Friday, July 22, 2005

How to Disappear Completely, Vol. 1 - The Lady from Shanghai

For a filmmaker whose best work was already considered behind him, The Lady from Shanghai proves how harshly Welles was treated by the studio system, and how critics fell in line to magnify all the minor flaws in his subsequent work. A radical film by today's standards for its underlying political meaning, The Lady from Shanghai stands out; it's not often that one finds such a subtle intrigue in the characters and their political leanings - whether it's in the cannibalistic pathology of the leisure class, the brutal pragmatism of the working class hero, or the vindicated criminality that permeates the story and implicates everyone involved.

Artistically speaking, it's been fascinating to find that when Welles directed himself he couldn't help but be a fading tyrant, or have access, even as a servant, to power, and the ways in which Welles used the camera to illustrate power relations, servility and authority. Whether behind the camera or in front of it, he chose to show the impotence of wealth as part of a trajectory of power and justice, like making Macbeth an axiomatic principle and a theory of filmmaking. The curse of reckless ambition applies to Welles' career itself, but in film he treats it less as an act of aggressive commission (even Citizen Kane doesn't seem as permanently manic as say Gordon Gecko) and more as an illness that creeps over its passive victim, a disposition likely influenced by his interest in European proto-existentialism and continental philosophy.

The problem of agency in these films is part of their sophistication, and The Lady from Shanghai is hardly an exception. Agency, secrecy and manipulation dictate the action, and Welles never flinches from combining the visual aspects to exacerbate the narrative chaos, choosing dizzying shots and disorienting angles to contort and distort appearance and perception, a visual relativism of sorts. Perhaps what's most interesting in terms of agency is an overall lack of culpability. Welles treats his characters as pawns in a confidence game, one disappearance holding the key to several fortunes and Welles knows that there can be no winners.

The span between Black Irish Mike O'Hara's casual understanding of this central gambit and his employer's professional mendacity gapes wide to swallow the streetsmart O'Hara whole. In a world of no innocents, Welles uses San Francisco in much the same way Polanski used L.A. almost thirty years later in Chinatown. What O'Hara counts as his advantage is the tricky matter of disappearing, something he has done repeatedly without attachments, out of his willingness to walk away from material comforts that he feels entrap their owners, the very things for which, in his mind, the leisure class barters away its freedom. Welles endows his characters with Hitchcockian prescience, balancing instinctual traits with cunning and subtlety.

Like many of Welles' films, the proximity to power corrupts and Schlesinger, Jr.'s aphorism regarding power rings true: in these retellings of Macbeth and Lear, great men are denuded by their ambition and negligence. How to disappear completely, for Welles, means a willingness to forego any permanency, to betray those commonsensical values about stability and comfort. However, he doesn't trumpet the individual as an entity unto himself, completely unencumbered; rather, The Lady from Shanghai maintains its intellectual and emotional complexity until its final moments, sublimating individual motivations and explicating the meanings of sacrifice, tragedy and absurdity, leaving all that is solid to melt into air.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

This is Orson Welles

Unsurprisingly, skimming this book is imparting perspective in generous doses. Expect some edited posts and further thought on some of the films recently discussed. Also look for a two part entry, How to Disappear Completely, dealing with identity and character in Mr. Arkadin and The Lady from Shanghai very shortly. Some marathon viewing of Citizen Welles, a two-disc collection of The Trial and The Stranger, as well as the propaganda shorts It's All True is upcoming.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Magnificent Ambersons

It's unfortunate that this film is available only on video, especially one that begins with Robert Osbourne apologizing for everything that's wrong about the print chosen for commercial release. Whether it was the fact that thirty-one minutes were edited and burned by the studio while Welles worked on projects in South America, or that it was, alas, a full-screen print, it's difficult to imagine The Magnificent Ambersons as Welles intended it.

Nevertheless, the story itself, based on Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, shocked me for its notable thefts, tearing pages from Dreiser, Howells, Twain, and Wharton, especially as it was published in 1918, leaving only Dreiser and Wharton to hash out differences with him. But it's Howells' book The Rise of Silas Lapham that seemed to have been scavenged most ruthlessly. Tarkington's story begins in 1873, tracing the Family Amberson from its peak fortune through their decline into madness and depravity. Howells' book does nearly the same, introducing readers to Silas Lapham from the discovery of mineral deposits on his family farm, through the rise of his paint manufacture, to his embarrassment at the loss of his Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts mansion. Unlike Tarkington, Howells' reputation (given to him by notable critic Mark Twain) as the smiling face of realism, stops short of Tarkington's naturalistic telling.

Regrettably, Welles didn't make a film about the Laphams and the Coreys, and old money versus new, choosing instead to adapt Tarkington's work - I wonder if he even knew about Howells as anything other than a literary critic - which gets across more or less the same notions about the fragility of aristocracy and the persistent hope of realizing some American dream. The antecedents are switched in Welles' film, in this case allowing Joseph Cotten's Eugene Morgan to emerge as an inventor- industrialist after his frivolous childhood, and the descendants of Major Amberson scattered to the wind, ruined by bad investments, following a theme pursued by Wharton in The House of Mirth.

The film itself is like these books as a study of American types: the alternately opulent and sedentary aristocracy set against an energetic, hopeful petit bourgeoisie, the working class represented by docile servants. Their attitudes and aspirations are reflected in the young heirs of both fortunes whose star-crossed paths mirror those of their lovelorn parents. Notions of borrower and lender take on erotic forms; Morgan cannot marry the widowed Minafer for proprietary reasons, providing evidence of America's enduring caste structure, despite remonstrations to the contrary in print and politics. Likewise, technological progress plays as foil against social injustices: that George Amberson Minafer can't control all the aspects of his life proves his downfall, opening but one space atop Edward Bellamy's metaphorical stagecoach, a seat Morgan happily claims.

Retribution equated with justice is a common element in literature of the period, but it wasn't always in the venial manner expressed in these books and Welles' film. From Bellamy's Looking Backward to John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer, one can easily see all manner of justice exacted on the cunning and witless. Like Lapham seeking reassurance from his clerk, we find a would-be scion begging for work, dangerous work, from a former subordinate. For Minafer, the loss of dignity begets the fall of empire, proving, albeit in a convaluted way, Spencer's perverted understanding of Darwin's evolution, in which the wealthy and the poor alike may be brought low their perceived weaknesses.

For Welles, this film marked what many critics consider the beginning of the end. Chafing under a studio system that sought creative control for commercial ends, his absence resulted in the unauthorized editing of The Magnificent Ambersons. Forthwith, Welles bold visions are more conservative, and while films like The Lady from Shanghai are remarkable triumphs artistically, one senses that these films, nearly all of which are concerned with matters of identity and power, might have been more piercing indictments of American policy, economics, and justice.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Somebody Up There Likes Me

This comes as magical news. Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing are on the Criterion Collection's September release schedule. Can Eureka and Insignificance be far behind? Even if they're already available a guy can dream, right?

Then again, September also brings Godard's Masculin féminin, which I feel is the crux of his politico-romantic films, or vice versa.

Developing. . .

Saturday, July 09, 2005

It Should Happen to You

Glover, Gladys Glover: Judy Holliday

Bogdanovich didn't disappoint. If anything he seems a little hemmed in by the format, keeping him from telling one story after another, each tidbit and personality quirk reminding him of another conversation he had with a classic filmmaker, who in this case was George Cukor. But it was a 1961 conversation with Jack Lemmon that proved most interesting. Lemmon believed that the studio ruined the box office for It Should Happen to You with its bland name. Originally titled A Name for Herself, Lemmon felt that had a unique ring - something to set it apart from the vague title it was ultimately awarded.

It's a shame that it didn't get wider recognition. A charming picture balanced with equal parts technical sophistication, intellectual heft (yes), and aw shucks screwball comedy, It Should Happen to You bears Cukor's upbeat style and his trademark escapism. If you're a dead-to-rights realist, you may as well forget this picture, but if you can appreciate the whimsical nature of certain Woody Allen films, namely The Purple Rose of Cairo combined with maybe Crimes and Misdemeanors, then this might be the picture for you.

There are some interesting elements that set it apart from other, more notable Cukor pictures and it's almost transparent why Bogdanovich selected it. It has a traditional, Horatio Alger in sensible shoes story arc but it has pleasant, sophisticated flourishes that keep adding depth to what seems like a facile story about a poor girl making good after being down on her luck.

Dealing with issues of individuality versus collectivity during the mid-fifties (the film was released in 1954) likely also raised some eyebrows, but as Gladys Glover strives for fame, her counterpart, the levelheaded Pete Sheppard, a documentary director who "discovers" Gladys wandering Central Park as she feeds the pigeons. As they walk together, Gladys notices an empty billboard and has a mind to rent it, publicizing herself like an urban Kilroy. Looking backward, Bogdanovich noted the Warholian and McLuhanesque implications of such a plot; as Gladys ascends and gains notoriety, she encounters unanticipated dangers, many of which would outlast, or more likely, ruin her fame.

Reading the film forward, the mention of Mark Twain during Gladys' first television appearance proves more interesting, particularly because Twain had such a keen imagination, spurred by his maturation during the great invention age of the late 19th C America. These sorts of insights into celebrity, combined with Lemmon as the humble filmmaker toiling in obscurity, focused on reality and truth (although he never says it aloud), make an interesting and underdeveloped subplot. As we see Gladys become an advertising agency icon, we catch snippets of Pete filming a film within a film, preparing a sort of debriefing for Gladys so she might reclaim her identity, and so that he might reveal his feelings for her.

A prismatic film about identity, celebrity and reality, It Should Happen to You prefigures insta-celebrity as delicately as possible, and is certainly more memorable than its title suggests.

Peter Bogdanovich & The Essentials

Nobody's laughing: Bogdanovich & Stratten

Peter Bogdanovich seems like a natural choice to host The Essentials on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It's hard to believe, but it was only relatively recently (maybe three years time) that I "discovered" TCM, Robert Osbourne's mellifluous voice wafting from our television. Although their programming can be a times a bit repetitive, they exhume films that I manage to consistently miss. I didn't realize it at the time, but outside of New York City, repertory cinema is in much the same place it was before it was appreciated, which means that for me and others in Philadelphia, TCM is sometimes the only place to turn to see something rare. Imagine my dismay when I tuned in to see Rossellini's Europa 51 reaching it's climax - it might not be so bad if I didn't know these films weren't available for rent anywhere.

Fortunately, TCM tends to be a sharp bunch of film enthusiasts who do a fair job of programming (but why screen Kubrick's 2001 at 1 a.m.?), but Bogdanovich cast as film expert, while entirely appropriate, seems cruel at best. Having lionized classic American directors while his peers saw fit to devour them along with the studio system, fueled by speed, Italian Neorealism and French New Wave cinema, Bogdanovich finds himself a relic of that heyday and practically the only member of that club that didn't experience lifelong success financially or critically. Maybe the Schatzbergs and Mazurskys don't immediately come to mind, but those names vanish in the looming skyscrapers of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas.

So it strikes me as odd and disappointing to see such a bland array of films (many admitted favorites among them) on Bogdanovich's list. My anxiety grows when I think that Wes Anderson has seen Bogdanovich's precious notecards which it seems he may never publish - a work that I think would rival Sarris' congenial outlook to America's past masters as well as the Hollywood hacks who popularized the artform. Nevertheless, I can't wait to see his introduction to It Should Happen to You tonight.

Orson Welles: Gimme Fiction

Things have been quiet here for quite some time. This isn't because I gave up on blogging, or that it failed me in some technical way; I have found less time to write, or have found increasingly creative excuses for not writing, which is probably more apt. One of my more convincing rationalizations is a twofold excuse, fabricated by varieties of awe. The first is the ever pressing engagement with what might be seen as more pressing matters, mainly political, that constitute the lived experience of humanity, something of which art is part, but isn't the focal point for me. Secondly, tangentially, and undemocratically, it's the realization that when faced with Great Art in any media, why bother?

Therein lies the problem. Contained in Andrew Sarris' preface to his landmark survey of American movies from the late 20's to the late 60's, one gets the sense that it's incumbent upon the critic to not be intimidated by such Great Works, and probably not even consider them as such, which would go a long way toward preserving democratic participation in media criticism.

Clearly blogging has changed this somewhat, but there remains nonetheless a para-professional bent: the backscratching became evident well before major media tried to discredit blogging at all levels of professionalism. It's also my belief that Sarris' work launched a new thinking about American cinema and its influences in a way that deadened the high culture/low culture debate at its actual height, although nearly forty years later, it's still being argued, even though populist/popular forms of entertainment have more or less overwhelmed things like theater and classical music. That result was not what Sarris was arguing, although major media were poised to pursue those artistic forms that guaranteed the greatest return, even as he wrote - the Sixties demonstrated the ability of B cinema to grow audiences and the durability of pop music in all forms.

But this newly stratified media - from zines to the New York Times - have opened opportunities in criticism that are astounding. Anyone can participate in a debate, provided they have readers or the wherewithal to comment persistently enough (without being blocked) to establish themselves as a voice (or in Sarris' vernacular, become a "tree") in the ghoulish media forest. In the past six months, the forest proved serene and not worth stirring: as I immerse myself in new films and music and am introduced to new artists of all kinds, past and present, I've found myself struggling to regain footing. For me it's been a case of Odysseus meeting Heisenberg, and the veritable wanderer cannot simply reflect on position or movement, the place and time being secondary to the discovery itself. With that in mind it's my intention that this blog becomes something other than a site for superlative pronouncements (unless otherwise warranted) and instead a film diary where entries are made as notes and observations based on films viewed, a far less daunting task than director and talent retrospectives for which I am generally unqualified.

One such discovery (that's not much of a discovery at all, since he's more or less the grandfather of American independent cinema) has been Orson Welles. With the recent release of the counterfeit masterpiece F for Fake, Welles caught my eye and immediately captured my imagination; the notions of authenticity and "the expert" being at stake, as well as customary ideas about value/worth/price that are often inseparable from discussions of art, art being a commodity first and a spectacle second. Gaddis' The Recognitions (not to mention William Gass' humorous introduction) immediately came to mind as I watched in mock horror as several illusions unfolded before me: the first being the biographical account of Elmyr de Hory (his Court TV entry is here; Wikipedia entry here) and Clifford Irving, de Hory's biographer, imagining an "official" autobiography of Howard Hughes. Like the magician he portrays, Welles narrates, positions and repositions the various subjects before the viewer, manipulating the story and its effect in plain sight.

But this, I would learn upon further inquiry, was Welles' trump card. After all, he announces, wasn't he the man who terrified listeners with a fable about the end of the world brought upon us by aliens, inspiring a panic despite several reassurances that it was indeed fiction? From the outset Welles took on only the largest personalities when he deigned to act as well as write and direct, and in so doing fashioned a penumbra personality that eclipsed even his own status - indeed, his performance as a sociopathic Texas baron in Man in the Shadow suggests the comparison itself, as does his performance in The Third Man where his character literally hides in the shadows even as he commands all of the film's action and Joseph Cotten's motivation!

Welles' shadowy career has come under repeated scrutiny. Verily, Sarris' names him as both a studio victim and one of his own ambitions, the very creativity that put him at odds with his financiers. Forced to work to produce his own material, Welles captained a lifeboat against the icy obstacles and floes that kept him from creating willy nilly, stifling his potent imagination and inhibiting the impulse to put down a project to move on to something newer and more interesting. F for Fake contains a documentary that catalogues his unfinished projects, some of which seemed very promising, including his last attempt at a full-length film, The Other Side of the Wind, which would've starred Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston. That he never finished it, and couldn't finish Don Quixote struck me with so much sadness while watching, even moreso than Lost in La Mancha.

If you're interested in further reading, I stumbled upon moments ago. It's a nice if modest resource. I'll have more later, including comments on The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin.