Category: Watzek Screens

By The Law

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“The theme of the picture By The Law is alien to our viewer in script and essence. Considering the instances of pathology and hysteria [in the film], it is a sick phenomenon in our cinematography which harmfully affects our Soviet screen.” — A.R.K. (Association of Revolutionary Cinematography), 1926.

“We may be accused of being morbid or misanthropic, but please do not forget that our film is about the modern English middle class–surely the most inhuman of all.” — Lev Kuleshov, 1926.

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It is strange when a 92-year-old Soviet film can say so much about the contemporary world. Class violence, retribution, environmental chaos–all are active ingredients in Lev Kuleshov’s “constructivist Western” By The Law (Po Zakonu). Viewing it today, from what some geologists are calling the Great Acceleration period of the Anthropocene, is like peeking into a creepy apocalyptic window of past and future. Like Marx, the Soviets believed that capitalism would destroy humanity; and lo and behold, here we are, on the way to our own Easter-Island party, with investors buying up escape-pod properties in New Zealand to ensure that this model survives for their entrepreneurial offspring, who will presumably sell shares in the Norwegian Seed Vault.  /communist_rant

The coming of Russian film coincided with the creation of the U.S.S.R., the world’s first modern worker state. It provided the opportunity for a clean break from the literature and drama of the 19th-century, both of which the Soviet intellectuals rejected as bourgeois tools of domination controlled by the aristocracy. With 80% of the Russian population illiterate, it was believed that this new visual medium would usher in a transformative era of avant-garde modernity, offering a conduit through which the nascent nation could educate and galvanize the people. Like rail lines and power grids, film would connect the disparate corners of the Soviet together. It would create social cohesion between ethnic groups and help authorities overcome the huge communication hurdles of time and space.

But things got weird. The period of genuine openness and experimentation was over fast and in steep decline after Lenin’s death. Anything avant-garde suddenly became elite, epicurean and subject to suspicion. Film plots were required to be both entertaining (without being “too American”) and reflect deeper socialist worldviews, a concept called Socialist Realism. Many in the industry, particularly directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers, struggled between these two worlds. Their continued employment and access to funding meant keeping the cultural commissars satisfied with works that met this criteria. As if it wasn’t hard enough making wheat quota subplots stimulating, the films should also be exportable abroad and appeal to international audiences.

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Kuleshov Collective practicing on a rooftop

It was within this confused climate that the Kuleshov Collective, a close-knit group of actors and technicians started by director Lev Kuleshov, set to work on a new project in 1926. (Kuleshov pioneered several techniques of early film montage theory that today would be taken for granted; one is called the Kuleshov Effect, which asserted that one shot placed beside a second can alter a human’s emotional interpretation.) The Collective’s biggest success thus far had been in 1924, with the brilliant satirical comedy The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which lampooned both American and Soviet stereotypes equally. But the group was now on shaky ground after its disastrous follow-up, when a long and confusing sci-fi film called The Death Ray was thoroughly hated by everyone. Kuleshov knew that the collective’s next project had to come in on the cheap and be a hit. While it would have been easy to fall back on the safety of West’s comedic formula, he happened across a gloomy story by American socialist writer Jack London called “The Unexpected” and decided to adapt it with screenwriter Victor Shklovsky. Finishing the script in 12 hours, they started scouting locations outside Moscow that could serve as the Yukon. They spotted the “huge and forlorn” pine tree first, near the Tsaritsino ponds. Then the Collective built a small shack on the banks of the icy Moskva River. The majority of the film would be just three actors inside this claustrophobic interior. It would be the cheapest Russian production of all time.

Ultimately, it’s the performances of Aleksandra Khokhlova (as Edith) and Vladimir Fogel (as Dennin) that make By The Law so exceptional. Aleksandra Khokhlova was Kuleshov’s spouse and creative partner. Like the others in the Collective, she had starred in most of his previous films; but unlike the men, she was mercilessly mocked and insulted by critics for her angular looks and skinniness. Lev Kuleshov hit back, saying “The commercial pursuit of beauties and names is none other than hidden pornography or psycho-pathology for which there is absolutely no place in Soviet cinematography.” The best English write-up of the film belongs to American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as “H.D.”, in the 1928 issue of the film journal Close-Up. Watching the German version Söhne in a Switzerland theater, she described Khokhlova’s performance:

The gestures of this woman are angular, bird-like, claw-like, skeleton-like and hideous. She has a way of standing against a sky line that makes a hieroglyph, that spells almost visibly some message of cryptic symbolism. Her gestures are magnificent. If this is Russian, then I am Russian. Beauty is too facile a word to describe this; this woman is a sort of bleak young sorceress…Her face can be termed beautiful in the same way that dawn can be termed beautiful rising across stench and fever of battle…This sort of raw picked beauty must of necessity destroy the wax and candy-box “realism” of the so much so-called film art. It must destroy in fact so much that perhaps it does “go”, as one of our party said, “too far”.

This notion of “too far”-ness echoes a similar comment made by Cinema Front critic Viktor Pertsov, as noted by scholar Denise Youngblood in her Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935. Pertsov criticized Kuleshov for not guiding the viewer to moral judgment or providing a social key with which to decode the film, which he described as “hermetically sealed.” While meant negatively, today this hermetic sealing is precisely what makes this movie so radically accessible to new viewers. Unlike other Russian films from the period, it ties itself to no historical event or revolutionary act but merely works its way through its own myopic microcosm of greed and madness, close-up by close-up, breakdown by breakdown.

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Aleksandra Khokhlova’s “hieroglyph”

Kuleshov was known for making dangerous physical demands on his actors, although the confined interior of By The Law theoretically made for safer working conditions. The shoot was carefully timed to overlap with a spring thaw and flood event. Actors would freeze, be submerged, and have off-screen airplane propellers blow snow and sleet into their faces. Kuleshov described the expereince in Fifty Years In Films:

Spring came, the ice on the river broke. We went on shooting, but suddenly it became apparent that we were having quite an unusual flood: the river water was inundating the cabin, its level steadily rising. The wet cables produced electric shocks whenever one inadvertently touched them, but Khokhlova affirmed that “electricity made her feel more intensely”. While a close shot was being made, Fogel lay bound on ice in the fire-hose rain and airplane wind for two and a half hours. (p.228-229)

Vladimir Fogel was better known for his comedic roles in hit films like Chess Fever, where his neurotic performance shows his gift for physical comedy. But today, it is his portrayal of the exploited and embittered Irishman in By The Law that stands as his highest achievement. Kuleshov wanted extreme states of being from the faces of his actors. This is why the Collective practiced incessantly using still photographs and études, trying to move beyond the cliched facial expressions so common to the stage. Truly extreme states of being, they believed, could never be attained through psychological immersion. In that sense, they rejected theater theorist Stanislavski’s approach as a mere dressing-up of canned Victorian melodrama. Actors were mechanical beings subject to the laws of science. Ana Olenina summarizes this well in her article “Engineering Performance: Lev Kuleshov, Soviet Reflexology, and Labor Efficiency Studies”:

Kuleshov’s explorations were driven by his conviction that the performer must exploit the abilities of his or her body to the maximum extent and create corporeal spectacles that would strike the audience with their unusualness, dynamism, and perfection in every detail. Thus, the acting études and films created by Kuleshov’s troupe in the 1920s were marked by a clear tendency on the one hand, toward tragicomic grotesque and buffoonery, and on the other hand, toward extreme physical performances (p.300).

Although the end product was criticized for its “Americanism,” it was a big enough hit to prove the end of the Kuleshov Collective, as Fogel and others departed for the stable paychecks offered by the larger Soviet film factories. Fogel would soon play the proletariat couchsurfing homewrecker in Bed & Sofa, followed by The House on Trubnaya. Tragically, he killed himself in 1929, although likely not for the reasons stated by Kuleshov in his memoirs (because of “uninteresting work”). On the other hand, his suicide did coincide with the coming of sound film, a difficult time for all actors but especially international ones. Aleksandra Khokhlova, failing to meet Soviet beauty standards, could only get work in Kuleshov projects. Soon, she would turn to directing films herself, including an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s An Affair of the Clasps (1929), Sasha (1930), and a documentary called Toys (1931).

In closing, the score of this particular DVD restoration deserves mention. The majority of silent films have no remaining soundtrack notes with regard to what should be played during a screening. This is true for By The Law. Most restorations go the safe route and commission a solo piano score, or something orchestral from the time period that fits. Luckily, the Austrian Film Museum decided something different was needed and went with electronic composer Franz Reisecker, who had previously worked on a score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin restoration. His dissonant and fractured tones work brilliantly alongside Kuleshov’s images. “I was fascinated with actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, because of her very particular expressive style, and then with the montage and Kuleshov’s highly artificial visual language,” Reisecker said in an interview. “It reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns. I went back to Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s films and developed some sounds based on the bell motif. Then there is a sequence that almost has the character of a dance track when they find gold…and despite the groove there is a hint of threat in the sound.”

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Cast/Crew shot from set of By The Law; Khokhlova in scarf, Fogel in glasses, Kuleshov center left.

 

 

Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

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“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his absolute unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his vision for the sake of a larger budget.

While the original is a classic now in its own right, a rare alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve owned it for 27 years but have never been able to tell for what purpose it was originally created, and there’s no record of its existence online. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for many scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release (for clarity, I’ll call the two versions Avenue and Workprint from here on). Calling this “Van Sant’s version” would be presumptuous, since I do not know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier and rawer Drugstore Cowboy experience, with no special effects, no sophisticated jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction, shedding the Hollywood glamour sheen for a look that’s pure street, but still saturated in tones of green.

(SPOILERS: Remainder contains details about the added scenes.)

Before I get into the specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes, and most of the dialogue therein, are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift somewhat from Van Sant’s comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.

Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I’m unsure about. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention since it’s the best music-driven montage Van Sant has ever filmed. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your home?”–there is a long silent pause of apprehension. Then, instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops from nowhere, and her duet “Águas de Março” with Antonio Carlos Jobim continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. Van Sant takes his time; nothing is rushed. Brazilian beats and alternating staccato voices are stretched lovingly over the canvas of junky culture. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting nude and covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the difference between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted William S. Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But for this “Águas de Março” sequence, it’s as if, for Godard’s Band of Outsiders, a decision was made to eliminate the dance because it offered little with regard to plot progression. Other great songs forever associated with the film, like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, are still present, albeit less prominently in the mix and as source music in apartment interiors, not incidental cues.

Apart from music, there are several noteworthy added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister arrives to bring clothing and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. The sister sequence also stands as a nice-if-brief antidote to Bob’s misogyny, and it’s too bad it wasn’t retained. In two other deleted sequences, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick establish a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here, which fits the film’s aesthetic perfectly. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from an old crime procedural. Such incidental music comes up repeatedly throughout. It injects ironic humor, which is fitting since, again, Van Sant has referred to the film as a dark comedy. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, as the film became hyperfocused on its protagonist, the decision was made to emphasize his patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.

This shaky redemption is mainly conveyed through the bookending device that both begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead and/or mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, which assigns him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the celebrated head-shot of Matt Dillon said to be modeled on Andy Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s concluding credits over yet another rehash of “Israelites,” a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood editing trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended to provide advertising fodder, why was it edited into the final release cut? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.

NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.

Titicut Follies

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“Bridgewater, like any maximum security prison, is not the kind of place you parachute into and hide in the hills and make forays into the cell blocks when nobody’s looking…. It took a year for me to get permission to make Follies.”  — Frederick Wiseman

Although American censorship of cinema has fluctuated with shifts in morality, only one film has ever been subjected to a court-ordered injunction for reasons other than obscenity and national security.  That film is Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies; or, as it came to be known for decades within the judiciary, Commonwealth v. Wiseman.

Where is the line between social activism and exploitation for commercial gain? How does one balance the public’s right to know with patient privacy, particularly when violation of the latter is justified, at least in the mind of the violators, as an altruistic campaign for more humane living conditions? And to what extent can one individual bend the law to serve what they perceive as the “greater good”?….

The setting is Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts correctional institution for the criminally insane. A young Boston University law professor who had recently turned to filmmaking approached the superintendent and began discussions on the possibility of filming a documentary inside the facility. Wiseman was no stranger to mental health: his mother was a prominent mental health advocate and philanthropist in Massachusetts for years, and Bridgewater had long been a case of controversy within the state for its primitive conditions, being part asylum, part prison, and funded by two separate state agencies with differing agendas. Consisting of 139 buildings over 1,500 acres, Bridgewater served several distinct populations: a hospital for the criminally insane; a prison for alcoholics; a facility for “defective delinquents suffering from gross retardation;” and a treatment center for the “sexually dangerous.” (These differing populations, and the various levels of expectant patient privacy rights granted to each, would be a large part of the controversy when the case hit the courts.) Bridgewater was used as a threat, as bargaining leverage in job negotiations and to keep the state’s mental health employees in line: “Do what you are told, or we will reassign you to Bridgewater.” It was somewhat Soviet sounding and no doubt created the intended chilling effect on those who received it. Even more confusing was the merger of medical and penal. Security guards sometimes took orders from doctors but also directed them in certain situations. Conflicts of authority abounded; and patients were in the middle.

Follies is the textbook case of verbal contracts gone awry. On the surface, and from the reaction to the film afterwards by the agencies involved, it would appear to the casual observer that Wiseman used deceptive tactics to film inside the facility, that the administration was duped by a declaration of false intentions. But the official record shows that not to be the case at all. In fact, the superintendent with which he first initiated talks, Charles Gaughan, who held Harvard degrees in English and Psychiatric Sociology, was himself interested in bringing attention to the horrible conditions present at Bridgewater, in hopes of obtaining public support for additional funding. The meetings he held with Wiseman and his associates were extensive and involved detailed discussions on Wiseman’s philosophical and social activist approach to documentary filmmaking, as well as Gaughan’s explicit intentions. Wiseman was in no way undercover or clandestine in his actions, or even shooting where he was not supposed to: he was merely capturing average workdays, with average slightly-bored employees going through the motions, with average patients enduring treatment that was considered humane by state standards. When finished editing, he screened the film before Bridgewater’s administration, per their agreement prior to filming. They provided their unanimous approval to move forward with release. There were plenty of moments where someone at Bridgewater could have second guessed the wisdom of such a decision, or pondered public reactions to forced tube-feeding and naked men wandering in stark corridors. But amazingly, no one did.

The hows and whys of the legal disaster that followed are way beyond the scope of what can be covered here. Suffice it to say that there was a good degree of back-pedaling by Bridgewater, at Gaughan’s level and above, once the film premiered at the New York Film Festival and outraged reviews starting hitting the press (oddly, some critiques in the media focused on Wiseman’s decision to show an old man nude, apparently not bothered by the old nude man being subjected to humiliation and mistreatment.) Ultimately, Bridgewater pulled the violation of patient rights card to get a court-ordered injunction to prevent release. It was shelved in 1969, the Supreme Court denying to hear the case. Thereafter, Wiseman could only show the film to mental health professionals and had to obtain full documentation from all present that they were licensed and able to attend under the terms imposed by law. Suits brought against the state of Massachusetts by the families of several who died from neglect at Bridgewater cited the suppression of Titicut Follies as a significant contributing factor in their deaths. The fight continued, and the case was not resolved until 1992, when the courts basically ruled that patient rights were no longer an issue for the film since many of them were now deceased. It was only then that Titicut Follies could be publicly shown.

Today, Titicut Follies stands as a stark reminder of how corrupt, entrenched, and indifferent some institutionalized systems can become if left to their own devices. Equally, it exemplifies the power of those from without (Wiseman) and within (Gaughan) to challenge these systems and bring them before public scrutiny. Wiseman went on to found Zipporah and has made countless films now considered classics of the cinema verite documentary form. Thus far, however, none have ended up the meandering ethical and legal saga of the long-banned film that kick started his career.

Salesman

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“I forget who the poet is, but a famous English poet said something like, ‘There’s no sound more beautiful, whether it’s in the city or in the country, than the sound of a knocking on the door.’ …. To that I would add, ‘Unless it was a Bible salesman.'” — Albert Maysles on Salesman

If brothers Albert & David Maysles excelled at one point in documentary filmmaking, it was finding the quiet drama in the seeming banality of the everyday. And while their other subjects–the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter and the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens infamy to name but two–are often better known, it is Salesman that has always affected me the most. Maybe it’s the simplicity, or rather, the complexity of something that on the surface seems so simple. After all, documenting Bible salesmen on their day-to-day peddling routes through suburban Boston could have been unbearably dull. But it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that what is captured–and importantly, brilliantly edited together–exemplifies a sort of quintessential Americanism: a fusion of huckster commercialism, quasi-religiousness, human frailty, and a good dose of sales guilt, all stretched over the classic Horatio Alger myth of “working your way up from nothing.”

Of course, this myth works out well for some, not so well for others. So it is here, where four men–all assigned animal names by the Maysles to describe their attitudes: The Rabbit, The Bull, The Badger, and The Gipper–have mixed success peddling overpriced Bibles to families that can ill afford their $50 price tag. Very early on, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is clearly different from the rest. Especially awkward are the scenes where all men are together talking about their day’s work, Paul clearly not cut our for the task. Despite his rationale for why the sales aren’t happening, and the caustic behind-the-scenes tone he takes on with regard to his clients, he seems almost too self-aware of the superfluousness of his job, of the fact that what he is doing is essentially meaningless and manipulative. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, their incredible editor, hone in on this pathos as the key to their narrative. They admitted later to developing a deep empathy for Paul and maintained a long relationship with him well beyond the filming. Paul is also Irish, and the Maysles, growing up in an antagonistic, anti-Irish Boston neighborhood and raised with those views themselves, saw this as an important peacemaking moment for them.

Today, Salesman could be seen as the film that introduced the term “cinema verite” to a wider audience. The term originates in the works of Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his idea of the “Kino Eye,” as seen in his radically experimental The Man with the Movie Camera. The lens simply captures life as it unfolds, without any intervention or narrative artifice from the director. Later this was taken up by french filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, who coined this term for “truthful cinema.” Nevertheless, it came to embody certain aesthetic ideals and little else, philosophically speaking. At this point in the study of film and media theory, no sane person would argue that the “cinema verite” style is any more “truthful” than that given by someone like Michael Moore. Typically, it is now often shorthand for a documentary that lacks narration or any clear framing devices or contexts for the viewer. Today we really take this form for granted, but in the mid-1960s, almost all documentaries used the newsreel approach, with the omnipotent voice over bringing down the narrative like a sledgehammer, not only providing context but also compensating for the fact that often no microphones were present for the subjects being filmed, with most sound done post production. The Maysles’s  “direct cinema” approach (both brothers hated the pomposity of the phrase “cinema verite”) built upon earlier, more subtle traditions, like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the African documentaries of Rouch. The Maysles were “embedded” filmmakers–Albert on 16mm handheld camera, David on the mic and portable reel-to-reel–traveling with their subjects or, in the case of Grey Gardens, practically living in their homes. The Maysles’s reasoning for this was at the very core of their artistic vision: gain their trust, and the rest will follow. The philosophy worked remarkably well for their three essential films, SalesmanGimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

But in today’s “reality”-obsessed, media-savvy culture, Salesman is amazing for another reason: the lack of self-consciousness of its subjects. Somehow, no one seems to think it strange to have two men filming in their homes, nor do they think it appropriate to get the curlers from their hair, or put on an overshirt, or not smoke at the table with the baby present, or turn down the wobbly, blaring elevator music on the new hi-fi system. Granted, the brothers did work to get the trust of their main subjects, but there was no such trust with the working class families whose homes they entered; just a quick explanation of this being part of a “human interest story.” After all, it’s what the Maysles Brothers loved, getting at the realness of people in the moment, not in a mocking ironic sense, but in a humanistic and sincere way. And there is no film where this sincerity comes through stronger than Salesman.

(FYI, I was informed recently that David’s daughter Celia is a Lewis & Clark graduate and documentary filmmaker.  A great interview with her is available here)

American Dream

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One of the most devastating and shameful developments of postwar American society was the war waged on organized labor by corporations, in collusion with the Reagan Administration, from 1980-88. To assign an end date is deceptive, of course, since we continue to feel the waves to this day. The era began appropriately enough, with Reagan acting as a “mediator” in the air traffic controllers’ strike, where he “permanently replaced” 1,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to companies from coast to coast: “Clean house, we’ve got your back.” They took it to heart too: Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983; Chicago Tribune in 1987; Caterpillar in 1989; and perhaps the most famous of all, Hormel in 1985, the subject of Baraba Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary American Dream.

After the stagnation of the 1970s economy, the horrible recession that hit in 1982 provided corporations with the perfect pretext to crush labor, an opportunity that had not presented itself since the 1930s. This was the beginning of what would later be codified as globalization, and economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison outline the situation quite clearly in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. In the quest to remain “globally competitive,” companies were willing to do whatever it took, even destroying the very social fabric of communities that had devoted their entire working lives to the success of their firms.

It started in what is called the “Frostbelt” of the northeast, first with the steel mills, then spreading to other areas of manufacturing. Reagan’s public relations team were brilliant propagandists, pushing patriotism and national pride, the myth of the “home team” and language designed to foster illusions of equality, community and collective struggle (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1989 book Fear of Falling for a good discussion of this). Suddenly “union” became a dirty word. Unions were un-American, greedy, out for themselves. That this view was even embraced by large portions of an increasingly-conservative working class that unions had supported for decades is a testament to the efficacy of the smear campaign. Concurrently, the management consultant industry boomed as corporations looked for ways to increase their profit margins by slashing wages, benefits, and pensions. Factories moved in droves to the south, the “Sunbelt,” where labor was cheap and migrants plenty.

The packinghouse P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota showed how far manufacturing management was willing to go in this new era: they closed the old factory, built a new “hi-tech” one that resembled a prison (where worker injuries reached epidemic proportions), and demanded deep wage cuts. And this was during a string of double-digit record profits for Hormel, which was outstripping its competitors by huge margins. Several years earlier, at the behest of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW), P-9 had already reluctantly agreed to a set of concessions that dramatically increased management’s power. So when a clause in this earlier agreement was invoked, demanding a unilateral 23% pay cut across the board, P-9 geared up for a fight. Tired of the UFCW selling them down the river, they brought in Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., a consultant firm which specialized in high-profile media assaults on corporations, typically with boycotts and pressure strategies on banks and stakeholders. It galvanizes worker spirit but the impact on Hormel is minimal. As the months wear on, the International and UFCW withdraw all support and striker benefits, even encouraging P-9 members to be scabs and cross their own picket lines. Some choose to do so, burning bridges with their neighbors, their friends, their family members. Others block streets, get hit with teargas and arrested, refuse to give in. The destruction of the social fabric, as predicted.

On the bright side, American Dream highlights a new energy in labor, one that shows how out of touch the national labor leaders had become, with their exorbitant salaries and willingness to negotiate with unfair corporate demands. This new spirit is summed up well by one striker late in the film, when he realizes that the P-9 membership, even after months of pickets and civil disobedience, will ultimately have to pick between unfair concessions or unemployment: “Fuck ’em, we’ll find something else,” he says defiantly, walking away from the union hall mic.

Don’t Look Back

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“If we were someplace else I’d punch you in your goddamn nose.” — Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman to hotel manager

Although documentaries on music and musicians are numerous, most mainstream ones come across as promotional vehicles or linear overviews of careers that seem like 90-minute music videos. It’s unfortunate, because things began quite differently. In fact, the 1960s saw some of the best music documentaries of all time, including Gimme ShelterMonterey Pop, and D. A. Pennebaker’s venerated classic covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, Dont Look Back (sic).

The intro sequence alone, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” playing and Bob Dylan dropping cue cards one at a time, has been copied and parodied so many times in popular culture that people have often seen the references before the referenced. It was originally conceived by Dylan as a sort of Scopitone movie, a French invention that was essentially a jukebox that played a 16mm film, the forerunner of the music video. Although by 1967, this song could almost be seen as Dylan nostalgia–so fast was his trajectory into, and through the other side, of the rock scene–at the time of shooting it was likely a sly dig at the folkies, flaunting his new noisy aesthetic that would come to define much of his middle career. The then-recently-released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hangs heavy in the air throughout the entire film, a harbinger of what was to come. Teenage girls complain to him and Dylan shoots back with “Oh, you’re that type, I get it,” before kindly reframing with “But I like to play with my friends…You don’t mind if my friends play on my record, do you?” Today, it is impossible for us to comprehend what an alien sounding and oddly structured song this was for fans accustomed to “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Although these were recorded just a couple of years prior and can be heard on car radios throughout the film, promoting his concert appearances, Dylan is so clearly bored with these tunes while performing live that he flies through them at fast tempos. They feel like necessary obligations en route to the new introspection of “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Dylan is so canonized within American popular culture today, it is important to remember his place in music in 1965, when he continued the process of stepping away from a folk scene that he had outgrown creatively but which still clung to him as their conduit into the semi-mainstream. The first small step can be seen in 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, where he abandoned politics for poetics while keeping the acoustic aesthetic completely intact. At the time of this tour Bringing It All Back Home had just been released, which saw Dylan split literally in half: Side 1, electric; Side 2, acoustic. The next album, Highway 61 Revisited, would see him take the full electric plunge. It was a huge artistic gamble, tossing away an entire folk fanbase that loved and supported him for a rock scene that knew nothing of his music, only that he was some Woody Guthrie wannabe in a train conductor’s hat. It’s worth bearing in mind that Dylan could have very easily fallen on his face and ended up a mockery, rejected by both audiences.

Pennebaker’s grainy, unpolished film captured a musician at work like no one had ever seen before: goading on reporters; playing Hank Williams in his hotel room; looking utterly exhausted. Some of the confrontation scenes themselves are now classics of rock pop culture, referred to in such shorthand as “The Science Student,” “The High Sheriff’s Lady,” and “Who Threw the Glass in the Street?” It is incredible to think that by the time Dont Look Back saw its 1967 theatrical release, Dylan was done. He had conquered electric, inspired countless imitators, cut two more albums–one of them a double, Blonde on Blonde–and toured endlessly against hostile crowds with the Hawks (The Band) in tow. Pennebaker was there to film this too, through Europe in 1966. The final product, never officially released but known as Eat the Document by generations of bootleggers, was dark, depressing, and utterly unwatchable. In it, drastically underweight and strung-out, one sees very clearly the end that was fast approaching; and it’s probably sheer luck that Bob Dylan didn’t end up on the roster along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones. The eventual crash was both chemical and literal: amphetamines; heroin; vitamin-B12 injections; and the infamous (and still debated) July ’66 motorcycle wreck that almost broke his neck. Dylan, barely 27 years old, went into hiding and started fresh, back to acoustics for the subdued John Wesley Harding LP, not touring again for nearly eight years. 

Rome, Open City

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“Back then it was inconceivable to film in a real location, to shoot in a passageway, to bring cameras into stairwells. Shooting in the streets was unheard of. ROMA, CITTA APERTA represents something new because I tried to make a film the way it should be done, accessible to everyone, outside the control of the big studio system and all the slavery that entails.” — Roberto Rossellini

Despite their “Pact of Steel” and heads-of-state handshakes for the newsreels, the Italians and Germans had a long history of hating one another both before and during the Second World War. Behind their chest-beating about the founding of a new Roman Empire, the Italians always seemed only marginally interested in what was going on. It took them five years to defeat Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), this stalemate broken only when they violated the Geneva Conventions by using poison gas. Their 1940 invasion of neighboring Greece, intended as a display of machismo to Hitler, turned into a fiasco from which they needed a full-scale German military bailout. On the Germans’ end, Italians were incompetent buffoons and they didn’t even bother to tell them what they were doing most of the time. Mussolini read about the outbreak of war with Poland after the fact, and that lack of communication, and underlying distrust, would be repeated again and again. Germans were Nordic supermen who fought to the end, Italians were lazy Mediterraneans prone to surrender: so goes the logic even today among many military historians. To their credit, most Italians, apart from ardent fascists and anti-Semitic contingents within the Vatican, saw the biological superiority aspect of Nazism for what it was: an empty ideological tool used to justify domination. Although he did pass racial decrees in 1938, Mussolini dragged his feet on any broader Italian participation in the “Jewish question” for a long time, although more out of fear of civil backlash than any humanitarian concerns. As Germany exerted more influence over the nation’s affairs, over 7,000 Italian Jews would be deported and executed by war’s end (see De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis for one narrative on this). 

Everything collapsed in late-1943/early-1944, the setting for Rossellini’s film. American and UK Commonwealth forces landed in Sicily in the summer of 1943 and began moving north. Italy surrendered immediately and was split into a Fascist north, run by an exiled Mussolini and occupied by the German army, and a south that was cooperating with the Allied occupation. A slow grind through the mountainous regions south of Rome commenced. How to handle the city was a touchy situation. No one wanted to be held responsible for its destruction, particularly the Allies, who were taking heat for their highly-publicized flattening of the ancient monastery atop Monte Cassino, mistakenly labeling it as an outpost for German artillery spotters. As they lost control of Cassino, the Germans declared Rome an ‘Open City’, a military term for a city left undefended in hopes of not having it destroyed by invading forces. Rossellini’s love for dark comic irony is on display here, as we quickly come to see within the first five minutes that Rome is not quite as “open” as its title implies, as German SS, fascist police, and “Communist” (often anarchists or apolitical working-class, to be more precise) partisans fight for control. As in most German-held territories, the partisan movement gained steam as liberation drew nearer and suppression efforts intensified, with roundups of suspects and 5:00 PM curfews becoming the norm.

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Although often overlooked when discussing the film, its shocking pivotal moment has foundation in fact. On March 3 1944, Teresa Gullace was in downtown Rome with scores of others whose relatives had just been detained due to suspicious activities. As she cried out for her husband and fought to get past the German blockade to pass bread and clothing through the bars of his cell, a German soldier withdrew his pistol and shot her in the neck. Six months pregnant with her fifth child, she bled to death in front of the horrified crowd, including her husband. The killing of Gullace and her unborn child incensed Italians and became a galvanizing focal point for Roman resistance. Sadly, it was only the beginning. (See my next blog on De Sica’s Two Women for more discussion on the resistance movement.) Fabrizi’s Don Pietro is an amalgamation of two priests, Giuseppe Morosini and Pietro Pappagallo, both of whom provided assistance to the underground against the wishes of the Vatican, and were summarily executed by the Germans. This spirit of cooperation and mutual respect between clergy and “godless” communists would quickly unravel after the war but it does show some measure of help coming from rebellious elements within the Holy See, who we now know, at its higher levels, secured secret passage for numerous wanted Nazis via their so-called “ratline” to South America.

Despite the occasional lapses, there is no disputing that Rossellini’s Rome, Open City stands as a seminal moment in the new post-fascist Italian cinema that came to be known as “Neorealism”: it was shot on low quality black-market film stock; the German army shown are actual surrendered P.O.W. Germans; portions of the city were still being fought for as filming began; and bombed out locations were just that. To put it mildly, the chaos and discombobulation of the city provided the perfect backdrop that needed little assistance from art design. Such gritty realism was eons away from the escapist “telefoni bianchi” films of the Fascist years, as they were derisively labeled, where Roman mistresses in opulent penthouses called their rich industrialist lovers on large white telephones.

There are, however, clear signs of melodrama and Hollywood artifice, from the swelling score, to the subjective point-of-view camera shots. Rossellini did take some flak from his hardcore Neorealist peers for hiring Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in the title roles, both of whom were well-known comedic actors of the day that began their careers in vaudeville. The interior sets, such as the Nazi headquarters, were built in the basements of buildings in downtown Rome, and it is here that artificial lighting and more conventional studio set-ups come into play. The Nazis themselves are what you would expect, i.e. 2D stereotypes of evil incarnate, with the notable exception of the Austrian defector from Monte Cassino. Modern viewers might also notice the effeminate nature of lead Nazi officer Bergmann, paired with his lesbian femme fatale informant. Even at this early stage, homosexual “deviance,” sadomasochism, and Nazism were being merged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for popular consumption.

By all accounts, director Rossellini and co-scriptwriter Fellini shared a love for dark humor and irony that is evident in several scenes, particularly involving children. Children were of vital importance in Italian culture of the day, and they figure prominently in much Neorealist cinema; here, they are small adult partisans, taking comic beatings from their parents for staying out past curfew, when in reality they are not playing bocce but setting explosives. From Rome, Open City to The Bicycle Thief to The Children Are Watching Us, they come to embody rebirth, hope, and the potential for progress and modernity.

Overall, Rossellini is pretty easy on the Italians for their part in the war. This can be annoying, especially given his three preceding propaganda films, with their heroic pro-war message, albeit a state-mandated heroic message. And while that can be understood, although not justified perhaps, under the watchful eye of Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son and head of the fascist film industry, the same cannot be said of Rossellini’s independent postwar efforts, when he had full freedom to explore civilian complicity in war aggression. To his credit, in his subsequent film, Paisan, Rossellini does delve into more murky moral territory, criticizing both occupiers and liberators. By war’s end, Italian crimes in Abyssinia and Greece were pretty low down on the atrocity list, and self reflection didn’t really pull in returns at the box office. Rome, Open City, with its tragic humanism and empathy, was a huge success for Rossellini and opened countless inroads for Italian cinema abroad. His refugee cohort from the fascist film industry, including Antonioni, Fellini, De Sica, and Visconti, would all have new opportunities as Italy reconstructed itself and Cinecitta studios became one of the prime movers on the European film scene.

Image1ffdAs for the lasting impact of Rome, Open City almost seventy years on, I find it fascinating that Anna Magnani’s tragic scene seems to have become so interwoven with Italian popular consciousness that its  narrative inventions appear even on a postage stamp commemorating Gullace, as the latter watches the truck driving away with her husband, thus mirroring the film, not the reality. I can think of no more fitting tribute to this humanistic work’s influence and ongoing legacy.