifting towards the red flags on the television screen... I guess part of why this is a special scene is that these are impossible images, if one takes the film at face value. Because, when memory is always tainted by the present, how can there even be something like a flashback? And yet, here is Marjorie, young again, in love again. For me, the only possible way to react to these images of joyous, sensual, youthful love is to treat them as a present Almereyda himself gives to his character, to Marjorie, thereby declaring cinema's singular power to transcend space and time.

Kung Fu Angels, Herman Yau, 2014

The whole film and especially Karena Ng's performance display a lanky awkwardness which made me somewhat enjoy this, at least during the non-fight scenes. Still, this feels as phoned in as it gets. The relationships between the students are a little bit more nuanced than strictly necessary, but otherwise there's no indication Yau cared one bit about making this. What saddened me about this is the representation of school life, the complete absence of even the possibility of unruliness. In this regard, Hong Kong cinema really has come a long way since 1997.

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-Why did you bring me cow dung?
-That's me. You're the flower. It's beneath you to be with someone like me. But if you're willing to give this cow dung a chance, i'll provide unlimited nutritients.

The Visitors

Daney wrote some pretty scathing film reviews. Here's one from his Cahiers years on Elia Kazan's The Visitors courtesy of Andy Rector from KINO SLANG

The Visitors
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 240, July-Aug 1972. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde. Volume 1: Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, P.O.L., 2001.

January 15 2020

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Monpti, Helmut Käutner, 1957

dubious plotting not only elevated, but thorougly blown up (not like a bomb, but like fireworks) by käutner's almost manic sense of mise en scene, buchholtz's elastic acting and schneider's hidden sadness. the result might at first be a bit annoying, because everyone involved seems to give in to his / her most baroque instincts, but in the end it turns out to be, i think, a bona fide meta-escapism masterpiece. artifice trumps artifice.

Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights..., Philippe Garrel, 1985

Shadows of shadows of shadows. This time, the autobiographic fragments that return again and again in Garrel's work never crystallize into at least somehow self-identical bodies (like they do in later films, and even in the previous L'ENFANT SECRET), but float around freely, as if they're up for grabs. He makes one of his most beautiful films by letting go of form, focus, fixed identities, body tension, and sometimes even texture - although I once again got the feeling, that it's just not possible to film a window in Paris without the result being beyond beautiful (of course, that feeling changes at once when leaving Garrel's world...). Every shot in this is at the same time part of an impenetrable illusory maze and completely transparent towards the moment of shooting.

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Garrel asking Doillon for advice on how best to film his son is the sweetest thing.

The Cannibals, Kao Pao Shu, 1972

Not a particularly carefully crafted film outside of the fight scenes. But oh my god the fight scenes! Ecstatic, joyous, communal celebrations of the pro-filmic like this are at least one of the reasons why movies exist and matter.

Riley the Cop, John Ford, 1928

Starts nice, but more or less hits a brick wall once the plot moves to Germany. I can relate.

The House of 72 Tenants, Chor Yuen, 1972

Come for the perfectly constructed comedic setpieces, stay for the sprawling, all-encompassing sense of community, and stay bewitched for at least weeks thereafter by the beautiful yellow light illuminating scene after scene.

Father and Son, Allen Fong, 1980

A film literally soaked in the specifics of memory. The long stairway leading to the small, humble apartment high above the city, the view of the vast cityscape from above (two boys pittet against a sea of houses down below as if they were spirits roaming the sky, resting in clouds). Children's games on the schoolyard, hierarchies and their unmaking, identity defined by actions and social relationships ("Are you the one who's scaring people with toads?" - "Yes"). Every escape from social control, no matter how small, feels like the ultimate victory.

Objects, meals, toilets.

Simultaneously, this is an earnest, tightly structured, sometimes almost didactic film about the mechanics and value of family. In a way both the boy and the father try to prevent the boy from becoming the father. The action of one always already influences the other, but there's no chance for communication, no escape, just a heartbreaking sense of grief.

For the boy, everything is cinema. But that's mainly a curse, too. His love for illuminated images almost burns down the family home. After being hit by his father, to stop the bleeding a woman puts tobacco on his face - an instant Chaplin moustache. His camera finally falls down and breaks up, just like the leg of the actor in his first amateur film.

Teacher: "What do you want to be?"
Boy: "I want to work at a movie theater."
Teacher: "Why do You want to do that?"
Boy: "So I can watch movies and earn money at the same time"
Well, that's always the idea...

Sinful Confession, Li Han Hsiang, 1974

I've seen only two of Li Han Hsiang's films from his 1970s "hunchback of shawdom" (Stephen Teo) phase so far. Both are episodic softcore farces filmed in elaborate studio sets. Both establish some sort of ordering principle (in Sinful Confession: a game of Mahjong and the presence of Michael Hui in each episode) in the beginning just to let themselves desintegrate completely over the course of the film. Both are vile and ugly, but while Facets of Love is vile and ugly, period, Sinful Confession somehow manages to turn vileness and uglyness into building blocks for something else - which is still vile and ugly, but also interesting and sometimes even awesome.

Especially the first story: Michael Hui plays a newspaper journalist spying with a telescope on a neighboring apartment building / love hotel, but he's mainly just there as a random anchoring point for a perverted, sweeping, freewheeling, devouring gaze. At one point, one of the naked women caught in the fangs of this gaze gets attacked by a masked man - cut to the director and crew of a porno shoot directing both the man and the woman - another cut to gawking men behind a false mirror also watching the scene. Cinema as a closed circuit, the studio as a boiling pot of sexualized madness. Filmmaking, voyeurism and sexual assault flow into one another until they become undistinguishable.

The second story - about a doctor being trapped by a sneaky vamp - is relatively straightforward and feels like something out of a rather dull commedia sexy. But the routines are somewhat elevated by the rather inspired interplay between Hui and Renee Pai (a young, statuesque actress discovered by Li who committed suicide before finishing another film).

The last half hour descends into utter chaos. A bunch of storylines thrown together without any coherence whatsoever - only to end with a cameo by the director himself, who scams Hui out of a meal and makes fun of smug film critics dismissing his movies - a scene Stephen Teo in a great take on Lis carreer identifies as a "manifestation of the plot that is Li Han Hsiang's life vis-a-vis the cinema. It is a statement of faithlessness (though not of hopelessness) that, alas, recognizes the cinema's propensity for philistinism and commercialism".

In other words: Li Han Hsiang's cinema is all about the power of the false. Maybe in a way his masterpieces of the early 60ies are also films about falseness. So his later work might not be a negation, but rather some sort of insentification of his early work: falseness is spreading, taking over form itself. Sinful Confession, especially its last third, is bad filmmaking at almost any measure - but the force of its messy vulgarity can't be denied.
The Other Side of Hope, Akis Kaurismäki, 2017

finding beauty and hope in the physical resistance of matter. might even gain another star when i get hold of one of those 35mm screenings.

Clan of Amazons, Chor Yuen, 1978

or: how to undress a shoe. (amazing how these ku lung adaptations often feel like pop-lacanianism, but with all the clunky marxism removed)

Himmel ohne Sterne, Helmut Käutner, 1955

love is a no man's land

I Am not Your Negro, Raoul Peck, 2016

First of all: Baldwin's prose and presence would be enough to support a much worse film, so for the generous amount of archival footage alone, this is never short of engaging.
At least in theory, I also admire Peck's internationalist fervour and understand his insistence on not being confined to the festival ghetto. But still... I can't help but hope he'll eventually return to the negativistic aesthetics of his early 90s work. Clearly in his newer work, the basic conditions of his imagemaking are not his own but those of the American television market (or even worse, see Le jeune Karl Marx, of various European funding bodies).

The Boxer Rebellion, Chang Cheh, 1976

The Boxer Rebellion, reframed as Chang Cheh body cinema.

Not the young, angry nationalists are the heroes, but a bunch of misfits - never in uniform - on the sidelines, at first at best hesitantly taking part in the fight. Only when everything is lost they start to come alive, in the film's much stronger second half,

Chang Cheh has hardly any interest in historical texture (although one might argue that, when it comes to the depiciton of colonial power, this almost turns his film into meta-critique), and no interest whatsoever in historical forces that cannot be boiled down to body images and hand to hand combat. All those self-important and clueless discussions of tactics, all those competently made but never fully realized battle scenes... The first part ends with a ritualistic celebration, in which Chang Cheh's cinema reaches its own point zero: One fighter after another steps into the open, presenting his body, his fighting techniques, in a way his whole self. Not to dedicate himself to the nation, but to become an object of cinema. In its second half the film strips away history, in order to lay bare an intimately rendered melodrama of masculine masochism.

20th Century Women, Mike Mills, 2016

Fanning demonstrating "manliness" for Jamie by smoking and parading in front of him, knowing fully well he'll never be half as manly as she is... Scenes like that are great but far between. I really couldn't get over all the stuff apparently necessary to turn a generous little comedy into a "portrait of a generation". The endless montage sequences, the ill-advised airy music... Plus I hated almost all scenes with Bening and Crudup, but that's probably unfair.

No U-Turn, Clifford Choi, 1982

A Cinema City comedy, directed by a lesser known New Wave director, that somehow manages to be both humble and extravagant. For the most part, it stays strictly on street level (great location shooting, including at least some hidden camera stuff). Here, on the street, the world is rather strictly separated along gender lines. The men outside in their pimped out cars have trouble differentiating between shopgirls and prostitutes, the women inside in the boutiques shy away from naked men even when they're just photographs of antique statues.

The mood is playful, though. A would-be flasher doesn't hide a dick, but a pistole under his raincoat and when things get moving they move pretty fast. The two leads get to fuck rather early in the film, and this leads to what must be one of the best sex cutaways in film history... or it might just as easily be an hommage I didn't recognize, as this is obviously the work of a movie buff, most explicitly when the images of Dawn of the Dead watched by the protagonists in a cinema later reappear in No U-Turn's own climax.

But the romantic coupling of the leads is also comically doubled in the relationship of two minor characters, and all of these scenes are played out as slapstick of the most vulgar sort. Their first clumsy "love scene" is identified with / commented on by a wrestling match on tv (and introduced with a very weird shot / counter shot-sequence). There's a mean, nihilistic streak running through the whole film (culminating in an extremely gruesome car racing scene) which coexists rather uneasily with its general laid back attitude. A strange, fascinating mixture, a strictly commercial film staying within the compounds of its own genre at all time while still exploring its own little facette of Hong Kong craziness.

Wild At Heart, David Lynch, 1990

Proves that sometimes not even Nic Cage wearing a really nice snakeskin jacket is sufficent reason to make a movie.

Maybe It´s Love, Angie Chen, 1984

A "desperate housewifes of the New Territories" expose slowly taken over by a REAR WINDOW plot. Which in turn gradually morphs into an OUR GANG murder mystery while also serving as an anti-bullying message picture. On top of that: a Cherie Chung workout montage, a Cherie Chung aerobic montage, a prolonged softcore sex scene, animals popping up at weird moments, and a subplot chronicling the sexual self-discovery of the local white guy.

To be sure, except for the very 80s Cherie Chung as visual pleasure stuff none of this works like intended - with the thriller plot at several points turning into a complete trainwreck. But still... there's so much going on, in every single scene... There's a disturbing undertone of sexual violence, an underlying rape threat which seems to throw all social relations off balance, maiming the women, but also unsettling the men. It doesn't really lead anywhere, but still it adds up to a sense of hysteria which is in a strange way only enhanced by the fact that the film doesn't manage (or even try) to transform it into a coherent aesthetic form.

Fuddy Duddy, Siegfried A. Fruhauf, 2016

pure perspective eclipsing all notions of space. pretty awesome.

As Without so Within, Manuela de Laborde, 2016

Light, matter, colour, form, texture, emulsion constantly playing off of each other without any conceptual boundaries. At least in my experience this is a rather rare thing to encounter in avantgarde cinema today: a genuinely curious film.

Foyer, Ismail Bahri, 2016

who'd believe a film about a piece of white paper could be this boring. if there ever was a film tailor-made for high-frequency festival rotation, this is it.

O ornitologo, Joao Pedro Rodriguez, 2016

the far side of camino de santiago

Miss Sloane, John Madden, 2016

when some of it works, it's mostly because of jessica chastain's lipstick.

September, Woody Allen, 1987

When there's a blackout only to make the tone in tone mise en scene even more Bergman-like. This is Allen giving in to his worst instincts almost constantly. Like with most of his work, his trust in actors compensates for many flaws, but in this case Farrow's fine performance feels isolated from the rest of the film.

Lo squadrone bianco, Augusto Genina, 1936

A colonialist adventure setting filtered through fascist melodrama: A weak, lovelorn bourgeois flees his spectacularly arrogant girlfriend (who is borderline crazy herself - played by a statuesque Fulvia Lanzi; strangely, it's her only acting credit, judging from this great performance, she could've easily made it as an Italian Zarah Leander) by enlisting for war in the desert. After at first being despised by his tough guy peers, he earns their respect through both fortitude in battle and erotic self-denial. In the end, he's just another lonely psychopath in the desert.

LO SQUADRONE BIANCO is Duce approved (winner of Coppa Mussolini 1936), and ideologically dubious in more ways than one (although the depiction of Arabs is paternalistic rather than racist, in obvious contrast to German films of the same period set in Africa) but also powerful filmmaking. The long desert campaign in the center of the film reduces the whole world to sand, camels, sweating bodys, and fluorescent shadowplay. The night scenes are especially beautiful: the film abandons the narrative completely, succumbs to a trance-like despair - at one time, there's a cutaway to the heroe's girlfriend visiting an orchester performance. She arrives at her (ultimately pointless) decision to surrender to her man's vanity almost without speaking a single word, it's all done by music and subtle camera movements.

los amantes de la isla del diablo (jess franco, frankreich/spanien 1972)

Raymond Franval (Andrés Resino) und seine Geliebte Beatriz Coblan (Geneviève Robert) werden von Emilia (Danielle Godet), Raymonds eifersüchtiger Schwiegermutter, und dem despotischen Machthaber Mendoza (Jean Guedes), dem gehörnten Ex Beatriz‘, aus Rache eines Mordes bezichtigt und landen auf der titelgebenden Gefängnisinsel, wo sie von den tyrannischen Wärtern Senora Cardel (Rose Palomar) respektive Weckler (Jean-Louis Collins) gedemütigt und gequält werden. Am Sterbebett Mendozas erfährt ihr Anwalt (Dennis Price), was er schon lange wusste, nämlich dass die beiden unschuldig sind, und unternimmt daraufhin einen Versuch, sie zu retten.

Der WiP-Film, an dessen Popularität Franco mit etlichen Filmen maßgeblich mitgearbeitet hat, ist ein problembehaftetes Genre: Die vordergründige Kritik an Totalitarismus und Strafvollzug ist ihm in der Regel nur ein willkommenes Deckmäntelchen, das seinen männlichen Zuschauern ein Alibi liefert, sich ruhigen Gewissens Lesbensex, Vergewaltigungen und Sadomaso-Einlagen hinzugeben. Wahrscheinlich gibt es kein einziges kommerzielles Filmgenre neben dem Porno, das so auf die Objektifizierung von Frauen setzte wie dieses. Freilich funktionierte das auch andersrum, wie etwa in Jonathan Demmes eher links zu verortendem Genrebeitrag CAGED HEAT, der das Versprechen von Sex und Gewalt wiederum dazu nutzte, um seinen Zuschauern eine Botschaft von Nonkonformismus, Auflehnung und Konsumverweigerung unterzujubeln, und tatsächlich steht LOS AMANTES DE LA ISLA DEL DIABLO diesem deutlich näher als anderen Frauenknastfilmen Francos. Der Film spielt in einem nicht näher konkretisierten süd- oder mittelamerikanischen Staat, aber es ist ziemlich offensichtlich, dass Franco sich an der faschistischen Regierung Spaniens abarbeitet und die Handlung lediglich auf einen anderen Kontinent verlegte, um der Zensur aus dem Weg zu gehen. Mehr als um genüsslich zelebrierte Sadismen geht es hier also um die Grausamkeit eines totalitären Regimes, dessen einziges verlässliches Prinzip es ist, dass der Staat immer Recht hat. Die Kolportage- und Episodenhaftigkeit, sonst ein deutliches Merkmal des WiP-Films, der es sich zur Aufgabe gemacht hat, jede sexuelle Vorliebe seines Publikums zu bedienen, weicht demnach der Konzentration auf die beiden Hauptfiguren und ihr grausames Schicksal, und die sie umgebenden Figuren sind lediglich von Interesse, sofern sie dieses Schicksal beeinflussen. LOS AMANTES DE LA ISLA DEL DIABLO ist kein greller Exploitation-Feger voller spektakulärer Episoden, comichafter Charaktere und geschmackloser Highlights, sondern aus einem Guss, sehr konsequent und von Franco tatsächlich ungewöhnlich konzentriert auf sein niederschmetterndes Finale hin konstruiert und inszeniert. Erstaunlich eigentlich, dass er zu den eher unbekannteren, seltener gepriesenen Werken des Spaniers zählt. Natürlich muss man ein paar Abstriche bei den Production Values machen: Die „Teufelsinsel“ ist ganz offensichtlich keine solche, denn Franco zeigt immer nur das an einer Steilküste liegende festungsartige Gebäude. Howard Vernon hat lediglich zwei, drei kurze Szenen, die nahelegen, dass er nur eine Stippvisite am Set absolvierte, weil er vielleicht gerade in der Gegend war. Das irritierendste Merkmal ist aber der gut sichtbare Fleck am Revers von Price‘ Anzugjacke: Der britische Mime hatte ein starkes Alkoholproblem entwickelt und auch sein Anwalt wirkt eher wenig vertrauenswerweckend, insofern ist es denkbar, dass Franco ihm absichtlich ein verschmutztes Jackett anzog. Ich vermute aber, dass Price sein Jackett verschmutzte und in der Kürze der Zeit keine Lösung für das Problem gefunden werden konnte. Eine erzählerische Ungereimtheit erinnert hingegen an EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF mit der geradezu magischen Genesung eines todkranken: Hier altert der schurkische Mendoza zwischen der Eröffnungssequenz, in der er die Protagonisten in den Bau bringt, und seinem Geständnis um Jahrzehnte, gesteht sein Verbrechen auf dem Sterbebett, während Raymond und Beatriz anscheinend nur einige Monate im Gefängnis weilen. Da ist im Eifer des Gefechts irgendwas schief gelaufen.

Trotzdem ist LOS AMANTES DE LA ISLA DEL DIABLO ein durchaus sehenswerter Film. In Frankreich wurde er unter dem Titel QUARTIER DE FEMMES in einer mit mehr Sex aufgebrezelten Fassung gezeigt. Die Version, die mir zur Verfügung stand, dauerte knapp 76 Minuten und ist damit rund 15 Minuten kürzer als es für die spanische Kinofassung des Films in Throwers Buch „Murderous Passions“ angegeben ist. Schien mir aber nicht gekürzt zu sein.

January 14 2020

la fille de dracula (jess franco, portugal 1971)

Mit diesem Mittelteil in Francos loser Gothic-Horror-Trilogie der frühen Siebzigerjahre (nach DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN und vor LE MALDICIÓN DE FRANKENSTEIN) gelingt dem Regisseur das Kunststück, einen auf dem Papier geradlinigen, dazu vergleichsweise sauber inszenierten Film hoffnungslos zu vergeigen. Die Liste der unerklärlichen Fehlentscheidungen beginnt mit dem fragwürdigen Clou, eine Geschichte um Vampirismus ins Gewand eines bräsigen Whodunits zu kleiden, bei dem ein uninteressanter Inspektor (Alberto Dalbés) die Schar der Nebendarsteller befragt, deren Antworten den Zuschauer aber nicht tangieren, weil er ja längst weiß, woher die Bissmale kommen. Noch fahrlässiger ist aber sein Umgang mit der nominellen Hauptfigur Luisa Karlstein (Britt Nichols), der „Tochter Draculas“, die zu Beginn des Films vom Vampirgrafen (Howard vernon) gebissen wird und sich dann kontinuierlich in einen Vampir verwandelt, bis sie am Ende den Tod findet: Sie bleibt als Charakter vollkommen unscharf, taucht immer mal wieder auf, damit der Zuschauer nicht vergisst, dass sie ja auch noch da ist, und bestreitet ihre beiden größten Szenen nackt im Bett mit ihrer Cousine Karin (Anne Libert) im lesbischen (aber sehr soft gefilmten) Liebesspiel. Am Schluss, wenn sie in Sarg schlafend angezündet wird, bekommt sie noch nicht einmal einen Close-up spendiert, der sie unzweifelhaft identifizieren würde.

So verworren und in sich selbst versunken Francos Filme auch manchmal sind, normalerweise merkt man, was den Regisseur an ihnen interessierte. Und wenn man möchte, kann man die Schraddeligkeit eines Films wie DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN auch ausgesprochen liebenswert finden. LA FILLE DE DRACULA hingegen ist anders, er macht zunächst einen planvollen und geordneten Eindruck, der dann aber dem Verdacht weicht, dass Franco schon vor der ersten Klappe den Bezug zum Stoff verloren habe und nun vergeblich versuche, ihn wiederzufinden. Er inszeniert die erste Vampirattacke tatsächlich im Stile eines Giallos mit Close-ups aufs geile Voyeuristenauge und einem mit schwarzem Trenchcoat und Hut vermummten Blutsauger, gibt sich selbst eine ziemlich große Nebenrolle als Skepsis-Skeptiker, der den Inspektor dazu mahnt, die Möglichkeit übersinnlichen Treibens nicht ins Reich des Aberglaubens zu verweisen, und lässt ein kleines, hier eher unbedeutendes Handlungsdetail aus LE MANO DE UN HOMBRE MUERTO Revue passieren. Handwerklich lässt LA FILLE DE DRACULA die auf große Eile deutende Schlamperei aus DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN weitestgehend vermissen, aber dann gibt es eben doch wieder diese fragwürdigen Entscheidungen, die zeigen, dass doch vieles on the spot improvisiert oder verworfen werden musste. Hat er seine Hauptfigur vergessen oder hat er das Interesse an ihr verloren? Und warum wirken die Auftritt Draculas, die doch nach eine dramatischen Inszenierung verlangen, geradezu lustlos hingeworfen? Es ist nicht nachzuvollziehen.

Es fallen immerhin ein paar schöne Aufnahmen ab, die Musik ist eigentlich in fast allen Franco-Filmen zumindest dieser Zeit ausnehmend positiv hervorzuheben und Francos Part ist tatsächlich eines der besten Elemente von LA FILLE DE DRACULA, der von mir tatsächlich jenes Prädikat erhält, dass mir bei den allerwenigsten seiner Werke in den Sinn kommt: Mittelmaß.

 

The Good Fairy

The Good Fairy 1935.jpg

William Wyler - 1935
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Call me a sap, but I love that Universal Pictures opening logo with the airplane flying around the world. Some eighty-four years later, that image will probably strike contemporary viewers as quaint. That buzzing propellor plane might also provide some preparation for the imagined past world of The Good Fairy.

The story takes place in what was suppose to be contemporary Budapest, Hungary, yet connections to the real city are arbitrary. Signs may be in Hungarian or English, and the name of our heroine, Luisa Ginglebusher is more East Los Angles than Eastern European. Of an unstated age, and totally naive to the ways of the world, Luisa is plucked from an orphanage to work as an usherette at Budapest's largest movie theater. A digression here - there was a time when movie theaters, the single screen palaces of the past, employed people to guide them to their seats, carrying a flashlight so that patrons wouldn't stumble on each other in the dark. At this particular theater, the usherettes dress like brass band majorettes with shiny uniforms including tall military caps, capes and an wand shaped like an arrow that illuminates the direction. This is a world where would-be Lotharios hang out near the theater's back exit hoping to score a date with one of the available girls after work.

Luisa's promise upon exiting the orphanage is to do one good deed a day on behalf of someone, to act as their "good fairy". What Luisa's not prepared for is men who may possibly have less than honorable intentions, and her fib of telling these men that she's married has unintended consequences.

The film is very loosely based on a play by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. Preston Sturges' hand in the screenplay is more easily evident with the premise of a naive person putting themselves in a situation over their head, the nonsensical sounding names, and bits of slapstick tossed in. William Wyler's stylistic touches, which would be developed for fully in later films can be spotted in the used of several traveling shots and some limited use of deep focus. Between Sturges writing and re-writing the script in part due to constant battles with the Hays Office, and Wyler's almost constant battles with star Margaret Sullavan, The Good Fairy went five weeks past its allotted seven week shooting schedule, as well as over budget. Wyler and Sturges got kicked out of Universal, falling upwards with Wyler primarily making the first of his canonized films for Samuel Goldwyn, while Sturges wound up at Paramount, fulfilling his wish to direct his own screenplays five years later.

I have no idea if Wyler mentioned the idea of filming Dodsworth to Sturges, but that film in the theater where Luisa works is almost a parody. A woman, begging to return to her husband, is constantly refused with the single word, "no". Comically melodramatic, the scene almost anticipates Walter Huston telling Ruth Chatterton that he has had enough with her infidelities. I could well be missing some kind of vernacular expression, but the Hungarian title translates as "The Moon - Fools and Prologues".

Not as well remembered as several of her peers, the film was primarily made as a showcase for Margaret Sullavan. In a film career that last for ten years, Sullavan was a major star who may be remembered best for the trio of films she made with director Frank Borzage. One of the extras on the blu-ray is a trailer for The Good Fairy which indicates Sullavan's star status in the mid 1930s.

Full disclosure - I have had intermittent correspondence with film critic Simon Abrams, who provided the commentary track here. This is an exceedingly well researched commentary that has a couple of slight rough patches, but otherwise is very informative. Sources quoted include biographies of Wyler, Sturges, Sullavan and co-star Herbert Marshall, Molnar's play, and reviews of the film from the time of release. Abrams also finds time to discuss the film and staged remakes, as well as the complex relationships of Sullavan and her various lovers and husbands, including her volatile marriage to Wyler while The Good Fairy was in production.

While not as good as watching a mint 35mm nitrate print on the big screen, the film is beautifully rendered here. There is some hint of how visually magical The Good Fairy was in the final shot, an extreme close-up of the face of the the bride, a crowned and radiant Margaret Sullavan.

nightbreed (director’s cut) (clive barker, usa 1990)

Früher konnte man zwar überall lesen, dass Bakers NIGHTBREED, seine zweite Regiearbeit nach dem überaus erfolg- und einflussreichen Debüt HELLRAISER, vom produzierenden Studio, das ihn nicht verstand, gnadenlos verstümmelt worden war, aber es gab keine Möglichkeit, das nachzuvollziehen. Ich, der ich den Film trotzdem toll fand, war einigermaßen verwundert über Barkers Frustration, die ihn immerhin dazu bewog, sich vorerst aus dem Filmbiz zurückzuziehen und erst fünf Jahre später für LORD OF ILLUSIONS auf den Regiestuhl zurückzukehren (der dann aber leider ebenso floppte). Ja, NIGHTBREED wirkte ein wenig zerfahren, seine Schlusseinstellung war ohne Zweifel auf Geheiß der Produzenten angeklebt worden, die darauf hofften, dass der von David Cronenberg verkörperte Psychokiller Decker zu einem populären Slasher vom Schlage Freddys, Jasons, Michael Myers‘ oder Pinheads heranreifen würde – was natürlich nicht eintrat – und man konnte erahnen, dass Material der Schere zum Opfer gefallen war, aber es überwog bei mir dann doch die Faszination für diesen ungewöhnlichen Hybrid aus Horror und Fantasy, der so ganz ohne die dämlichen Teenies und selbstreferenziellen Gags auskam, die damals zur Grundausstattung eines jeden Horrorfilms gehörten. Dass die ca. 100-minütige Kinofassung des Films aber gegenüber Barkers Version um 50 Minuten gekürzt worden war, ließ aber durchaus erahnen, dass es noch einigen Spielraum nach oben gab. Nur kam es nie zu einer Veröffentlichung dieser integralen Fassung und NIGHTBREED ging als „Film, der nicht sein durfte“ in die Geschichtsbücher ein.

Das hätte es ja eigentlich sein können, aber mit dem Internet entstand dann ein Raum, in dem Liebhaber des Films sich zusammenschlossen und ihren Wunsch nach einer integralen Fassung zum Ausdruck brachten, ein Wunsch, der auch an Barkers Ohr drang – und da der Regisseur seinen Frieden mit dem Flop immer noch nicht geschlossen hatte, beauftragte er Mark Miller von seiner Produktionsgesellschaft Seraphim Films im Jahr 2009, nach dem verschollenen Material zu suchen. Tatsächlich förderte der einige VHS-Tapes des Workprints zu Tage, Kopien von Kopien in entsprechend mieser Qualität, sowie später weiteres Material: Auf dieser Basis wurde der sogenannte „Cabal Cut“ mit einer Länge von ca. 155 Minuten rekonstruiert und 2012 auf DVD veröffentlicht. Diese Version war aber letztlich auch nur eine Zwischenetappe auf dem Ziel zum restaurierten Director’s Cut, der 2014 seine BluRay-Veröffentlichung erfuhr und den ich nun endlich gesehen habe. Die Fassung unterscheidet sich von der ursprünglichen Kinoversion durch etwa 40 Minuten neues Material, ist insgesamt aber „nur“ etwa 20 Minuten länger und fühlt sich so organisch und rund an, dass ich glaube, diese Version mit Fug und Recht als die maßgebliche bezeichnen zu können – ohne den „Cabal Cut“ jemals gesehen oder die „offizielle“ Version noch einmal nachgeholt zu haben.

NIGHTBREED handelt von der geheimnisvollen Stadt „Midian“, einen Zufluchtsort für Außenseiter aller Art, die in der „normalen“ Welt keinen Platz finden. Einer dieser Außenseiter ist Boone (Craig Sheffer): Ihm erscheint die Stadt in äußerst lebhaften Träumen, als würden seine Bewohner ihn rufen. Er befindet sich nicht zuletzt wegen dieser Träume in Behandlung bei dem Psychologen Decker (David Cronenberg), der in Wahrheit ein Serienmörder ist und in Boone den idealen Sündenbock vorfindet: Er redet ihm ein, die blutigen Morde begangen zu haben, für die Decker in Wahrheit selbst verantwortlich ist, und treibt ihn schließlich in einen missglückten Selbstmordversuch. In der Klinik trifft Boone auf einen Patienten, der den Weg nach Midian kennt, und er begreift, was Decker vorhat. In Midian erhält er Zuflucht, doch Decker verfolgt seine Spur und trommelt eine ganze Armee umd den Fascho-Cop Eigerman (Charles Haid) zusammen, mit der er das Refugium der Freaks zerstören will.

Barkers Film ist als Horrorfilm nur sehr unzureichend beschrieben: Sein Dark-Fantasy-Comic ist eine unverkennbar queere Lobpreisung, ja Heroisierung nonkonformen Außenseitertums und Brandmarkung vermeintlicher Heldentypen als Faschos, Meuchelmörder und Kriegstreiber, die 1990 ein gutes Jahrzehnt zu früh kam. Im Grunde stellt NIGHTBREED eine dunkelromantische Paraphrase der X-Men-Comics dar, die im Jahr 2000 ihre vielbeachtete Kinoadaption feierten und deren Titelhelden dann sogleich als Vorkämpfer der Gay-Rights-Bewegung vereinnahmt wurden. Die Monster, die Midian bevölkern, sind allerdings deutlich weniger cool als die Mutanten um Professor Xavier und fühlen sich auch nicht dazu verpflichtet, Welt und Menschheit im Kampf gegen intergalaktische Superschurken zu retten. Sie begnügen sich damit, zurückgezogen in ihrer unteriridischen Stadt zu leben, dabei ihre eigenen Rituale und Bräuche zu pflegen, und scheuen auch nicht davor zurück, Eindringlingen, die ihr Geheimnis zu enthüllen drohen, mitleidlos den Garaus zu machen. Sie sind nicht per se liebenswert und verlangen auch keine Integration: Alles, was sie wollen, ist das Recht, unter ihren Bedingungen, in ihrer Heimat leben zu können. Und das ist im Rahmen der filmischen Handlung für viele Betonköpfe bereits zu viel verlangt. Der Film kulminiert in einer großen Schlacht, bei der die Redneck-Armee um Decker und Eigerman in ihrem blinden Hass auf alles, was anders ist, auch vor Frauen und Kindern nicht halt macht und die lebendige Kultur Midian gnadenlos dem Erdboden gleich macht. Zwar werden sie am Ende besiegt und in Gestalt des messianischen Kriegers Boone gibt es einen Silberstreif am Horizont, aber der Preis ist hoch.

Im Director’s Cut werden die Motivationen der Hauptfiguren deutlich stärker herausgearbeitet und die Gemeinschaft der Monster in Midian mit mehr Leben und Details gefüllt, aber auch die Grausamkeit und Engstirnigkeit, mit der die Gegner angreifen, bekommt mdeutlich mehr Raum. Die Epik, die Barker angestrebt haben dürfte und die in der Fassung, die einst im Kino lief, buchstäblich unterschnitten wurde, wird jetzt endlich spürbar. Endlich ist auch dieses hirnrissige Ende weg, endet NIGHTBREED auf einer gleichermaßen tragischen wie hoffnunsgvollen Note, anstatt auf billigstmögliche Art und Weise ein Sequel anzuteasern, von dem keiner so recht wusste, wovon es eigentlich handeln könnte. Alle, die NIGHTBREED bisher schon geliebt haben, aber immer das Gefühl hatten, den Film durch einen Schleier zu sehen, werden mit dem Director’s Cut überaus glücklich sein. Der Film hat aber immer noch ein paar kleinere Probleme: Craig Sheffer ist als Lead einfach nicht einnehmend und sympathisch genug und die Liebe zwischen seinem Boone und der Sängerin Lori (Anne Bobby) bleibt bloße Behauptung. Die beiden passen optisch einfach nicht zusammen – er ein kerniger Klotz, sie ein verwundbares Heimchen – und entwickeln auch keine Chemie, die diese vordergründigen Hindernisse transzendieren würde. Dabei ist die grenzüberschreitende Liebe zwischen den beiden ein ganz wesentlicher Antrieb für den Film. Darüber hinaus wird auch in der intakten Version nicht ganz klar, was Boone eigentlich für ein Problem hat: Die Träume von Midian müssen ja einen Grund haben, der aber im Dunkeln bleibt. Und dann sind da noch die manchesmal arg plump wirkenden Dialoge, die in den vergangenen 30 Jahren nicht unbedingt gut gereift sind und Barkers ambitionierter Bilderstürmerei nicht wirklich einen Gefallen tun. Wirklich ins Gewicht fällt das aber nicht, dafür ist die Vision einfach zu reizvoll, zumal NIGHTBREED tatsächlich das vielfach bemühte „visuelle Fest“ darstellt. Vor allem Freunde des „Handgemachten“ kommen hier dank hunderter ausgefeilter, fantasievoller Monstermasken, traumhafter Matte Paintings und aufwändiger Bauten auf ihre Kosten. Ja, wahrscheinlich könnte man dieses Midian mit CGI und Greenscreen heute noch größer, imposanter, bevölkerter und fremdartiger darstellen, aber ich bezweifle, dass das das hier spürbare Leben ersetzen könnte. Insofern ist NIGHTBREED nicht nur ein Film, der mit seinen Ideen zu früh kam, sondern auch eine Art genrehistorischer Endpunkt: Ein solcher Aufwand wurde für Genreproduktionen mit mittelgroßem Budget (NIGHTBREED kostete ca. 11 Millionen Dollar) nicht mehr betrieben. Der Horrorfilm dieser Größenordnung verlagerte sich danach ins Videosegment, mit den logischen Konsequenzen. Vielleicht wurde hier, in NIGHTBREED anno 1990, zum letzten Mal groß geträumt.

 

January 13 2020

la morte ha sorriso all’assassino (joe d’amato, italien 1973)

Manchem gilt dieses Frühwerk D’Amatos – der einzige Film, den er unter seinem bürgerlichen Namen „Aristide Massaccesi“ herausbrachte – als eines seiner stärksten. Auch wenn sich hinter dieser Zuneigung wohl nicht zuletzt die Abneigung so manches Genrefans gegenüber der Unterleibszentriertheit abzeichnet, die charakteristisch für einen Großteil des D’Amato’schen Schaffens ist, gibt es durchaus nachvollziehbare Gründe für diese Einschätzung. Ohne Zweifel ist der gialloeske Mystery-Horror von einer traumgleichen Poesie und Ästhetik durchdrungen, die man nicht unbedingt mit dem Italiener assoziiert, von dem man meist Handfestes gewohnt ist. LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL’ASSASSINO ist darüber hinaus nicht ungeschickt erzählt und verzichtet fast gänzlich auf erklärende Dialoge zugunsten von nahtlos eingewobenen Rückblenden, was erheblich zum somnambulen Flow des Films beiträgt. Allerdings musste ich dann doch noch einmal die Inhaltsangabe von Wikipedia zu Rate ziehen, um sicherzustellen, dass ich auch wirklich alles richtig verstanden hatte (hatte ich natürlich nicht). Nun gibt es viele Filme, die mit einer konfusen, verschachtelten Erzählstruktur inhaltliche Schwächen bewusst kaschieren, aber LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL’ASSASSINO gehört meines Erachtens nicht dazu: Das alles ergibt am Ende tatsächlich Sinn, sofern man das von einem Film, in dem rächende Geister auftreten, um die Nachfahren ihrer Mörder auszulöschen, und Mad Scientists mal eben das Geheimnis des ewigen Lebens lüften, behaupten kann.

LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL’ASSASSINO beginnt gleich mit einem Rückblick sowie zwei stilistischen Mitteln, die zum Handwerkszeug jedes Low-Budget-Filmemachers zählen: Zoom und Weitwinkel. Beide kommen im Verlauf der 85 Minuten ausgiebig zum Einsatz, verleihen ihm seinen charakteristischen Look und datieren ihn in einer Zeit, in der die Kamera schnell gezückt war, wenn es galt, einen Film rauszuhauen um die niederen Instinkte des Publikums zu stillen. D’Amato haut dann auch ein, zwei Mal auf den Schlamm, etwa in einer sehr niedlichen Szene, in der ein Schießprügel und eine Handvoll grobe Erdbeermarmelade effektovll zum Einsatz kommen, oder bei einer Katzenattacke auf den buckligen Luciano Rossi, bei dem dieser eines Auges verlustig geht, aber LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL’ASSASSINO ist weitesgehend geschmackvoll, orientiert sich mit Anleihen bei Poe eher an in der Vergangenheit angesiedelten Mystery- oder Geisterfilmen denn an den zweitgenössischen Gialli, die damals schwer en vogue waren, und zeigt in seiner erwähnt wortkargen, verschachtelten Inszenierung dazu reizvoll konträr  laufende psychedelische Einflüsse. Letztlich erzählt der Film keine sonderlich originelle Geschichte: Es geht um eine verführerische junge Frau zwischen zwei Männern, die unter tragischen Umständen ums Leben kam, und nun aus dem Jenseits zurückgekehrt ist, um sich an den Verantwortlichen sowie deren Nachfahren zu rächen. Aber so, wie D’Amato diese Geschichte erzählt, ohne expositorischen Dialog, mit überraschenden Zeitsprüngen sowie aufreizender Redundanz und Langsamkeit, scheint sie deutlich komplexer oder wenigstens verwirrend. D’Amato wird ja häufig mit seinem spanischen Kollegen Jess Franco verglichen bzw. in einen Topf geworfen, was auf eine nur sehr oberflächliche Betrachtung ihrer Filme zurückzuführen ist und eher mit vergleichbaren Produktionsbedingungen zu tun hat, aber hier lassen sich meines Erachtens tatsächlich einige deutliche ästhetische Parallelen erkennen: Neben oberflächlichen Ähnlichkeiten wie dem Einsatz von Zooms, Weitwinkel und Weichzeichner sind vor allem die Betonung von Atmosphäre gegenüber der Handlung und dann das kreative Spiel mit der Zeit zu nennen. Gegenwart und Vergangenheit fließen in  LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL’ASSASSINO nicht nur in Gestalt der untoten Ewa Aulin ineinander, D’Amato trennt sie kaum voneinander ab, lässt den Film zudem eine auffällige Kreisbewegung vollziehen und immer wieder einen verführerisch hypnotischen Tanz aufführen. Der Weg ist das Ziel.

Zwei der drei nominellen Stars, nämlich Kinski und Rossi-Stuart, bekleiden lediglich kleine Nebenrollen, die zwar durchaus bedeutend sind, aber in keinem Verhältnis zu ihrer hervorgehobenen Stellung in den Credits stehen. Beide sind aber super, wenn auch aus ganz unterschiedlichen Gründen: Kinski verfährt hier nach der Prämisse „Wham! Bang! Thank you Ma’am!“ und verliert keine Zeit für große Faxen. Gleich bei seinem ersten Auftritt stürmt er im Stechschritt und ohne ihn eines Blickes zu würdigen an seinem Schauspielkollegen vorbei, um sich nach dem Wohlbefinden der bettlägerigen Ewa Aulin zu erkundigen. Fehlende Pupillenreaktion, Atem und Pulsschlag machen ihn skeptisch: Um auf Nummer sicher zu gehen, rammt er der Schönen kurzerhand eine Stecknadel ins Auge. Als ihre Reaktion (zum Glück!) ausbleibt, weiß er, das mit ihr etwas nicht stimmen kann. Der ausgestellte Ernst, mit dem er bei der Sache ist, ist in jeder seiner wenigen Szenen eine echte Schau. Giacomo Rossi-Stuart hinterlässt weniger schauspielerischen Eindruck, trägt dafür aber eine beeindruckende Föhnfrisur zur Schau, die Chris Roberts und Roy Black vor Neid hätte erblassen lassen, zumal er sie auch noch stilsicher mit einem akkurat gewichsten Schnäuz kombiniert. Chapeau! Dieses Kompliment möchte ich durchaus auf den ganzen Film ausweiten, der trotz der vielen Querverweise und Vergleiche, die ich hier gezogen habe, durchaus das Prädikat „Eigenständig“ verdient.

92nd Oscar Nominations: Here Are All The Animation Nominees

Here are all the nominees in the animation categories.

The post 92nd Oscar Nominations: Here Are All The Animation Nominees appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

January 11 2020

Short Pick Of The Day: ‘Four Fathers’ by Marc M.

Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams... all living together in modern times raising a teenage daughter.

The post Short Pick Of The Day: ‘Four Fathers’ by Marc M. appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

January 10 2020

This Puppet-Like Contraption Lets You Animate CG Characters In Real Time

New York studio Thinko believes that its Mr. Puppet Animation System could change animation production.

The post This Puppet-Like Contraption Lets You Animate CG Characters In Real Time appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

she wore a yellow ribbon (john ford, usa 1949)

Die Fortsetzung von FORT APACHE – bzw. richtiger der zweite Teil von Fords Kavallerie-Trilogie – ist zunächst mal ein „einfacherer“ Film als der Vorgänger: Er ist gut 30 Minuten kürzer, hat weniger handelnde Personen und weniger „Episoden“. Im Wesentlichen handelt er von der letzten Mission des kurz vor seiner Verabschiedung aus der Armee stehenden Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne): Kurz nachdem die Armee eine verheerende Niederlage am Little Big Horn erfahren hat, soll er bei seiner nächsten Patrouille durch das von kriegerischen Indianerstämmen durchzogene Land zwei Frauen mitnehmen: Es handelt sich um Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) und Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), die Ehefrau und die Nichte seines Vorgesetzten Mac Allshard (George O’Brien), der die beiden in Sicherheit und aus dem Krisengebiet bringen möchte. Doch Brittles‘ Vorhaben scheitert an den Bewegungen der Indianer: Er verpasst die Postkutsche, muss zurück ins Fort und die Bewältigung der Krise seinen Nachfolgern Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) und Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey jr.) überlassen. Das setzt den alten Haudegen, der sich ein Leben außerhalb der Armee kaum vorstellen kann, ziemlich zu, weil er befürchtet, dass den jungen Soldaten die Erfahrung fehlt, um die Situation zu meistern. Also geht er in die Verlängerung und führt mit ihnen gemeinsam einen Plan aus, um den unabwendbar scheinenden Kampf doch noch zu verhindern.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON ist ein ziemlich ungewöhnlich strukturierter Film – vor allem, weil er, wie oben erwähnt, eigentlich sehr klar beginnt. Er hat zunächst eine handelsübliche Exposition, in der die historische Situation, der Ort des Geschehens und die verschiedenen Charaktere mit ihren kleinen Subplots vorgestellt werden. Da gibt es im Zentrum eben Brittles, der seiner Pensionierung eher mit Angst denn mit Freude entgegensieht, sowie seinen Vertrauten, den trinkfesten Iren Quincannon (Victor McLaglen), der ihm in drei Wochen nachfolgen wird. Die hübsche Olivia ist das Objekt eines Hahnenkampfs zwischen den beiden jungen Lieutenants, den sie mit ihrer Verweigerung, sich offen zu einem zu bekennen, noch befeuert (der Titel spielt auf das gelbe Band an, mit dem Frauen einem Kavalleriesoldaten signalisieren, dass sie ihn lieben, und das auch sie trägt). Die eigentliche Mission spielt sich dann aber ganz anders ab, als man das erwartet, nämlich keineswegs geradlinig, sondern als eine Aneinanderreihung von Sackgassen, Rückzügen, Umwegen und Kompromissen, die aber auch nicht zum ZIel führen. Über die Hälfte der Laufzeit verbringt Ford damit, Probleme anzuhäufen, anstatt sie aus dem Weg zu räumen und er dreht sich dabei absichtlich im Kreis. Ich weiß nicht, ob das Absicht war, aber die Entscheidung, den ganzen Film im Monument Valley zu drehen, dessen ikonischen Felsformationen immer und immer wieder im Hintergrund auftauchen, unterstreicht diesen Aspekt noch: Man hat nicht nur das Gefühl, dass die Soldaten keinen Meter vorwärts kommen, egal, wie viele Meilen sie auch zurücklegen, man sieht es auch. Das ist eine sehr spannende, sicherlich auch realistischere Sicht auf Kriegshandlungen – darum geht es ja letztlich – als die heroischen Geschichten von raffinierten Plänen und ihrer makellosen Ausführung durch vorausschauende Strategen und tapfere Kämpfer, aber sie unterläuft krass die bis dahin geschürte Erwartung (und ganz subjektiv muss ich hinzufügen, dass ich die immergleichen Bilder der eigentlich imposanten Kulisse irgendwann nicht mehr sehen konnte). Die zweite Hälfte des Films ist interessanter, weil abwechslungsreicher und er endet dann mit einer Überraschung, die das zyklische Element aus der ersten Hälfte wieder aufgreift: Auf der Stelle zu treten, zurück zum Anfang zu müssen, ein Kapitel nicht abzuschließen, sondern fortzuführen, muss nicht negativ behaftet sein. Menchmal ist es gut und richtig, die Dinge festzuhalten, die man kennt und liebt, mit denen man sich wohl und zu Hause fühlt, oder auch einfach nur zu warten, eine Entscheidung hinauszuzögern, sich die Dinge setzen zu lassen, anstatt eine übereilte Entscheidung zu treffen.

Ich bin nicht richtig warm geworden mit dem Film, aber wie immer bei Ford überwiegt auch hier am Ende das Gefühl, dass der Film zu voll ist, unter seiner klassisch anmutenden Oberfläche zu komplex, um das alles nach nur einer Sichtung alles einordnen zu können. Allein der ornamental anmutende Subplot um die Liebesgeschichte zwischen Olivia und ihren Verehrern, bei der Brittles ja auch eine nicht unwichtige Rolle spielt, scheint mir viel bedeutender, als es seine Stellung im Film vermuten lässt: Schließlich ist er nach genau dieser Geschichte benannt und nicht nach den militaristischen Leistungen seines Protagonisten. Für seinen Deutschlandstart verpasste man SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON den ultragenerischen und nebenbei völlig irreführenden Titel DER TEUFELSHAUPTMANN, was nicht nur darlegt, dass auch der damalige Verleih nicht so recht wusste, was er mit dem Werk anfangen sollte, sondern die Aussage des Films nahezu auf den Kopf stellt. Brittles ist mitnichten ein todesmutiger Teufelskerl, der seine Männer in Todesverachtung ins Gemetzel führt, sondern das komplette Gegenteil. Wayne, der SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON als seinen Lieblingsfilm bezeichnete und in einer Rolle brillierte, für die Ford ihn eigentlich ungeeignet fand – Brittles ist rund 20 Jahre älter als Wayne es damals war -, legt seinen Veteranen als väterlich-weisen Diplomaten, als Hirten einer Herde an, der unnötige Tode um jeden Preis vermeiden will und eine friedliche EInigung mit den Indianern anstrebt, deren Respekt er genießt, weil er ihre Kultur achtet. „Alte Männer sollten keine Kriege führen, sie sollten sie verhindern“, sagt er in einem Gespräch mit einem alten Indianerhäuptling und diese Überzeugung bestimmt auch sein Handeln. Er weicht sinnlosen Scharmützeln lieber aus, anstatt sich in leeren Kraftdemonstrationen aufzureiben, er fordert seine Männer auf, über die Köpfe der anstürmenden Feinde zu schießen, anstatt sie zu töten, weil er weiß, dass das auch seinen Zweck erfüllt, und sein „Gegenschlag“ ist kein bewaffneter Anstrum, sondern eher ein cleverer Sabotageakt, der keine Toten hinterlässt und die brisante Situation elegant auflöst, anstatt sie kriegerisch zu zerschlagen. Auch hier: Manchmal ist es die beste Lösung, eine Entscheidung zu vertagen, darauf zu hoffen, dass sich die Gemüter beruhigen und sich die Vorzeichen verändern, unter denen sich Konfliktparteien begegnen. Morgen sieht die Welt schon wieder anders aus.

Filmwissenschaftler, -historiker und -rezensenten wiesen darauf hin, dass SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON mit seiner zentralen Melancholie ein Vorläufer des Spätwesterns ist, wie er 15 bis 20 Jahre später vor allem von Sam Peckinpah wesentlich geprägt wurde. Brittles steht vor dem Abschied, seine Zeit läuft ab und er registriert, wie sich die Welt um ihn herum verändert. Aber im Unterschied zum Wild Bunch reagiert er darauf nicht mit einem Akt der Selbstzerstörung: Er sieht seine Aufgabe darin, noch möglichst viel von seinem Wissen weiterzugeben, den Keim der Vernunft und Besonnenheit in seinen Nachfolgern zu pflanzen, dafür zu sorgen, dass sie auch in hitzigen Situationen die Ruhe bewahren und den Menschen im Blick behalten. Der Schluss ist ein Signal der Hoffnung: Es ist zu früh, auf Männer wie ihn zu verzichten, solange sie noch etwas zu geben haben. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON mag mit seinem Lob auf die Kameradschaft der Armee und die Weisheit des Alters in unserer heutigen Zeit, in der Todesschüsse per Drohne abgegeben werden und gerade die alten, weisen Männer sich eher durch Kurzsichtig- und Engstirnigkeit denn durch Besonnenheit hervortun, etwas altmodisch und vielleicht auch zu optimistisch anmuten, aber das ändert nichts daran, dass die humanistische Botschaft von Fords Film zeitlos und universell ist.

 

 

January 09 2020

Un-Marry me a little: MARRIAGE STORY and LITTLE WOMEN

Little Women (2019).

DB here:

For a while The Blog conducted an annual ritual of analyzing storytelling techniques in year-end releases. I wrote entries from early in 2016, in 2017, and in 2018. Last year I muffed it, largely because of time spent revising our Christopher Nolan book. (Yes, we’re also looking forward to Tenet, especially after that hellah trailer.)

This time I’m trying an alternative. Instead of surveying a range of releases, I’ll focus on two that I think encapsulate some robust variants on familiar narrative strategies. Those strategies include choice of protagonist, linearity versus nonlinearity in time, and manipulation of viewpoint. While I’m concentrating on Marriage Story and Little Women, I’ll draw out some comparisons with other films.

Many spoilers follow, but of course you’ve probably seen all the new films. Except maybe Cats.

 

Protagonists, dual and dueling

Human nature is not given to a protagonist/antagonist three-act structure. Human nature is just one damn thing after another in which the only thing that matters is what went on today because yesterday is gone. And that is contrary to a lot of the business that we’re in, which makes sure that everybody understands the story by page 30 and is involved in the conflict.

Tom Hanks

You’re plotting a film. What sort of options do you face? A basic choice involves protagonists.

You might build the film around one character who pursues a cluster of goals. Examples this season would include Dark Waters, Motherless Brooklyn, Uncut Gems, and Harriet. The protagonist can have helpers, and will certainly have adversaries, but her or his initiatives, decisions, and responses propel the action. In addition, we’re usually attached to the protagonist’s point of view, which limits us to what she or he knows. Judicious widening of the horizon often takes place to enhance tension. In Uncut Gems we’re briefly attached to Arno’s thugs when they’re tailing Howard, and the climax crosscuts Howard in his office with Julia placing his big bet.

You could center the action on two characters, giving us a dual-protagonist plot. Here the goals may be shared or at least compatible. In The Aeronauts, a lady balloonist and a male meteorologist cooperate, with frictions, to break ascension records, while Ford v. Ferrari unites two men working together to win at Le Mans.

More rarely, a dual-protagonist plot can shift the protagonist in the course of the action. Good examples are Red River (1948) and The Killers (1946). I’d argue that Don Corleone functions as protagonist in the early sections of The Godfather (1972), while Michael takes up that role later. Similarly, Waves initially concentrates on Tyler, but he largely drops out of the plot and his sister Emily drives the film’s second half.

Alternatively, the plot can present two protagonists in competition. This season we’ve had The Current War, centering on the struggle between Edison and Morgan to transmit electrical power. The narrational weight is largely with Edison, but I think Morgan is characterized enough and we’re attached to his viewpoint frequently enough to present a counterweight. Morgan isn’t simply an antagonist but rather what Kristin calls a parallel protagonist, like Salieri in Amadeus or Captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October. As these examples indicate, parallel protagonists, although they’re trying to figure out each one’s aims and stratagems, often become fascinated with each other and recognize their affinities.

Paired protagonists are common in romantic comedies, which often consist of friction between the couple (due to clashing goals) but end in harmony and union. What’s striking about Marriage Story is that here the end, not the start, of a romantic alliance is treated through the dual-protagonist strategy. Charlie and Nicole struggle over the terms of their divorce, particularly the handling of custody of their son Henry. Unlike Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which is organized chiefly around the husband’s viewpoint, this gives weight to both spouses.

Director Noah Baumbach achieves this balance through a cunning parallel block construction. The film opens with two montages of roughly equal running time. One surveys Nicole’s habits and accomplishments with Charlie’s voice-over praising her. (“She’s my favorite actress.”) Then we get a montage illustrating what Nicole loves about Charlie, with other incidents stitched together by her voice-over. Both montages weave in scenes of Nicole in rehearsal while Charlie, the director, makes suggestions.

Baumbach has compared these montages to an overture in musical theatre. The film’s score sets out themes associated with each protagonist, and the quirks and routines that rush by establish important motifs, like haircutting, Monopoly games, and Henry’s urge to sleep with his parents. With the he said/she said duality, the montages prepare us for the film’s strategy of parallelism, a compare-and-contrast attitude.

     

The montages are revealed as visualizations of two memoirs the couple have written for a mediator.

     

They’re planning to divorce, and he’s asked them to recall what they loved about each other. Charlie is willing to share his notes with Nicole, but Nicole won’t show hers. This hints that he’s more reluctant to separate than she is, planting a question about why she seems determined to pursue the divorce.

Just as important, we’ve been given privileged access to both characters’ minds, and this sort of alternating omniscience will proceed throughout the film. There won’t be any more plunges this deep into subjectivity, but we’ll always know more than either does, because after they separate we’ll be attached to one or the other in large stretches.

For a time, though, we’re with both. In the mediator’s office, and then during the play’s performance, in the bar with the troupe after the show, and in the family apartment, they interact as a couple. (True, Charlie sleeps on the sofa.) But once Nicole moves to California, the first block of action ends and we are attached to her and Henry as she launches her new project, a TV pilot.

Not until Charlie comes to visit Nicole, her mother, and her sister does the narration bring him back. There he’s officially served the divorce papers. This scene launches a discreet viewpoint pivot from her to him. The family cuddle ends when Henry banishes Charlie from bed, foreshadowing how marginal his father will be to him from now on.

     

     

The film’s next block attaches us to Charlie as he seeks out a lawyer, takes Henry on outings, and clashes with Nicole about how to celebrate Halloween. The couple wind up giving Henry two trick-or-treating trips, in different costumes, which reiterates the duplex structure of action we’ve been presented with since the start.

The alternation between Nicole and Charlie’s viewpoints quickens as their negotiations get more fraught. Their first legal meeting ends with Charlie’s losing faith in his easygoing attorney. The next meeting is an escalating confrontation between Charlie’s new hard-charging lawyer and Nicole’s equally tough Nora. In the courtroom exchange, the he said/she said pattern becomes vicious as each lawyer weaponizes minor incidents from scenes we’ve seen to cast shame on the opposing side.

The nastiness of the custody battle comes to a crisis in a ten-minute duologue in Charlie’s apartment, an all-out fight between Nicole and Charlie. They run through a repertoire of reactions, from assurance of mutual admiration to declarations of annoyance, unhappiness, frustration, and complaints. By the end they’re screaming insults. Charlie rages and then, as if aware of how monstrous he’s being, collapses sobbing at Nicole’s feet.

     

Most classically constructed films follow the pattern Kristin identified back when. The plot consists of a setup, a complicating action redefining the setup, a development section consisting largely of delay and backstory, and a climax that resolves the situation. An epilogue asserts a stable, if changed state of affairs. The four main parts are roughly equal in running time, with the climax tending to be a bit shorter and the epilogue being only a few minutes.

Up to a point, Marriage Story conforms to this architecture. The first thirty minutes set up the split in the family before focusing on Nicole’s new life in California. Both Charlie and Nicole had hoped to separate amicably, with no need for lawyers. But thirty minutes in Nicole hires Nora and sets in motion a more severe legal battle than the couple had expected. The complicating action is triggered by serving Charlie the divorce papers.

There’s no turning back, and the new situation centers on figuring out how to handle access to Henry. Charlie wants Henry to spend time in New York (“We’re a New York family”) but Nicole wants him with her, and as he was born in California the law inclines to her side. Hence the triple thrust of the Charlie block: visiting lawyers, trying to keep his Broadway production on track, and winning some loyalty from Henry.

The development section consists of characterizing stretches (Nicole indulges in a quick sexual encounter) and delays: the unsatisfactory first lawyer session, a power outage at Nicole’s house, and the courtroom showdown. What happens next, though, seems to me quite original.

 

Between theatre and TV

To determine custody, both Nicole and Charlie must let an evaluator visit to observe each one’s treatment of Henry. In a more ordinary film, this stretch would initiate the climax. The visit from the evaluator would furnish a deadline for determining how custody would be handled. Then the film’s peak could be the vicious, trembling argument between Charlie and Nicole. This would be the explosion that reveals both their love and the impossibility of their staying together.

From this angle, Charlie’s guilt-ridden collapse would be the resolution–his realization of how he stunted Nicole’s life. A courtroom finale settling the terms of custody (a little more for Nicole than Charlie) would fill out the climax and lead to an epilogue, perhaps on the courthouse steps.

Excuse me for rewriting the film. I do it to show that Baumbach’s script does something daring. The big argument comes before the evaluator’s testing. After that brutal clash, we see Nicole rehearsing her answers in Nora’s office. Moreover, the blundering efforts of Charlie to convince the stiff evaluator he’s a good father play out in a lengthy comic scene with some gory sight gags.

     

A certain amount of suspense remains, I think, but the final cascade of gags works against the emotional pitch of the couple’s quarrel. Baumbach has, in effect, risked using an anticlimax to round out the normal climax section of the film. It also serves as a good-natured punishment for Charlie’s self-centeredness.

The same daring informs an unusually lengthy epilogue. It’s built out of the sort of modules we’ve seen already. Nicole and her friends and family celebrate her divorce with a party, while Charlie mopes around Manhattan and morosely salutes his play’s closing with his troupe in a bar. We might stop there, but Baumbach again does something original (though highly motivated). Charlie, now relocated for a teaching gig in LA, comes to pick up Henry and discovers the boy reading the note about Charlie that Nicole had prepared for the mediator session.

     

Not only does it reveal the feelings she had suppressed during the session, but the fact that she kept it shows she still harbors affection for that part of her life. Other films surprise us in the epilogue (Citizen Kane, for instance), but Baumbach’s use of the memoir in the film’s final moments remains a pretty bold, and moving, choice. This stretched and packed epilogue shows Charlie how much Nicole loved him, while also suggesting things that contributed to stifling her. Lines like “He’s very competitive” and “He loves being a dad” have a new impact now that we’ve seen his battle for his son.

In telling this story, Baumbach exploits a larger strategy of what theatre people call continuous exposition. Instead of giving the necessary backstory in a lump at the beginning or middle, major information is sprinkled through the ongoing plot. We’re used to it in films that trigger fragmentary flashbacks, filling in backstory bit by bit. Baumbach goes with a more “theatrical” strategy using dialogue to invoke things that happened before the first scenes..

One of the major instances involves Nicole, who breaks down in an embrace with Nora, sobbing that Charlie slept with his assistant. Coming half an hour into the movie, it explains Nicole’s bitterness in the mediation session, as well as her larger reappraisal of her life with Charlie. At other points we learn of big events, like Nicole’s show taking off and Charlie’s long-term settling in LA, in casual conversation, not in extended scenes.

Crucially, in their climactic quarrel, Charlie justifies his affair by accusing Nicole of withholding sex for a year. We can’t appraise the truth of this, but it at least fills in a motive that more conventional exposition would have put into the setup. Resisting the temptation to supply flashbacks for all these revelations, Baumbach trusts our memory. That way the new data can color our ongoing understanding of the characters. The opening montages were generous but one-sided, chunks of incomplete exposition that suppressed important motives and behavior.

Continuous exposition is associated with Ibsen and playwrights who followed, but the theatrical patron hovering over the film is Stephen Sondheim. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird had used Sondheim as a touchstone for ambitious high-school players, but the parallel structure of Marriage Story makes more explicit references, this time to Sondheim’s Company. Nicole’s party features her and her mother and sister performing  “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a saucy song about dumping a weak man. Soon in the bar Charlie is singing the yearning “Being Alive.”

     

Maybe a little on the nose (like the movie’s title), these citations seem true to the tastes of these show-biz mavens, while suggesting that at least some of Manhattan clings to Nicole in her exile.

Another parallel reminds us of a perennial Hollywood motif. Nicole began her career in a raunchy teen movie but thanks to Charlie’s stage shows she became a respected performer. Yet to establish her own identity more fully she agrees to shoot a TV pilot. Marriage Story positions itself between theatre (a little pretentious, but nobly struggling) and TV (dumb and superficial, but high-tech and well-financed). Worse, TV literally defaces Nicole.

     

Theatre, TV: what about film?

In this story about show-biz LA, movies and references to them are sparse. (I didn’t spot any.) So maybe we should take this film itself as standing in for righteous cinema, rather than the teenpic trash Nicole was in. Perhaps Marriage Story offers itself as its own example of the subtlety and risk-taking that cinema can embody. Even when streaming on Netflix.

 

Muses in the family

The family saga is one Hollywood genre that doesn’t get enough respect. We tend nowadays to celebrate the tough, not tender side of studio cinema. The cult of noir, the abundance of hard-edged action pictures, and the idolatry that trails Tarantino all tend to make us prefer force to gentleness. When families gather, we expect big trouble, if not outright murder (Knives Out). We decry weepies of any sort, and family sagas are often felt to be soft, schmaltzy, womanish. A male friend tells me that Little Women is “a movie about hugs.”  When NPR devotes a whole show to it, panelists ponder how to convince men to see it. No wonder the family film has migrated to daytime cable TV.

Yet the family saga is one of the nicest things American cinema does. Two of our greatest masterpieces, How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), are prime examples. The Forties were rich in such efforts, including Forever and a Day (1943),  Life with Father (1947), I Remember Mama (1948), The Human Comedy (1943), and Since You Went Away (1944). We ought to recognize as well the strength of later entries like The Joy Luck Club (1993), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and Soul Food (1997), all trying out some of the fresh approaches to storytelling that were emerging in the 1990s.

And the sentiments informing domestic sagas seep into other genres. The Fast and Furious team, we’re told, come to be a family, as do the Avengers. The coming-of-age story, that perennial of indie cinema, inherits the aura of cozy warmth that is central to the family saga. I’d add one of my favorites, We Bought a Zoo (2011), which isn’t really a saga but does radiate a comparable warmth.

Although there are probably earlier examples (I think of Vidor’s 1924 Wine of Youth), it seems likely that the 1933 MGM production of Little Women furnished an important template. The four March sisters, each drawn to a different art form, are a model for the musically gifted sisters in the fine Four Daughters (1938).

And surely the fact that Katrin in I Remember Mama chronicles the family’s daily lives owes a lot to the example of Jo March, aspiring novelist.

The family saga poses at least three creative problems for the filmmaker. Since each family member is likely to confront personal problems (romance, finance, school, job) how do you weave and weight multiple storylines? How do you provide conflict to propel the action? And, since the “saga” comparison suggests development over years or even generations, how do you handle long spans of time cinematically?

Greta Gerwig handles all these problems adroitly in her version of Little Women. I’m going to concentrate on the film, but I’m aware that some of the narrative strategies are taken from Louisa May Alcott’s original novel. But much of what’s ingenious about Gerwig’s adaptation is of her own devising.

Start with storylines. In most such films, the trick is to create a group but then produce a scale of emphasis running from minor figures to the most important one typically, the “first among equals.” In How Green, that is Huw, also our narrator; in Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s Esther. But the doings of other characters shape the family’s destiny and the decisions made by the spotlighted figure. So the activities intertwine.

In Little Women, characters shape one another’s development. Jo, the first among equals, is nonconformist and self-reliant. Yet she needs steering–from Friedrich, the professor who tries to turn her away from sensation fiction, and more importantly from Beth, who in her sickness urges her to write “our story.” They give her the strength to persist and trust her sense of what her writing can be.

On the romance front, Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal of marriage opens the field for sister Amy, who has already supplanted Jo in the role of amanuensis to Aunt March. When Jo, out of loneliness, decides to welcome Laurie’s offer, it’s too late: he’s married to Amy. The tangled alliances of melodrama get tightly bound in the family saga.

The other sisters contribute to the causal weave of the plot, with Meg’s decision to abandon the stage reinforcing Jo’s stubborn attachment to her art. More generally, the fates of the sisters dramatize the tension between creative impulse and the social demands of domesticity. Meg wants a family more than fame. Amy, the indifferent painter, can hope only for a good marriage (the same prospect Aunt March makes explicit to Jo).

In family sagas, the siblings are put in parallel. Huw’s brothers leave the household, but he loyally stays, and Rose, the mature sister, has more trouble attracting men than the vivacious Esther. Here, Jo’s kindred spirit is Beth the pianist, whose playing gives solace to Mr. Laurence in his grief. But illness keeps Beth from fulfilling herself either as artist or grown woman. As for Marmee, we’re allowed to catch a glint of Jo’s defiance behind the older woman’s warmth when she confesses that she’s angry every day.

J’s main contrast is with Amy. Amy has done nasty things, but she accepts the burden, laid down by Aunt March, of marrying for money, not love, in order to benefit her loved ones. She does this even though, as she reveals in a key scene, she has always loved Laurie and has always felt herself overshadowed by Jo. (Those revelations are also suggested as what leads Laurie to fall in love with her, and not simply as a substitute for Jo.) Even the various suitors get ranged along comparative dimensions of class, strength of will, and temperament.

The need to provide a dense social milieu also creates parallels–here, in terms of good deeds. The Marches are lower middle-class, living on a parson’s income, but they share their Christmas dinner with a more deprived family. The primary family is constantly compared to the wealthy Laurences, who are generous and good-hearted. Even Aunt March, who married well and embraced hardheaded principles, wills her mansion to Jo. The contrast with the flinty publishing house and the imperious Dashwood is softened when we learn, surprise, that he has a batch of daughters himself.

What about conflict in the family saga? There’s often an external threat–predatory capitalism in How Green Was My Valley, the war in The Human Comedy–but not always a personified antagonist. Often these films have no straightforward villains. Parental error can move the plot, as when in Meet Me in St. Louis Alonzo Smith announces that he’s taking a job in New York. And crises are created by misunderstandings or happenstance, most commonly illness. Somebody almost always gets hurt (here, Meg’s twisted ankle, Amy’s plunge through the ice) or sick (Beth’s scarlet fever).

By and large, the conflicts come through romance and sibling rivalry. In Little Women, Meg loves John only somewhat more than she loves fine clothes, so their impoverished marriage nags at her heart. Amy, enraged at not going to the theatre, burns Jo’s manuscripts. Jo responds with hatred–until Amy falls through the ice and needs rescuing. Amy later considers marrying a rich nonentity, and instead acknowledges her long love for Laurie–who in turn loves Jo. As in most melodramas, we know more than any one character, so we watch as characters’ hopes rise against forces they don’t yet realize.

Even without a clear-cut antagonist, the family members can have goals. The March girls start out as aspiring artists, and stretches of the plot are devoted to them developing their abilities. As their goals change, swerving two of them to marriage and maternity, Jo keeps striving toward what we see her doing in the film’s very first scene: selling her stories. Her burning desire to write is a major through-line, and it encounters obstacles of many sorts, from the harrumphing Dashwood to the destruction of her manuscripts by Amy. And even Jo, as we’ve seen, recasts her goals: in offering solace to the dying Beth, she will write “all about us.”

That means writing about the family as it changes over time. Our third narrative problem, in other words.

 

“If I were a girl in a book, this would all be so easy”

Marriage Story‘s avoidance of flashbacks makes it unusual nowadays. It’s hard to find a movie without at least a few flashbacks. As mysteries, Motherless Brooklyn and Knives Out resort to them to replay scenes with new information. Other films make time shifts basic to their architecture. The Aeronauts uses flashbacks to supply the backstory to an unfolding crisis situation, while Hustlers switches between a contemporary interview and stages in the career of the woman questioned.

The Irishman goes for deeper embedding. The overall frame showing elderly Frank Sheeran in the care facility; the next frame is Frank’s trip with Russell Bufalino and their wives to upstate New York, where Frank will kill Hoffa. That trip in turn flashes back to the central story of Frank’s career with the mob. I try to show in Reinventing Hollywood that this sort of Russian-doll structure comes to be a major option in American film during the 1940s.

In Little Women, the years of change in the March family are given through alternating blocks. We start in the present, with Jo in New York struggling to get published. She’s summoned back to Concord because Beth is ill. Meg is living in poverty with husband John, and Amy is in Paris with Aunt March. For about eleven minutes, crosscutting carries us among the sisters.

This block of exposition is followed by a title, “7 Years Earlier,” that sets up the time oscillations we’ll get for the rest of the film. In chronological order we follow the sisters growing up. Chunks of scenes from the past, shifting viewpoint among several characters, alternate with briefer scenes of the ongoing present showing Jo’s settling back into the family. Sometimes the cuts break the blocks into smaller, interlocking bits, as when we shuttle quickly between Beth’s childhood illness and her fatal one years later.

Why split a linear story into two intercut strands? Flashbacks often create a specific sort of anticipation: Not just What will happen next? but What caused the outcome I already more or less know? In the first ten minutes we learn that Laurie proposed to Jo and she refused him; that Amy, not Jo, became Aunt March’s traveling companion; that Meg married John, the impoverished tutor. We’ll witness the development of all these turning points, and more. We must watch the rise and fall of characters’ hopes, knowing they will be dashed. But we also know, from Jo’s initial visit to the publishing house, that she will gain some success. This time-jumping gives us another level of omniscience, one that lets us savor the details of emotional scenes whose outcomes we roughly know. We’re in the theatre, after all, to enjoy the rapture of pathos.

Instead of tagging each time shift with a date, Gerwig expects us to keep track of the double-entry storylines. She assists us by making story motifs visual hooks between past and present. Silk for a dress, a key, Jo seen writing at a window–these link scenes but also carry dramatic weight in the ongoing action. Other echoes are longer-rang. We’re invited to remember contrasting dance scenes (tavern, ballroom, porch), scorched dresses, and piano pieces.

Eventually the past scenes catch up with the present. The fusion comes with the burial of Beth and one more clutch of flashbacks, to Meg’s wedding. I take this as the end of the development section. “Childhood is over,” Jo says. Back in the present, Jo vows to abandon writing.

Now the present-time action dominates the climax. Grieving for Beth, distraught at Meg’s leaving the household, and crushed by the marriage of Laurie and Amy, Jo burns her manuscripts–except for the stories she wrote for Beth. She starts to assemble them and write more.

After a glimpse of Dashwood refusing the manuscript, we see Friedrich come to visit the Marches on his way to California. After he’s left for the station, the family claims that Jo obviously loves him.

At this point, in her most daring creative choice, Gerwig retains the crosscutting technique in a way that seems to continue the present/past alternation. Dashwood’s daughters have urged him to publish Jo’s manuscript. In New York, in a scene that rhymes with the opening passage, Jo negotiates with Dashwood.

     

Their conversation is intercut with views of Jo rushing to the station to catch Friedrich and ask him to stay.

The epilogue consists of more alternations. We see Jo watching Little Women being printed, crosscut with a party at the school Jo has founded in Aunt March’s mansion. There John, Friedrich, and Laurie can be glimpsed as Meg and Amy teach children the arts they had practiced. The celebration ends with a birthday cake presented to Marmee.

But there’s another way to take the final minutes. The alternation isn’t tracking two points in time–Jo’s rush to Friedrich and a later session with Dashwood–but rather a split between fiction and reality.

We’re coaxed to take scene of Jo’s pursuit of Friedrich as representing not her own action but the changes that Dashwood demands in Jo’s novel. “Who does she marry?” he asks, explaining that a book sells only if there’s a marriage. Jo reluctantly agrees. “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition, even in fiction.” Cut to Jo racing to the station. After the shots of her embracing Friedrich under an umbrella, we’re back in the office. Dashwood suggests the chapter title, “Under the Umbrella,” and Jo agrees. But in turn she makes demands: “You keep your five hundred dollars and I’ll keep the copyright. . . . I want to own my own book.”

We’ve assumed throughout that Jo’s book is highly autobiographical, but we’ve taken what we see and hear as actual events, the living source of a literary text. Instead, the crosscut climax allows a parallel reality to burst forth,  a road not taken. The epilogue yields another ambivalent passage of crosscutting. The school party might be veridical; certainly the family would likely gather for Marmee’s birthday. But the scene could as well serve as the fictional epilogue in Jo’s book (as it does in the Alcott original).

The true epilogue of Jo’s story would then be the moment when she sees her book printed, action that’s crosscut with the celebration. Jo gets the first copy. In the last shot, pleasure, apprehension, and determination play across her features. And she’s framed in a window, an approximate reverse shot to the image that opened the film (above).

From the start Gerwig has shrewdly foreshadowed the turn to fiction by presenting the film’s title, after Jo has made her first sale, as not an inscription on the screen but the physical book itself. That book is signed by L. M. Alcott. The apparently identical volume that comes off the printing press at the end bears the name J. L. March. Gerwig has let Jo appropriate Alcott’s story.

By giving us a double-voiced ending, Gerwig does something quite bold. Little Women becomes something of a “what-if” movie, positing two paths for her heroine. Alcott’s Jo had given up a literary career, whereas Gerwig’s Jo finds one by writing her own life and adding an optional ending. We’re free to think that Jo and Friedrich married and the family became a harmonious whole, as in Alcott’s book. A happy ending, we might say, for those who want one. But this film about hugs ends with the heroine hugging not a husband but her novel. Unmarried in life, Jo can marry in fiction, and Gerwig can have it both ways. Narrative lets you do things like that.

 

I haven’t been able to do justice to the intriguing choices made in other films of the season. I appreciate, for instance, the nonlinearity in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, where the interruptions of present-time action offer Harriet’s premonitions of future scenes. This sort of “prophetic” flashforward is rare; usually such passages are presented as omniscient narration, not assigned to characters. But the device does establish Harriet as a sensitive, almost angelic figure, and suggests that her quest to guide slaves to freedom is sustained not just by faith but by holiness.

Still, looking in a little depth at just two major films can make us aware of several choices available to filmmakers at this point in history. As Wölfflin said, “Not everything is possible at all times.” But film researchers can usefully trace the flexible menu of options that filmmakers work with, and film viewers come to master.


Gerwig has kindly made available a version of the screenplay, which I discovered only after I wrote this. (Thanks, Kristin.) The notations for the final sequences are pretty interesting. The most wide-ranging discussion I’ve seen of the ending, with plenty of links, is the conversation between Marissa Martinelli and Heather Schwedel in Slate. Among several perceptive reviews, I’d single out the one in Time by Stephanie Zacharek and Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker.

I can’t help but think how central crosscutting, that technique pioneered by early filmmakers, is to both of these films. Techniques endure because they open up a lot of expressive possibilities.

Kristin elaborates on arguments for four-part plot structure in Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Extended examples on this site are here and here. I discuss family sagas of the 1940s, along with flashbacks, protagonists, and other narrative techniques in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. On 1990s revival of these techniques, see The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies.

Marriage Story (2019). Is this why the film includes few standing two-shots of Nicole and Charlie?

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