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Sam’s Bon-bons

Sam Fuller’s two most madly stylized films, “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964) have been part of the Criterion Collection since the Laserdisc days, and now Criterion has duly given them a Blu-ray upgrade: cause for celebration in this week’s New York Times column.

73 comments to Sam’s Bon-bons

  • Barry Putterman

    Fredrik & Junko, insert preface about how complicated this all is here.

    I think that Blake and I took different but equally important angels on this. Not only does the society change gradually but so does the artist. And, for that matter, so does the viewer. I, for one, was much more in tune with the temper of American culture during the first 30 years of my life than I am now and so possibly relate to more recent films in ways that are different than those of the past.

    Nobody is a wired to the zeitgeist artist at one time and an unmoored hack at another. AGE OF CONSENT is not only a wonderful film, but a film which would have been inconceivable during the 40s. However, I do think that it is important that it is, for the most part, taking place on an island where the principal character is escaping from civilization.

    I think it is impossible to underestimate the difference between pre and post World War II culture. And if the adjustment was difficult for somebody like Capra, think of what it must have been like for somebody like Renoir (or Duvivier or Clair) who, on top of everything else, was returning from exile.

    As for the Hawks films, I’m a bit fuzzy about the reception of MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT?, but RED LINE 7000 was a notorious failure both critically and comercially. But, then again, so were a lot of important films.

    Two points worth noting are (1.) the furthur removed you are from the culture, the more difficult it is to spot the disconnects. I would be totally clueless about how well any 60s Japanese film connects to its cultural moment. On the other hand Junko, your sensativity to American culture is, by contrast, astonishing. Your assessment of how well GENTLEMAN JIM reflected the spirit of its historical period was beyond what most people over could have seen. I do think that RED LINE 7000 is a bit off, a bit of a man of the past’s mental construction of the present. And possibly if you looked at it in comparison to something like THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES or LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER you could get some sense of what I mean.

    However, there is also (2.) the furthur we get chronologically from that historical moment the less important that issue can become. Ultimately, they ALL become “old” movies and the formal beauties of a Hawks or a Renoir or a Powell or an Edwards always remains intact.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Johan and David, thank you. UNDERWORLD USA’s series of giant close-ups really stood out as I was seeing them on a large screen as opposed to a small tv monitor.

    I don’t think of post-1964 Fuller in terms of artistic decline as he remained true to himself in different, more difficult circumstances. Similarly late Renoir, late Minnelli, etc. I do think however as the early 1960s as a Cretaceous-level extinction event for a lot of outstanding classical era talent who faced enormous difficulty in sustaining their careers after 1960-64: Fuller, Boetticher, Minnelli, Ray…. The wilier Aldrich and Siegel managed to beat those odds through creative evolution. 1980 was a similar marker for 1970s “New Hollywood” figures (Ashby, Schatzberg, Penn, Cimino…) with Altman the classic example of someone going to ground in tv and Europe before staging a return a decade later. There have been other severe “climate changes” in the Hollywood ecology as well… we may be living through one.

  • Brian Dauth

    Fredrik: All artists emerge from their cultural/social contexts and maintain some relationship to it. For some it is a vital and close connection; for others it is looser and less central. What I find interesting is how the cultural normatives of the moment of creation can emerge in an artist’s work even when she is not explicitly addressing her current moment. As Barry pointed out, Ford often worked in a mythic/historic context, but what fascinates me is how even as he pursued this path, cultural normatives from the moment when he was making his films crept in, undermining his modernist project. As his career progressed, he engaged more and more openly with these normatives, a process that results in the final flowering of his career, and the production of his great, late masterpieces.

    Also, like you I dislike the term “decline,” since I believe that many artists are accused of being in decline when in actuality they are exploring new aesthetic understandings that are not in keeping with their previous modes of expression. This disjunction registers for some spectators as a decline in their work. For example: TOPAZ; FRENZY; FAMILY PLOT; and RIO LOBO are four of my favorite films, but many people regard these movies as lesser works. I find them to be bold venturings into new territory, where Hitchcock and Hawks, having run up against the self-defeating strictures of modernism, explore postmodern alternatives. In this approach, they are similar to other great artists in the 20th century – Faulkner and De Kooning come to mind for me – who worked in the modernist idiom, discovered its limitations, and then began a critique of/transition from the impasse modernism had led them into.

    Barry: I love when you write: “Nobody is a wired to the zeitgeist artist at one time and an unmoored hack at another,” and I think your example of Blake Edwards shows what can happen when an artist with a modernist sensibility tackles postmodern content. As you say, Edwards’ later films “are comparable in conceptual strength to his earlier films, but just fail to come off in execution because he was no longer in harmony with the culture in the 80s as he had been in the 60s.” Edwards wants sex/gender/orientation to be understood in outmoded modernist terms which have been superseded by more realistic understandings of these issues (contra Freud, biology is not destiny). So we end up with movies of great formal pleasure peopled with monster lesbians and flailing faggots who seem imported from some sexual dark ages where men are men, women are women, gender is fixed, God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world. As you note, formal beauty remains, but an individual spectator’s response to ahistorical/biased content will depend in part on the (to some extent uncontrollable) circumstances of birth and experience, and how these factors position her with regard to prevailing cultural normatives.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian, I suppose that we are on the same page although not necessarily in the same paragraph here, especially on Edwards. In any event, you can forward my mail care of Vivian in the post future, where we have long since discredited the ahistorical/biased content of postmodernism and now live in simple peace and harmony.

  • Brian Dauth

    Barry: one of the understandings of postmodernism is that one cannot do away with ahistorical/biased content. Modernism maintained that the historical/messy/biased reality of life could be transcended/organized through the creation of the modernist artwork. Unfortunately, modernism’s dictum to “make it new” clashed with its practice of (at the same time) repeating reality to achieve emotional resonance and demonstrate how the world was not the mess it may at first appear to be. For postmodernism, there is no simple peace and harmony, but only the (serious) play of continual negotiation, followed by renegotiation, as normatives are established, critiqued, discarded, and reformed. The paradox is that modernism produced some of the most emotionally rich and sensual works of art ever made (like capitalism per Marx, it is a failed, corrosive practice that could and did achieve great things). Postmodernism is an attempt to resolve the bind of modernism. I am not certain it will succeed, but at least it takes fledgling steps in the direction of resolution.

    As for Edwards: I am probably too harsh on him. I apologize. It is just that some of his notions about gender/sex/orientation make my skin crawl, an experience that is in conflict with the fact that I watch RETURN/STRIKE AGAIN/REVENGE with such pleasure. I fail in aligning the beauty I experience in those films with his practice of passing stark moral judgment on Otherness.

  • Peter Henne

    Brian, This seems like a needlessly constricted and uncharitable account of modernism, or any -ism. If the ’60s films of Godard, Oshima, Rocha and Pasolini and the ’70s films of Straub/Huillet are High Modernism, as I think has so often been put forth, then there is an active engagement between pursuits of formal beauty, artistic honesty and political process and progress from critically examining history. I think those filmmakers and lots of others wanted to address and have it all, form, content and context, and dare I say the above names gave a lot to think about all of those aspects of art and its production and historical conditions. In any case, to zero in on transcendence only fits people like Malevich (whom I also love) but not the full spectrum of modernism.

  • Christa, if you’re still reading all this, I just wanted to thank you for your information regarding Sam and Richard Harris. There’s so much mythology out there, particularly surrounding Sam’s career, that the truth seems to be forever receding.

    Brian, it sounds like you’re not keeping up with the latest developments in evolutionary theory and genetic research. Biology, it appears, kinda is destiny after all. I’m an expert on this because I faithfully read the “Science Times” section in the NYT every Tuesday.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian, I’ll have to take your word for it about modernism and postmodernism. I’m more into French Provincial myself. However, I would ask you to consider whether some of your statements could be interpreted as Otherness passing stark moral judgment on normatives.

  • Brian Dauth

    Peter: I should have been clearer and written that “one of the things modernism maintained . . . ” But I do not find it uncharitable when I write that modernism “produced some of the most emotionally rich and sensual works of art ever made” or to point out that the modernist project failed. Critics and commentators have been noting both for decades, and Adorno uses this observation as one of the organizing principles of his “Aesthetic Theory.”

    As for Pasolini and Godard (I do not know the others’ work well enough to include them): they transition from modernism to postmodernism along with Woolf; Joyce; Hitchcock; Antonioni; Visconti, and a great many other artists. Modernism produced a lot of great art; and much of that art reached an impasse of its own making, while simultaneously providing enormous pleasure and intelligence. I am currently reading “Absalom, Absalom!” and enjoying it so much: it is my favorite 20th century novel in English (“Light in August” is second). But I am also watching Faulkner trying to write himself out of a corner, which is also a lot of fun (he transitions in Chapter VIII).

    Postmodernism would never have emerged if modernism had been able to deliver all it promised, but to say so is not to deny the enormnous wealth that modernism created.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Regarding Edwards, there’s a critic’s roundtable up at the new issue of “Undercurrent,” featuring some DK contributors as well as some discussion, from different perspectives, of Edwards’ disputed late period. Does SWITCH really pass stark judgment on Otherness? See for yourself…

  • Brian Dauth

    Dave K: as far as I know, no research has shown any definitive/absolute link between chromosone content and gender. Gender is the result of genetic expression as modified/modulated by cultural/environmental exposure. I promise to continue to read the Science Times until the firewall goes up, but I would also recommned Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “Myths of Gender” and “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.” There is also a good article of hers available online entitled: “The Bare Bones of Sex: Part 1 – Sex and Gender.”

    From the article:

    “In thinking about both gender and race, feminists must accept the body as simultaneously composed of genes, hormones, cells, and organs — all of which influence health and behavior—and of culture and history (Verbrugge 1997). As a biologist, I focus on what it might mean to claim that our bodies physically imbibe culture. How does experience shape the very bones that support us? Can we find a way to talk about the body without ceding it to those who would fix it as a naturally determined object existing outside of politics, culture, and social change? This is a project already well under way, not only in feminist theoretical circles but in epidemiology, medical sociology, and anthropology as well.”

    She is also married to that great postmodern playwright, Paula Vogel.

  • Peter Henne

    I think some of those people would flinch getting placed in the modernist camp and yelp being filed in the postmodernist one. I don’t know if any school of thought helps but “fail” anyway and can guarantee postmodernism awaits the same fate. Po-mo will have its Ador-no (who after all had a complex, ambivalent and indirect relationship to modernist art). But I’m glad to say there’s something we can agree on here, because “Absalom, Absalom!” is my favorite novel in any language, though it ended my Faulkner reading permanently. I kept going back and back to those sentences, meandering and magnificent (my poor Faulkneresque there), winding from one page over to the next, out of fixation, frustration and amazement at what secret thoughts the English language could penetrate. I never went on to the next book of his. Hope you keep liking it.

  • Brian Dauth

    Peter: Ended your Faulkner reading? How? Why? That is like stopping breathing!?! Those sentences were one of the great liberations of my teenage years — encouraging and convincing me that I could create my own narrative (also, Shreve and Quentin in that cold dorm room and Bon seducing both Henry and Judith was just so erotic to me). I re-read the book about every five years just to experience greatness, like re-watching VERTIGO.

    Also: just released by Swedish television, an interview with Marlene Dietrich from 1971 where she talks about Sternberg. Warning: Dietrich was both gender non-conforming and bisexual.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘your sensativity to American culture is, by contrast, astonishing. Your assessment of how well GENTLEMAN JIM reflected the spirit of its historical period was beyond what most people over could have seen. I do think that RED LINE 7000 is a bit off, a bit of a man of the past’s mental construction of the present.’

    Barry, I wish it was true what you wrote about my sensitivity to American culture, but I know it through movies and visit to America for two years long time ago. I have only studied about American culture. Especially I see similarity between Meiji Japan and America from late 19th century and early 20th century because Japan imported much Western culture from America during that time.

    What you wrote about RED LINE 7000 is nuance that I have missed, because movie is looking 1960s American life externally to me. I cannot write better to express my idea, but mise-en-scene looks true to me.

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, I don’t want to turn this into a moment from “The Sammy Maudlin Show,” (an SCTV reference that you are not expected to get) but really, relative to your limited experience, you are very insightful regarding American culture. Your contributions here are significant and always welcome. And I mean that MOST sincerely (cue the “Applause” sign).

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Netflix streaming note:

    Dogtooth, which came out on DVD on Tuesday, suddenly has also been added to the streaming inventory – likely they made a quick deal with Kino while the interest (because of the Oscar FL nomination) is there.

    Ironically, this will make it the most viewed of the nominees in the US, at least until Biutiful opens more widely, and even then this could still top that.

  • Tom, What about the Canada-Quebec foreign language entry, “Incendies” (AKA “Scorched”)? Has it played yet in the United States, and if so, what is the reception like?

    In Canada it has been getting a lot of hype, Best Canadian Film at TIFF, VIFF, Toronto Film Critic Association and it is on the 2010 Canada’s Top Ten. I know Cahiers did not like it, which is a surprise because they usually like Quebecois cinema. I saw the movie, I thought it was not too bad, kind-of good.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Incendies and In a Better World, both Sony Classics films, will open after the Oscars in the US, a la Secret in Their Eyes last year.

  • Gregg Rickman

    The early 1960s — the period of the two films under review here — comprised the “modernist moment” in cinema, as the innovations that had been building in the other arts for decades fully invested popular culture (as in the stark architecture and fashion of the era). In cinema, these are the great years of large audiences for Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, and a corresponding influence on American cinema (as in films like LILITH and MICKEY ONE). Hitchcock gave THE BIRDS an open ending, I understand under the influence of the open ending of L’AVVENTURA. And lest we forget, the protagonists of both LA NOTTE and SHOCK CORRIDOR are attacked by “nymphos” in a mental hospital… although I haven’t quite worked out how this ties in with the modernist project. Can someone bell this Adorno?

  • In Helsinki we did a Samuel Fuller retrospective a couple of months ago, and it confirmed my opinion that from I Shot Jesse James until The Naked Kiss Sam never made an indifferent film (except Hell and High Water, his only commissioned work in that period). What happened afterwards? Sam is very explicit in his wonderful autobiography A Third Face. He writes he was very lucky with his producers from Robert L. Lippert to Darryl F. Zanuck and Jack Warner. No such luck later. It didn’t necessarily help that “Slam Bang Sam” had the habit of saying what he thought, for instance calling a future movie mogul “Katzenjammer Kid”.

  • Shock Corridor has a number of links with Fuller’s first feature, I Shot Jesse James. Both films:

    Have a hero who makes a radical, unusual decision – one that permanently separates him from the rest of human society.
    Have the hero’s girlfriend be a woman in cheap show biz.
    Constantly throw emotional obstacles at the proposed marriage of the hero and heroine.
    Have the hero involved with lying and deceit, as part of his scheme.
    Show scenes of study for a caper (undercover in asylum, bank robbery map).
    Have the hero “sponsored” by an older man in the media (newspaper editor, play producer).
    Have the hero play games with other characters (cards).
    Put the hero in physical danger.
    Put the hero through surreal situations.
    Have the hero lose the ability to speak or perform (as Bob Ford does on-stage)
    Have the hero encounter male characters who sing, and who are involved with show biz.
    Make the hero become roommates with other men, under unusual situations.
    Have encounters between the hero and other men, in bathtubs.
    Star an athletic leading man actor, handsome, yet of intense physicality.

    Peter Breck’s scenes where he lets go, and becomes physically violent, are remarkably uninhibited. They anticipate Breck’s illness scenes in his other greatest film and role: the “Night of the Wolf” episode of The Big Valley (Joseph H. Lewis, 1965). In both films, Breck acts with his whole body. He conveys intense emotions. Breck was mainly a television actor, whose career one suspects is off-radar to most film historians. The “O.B.I.T.” episode of The Outer Limits (Gerd Oswald, 1964) is also a notable film. Breck gets to show his range here, by playing the Voice of Reason. Also worthwhile: such The Big Valley episodes as “The Way to Kill a Killer” (Joseph M. Newman) and “Hide the Children” (Arthur H. Nadel). Both of these latter films have Civil Rights themes, like Shock Corridor.

  • Barry Putterman

    Antti, in the more romanticized versions of Fuller, the importance of his close relationship with Zauuck is often ignored. From the other end of the directorial personality spectrum, Philip Dunne regretted starting his career so close to Zanuck’s departure as he characterized the studio leadership that followed him as indecisive, and, ultimately indifferent.

    Still, this remains only one factor in a very complex picture, Fuller never actually assaulted a producer, the way that Don Siegel supposedly did. And he did show on occasions that he was able to function as his own producer, as his good friend and fellow “bad boy” Richard Brooks (among others) did.

    Each case is different. And no one person or no one factor seems to cover the entire situation.

  • D. K. Holm

    I was walking around thinking of Fuller the other day and wondered who might be his logical successor among filmmakers and after a while the name Larry Cohen came to me; this was solidified by Cohen casting Fuller in Return to Salem’s Lot. Then I pick up the new CinemaScope which has an interview with Cohen in which he talks about his friendship with Fuller (he bought Fuller’s old house, from Clint Walker), and the level of Fuller’s influence.