New DVDs 8-26-2008

This week in the New York Times, a handsome new box set of Errol Flynn westerns is a forceful reminder of the role Flynn played in re-establishing the A western in the 1940s. And William Keighly’s overlooked “Rocky Mountian” turns out to be a nice surprise — a compact little actioner that suggests a Sam Fuller war movie or a Budd Boetticher chamber western, full of stunning, noir-inflected landscape work by the great cinematographer Ted McCord. But where is Raoul Walsh’s very fine 1948 “Silver River”?

283 comments to New DVDs 8-26-2008

  • nicolas saada

    1966 is also the year of SECONDS which is a sort of seminal film since you have a lot of “old school” people (Hudson, Wong Howe) involved in one of the first “concept” Hollywood films.
    Kent, to me all these “isms” no longer determine my relationship to movies. No reason to stand up for a bad film just because it’s dark or “nihilistic”. The greatness of a film like “Darjeeling limited” is to achieve greatness without this “sense of darkness” routine. That’s why the “darkness” of The Dark Knight still remains so superficial to me.

  • Correction: I also tend to react strongly to criticism that is based on the requirement that there be well-rounded or likable characterization.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Now that Jean-Pierre has brought up Wilder, I wonder where Aldrich would fall on the pessimism / cynicism scale.”

    The cynicism of Aldrich, Wilder, Sturges, Fuller, Kubrick and Cy Endfield (whose underrated THE UNDERWORLD STORY must be one of the most cynical films ever made) is motivated by a genuine anger concerning a state of affairs seen as intolerable. There is no anger in the Coen Brothers’ work, only complacency. THE DARJEELING LIMITED seems to me another example of easy cynicism; the only naivety in the film is that of its characters, whom we are consistently asked to laugh at (every moment of humor being achieved at their expense). Compare Ferrara’s GO GO TALES, in which the director’s attitude towards his protagonist is neither complacent nor dismissively contemptuous. GO GO TALES is the perfect example of a film which ‘hip’ modern viewers would not be interested in watching – and, as things stand, it looks like they’ll never get a chance to do so!

  • Brian Dauth

    Billy Wilder is one of the great optimists in the cinema. His work is perceived as pessimistic or even cynical because he stripped from it the sentimentality and mawkishness that many filmmakers traffic in.

    Wilder’s optimism resides in characters who persevere against systems designed to discourage and thwart them. Wilder is a great chronicler of the pathologies of American culture and society. But within his exacting explorations, he allows his characters autonomy. The systems are never so total that they are inescapable.

    In the last shot of KISS ME, STUPID, Polly the Pistol drives off, heading for a new last frontier beyond Climax, Nevada. But as her trailer turns the corner, my eye is drawn to the television antenna that tethers her to the culture machine and will allow/force her to keep connected wherever she parks next.

    Harry Hinkle and Boom Boom Jackson make a run for freedom at the end of THE FORTUNE COOKIE, but the field is vast and they appear small against it in longshot — not insignificant, but up against great odds.

    Squeezed into a small corner of the barracks (and tightly framed) in STALAG 17, Sefton comments to Cookie about how a poison/person can pass as harmless in the heart of a society. Sefton may have been reduced to a small section of the barracks while others are triumphant in the main arena, but this fringe affords Sefton a perspective that allows him to discover the traitor in the soldiers’ midst, and in the last shot of the film, Wilder plants his camera in this fringe, marking it as the most hopeful place to be.

    In AVANTI!, Wendell Armbruster makes a final acknowledgement of Pamela Piggott’s beauty (whom he originally derided as “fat ass”), and I hope that he keeps his rendez-vous the following year, but his journey back to the United States begins in a military helicopter with dreams of Italy abruptly sealed off by imperial hardware.

    Rather than crafting paeans to the “can do” spirit or some other abstract idealism, Wilder’s optimism holds that with effort human beings can find a way out of the oppressive systems they create and nurture. What he never gives short shrift to is the contours and power of the systems people must navigate, an approach that could lead some people to see his work as cynical or pessimistic.

  • Brad,

    I agree with you about the Coen brothers –their contempt seems to infect every piece of film grain which I have complained about on this blog– but Jack Angstreich has poised to me Tom Gunning’s reply to the charges of cynicism in the Coens: “yeah they have bad taste, but so what?”.

    I do not believe that ideology trumps aesthetics in art, that the negative world view of a filmmaker lessens the aesthetic achievement. However, I do concede that I have yet to resolve this with the Coens’ films, whose nastiness overwhelms me to the point where I cannot separate the ethics from the aesthetics. (Hoberman writes about this in his review on the Coen’s new film in his latest piece for the Village Voice)

    I personally do not go to films to have my views confirmed or be shown what I already know, nor do I think any art has an obligation to do so. I know we differ from past discussions with you.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I personally do not go to films to have my views confirmed or be shown what I already know, nor do I think any art has an obligation to do so.’

    Michael I agree with this, but I think Coen brothers don’t make good movies. For me something is bad about composition, cutting, direction of actors, visual aspect has no sincerity. Reminds me of art student imitating master painter but not understanding. Yes, that’s the good shot, but so what can be said too about their cinema practice.

    What people at this site saying about contempt and cynicism in their movies, to me a foreigner I think that Americans must be stupid and shallow when I see Coen brothers movies. I know it isn’t true, but the good director could make the movie that shows something like that about people and the movie could still be good movie. The Coen brothers haven’t made that good movie.

  • sorry, wrong word again: “…but Jack Angstreich has POSED to me Tom Gunning’s reply to the charges of cynicism in the Coens: “yeah they have bad taste, but so what?”

  • Junko,

    I always found the Coens’ filmmaking to be hard to take due to its showiness and that the self-congratulatory cleverness echoed their attitudes of superiority over the material and the audience. With the Coens’ recent films, “No Country for Old Men” in particular, I have been told by sources that I trust that the self-consciousness I object to has dissipated. (However, Dave Kehr said that it was alive in well in “NCFOM” with a scene that calls attention to the linoleum flooring.)

  • Brad Stevens

    “but Jack Angstreich has poised to me Tom Gunning’s reply to the charges of cynicism in the Coens: “yeah they have bad taste, but so what?”.”

    The problem is not that the Coens have bad taste; the problem is that they regard their taste as superior to everybody else’s.

    “I do not believe that ideology trumps aesthetics in art”

    Aesthetics is a means of conveying ideology; nothing more and nothing less.

  • Kent Jones

    Michael, I guess your post addressed to me and Blake was collegial, but the part about “unsubstantiated claims” is a little puzzling to me. I mean, anything anyone says here should probably be prefaced with the words “in my opinion,” apart from rock solid facts like the relaxation of the production code, per Jean-Pierre. You see the railroad material in MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER one way, others see it differently. Nicolas (and I) find THE DARJEELING LIMITED to be a very moving film and Brad finds it an example of easy cynicism. I think Billy Wilder is pessimistic and Brian thinks he’s optimistic. Where’s the problem?

  • Kent,

    I do not really understand what the value is of opinions which are unsupported by arguments.

  • dm494

    “Aesthetics is a means of conveying ideology; nothing more and nothing less.”

    Brad, I don’t think you do (or would) accept the “ideologies” (a word of which I’m suspicious)of Pindar, Dante, or Camoens. So would you regard them as failed poets? (I apologize for the examples drawn from literature rather than film, but I want artists whose achievement is generally regarded as very great even though most of us here would look upon their views about a wide range of topics as abhorrent.)

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Aesthetics is a means of conveying ideology; nothing more and nothing less.’

    Brad, isn’t this Althusser theory of art being the insturment of ideological production?

    Michael, do you know about the article ‘Cinema/Ideologie/Critique’ by Comolli and Narboni? They wrote about 7 kinds of movie from marxist-materialist position. If you know about this article, what do you think of it?

  • Kent Jones

    Michael, are you prepared to “back up” every opinion you offer? Maybe, but how often does someone ask you to – no, DEMAND it of you? On any given day, there are any number of sweeping statements made on this blog that are completely “unsupported by arguments,” and you’re one of the ones making them. You don’t seem to have a problem with the sweeping statements of others as long as you happen to agree with them. When you see something with which you disagree, it’s “unsubstantiated,” and suddenly it’s like we’re in an aggressive debating society.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, I don’t think you do (or would) accept the “ideologies” (a word of which I’m suspicious)of Pindar, Dante, or Camoens.”

    But what are their ideologies? Those revealed on the surface of their work? Or those that become evident once we begin to examine the work in greater depth?

  • Brian Dauth

    Maybe the value of an aesthetic experience lies neither on the surface or in the depths, but rather is found between them.

    PS: I know I am making an unsubstantiated claim, but (in the spirit of Fermat) I just do not have time at the moment to write it down. I have to get to the subway (I have no idea what Pierre’s excuse was).

    I do believe, however, that Adorno’s notion of aesthetic negativity is of great help in identifying what is valuable about aesthetic experience. The irony/oddity is that after experiencing the aesthetic, a person (in order to talk about it) must resort to nonaesthetic, rational discourses to do so.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘The irony/oddity is that after experiencing the aesthetic, a person (in order to talk about it) must resort to nonaesthetic, rational discourses to do so.’

    Yes, I see the movie or other art with heart, brain and spine. For me it’s intuitive poetic experience, but talking about it is intellectual prosaic sometimes, but truth of experience is more poetic.

    Also, no time to make detailed explanation all the time. If I had more time I would write in English better than this. But even with not enough time ther’s still the interesting arguement and good information at this site.

  • Blake Lucas

    “But what are their ideologies? Those revealed on the surface of their work? Or those that become evident once we begin to examine the work in greater depth?”

    I’ve seen Brad make this point before, and with the additional observation that one needn’t even take the artist’s own avowed intentions as definitive on the nature of the work.

    And this is very true. Once it’s a work of art, it’s no longer the surface but often an expression of ambivalences, of ideas which question each other and in which the subtextual critique may well end up being stronger than the surface one.

    Many films support this, among them MY SON JOHN, which enjoyed a lively discussion in this very thread. I’m happy to accept McCarey’s avowed anti-Communism for him as an individual, but I don’t believe anyone who made the film simply to present the most right wing version of such an attitude would do what he did. I’ve only seen the film once but as I understood it, it was the All-American family, patriotic father and religious mother, who are the actual poison within the film and make the son what he is–his Communism the direct result of the neurotic family dynamics rather than actually being born of Communist ideology.

    I believe artists worthy of the name are not self-satisfied and create partly to question their own notions and challenge themselves. It’s good if we can bring that same attitude to their works.

  • Kent Jones

    Yes, Brad makes a good point. If we had all taken the artist’s avowed intentions as gospel, no one would have gotten very far with Hawks or Hitchcock, just for starters. Personally speaking, I’d feel comfortable with a word other than ideology, which seems a little bit limiting if applied to a description of what a work of art produces.

    I’m not so sure that MY SON JOHN is so fixed, Blake. It seems to me that it goes in a lot of different directions, including but not limited to the one you’ve mentioned.

  • dm494

    If anyone’s interested, here are some of Henry Fonda’s comments about Lang: “He is an artist certainly. A creative artist. But he has no regard for his actors. He doesn’t think about it as having no regard…it just doesn’t occur to him that actors are human beings with hearts and instincts and other things. He is the master puppeteer, and he is happiest only when he can manipulate the blank puppets. He would actually manipulate you with his hands. If you were cutting that close, he would manipulate your hand, while you were sitting there looking at the camera.”

    And on THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES: “But, not only was it a wrong picture for him to have done, a Western, but he hadn’t learned any lessons at all. He killed three or four horses on location. He was riding them too hard, making the wranglers ride them too hard up hills and at an altitude. Anyway, that was Fritz Lang.” (From PLAYING TO THE CAMERA, Cardullo, Geduld, Gottesman, and Woods, eds.)

  • Brian Dauth

    Kent: instead of ideology, how about aesthetic effect? When a spectator approaches an artwork in an aesthetic way, an aesthetic effect is the result. If the work is only a work of craft, then no aesthetic effect results.

    It is possible that an auteur could be defined as a director who makes films that give rise to an aesthetic effect when approached aesthetically and a metteur-en-scene is one whose works do not produce such an effect.

    Also, I do not equate sensuous pleasure gained from engaging a work with aesthetic effect.

  • Kent,

    Yes, I am prepared to back up my opinion and will look for such instances were you claim I did not.

    Honestly, I find that many of your posts contain sweeping statements, along the practice of throwing filmmakers under the train in three words or less. I also believe that you tend to make statements that you somehow know the view points of all the contributors of this blog, as if your comment is the last word on the subject.

    I do not know why I such accept such statements or on what authority you are making them. So when I ask you to substantiate, you either accuse me of “having extremely stringent linguistic standards” or get indignant as to the very idea that someone would question you. Perhaps if I am being such a party-pooper I should refrain from responding to your posts.

  • Kent Jones

    Those sound very workable, Brian. Although I think you can get an aesthetic effect from works of craft, too.

    I don’t know. It’s an unpopular position, I guess, but I think that the spongier one makes such definitions, the more inclusive of different forms and levels of experience that they can be, the better. The older I get, the less use I have for restrictive definitions. The quest to penetrate the essence of an artwork, or the art experience, will always yield more questions and mysteries and little niggling disturbances, with no end point in sight.

  • Blake Lucas

    “I’m not so sure that MY SON JOHN is so fixed, Blake. It seems to me that it goes in a lot of different directions, including but not limited to the one you’ve mentioned.”

    Probably so. As I said, I’ve only seen it once–and would love to see it again. That was the way I interpreted it then, but my ideas aren’t fixed. And good works of art always offer more when one comes back to them. But the fact that the film is disturbing, and doesn’t simply soothe a complacent right wing view, is important.

    Though I like Brad’s point about apparent ideology and the actualities of movies, I agree with you about the word “ideology.” It is now very overworked. When Robin Wood came to where he now is, he and critics of similiar point of view began to look at everything simply in terms of “ideology” and not only to the point of overusing it but the point of some very overzealous (mis)interpretations and simplifications. Ideology is likely an element in art as in everything else, but critics should be careful that they do not end up simply imposing their own ideology at the expense of the work, and of making it the end all of art instead of the aesthetic, which Brian rightly privileged in earlier post.

  • Kent Jones

    I think that the meaning of particular, charged words changes all the time, in response to the imperatives of different moments. Which is fine.

    Michael, let me begin by saying, sincerely, that I never imagine I have the last word on anything, least of all on this blog – how could anyone make such a claim? I’m being equally sincere when I say that sometimes, communication just isn’t possible between people. There are just too many basic differences here, not so much about cinema but about criticism, civility, the differences between conversing and debating, between opinion and fact, etc. Now, if I understand you correctly, it seems that I’ve been mean to some movies you like (some of which I happen to like too). So, chalk that one up to another difference, over the durability of movies. It’s like speaking two different languages or something.

  • Kent,

    I would like to respond to your last post, but to do so off-board so as not to take up Dave’s blog or distract other contributors. You can e-mail me at: michaelaworrall@earthlink.net

  • Kent, I switched my gmail and earthlink accounts. You can write to me at michael_a_worrall@earthlink.net

  • Kent Jones

    Here’s something we can all agree on.

    There’s a DVD that’s about to come out of a movie called THE WHITE SWAN. It is an expanded version of a movie called PAVLOVA, on which Michael Powell was an advisor, and in which Martin Scorsese played an impresario. The producer of the film is claiming this as a Powell film. Thelma Schoonmaker would like everyone to know that this is not the case.

  • nicolas saada

    I think the purpose of this wonderful blog is to have people actually exchange on film. There is not a place in the world right now where I can discuss cinema in such a way: simply, with my heart and soul, and also without having to prove or demonstrate anything. Also, I think the FORM of this blog, which is by the way much less freaky than forums, tend to push every contributor to state things quite honestly and straightforwardly. The background and level of experience of everyone here (I don’t count myself in the lot) says the rest.

  • robert chatain

    Nicolas, I’m with you — I’m barely film-literate compared to the people who post here, more a fellow-traveler than a true believer, but I’ve learned an enormous amount from everyone.

    As to the arguments, I think Junko is right: we experience movies, then look for some way communicate the truth of our experience as best we can — with lots of ways to say things and get them right or wrong. I’ve had better luck changing my mind than defending my opinions; some of my favorite movies are ones I didn’t much like at first, such as “Once Upon a Time in America.” And I remember an aesthetics teacher (Richard Kuhns) at Columbia back in the early ’60s, who said that matters of art should be discussed at their center, not at their limits.

  • Kent Jones

    Yeah, that’s a good description. Language is always somehow provisional. We can never stop re-describing our impressions, feelings, experiences. And exchange is an important part of that.

  • Alex Hicks

    A long footnote on politics and Westerns:

    I’ll refrain from trying to present, much less update, Robin Wood’s rehabilitation of “Heaven’s Gate.” Baring inspiring condensation, that task’s unwise in a context without space to detail arguments. However, on the “Heaven”’s supposedly oversimplified depiction of capitalism and capitalists, let me note that the film draws on real events of large-proprietor coordination and militia/mercenary action in the Johnson Country (range) War with accuracy on available fact (50 guns hired, the list of targets, $50 payment per killing, the final battle and its termination by U.S. Cavalry), although documentary accuracy as to such details of actual events a as scale is hard to assess. Although large scale mercenary class action was rare to range wars, it is emblematic of extensive Gilded Age large-proprietor mobilizations employing private armies for extra-legal state labor control (see, e.g., Robert M. Smith, FROM BLACKJACKS TO BRIEFCASES, or, for a latter era, most any bio of Dashiell Hammett). Dramatic liberties of course are taken , e.g., Waterson’s Frank Canton is a composite of an historical Frank Canton and an historical Frank Walcott). In historical context, though, the villainy of Sam Waterston’s Frank Canton, who heads the Cattlemen’s association, has verisimilitude. Though the depiction may still be less three dimensional and dynamic than would be aesthetically optimal, use of personally broad, static characterization is a marginal shortcoming, if any at all, in the context of a tale in which Canton is merely a face for one of the historical forces to which Marshall Averill and his circle react, not a dramatic principal in an interpersonal drama. Indeed, the film’s main narrative arc is one bridging block of emotions grounded in block’s of events, as often impinging historical ones (the full onslaught of the Johnson County Stockholder Association’s mercenary assassins) rather than person al ones. (Interpersonal dramatic arcs, along with lyrical riffs do knot together and bridge segments of the film, which oscillate between the Historical and “Mindless Pleasures” in the manner of Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and, anachronistically, “ Against the Day.”) A true epic – “a poem containing history” in Pound’s phrasing—the principal focus on Averill and circles experiences of history hardly requires a central interaction between Waterston’s Canton and Kristofferson’s Averill. Major obstacles to appreciation of the film’ s narrative and politics (stressed as issues by Wood in his essay) fare the film’s unusual serious historical dimensions (though it may conceal a classical Western of the outside as reluctant hero championing a beleaguered community), its historical distance from the prefabricated historical contents of most Westerns (Apaches ,outlaws, you name um), its central historical meditation, the untimeliness of contents and narrative dynamics involving class mobilization and oppression in a film released during the week between Reagan’s election and inauguration.

    (jean-pierre coursodon, if I try a full-fledged “rehabilitation,” I’ll try to send you a draft) send you a

  • David Stephens

    Going back to the comments in September about My Son John: I’ve always meant to check the parallels between the script in the final Lincoln Memorial steps scene of My Son John and the closing paras of Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address, where Reagan refers to various famous Washington monuments. I recall something similar was said in this scene if not by John Jefferson then whatever character was with him. I always wondered whether Reagan had memories of the movie when writing his inaugural. Does anyone have a script of the movie or know where a copy can be got? I understand it is not on video. Regards to all in the US of A on the eve of this presidential election (and fond memories of a year in the States, funnily enough 1981) and a couple of visits since.