Sunday, 26 May 2019

Journey Into Obscure Hollywood Films

Writing a book on film necessitates viewing a wider corpus of films that will actually be discussed in the book. This is because context is important: I can only convincingly write about Doris Day, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and all the others if I have a good knowledge of the milieu in which they were working. I've discovered some real gems from this process, but also some astonishingly bad films. I'll share a few of these with you here.

Midnight Lace (1960). Let's start with a clunker. This seems to have been a paint-by-numbers attempt by Universal to play along with the trendy thriller genre of the late 1950s-early 1960s. We have a major star, Doris Day straight off of Pillow Talk, paired with an established but newly relevant star, Rex Harrison fresh from My Fair Lady. Secondary characters are played by John Gavin, whom Universal was setting up as a newer model of Rock Hudson, and Myrna Loy and Herbert Marshall for some old Hollywood glamour. This is the old Gaslight story: a woman whose husband attempts to drive her mad. Day had played essentially the same role in 1956's Julie, an unknown and not very good film, but better than this one. Day gives a two-note performance, shifting between her sunny persona and the frightened version of the same, as honed in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Universal contract director David Miller couldn't hold a candle to Hitchcock, and the film is competently shot but no better. The score is by Frank Skinner, who composed the music for most of Douglas Sirk's melodramas. This film shows that his rather overblown scores needed Sirk's purposefully overdetermined filming style to make them work. Here there seems to be simply too much score, and the fact that it lacks melodic or harmonic invention makes it seem even more elephantine. This is set in London but you'd barely know it, since most of the characters other than Harrison are American, especially John Gavin (even though he's playing a Londoner; no gift for accents had he).


Murder By Contract (1958). This one is known by Martin Scorsese fans, as he often brings it up in interviews. It's a very low budget B-movie by Columbia, but a great example of what Scorsese calls 'smuggling'; the filmmakers, led by director Irving Lerner, used budget limitations to make a stylish and taut thriller that touches on weighty and difficult issues. At the centre lies an existentialist hit man played by Vince Edwards, hired to murder a woman who was witness to a murder case. She does not go down easily; the film would almost be a dark comedy were it not so full of existential despair.

Crime in the Streets (1956). Another crime film, directed by Don Siegel and starring John Cassavetes, brilliant but not at all passing as an 18-year-old juvenile delinquent. This was an attempt to even further darken the social problem films of the time like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. There is not much attempt to explain Cassavetes' delinquency, which seems to be the point. Sal Mineo plays a role similar to the one he played in Rebel. Most interesting is Franz Waxman's score. He is working in an Ellington-like jazz idiom, but the unfolding of the score is typically Waxman. The opening credits cue is like a dissonant hot jazz version of the opening of his Sunset Boulevard score.


The Strange One (1957). This one is a real lost gem. Adapted from a successful Off-Broadway play (called End of a Man) that made Ben Gazzara a hot prospect, most of the cast was brought over directly to the screen along with director Jack Garfein. This is very much a 'method' product, with the whole cast coming from the Actors Studio. Gazzara is excellent as a military school bully. In his first sequence, a hazing of new students at the school, he wears a bizarre combination of shorts, knee socks, Hawaiian shirt, and carries a swagger stick. Eventually he gets his comeuppance, but only after wreaking a lot of havoc. The film is clearly a comment on 50s militarism. It isn't entirely successful, but it's stuck in my head more than many of the other films I've watched recently.


My Dream is Yours (1949)
Imagine the following story conference at Warner Brothers, 1949:
–We need a big musical number for the new Doris Day/Jack Carson picture.
–What's it about?
–Day plays a widowed mother trying to become a movie star, with help from Carson.
–So I suppose a big 'Hooray For Hollywood' type thing is in order?
–That's been done. Find a different angle. Remember a few years ago at MGM when Gene Kelly sang and danced with Jerry the Mouse?
–Yes, in Anchors Aweigh.
–It was a big hit. We should have our stars sing and dance with our own cartoons. Bugs Bunny, for instance. Let's work a song and dance with Bugs Bunny into this picture.
–A picture about a widowed mother? Does it fit?
–Sure, kids like Bugs Bunny. Use the kid angle.
–But if the number is meant to be for Doris...
–Put the kid in it, too. Doris and Jack can hold their own.
–So it's Doris, Jack, the kid, and Bugs Bunny?
–It's a goldmine!
–But how does Bugs come into it? I'm not sure it makes much sense...
–Who cares about sense? Get Jule and Sammy to write a hit song around it and the sense will take care of itself.
–Ah, but Jule and Sammy are in New York.
–No problem. Dig some old tune out of the trunk. No one will notice. Even better, find a dead composer, like they did with that guy Schubert in Blossom Time. No royalties!
–Schubert... he worked for RKO, right?
–I don't remember. But he's dead, and no relatives come crawling out of the woodwork.
–How about... oh, what's his name, the pianist. Big deal in the last century. Frank something.
–Frank List?
–That's the guy. Hungarian Rhapsody. Stokowski makes a big deal of him at the Hollywood Bowl.
–So we find some trunk tune by Frank List, put some new words to it.
–No, we might as well use that Hungarian Rhapsody. Go with a proven hit and jazz it up a little.
–Good idea. But we still don't have a situation. Why are Doris and Jack and the kid and Bugs singing and dancing the Hungarian Rhapsody? A gypsy number?
–Gyspy numbers were last year. Now it's holiday numbers. White Christmas, Easter Parade.
–Hey, Easter! That's it!
–Why Easter?
–Easter... bunny... Bugs... Bunny!
–Perfect. But how does it fit into the plot?
–Easy. We set the movie at Easter.
–And we dress Doris and Jack as rabbits.
–Obviously, but why have they got rabbit costumes?
–Dream sequence?
–Yes! A surefire hit!

Here's the proof:
Is this the worst number in the studio's history?

Let's end with Cairo (1942), not a 50s film but a very good example of excellent studio craftsmanship that deserves to be better known. This falls between genres, which is possibly why it is so little discussed: part musical, part comedy, part World War II spy movie, it features Jeanette MacDonald and Ronald Young, each of whom thinks the other is a Nazi spy hiding out in Cairo. There are some very funny scenes, some good musical numbers (especially Ethel Waters singing 'Buds Won't Bud') and some clever in-jokes. MacDonald is playing a version of herself, a movie star who has escaped the Hollywood grind and is enjoying singing in a Cairo nightclub. Young plays a small-town reporter who ends up stranded in Cairo. Adventure, comedy, and love ensue.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Greimasian Semiotic Models in Le nozze di Figaro (or: what I did on my Sunday afternoon)

As I prepare to direct this September’s annual opera scenes production I’ve been exploring our chosen works (Act Two of Le nozze di Figaro and Act Two of Die Fledermaus) from a variety of angles. I’ve settled on a ‘sociological’ production, highlighting the class conflict inherent in Figaro and the class complacency inherent in Fledermaus. But other methodologies also inform my preparation. Simultaneously I’ve begun exploring Schubert’s Winterreise, and I am reading Lauri Suurpää’s study of the cycle, Death in Winterreise: Musico-Poetic Associations in Schubert’s Song Cycle (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). Suurpää takes a fertile analytical approach that melds Algirdas Greimas’s actantial semiotics with Heinrich Schenker’s musical analysis, and it struck me that a melopoetic approach incorporating the Greimas models could also enlighten Figaro and Fledermaus. By ‘melopoetic’, I mean an approach that takes into account both music and text. I came across the term in Stephen Banfield’s writing; I prefer it to Suurpää’s ‘musico-poetic’, but they mean essentially the same thing. Suurpää’s book is founded on some arguments I would question, notably his view of music’s non-referentiality and his process of looking at the music alone before the text, but the analyses of Schubert’s songs that result from his Greimas-plus-Schenker methodology are fascinating. I am not a full-blooded Schenkerian so when it comes to the music I won’t be following that methodology to a T; rather, I’ll use some of his insights but also some bits of Caplin’s form-function models and my own (admittedly basic) observations from trying to teach undergraduate music theory in the clearest way I can. Really this little analytical project comes from the pack-rat mentality of a lot of contemporary music analysis. We use elements that we like from a mix of different theories, depending on the piece at hand and what fits it best. I like telling my students that the music tells you how to analyse it (in a metaphorical sense; I’m not so foolhardy as to claim agency for abstract music): if you know about various analytical tools and if you listen closely to the music the best techniques tend to emerge without much ado.

Algirdas Greimas was a Latvian-French semiotician whose work has unfortunately fallen somewhat out of favour in the humanities (albeit less so in Finland, where Suurpää is based). Drawing from Russian formalists like Vladimir Propp, he attempted to come up with models for how narrative works. His most important tool is the semiotic square, a method for deconstructing supposed binaries, putting them into a multi-dimensional space that allows us to see how concepts float around between supposed absolutes. His other major contribution, which I used extensively in my doctoral thesis (Monteverdi on the Modern Stage, Oxford University, 2012), is the ‘actantial’ model of narrative. The basic idea is that in a narrative (which can range from a whole story to a single sentence) a Subject (S) looks for an Object (O). A Sender (Sr) sends the Subject out to look for the Object, and the benefit of that quest goes to a Receiver (R). A Helper (H) might help the Subject on the quest, and an Opponent (Op) might make the quest more difficult. These are all called actants. They need not all be characters in the story; they might be things or abstract concepts.

Aladdin is about to open in cinemas, so let’s take that as an example to illustrate these actants. Aladdin is the Subject, or the protagonist. His Object is twofold: Princess Jasmine and also the concept of respect (i.e. to show the world that he is not just a street rat). The Sender here happens to be the same as the Opponent: Jafar sends Aladdin on his quest for the lamp thinking that the boy will help him attain great power, but when Aladdin ends up with the lamp for himself Jafar opposes his attempt to gain Jasmine and respect. Aladdin’s Helper is the Genie. The Receiver (that is, ‘who benefits’) is Aladdin himself, but also eventually the Genie and Agrabah as a whole. The powerful thing about this actantial model is that one can also place other characters as the Subject. In Aladdin, as with other complex narratives, this shows that the story is articulated and kept interesting by criss-crossing desires and quests. There are at least four primary Subjects in this story: Aladdin, Jasmine, Jafar, and the Genie. These actors take on various actantial roles depending on whose story we follow at any given moment. But to cohere as a story, one Subject usually needs to take an overarching position. In Aladdin that is the title character. Usually it is through his subjectivity that the audience is focalised (focalisation is another narratological/semiotic concept, developed by Mieke Bal; the short explanation is that focalisation, making the audience seen through a certain character’s eyes, is how narrative identification works and how narratives are ‘followable’ by readers).

Now let’s turn to Act Two of Figaro. This opera is one of the most complex of the period, and its primary Subject its debatable. This is one of the many things that makes this opera so interesting both for audiences and for performers: everyone can be seen as the protagonist, their intersecting desires are highly volatile, and Mozart sets these desires to music of astonishing invention. While some previous operas, by Mozart and others (notably Monteverdi), managed to musicalise similar narrative complexities, Figaro was and is the exception rather than the rule. Thinking about focalisation can help us place the Subject here. In the first part of the act the Countess is focalised. She begins the act alone on stage, Susanna, Figaro, and Cherubino subsequently direct their statements towards her, and the major ‘events’ of the act hinge on the relationship between the Count and the Countess. She is also only offstage for a single scene (in which Cherubino and Susanna run around in a panic) but during that scene she still remains at the top of our minds because the other characters are panicking for her sake. Only in the Finale do other characters really threaten to move to the centre, especially Figaro: his quick thinking becomes foregrounded and the Countess’s confusion does not stand out from that of the other characters. Act Three could then be argued to focus on the Count, Act One having been mostly seen through Susanna’s eyes and Act Four shifting back and forth among Susanna, Figaro, the Count, and the Countess.

I will focus here on the Countess’s opening cavatina, ‘Porgi amor’. There is more than enough there to get us started on using these semiotic models for analysis. Da Ponte’s text for this aria is very short, four lines alone, and it is with the text that such analyses should begin. In nearly all cases, the words came before the music, and in opera it is the verbal narrative context that must come first. This is doubly true of Figaro, based as it is on a pre-existing play. Mozart was setting both characters created by Beaumarchais and words created by Da Ponte.

Porgi amor qualche ristoro Grant, Love, some relief
al mio duolo, a’ miei sospir. For my pain, for my sighs.
O mi rendi il mio tesoro, Either return my treasure to me,
o mi lascia almen morir.       Or at least let me die.

In this cavatina (or entrance aria) the Countess (Subject) looks for relief from her sorrows (Object), which could take one of two forms: the Count’s love (which I’ll call O1) or her own death (O2). The Sender is abstract: pain and sighs. The Countess’s miserable state is what leads to her cry out for help. The Receiver is also the Countess: it is she herself who will benefit from the relief Love offers. The Helper, here more a hoped-for Helper rather than an empirical one, is Love: it is Love whom the Countess implores to help relieve her pain. The Opponent is not literally spoken, but it is the Count: he is responsible for hindering the Countess’s search for happiness. It is notable that the Opponent is here the same as Object, but they are two different versions of the Count. The Op version is the Count as he is at this moment (who causes ‘duolo’ and ‘sospiri’); the O version is the Count as he was in the past (the ‘tesoro’). The Countess wants to change her state, from being miserable to having some sort of ending, either in happiness or in death. We can use functional notation to show this:

([Sr → R] → [S O]) ([S ∩ O] ← [H Op])

Actant Reference
S Countess
O1          Count (tesoro)
O2 Death (morire)
Sr Sorrow (duolo, sospiri)
R Countess
H Love
Op Count

The arrow (→) shows a syntactical relation: the Sender is related to the Receiver (Sorrow leads the Countess to make this plea). shows a disjunct relationship: at the beginning the Subject does not have the Object, the Countess does not have relief. The double arrow () shows a change of state. The Countess wants her state of absence of relief (S O) to change to one where she does have relief (S ∩ O), and it is the Helper, and not the Opponent, who will allow that change to happen: Love, in opposition to the Count as he currently is, will help the Countess to attain relief. I have tried to clarify the structure a bit further by placing the wished-for state in italics (although Grimes and Suurpää does not use that technique) because it does not exist: it is hypothetical, dependent upon how the rest of the narrative will play out. We discover by the end of the narrative that the Countess does get the Count back, at least temporarily, but looking at this aria on its own we do not yet know that, and the rest of the act is going to make it seem increasingly less likely that the Countess will get what she wants.

The power of Greimas’s actantial model is that it allows us to examine narrative as a state which may or may not change; this is valuable because it allows us to see narrative structures apart from the durational factors of narration. The functional model above is an abstraction of the overall situation described in this aria. This is potentially helpful to singers playing roles like the Countess, as it forces us to look at the state of the character at a specific moment. It gives us licence to forget momentarily what is going to happen next, thereby being ‘in the moment’ with the character. Here we see that Stanislavskian techniques, the most common contemporary methodology of acting training, and Greimas come from a similar place, namely Russian formalism, in which structures of feeling at any given moment are at least as important as the unfolding of a narrative. In real life we have hopes and desires but we cannot be sure what is going to happen to us next; actors playing characters in a drama should be able convey a similar state. Adding musical analysis to this does enforce a time vector because music can exist only in time, but if the actor knows the overall state of desire (or, in Stanislavskian terms, the motivation) she can use the music as a springboard for changing that state in real time.

So how does Mozart set this state of affairs to music? In brief, he uses the affordances of the ‘Classical’ style to express what is going on poetically. The first two lines of poetry offer a case in point: ‘Porgi amor qualche ristoro/al mio duolo, a’ miei sospir’, ‘Grant, love, some relief/for my pain, for my sighs’. These lines are set to a very simple eight-bar phrase that moves globally from the tonic (I) to the dominant (V), a mini closed form. The phrase is in a musical sentence structure (two-bar motive followed by a similar two-bar motive, then an expanded four-bar answer: a-a’-b). The first half of the sentence, setting the first line of poetry, outlines a simple move from tonic to dominant and back again to tonic. The line splits in two poetically as well as musically:
Porgi amor / qualche ristoro. 
I         V         V     I
The a and a’ section of the sentence can be reduced to a simple repeated motive of a leap up to a suspension which is then resolved (first a 4-3 on ‘mor’ then a 9-8 on ‘storo’). The sentence’s b section is then a trip down the scale with a 10-5 linear intervallic pattern (LIP), ending with a half cadence. The phrase as a whole divides nicely into four parts both musically and poetically, Mozart setting very clearly the two hemistichs of each line. ‘Porgi amor’ is an imperative form that demands a follow-up: we need to know grammatically what the Countess is imploring Love to do, just as musically we need the I-V movement to be resolved back to the tonic. The second two bars provide the answer: ‘qualche ristoro.’ This allows for an ending both grammatically and musically: the grammatical structure is closed off by the object of the verb, and the music returns to tonic. But Da Ponte’s poetic sentence continues, as does Mozart’s musical one. He could have set those four bars as a self-contained phrase, but instead he turns that repeated motive into the a and a’ of a musical sentence. The second line of poetry also divides neatly into two halves, using parallel grammatical structure, each half being a prepositional phrase: ‘al mio duolo — a’ miei sospir’; ‘for my pain, — for my sighs.’ The first hemistich uses the LIP, while the second rounds off the phrase with the half cadence. The melody, while outlining the descending scale, leaps back up in both halves, which we could interpret both as a character note (the Countess desires the resolution of the scale but has trouble attaining it, as she has trouble attaining her desire) and as affective word-painting (the upward movement followed by downward movement being like a sigh). That this first phrase should end in a half cadence is obvious: just as the Countess is unfulfilled so should the music be. Moving back to the tonic at the end of this phrase would be ‘wrong’ in that it would provide the Countess with resolution too soon.

Mozart transforms this half cadence into a modulation: the careful use of an A natural (leading tone to B flat) causes the next phrase to take B flat as its tonic. Where in the first phrase the voice was in charge, now we have a motive in thirds in the orchestra which the voice echoes with a similar motive two bars later. Rather than an eight-bar sentence structure, Mozart sets the next two lines to an eight-bar period, with two parallel four-bar phrases. Using a parallel phrase structure makes sense as grammatically the poem’s structure is also parallel: ‘o mi rendi il mio tesoro/o mi lascia almen morir,’ ‘either return my treasure to me/or at least let me die.’ In terms of our actantial model, this second half of the poem tells us what the two potential Objects are. As potential objects, it would still be too soon to return to the global tonic so this entire phrase stays in the dominant. Mozart adds a post-cadential expansion over a B flat pedal, repeating the fourth line and ending on a seventh chord, transforming our B flat tonic back into the dominant of E flat and therefore ending on a dramatic half cadence, the voice reaching the top A flat, its highest note in the aria. The repetition of the fourth line, about death, allows us to add to our interpretation: perhaps Death (as O2) is the most desirable option for the Countess at this stage. The text alone puts the two potential Objects on more or less equal footing through the parallel grammatical structure; through repetition Mozart raises the stakes by foregrounding Death.

The aria is only half over. Mozart repeats Da Ponte’s entire text, getting different meanings out of it the next time round. He goes through the first two lines very quickly, the voice declaiming them on semiquavers over an accompaniment with the same rhythm which alternates rapidly between I and V, the same music for each line, the second line ending on an applied V/V which throws us back into the dominant. The semiquaver movement is borrowed from the orchestra’s motion in the first half and the vocal line in the third and fourth lines, here for the first time heard in the voice and orchestra simultaneously. By suspending the harmony (the rapid I-V alternation makes this section feel like a pause in the harmonic rhythm) Mozart implies the Countess’s uncertain state of mind: having returned to the tonic she is still not able to make it really ‘stick’. Mozart then uses his favourite ‘frustration’ technique of having a deceptive cadence that requires back-tracking to the predominant and a new cadence. The back-tracking here happens over the words ‘almen morir’, another way in which Mozart foregrounds the Death Object. The Countess does finally attain a perfect authentic cadence, but on the word ‘morir’. Has she determined to die? Maybe not: Mozart adds a coda in which the last two lines are repeated yet again. But again he closes on ‘morir’ with the perfect authentic cadence, and the orchestra finishes the aria off with two further bars to reinforce the tonic. (Note that my reduction graph is not kosher in a Schenker sense. I'm just trying to show visually what I'm discussing, not follow any analytical orthodoxy.)

Musically one might think that the Object has been found, as the piece has been rounded off with multiple firm cadences in the tonic. Mozart could have hardly set the text otherwise, though, as to end a closed form anywhere other than the tonic would not have been acceptable in 1786. It was a given that Mozart needed to end the aria in the tonic with a PAC; how, then, to reconcile this with my argument that the aria displays the desire for a wished-for state which is unattained? This does not preclude the use of closing cadential material. The aria does indeed represent a closed form, but it shows only one state of many in which the Countess will find herself throughout the opera. To see how this works we need to look at tonal functions in the opera as a whole. Act Two can be seen as ‘in’ E flat as it both begins and ends in that key. This aria, which is part of a larger opera and not a stand-alone piece, therefore represents only tonic expansion in the global sense. The countess begins and ends the aria in the same state, i.e. a state of unattained happiness or unattained death. That it ends in the tonic only shows that the Countess has not changed over the course of the aria. In fact, one can argue that she does not change over the course of the entire act because it ends in E flat. Narratively this is also true: if anything, she ends the act even more despairing than she was at the beginning. She does, however, change over the course of the opera. The opera as a whole is ‘in’ D major: it begins and ends in this key. Globally, the Countess moves from E flat to D, two distantly related keys. If we compare Susanna and Figaro, whose first duet in in G, the dominant of D, we can see that they shift less than the Countess over the course of the opera. Susanna and Figaro learn some important things about each other, but they start the opera in love and they end it in love. The Countess has the more radical change of character, her state of being as set up in ‘Porgi amor’ changing a great deal by the end: she does finally attain her ‘tesoro’.

As with any analysis, there is more to be said. I haven’t discussed the long orchestral introduction, which uses material from the aria proper. What role does the introduction have? Neither have I much discussed the aria’s rhythmic features, or much about its vocality (how it fits within the voice of a singer). These will all have to be saved for another time, or another analyst. I hope this little analysis here opens up a space to look at the rest of the opera in this way. This one relatively short aria having generated so many words is an indication that maybe it does. It is in fact all rather daunting. The prospect of dealing with the Act Two Finale is frankly frightening: most of the opera’s characters come together with their very different actantial roles overlapping in very complex ways, all taking place over what Wendy Allenbrook argued was an extended dance-suite (there’s yet another level to add onto narrative and music: that of movement). That will have to wait for another time. Anyway, three cheers for Greimas!

Friday, 5 April 2019

50s Films to See

The other day I was talking to some students about my 50s cinema book project and they asked for a list of 'must-sees'. I am obliging here with a list of ten 50s Hollywood films. Some of these will feature in the book, but not all will fit the theme (see the last post). These aren't necessarily my favourite films of the period but rather the ones that I think best sum up the decade while also being interesting and educational to watch. I'm not including period pieces (difficult as it was to leave out Singin' in the RainEast of Eden, and Some Like It Hot) because I'm after films that teach about the '50s in a more direct way. I've left out two of my very favourite films (Sunset Boulevard and Vertigo) because to my mind they don't actually say all that much as specifically 1950s films and I've written about them elsewhere.

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder), 1951
A down-at-heel journalist (Kirk Douglas) manipulates a situation of a man stuck in a cave for good copy. A number of these films make us question the idea of the 50s as being all about sweetness and conformity, but Ace in the Hole takes the cake. This is one of the most pessimistic films ever made; it's all about human mendacity and venality. None of the characters have any redeeming features and the film hints that neither has the audience. It's somehow also very fun to watch, largely because Kirk Douglas chews the scenery with such gusto; he doesn't care that his character is despicable.

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann), 1953
The corruption of the army just before the attack on Pearl Harbor is exposed through multiple narratives: Montgomery Clift as a regimental bugler being forced to box, Frank Sinatra as an abused soldier, Burt Lancaster having an affair with his superior officer's wife (Deborah Kerr). While it's set in the 40s From Here to Eternity is a good example of a film that questions mid-century certainties, a surprisingly frequent 50s project. The acting is excellent and director Fred Zinnemann packs an extraordinary amount of mood and narrative into two short hours.

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan), 1954
Marlon Brando plays a dock worker who runs afoul of a corrupt union. I debated whether to include Waterfront or A Streetcar Named Desire (another Brando/Kazan collaboration), eventually settling on Waterfront because it says more to me about the 1950s. This is perhaps the film most ingrained in the HUAC witch hunts, as it is a clear attempt by Kazan to explain and atone for his naming of names before the committee (Kazan's assertions of the contrary notwithstanding). This also has Leonard Bernstein's only film score, which combined with the quintessentially 'method' acting makes for a very intense viewing experience.

The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli), 1955
The staff and patients of a sanitarium are thrown into disarray over the need for new drapes in the front room. The heightened mise-en-scène, acting, and music (the first twelve-tone score for a Hollywood film) combine to make this a perfect example of Minnelli's style in particular and of mid-century melodrama in general. A multi-generation cast also exhibits the multitude of acting styles that were available in the 50s.

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk), 1955
Another melodrama, in which widowed Jane Wyman falls in love with the much younger Thoreau-like Rock Hudson and their relationship is met with derision and dismay from the entire community, including Wyman's children. I'm working on my Sirk chapter at the moment and he's giving me no end of trouble; this film and his other melodramas are filled with contradictions and problems, but that makes them even more fascinating. In this film colour, design, and music act as metaphors for the central relationship and together create an aesthetic of excess that no other film of the period can really match. Minnelli's melodramas are more coherent and, being made at MGM, usually had higher production values than Sirk's for Universal, but Sirk has the edge in his creation of mood using all of the elements of cinema.

Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton), 1955
Two orphaned children go on the run from a fake preacher (Robert Mitchum) who is after money supposedly hidden by their father. The first time I saw this I couldn't get onto its wavelength but on a second viewing I was mesmerised. I'm not sure what changed, but this film is emotionally wrenching, terrifying, and wonderful, a study of innocence and guilt, love and hate, that is unmatched in the corpus. This is actor Charles Laughton's only film as a director, and one feels he put everything into it that he possibly could; he didn't need to direct any other films after. It was also very influential: it's visible in work by Scorsese, PT Anderson, Clint Eastwood, any of the more recent auteurs who are interested in those themes. The film also has an excellent score by Walter Schumann, one of those working-stiff composers who when given the opportunity came up with a masterpiece. This one is sui generis, very difficult to fit into our standard narratives of 1950s cinema.

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray), 1956
There was also a toss-up between this film and Rebel Without a Cause. Both of these Ray films should really be on the list (and James Dean is such a 50s icon that he ought not to be left off) but I've chosen Bigger Than Life for a few reasons, largely because I think it's simply a better film. James Mason is extraordinary in the role of a stereotypical suburban father who becomes addicted to cortisone and goes mad, thinking that God is telling him to sacrifice his son like Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. Ray skewers two of the decade's leading supposed certainties, the infallibility of the father and the perfection of religion. His mise-en-scène plays into this, as he uses the wide CinemaScope frame to graphically place the characters in relation to each other and to their surroundings in unexpected ways.

The Pajama Game (Stanley Donen, George Abbott), 1957
Doris Day plays a pajama factory worker who falls in love with her superintendent (John Raitt). This is the quintessential 50s musical, in a film adaptation of a stage musical that can stand in stylistically for the other film adaptations of the time, and it stars Doris Day, who personifies the 50s. Is it the best 50s musical? No: it's not Singin' in the Rain or The Bandwagon, nor is in an adaptation of a show as good as Guys and Dolls or Kiss Me Kate, but there's something about its very mediocrity that tells us more about 50s musicals than most others. We also get Bob Fosse's 'Steam Heat', which sticks out from the rest in such an odd way that it's rather wonderful. It also tells us a lot about 50s gender politics.

North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock), 1958
Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy, and is chased around the country by enemies. We need a Hitchcock film, and this is a good one to stand in for all of his 50s work because a) it's such fun and b) it's a great example of cold war paranoia. It's full of iconic moments: the crop-duster chase (without music), the Mount Rushmore chase (with Bernard Herrmann's mad fandango), the sexy dialogue between Grant and Eva-Marie Saint that pushes the envelope about as far as it could be pushed at this time.

Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph Mankiewicz), 1959
Elizabeth Taylor is treated by psychiatrist Montgomery Clift after she witnesses the mysterious death of her brother. Maybe a choice from left-field, this one really explodes our common view of what was 'permissible' in the 50s. Tennessee Williams' screenplay is about lobotomies, homosexuality, cannibalism, incest, and more, all acted out by Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Katharine Hepburn in some of their best performances. This one does not hold back at all, albeit resulting in a very different kind of excess from Sirk. This southern gothic tale is all about dark human desires, while Sirk was interested in the more positive side of desire as quashed by 'polite' society.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Scoring the Hollywood Actor in the 1950s

As I embark on writing this book (manuscript due March 2020) I thought it would be useful to share some parts of the proposal here. I have two major theoretical points to make, illustrated by close analysis of the films' scores and performances. The first is that music and performance are the elements that give film its forward time vector. The medium itself is founded upon the illusion that still images can move, and editing is by definition non-linear. Music exists only in forward-moving time, and so does human action and speech. Hence the reasoning behind exploring how music and acting can be two sides of the same coin. The second point is about music and embodiment. I argue that music does not serve only to illustrate action in film, but also to embody the characters' personae. I borrow a framework from film theorist Vivian Sobchak to explore this.

I'm looking at the 1950s because in that decade filmmakers began to explore the connection between music and acting in a way that held considerably more nuance than in much previous filmmaking. This was in part due to the influence of contemporary stage acting techniques, referred to with the blanket term “method acting,” on movie acting: the intensification of emotion displayed by the actor could be further heightened by using music to mirror the emotions being portrayed. Experiments in the scoring of acting were frequently made in Hollywood in the 1950s, which was also a decade of broader musical experimentation in film scoring. Having established a film scoring style in the previous decades, Hollywood composers and audiences were seeking ways to move beyond the post-Romantic symphonic score by incorporating sonorities from popular music and the avant-garde, often in the same film. Established composers like Franz Waxman and emerging ones like Leonard Rosenman used these influences to create a newly expressionistic language of film scoring, akin to the expressionistic acting styles of James Dean and Marlon Brando and expressing the extreme emotions of their characters.

The chapter breakdown gives a clearer view of what is actually going to be in this book. This is all work-in-progress of course, so the specific case studies and the ordering of the chapters might well change. The framework is going to stick, though, because there are simply too many films and actors to explore. If I start rethinking too much I'll never finish. Even with the limited topics chosen there is a corpus of 146 films that I can bring in. That's rather a lot.

Chapter One: Hitchcock’s Time-Vectors of Acting and Music

This chapter introduces the book’s first major concept, that time’s forward axis in films is created by music and performance, using the films of Alfred Hitchcock as case studies. Hitchcock’s films often feature sequences of travel, his films of the later 1950s especially foregrounding the automobile culture of mid-century America. His characters drive around with various purposes as they attempt to come to realisations about themselves and the world around them, creating differing temporal vectors to achieve (or not achieve) their goals. Bernard Herrmann’s modular scores for the driving sequences in Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and North By Northwest (1959) are partly responsible for these vectors, but it is also the acting of James Stewart, Janet Leigh, and Cary Grant (in character as Scottie Ferguson, Marion Crane, and Roger Thornhill) that, when experienced in tandem with the music, presents these vectors of time. Here we see the triangulation of character, acting, and music operating in pure form. Little else exists in the driving scenes beside these three points. In Psycho, without our knowledge of Marion’s feelings about stealing the money, Janet Leigh’s performance of Marion’s emotions, and Bernard Herrmann’s music, this would be merely a dull series of scenes of a car driving down a highway. The camera mostly focuses on Leigh in the driver’s seat, and we hear Marion’s inner thoughts, the sound of the rain, and Herrmann’s music. In Vertigo, we have only James Stewart and the music, without the benefit of Scottie’s internal monologue. The music provides the affect, allowing us to stitch together Scottie’s thought process when we watch Stewart’s facial expressions and body language. The suspenseful driving scene in North By Northwest, when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is forced to get drunk and is put in a car with the intent of staging a fatal drunk-driving accident, offers a different case of temporal vector: unlike the other two scenes, this sequence of suspense drives time forward inexorably, making the audience think that the next curve will be Thornhill’s last. The cue uses musical modules like the others, but here the modules are shorter, faster, and alternate more rapidly, creating a sense of unpredictable forward motion. Marion’s decision-making vector contrasts with the cyclical music that accompanies it while Scottie’s confusion causes him to go around in circles like the car and the music, and Roger whirls out of control. Scottie’s journey is circular, Marion’s arrow-like, and Roger’s circumlocutious. All three journeys demonstrate the power of music and acting in creating a sense of time’s vectors in film.

I've been living with these films for a long time, my first real film obsession having been with Hitchcock (especially Vertigo). That will make writing about them a challenge.

Chapter Two: Musicalising Montgomery Clift

This chapter introduces the second main component of my theory, the musicalisation of the actor’s body, exemplified through the work of Montgomery Clift. Drawing from Vivian Sobchack’s four-part framework for interpreting the body of the actor and the character, I add music to her physical theorisation in order to show how film scores can embody characters’ psychologies and physicalities. Unlike earlier classically-trained actors, who usually found their characters with makeup, costume, and movement (working from the outside in), Clift and other “method” actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando (to be discussed in subsequent chapters) worked from the inside out, starting with character psychology. Many of Clift’s performances are mirrored by scores that also work from the outside in, accepting the challenge to musicalise the new model of mid-century American masculinity that Clift presented. The scores for films such as A Place in the Sun (Franz Waxman, 1951), From Here to Eternity (George Duning and Morris Stoloff, 1953), and Wild River (Kenyon Hopkins, 1960) all reflect Clift as the sensitive centre of turbulent, emotional films. These scores when matched with Clift’s physical and vocal performances demonstrate the richness and variety of Hollywood film scoring beyond the standard “classical” model of mood music and leitmotivs, and offer a new perspective on musical characterisation.

This is the chapter I'm working on at the moment. Clift is my favourite actor, which means there is a risk of blind cinephilia in the writing. The work here exists already as a conference paper, so most of what needs to be done is 'writing up' rather than research.

Chapter Three: Kazan, Brando, and Mélomanie

This chapter explores the musical relationships that resulted from the collaborations of director Elia Kazan and actor Marlon Brando. These two icons of mid-century American theatre and film made three films together: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), and On the Waterfront (1954). All three feature prominent scores, the first two by Alex North, the last by Leonard Bernstein, that at times threaten to overshadow Brando’s performances but that, in their very prominence, end up creating a strong sense of Brando’s star persona. A close look at Kazan and Brando also allows for a closer exploration of the “Method” as it developed musically in the 1950s, as well as questioning the role film directors have in shaping performances musically.

This one also exists as a conference paper, although it didn't include Viva Zapata! and didn't look much at Brando specifically. All three of the scores here are musically very interesting, so I will need to find the right balance between musical analysis and looking at Brando's acting. I hope there is a way to convincingly combine the two. The tight motivic connections in Bernstein's score are akin to the 'spine' of a method performance, so that is probably the way forward.

Chapter Four: Monroe, Day, and Gendered Music

This chapter focuses on the gender issues that are latent in the previous two chapters’ explorations of Clift and Brando (as well as pointing forward to the following chapter on James Dean). 1950s cinema presented two strongly contrasting types of men: the “soft” male represented by the “Method” actors in social dramas and, increasingly as the decade went on, the broad-chested “hard” masculinity of historical and religious epics. This is mirrored by the way these men are scored, with dissonant contrapuntal language for the dramas and regularly-phrased, modal, goal-directed phallic language for the epics. Only rarely, however, did female actors and characters get much of a musical personality; 1950s cinema is generally focussed on male-centric narratives and psychology. Marilyn Monroe stands as the major exception, a megastar whose music served constantly to gender her as quintessentially female, albeit in subtly variable ways. From the extreme sexiness of Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953) to the more innocent sexuality of The Seven-Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955) and the Method extremes of The Misfits (John Huston, 1961), the music for Monroe’s performances always exudes femininity, but the subtlety of many of her performances often contrasts with this blatant musicalisation of sex to create interestingly nuanced visions of gender in the 1950s. Doris Day presents a very different vision of 1950s femininity, presenting a more domestic version of sexuality than Monroe’s. The music that accompanies her characters, and which she often sings along with, enhances this sense of domesticity. Contrasting Day with Monroe will show the variety with which women were musicalised in the 1950s.

The first version I submitted did not include Doris Day, but the proposal's reviews suggested that more women needed to be included. Day was the obvious choice: a huge star, very different from Monroe, with lot of musical acumen. But as I say, the 50s is a very male-centric decade in its films, and I'll need to be careful that Monroe and Day contribute to the 'spine' of the book (there I go using method terminology) and that they're not just token.

Chapter Five: James Dean and Semiotic Efficacy

All three of the films James Dean starred in before his death in 1955 at age 24 feature prominent musical scores. In East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) the actor’s radically stylised performances are aided in their communication with the audience by Leonard Rosenman’s scores, which draw equally from modernist concert music and traditional Hollywood film scoring practices, helping to negotiate the gap between Dean’s characters on the screen and his audience in the cinema. The dissonance in the music matches the dissonance of Dean’s characterizations, described by François Truffaut as containing within them “all our ambiguity, our duality, our human weaknesses.” The ambiguity and duality of tonality and atonality provide a musical illustration of Dean’s characters’ confused psyches. Rosenman’s scores were groundbreaking in their attempt to score not merely the action and mood of the film in classical Hollywood style, but also the psychology of the protagonists as they attempt to negotiate midcentury American masculinity. In Giant (George Stevens, 1956), on the other hand, Dean’s performance as the inarticulate oil man Jett Rink is betrayed by Dimitri Tiomkin’s traditional “Western” score, the lumbering cowboy theme given to Rink so at odds with the performance on screen that the music acts as a barrier between audience and character. Giant is usually seen as Dean’s least successful performance, and the music is at least in part to blame. An analysis of these three performances and scores will attempt to further open a space for analysing music’s role in creating character, scoring the actor and his/her role.

This chapter is finished (at least a first version) because it's the sample chapter I submitted with the proposal. It feels good to have something done.

A Non-Hollywood Interlude with Gérard Philipe

This short chapter will offer a look at the specific non-Hollywood example of Gérard Philipe to demonstrate that the musical practices described in previous chapters are not unique to American film. Philipe, little known in English-speaking countries, was the biggest box-office draw in France in the 1950s. He traversed the decade playing a wide variety of roles, from early films playing vulnerable Dean-like young men to a middle period of Brando-like brash swashbucklers, and finally a late period (before his early death) in Clift-style men ravaged by time and circumstance. The chapter will explore the question of whether such a broad range of characters coming from a single actor are scored in a musically consistent manner, examining such films as Une si jolie petite plage (1948), Fanfan la Tulipe (1951), and Montparnasse 19 (1958). Is there something about this actor’s personal body (to use Sobchak’s term) that was intriguing to composers?

At this stage this interlude is rather likely to get cut, but I'm leaving it in the plan for now because there is so little Anglophone scholarship (and not a whole of of Francophone scholarship) on Philipe and he's extremely good. There was also a lot of interesting stuff going on musically in French cinema in the 50s. It might be best to save this for an article at a later date, though. I've only got 60,000 words and when I was writing up the Dean chapter it ballooned to 10,000, something likely to happen with the other chapters, too.

Chapter Six: Extremes of Musical Characterisation in Sirk

Douglas Sirk, the quintessential director of melodramas or “women’s pictures,” had a little-studied long term collaboration with Universal Studios house composer Frank Skinner. Skinner’s scores have been critiqued as over-determined hackwork that add little to the films they accompany, but this chapter will ask whether the scores of such films as Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959) are truly superfluous or if they create conditions of melodrama in which the actors can more effectively portray their characters. The chapter will question whether the scores are really over-determined or if they can be regarded as adding nuance within the conventions of the melodrama genre.

In the proposal I was going to go back to Europe and compare Sirk with the minimal scores in Antonioni and Resnais' early work. The reviewers rightly argued that I was getting too far away from the spine, so Antonioni and Resnais can wait until a later project and Sirk deservedly gets a chapter to himself.

Chapter Seven: Scoring Race with Ethel Waters and Sidney Poitier

The 1950s saw the beginning of desegregation in Hollywood film, notably with the growing stardom of Sidney Poitier. This chapter will explore how performers’ race was (and was not) musicalised in the 1950s, focusing on the late part of Ethel Waters’ career and the beginning of Poitier’s. Waters starred in The Member of the Wedding, a delicate film with a delicate Alex North score, but it is really Waters’s singing in the film that sets her music apart. Poitier’s physical acting style in his early films presented composers with a challenge, met especially interestingly by Leonard Rosenman in Edge of the City (1957) and by Duke Ellington in Paris Blues (1961). Both films are interracial ‘buddy’ pictures (with John Cassavetes and Paul Newman, respectively), offering their composers a challenge (achieved in both cases) to avoid and/or question musical stereotypes.

This is also a recent addition to the plan, on the advice of the reviewers. This is the chapter that will take the most work because I don't know many of Poitier's films. Edge of the City and Paris Blues are both fantastic examples, though, so I reckon it will work very well.

Chapter Eight: Jake Gyllenhaal, A 50s Star for the 21st Century

The final short chapter will bring this triangulation of actor, character, and music into the present day to explore what modern Hollywood practice has retained of this 1950s film scoring style. One of the closer current analogues of the Clift/Dean/Brando style star is Jake Gyllenhaal: an actor of wide range but consistent performative rigour who has attracted accomplished directors and interesting scores. Gyllenhaal’s performance in Donnie Darko (2001) is not unlike the early performances of Dean and Clift, Gyllenhaal’s masculinity in Brokeback Mountain (2005) shares common ground with both James Dean’s and Rock Hudson’s in Giant, and his performance as alienated characters in Enemy (2013), Nightcrawler (2014), and Nocturnal Animals (2016) is not too far from late Clift. The minimal music used to accompany these performances has little to do with the larger-scale scores of the 1950s, but Gyllenhaal’s acting style continues in the 50s method tradition.

This might end up in the conclusion rather than as its own chapter, but I thought it important to bring us up to date and consider what echoes from the 50s are around today. Gyllenhaal's acting style and choice of characters is an interesting amalgam of Clift, Brando, and Dean, so he seemed a logical choice.

You'll notice that a few of these films date from 1948, 1949, 1960, and 1961 so aren't strictly 1950s. My excuse is that I'm going with the 'long 1950s', which works in a Hollywood context. In 1948 there was a big lawsuit in which Paramount had to divest itself of its cinemas, starting a major change in the way the studios did business. They could no longer rely on income from their own cinemas, which meant they had to completely rethink distribution, eventually affecting the kind of films that were made. Film scholars often use 1948 as a watershed year in which what becomes typical in the 50s begins. Similarly, the early 60s look more like the late 50s than they do like the late 60s, so I feel justified in including those films. Monroe dies in 1962, bringing the era to an end, then the Kennedy assassination soon changes the way America looks at everything. I also could not exclude The Misfits, which feels like a very important film that rounds off the whole era in a pessimistic cloud of desert dust.

So this is my research life for the next year. It's a big ambitious project but an exciting one.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

In the Stacks: Some Thoughts on Libraries

It is now official that the University of Auckland is consolidating its Music and Dance, Fine Arts, and Architecture libraries into the General Library. In spite of vehement protests from students and staff, budgetary issues won out and we are losing our specialist library spaces and some staff. The consolidation will naturally entail a reduction of physical resources. We are told that less-used books will be moved to remote storage and that they can be called up in 24 hours. In reality it is likely that books that have not circulated in a while will be withdrawn from the collection; anyone who uses libraries frequently will know that weeding is a necessary evil because there is always a finite amount of shelf space, but we all hope that the weeding will be done in a sensitive way. Unfortunately, evidence thus far is to the contrary, as books I have myself used for research or teaching have been withdrawn, but we can try and be optimistic that collection management will be more reasoned in the future. That is not really the point of this little feuilleton, though. Rather, I want to make a case for the continued presence of physical resources (meaning books) in libraries and to argue that ebooks and other electronic resources are far from the panacea to the ills of education that they are often claimed to be.

A big problem comes up every year whenever I assign any kind of research project: students have limited research skills, and they deteriorate further every year. This is in spite of their being savvy digital natives and in spite of having a lot of directed teaching in how to use electronic resources in secondary school and at university. I've racked my brain about why this is the case: why can I find in two minutes the basic scholarly resources for a topic I know little about, while some students cannot find the same resources in two weeks of work? Of course I have spent a lot of time looking for resources; that's a major part of postgraduate work, and having a doctorate means I should have expert research skills. But surely my students' relative ease with using electronic media should give them an advantage that I, who remember the days before the internet was ubiquitous, cannot boat of? It dawned on me that the answer (or at least one answer) to the conundrum is rather simple: experience in library stacks. I spent an awful lot of time in library stacks as a child, both in school libraries and in public libraries. My experiences in the stacks taught me visually how resources are organised, and showed me physically how much knowledge is out there. Seeing the Dewey Decimal system manifested in real objects meant that I became fluent in that system from very early on (and even before this, seeing things in simple alphabetical order set up my brain for more advanced methods of organisation). Browsing the stacks also gave me a sense of the huge variety of books in the world. I learned quickly what scholarly books look like (they have notes and indexes), what different types of musical scores look like, what art books look like. I learned about what publishers to expect to put out what kinds of books. Browsing the university library stacks, first at George Washington University's Gelman Library then at Oxford's Music Faculty Library, taught me about the vast range of musicology and its surrounding subjects. While I may not have been studying a particular topic at the time, I knew where it was in the library and what sorts of books were in the section. I would file away the existence of a few books on Scriabin or on Moroccan music for future reference. Just looking at a library shelf, not even opening any books, is hugely educational. I learned as much browsing the stacks as I did in my classes, dipping into books here and there, honing in on writing styles and methods of scholarly enquiry.

This experiential learning is lost when students do not have stacks to browse. Searching for books online is an activity removed from reality: you miss the chance to see what other things are around the book you are searching for (which might be more useful than the book you were after), the chance to flip through the book to see if it will be useful (unless there is an ebook version, although these are impossible to truly flip through), the chance that a librarian might say, 'ah, but have you also seen book X?' when you take it to the counter to check it out. When you find a book online you find exactly one book. When you find a book in the stacks you find many more. The most advanced search algorithm is no match for human experience. I know what I saw in the stacks last week, but it will only come up in an online search if I use the right terms. Using an ebook engages one sense: sight, or sound if you use a text reader. Using a real book engages sight, sound (of the pages turning and the binding bending), smell (I can sometimes place publishers by the smell of their books), and, most importantly, touch. (Tasting the books is not recommended; remember the legend that turns up in Dumas' La Reine Margot and Eco's The Name of the Rose about the poisoned books, which kill anyone who licks their finger after turning the pages.) So much more is lost than physical objects when books are withdrawn or moved to storage. We risk losing an entire aspect of our cognitive functioning, and the effects are already visible. Students come up with online resources of dubious quality when excellent books are waiting for them to find in the library catalogue. Countless students, even ones who write well, will cite a short programme note of questionable provenance instead of a well written book by an expert in the field. My experiences in the stacks have taught me how to search, so that I can use the online algorithms more effectively. These search tools should be a means to an end, not the end in themselves. When they do become the end, good resources go unused, research loses nuance, and students get low grades because their work is not as thorough as it should be.

Is it too late? It might be for the current generation of university and high school students, who through no fault of their own were deprived of the chance to develop some of the skills that would be most useful to them in their studies. This is due to the criminal negligence of bureaucratic budget-wielders, the same people who advocate that the arts should be removed from schools, people who say that students need 'study spaces', not books. Without books, what on earth do they have to study? I know of no actual librarians who agree that e-resources are the only way forward, or who advocate reducing the number of books in the stacks. But we do have reason to be optimistic: public library use is now on an upswing, bookstores are finally opening again rather than closing, and people are starting to advocate more seriously and publicly for books. Just as school administrators are finding that putting the arts back into the curriculum can actually boost performance in other subjects, they might realise that physical libraries with real books are also beneficial to overall development.

While I doubtless spent more time in the library stacks than was typical for a child in the 90s, that time played a major role in why I have got to where I am, getting paid to research and teach things that interest me. I should also note that I'm not against the expansion of electronic resources. Having access to more material makes an inestimable difference in my own research and that of my colleagues, and I could not have completed my doctoral dissertation, articles, or my book manuscript without them. But they are only useful insofar as I know how to find and use them, and it was the experience of using physical resources in libraries that taught me how to do that. The next step for me as a pedagogue is to come up with ways to patch in some of that experiential knowledge so that our students can be empowered to produce better work. The moral of the story is, take your kids to the library and leave them in the stacks for a while!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Howard Hawks Films

I've recently started working on a book on Howard Hawks's use of music in his films, and as a way to get my value judgements out of the way I thought I would here give a gut-reaction ranking of his entire oeuvre. Over the past few months I've gone through all of the films chronologically, which has been a fascinating exercise. Watching them all in relatively quick succession shows just how much thematic material repeats from film to film: while the personnel surrounding him changes, there are most definitely elements that the whole oeuvre has in common. Robin Wood, Gerald Mast, Peter Bogdanovich, and many other critics have listed these, so I don't want to take more time here to do it and instead get onto the films themselves. This ranking is based on my primal reactions and personal taste; the book's readings will of course be much better critically justified!

First, a caveat: I'm not ranking every film Hawks had a hand in, only those he directed large portions of. So I'm not including Viva Villa! (about a quarter directed by Hawks before he was fired and Jack Conway hired), The Outlaw (for which Hawks only shot a day or so of material), or Corvette K-225 (Hawks only produced, though apparently he had something to do with the screenplay). Of his eight silent films I'm only including the two I've seen complete: Fazil and A Girl in Every Port. The Road to Glory and The Air Circus are lost, The Cradle Snatchers is mostly lost, and I've not seen Fig Leaves, Paid to Love, or Trent's Last Case (please tell me if you've got a copy of any of those!).

1-10: The Immortals
These ten are the films that no film lover should miss, whether or not they care about Howard Hawks.

1. Rio Bravo (1959)
While Bringing Up Baby is my favourite film in absolute terms, Rio Bravo is my favourite Hawks film because it so perfectly distills everything the director is about. Its dramaturgy never falters in spite of its leisurely pace, it has the only Dimitri Tiomkin score that I really like, and it has the best performances most of its actors ever gave. It's nominally quite long, at 141 minutes, but every moment is packed with action and/or feeling and the time flies by amazingly quickly.

2. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Long my favourite film, Bringing Up Baby is simply the funniest ever made. Words fail, just watch it.

3. Red River (1948)
With the exception of over-acting Joanne Dru, this is the best-cast of all of Hawks's films. John Wayne demonstrates that he can actually act, Montgomery Clift becomes a star, Walter Brennan shows that he was the best character actor in the business, John Ireland and Harry Carey Jr. show how to support the leads, and Harry Carey Sr. adds nostalgia value. Each of the minor members of the team is fully characterised, which makes this a great film to get lost in. That also makes analysing it quite challenging: I try for critical detachment but keep getting caught up! (This is true of all of these great films, and I found the same thing writing my doctoral thesis on Monteverdi operas.)

4. To Have and Have Not (1944)
In which Bogart and Bacall demonstrate what chemistry means. Every performance here is good, especially Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael. I reckon this is Hawks's most musically sophisticated film.

5. Ball of Fire (1941)
Gary Cooper is watchable when doing comedy, and Barbara Stanwyck is especially watchable here. They are surrounded by a fine supporting cast and a great script by Billy Wilder. Alfred Newman's score is very clever; ironically, the music here is much better than in the 'musical' remake, A Song is Born.

6. His Girl Friday (1940)
Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell have great chemistry here. There are some unfortunately preachy moments in the film (very unusual for Hawks), but most of the time it's expert filmmaking.

7. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Like Red River, this one is full of well-rounded supporting characters. It also has one of Cary Grant's best performances.

8. The Dawn Patrol (1930)
Hawks's first sound picture and his first real masterpiece. This one has everything: action, comedy, and engaging performances (especially from Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr). Hawks shows right off the bat how good he is at dialogue directing, and the screenplay has a clear, organic structure. The air battle sequences are beautifully done.

9. Scarface (1931)
Hawks seems to have got all of his grisly guignol tendencies out of his system with this one, his most violent and dark film (but also very funny). Paul Muni overacts, but George Raft is great as his sidekick and there are some good supporting performances and cracking Ben Hecht dialogue.

10. Hatari! (1962)
Many critics would not rate this as high, but it provides the most pure pleasure of all of Hawks's films apart from Rio Bravo and Bringing Up Baby. Yes, it is overlong and sometimes wooly in its structure, but it's two and a half hours of joy.

11-20: Good
These ten are amusing and interesting, not masterpieces but still quite good.

11. Twentieth Century (1934)
There is an awful lot to like here, especially the cast and the dialogue, but I can't help but wonder if Hawks had stuck more closely to the play with its single setting on the train whether this would be even better. As funny as it is, the long prologue before we get to the train feels somewhat unnecessary. As the play and the musical adaptation (On the Twentieth Century) showed, there is plenty of intrigue to keep us occupied in the single location. Here is an example of the drive to 'open out' stage plays for the screen not really being necessary.

12. Air Force (1943)
Pure propoganda, but well made and effective. The pilot's death scene, written by William Faulkner and subtly scored by Franz Waxman, is the most moving scene Hawks ever shot.

13. I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Solid middle-period Cary Grant paired with Ann Sheridan, and some amusing situations and dialogue, don't quite manage to let this take off into screwball hilarity.

14. Ceiling Zero (1936)
Hawks made this aviation film between the more famous Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. James Cagney is the only really great thing about this one, but he's here at his very best and the rest is watchable.

15. The Big Sky (1952)
A little known middle-period Hawks western, with fine performances from Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin. This is constantly engaging if never quite breaking through to sublimity. It's Hawks's most under-rated film.

16. Monkey Business (1952)
More mid-career Cary Grant, mismatched with Ginger Rogers and a screenplay that starts well but descends into dullness. Grant's scenes with Marilyn Monroe are the best part.

17. The Big Sleep (1946)
If The Big Sky is Hawks's most under-rated film, this is his most over-rated. Yes, it's fun to get lost in, but at the end of the day the plot makes no sense and I get the feeling that the whole thing doesn't really amount to a hill of beans (to quote another Bogart picture). But Bogart and Bacall are wonderful to watch, as are most of the supporting cast, and the nutty dialogue is amusing. I don't like the Max Steiner score, which is a little too repetitive and obvious.

18. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Hawks seems to have mostly been phoning in the dialogue direction, and the songs (the best part of the picture) were directed by Jack Cole. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are excellent in spite of mediocre dialogue.

19. Barbary Coast (1935)
The strange combination of Edward G. Robinson, Joel McRae, and Miriam Hopkins destabilises this film, but makes it interesting. Hawks was never as good at doing period pictures as he was with contemporary subjects, but this makes a gallant attempt at recreating gold rush San Francisco.

20. The Crowd Roars (1932)
Auto racing doesn't really float my boat, but James Cagney is good as always. The dialogue direction feels like a step backwards from The Dawn Patrol.

21-31: Falling Short
Compiling this list has made me realise that Hawks made quite a few films that don't quite work for various reasons. Sometimes it's miscasting or an unfixable screenplay, or they just rub me the wrong way.

21. Sergeant York (1941)
This is a Hollywood propaganda film and little more (compare to Air Force, also propaganda but much more compelling). I don't find much evidence of Hawks here; it's really more of a studio film than most of Hawks's other work. I find Gary Cooper annoying here and elsewhere (other than Ball of Fire).

22. A Girl in Every Port (1928)
This is widely recognised as the first truly Hawksian film, in that it deals with the male group/conflict subject matter he would return to so often. It's a very breezy film, and not as stolid as many other silents. One can feel Hawks wanting to break into dialogue.

23. Tiger Shark (1932)
Edward G. Robinson is wonderful here playing a Portuguese fisherman, but the rest is not.

24. The Thing From Another World (1951)
There is some debate as to whether this was ghost-directed by Hawks or was actually done by the credited Christian Nyby. Whether or not he told them where to put the camera, Hawks's fingerprints are all over this, almost to a fault. Like so many science fiction films of the period, it is overly schematic and predictable. This is anathema for Hawksians, but I prefer The Day the Earth Stood Still.

25. The Criminal Code (1931)
Walter Huston and Boris Karloff are always watchable, but this one is pretty forgettable. It is a backwards step from The Dawn Patrol in its speed and vivacity.

26. Come and Get It! (1936)
The Hawks sections of this (approximately half, before he was replaced by William Wyler) are decent but no more. The same can be said of the Wyler sections. In his biography of Hawks, Todd McCarthy describes the film that could have been, making the one that was made seem even more disappointing.

27. A Song Is Born (1948)
Aside from its jazz sequences, this is an unnecessary and dull musical remake of Ball of Fire (often shot-for-shot).

28. The Ransom of Red Chief (1952)
Hawks's only short film, released as part of the omnibus O. Henry's Full House. Hawks's film is a mediocre adaptation within a mediocre group of five O. Henry adaptations.

29. Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)
This is a largely inert film with a lovely performance by Paula Prentiss and the occasional good scene. One gets the impression that Hawks was phoning it in.

30. Rio Lobo (1970)
This is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn't as bad as some make it out to be. The first half goes along very well; it's really only the second half that falters, as it becomes an uninteresting rehash of Rio Bravo. Most of the acting as bad, but I quite like Jorge Rivera's performance: he finds a very Hawksian balance between serious and tongue-in-cheek.

31. El Dorado (1967)
An imitation of Rio Bravo, this can only pale in comparison. Without the precedent of Rio Bravo, would this be seen as a better film? In a way it's a meaningless question, as the intertextual references are so explicit here. El Dorado is more interesting as a semiotic case study than as a film. The French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma went nuts for it because it seemed to confirm all of their auteurist theories, but even they don't quite claim that it's a great film.

32-36: Disasters
Even Howard Hawks can fumble horribly, as these turkeys demonstrate.

32. Red Line 7000 (1965)
Some people out there (Robin Wood and Quentin Tarantino among them) swear by this auto racing film, but it is Hawks at his most derivative, and it also features some truly awful music. The acting is bad, but the cars perform well. Stick to The Crowd Roars if you want a film about cars. I should say, though, that I've only seen this in a pan-and-scan VHS version. A new blu-ray is coming out later this year, and seeing it in the right aspect ratio and digitally restored might make a difference (I doubt it).

33. Fazil (1928)
This one is a curiosity in that it features every orientalist stereotype in the book. There are some intriguing scenes, but Hawks had not developed much of his signature style and there is little to set this one apart from all of the other Middle Eastern-themed films of the 1920s.

34. Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
It is often said that Hawks excelled in every genre, but this film belies that claim: he failed miserably in the historical epic. The unrelenting score by Dimitri Tiomkin, the abysmal acting, and the stolid dialogue drag this one down into the lower depths, but the production design (by the great Alexandre Trauner) is first-rate and there is some good editing, especially in the pyramid building sequence and the climatic burial. But the success of these sequences has little to do with Hawks and are more the work of Trauner and editor Rudi Fehr. Those sequences can't save the film.

35. Today We Live (1933)
Miscast Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford star in this boring First World War drama. The first few reels of this, which take place at Crawford's country house (she's meant to be English), are unbearably awful, with the slowest dialogue in the whole Hawks canon. Franchot Tone does manage to liven things up in a decent performance, but Cooper and Crawford are both dull as dishwater.

36. The Road to Glory (1936)
This is Hawks's worst film, and surely one of the worst to ever come out of Hollywood. An unnecessary remake of the French film Les Croix de Bois, this is Hawks doing the First World War even worse than he did in Today We Live. The whole thing runs as slow as molasses, and Frederic March gives a particularly awful performance in the lead. Lionel Barrymore hams it up in the worst possible way, yet he's still the best thing in the film. The dialogue is poorly edited and has the pacing of a bad stage performance. It all reeks of sentimentality, and there is a particularly egregious performance of Schubert's 'Ave Maria' in a church while it is being bombed. June Lang, the female lead, gives the worst performance in any Hawks film (there's a reason you've never heard of her), not helped by wooden costars and unsensitive direction. It's just plain awful.

There we go, Hawks's films ranked according to my taste. Percentage-wise there are only a few duds, and considering how prolific Hawks was over a long period it's a pretty good track record. I suppose I fall into the typical 'auteurist' category of critics, who find even bad films by an 'auteur' interesting. Now I've got to write that book...