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Even Stevens

Even George Stevens had his moments of beautiful delirium, as represented in the haunting opening sequence of his often overlooked 1952 “Something to Live For” — a series of slow dissolves between a curtain rising on a Broadway show, a woman (Joan Fontaine) peering between her fingers in a close-up step-printed to look like slow motion, and a man (Ray Milland) anxiously peering out at Times Square through the window of a cab. The film is one of the best of the many 50s expressions of discontent with the middle-class model of suburban security, and as near as I can tell, a completely anomalous expression on Stevens’s part of a yearning for escape and romantic self-destruction. Olive Films has released this rare title in a very nice copy; also this week, Kino is offering King Vidor’s often abused public domain title “Bird of Paradise” in an impeccable transfer taken from the producer David O. Selznick’s personal print, as preserved at George Eastman House. This week’s New York Times column rounds out with a few words about Arch Oboler’s “Bewitched,” an intriguing 1945 anticipation of the psycho killer film that very likely had an influence on Hitchcock.

167 comments to Even Stevens

  • Barry Putterman

    Well yes Gregg, I didn’t think that you had a personal grudge against Mr. Jenkins, but that “Rush Limbaugh to an empty box” paragraph will probably keep you off his Christmas card list.

    The part I’m having trouble with is, if that last paragraph represents how you feel about his methodology, why doesn’t it discredit his work in general, no matter how big a man he is on the USC campus?

    By the way, I did read “What Makes Pistachio Nuts” a number of years ago and it is on my bookshelf here in New York. I don’t really remember too much of what he said in the book at this point. Not sure whether that is my fault, his, or a combination of both of us.

  • nicolas saada

    There are, with no doubt, moments of incredible tension in BEN HUR. I especiallynthink of the scene where one piece of a roof falls by accident on the centurion’s horse, and thus affects the destiny of every character.

  • Alex and Johan — you are, of course, aware that Wyler had nothing to do with the chariot race, which was staged and directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, with Sergio Leone among the assistant directors.

  • nicolas saada

    now Dave and Jean-Pierre, don’t get me wrong : there are a lot of terrible things and flat scenes in BEN HUR. BIG COUNTRY has qome magnificent scenes : I am sure that Leone watched this one too.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Dave: I’m aware of that, and I agree that it’s by far the best thing in the film. What surprised me watching the blu-ray was that the rest of the film was much better than I remembered it. Makes me curious about the blu-ray of BIG COUNTRY.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, you ask “The part I’m having trouble with is, if that last paragraph represents how you feel about his methodology, why doesn’t it discredit his work in general, no matter how big a man he is on the USC campus?” Jenkins’ books “What Made Pistachio Nuts” and an earlier one I read 25 years ago on tv fandom were of sounder methodology, based in the case of “Nuts” on looking at the films, relevant articles in trade journals of the 1910s-30s, and contemporary film comedy theory. As I’ve indicated he cast a different net in the Lupe Velez piece, CRUCIALLY not differentiating between gossip and reality. As you can see if you read the piece, interviews that Velez supposedly gave, fan magazine articles (many of them racist), and various other sources of dubious grounding (notably the work of Kenneth Anger) are swirled together so that fact and speculation are as one.

  • Alex

    Dave K.,

    Besides a general inclination to think that second unit directors get little credit, I’d no idea that Wyler bore so little responsibility for the chariot race.

    Still, then the blame for BEN HUR’S failure would appear to fall largely on the Marton, Canutt, with Leone’s pulsating but premature climax and Lew Wallace’s long, post-climatic, Christian coda. Them and, yes, some flat scenes (the flatest of which are the Heston-Loren scenes, which acertainly no flatter than their Heston-Loren analoques in Mann’s EL CID.)

    Also, still wondering why JEZEBEL, LETTER and FOXES., — don’t jump out as among Wyler’s very best (as they do, at least for JEZEBEL and FOXES, in Sarris’ “You Ain’t heard Nothing Yet” (p.347) and even in the annual listings in Sarris, 1968).

  • My views on Wyler are “evolving”. But am still not ready for Wyler to marry auteurism 🙂

    THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is impressive. This is in part, because its characters are actually people of substance, generous and courageous.

    But quite of few Wyler films seem to deal with people who are sub-normal: dysfunctional or people whose environment has made them decayed. Living in a slum has turned most of the denizens of DEAD END rotten. Even Allen Jenkins, so lovable elsewhere, plays a man with no redeeming qualities. And the Dead End Kids are just rotten.
    Similarly, all the Westerners in THE BIG COUNTRY seem decayed. Caroll Baker plays a woman with a cruel sense of humor, and she and the other Westerners like to treat people badly. It is a whole rotten society that has created sub-normal people. The West is a bad p[lace, any everyone who lives there becomes corrupt, crude, limited and subnormal. Just like the slum in DEAD END.

    And the wife in DODSWORTH is one of the most gratingly nasty humans in film history. How can anyone stand watching her abuse her husband for two hours? I don’t get at all why so many people like this movie. How can anyone stand watching it?

    THe nastiness of the characters in THE LITTLE FOXES is far more bearable. After, that is the whole point of the movie: that rich people treat workers, rivals and black people exploitationally. If this society causes people to become morally decayed, well, that is what the satire is about.

    I don’t know if Wyler’s point of view is true to life, or not. Are all slum dwellers rotten, substandard humans, ruined by their environment? Or are they just ordinary, normal people who don’t have much money?
    Is Wyler’s view a form of left-wing social determinism? Or is it dangerously close to the right wing “demonization of the poor”?

    Also, I have come to suspect that, politics aside, my own personal taste in art differs from that of much taste of the intelligentsia. I like to see films about highly functioning people with awesome brain power and creative skills. I suspect that many in the intelligentsia prefer tales about men who are decayed and subnormal.
    I like reading about Ellery Queen and other great detectives. Many in the intelligentsia prefer THE KILLER INSIDE ME by Jim Thompson, a portrait of a pathological killer.

    I respond far more strongly to Joseph H. Lewis’ idealized detectives or Minnelli’s artists, than I do to Wyler’s people ruined by their environment.
    This response might be irrational. But it also might help one see merit in directors who are not too fashionable.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Maybe what you think of Wyler is some kind of test of how much of a hard-core auteurist you are. To me he is a major director because of the large number of good films he made, but I don’t see a distinct personality behind the films, like you can with let’s say Ford, Hitchcock or Hawks. What I see is a director who worked hard making films of high quality regardless of genre, was exceptionally good at getting first rate performances from the actors and knew how to set the mood of the film with good visual storytelling.

    So maybe not a marriage between Wyler and auteurism, but perhaps a happy ending without a marriage, like with Audrey Hepburn’s and Gregory Peck’s characters in ROMAN HOLIDAY?

  • nicolas saada

    Johann, It’s not a personality that seems behind Stevens or Wyler’s movies, but rather a “persona”. Wyler and Stevens are more Stan Kentons and Claude Thornhills than Chet Bakers or Duke Elingtons. They arrange the orchestra full force, and twist every possible standard (genre) to the pulsating and loud sound it can produce. The director as composer becomes the director as orchestrator. And it is sometimes massively impressive.

  • “What I see is a director who worked hard making films of high quality regardless of genre, was exceptionally good at getting first rate performances from the actors and knew how to set the mood of the film with good visual storytelling.”

    Johan, that accurately sums up Wyler’s (and Stevens’)virtues for me.

    But what about someone like Edgar G. Ulmer who most of the time has nothing going for him but style?

  • Johan Andreasson

    Nicolas: That’s well put. Kenton with his big concert jazz band that had weight but still could swing is a good comparison to Wyler. And you will find few passionate Kenton fans even if most people will like the music and he’s still very influential.

    X: I think someone like Ulmer, with one big strength in the style, is more likely to pick up a cult following, while it’s hard to imagine a cult forming around Wyler or Stevens. That said I wouldn’t mind being a member of a Wyler cult, as long as it’s handled professionally and with good taste.

  • Barry Putterman

    It should be remembered that directors such as Ford, Hawks or Sternberg are pretty much anomalies in American studio filmmaking. Most directors not only didn’t have the clout to make most, if not al, of their projects look and feel like individual segments in one long film, but,even when they did have the clout, didn’t think it was a particularly good thing to do in the first place.

    The comparison Nicolas makes to the orchestra leaders of the time is telling. Ellington, Thornhill and Kenton were all composers, arrangers and pianists as well as the leaders of their orchestras. But most importantly, they were commercial artists who were playing the popular music of their time for the dancing and listening public. As such, they had to play a wide variety of musical pieces in a wide variety of musical styles in order to successfully operate their orchestras, and felt no qualms about doing so. The question is, can you hear a coherent artistic signature amid that variety within their work. And, to me, for better (Ellington, Thornhill) and for worse (Kenton), you can.

    I can also see a coherent artistic signature both for better and for worse in George Stevens. The astonishingly slow pacing is at the service of quietly building pressure on the characters’ innate social reserve until emotion escapes like steam in a pressure cooker. At its best, like Cary Grant’s plea to Beulah Bondi and the adoption board in PENNY SERENADE, that can create some truly moving experiences. On the other hand, one of the few sequences I remember clearly from THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK was a rather painfully long prelude to a kiss between Millie Perkins and Richard Beymer which was then shown in extreme Cinemascope close-up with triumphant music as if we had just witnessed a Miracle out of the forthcoming THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

    Possibly there is also a coherent artistic signature to all of Wyler’s wide variety of projects. I don’t know. I’ve never been able to sustain interest in them long enough to find out. I find most of them to be so distanced and bloodless that I haven’t been motivated to go back for second viewings. Maybe the key to Wyler’s work is THE COLLECTOR. If, as Dave has said, Hitchcock would say of Norman Bates “c’est moi,” I think that Wyler should say the same of the protagonist of that film.

  • Brian Dauth

    Maybe the difference is between Wyler and Stevens having technique and Ulmer having style. Good/consistent technique can sometimes result in impressive (to use Nicolas’ term) results. But these results often seem ancillary to the major concern of maintaining a high level of technique — happy accidents that occur when an artist approaches her medium (to quote Johan) “professionally and with good taste.”

  • Alex

    “Maybe what you think of Wyler is some kind of test of how much of a hard-core auteurist you are. To me he is a major director because of the large number of good films he made, but I don’t see a distinct personality behind the films, like you can with let’s say Ford, Hitchcock or Hawks. What I see is a director who worked hard making films of high quality regardless of genre, was exceptionally good at getting first rate performances from the actors and knew how to set the mood of the film with good visual storytelling.

    So maybe not a marriage between Wyler and auteurism, but perhaps a happy ending without a marriage, like with Audrey Hepburn’s and Gregory Peck’s characters in ROMAN HOLIDAY?”

    Johan Andreasson

    Beautifully said and, I think, worth quoting twice! (I’d have written “perfectly said,” but I think it’s important to note that Wyler’s mastery as a top-of the-lione maker of cinéma de qualité –one of Truffaut’s skilled illustrators of scenarios– fades considerably following THE HEIRESS, though gradually and with continued ups and downs.)

    On stylists with thin, spotty portfolios like Ulmer, I’d say that if one judges directors as auteurs, indeed as auteurs with exciting and distinctive style regarded as virtually all that need recomemnd an auteur (without much stress on possesion of very compelling or coherent visions or on overall susscess in mobilizing and orchestrating the major cinematic elements into notable outputs of masterpieces or large outputs of very good films), then a director like Ulmer is going to might look better than Wyler (though the Wyler-Toland style did have a lauded advocate or three).

    On Wyler’s coldness, even nastiness, I don’t find the examples very compelling. LITTLE FOXES is social critism that does not seem too hard on post-Bellum plantation owners and financial carpet baggers to me, DODSWORTH is about regeneration in the wake of a bad marriage, and THE COLLECTOR is hardly first rate or characteristic (though BEST YEARS disintegrates into sentimentality after the openning returns home). Wyler is often deeply compassionate toward his pricoples (COUNSELER AT LAW, DODSWORTH, CARRIE) and sometimes even sweet (ROMAN HOLIDAY).

    On the possible existence of Steven’s cults, I have been a member of a Stevens cult or two and privy to a third: (1) a SWING TIME cult of multiple (10+ viewing)viewers of SWING TIME amomg member of mid-1970s members of the Wisconsin Film Society, marked by ample residual enthusiasm for all of Stevens comedies from the Laurel and Hardy films through THE MORE THE MERRIER; (2)a Gunga Din craze in the fourth grade paracxhed in intensty only by the roughly contemporaneous Bugs and Daffy craze; and (3) my mother’s abiding affection for PENNY SERENADE and I REMEMBER MOMA.

  • “All films were born and equal” according to André Bazin, and even respectable mainstream directors can make very good movies. When we did our William Wyler retrospective 9 years ago with many brilliant new prints I was impressed with the body of work from HELL’S HEROES and THE SHAKEDOWN till the end. In his last decade as a director there are still exciting aspects in THE CHILDREN’S HOUR although we may now not find it daring enough; yet it’s a film I look forward to seeing again. THE COLLECTOR is boring; the director should have been Powell or Buñuel. But THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES is a powerful conclusion, a brave film which Wyler made instead of well paid blockbusters he was offered. I feel Wyler’s passion for those who fight for justice.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex, I remember MOMA too — had a great time there last time I was in New York.

    Neatly tying together the two major threads of this post — the Stevens/Wyler thread, and the Higham et al thread on rogue scholarship — are one J-P Coursodon’s comments (in his estimable volume “Hollywood Directors Volume I”) on THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: “people now tend to miss its ambiguities and mistake its irony either for naivete or cynicism. Thus the authors of ‘Hollywood in the Forties,’ who dislike the picture intensely….” (394) Said authors include of course Mr. Higham. You can pick up your treasured copy now and read the rest of the lucid analysis.

    My favorite films by these directors tend not to have been discussed here too much: Antti just mentioned HELL’S HEROES; I would add CARRIE. M. Coursodon (in his book) didn’t care for JEZEBEL, which I like, but we agree on LITTLE FOXES. Stevens peaked for me in 1940-41, with VIGIL IN THE NIGHT and PENNY SERENADE. His solemnity works better for me on solemn projects, rather than with humor (unlike McCarey, with whom he has some affinities, and not just the obvious “School of Roach” ones).

  • Wyler certainly deserves credit for denouncing racial discrimination in THE LITTLE FOXES. And at a very early date.
    The deep focus staging is also inventive.

    And THE DESPERATE HOURS is an entertaining thriller.

    Wyler has plenty of virtues. Uneven directors like him are very hard to sum up.

  • Correction to (May 11, 2012 at 2:30 am): “All films were born free and equal”.

  • Alex

    “Uneven directors like him are very hard to sum up.”

    Mike Grost,

    Surely Wyler is uneven in a sense. However, I’d say it’s mainly in the sense of having a post-1950ish falling off, with unusual consistency before that. I wouldn’t personnally stress that kind of consistency and use it to dub a director inconsistent because I think all directors have notable falling offs –indeed, have only brief stretches at their best. This tends, I think, to be missed or downplayed by those many auteurists who — my blogging experience sugggests– tend to homogenize the consistency of a director’s quality! As well as obscured by the tendency for the greatest directors –preponderantly auteurs– to regenerate themselves and produce outstanding work across long periods of times.


    So it must be I REMEMBER MAMA! Not the atypical High Art sort of film from Stevens I’d been hoping to finally get around to seeing at all!

  • Johan Andreasson

    To me it’s the remarkable consistent good quality of Wyler’s films between let’s say 1935 and 1959 (I’ve seen too few of his early films but like HELL’S HEROES very much) that make him one of the greats.

    THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is an outstanding film, but besides that there isn’t one particular film I would single out, but rather applaude the impressive batting average.

  • nicolas saada

    Jezebel is rather extraordinary. The scene where Bette Davis sings along the children’s choir is beautiful.
    To continue the musical analogy, I always saw John Ford as the film equivalent of Duke Ellington: both have a career that spans the entirety of the history of their art, and both were traditional and avant garde, and both worked with Harry Careys !!!!
    let’s say that George Stevens is Stan Kenton and let’s grant Wyler with Gil Evans !

  • Johan Andreasson

    Allow me to get provincial and pronounce Swedish jazz giant Arne Domnérus the Wyler of music: pioneer and classicist with a long successful career, and with a beat you could dance to:

  • Robert Regan


    In his collection of essays, Always in Pursuit, Stanley Crouch has an excellent piece that discusses Ellington and Ford as two great American artists. Like many other African-American commentators, he has a particular fondness for How Green Was My Valley.

  • Barry Putterman

    Nicolas, are you thinking of Ellington’s baritone saxophonist Harry CarNey? Both Ellionton and Jackie Gleason (who also wrote music) worked with Carneys.

  • nicolas saada

    Johann, the clip is very cool !!!
    Robert, I am glad to raed that my analogy makes sense to American Scholars. I will look for Always in Pursuit.
    Ellington and Ford share the same passion for a pure american idiom and relate it to their own roots: they are perhaps the greatest heroes of American jazz and film.
    Which leads me to my very own personal interpretation of my relative disappointment with a film like TREE OF LIFE. I think Malick’s cinema, carries in its core a search for a refined, non rooted imagery, a transcental approach to film. In his quest, he tries to undilute what he looks at. He looks for the greatest common denominator. Ford or Ellington are purely American artists because they are completely aware of their roots, and how they merge, dilute, alter their idea of America, wheter its landscape (Ford) or its sounds (Ellington).

  • “Ellington and Ford share the same passion for a pure american idiom and relate it to their own roots: they are perhaps the greatest heroes of American jazz and film.”

    “The pure products of America go crazy” as William Carlos Williams put it in his great poem “To Elsie.” I suppose Ford went “crazy” in a manner of speaking, but Elliington’s late works seem serene by comparison, or it may be that I’m not familiar with all his final pieces.

  • D. K. Holm

    Off topic, but …. The new issue of Film Comment for May-June has a rather distressed looking Dave taking over the editor’s comment page for the nonce. Good material. His Further Research subject is also interesting.

  • Brian Dauth

    Nicolas: I think your analysis is superb. Ellington arranged, re-arranged, and modulated timbres echoing African call-and-response techniques. He wrote for the players he had — honoring their individual voices and not subsuming them in pre-ordained complex harmonies. Ellington knew that there was no pure American idiom — it was mongrel — and his music owed an extraordinary debt to African music. He did not seek to transcend his roots, but express his tradition in new contexts.

  • nicolas saada

    Brian, you put in a more elegant way than I could have tried with my clumsy English. My admiration and fondness for American culture lies in the fact hat itnis,genuine because it is as you say “mongrel”.

  • Alex

    An outstanding Wyler film not so far mentioned at this thread is HOW TO STEAL A MILLION. CHARADE aside, no film I can think of combines the spirit of the romantic comedy with solid suspense so well. Here, as in ROMAN HOLIDAY, Audrey Hephurn seems to have had a delighting effect on Wyler (not to speak of O’Toole).

  • nicolas saada

    In his fine review of SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, which I watched yesterday, Dave makes mention of a shot entirely built on a depth of field effect. It stages Ray Milland and Teresa Wright in the forefront, and their children in the background, holding a ladder above a table. Besides the startling composition, I was struck by how “wyleresque” the whole scene was. Depth of field, faster film stock, cinemascope or stereo : both Wyler and Stevens were obsessed with technique, like Orson Welles. Technique becomes part of style, and it reminds me of the efforts deployed by musicians like Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, or even Esquivel with the arrival of stereo, and “dynamic sound”. Would that make of their films lesser efforts ? I don’t know. David Lean was also part of this generation of directors obsessed with technique. But in his particular case, like Hitchcock, technique became a filter, a personal way to tame his inner passions. It all comes back to Panofsky’s wonderful essay, The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator, a landmark in the study of the British artists “psyche”. Lean and Hitchcock as Benjamin Brittens then….

  • Johan Andreasson

    I think an obsession with technique has always played a big part for people drawn towards making movies. People like Dwan and Hawks were trained as engineers, and today we have directors like Cameron, Zemeckis and Fincher who are not exactly uninterested in the technical side of moviemaking. This obsession can of course strike either way, but on the plus side we get films like ZODIAC and THE SOCIAL NETWORK.

    Wyler’s big strength, I think, was that he was equally obsessed with the scripts and the acting. People of sound judgement, like Barry a couple of posts above, can experience this perfectionism as bloodlessness, but I see a genuine passion for telling stories in Wyler.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Nicolas’ mention of David Lean is a good one, as I thought of this discussion while watching MADELEINE the other night. There’s some parallel in their reputations (Lean on the one hand, and Stevens/Wyler), given that there are auteurist critics (like David Thomson) who praise the early films as cinematic and damn the later ones as inflated. To me, late 40s/early 50s Lean can be very beautiful (influenced by silent cinema, as Thomson mentions, as in the opening two reels of OLIVER TWIST, which are very fine). MADELEINE seemed more influenced, to me, however, by Wyler/Toland circa 1940! But it’s also clearly by the director of RYAN’S DAUGHTER.

  • Nicolas Saada

    Technique I believe is the artist’s puritanist way of dealing with emotions. Technique is visible in works by Lean, Hitchcock, Wyler and Stevens, but it also helps to contain other instincts. I understand that Hitchcock was fascinated by Antonioni, who used technique not as a containing force of his desires and fantasies, but as its vector.

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed Johan, people of sound judgment can and will experience these films in many different ways. And than goodness for that. Otherwise it would get pretty boring listening to everybody saying the same thing.

    There aren’t too many directors of any note whom you could point out who didn’t have a sound grasp of technique. Or, at least those technical aspects which they chose to employ. For instance, to carry along Nicolas’ musical comparisons, I don’t think that anybody would want to claim that Oscar Peterson was more a master of technique than Count Basie was simply because Peterson played a hell of a lot more notes than Basie did.

    But where Nicolas states that a director uses technique to “tame his inner passion,” I would counter that he uses it to express his inner passion. In very different ways, the technique in Hitchcock and Stevens serves to contain the almost unbearable tension between id and superego going on within them. With Wyler and Lean, I can’t quite see any tension or expression beyond directorial decisions they deem to be at the service of the story been told.

  • Nicolas Saada

    You’re right Barry, but I also realize my limitations in English. What i meant clumsily is that I feel technique can become either what you describe with Hitchcock and Stevens, or on the other hand a pure instrument to express the inner self.
    To pursue the musical analysis : the technique of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix is such that their work becomes a sort of personal paradigm. The technique of Oscar Peterson is quite the opposite. Technique is a tool, and it serves the artist or sometimes hampers him. I have more affinities with the flowless style of Preminger or Ellington than with the controlled and somehow obsessive drive of brilliant directors like Wyler or Stevens.

  • Alex

    Possession of technique may not be a sufficient condition for possession of style, but — so called primitives like Grandma Moses aside– it sure is a necessary condition for style and stylistic self expression.

    (Does film have distingushed primitives beyond, perhaps, its earliest practitioners?)

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I have more affinities with the flowless style of Preminger or Ellington than with the controlled and somehow obsessive drive of brilliant directors like Wyler or Stevens.’

    Nicolas, where is Mizoguchi fitting for you? To me he had interest in technique to realize personal aesthetic.

    Interesting thing is Mizoguchi went to Hollywood to study Cinemascope for Daiei. Daiei would not pay for license, and other studio would not pay so developing Japanese version instead. That is why he did not film SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI in scope format.

  • nicolas saada

    Junko, When people ask me why I consider film an art form, Mizoguchi is the first name who comes to mind.
    I agree with you, butnsince we narrowed our discussion to anglo- saxon directors, I wanted to stessvon the differences between American and British directors. I have the feeling that bRitish Directors have to deal with their own self censorship, and that technique allows them,to surpass it. The position of the artist in British society is necessarily that of an outcast. I think it is less true in America, where art is part of a democratic whole, or at least was. My admiratiob for American classic jazz and music
    is that it expresses the love of art without the boundaries and prejudice of the “0ld world”. I wish I knew more about the place of culture and ary in Japanese society! But I can’t draw any demonstration theren except what I said earlier : Mizoguchi is amongts the few directors that help me reconcile myself with the idea of cinema as art.

  • D. K. Holm

    Off Topic Question about Cannes coverage Since Variety‘s coverage is hidden behind a paywall, are there any sites with reliable and thorough reviews coming out of Cannes?

    By the way, the new Film Comment also has an interesting article about the Finnish film Eight Deadly Shots, directed by Mikko Niskanen in 1972.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I wish I knew more about the place of culture and ary in Japanese society!’

    One thing to say that is different from West, there is much amateur appreciation of art, especially of classical art from before Meiji era. Noh drama especially is performed by amateur society. Also, many traditional craft is practiced by amateur.

    About movies, early regarded as art form, cinema club was discussing movies in relation to modern art from early period. Important Japanese novelist like Tanizaki was wanting to write screenplay for movies.

    Even if Japan was not democratic country there is general appreciation and respect for art and artist by public, except by government during different era for political reason.

  • “…[technique]sure is a necessary condition for style and stylistic self expression…(Does film have distingushed primitives beyond, perhaps, its earliest practitioners?)”

    That’s probably true for film but less so for painting given the number of modern and contemporary works that start disintegrating within a few years after their execution.

    As for primitives, there’s Ed Wood’s one and only masterpiece “Glen or Glenda?” and there are anonymous home movies that are quite brilliant in their artlessness. One of the most poignant was a 16 mm color record of the home of a Japanese-American who was incarcerated in April 1942 that was screened at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles. The movie was a series of shots of empty rooms filmed during the late afternoon hours, with 180 degree reverse angles and a decoupage of small details.

  • D. K. Holm (May 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm): EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS (Mikko Niskanen, 1972, the long tv series version of 316 min) is one of the best Finnish movies by a director from the studio era. Many agree it’s the best, and I do so too, but sometimes I prefer LOVIISA (Valentin Vaala, 1946) or THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (Edvin Laine, 1955, the complete version of 180 min), depending on which I saw last. Peter von Bagh, the author of the Film Comment article, recently finished a documentary on Mikko Niskanen in three parts the middle part of which is dedicated to EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS, Niskanen’s magnum opus where he also plays the tragic main role.

  • Alex


    Hard to thnk of a director who did it all so sublimely and consistently as Mizoguch. I’d like to know more about him….

    On his deep concern for the plight of women, is there a tradition within Japanese culture on which he might have been drawing, or was there som sort of proto-femisnist movement in 1930s Japan or was his empathy more likely to have idiosyncratic personal roots? (In U.S. literature similar questions arise Re the novels of Henry James and Dreiser –e.g., Portrait of Lady and Carrie).

    Did Mizoguchi stop, or virtually stop, doing non-historical films at some point in the 1940s or 1950s?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘On his deep concern for the plight of women, is there a tradition within Japanese culture on which he might have been drawing, or was there som sort of proto-femisnist movement in 1930s Japan or was his empathy more likely to have idiosyncratic personal roots?,

    Alex, it is both. During Taisho era that was known as ‘Taisho democracy’ there was feminist movement becoming strong that started during Meji, but also Mizoguchi’s older sister Suzu who took care of him and younger brother was sold by father to be geisha, later she was mistress of Count Matsudaira. Mizoguchi’s father was cruel to mother also, so Mizo never forgiving him.

    Taisho feminist movement was suppressed, but after War there was new feminist movement with encouragement from Occupation authority. There is Equal Rights article in Japanese constitution written by American Occupation team. Constitution is best gift to Japan from America (beside American movie(this is joke.)

    Mizo did not stop making period movie in 1940s or 1950s. GENROKU CHUSHINGURA (1941-42)was last expensive production of Mizo until after War. It was great commercial disaster almost causing bankruptcy of studio. Younger brother Yoshio was Japan Communist Party member and arrested, dying in custody. Mizo was associated with communist and left wing cause from his brother, so often questioned by Tokka (special police for subversion) from 1934 and after, and he cooperated to make patriotic period movies MIYAMOTO MUSASHI and MEITO BIJOMARU in 1944, not so good movies.

  • Junko — I agree on Great Sword Bijomaru — but I thought Miyamoto Musashi was a really interesting and entertaining little film (too short to wear out its welcome).

    Alex — 6 of Mizoguchi’s 12 films of the 1950s were set either in the present (including his last — Street of Shame / Red Light District) or the fairly recent past. 4 out of 5 of his post-war 40s films were also contemporary (or dealt with recent history). For various reason, most of these “non-historical” films get little Western attention.

  • Alex

    Junko and Michael Kerpan,

    Thanks. Do you think many of these “non-historical” films are comparable in quality to the “historical” ones well known in the West?

  • Gion bayashi / Gion Festival Music / A Geisha is a masterpiece by Mizoguchi.
    It is remarkably visually beautiful. And overwhelmingly involving emotionally.
    It is a present-day story.

    Street of Shame / Red Light District is also very creative.