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Good Cop, Bad Cop

I never pass up a chance to reproduce Anselmo Ballester’s magnificent Italian poster for Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” and the film’s appearance as an excellent new Blu-ray from our friends at Twilight Time seems as fine as excuse as they come. It’s a limited edition (3,000 copies) available only over the net, so if you have any afection at all for this film, I wouldn’t hesitate — at $29.95, it’s a (big) steal.

I’ve reformulated my thoughts about it for this week’s New York Times column, accompanied at no extra charge by a quick look at Phil Karlson’s thematically similar but politically displaced “Walking Tall” of 1973. Paramount has licensed the title to Shout! Factory, which has packaged the film with its two sequels (Earl Bellamy’s 1975 “Walking Tall Part II” and Jack Starrett’s 1977 “Final Chapter: Walking Tall”) in a nice set, available in both standard def and Blu-ray editions.

94 comments to Good Cop, Bad Cop

  • David Cohen

    Springsteen, in apparent frustration with the way “Born in the U.S.A.” was misconstrued as a patriotic opus, at some point recast the song for his live shows. The music was completely stripped down and he changed the way he sang the song, so that it became a blues song along the lines of something Big Bill Broonzy might have sung. I’ve heard him perform it that way a couple times – magnificent.

    As for his fans, here is a nice piece we ran at Politico about two months back:

  • Rick K.

    THE BIG HEAT has apparently become the top spokesman film for the American phase of Lang’s career. And the reason for it would seem to be it’s strong emotional intensity … its hard-hitting, literally starts with a bang, and is stark and relentless most of the way. Like another great film recently celebrated here, Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER, we have nearly all the key ingredients coming together in near-perfect synchronicity, in which everything falls beautifully into place. Indeed the director’s style becomes almost “invisible” in these films, which leads me to feel that they may not be as definitive or representative to the director’s signature as their reputations suggest. In the case of Lang, SCARLET STREET, or even the “minor” HOUSE BY THE RIVER, exhibit Lang the artist in far more revealing terms than THE BIG HEAT. Too, it should be noted that Lang’s visual approach during the 1950’s was changing, perhaps by necessity due to problems with his eyesight which eventually forced him to retire much earlier than he would have preferred. Lang’s visual style reached a peak during the silent era, still strongly evident during the 1940’s, marginally observed in THE BIG HEAT and the films which surround it, in which narrative, performance and structure took precedent. Yet while Lang’s visual precision remained astute, the atmospherics and architectural richness, which were once primary Lang concerns, are actually less apparent.

    Incidentally, this blu-ray release is quite extraordinary in bringing out the very best from a photographic standpoint. Rather like the blu-ray of THE MALTESE FALCON which was released a year or two ago, these films are finally available in a manner which allows the subtleties and nuance of their cinematography to be presented in optimal form. In both cases, I had known the films from 16mm and various incarnations of the video format, but it was blu-ray which proved to be the true revelation. I mention this because I had originally considered skipping the upgrade and being content with the DVDs, but in both cases the magnificent cinematography (standing ovations for both Arthur Edeson and Charles Lang) and the obvious care which went into the creation of these blu-rays, qualify them as cinephile treasures, though Twilight Time’s policy to produce a limited run through a singular distributer keeps the price point rather high … by contrast, releases from Warner and labels like Olive Films (with their Paramount connection) are in wider distribution, and a bit friendlier pricewise.

  • Gregg Rickman

    David, thanks for the hilarious Politico piece. It makes Barry’s point, which I can’t argue with, about the artists’ responsibility for their work ending with completion. Generally speaking, critics (or perhaps I should say, critics like us) like works that are full of ambiguities (witness FORT APACHE or for that matter THE BIG HEAT) while works as unambiguous as possible make for the strongest political impact. But the reception history of films as disparate as POTEMKIN, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, SALT OF THE EARTH, et al, whose politics seem very clear, demonstrate that there can be a contrarian position on anything. Some viewers of the first two of these, for example, valorize their formal aspect and overlook the (evidently) intended message.

    Alex, there is a difference between criticizing an artist for his fans, and criticizing the social utility of an artist’s work given that many of his fans look past his evident intent for reasons of their own. From the Politico piece on Springsteen: “’For me, his personal politics are heartbreaking,’ said Evan Sayet, a conservative blogger and comedian. ‘But his lyrics, over and over again, mention some of the fundamentals of conservatism.’” But I can’t say this is the Boss’ fault, for as one of the other conservatives says, they just like his brand of rock ‘n’ roll.

  • “Generally speaking, critics (or perhaps I should say, critics like us) like works that are full of ambiguities (witness FORT APACHE or for that matter THE BIG HEAT) while works as unambiguous as possible make for the strongest political impact. But the reception history of films as disparate as POTEMKIN, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, SALT OF THE EARTH, et al, whose politics seem very clear, demonstrate that there can be a contrarian position on anything.”

    Here’s Straub on “Sansho the Bailiff”: “For me, the most Marxist film that I know is Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the
    Bailiff…To help people to be lucid in the present, one has to help them aquire this lucidity. A film on the past which is lucid can contribute to helping the present more than a film on the present without any lucidity on this present.”

  • Peter Henne

    Rick K., But I love the finesse with fill lighting, the repudiation of noir histrionics, the agile and philosophical management of off-camera space in Lang’s ’50s films. Lang evokes, practically to the utmost, the frilliness Gloria Grahame has made of the home she shares precariously with Broderick Crawford in HUMAN DESIRE, forming a tacit alliance with her that is nonetheless broken at the end of the film. Lang creates bonds and spaces in this period that are stunningly tenuous. Probably no better example is THE BIG HEAT’s famous off-screen explosion abruptly ending Bannion’s marriage.

  • Gregg Rickman

    X, thanks for the great quotation from Straub. Last week I came across this translation from the French of a 1994 letter by Danièle Straub-Huillet, commenting on their reaction to the Barnes Museum. I came across it the same day the Times art critic wrote a front page essay acclaiming the Barnes’ move to downtown Philadelphia, but didnt post it here then, for far be it from me to introduce something irrelevant into a discussion (it’d be like introducing Bruce Springsteen into a discussion of Fritz Lang). Somehow I don’t think the Straubs would have agreed with the Times critic, though.

    There’s also a couple of reviews by Luc Moullet of SOME CAME RUNNING and THE TARNISHED ANGELS, which have their fans around here (as does he, I imagine).

  • David Cohen

    Gregg, there was actually a mini-controversy in Jersey when people noticed that Chris Christie seemed to have nodded off in his box during one of the Meadowlands shows. The governor, for his part, said he had closed his eyes to reflect during “Rocky Ground,” which, he said, was a spiritual song.

    I read that and I thought Christie hit the nail on the head. Particularly since 9/11, but really dating back in some ways to 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” there’s been a strong undercurrent of spirituality in Springsteen’s music, a sort-of rock ‘n’ roll gospel (I know that sounds pretentious but please bear with me) designed to connect Springsteen and his band to the audience, and the members of the audience to each other, and land them all in a better place. Ultimately, of course, I don’t know if the governor is more perceptive than some of the critics who persist in seeing Springsteen as a purveyor of working-class rock, or whether, AHEM, Christie really just dozed off.

  • Barry Putterman

    Even after allowing that Chris Christie’s workday might be a tad more intense than mine is, I must sadly admit that I now occasionally nod off in the theater or on the couch even when I am very interested in what I am watching. I’m afraid that the days when I could cram CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING and Minnelli’s FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE into the same 24 hours are gone and will never return.

    Has anybody ever established what Lou Christie thinks of Springsteen? After all, the man had a major hit with a song which has the profoundly political title of “Two Faces Have I.”

  • Johan Andreasson

    This site certainly is educational in a lot of fields! Before reading this thread I had never heard of Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie and his connection to Bruce Springsteen.

    When it comes to U.S. Governors and American roots music, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the “Singing Governor” of Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, who had a No. 1 hit single in 1945 while still in office with “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder”, and appeared in several movies, like MISSISSIPPI RHYTHM, from which I have only seen this trailer:

  • Barry Putterman

    Johan, it is even more uncanny than you think. Jimmie Davis starred as himself in the 1947 movie LOUISIANA which was directed by — Phil Karlson.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Well how about that – on topic, and I didn’t even know it!

  • Gregg, always good to read the comments of Straub and Huillet. ditto Luc Moullet.

    I still remember Weekly Variety’s one line review of “Moses un Aaron”: “Atonal voices crying in the wilderness. Little motion in this motion picture.”

  • David Cohen

    On an unrelated note, just got the new “Great Film Directors” set from the Post Office, featuring John Ford (image from The Searchers), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). … curious if anyone else has seen them and also curious what people think of the biographical text on the back.

  • Gregg Rickman

    On an unrelated and unfunny note, the president of Chicago’s Columbia College is proposing to eliminate Film Studies. I know there’s at least two admirers of Fred Camper — who teaches there — on this board.

    The assault on film studies is paralleled by the assault on photochemical based cinema. Even the nominal bulwarks of film study are crumbled. Online courses are being introduced in the San Francisco State cinema department for topics like horror film and 1950s melodrama. How can one properly apprehend a horror film, or Douglas Sirk, on your IPhone?

    But hey, we have some nice stamps.

  • Rick K.

    Peter, your comments on Lang’s films of the 50’s are very astute and obviously from someone who knows (and loves) these films very well. My comments are actually rooted in experience with film students who approach THE BIG HEAT for the first time with expectations of a past master capping an astonishing career with a tour-de-force (think PSYCHO or SEARCHERS) and inevitably disappointed by the lack of directorial bravura up there on the screen. They ARE however gripped and entertained (which of course makes it a great film for the classroom), so the discussion which follows inevitably tries to defend why this film is singled out as a such a representative achievement (which, in so many ways, it is) overlooking many of the visual distinctions which fundamentally characterize Lang’s earlier work.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Rick, a recent, big screen viewing of HOUSE BY THE RIVER (in the Pierre Rissient tribute at the SF Film Festival; I mentioned it in passing a few threads ago) really brought home the subtle palette of black, white, and grey with which Lang worked in his last decade in the U.S. Thematically, of course, BIG HEAT fits right into the Lang template of “hate, murder and revenge” but the film’s stark visuals are, as Peter notes, a glory of the film. And I wouldn’t dismiss BIG HEAT for lack of “architectural richness” — even the “early nothing” of Bannion’s apartment is delineated in just the few strokes necessary.

  • Thanks, Tony, for suggestions for books to read on Bannion and THE BIG HEAT. I’ve only read Colin McArthur’s Underworld USA. Robin Wood’s Hitchcock Revisited is one of my favorite film book experiences of all time, so Wood’s thoughts on this case would be interesting to know. (I’m afraid Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan is the only Wood translation into Finnish.)

    On the theme of boys talking baseball… I never really got Springsteen. I bought his Born to Run at the time, but sold it. (Perhaps a mistake, since one Springsteen album would be nice in my small vinyl collection.) I didn’t “get” Dylan when I was young, but I had the habit of bying his records and listening to them and by the time of Blood on the Tracks and Basement Tapes I grew to love his work. That has not happened with Springsteen, maybe I haven’t the patience now to attend to things that don’t seem to touch me that much.

    Springsteen’s brand of Americana (?) and stadium rock is not my cup of tea (or coffee!), although his shows I’ve seen on dvd tell me he’s a very good and professional musician and singer. As a songwriter I much prefer his friend, the late and great Warren Zevon, who many times rises to the heights of Randy Newman, even. Zevon is a Genius as one of his best songs suggests. But this quote is from another song that happens to refer to Bruce in the 90s:

    “Time marches on/Time stands still/Time on my hands/Time to kill/Blood on my hands/And my hands/in the till/Down at the 7-11/Gentle rain/Falls on me/All life folds back/Into the sea/We contemplate eternity/Beneath the vast indifference of heaven… They say “Everything’s all right”/They say “Better days are near”/They tell us “These are the good times”/But they don’t live around here/Billy and Christie don’t/Bruce and Patti don’t/They don’t live around here.” – Warren Zevon/The Indifference of Heaven

  • From my web-book on Fritz Lang, about geometry and The Big Heat’s visual style:

    Sinister Circles

    Sinister circles abound here, just as they do in Metropolis and Ministry of Fear. Whenever we get near any people involved in the corruption, circular objects are near them. The cop’s desk at the beginning contains a round lamp. Later, the Duncan house will include a cabinet near the door with swirling lines in its front glass panels. There is also a circular table near the door. When evil Mrs. Duncan talks to the police, there is a round little pitcher behind her. This is one of many sinister pitchers in the film. Late in the film, Mrs. Duncan sits in a highly curved chair.

    The bar is a riot of circular forms. There are circular booths, carved out of an extended surface that joins the booths together: a vivid geometrical form. The actual bar itself is circular. There are circular shelves and tables inside it. When Lang shows a clock over the bar, it has a circular dial, and Lang then moves his camera down to reveal a still life of round brandy snifters. The staircase leading into the bar is circular: one of the few circular stairs in Lang; there are two in M. The phone in the booth has a round dial, and there is a picture on the wall of the booth that is all curving lines. The canopy outside in the street has scalloped edges, forming a series of near semicircles. The dress worn by Lucy Chapman, who works at the bar, is full of circular scallops on the shoulders and elsewhere. She also wears circular earrings, and a round, almost cylindrical necklace.

    Lagana’s big mob mansion has a circular drive out front, like the circles in the ground in the Venetian episode of Destiny, and a circular porch with shallow circular steps leading down. Lagana’s desk has a lamp with a large round shade, and a unique curved horn-like stand. The horn is another circular shape. The desk chair has curved shapes in its back, and a large globe is in the corner of the room, often shown in the same frame with the mobsters. A later scene shows the curved fireplace screen, and a set of round decanters on a table in front of it: one of many sinister containers of liquid in the film.

    Early in the film, Lagana is in bed, while his bodyguard George stands beside him. Lagana’s bed has a round region in its headboard, and fills the left of the screen with its curvilinear shapes. By contrast, George is on the right side of the screen, in a region defined exclusively by rectilinear objects. It makes a pointed contrast between the two men, and their respective worlds. Lang cuts to this scene directly after a shot of the desk at Duncan’s and its circular lamp, and shows another circular lamp here; this is perhaps an example of the associational montage found at its peak in M.

    The commissioner’s office has a long, oddly curved lamp on the desk, and a circular backed chair in which Ford sits – one of the few times Ford is against circular imagery in the film. Somehow, the chair seems to belong to the commissioner, and Ford is an alien presence in it, deeply uncomfortable. The commissioner also pours from another of the film’s sinister circular pitchers.

    Lee Marvin’s apartment has a round hanging lantern, a semi-circular table in front of the mirror, a pair of lamps whose shiny stands are strangely curving pyramidal shapes, and that most sinister pitcher of all, the coffee pot. There is also an umbrella on the outdoor patio. Debby wears circular earrings, with hollow centers. By contrast, there is also an octagonal table in the apartment; such polygonal imagery is more often associated with Glenn Ford’s hero in the film.

    The auto-wrecking firm is full of tires, and circular shapes provided by the cars. There is also a round stool inside for the boss Mr. Atkins. This industrial area anticipates the railroad yard in Human Desire. Its chain link fence recalls the grill work in the window of Lt. Wilkes.

    Larry’s room has fans of cards in pictures on the wall. Lang also showed fans of cards in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler and in M. The fans here have a nearly circular shape.

    One use of circles in the film has nothing to do with corruption, although it is deeply sad and tragic. When Ford’s house is being emptied out, the last objects taken from it are all circular: the lamps, the baby carriage with its round wheels, the phone on the floor. This scene is highly moving.

    Ford and Geometry

    By contrast, the hero played by Glenn Ford is associated with both polygonal and complex rectilinear imagery.

    We see Ford in a series of three mirrors at Mrs. Duncan’s. The mirrors are arranged at slight angles to each other, forming one of Lang’s favorite polygonal shapes. Ford also moves near a bay window, one whose seat is a series of polygonal lines of alternating lengths. This is a geometrically complex window. We also see him with an octagonal table in front of the window. The teletype machine at the police station also has a non-90 degree arc on its surface; it provides information to Ford.

    These are the only polygons linked to Ford, but his spaces also tend to form “complex rectilinear regions”. Ford’s office is an open region at the station, with many twists and turns in its outline, all strictly rectangular. His hotel room is also irregular in shape but rectilinear. Ford has two big scenes on the complex rectilinear staircase at his in-laws’ apartment, a staircase also full of open space. There is also an outside staircase leading up to this typically urban building, which recalls Joan Bennett’s apartment exterior in The Woman in the Window.

    Ford’s house has almost nothing circular in it, aside from a few glasses and some paper towels. It too is an open region of a complex rectilinear shape. The rectilinear purity of this house is striking. His daughter’s bed, on which Ford sits, is a unique rectilinear blend of side walls with slats, an open area for sitting near the foot, and a flattened U baseboard. It is both complex and three dimensional, one of the film’s unique shapes.

  • This has been an exciting chain to read both for the digressions and the main theme. Thank you, Gregg (May 25, 2012 at 6:40 pm), for the Straub-Huillet remarks on art museums. Recently I have realized that I need to reboot my viewing parameters because of the digital revolution, as everything starts to look strangely different, including essential films by Renoir and Scorsese. Related to this I have also started to revisit legendary paintings in art museums, but reflective glass shields prevent a true appreciation of oil paintings. As do protectively dim room lights without spotlights. Paradoxically, good reproductions make more sense than original artworks presented like that.

    Bannion’s character has been wisely discussed here by Dave, Hannu, and others, and I agree with all of them. The greatness of THE BIG HEAT is based on the tragic conflict inside Bannion. “Greatness was within his reach, but there was a flaw in his character”. The theme of revenge obsessed Lang in KRIEMHILDS RACHE, FURY, and RANCHO NOTORIOUS. Revenge is a moral death, a degradation of the spirit. The true suspense story of THE BIG HEAT is Bannion’s battle to overcome the spirit of revenge and to act in a spirit of justice.

    It is fascinating that Lang, who used to work on megabudgets (METROPOLIS), was equally able to do personal work on little budgets (HOUSE BY THE RIVER). His mise-en-scène has often to do with architecture, a sense of space, but THE BIG HEAT belongs to his more character-driven movies. The dramatic force, the dynamics of the story, and the electricity of the movie emerge more from the characters. The performances are great, including those of Jocelyn Brando and Lee Marvin.

    But of course the explosive force of THE BIG HEAT is also based on the Langian mise-en-scène. Although I am an avid dvd viewer, Fritz Lang always disappoints me in home viewing. His movies require the cinema screen. I watched at home the 2006 European dvd release of THE BIG HEAT based on the recent brilliant Sony Columbia restoration, but although the visual quality was excellent, I missed the sense of space.

  • Mark Gross

    “On an unrelated and unfunny note, the president of Chicago’s Columbia College is proposing to eliminate Film Studies. I know there’s at least two admirers of Fred Camper — who teaches there — on this board”

    Gregg, Fred Camper was my first cinema studies professor at NYU, in a class entitled “Four Directors”, that not only introduced me to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk & John Stahl along with the unique sensibility of Frank Borzage, but also to an intense, class-long analysis of the opening shots of Hawks’ RIO BRAVO that I will never forget. I can’t tell you how sad I am to hear about this, not only for Fred’s sake, but for the continuance of an educated audience versed in the ability to understand and love that unique language of classical cinema, ( or, as William K. Everson used to call it, “the religion of cinema,” )
    without which my life would be not only completely different, but also sorely lacking, both in beauty as well as meaning.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I have fond memories of Fred Camper when we constantly argued in a wonderful and now sadly definct site some of you will remember. I almost never agreed on anything with Fred and vice versa (He thought that Dave’s “3.10 to Yuma” was crap, I was not impressed by his avant garde idols). Still it was a great site and I still miss it. and while I’m sad to hear that he might lose his job, I wonder whether “film studies” might not be, at the end of the day (I love this cliche) something that we might live without and survive. After all many of the best critics, American or French or others, never were involved with film studies because such things just didn’t exist.

  • I’m a big admirer of Fred Camper, too.

    I hope the situation at his university – and elsewhere – rights itself and comes to a successful approach.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    If I may, just an old man’s reminiscenses. What I loved so much when I was still in my teens, was that there were no “teachers” to tell you what to like or not like and why as far as movies were concerned. We were absolutely free to like or dislike or think whatever we thought and felt about movies . Because films were still totally outside of the realm of teaching, being considered basically mere popular entertainment. It was a wonderful change, going to movies,not having to bother with those teachers telling you what you were supposed to think about the great authors of literature (I was discovering my favorite writers too without help from the School). It was a different world. It’s all over now, of course. In France now you have to “study” “La Regle du jeu”. Maybe it’s a good thing, but to me things that you have to “study” are always things I would have tried to keep away from.

    So clearly I still live in the past.

  • david hare

    Jean-Pierre you are certainly not alone. And you put it perfectly.

    The mere thought of “Film School” fills me with terror. I too am far too old for these things.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘What I loved so much when I was still in my teens, was that there were no “teachers” to tell you what to like or not like and why as far as movies were concerned. We were absolutely free to like or dislike or think whatever we thought and felt about movies .’

    In Japan from beginning of movies there was film club, and still there is film club. Japanese cinephile learned about movies from meeting with club members and reading cinephile magazine.

    But if someone can be paid to talk about movie at university, isn’t it good job for cinephile?

  • Tony Williams

    Exactly, Junko. What about the role of great teachers such as Robin Wood, Andrew Britton and many others who taught students to think, enquire, and search out for themselves other black and white films they thougt obsolete and useless until they saw some for the first time in class? I find Jean-Pierre and David’s comments rather dispiriting and I speak as someone who passed his formative years seeing films in a University Film Society that sadly no longer exists. While the old BBC TONIGHT program would show clips from THE SEVENTH SEAL, I lived in a place that never showed it theatrically on its first run and where BELLE DE JOUR only lasted one day.

    Despite that I see no contrast between teaching and cinephilia. In my opinion, the two go together but this does not mean I also subscribe to facile and anti-intellectual dismissals of certain directors. One does not tell students what to like or not but merely to present evidence before them so they see the work of someone like Jerry Lewis in a new light and not someone just confined to making silly faces.

    JP is thinking of the now defunct SCREEN school. Also did not the non-educational establishment journal Cahiers du Cinema accept some directors and dismiss others such as Huston as mere craftsmen? Educators and teachers can differ in their approaches. With the death of the Art Cinema outside major cities as well as university film societies, the classroom is often the last refuge to show students great achievements rather than the junk that floods our cineplexes. I know I’m making a value judgement here but can six screens devoted to Madonna’s new movie ever compete with what has been done in the past? Studying can be fun but it depends on the teacher.

    The photo of that administrator is another sad example of a person who has benefitted from identity politics and who turns out to be a worst oppressor than the old white males. We have several of those in Black Rock. His statement is the worst form of corporate anti-intellectualism and we should all give support to Fred and his colleagues in that threatened department. I’m in one where we have no replacement for Shakespeare and Medieval so an English Department is also not beyond the threats of these people these days.

  • Gregg Rickman

    A golden age of academically approved (or at least allowed) cinephilia is closing. Film appreciation (of both old Hollywood films, and challenging “art” cinema) may have to go “underground” again. For a veteran of the pre-academy days, like Jean-Pierre, that’s fine, but for someone like myself or Tony, it seems tragic to have RIO BRAVO… or THE SEVENTH SEAL… so rudely disestablished. The key phrase is Tony’s: “With the death of the Art Cinema outside major cities as well as university film societies, the classroom is often the last refuge to show students great achievements.” It’s wonderful to expose students to such films, and it’s been my experience that they respond. My feeling is that the heritage of classical narrative cinema is something that belongs to everyone, like Cezanne or Shakespeare, and if students don’t have a chance to see them (on a big screen, as they were meant to be seen), they’re being robbed.

    Junko asks “But if someone can be paid to talk about movie at university, isn’t it good job for cinephile?” Hell yeah. I’ve never seen Fred Camper, or Tony Williams, lecture, but it was a privilege to see someone of the caliber of Robin Wood conduct a class.

  • Barry Putterman

    Jean-Pierre describes the past, but in a way may also be describing the future. In between was the formative years for someone like myself and I would imagine many others here. We came along when film was, at least in this country, only beginning to be taken seriously as an art form and an academic discipline. Going to film school (cinema studies as it was called at NYU, as opposed to filmmaking) was the most accessible route to a grounding in film theory and history, and for seeing many of the films themselves.

    But now, much of the important writing about film both past and present is available online. And many of the important films are available on DVD and now streaming. Further, there is a whole mess of discussion groups such as this one where cinephiles from all over the globe can exchange ideas and opinions. As such, it really isn’t surprising then that film studies, which was never fully established as an academic subject in the first place. would come into question at many universities. Particularly in hard economic times.

    However, I doubt whether the reason I have just given factored at all into the thinking of this gentleman from Chicago. At some point there has got to be some sort of serious national discussion of how it is that college tuition has ballooned in such frightening proportion over the past thirty years, and yet professional staff and entire departments are disappearing as if they were part of the auto assembly line industry. That may not be a topic for a blog such as this one, but we do have a number of regulars here who toil in the academic field and may want to weigh in with some thoughts.

  • Michael Worrall

    Jean-Pierre wrote: “I wonder whether “film studies” might not be, at the end of the day (I love this cliche) something that we might live without and survive.”

    I, for one, can without hesitation say that it was being under the instruction of Tom Gunning at SUNY Purchase that I have survived, and I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to go to film school and study with him. (Along with the SUNY Purchase film faculty at the time: Jon Rubin, Miriam Arsham, Scott Bukatman, and John Foster) Their teachings have allowed me to appreciate the writings of Fred Camper, Dave Kehr and Jean-Pierre Coursodon.

    Btw, Tom Gunning is no slouch on Fritz Lang.

  • Michael Worrall

    Jean-Pierre and David Hare: There were no revival theaters or film museums growing up in Colorado or Connecticut. I certainty did not have a Cinemathque to go to, let alone a Thalia Soho. Many of the films I read of as a teen I never had the opportunity to see until I went to film school. (And a number of the films I did see at film school are still not available on video.)

  • Nicolas Saada

    Frederick W.Ott’s THE FILMS OF FRITZ LANG was one of the first books I bought, alongside Donald Spoto’s magnificent THE ART OF ALFRED HITHCOCK, in 1982, when I turned 17. Since then, Lang personified a sort of ethical filmic ideal, combining the ruthlessness of political and moral commentary and the excitement of action. Whereas Hitchcock mirrored my fears and wrapped them in a style that combined an attractive sense of dread. Lang and Hitchcock thus became the Yin and the Yang of my love for cinema. I am sure that my taste splitted in a similar fashion in other fields : Stendhal and Flaubert, Stravinsky and Britten, Coltrane and Miles Davis. THE BIG HEAT is one of my favorite films. i know some of the lines by heart : “Is the good good enough?”, “Where are you going thief ? Alight thief, suppose you tell me what my business is ? Go on, tell me.”. I realized that LAng’s boldness and violence had to do that, contrary to Hitchcock, he had fought a war, and had been involved in combat.
    I have to stress on a fact here : I know that many of my American friends, filmmakers, actors, teachers and scholars, romanticize France as a country with “a love for film”. I wish to stress on the fact that this has deteriorated beyond what any if you on this board can imagine. The heroes of the new generation are not Ford, Truffaut or dreyer. The new wave legacy is now dismissed and trampled by most of the new generation of filmmakers who express their contempt, if not their hate for it with fierce and agressive language. “Cinephilia” is regarded as a sort of deviant and extravagant attitude, when it should be just the norm. I often grin at those who regard me as a “cinephile filmmaker”. It would be like stating a surgeon in a hospital as someone “interested in the medical field” or a museum curator as a “passionate lover of painting and other forms of art”. We have yet to reach the lowest ebb in this growing dismissal of art-film-music and how it should be transmitted to the younger generation. 3000 Copies for THE BIG HEAT, in our world of mass culture consumption ? I see it as a sign of the times, to quote the genius of the 80’s: Prince.

  • Nicolas Saada

    On THE BIG HEAT. Bannion’s agenda after his wife’s death is that of a vigilante cop. His vision of the world is conditioned by his grief. Lang’s mise en scène captures it with a sense of “objective/subjective” direction that I have seen nowhere else. Bannion is a rebel, and at the end of the day, his absence of tolerance is motivated by subjective causes. Debbie is not only a possible love interest: she belongs to a lower class that Bannion either idealizes (“the poor Lucy Chapman” who informed Bannion before she got murdered) or denigrates (the limping woman who works at the garage who will inform him later). Visually, the film operates in a gray world, where the theatrical lighting contrasts of the films noirs of the forties is replaced by an almost neutral lighting which mirrors a society that has accomodated with evil and coruption. The small town where Bannion operates is a mini facsist state. I could go on for ages on THE BIG HEAT, from the scene at Mike Lagna’s party, seen from the entrance hall (“it’s a little drafty outside”) to the shot where debbie shows her difigured face to Lee Marvin, thus anticipating the connection between noir films of the fifties and sf or horror pictures: THEM/KISS ME DEADLY, THE BIG HEAT/INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE LONG NIGHT/I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF.

  • Nicolas Saada

    I should correct one of the previous posts : Ott and spoto’s books were one of teh first FILM books I bought.

  • Nicolas Saada (May 27, 2012 at 3:32 am), good point about Debbie’s half-disfigured face and horror / sf movies. At the time it was also widely reported that Hiroshima survivors were half burned from the side that was exposed to the Bomb.

  • david hare

    Michael my induction to cinephilia as a kid, if that’s a decent word really started – I guess – with other people I had gotten to know as a young gay man when I was still at school, and I also happened to meet three or four hugely grounded (straight which is irrelevant of course) cinephiles who were older and more influential than me during my school days. And then the University days and the FF days of the mid sixties. And there definitely still were tiny but active arthouses in Sydney then. So – I guess – one cascaded into cinephilia through ones own taste and inclinations at the age of 16 in my case. By this time I had seen Madame de (dubbed) THREE TIMES on TV – becuase you could – and was nuts about it.

    This was probably the happiest and most fortuitous time for ayone to fall into cinephilic love.
    Trying to remember – this is now over 45 years ago when I was around 20. It does seem to me there simply was more opportunity – Universities, Film Socs (not Schools – nobody then ever “Tought” film in any formal manner) and TV. And always theatrical/arthouse/fleapit/revival screenings.

    J-P strikes a deep chord when he simply invokes the “old” word. There just seemed to me more “opporunity”, fewer people. But mkore what they call “product”. Somehow or other it all worked for me. To put it not too lightly, part of it was I wanted to break out from bourgois parental horror and meet people, I was gay, these were people just as “outside” things as my Bolshie Uni friends, and it all collded with my own aesthetic life as a practising musician, and reader and art lover. And young gay man.

    I simply can’t speak to today. But one of the thing that echoes this apparently now dead experience is the absolutely weird and unpredictable current of trends on DVD releasing, just as (I believe) the format is dying off. Here is Olive films August releases, almost all of them Blu Ray as well as dvd: Quiet Man, My Son John, Rio Grande, Captain Carey MD, Private Hell 36, Johnny Guitar, Force of Evil…

    There are areas of life these days in which some things seem almost hallucinatory.

    Mind you at my age they are not so often.

  • Barry,

    There is already a massive debate going on about problems at US universities.
    Here is a blistering survey by William Deresiewicz from the left-wing journal, THE NATION:

    He surveys a dozen books on the subject.
    I am definitely not qualified to evaluate or judge his comments, and have no idea if they are correct or not.

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, thanks for this link. Yes, there is a body of literature on this subject as well as periodic investigations and discussions on Public radio and television. I would say that if and when the time comes where you and everybody else feels that they are qualified to judge these comments, we could be said to be having a national conversation on the topic.

  • Tony Williams

    Quite honestyly, I was dreading some responses that could have been made to my post so reinforced myself last night by watching the first part of the Charley Chase DVD collection. However, reading the thread this morning reassured me since the responses evoked fond memories of that old yahoo site “A Film By..” now mostly known for its obituaries.

    Perhaps Jerry Bryant may want to contribute here but many students from the local areas of Black Rock came to my former department knowing only the Friday the 13th films screened at their corporate chain cinemas. When confronted with a vast array of many different films, they achieved a very important creative revealtion which remains with them today. This, of course, depends on the department and the teachers concerned because once somebody starts playing the elitist game, “You’ve never seen L’AVVENTURA!” to someone who has never viewed a foreign film in their lives, you’ve lost them for good. It is very important to remember that what happens in the classroom has important repercussions. In the case of students who are not just “there for the grade”, it gives them an appreciation of a very different cultural world that lasts a lifetime.

    Yes, it is true that the DVD revolution has provided greater access often threatening those movie festivals that attracted people in the past because rare 16mm copies were the only access. However, in the case of the Memphis Film Festival, it has developed over the past few years by promoting the appearance of western stars such as Robert Fuller and others who provide personal and educational perspectives on their past experiences. In this sense, they are “teachers” outside the classroom.

    The citation provided by Dave is really worrying from my own particular perspective since I see the role of cost-cutting economics affecting the educational experience in the same way that the dominance of corporate minded MBA’s in Hollywood have affected that industry. While recognizing flaws in the system, I support the comments of previous posters who applaud the teaching work of people like Tom Gunning. I’m sure the same is true of Joseph McBride who has a wealth of experience in film studies far more important than any paper qualification and whose writing represents the best type of accessible prose. A good teacher can make all the difference but they must be free from corporate budget pressures viewing students as “customers” provided with qualifications that diminish the role of critical thinking in certain disciplines. It is not surprising that these disciplines are now under attack in this particular era.

  • Peter Henne

    I, too, participated in discussions with Fred Camper at a_film_by. To say we “exchanged views” might make those occasions sound a bit too polite. I found Fred to be articulate, impassioned, broadly cultured without sacrificing depth, sometimes entrenched. I was grateful that he placed SMILIN’ THROUGH very high in Borzage’s career, and his example emboldened me at that time to speak my own words on its behalf. Fred has a unique voice, and has more knowledge to impart on film, aesthetics and history than I could estimate. It sounds like a shortsighted decision to close down Film Studies at Columbia College, like closing minds. We need Film Studies departments as much as we need those for Art History. You need good, informed teachers to help students see into the possibilities for a medium.

  • Michael Worrall

    Peter wrote: “We need Film Studies departments as much as we need those for Art History.”

    Based on what I read as anti-film school/academia comments posted last night–for which I shamefully left out David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson out in my response to them–, I asked a friend why it was ok to attend a music conservatory, or college to study to art or drama history, but it is generally seen as something of a worthless endeavor (or horror) to study film in a college program. Have even the champions and defenders of the medium internalized the second-tier status given to film as art and that film should not be studied or considered too seriously?


    My childhood introduction to cinema started with my grandfather, who told me of the many silent films he had seen as a boy. I started to seek them out in any way possible –mostly by reading about them– and was fortunate the local PBS station in Colorado Springs showed a series of silent films in the late 1970s. From there it was an encounter with Fritz Lang’s M and Truffuat’s THE 400 BLOWS at the age of 11 that hooked me and made me an auteurist at an early age. (Both were also shown on the local PBS station)

    After that it was mainly through books that were historical overviews of genres and film movements that I became aware of many directors and their films. Outside of the public domain prints on Crown and Kartes Home Video, and a very rare screening of INTOLERANCE in Hartford, CT in the mid 1980s, there many works by directors I very much longed to see. So when I got to college, it was like a deliverance and Tom Gunning was my deity. For me, my realization and coming out as a queer male was not , and still is not, heavily tied to my interest or critical approach to film. Now the New Wave movement in music of the early 80s..that is totally a queer thing for me.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Had I known that my rant about film teaching would trigger so many comments I would have worded it more carefully. I had no intention to put down great critics who are great teachers. I was just trying to describe the feelings of a very young man discovering movies in France in the fifties. I realize how priviledged I was, living in Paris, having access to the Cinematheque and various Cine Clubs and “cinemas d’art et d’essai” (the French equivalent of so-called “art theaters”), and also meeting people who introduced me to the young crowd of critics and made it possible for me to join them. My experience was totally different from the experiences some of you have written about in response. Yours are as right, as they are concerned,as I am right (sort of) in my own bizarre old fifties French background. I just hope that I have’nt offended anybody.

  • jbryant

    As Tony suggests, my experience as a grad student at Black Rock in the late 80s/early 90s echoes his assertion that most Cinema students from the Midwest at that time seemed to be motivated by their love of contemporary Hollywood genres, with little initial interest in classics or “art” films. I was 7 or 8 years older than most of the undergrads, but even many students my own age were there mostly because they fell hard for STAR WARS.

    But while there are plenty of kids who merely tolerate exposure to older/more challenging art, the truly creative ones thrive. An impassioned teacher such as Tony can’t help but inspire engaged students to stray from their comfort zones and put in the work that is sometimes necessary to fully respond to unfamiliar art. Without such teachers, how many budding cinephiles will stick with their favored genres and never explore the full richness of cinema?

  • Brian Dauth

    I guess I am in the “old school” as well. My film education came from going to the Thalia, Regency, Carnegie Hall Cinema, Bleecker Street Cinema, etc. almost every day. Not a formal education (which my writing demonstrates the deficits of not possessing), but the benefit was seeing so many films helter-skelter (if you will) that connections between films and genres happened accidently — the double bill became a powerful pedagogical instrument.

    That said, I agree with Tony and Michael that a good teacher is invaluable if she can encourage passion in her students for studying and exploring and even challenging what they love. I had several teachers like that growing up in grammar and high school, who allowed me to explore knowledge in my own particular way (how else could I conclude that Joseph L. Mankiewicz was one of the greatest of all directors). More than their knowledge, it was their passion which inspired me to celebrate my own love of cinema — but remembering to do so in a rigorous manner.

  • I’m sorry to hear that Fred Camper may lose his day job. Like others, I’ve benefited from his insights since the mid-1970s at NYU. He also tipped me to the Cine-Club and a lot of living room 16mm screenings (some at his pad in the East 90s.)

    If you don’t already know, Fred is also a photographer. He had his first one man show in Los Angeles in October 2007. As you might guess, the work is very cinematic (though not in a way that’s obvious at first glance.)