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AK 100

PDVD_111The most imposing gift box of this season is Criterion’s $400 “AK 100,” a collection of 25 films by Akira Kurosawa issued in anticipation of his centenary next March.  Most of what’s in it are single disc editions of Kurosawa films that Criterion has previously issued with reams of extras, but there are four titles that haven’t been previously released in Region One, all from the wartime years:  “Sugata Sanshiro,” parts one (1943) and two (1945); “The Most Beautiful” (1944); and “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” (1945).  A review here in the New York Times.

367 comments to AK 100

  • edo

    Kent, thanks for the considered response. After I posted it, I felt like I was a little harsh toward you in that post, and wished I had phrased the things I wanted to say a little differently.

    Let me just say that with regard to this subjectivity I find in PUBLIC ENEMIES, and really in all of Mann’s films since THE INSIDER, I am not talking about clear exposition, insinuating us into one character’s emotional world and then another’s, as in a Ford or Murnau film, so much as a kind of maximal psycho-physical contact with the depicted environment that often seems coordinated, in an at once awkwardly and elegantly balletic way, to how the characters are also experiencing it. This, coupled with a rhythmic tension in the montage that generates very disorientating continuities, gives one goosebumps, makes the hair on one’s neck stand on end. These surface elements are then tied back into a character’s state of mind mostly through a certain logic that governs the alternation of shots, but also the color coordination, light play, and especially music. So, while it might not be the conventional shot/reverse-shot way of establishing subjectivity, I think it’s still a more subjective mode than objective one.

    And it’s all orchestrated around, or achieved through, very minute actions. I think specifically of the great attentiveness Mann has to discreet gestures, such as the way Walter Dietrich, the convict who is killed during the opening prison break and who has served as Dillinger’s mentor, clutches his gun close to his stomach – this action glimpsed in a brief tight close-up before the camera tilts up to his face in profile, catching a glint of flare from the blown-out light streaming through the window. Mann uses the digital clipping here in a very poetic way I think. The whole motion brings us right into Dietrich. Of course, in a couple minutes, this man will be dead. I feel micro events like these, and there are a lot of them in this film, are quite worthy of Bresson.

    In this sense, I’ve not seen a period piece that is so little interested in giving its audience the long view of its subject. You’re right about the casting, costuming, and locations of course, but the camera doesn’t ever pull back to contemplate it all. That’s more Fincher’s mode in ZODIAC, where you have these wonderful transitions and ellipses in between scenes, accompanied by those haunting, quasi-atonal piano motifs. People leaving at the end of the day or sweeping the floor, the hollow feeling that accompanies that. On the contrary, Mann’s film is built out of mortal glimpses, and this seems designedly tied in with how transiently Dillinger is moving through this world. All these faces, places and textures become smears (sometimes quite literally). There are of course those dreamy, Tarkovsky-esque helicopter shots, but even these shots don’t take us out of this very internal feeling that’s being cultivated. Instead, they just wash over us, submerging us into it more deeply. In Mann’s work overall, I always sense this. That there’s something very buried under all this surface, but that it is through the surface that we must plunge to get to it. Something that’s very fragile, delicate, vulnerable. The soul of a character like the assassin Vincent in COLLATERAL or Dillinger in PUBLIC ENEMIES.

    I think the romance is wonderful in PUBLIC ENEMIES, and psychologically what’s going on between Billy and Dillinger is, I think, at once complex and actually fairly common. Their love is immature, naive, but, I think, entirely sincere. This is at least the sense I get in the film, and from reading Billy Frechette’s own account of her experience with Dillinger from which Mann draws a lot of Cotillard’s lines.

    For me, Roger Ebert manages to hit a home run in describing the romance in his review:

    “Dillinger saw a woman he liked, Billie Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard, and courted her, after his fashion. That is, he took her out at night and bought her a fur coat, as he had seen done in the movies; he had no real adult experience before prison. They had sex, but the movie is not much interested. It is all about his vow to show up for her, to protect her. Against what? Against the danger of being his girl. He allows himself a tiny smile when he gives her the coat, and it is the only vulnerability he shows in the movie.

    “This is very disciplined film. You might not think it was possible to make a film about the most famous outlaw of the 1930s without clichés and “star chemistry” and a film class screenplay structure, but Mann does it. He is particular about the way he presents Dillinger and Billie. He sees him and her. Not them. They are never a couple. They are their needs. She needs to be protected, because she is so vulnerable. He needs someone to protect, in order to affirm his invincibility.”

    I might not use exactly these terms, but I think it gets at the heart of the impulses that make the relationship (and perhaps this also fits for Neil and Eadie in HEAT, though I’d have to think about it somewhat). A healthy affair? Probably not in the long run, but Mann’s daring in my book is taking it seriously without any irony or condescension, while also seeing it for what it is, an impossible delusion. The affair in MIAMI VICE is similarly doomed by equal parts circumstance and self-contradiction. These relationships are, for me, the heart of Mann’s cinema.

  • nicolas saada

    Actually, the only mainstream american film that I would associate with Claire Denis is Friedkin’s SORCERER. I would agree that Mann is closer to Malick. Where Malick (I think) laments on America’s loss of innocence, Mann laments about America’s inability to regain it. In both cases, as a European, I am not sure I am interested in this. I don’t see this as romantic. i believe it’s rooted in an older tradition, maybe from teh 18Th century. That said, I wuld say that Haneke is the filmmaker that glees about the world’s loss of innocence. Meanwhile, you watch the new print of LA DOLCE VITA at the french cinematheque, and you just realize how beautiful and complex the world is, and how Fellini turns a social commentary into a dark fairy tale. I kow Michael Mann loves Murnau and Resnais, and it actualy makes sense in many of his movies. But the paradox lies perhaps i the fact that intellectuals admire action while “actioners” admire intellectuals. And then, they are filmmakers who are in another frame of mind.

  • nicolas saada

    Like Kurosawa..

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, all I can say about Mann’s “subjectivity” is that I don’t see it. Nor do I see the maximal psycho-physical contact with the depicted environment. And I REALLY don’t see any rhythmic tension in the montage. Fincher seems like the wrong point of comparison here, because his films are extremely refined emotionally and behaviorally. But then, I think Fincher pays a lot more attention to acting than Mann does. I do think that Mann tracks the characters he likes in some kind of vaguely sympathetic way – like Dietrich’s death or De Niro’s realization that he has to go back and kill that guy as he and the girl drive through the tunnel – but where you see minute actions worthy of Bresson, I see something far less precise and much more a matter of mood, atmospherics. As for the romance, giving somebody a line like “Will you take that ride with me?” against swelling music on a beach at night as tears well in his girl’s eyes and she answers in the affirmative does not bespeak the kind of frankness described by Ebert. That’s what I mean when I say he wants to have it both ways.

    Meanwhile, I’m with Nicolas on Claire Denis, despite the fact that she loves Michael Mann’s films. I’m not so sure about the lament of America’s inability to regain its innocence. There’s a scene in THIEF where James Caan and Tuesday Weld try to adopt a baby and are turned down, and he gets pissed off. Why? Because they’re on the outside of society, they’re not to be trusted. That type of resentment seemed odd to me in the early 80s and it still does today, and I think it runs throughout Mann’s work.

    Regarding Kurosawa, it’s nice that he’s being reintroduced in the discussion and he’s especially pertinent here. When it comes to films that address life in a capitalist world, HIGH AND LOW is a shattering experience and so acutely realized that it’s almost hair-raising.

  • Barry Putterman

    Am I about to repeat my most recent history by blindly blundering into the Mann morass again? I certainly hope not. I’m very much looking forward to the next page going up.

    However, I was taken by the “lost innocence” theme just introduced. Using “the time that America lost its innocence” as a movie advertising slogan has become one of the more annoying redundancies of the part twenty years. Any semi-sophisticated understanding of American history shows that the nation never had any innocence to lose, and that is probably equally true for every other nation.

    Only we as individuals once had innocence and viewed our nation and the world through the prism of it. Any regret for a lost innocence is actually a regret for our own and would take us back to Kent’s view of Mann’s self-pity and my own introduction of the youth culture theme.

    In contrast, Kurosawa has NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH. And I would agree that HIGH AND LOW is both especially pertinent to this point and a magnificent film as well.

  • edo

    “I would agree that Mann is closer to Malick. Where Malick (I think) laments on America’s loss of innocence, Mann laments about America’s inability to regain it.”

    Does he? Does Malick? I feel like these sort of platitudes are always a little pat said about any filmmaker dealing with any theme. Would we say this about LIBERTY VALANCE? Ford’s lamenting America’s loss of innocence. Okay. Fine. But what next? I guess it bothers me, because invariably such platitudes are invoked to stow the artist in the mortuary, or otherwise to elevate them into the stratosphere. Either way, it’s completely unproductive.

    Denis and Mann may not share much in terms of content, but they are interested both in a certain mystery of the human spirit, and more importantly they find similar, intuitive solutions in trying to tap into it. The camerawork in their films, the way they both get right up to the back of a character’s neck, or peer across their profile so that we can’t quite make out the expression on their face, these are strikingly affinities for me, as is the surreal, entrancing color patterning that we find in both BEAU TRAVAIL and HEAT.

    Kent, I’m sorry you don’t see it, because I would so enjoy talking about these films with you on coordinate terms. Still, perhaps someday I will not be so in the thrall of Mann. Or vice-versa.

    With regard to this “rhythmic tension” I pointed to, I don’t know perhaps I wasn’t being exact enough? I’m talking about the sort of heartbeat rhythms, the adrenal tempos he tries to simulate, so that when they’re robbing the bank in HEAT or ENEMIES we really feel the bracing thereness of it. You can ascribe this adrenaline to just a matter of visual uniformity and kinetic shifts, it’s true, but it’s always more dire, more focused than that, zeroed in on a desperation that lies just behind the shots. For these people, it is a matter of life and death, not just a spectacle for our enjoyment. When Dietrich dies, or Red gets shot in the forest, or Carter Baum is massacred by Baby Face Nelson, or Nelson by Purvis, or Pretty Boy Floyd cut down in that apple orchard, there’s a mortal dignity that they all get as they go, as the eyes glass over. Even the bureau beefcake gets that wonderful moment where his hand begins to shake uncontrollably in the car. This is true even in the films where there’s no shooting, in THE INSIDER and ALI. We experience this suburban neighborhood where Wigand lives as if it were a battlefield, and Ali’s whole world is an extension of the boxing arena. I think what Mann is trying to achieve is something of a visual equivalent for the kind of welling up inside that Malcolm describes here:

    “When I heard about those…four little girls who got bombed in that Birmingham church…the prohibitions of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad prevented me…from speaking my thoughts in action. Because Birmingham was part of the civil rights struggle. You know, begging for our place at the white man’s table. But dead children are dead children. So the anger I felt I had to contain. I locked it up so tight…my muscles seized. I lost control over the right side of my body. My leg gave out. Right arm gave out. ‘I’m having a stroke,’ I thought.”

    Of course, here the modality is anger against “the machinery” as you’ve talked about. It’s true that that is part of it, but that’s only part of it and it’s not even always part of it. Sometimes the feeling can be elation. Sometimes sadness. Sometimes a kind of soulful harmony, such as the beautiful scene at the beginning of COLLATERAL between Jada Pinkett Smith and Jamie Foxx.

    This is perhaps my favorite extended sequence between two actors in contemporary cinema, this communion shared between two people in a taxi to Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time”. It’s the interior light that brings them into a place of intimacy. The reflective silences that bridge their words, moving us from emotional point to point. Those wide, imbalanced compositions opening this world onto possibility, onto a plane of dreams. The lines of super highway that stretch to infinity. And that culminating helicopter shot that seems to dilate time itself. Los Angeles isn’t just the cold post-modern nullity that Vincent sees everywhere. It’s the very beauty and potential of becoming.

    There are films where the same techniques amount to something as crude as the nervy kineticism, you sense here, Kent. I’d finger THE DARK KNIGHT or the Bourne films in particular. But even with the Bourne films one gets the sense that Greengrass is trying to inhabit Bourne, even at times when Bourne’s not onscreen. I just think Mann does this infinitely more consistently and precisely.

    A bit off-topic, this actually puts me in mind of that great observation you made about how digital filmmaking might have impacted the psychology of coverage. It strikes me that perhaps it’s not digital filmmaking that directly causes this, so much as digital filmmaking liberates this particular obsession that certain filmmakers, or whole industries and audiences, have. Sort of a digital filmmaking equivalent of long takes and deep focus. One perceived way today of reattaining the myth of total cinema.

  • edo

    And HIGH AND LOW is certainly wonderful. Long my favorite Kurosawa film. But it’s also something else again.

  • Nicolas saada

    “Any semi-sophisticated understanding of American history shows that the nation never had any innocence to lose, and that is probably equally true for every other nation.”
    I agree with this,. What I am referring to is this purely “french” vision of Mann and malik that seems to accomoadate every positive comment made on their films. I would take the risk to say that Malik is a pantheist, just like Flaherty or Ford. But he differs from them in his deadpan seriousness. As for Mann, well he is the Humphrey Bogart of filmmakers her. If you see what I mean.

  • Nicolas saada

    This whole business on America’s loss of innocence is I agree, a bit limited. But as far as political history is concerned, there has be no “french ideal” in the past three centuries, except for the French Revolution. We never had “new frontiers” speeches by our presidents or “I have a dream” speeches by any political leader. That might explai how we perceive some of American History, as, not really a “quest for innocence”, but at least a formidable enterprise of righteousness that we never addressed in France since the end of World War 2. It’s enough to confuse “righteousness” with “innocence”. We never heard of the “rat pack” until the early 80’s…

  • nicolas saada

    Kent, when you describe Michael Mann, it feels he’s like an Alban Berg trying to write a Bryan Adams song. Or the reverse.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Nicolas, no, I don’t really see what you mean Re: Bogart and Mann. Can you elaborate?

  • edo

    “As for the romance, giving somebody a line like “Will you take that ride with me?” against swelling music on a beach at night as tears well in his girl’s eyes and she answers in the affirmative does not bespeak the kind of frankness described by Ebert. That’s what I mean when I say he wants to have it both ways.”

    I think that scene is quite frank. It’s also very embarrassed, private, almost naked. Again these aren’t the most mature people. Billie was 26, and as she said herself had “never been any place”. Nothing had “ever happened” to her. Suddenly, she’s in a rich, stimulating world. John was 30. Had been in prison for about 3-4 years. Suddenly, he’s free and the world has changed so much since he left it. More modern cars, clothes, music. It’s intoxicating for them both.

    In the film, and its supporting back story, there’s never any framework, still less time or inclination, for the kind of emotional development that makes for more reflective intimacy. So, indeed it is naive and quite unbelievable, but Depp and Cotillard are completely dedicated to it. Her childish refusal to sleep, because she wants as much time with him as possible. His low tone of voice. And then these typically strong contrasts Mann likes to use, the whiteness of the snow against the blackness of night. They’re pitched out on a limb, in a void, and there’s some twilight hope to this situation, the thought that they might escape.

    Accepting that scene, and all their scenes together, means accepting that those lines are not just being thrown up as romantic cliches. It’s actually hard for me to believe the latter, because if these moments are just Mann throwing up romantic cliches, no one I have yet spoken with bought them! I think the logic to this notion that Mann goes on autopilot in moments where he’s forced to pay lip service to character is forced. Most of the time in Hollywood the maudlin sentiment is at least up-to-date. You can’t chalk up lines like “you want to take that ride with me?” to zeitgeist taste. I’m not sure you could even have done so with the lines in the coffee scene in HEAT in 1995, or with Tom Cruise’s line in COLLATERAL in 2004. The sort of post-modernist platitudes that Vincent spits out in the backseat of that cab had been floating in the ether of popular culture for at least a decade already. And I can’t think of any generational contemporary, whom I could pick up with the line Dillinger uses on Billie.

    So, presuming we can all agree that Mann is at least exact about his choices, can these decisions really be chalked up to canniness and due diligence? If he’s just being lazy and commercial, then we must assume he thinks audiences are much dumber than the box office receipts and the trade reviews would appear to suggest. And his own esthetic choices, his way of burying story information in scenes with a lot of commanding activity, would seem to belie that contention. It may be hard to believe, but a lot actually goes on in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Every line of dialogue is doing or establishing something. Mann seems to have a lot of respect for the audience’s ability to be attentive to this.

    He at least appears to think so in his interviews, when people ask him questions about things like the lack of a foley track in PUBLIC ENEMIES. During post, Mann wanted to preserve as much of the raw sound as possible, which a result that some lines vary rather jarringly in volume. As I recall, there’s even one line that Purvis has where the sound almost pops out of the on-board mic’s range. Mann drove the sound designers crazy. He specifically wanted it this way. He wants the sound, not just the gun shots, but even the voices to hit viscerally, this kind of muffled quality where the clarity of the words take on a more basic resonance, as if the sounds are really contained by the spaces of, say, the bureau’s Chicago office or the getaway car at the beginning of the film.

    Tying this back into the romance between Billy and Dillinger, when Dillinger walks over to her table for the first time and asks her if he can buy her a drink, there’s again this rawness to the recording that, for me, makes Depp’s very hushed delivery feel like it’s coming from somewhere just over my shoulder. There’s a warmth and a closeness to it that seems exactly right. And the lighting works the same operation visually, hugging Cottilard and Depp’s faces.

  • nicolas saada

    Well JP, he is admired like a sort of very cool “american prototype”, the way Bogart became an icon in France. He’s really the “cool” director, like Tarantino.

  • Mike Grost

    “The sort of post-modernist platitudes that Vincent spits out in the backseat of that cab had been floating in the ether of popular culture for at least a decade already.”

    Well, as a non-expert in Michael Mann, I thought these lines in COLLATERAL expressed Mann’s entire philosophy of life. And that their filmmaker must be one of the most idiotic men ever to stand behind a camera.
    Do you mean this was all some sort of irony?

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, whenever we’re deeply affected by something, we all imagine, on some level, that everyone else will see it just as we do. When they don’t, it usually comes as a shock on some level. Conversely, when someone tells us how much they love something we don’t really care for, we can disagree and harbor fantastic thoughts that they’re “wrong” and we’re “right,” but in the end what can we do beyond stating our own sense of the movie, or else keeping it to ourselves. The former always seems like a more advisable course of action, because it’s always better to share opinions and observations than it is to hide them.

    Michael Mann’s films obviously strike a deep and resounding chord for you and for Mathieu, and for many others as well (Olivier Assayas, for example). So deep, in your case, that you seem to feel the need to defend Mann, along with virtually every choice in his work, as you might defend a friend. I don’t have that kind of attachment to his films, and for that reason I don’t think it’s possible to speak of them on “coordinate terms.” For you, the idea that “every line of dialogue” in PUBLIC ENEMIES is “doing or establishing something” is a fact. For me, it isn’t. On the whole, I don’t see the mastery you ascribe to him. I don’t think he’s “lazy and commercial,” but I do think he’s calculating and commercial. I also think he’s fitfully ambitious, but that his ambitions are often checked by his calculations, no matter how off the mark they are (as in the case of the “take that ride with me” line). Which is unsurprising since his films are so costly. Of course, he’s not the only one with that particular dilemma – the same is true of Fincher, Scorsese, Malick, and many of the other American filmmakers discussed here.

    Nicolas, one minute Mann is Bogart, the next minute he’s Berg, and a minute after that he’s Bryan Adams. What’s going on?

  • edo

    I don’t think it’s irony at all. Just the most basic dramatic principle: opposition. Vincent gives force to a particularly, jaundiced attitude toward the world that all of the film’s characters inhabit, but the things he says are in direct contrast to the values of the other characters. The ending of the film suggests a certain ambivalence.

    Let me propose that I really don’t think that films have philosophy. They DO philosophy, sometimes badly, sometimes well, but I would go so far as to say that a film is never so simple as a delivery device for the filmmaker’s own brand of kool-aid, even when it it is used that way and made for that purpose, such as with propaganda films.

    As far as I can tell from interviews, Mann has never been especially interested in preaching or proclaiming “this is how the world works”. When he says his films arise from life, I think he means it quite practically, in that he actually has personal acquaintance with a lot of the worlds and lives he puts on screen.

    What Kent seems to be reacting against is more a general mood or feeling, a complex of modalities ranging from self-pity to the romantic that he’s uncomfortable with (correct me if I’m wrong here, Kent!). And I think this is what any of us reacts to when we see a film we like or don’t like. I felt this way watching NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. But do I think they amount to a tract? Not really. In some sense, if they did, it would be much easier to dismiss them. I could just not subscribe to it so to speak, but a movie, a work of art, is far more imposing than that. If you deny it, it’s like you’re denying reality.

  • edo

    “…his calculations, no matter how off the mark they are (as in the case of the “take that ride with me” line).”

    But they’re just so consistently off the mark! The explanation that it stems from canniness just seems less and less substantial with each next film he makes. People reviled MIAMI VICE, and PUBLIC ENEMIES was widely held a disappointment, off-putting on so many levels, dramatic, thematic, and esthetic. He seemingly calculated everything incorrectly. I know we’ve hit a wall here, so I’m sorry to keep harping. It’s just I really have tried to see it this way. So many people get this feeling from Mann’s work that I sometimes feel I have to believe it’s there at least partially, at least as one current. So I rewatch the films with that in mind, but then I just never see it. There’s always a more compellingly immediate and, for me at least, evident explanation that has to do with some internal element of the work.

    Anyway, I’m through. Sorry again for dragging this out, Kent. I would like to hear whether the elaboration I gave a couple posts ago about this “rhythmic tension” strikes a chord for you, but this is the last I’ll be posting on the subject.

  • Kent Jones

    Edo, I have absolutely no problem with any modality, romantic or otherwise. I’m afraid that what I’m reacting to is a wavering sense of conviction.

  • edo

    No, I understand that. I just meant that whatever is in a film usually registers as feelings, rather than statements. The sense of and intensity level of the conviction contained in these feelings determines whether we feel they’re authentic or not. Looks like all roads point to Bazin again.

  • nicolas saada

    edo, and Kent, sorry for the “berg/bryan Adams/bogart” thing but they do sum up my feelings on Michael Mann. On the one hand, there’s great attraction to his films, a sort of immediate need to be as “cool” as they look. Then you are surprised by the feel of some scenes, how elaborate they are. And suddenly “corn” jumps at your throat without warning. Mostly in the use of very campy music. I guess it also fascinates us as Europeans.

  • Kent Jones

    Oy, the music! Those songs in MANHUNTER!! Actually, I liked the electric blues stuff in PUBLIC ENEMIES.

    Edo, Mann wouldn’t be the first person to make a commercial miscalculation. You can’t stay in touch with the zeitgeist forever.

  • What’ve you got against “In A Gadda da Vidda,” Kent? Don’t you think it achieves heavyosity?

    Bryan Adams. Bbbbgbgbgbgbbbrrrrgrgrgrgr! My blood runs cold, AND it cuts like a knife.

  • Kent Jones

    Yeah, or the variety of selections from Shriekback.

  • Joseph McBride

    I’ll never forget Stuart Gordon’s brilliant use of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by the Iron Butterfly in his nude production of PETER PAN at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the late sixties. Stuart (who later went on to direct films) used the song to accompany the children on their flight to Never-Never Land, while onstage nude women were dancing in the midst of colored fog. The Lost Boys were hippies. The pirates were Chicago Cops. It was an effective allegory of the period. Mike Wilmington was in the cast, playing John. The university tried to shut down the production at the Memorial Union, under pressure from a local DA candidate who also was campaigning against strip clubs, but I let Stuart use the auditorium where our Wisconsin Film Society was supposed to show some Keaton films. It was a sensational night of theater on a bare stage. I thought at the time of the opening night of Welles’s THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, and that historical precedent helped give Mike and I the idea to let Stuart use our auditorium to defy the authorities. Stuart told me a few years ago he wants to make a movie about that evening. And by the way, Michael Mann was a UW grad as well (’64). Errol Morris was part of our film group in the late sixties.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Nicolas, you seem to react to Mann’s films almost entirely in relation to how people in Europe/France seem to admire in them a supposed “coolness” they somehow want to emulate, or be part of. To me, living in the USA, the angle may be sociologically interesting, but largely irrelevant as a critical approach to a body of work. Can you deal with Mann’s films as though you had no idea how all those would-be cool Europeans feel about them? I’m sure you could if you really wanted to. Maybe you’d find that the intended coolness is largely in the eye of the beholders; and that what appears “corny” no longer is once the supposed coolness has been revealed as largely imaginary.

    All those words you use — “cool,” “corn,” “campy” — (I have to check out the campy music) may be useful to express a gut feeling but they are too vague and subjective to be useful critically.I don’t know, I don’t feel particularly “cool” when I see a Mann film. And I’m not at all sure he tries to be cool himself. If both Mann and Tarentino are both “the cool director” the concept of “cool” become evanescent as those two filmmakers and their movies are so profoundly different.

  • Kent Jones

    Very cool post, Jean-Pierre.

    As someone who lives stateside and hails from Massachusetts, I would say that hip factor is relevant only to the extent that the films betray a strenuous effort to remain up to date. The fact that they fail seems beside the point.

    Over in the decidedly uncool corner, everyone should know that Borzage’s MOONRISE will be on TCM in February.

  • Joseph McBride

    Orson Welles said an artist should always strive not to be in tune with the current trends.

  • Mike Grost

    Edo, thank you very much for your intelligent reply!
    It is much better than my off the cuff remarks deserved.

    I have troubles with contemporary films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, COLLATERAL or THE DARK KNIGHT, which concentrate on glamorizing super-criminals. I don’t enjoy these as entertainment: their extreme violence makes me very nervous by the time the film ends. And as art or politics, the glorification of violence makes me climb the wall.
    This actually has very little to do with their directors as auteurs. In fact, such films usually seem impersonal to me – just another Hollywood violence fest.

    On well-dressed leading men. I have no trouble with this – if the men are good guys. Cary Grant in HIS GIRL FRIDAY is still the gold standard in good attire for men. But Grant is a hero: however abrasive, he’s an editor determined to find the truth and print it – something we all need in a free society. Nor do I object when George O’Brien looks sharp in THE IRON HORSE, or Glenn Ford in THE BIG HEAT.
    This may not be “realistic”. But as Dale Messick, the artist of the comic strip BRENDA STARR, REPORTER once said, “Authenticity is something I always strive to avoid.”

  • dan

    Kent, MOONRISE is quite possibly my favorite Borzage. Ever since the first time i’ve seen on a crappy VHS, I never got over the beauty of one specific moment when the couple have a discussion just before the rollercoaster scene. Borazge just moves his camera from their faces to the their nervous hands. It’s, ofcourse, not the first time Borzage has filmed hands (HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT has that incredible scene with Charles Boyer’s “face on hand” routin), but in my mind, It’s his most moving, maybe even his saddest use of hands in his ouevre…

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Kent, it could be argued that admiring Borzage is very “cool” or “hip.” At least among cinephiles. I don’t know any who would dare to say that Borzage’s films are corny.That would be very square indeed. Which all goes to say that those terms are relative and misleading indeed.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘those terms are relative and misleading’

    Random House Dictionary of American slang says first use of cool is from 1825 British magazine called Spy, a young man is refered to as ‘a right cool [hence impudent, insolent, or daring] fish.’ In African-American dictionary Juba to Jive author says root of cool is Mandingo word for gone out, linked to far out, and gone, man, gone. Also used in 1935 book by Nora Neale Hurston to describe dashing musician. Said to come from expression used by Lester Young, ‘That’s cool.’ Also refered to is Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: A Hepster’s Dictionary, described as ‘the first glossary ever compiled of the colorful and unique words, pharses and expressions employed by Harlem musicians and performers on Lenox Avenue.’ Here, hip is defined ‘to be wise or sophicticated,’ square is un-hip. Also using dig and groovy in this book.

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, I would imagine that Jean-Pierre is thinking more about the “why” than the “what” in relation to those terms. Nevertheless, these reference works will be very helpful if we ever do come up with some “Dobie Gillis’ episodes for you.

  • Kent Jones

    Yeah, I guess it all depends on the company you’re keeping. Like, I guess it would be extremely uncool within the context of this website to talk about how much I’m looking forward to the new Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker movie. Whereas it is the height of cool to rhapsodize about Borzage. such are the compexities of this life.

    Dan, I do not remember the moment in question because it’s been many years since I’ve seen the film, but it certainly sounds like something out of Borzage. He was so transfixed by the body language of couples as they’re falling in love.

    Junko, thanks for supplying those definitions. I love the Random House citation.

  • nicolas saada

    Kent and JP, I agree with what you both say. But actually, that feeling I describe has nothing to do with how I look at these movies. But the “hype” and th “coolness” is often in the way when I try to talk about these movies with other people. As a filmmaker I also realize the impacy of this on french action films, that want to look and feel as “cool” as a Michael Mann film. As John Lennon said “French rock’n roll is like english wine.” There is a deference and a misunderstanding here towards american idio and culture. I agree.

  • nicolas saada

    Many young filmmakers here also say “I want my films to look like the american movies from the seventies”. i guess even I felle into this sort of statement. I watched a clip from DARLING LILI yesterday and thought “Ok this was made the year of FIVE EASY PIECES”.

  • nicolas saada

    Kent, High Grant will star in the remake of MOONRISE with Sarah Jessica Parker. Joel Schumacher will direct the Borzage remake.

  • Mike Grost

    1930’s circus argot includes words that would later spread to other subcultures: “the fuzz”, for the police, and “being hep to” something, indicating having knowledge about a subject, a term that would be used by the Beats and jazz musicians in the 1950’s.

    One of the reasons people go to the movies is to see colorful trends and the latest fashion innovations. It might be superficial – but it’s also fun! What is so terrible about admitting this?

    In the late 1950’s, Americans loved seeing hipsters on screen. The hero of Blake Edwards’ PETER GUNN hung out at Jazz clubs, Russ Tamblyn had a field day spieling hipster lingo in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (Jack Arnold), and Maynard G. Krebs in DOBIE GILLIS was the favorite TV character of little kids everywhere. All of this made life much more colorful and entertaining.

  • dan

    It is extremley ‘cool’ in my book to look forward a Hugh Grant new comedy. Especially when it is directed by Marc Lawrence – the same guy responsible for the smartest and wittiest of all American romanic comedies made this decade, MUSIC AND LYRICS. “Don’t you feel ridiculous with those tight leather pants? – “a bit, but it squeezes all the blood straight to my heart”.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Junko’s amusing quotes from dictionaries only emphasize the fact that those words are what I called “relative and misleading.” Also, the quotes have a strictly historical value as the slang has changed considerably since the thirties and fifties — although “cool,” unlike most hip words and phrases, has had a remarkably long shelf-life and still means pretty much what it did fifty years ago.

    The use of “cool” in the fifties to describe a style of post-bop jazz provides a good example of the danger of using label-words indiscriminately. For some (actually many) jazz buffs and critics “cool” became a derogatory term aimed at young white musicians who allegedly were corrupting the values of the black music (although most of them were continuing the tradition of the very black and very cool tenor saxophonist Lester Young).

  • edo

    At Doc Films, Borzage is the height of cool.

  • Kent Jones

    Dan, you’re talking my language. I love MUSIC AND LYRICS from beginning to end. But then if Hugh Grant is in a comedy, I’ll see it.

    Mike, I had no idea that “the fuzz” and “hep” originated as circus argot. I guess that I lazily assumed that most of that language started with jazz musicians. Maybe you can tell me where “solid” – as in “everything’s fine” – comes from.

    Mike actually raised an interesting point a little while ago when he invoked Cary Grant and well-dressed leading men. Of course, during the studio era this wasn’t unusual. I think our relationsip with movies has shifted somewhat, but then Mike’s subsequent comment about people going to movies to see the latest trends and fashion innovations makes me wonder exactly how much it’s shifted.

  • Mike Grost

    Elizabeth Leese’s COSTUME DESIGN IN THE MOVIES (1976) opens with a detailed history of fashion films in the 1910’s. The earliest such film she has found was made in 1910, and she has many examples from Britain, the USA and France, where designer Paul Poiret, no less, made a series of fashion documentaries. (Unfortunately, I’ve never seen any of these.)
    She also notes that Pearl White, US serial queen, made frequent trips to Europe and bought Paris fashions in quantity.
    Fashion was often mixed into fiction films – she has an example from 1916. There are major fashion show sequences in 1930’s films like ROBERTA and THE WOMEN.

    As recently as the music videos of the 1980’s, a main goal of viewers was to learn about new trends and fashion ideas.
    But I’m not sure if this is still true today. As Kent points out, this seems of distinctly less interest to today’s cinema goers.
    I also suspect that Americans of the 1910-1970 era were more “rational” or “cognitive” in their relation to art, than are people today. Many stories and films seemed designed to be thought about. Detective fiction, science fiction, satire and high brow forms of modernist/experimental art, were all absorbed through a strong dose of thinking. So were fashion ideas, and related trends.

    Leese’s book deals mainly with women’s fashion, but men also learned from cinema styles. The sensation that Marlon Brando’s motorcycle jacket made in the 1950’s is easily documented.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Clark Gable was accused of dealing a severe blow to the undershirt industry by appearing without an undershirt in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. I’m not sure if this is just a good story or if there are statistics to support it though.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘1930’s circus argot includes words that would later spread to other subcultures: “the fuzz”, for the police, and “being hep to” something, indicating having knowledge about a subject, a term that would be used by the Beats and jazz musicians in the 1950’s.’

    Mike, Cab Calloway dictionary is published 1938, having both words, and since link between jazz world and circus milieu is Aftrican-Americans, I think the words must come from them, maybe having African origin as argued by Clarence Major in Juba to Jive.

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed, our movie industry has worked in close conjunction to related businesses throughout its history. And, as somebody who works for a photo agency, I can testify that the link to the fashion industry is right now just as strong as it ever was. However, exactly how that will impact on the aesthetics of any individual film is open to discussion.

    Speaking of romantic comedies, I finally looked at one that I had taped off of TCM a few years ago called PLEASE BELIEVE ME, and was stunned to see the credit “Produced by Val Lewton” on it. Kent, could you give me some background on this?

    I need to get a hold of the reference works Junko has, these citations are fascinating.

  • Mike Grost

    That is very interesting!
    My source was Clayton Rawson’s mystery novel “The Headless Lady” (1940), which has an elaborate circus background. He includes a lot of circus slang and lore.
    Rawson might also be mistaken.

    Don’t know where “solid” comes from.

    I really enjoyed WORDS AND MUSIC too. David Bordwell is also a fan – he wrote a blog entry on it. There are actually quite a few musicals made in the USA in the 00’s, and many are above average.

  • Mike Grost

    Yikes – that’s MUSIC AND LYRICS.

  • Kent Jones

    Barry, when we were making the Lewton film, my sons spent a lot of time with me in the cutting room, and they always loved the clip from PLEASE BELIEVE ME, because it is so utterly and unredeemably awful. That is the one lousy movie with which Lewton was associated. He made it during his unhappy stint at MGM. His stint at Paramount was equally unhappy, but the one movie to come out of it, MY OWN TRUE LOVE, is quite compelling, at least for its first two thirds.

    Mike, your idea about a less “rational or cognitive” modern viewership is interesting. I wonder what you mean exactly. My sense is that people now feel like they have very little if any choice about first-run movies: they just go because they’re there. The dialogue, such as it is, between moviemakers and moviegoers is now at its lowest ebb. And that dialogue consists of the studios endlessly reirterating the equivalent of: “We’re busy determining what the most of you will pay money to see on its opening weekends, and we’re going to keep making more of it, and please don’t bother to call or write.” The executives speak like the guys at Goldman Sachs. For instance, there was a piece about Paramount in this Sunday’s Times Business section, in which he had this to say about shutting down their specialty division, Paramount Vantage: “You have to move forward.”

  • Tony Wiliams

    Well, Kent, Godard was right about the “death of cinema” decades ago – or, more acutely, the type of cinema we all believe in.

  • Barry Putterman

    Kent, thanks for the background info. Did I just block out any mention of the film in the documentary or was my bafflement well earned?

    You’ve mentioned your view regarding the breakdown of dialogue between moviemakers and moviegoers before, and I have to say that I have some bafflement there too.

    I personally feel quite alienated from the industry at the moment, but it appears that there is an enormous amount of dialogue going on regarding the anticipated franchise movies on a slew of web sites and at conventions such as Comic Con. But maybe we are thinking along different lines here.