Sydney Pollack 1934-2008

It was a shock to read of Sydney Pollack’s passing this morning, although rumors of his illness had been circulating for months. By director standards — the job either requires or produced amazing metabolisms — he was not terribly old, a mere 73, and when I last spoke to him two or three years ago, he was still full of energy and curiosity. He was one of those rare filmmakers who seemed genuinely interested in work other than his own. One of his formative experiences had been working as Burt Lancaster’s “assistant” on “The Leopard” — a job that, according to Sydney, mainly consisted of being a native speaker of English, so Lancaster would have someone to talk to — and he could recall Visconti’s working methods with great precision. He helped me immeasurably some years ago when I was trying to get a documentary going on Budd Boetticher. The roadblock, then as now, was the expense of licensing clips from the studios. Sydney heard about the project from a mutual friend and volunteered out of the clear blue sky to put in a call to his old friend John Calley, who was then the head of Columbia. A few days later, Calley called me up, said that Sydney had vouched for me, and offered me free use of footage form the Columbia westerns (an executive decision that did not go down well with the underlings whose job it was to extract high fees for such things). A purely selfless act, rare enough in any business and particularly in this one.

I see the DVD Beaver mailing list is already full of disparaging comments about Pollack’s work, which is regrettable. He was, by his own admission, a determinedly mainstream director, and never courted the critical elite (his one attempt at an art film, “The Swimmer,” which he took over from the infinitely pretentious Frank Perry when Lancaster tired of him, is by far his least appealing work). Trained as an actor (by Sanford Meisner, whose version of The Method was far less mystical and far more palatable than the one peddled at the Actors’ Studio), he saw his work mainly as protecting his performers and bringing the best out of them, and certainly no one directed stars with more assurance and sensitivity in the 70s and the 80s. This was, after all, the man who made Robert Redford seem interesting, and kept a lid on Method madmen like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. If his work declined in the 90s, it was because the pool of viable stars was beginning to dry up — imagine beginning your career with Lancaster and Mitchum, and finishing it with Cruise and Ford. It wasn’t his world anymore, though he continued to do good work as a producer (with “Michael Clayton,” most recently) and an actor (ditto). He was one of our last remaining links to a time when movies were not made primarily for 13-year-old boys, and I for one will miss him tremendously.

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In today’s New York Times DVD column, I babble on a bit about Alexander Korda’s “The Thief of Bagdad,” now in a shiny new edition from Criterion, and King Hu’s historically important and highly entertaining martial arts film of 1966, “Come Drink with Me.”

177 comments to Sydney Pollack 1934-2008

  • This thread has got me thinking about ‘Safe.’ Its been a few years now since I’ve seen it, but my most recent reading is that Haynes plays his actors against his mise-en-scene. I remember feeling a small outrage as an actor to see his placement of the actors (especially Julianne Moore, whose work I deeply respect) always at the periphery and obscured. This wasn’t obstruction in a Mizoguchi/obscure-them-for-greater-emotional-impact sense of the word, but they were obscured to downplay and distance them. I attributed this to his work with actors as an extension of his stop-motion Barbie work. Each one of his shots is about something else. He’s trying to film modernity with the absence of humanity.

    I’ve of course outgrown my outrage about his actors’ placement, but I remember being shocked that on the DVD Julianne Moore was interviewed with Todd Haynes where he seemed to praise her performance. I don’t remember the exact wording, but something like “this movie is all about Julianne’s performance,” was said. While I think what he said went too far, especially for that film, it did cause me to reconsider her role. While I previously had judged it as one-dimentional and ‘Twin-Peakish,’ I now see more nuance than I had before. Far from her best performance, but she has more autonomy than I thought.

    I think her performance is great despite the mise-en-scene, not because of it. Can a performance be great despite mise-en-scene? I think this is the example of an actor playing counterpoint to the director successfully.

    I’m also reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article on Taxi Driver from some years back in the Reader (and republished in Essential Cinema. No doubt on his site, but I’m too lazy to get the link) where he describes the film as having four auteurs rather than one. That Scorsese’s Catholicism plays in opposition to Schrader’s Puritanism, is more accepted, but that Robert De Niro and Bernard Herrmann were also auteurs is a really progressive idea worth mentioning in this forum.

    Well, I guess he’s written about Marilyn Monroe in the same way, hasn’t he?

    Dave’s thread from April about Charlton Heston seems especially pertinent. At the risk of being repetitive, I’m pasting the quote from Michel Mourlet that Dave posted earlier:

    “Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso – this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like “Hiroshima mon amour” or “Citizen Kane,” films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”

  • Brad Stevens

    I currently refuse to discuss performance in any terms that aren’t thematic, and have pretty much stopped thinking of acting as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s a hard habit to break, but I generally find that this kind of concern causes more trouble than it’s worth. This is especially the case with something like LOLA MONTES, a film so centrally concerned with questions of performance – performance and identity, performance as imprisonment, performance and gender – that to speak of Martine Carol’s performance as ‘bad’, to suggest that the film would have been ‘better’ with another actress, is to suggest that one has some kind of privileged knowledge of Ophuls’ intentions – a knowledge that clearly cannot have been derived from watching the film Ophuls actually made.

    Because one of the things great filmmakers can do is turn the inadequacies of their collaborators to their advantage. The modern master at this is surely Abel Ferrara. Despite the debate about whether Madonna’s performance in SNAKE EYES is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (a debate carried on not only in critical circles, but within SNAKE EYES itself), the film’s most obvious ‘bad’ performance is given by James Russo, whose scenery-chewing is vital to Ferrara’s thematic concern with different kinds of performative interaction.

    An even better example appears in Ferrara’s NEW ROSE HOTEL, in which Christopher Walken, whose previous roles for Ferrara had found him incarnating the spirit of improvizational spontaneity, is cast as a ‘bad’ peformer attempting to hog ‘scenes’ with his blatant actorly gestures. Like LOLA MONTES, NEW ROSE HOTEL is concerned with the notion of performance, the delicately nuanced role-playing of Asia Argento ultimately defeating the crude scene-stealing of Walken. Perhaps the film should be called THE REVENGE OF LOLA MONTES.

  • dm494

    Brad, to continue the argument we had elsewhere: the claim you’re making now, if carried to its logical conclusion, requires that we refrain from all value judgments about any unit of a film smaller than the film itself–at least if we can’t determine the director’s intentions from the film alone. According to your argument, apparently bad lighting or editing or music isn’t actually bad (or good), even when its apparent badness is due to obscuring the very intentions which, if known, we could use to justify our impression. In other words, maybe Martine Carroll is bad partly BECAUSE she obscures Ophuls’s intentions regarding her performance and, in doing so, (in your eyes) ironically renders herself impervious to criticism. And these remarks apply, mutatis mutandis, to scores, lighting, set design, etc. Incidentally, I don’t see why you rule out the use of Ophuls’s other films as a guide to his intentions. Ophuls worked with good actresses–Isa Miranda, Danielle Darrieux, Joan Bennett, Joan Fontaine–so it seems reasonable to assume Carroll’s performance wasn’t what he was looking for.

    And are you saying–as I’ve so far assumed–that value judgments about film performances are meaningless (or at least neither true nor false)? Or is it rather that in a good film a performance is good, while in a bad film it’s bad–even if in the former case the performance seems bad, and in the latter, good? Neither of these options is remotely intuitive: though they explain the phenomenon differently, they’re both saying that we’re suffering from an illusion when we “perceive” a good performance in a badly directed film.

  • Brad Stevens

    “the claim you’re making now, if carried to its logical conclusion, requires that we refrain from all value judgments about any unit of a film smaller than the film itself”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I think.

    “at least if we can’t determine the director’s intentions from the film alone. According to your argument, apparently bad lighting or editing or music isn’t actually bad (or good), even when its apparent badness is due to obscuring the very intentions which, if known, we could use to justify our impression. In other words, maybe Martine Carroll is bad partly BECAUSE she obscures Ophuls’s intentions regarding her performance and, in doing so, (in your eyes) ironically renders herself impervious to criticism.”

    If we were to be confronted with a film we felt made no sense or was of poor quality, we might wish to spend time picking apart the various elements to see why it failed. But LOLA MONTES is not only a masterpiece; it’s a masterpiece centrally concerned with questions of performance, and it seems to me monumentally unhelpful to simply label the performance at its center bad without interrogating what we mean by this. Because, clearly, any negative comments we might make concerning Carol’s acting – it’s poor, unconvincing, not naturalistic enough, stilted, etc. – can be turned on their head and viewed positively once we see them as contributing to or communicating (as opposed to obscuring) the film’s theme, once we see them as illustrating Ophuls’ concern with the nature of performance.

    “Incidentally, I don’t see why you rule out the use of Ophuls’s other films as a guide to his intentions. Ophuls worked with good actresses–Isa Miranda, Danielle Darrieux, Joan Bennett, Joan Fontaine–so it seems reasonable to assume Carroll’s performance wasn’t what he was looking for.”

    Unless he was trying something new in LOLA MONTES. It seems to me more Brechtian than most of his other films, and Carroll’s Brechtian performance suits it perfectly.

    “And are you saying–as I’ve so far assumed–that value judgments about film performances are meaningless (or at least neither true nor false)? Or is it rather that in a good film a performance is good, while in a bad film it’s bad–even if in the former case the performance seems bad, and in the latter, good? Neither of these options is remotely intuitive: though they explain the phenomenon differently, they’re both saying that we’re suffering from an illusion when we “perceive” a good performance in a badly directed film.”

    Performances in films (like sets, music, photography, even screenplays) are neither good nor bad. They are adequate to a director’s ends, or they are not.

    And I’m not saying that it’s impossible to view performances in isolation from a film; I simply believe that this kind of concern does more harm than good, and that, if we find a given performance ‘bad’ (or even ‘good’), we would be far better off interrogating what we mean by ‘bad acting’, and reading the conclusions we draw from this back into the film in thematic terms (since every film that has actors in it has at least some kind of thematic concern with questions of identity and performance). Of course, with many films we may simply find that this exercise provides us with little or no additional insight; but that clearly isn’t the case with LOLA MONTES.

  • Kent Jones

    Brad – a question arises that I presume doesn’t or shouldn’t or can not arise for you: would LOLA MONTES have been a better film with someone else in the lead? I assume this is tantamount to heresy for you, since you think performances in films are either “adequate to a director’s ends” or not. If that’s the sole standard of value, then I agree. Martin Carol is fine, case closed.

    Here’s my problem. Most of the good directors I know, personally or from a distance, want more than adequacy from their actors. They want to be surprised. They want to be thrown off kilter. In a way, they want the actors to take over the movie. Lest I be misunderstood here, I don’t mean that they want to have their intentions effaced by the actors, but that they want those actors to give life to their conceptions.

    That LOLA MONTES is concerned with questions of performance is obviously true. At this moment, it’s possible to experience the film as a perfect expression of celebrity culture, a movie about the sad emptiness of being, say, Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. But judging from his previous films, starring the actresses mentioned by dm494, and, more importantly, judging from the film itself, I believe that Ophuls was after something else. Something more might be a better way of saying it. I don’t think he wanted the movie to be quite as narrow as it is. Call me presumptuous, but that’s the way I see it.

    I agree with you – nothing in a film should be spoken of outside of the particular ecology of the film itself. But I respectfully part company with you over the notion that “every film that has actors in it has at least some kind of thematic concern with questions of identity and performance.” The degree of importance these questions hold varies from filmmaker to filmmaker and from film to film. For Warhol, such questions are obviously central. For John Ford, less so. For Hawks, they’re part of the excitement of the film. For the truly chaotic, post-BAD LIEUTENANT Ferrara, if you accept those films on their own terms, then it’s obviously crucial to their meaning and impact.

    And I couldn’t disagree with you more over the assertion that performances are neither “good nor bad.” Forgive me, but this is, above all, a human question. Some performers in movies are artists, some are not. Some movies depend upon the artistry of the actors, some don’t. In some movies the artistry of the actor is evident but peripheral to the final result. In other movies (by lesser filmmakers), it is the only thing of any lasting interest. But just because there are movies like VOYAGE TO ITALY or VINYL or PICKPOCKET or (by your lights) NEW ROSE HOTEL doesn’t mean that we have to see every movie through the same looking glass. If a film is in any way dependent on the artistry of the actors and if they deliver the goods, then we owe it to them to acknowledge their contributions.

  • dm494

    Brad, I think you’re to some extent attacking a phantom enemy–I don’t know of any serious film critic who addresses performances without reference to the films in which they’re embedded, at least when the films are worth talking about as directorially unified works of art. Nor is the issue of bad performance about failure to act in a naturalistic or an understated manner. People who demand invisible performance irrespective of context shouldn’t have their opinions taken seriously. But even if Martine Carol is attempting to give a performance which calls attention to itself, one can still ask whether she achieves this through mere ineptitude or through a nonnaturalistic acting technique which she has attained competence in, and, if through the former means, whether ineptitude is a legitimate method of articulating Ophuls’s concerns about performance. If it isn’t, then one can justifiably call Carol’s performance bad even while endorsing your “Brechtian” reading of LOLA MONTES.

    “Performances in films…are neither good nor bad. They are adequate to a director’s ends, or they are not.”

    This needs elaborating. What does it mean exactly? Is the statement “Lee Tracy is good in DINNER AT EIGHT” meaningless? And if it is meaningless, is it just nonsense (like, e.g., “C minor plays the Dewberry”), or is it, though intelligible, neither true nor false, like a statement about Santa Clause’s hemoglobin? And how do you feel about someone’s simply redefining “good” so that it’s synonymous with “adequate to the director’s ends”? That might have bizarre consequences. For instance, with this definition in place, if you think that Marlon Brando never harmonizes with the films he’s in, while Claudette Colbert always does, then you’re committed to thinking Colbert a better actor than Brando.

    “I’m not saying that it’s impossible to view performances in isolation from a film; I simply believe that this kind of concern does more harm than good…”

    I’m not sure this pragmatic argument is consistent with the statement I quoted previously.

    I also wonder if your argument doesn’t entail that masterpieces are beyond criticism. It seems, by your lights, that every apparent flaw in a masterpiece ought to be reinterpreted as a virtue.

    Sorry about misspelling Carol’s name last time.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad – a question arises that I presume doesn’t or shouldn’t or can not arise for you: would LOLA MONTES have been a better film with someone else in the lead?”

    For me, LOLA MONTES is one of the ten greatest films ever made, so the idea that it might have been even better than it already is is pretty difficult for me process. But I assume that, by this point in his career, Ophuls knew a thing or two about directing actors, and I have to also assume that he would have managed to get the performance he required out of pretty much any actress he worked with.

    “Here’s my problem. Most of the good directors I know, personally or from a distance, want more than adequacy from their actors. They want to be surprised. They want to be thrown off kilter.”

    Some do (including many of my favorites). Some don’t. Bresson is surely an obvious example of a director who does not want to be surprised by his actors.

    “But even if Martine Carol is attempting to give a performance which calls attention to itself, one can still ask whether she achieves this through mere ineptitude or through a nonnaturalistic acting technique which she has attained competence in”

    I guess that distinction might be important if you particularly valued performance as something separable from the text within which it is embodied. Since I don’t share this concern, I really can’t see any point in worrying about how a performance got to be the way it is (which is surely unknowable anyway). I’m more interested in how it works in the context of the film’s other elements.

    “with this definition in place, if you think that Marlon Brando never harmonizes with the films he’s in, while Claudette Colbert always does, then you’re committed to thinking Colbert a better actor than Brando.”

    Not at all. Some directors may deliberately be seeking a lack of harmony.

    “I also wonder if your argument doesn’t entail that masterpieces are beyond criticism. It seems, by your lights, that every apparent flaw in a masterpiece ought to be reinterpreted as a virtue.”

    Seriously, you might have something there. Let’s say that apparent flaws in masterpieces may well be virtues we have not yet learned to understand. I honestly believe that making such an assumption will get us a lot further than loftily declaring that we know more than a genius like Ophuls.

    “I believe that Ophuls was after something else. Something more might be a better way of saying it. I don’t think he wanted the movie to be quite as narrow as it is. Call me presumptuous, but that’s the way I see it.”

    Look, maybe I’m wrong, maybe Carol is simply out and out bad in LOLA MONTES. I’m just saying that we might learn a lot more about the film by making a leap of faith and assuming that Ophuls knew what he was doing, that the performance onscreen is the one he wanted. Because, in all honesty, I really don’t see how worrying about whether Carol’s performance in the film is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can possibly lead to conclusions which are anything other than banal. The statement “Lee Tracy is good in DINNER AT EIGHT” may or may not be meaningless, but it is very definitely banal. What insight does such a statement give us into Lee Tracy, George Cukor, DINNER AT EIGHT, or even the person making the statement?

    And so far, nobody has been able to tell me exactly why they find Martine Carol’s performance in LOLA MONTES ‘bad’. Honestly, I’m totally bemused. It sounds like one of those received opinion things which everyone accepts as truth without actually thinking about. What standard is being used here? Is Kim Novak ‘bad’ in VERTIGO? How can we tell?

  • Kent Jones

    Brad, I don’t go around saying I’m “bemused” by anyone who disagrees with me, and I don’t expect anyone else to. You might think twice about meeting challenges to statements as sweeping as the ones you’re making here with such an air of superiority.

    The fact that LOLA MONTES is on your ten best list doesn’t make its infallibility an unassailable fact. And I’m not “worrying” about whether or not Martine Carol’s performance is “good” or “bad.” I think it’s neither. I find her performance unproductively inexpressive, and the particulars of that performance are part of a much longer discussion. Whereas I think Kim Novak is great in VERTIGO. There is no standard being used. Just individual responses, hopelessly “banal” as they may be.

    Moreover, I don’t go around spouting received opinions and neither does anyone else I know who’s truly interested in cinema. Nor do I like to content myself, when I’m actually writing or speaking about a performance at length, with saying it’s “good” or “bad.” I can’t think of anyone else on this site who does.

    Finally, you may look at Bresson’s films and see a filmmaker who does NOT want to be surprised by his people. I see something completely different.

    Thanks.

  • Kent wrote: “There is no standard being used. Just individual responses, hopelessly “banal” as they may be.” So your argument against Carol’s performance is based on impressionistic criteria? Forgive me Kent, but basing an argument on an individual response strikes me as not very rigorous analysis.

    It seems to me that Brad is bemused only at the fact that no one can explain why they find Carol’s performance ‘bad”, not that people are disagreeing with him. And just how much would “Lola Montes” be improved by a “better” performance? I think it would be negligible in terms of adding anything to the film’s value.

  • correction: So your argument against Carol’s performance is an impressionistic one?

  • Kent, I am also curious to your statement in a previous post that your opinion is anti-essentialist. Is not auteurism essentialist?

  • Kent Jones

    I’m not basing any argument on any individual response. Because I’m not making a real argument, and neither is Brad. Of course, I never said that her performance was “bad” in the first place.

    If auteurism is essentialist, then that’s right Michael, I’m not an auteurist. Or maybe, just maybe, horror of horrors, I’m a different kind of auteurist. But if you’re into syllogisms and tautaologies – like “Auteurism is essentialist. He’s an anti-essentialist. Therefore he’s not an auteurist” – then so be it. I guess that makes me the enemy.

    I don’t understand the point of these discussions, which inevitably devolve into semantic hair-splitting contests of the 9th grade variety. As dm494 put it so well, Brad is attacking a phantom enemy. Is the point that everyone should AGREE that performance is secondary? That auteurism is demeaned or besmirched by discussions of actors? That LOLA MONTES is perfect? Okay, I disagree, and so does dm494. Respectfully, as far as I can make out. The result is that our objections are mischaracterized, we’re met with high-flown rhetoric AND then expected to…what? I don’t know.

    Once again, there is no discussion. Just something on the order of Rivette’s championing of Hawks: “The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius: you only have to watch MONKEY BUSINESS to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof. There can’t be any other reason why they don’t recognize it.”

  • Kent wrote: “I’m not basing any argument on any individual response. Because I’m not making a real argument..”

    However, earlier on you wrote that: “I, like many others, believe that the film would have been greater with someone else – practically anyone else – aside from Martine Carol in the lead.”

    If you are not making a real argument then are we just to take this an assertion? If it is just an assertion, why should anyone take your claim seriously? If you have not been making a real argument, what have you been doing through this entire thread? I think these are valid questions and should not be dismissed as “semantic hair-splitting contests of the 9th grade variety.”
    I am, horrors of horrors, asking you to clarify your position?

  • Kent Jones

    Michael, this could go on and on and on, with refinements of the words “argument,” “real,” “assertion,” “auteurist” and “essentialist.” Why? Because I, and some other people, happen to have an opinion that’s irksome to what you refer to as “auteurism.” Which has nothing to do with Andrew Sarris or the politique des auteurs, and everything to do with the statement of purpose on A_Film_By. Where it seems that a certain orthodoxy reigns.

    Meanwhile, where’s your “real argument?” Where’s Brad’s? All I see is “LOLA MONTES is Brechtian, Ophuls was a genius, therefore it doesn’t matter who played the lead in the film.” Some argument. I have to wonder how Brecht would feel about it.

    First of all, I love Ophuls, and I love LOLA MONTES. Brad seems to believe, for some reason I can’t fathom, that those of us who have a problem with Carol in the film are the kinds of people who dislike Kim Novak in VERTIGO, which more or less means: people who want old-fashioned virtuoso performances in every movie.

    He mentioned Madonna in SNAKE EYES (or DANGEROUS GAME). He’s right – she’s spectacular in that film and she’ll never be better. But what does it mean to say that Madonna is great in SNAKE EYES and that Walter Huston is great in DODSWORTH? The second is clearly a performance, the first is just as clearly something else. And in both instances, as Brad put it quite uncharitably but correctly, it is meaningless to say “he’s/she’s great” and leave it at that. Of course, this is a website, where many people take it for granted that behind a casual remark lies a carefully thought-through response. Everyone except you and Brad, it seems.

    I’ve just seen LOLA MONTES again. Carol is quite touching in the film – stiff, tentative, uncertain, awkward. The same qualities one sees in Britney Spears in unguarded moments. A captive of her own image, or rather of the image formed of her by others. And she is, almost literally, lost within the film, within Ophuls’ mise-en-scène.

    Perfect, right? Sounds like she’s absolutely in line with Ophuls’ intentions. A cipher at the center of the movie, effaced by so much relentless objectification from the men in her midst. That Martine Carol’s own life more or less mirrored Lola Montès’ is the icing on the cake.

    Where I would part company with you and Brad is over the assertion that this is exactly what Ophuls wanted. How could I be so presumptuous, and so perverse? How dare I question a master? I got pretty much the same response when I wrote about THE NEW WORLD and found something lacking in Colin Farrell’s performance. In other words, how can you focus on acting in a movie that is so clearly NOT about acting?

    In both instances, a director cast a bankable actor in order to realize his ambitions, perhaps driven by the belief that he could make do with whoever. Neither film is ruined by the casting. They’re both amazing achievements. But unlike Ferrara, who was making a very different kind of movie and who created an atmosphere in which Madonna exposed herself to troubling effect, Malick and Ophuls construct their films in order to safeguard against the shortcomings of their stars – Ophuls with great care, Malick less so. Farrell flounders and indulges in a terrible display of indicating that is, for me, out of key with the movie around it. Carol, on the other hand, withdraws into the film. The result is, on the one hand, stunning, and conceptually perfect. On the other hand, compared to every other Ophuls film I’ve seen (which is most of them – the first thing I ever programmed at Lincoln Center was a retrospective, all but complete), it’s a little bloodless at the core. I don’t find it quite as rich or as surprising as MADAME DE…, or as moving. BARRY LYNDON, by one of Ophuls’ most extravagant admirers, makes for an interesting comparison. Both films operate with similar aesthetic strategies. But where O’Neal is, for me at least, a very moving pawn in the game of power and beauty, Carol is dwarfed by that game, in the film and by the film. There is indeed a perfect match-up, but there’s no store of recalcitrant humanity at the center. So, the difference is not over whether LOLA MONTES is good or bad, but of HOW GREAT it is. I find it a little less great than other Ophuls films, greater than 90% of everything else. And my problem with it, presumptuous of me as it may be, is based on the work itself as well as my experience of the same director’s other work. If that’s not “auteurist,” I don’t know what is.

    My conclusion is that LOLA MONTES would have been a better movie with Madonna in the lead. Thank you for your time.

  • Brad Stevens

    Kent. Instead of responding to all the points you are making, I think it might be more profitable to focus on your comments concerning THE NEW WORLD, because it seems to me that they perfectly illustrate the limitations of your approach. In your extremely interesting FILM COMMENT piece on THE NEW WORLD, you complained of how various actors in THE THIN RED LINE seemed to be inhabiting different films. This is a good example of simultaneously getting the point and missing it completely. For surely all of Malick’s films are about characters who live inside their own private ‘films’. Surely Holly and Kit in BADLANDS are inhabiting their own films (or, more accurately, pulp novels), each seeing the other not as an autonomous human being, but rather as a supporting character in a fictional narrative wherein they themselves occupy the ‘star’ role. So in THE NEW WORLD, you say that “Farrell flounders and indulges in a terrible display of indicating that is, for me, out of key with the movie around it”. Fine. But assume that Malick knew what he was doing, assume that the performance onscreen was the one he wanted, assume that Captain Smith is supposed to be ‘out of key’ with the world around him, and this terrible display of indicating suddenly clarifies the film’s main concern. For Captain Smith clearly sees himself as the dashing star of a fictional narrative (the casting of a ‘bankable actor’ is wonderfully apt) in which Pocahontas has merely a supporting role, and can be made to represent whatever romantic ideal Smith wishes to see embodied at any given moment. Needless to say, Malick is highly critical of Captain Smith’s assumptions: his comments about the new world – “Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor” – are placed by the film as decisively as Holly’s dimestore novel narration in BADLANDS.

    The point I’m making is that, when confronted with a performance which seems to you problematic, you might be better off interrogating the terms in which you are tempted to dismiss it, and asking yourself whether or not they can be read back into the film thematically.

    You suggested that I “might think twice about meeting challenges to statements as sweeping as the ones you’re making here with such an air of superiority”. I would respond by saying that you might think twice about lecturing great filmmakers on their inability to direct actors effectively with such an air of superiority – if for no other reason than that I honestly believe a little humbleness will get you much further in terms of understanding the intentions of those film-makers. As V. F. Perkins wrote in his book about THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, “One of the merits of a director-centred approach to cinema is that it can prompt us, in the face of a picture by a gifted film-maker that seems boring, baffling or botched, to ask whether the fault may not be in the movie so much as in our way of looking at it”.

  • Kent Jones

    Brad, I’m not lecturing you, or Max Ophuls, or Terrence Malick. So I don’t expect to be lectured BY you. I disagree with you, on fine points rather than broad ones. Because I disagree with you, I’ve been accused of having received opinions, of being non-rigorous, of lacking humility, of lecturing great filmmakers about their inability to direct actors and, because I see a shortcoming in this or that film, of maintaining an air of superiority. What’s next? What’s next is that I should question myself more thoroughly. Thanks for the advice. You’re a real pal.

    Should critics fall to the ground like supplicants whenever they see signs of greatness, and assume that any problem they have is theirs and not that of the film? To me, that would be a betrayal of the self, of the film, of criticism and, ultimately, of the artist. To you, it wouldn’t. I agree with Perkins. I don’t agree with you or with your interpretation of his statement. What else do you want from me? An apology to the great filmmakers of the world for being insufficiently respectful?

    At the risk of being accused of disrespect to you, I think you’re offering us, or me, a tautology. dm494 outlined it pretty well, and I agree with his assessment. It appears to be a tautology with which you’re comfortable. I’m not. I don’t really know what else to say. This has ceased to be a real discussion, and has become nothing more than an exchange of opinions, back and forth, in which I’ve been called on to justify myself and you haven’t. Since my capacity for enduring any more condescension or scolding remarks has reached its limit, I hope we’ve come to the end.

  • dm494

    “The statement ‘Lee Tracy is good in DINNER AT EIGHT’…is very definitely banal. What insight does [it] give us into Lee Tracy, George Cukor, DINNER AT EIGHT, or even the person making the statement?”

    On its own, not much; but it says a lot when forming part of a group of good/bad judgments. You can reconstruct a person’s aesthetic by reviewing a large number of his judgments of this sort, independently of any perceptions he offers. For instance, if someone tells me that Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker and Lester Young are all good, and that Ben Webster, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas are terrible, I’m going to conclude that he has an aversion to vibrato and, perhaps, that he subscribes to musical essentialism, the view that the only thing relevant to music is the structure formed by a set of tones in virtue of its melodic, harmonic and rhythmic organization. Moreover, this aesthetic might have a good deal to say about Johnny Hodges and Lee Konitz; it will have been proven correct, for instance, if a few centuries hence Konitz is revered and Hodges forgotten.

    At any rate, if the comment about Lee Tracy is banal, then the statement that Lola Montes is one of the ten best films ever made must be equally so. And I don’t see why your “how can we tell” argument about Martine Carol can’t be used by some cinematic ignoramus to claim that A Few Good Men is a masterpiece. After all, he can always question the existence of filmmaking standards just as you question the existence of standards by which to judge performances. Similarly, if you want to treat filmmakers as high priests, what’s to stop Arthur Hiller from telling you that Taking Care of Business is a masterpiece? Claims that it doesn’t show signs of genius can always be refuted by declaring that the claimant hasn’t watched the film thoughtfully enough. Who are you and I loftily to declare that we know more than a genius like Hiller?

    The biggest problem I have with your argument is that it seems worse than the disease it proposes to cure. Your chief defense of these views is an appeal to considerations of simplicity and elegance. All those nasty controversies about acting simply drop away, and we’re left with “adequate to director’s ends”/”not so adequate”. But the consequences of your view, some of which I’ve tried to deduce, are much more problematic than any questions about the quality of performances given by Martine Carol, Kim Novak, Madonna or Christopher Walken (whom Robert Brustein, in what is surely a banal and possibly meaningless assertion, called the finest actor of his generation) in films by Ophuls, Hitchcock and Ferrara.

  • Brad Stevens

    “I don’t see why your “how can we tell” argument about Martine Carol can’t be used by some cinematic ignoramus to claim that A Few Good Men is a masterpiece. After all, he can always question the existence of filmmaking standards just as you question the existence of standards by which to judge performances. Similarly, if you want to treat filmmakers as high priests, what’s to stop Arthur Hiller from telling you that Taking Care of Business is a masterpiece? Claims that it doesn’t show signs of genius can always be refuted by declaring that the claimant hasn’t watched the film thoughtfully enough. Who are you and I loftily to declare that we know more than a genius like Hiller?”

    You miss my point. Max Ophuls, unlike Arthur Hiller or Rob Reiner, has directed many films that most of the individuals who are attacking LOLA MONTES (or at least attacking the film’s lead performance) regard as masterpieces. All I’m saying is that if they have a problem with one particular aspect of an Ophuls film (particularly an Ophuls film which they agree is splendid in most of its other aspects), then they should at least be prepared to consider the possibility that, in V. F. Perkins’ words, “the fault may not be in the movie so much as in our way of looking at it”.

  • Kent,

    You wrote: “Why? Because I, and some other people, happen to have an opinion that’s irksome to what you refer to as “auteurism.” Which has nothing to do with Andrew Sarris or the politique des auteurs, and everything to do with the statement of purpose on A_Film_By. Where it seems that a certain orthodoxy reigns.” I believe my only objection in regards to auteurism as discussed on this blog was in regard to Professor Echo stating his relief at there not being so much discussion about Pollack’s mise-en-scene. I thought I said that it was silly to complain about people writing about the mise-en-scene of a director on a board that is –and I believe this can be easily demonstrated by simply looking at the posts themselves—primarily focused on the discussion of films via mise-en-scene.

    You wrote: “ Is the point that everyone should AGREE that performance is secondary? That auteurism is demeaned or besmirched by discussions of actors?” I didn’t think I said that everyone should agree that performances are secondary or that auteurism is somehow tainted by the discussion of actors? I thought I only elaborated on why I do not consider performances to be of great importance when evaluating the value of a film.

    It was not my desire to indulge in “syllogisms and tautaologies” when I asked you if auteurism is not indeed essentialist. Yet, what does it mean to you to say that you are an anti-essentialist and an auteurist?

    When I wrote that I believe that “the practice of filmmakers I find to be very different to the practice of film analysis, and what is valued in one does not necessarily need to be of the same importance in another,” you said I was asserting: “that the practice of filmmaking can be made mutually exclusive from the practice of film analysis.” When I tried to point out to you that was a mischaracterization of what I said, you said I was getting into semantics. I believe that there is a great chasm between what I said and what you represented me as saying. How does “not necessarily” become “mutually exclusive”? Why should a critic consider everything a director thinks is important If everything that’s important to a director is important to us, what is the role of the critic?

    I am sorry if my responses to you seemed accusatory.

    Michael Worrall

  • correction: My question is: If everything that’s important to a director is important to us, what is the role of the critic?

  • Kent Jones

    Michael, I admire your quest for clarity.

    All kinds of ambiguities and misperceptions creep into these exchanges – by which I mean blog posts in general.

    As for the difference between “not necessarily” and “mutually exclusive,” you’re absolutely right. What I fail to understand is how people who love cinema can feel comfortable picking and choosing which of its elements they feel to be worthy of discussion. I can’t think of a single director who doesn’t value actors, or who would fail to be astonished by some of the remarks I’ve read here about acting. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, I’m being sincere. The reason, of course, is that they’re primarily involved in the creation of characters – another term that doesn’t come up so comfortably in certain circles.

    We listen intently to what composers have to say about music, to what painters have to say about painting. It becomes part of our critical vocabulary. But somehow in cinema, there’ve always been these strange gulfs between criticism, theory, and filmmaking. Sometimes, I get the feeling that, for some, the reality of the filmmaker, not to mention the business of making films, actually INTRUDES on the film-watching experience.

    In short, it seems only logical to me that if it’s important to the creator, it has to be important to the critic. The critic’s job is to place it, to illuminate it from all sides, and to sort out the discrepancies between intention and effect, a sobering practice which has nothing to do with respect for a filmmaker and everything to do with respect for one’s self and one’s perception. The filmmaker’s job is to keep the patient alive, said Paui Schrader, and the critic’s job is to perform the autopsy and see what made the patient live or die. One can argue, but on the difference between intent and outcome, I think he’s absolutely, cruelly correct. Which is why I disagree with Brad Stevens’ interpretation of V.F. Perkins’s statement but agree with the statement itself.

    For me, there’s a certain strain of film criticism that concerns itself too exclusively with questions of form, and not enough with the contingencies of the films themselves – if the film in question is FROM THE POLE TO EQUATOR, then character and drama are not relevant; if it’s RIO BRAVO, then they are. As is the relation of actor to character, of the actor’s achievement within the ecology of the film and the context of what is being asked of him or her. So, in RIO BRAVO, I don’t really care about how awful Ricky Nelson is: within the context of that film, where ritualized gestures and behavioral vocabularies are everything, it’s fine that this lousy actor in this limited role does such an awkward job of sticking his thumbs in his belt or brushing his hand behind his ear “in thought.” But I do care about John Wayne and Dean Martin, without either of whom the film is unimaginable, both of whom are so creative and work so closely with Hawks. I care about Keir Dullea being so awful in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING because the film hinges on his character (a terrible realization of a ridiculous conception), but I don’t care at all about the extremely awkward actors who play the young lovers in STEAMBOAT ‘ROUND THE BEND, because their vocabulary of movement is so refined by Ford. For me, while it’s possible to speak of generalities in cinema, it’s impossible to not discuss the contingencies, the individual cases, the films themselves. As I watch them, one by one, I certainly find myself drawn to the excitement and greater drama of following a director’s overall body of work. But one also has to keep the film itself in mind at the same time. thus, anti-essentialist auteurism.

    This is my long-winded attempt to answer your queries. Thank you for posing them.

  • Brad Stevens

    I’d just like to clarify what I was saying, because I think my comments, particularly concerning V. F. Perkins’ statement, have been misunderstood. I take it that Kent believes I am interpreting Perkins as saying that we should never make any kind of negative comment about a film by a great director, which isn’t the case at all. My own approach, particularly when dealing with a film by a director I admire, is to assume that the filmmaker knew exactly what s/he was doing; I may end up concluding that the work is flawed, but only after I have explored all other possibilities (Kent insists that the critic’s job is to “sort out the discrepancies between intention and effect” – but, clearly, the only way we have of determining an artist’s ‘intentions’ is by paying attention to the ‘effects’). If, while watching THE NEW WORLD, I found Colin Farrell guilty of indulging in “a terrible display of indicating” that was “out of key with the movie around it”, my immediate response would be to ask “Can the apparent flaws of this performance be interpreted thematically?”. In many cases, the answer to this question will be a simple no. But here, the answer is clearly yes. Not only can the performance be interpreted in this way, but doing so allows us to perceive that THE NEW WORLD, for all its superficial differences, is dealing with exactly the same theme as Malick’s first film, BADLANDS, which was similarly concerned with ‘performers’ isolated in their own private narratives.

  • Kent Jones

    Brad, isn’t it possible that I and others who disagree with you about THE NEW WORLD or LOLA MONTES have also “explored all other possibilities” and come to different conclusions? As to intentions and effects, you’re absolutely right. You’ll get no argument out of me.

    Personally speaking, I don’t think that “Can the apparent flaws of this performance be interpreted thematically?” is a very useful question. Not because iI find it invalid – Tim Holt in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is an obvious and perfect case in point. For me it’s not useful because it doesn’t usually lead in a fruitful direction. You could say the very same thing of a performance in a film by a bad filmmaker, as dm494 wrote. Quite easily, in fact. It’s a fairly common occurrence. Your objection to that, if I remember correctly, was that you were speaking exclusively of “great filmmakers.” Fair enough.

    But there is no absolute truth when it comes to questions of aesthetic value. You think NEW ROSE HOTEL is a great film. I don’t. I think THE DARJEELING LIMITED is a great film. Most people I know strongly disagree. I don’t have much use for IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA. Many of my friends think it’s a masterpiece. It was Michael who cautioned me against saying “we,” and while this was temporarily wounding, I think he was finally quite right. Of course, when we write about films, we write in a language that suggests absolutism – that’s human nature. But it’s important to get around that tendency and under it, to suggest the constant flux of things. That’s why I’ve always admired Manny Farber so much – judgment really is secondary in his writing.

    I never said that Colin Farrell spoils THE NEW WORLD, or that Martine Carol spoils LOLA MONTES. So I suppose this discussion is over who is the most willing to bend over backwards and be charitable to Malick and Ophuls. Clearly that would be you. You see something seamless. I don’t. So what?

    I understand that you want to clarify what you meant when you quoted Perkins. Fair enough. Precise expression is tricky in a blog post. Yet, I don’t really understand what you’re driving at. I don’t understand why it can’t be enough to simply disagree, admit that there are different orientations and worldviews at work here, and leave it at that. You seem to be implying, perhaps without trying, that your overall viewpoint and interpretations are correct, and thus more enlightened. So of course you’re going to get disagreements there.

    Finally, I will throw this out there: that for me, the interaction between the energy of the film and the energy of the actor at any given moment, the harmonies and discordances, whether the film is by Bresson, Preminger, Kazan or Ferrara, is and always has been very exciting. For you it seems to be less so.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Personally speaking, I don’t think that “Can the apparent flaws of this performance be interpreted thematically?” is a very useful question…For me it’s not useful because it doesn’t usually lead in a fruitful direction. You could say the very same thing of a performance in a film by a bad filmmaker, as dm494 wrote.”

    Again, I must not be making myself clear, because my entire point is that one could not possibly say the same thing of a performance in a film by a bad filmmaker. What I am talking about is not Colin farrell’s performance, considered as a thing in itself, but the use to which a great filmmaker puts it.

    “Yet, I don’t really understand what you’re driving at.”

    I’m simply saying that, if you find, for example, Colin Farrell’s performance in THE NEW WORLD “baffling or botched”, it might be a good idea to take V. F. Perkins’ advice, and ask yourself whether “the fault may not be in the movie so much as in (y)our way of looking at it”. You say that you agree with Perkins’ statement, just not with my interpretation of it. But it’s not clear to me exactly how you interpret his statement.

    “I don’t understand why it can’t be enough to simply disagree, admit that there are different orientations and worldviews at work here, and leave it at that. You seem to be implying, perhaps without trying, that your overall viewpoint and interpretations are correct, and thus more enlightened. So of course you’re going to get disagreements there.”

    Of course I’m satisfied that my opinions are correct, just as I’m sure you are satisfied that your opinions are correct. Obviously, I wouldn’t be debating these issues with you if I thought you were an idiot, or if I felt that our worldviews were simply so different that all we could do was agree to disagree. This, surely, is a given in any critical debate. And, unless you object to the concept of critical debate (which you clearly don’t), I don’t see why you should feel insulted (which I get the impression you do) when I disagree with your opinions, try to demonstrate why, in my belief, they are incorrect, and offer my own reading, which takes into account certain aspects of a given film which I believe you have negelected. It goes without saying that I’m quite prepared for you to find the alternate reading I have offered incorrect, and to tell me exactly why it is so. I have, I hope, made it clear why I find your reading of THE NEW WORLD flawed, but it’s not clear to me why you find my reading flawed, or what evidence you wish to cite that would demonstrate my reading to be implausible or inaccurate.

    “Finally, I will throw this out there: that for me, the interaction between the energy of the film and the energy of the actor at any given moment, the harmonies and discordances, whether the film is by Bresson, Preminger, Kazan or Ferrara, is and always has been very exciting. For you it seems to be less so.”

    No, I find it a very exciting thing. I just don’t find it to be the only thing.

  • Kent Jones

    Brad, I think it’s sort of unseemly of us to continue this debate, if one could call it that, in this forum. I suppose the difference between us is that you seem invested in demonstrating that my opinions are incorrect (can there be such a thing as an incorrect opinion?), while I really don’t have any such intention of doing so with yours. In addition, you continue to insist that I haven’t properly interrogated myself about my reaction to this or that movie, so your impression that I feel insulted is indeed correct. Finally, for the thousandth time, no one, ever, at all, has said once on this website that they consider at acting alone, as a separate element outside of the rest of the film. No one finds it to be “the only thing.” Not even me. As for THE NEW WORLD, I feel no obligation to explain myself beyond what I’ve already written about it. You’re entitled to your reading, as you put it, and I’m entitled to mine. I hope we can simply leave it at that.

  • Julian Pearce

    Having watched Out of Africa last night, I have to admit to be suprised at how involving I found it after all these years, and quite gorgeous. Pollack is certainly not idiosyncratic, or even original…but this movie is gorgeous, has a rich and interesting theme, and for my money, offers Meryl Streep’s best performance, with many suprising bits of subtle physical comedy. Too long, no doubt, but suprisingly touching.

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