Sunday, January 30, 2011

Upstream (1927)

Recently discovered after being lost for more than 80 years, Upstream is a delightful light comedy that is distinctly Fordian. His theme of the family manifests itself neatly in the form of the family unit provided by a theatrical troupe, staying in a New York boarding house.

Earle Foxe stars as Eric Brashingham, “the last – and least” of a long-line of an acting family. He is in love with Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), but has a rival in actor Jack LaVelle (Grant Withers). Brashingham is called on to star in a London production of “Hamlet” – the producers don’t care that he’s a rotten actor, they just want the Brashingham name attached to the show. An old actor boarding with the troupe (movingly played by Emile Chautard) coaches Brashingham for the big performance. Surprisingly, Brashingham is a huge hit, and becomes the sensation of the theatrical world. However, he quickly finds that his behavior has alienated him from his long-time friends and colleagues.

The film is filled with customary Ford humor. A real highlight is the vaudeville comedy team “Callahan and Callahan” (Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen) who provide many of the film’s best moments. And that grand old comedian, Raymond Hitchcock, has a wonderful supporting part. He’s a perfect fit for Ford’s stock company, and it’s a pity he died just two years after this film was made.

There had been much talk that this film demonstrated the Murnau influence on Ford’s visual style, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the film to support that idea. Murnau’s style did seem to influence Ford’s approach to filming Four Sons the following year, but Upstream seems to be fairly conventional by the standards of 1927, even though it was shot by Charles G. Clarke, who would also photograph Four Sons.

The film seems to be in keeping with other light comic work that Ford was doing in the late 20s, such as Riley the Cop (1928). It’s an interesting reminder of the wide variety of genres he was working in before becoming more established with Western and war films later on in his career. Comedy, of course, would remain an important part of Ford’s style throughout his career. Here, he demonstrates a light directorial touch that would serve him well again with the fun (and undeservedly underrated) comedy, The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), with Edward G. Robinson.

Following its rediscovery in New Zealand in 2010, Upstream had its re-premiere in Los Angeles. The film was screened at the newly-renovated Riklis Theater at the Museum of the Moving Image (in Astoria, Queens). The new music score was composed by Donald Sosin, and was performed by Sosin on piano along with violinist Susan Heerema, clarinetist David Tasgal, and drummer Ken Lauber. Joanna Seaton wrote lyrics for a new title song to the film, and performed vocals for a couple of other numbers used in the accompaniment (including “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Oh You Beautiful Doll”, and “Auld Lang Syne”).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Return to the Kingdom of Shadows

During a recent trip to MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, I came across an interesting exhibit that reminded me that the basic principles that first enchanted audiences with early cinema more than a century ago are still at work today.

The work was Peter Campus’ “Shadow Projections” (1974), and brings contemporary spectators back to the Kingdom of Shadows that audiences first entered at the end of the 19th century. The work features a kind of “shadow projector”: a white screen, with a light on one side, and a projector shining light onto the other. Standing in front of it, the spectator not only sees his own shadow, but a detailed projection of themselves with visible features. It’s quite uncanny, really, how detailed the shadows appear when projected onto the screen.

As I was at looking at the exhibit, a child ran right up to the little screen, absolutely fascinated by what he was seeing. He was taken with the way his movements were replicated on the screen by his shadow! I couldn’t help thinking that this is a child who has only known a world with HDTV, CGI movies, digital photography, video games with 3-D graphics, various electronic devices for viewing online video, and so on. And yet, he was positively fascinated with the pure motion of a shadow against the screen. During my time at the exhibit, children and adults alike expressed a similar fascination – something so simple, yet with an undeniable ability to captivate.

It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to imagine the same kind of fascination that spectators at the first film screenings would have felt. Upon seeing his first movie in 1896, Maxim Gorky said:

“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without color. Everything there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life, but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless specter.”

The desire to depict motion can be traced back as long as man has set out to depict the human experience through art. Cave paintings depicting animals with multiple legs are said to represent the illusion of motion. The “shadow play”, of course, has a long history, dating back to ancient China, with shadow puppetry emerging during the Han Dynasty.

It is only a short technological leap to the Zoetrope and the Magic Lantern, both of which enchanted audiences in the 19th century. Shadows remain an essential part of the cinematic experience – from animated works like Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed to the celebrated sword fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Peter Campus’ Shadow Projector returns the moving image to that “soundless specter” by reducing the image to its bare essentials. Stripped of the bells and whistles of computer graphics, 3-D imagery, color, sound, and other artificial enhancements, the shadow reminds us what first drew audiences to early cinema in the first place, and indeed, why we still refer to them, after all, as “movies”.

When I see - even in the media-saturated visual culture of the 21st century - the fascination that just watching the movement of one’s own shadow projected on a screen can still provide, as it did for that child at PS1, it demonstrates that the study of early cinema is more relevant than ever.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

True Grit (2010)

The Coens’ film of True Grit is a sort of “revisionist”-revisionist Western.

The Western as a genre has always been evolving, frequently alternating between being driven by historical and literary source material (The Covered Wagon, Cimarron, Shane) and the star-driven Westerns (films with Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Harry Carey, John Wayne). The genre had already “died” after about 1931, when it became almost the exclusive property of the Saturday morning kiddie matinee (with the exception of DeMille’s prestige The Plainsman in 1936), but was revived in 1939 with the release of John Ford’s Stagecoach, which made John Wayne an A-list star. The genre continued to evolve in the coming two decades – growing increasingly darker, with deeper character study, and finally – by the time of The Searchers in 1956 – questioning the very theme of revenge that had been a backbone of so many Western stories.

By the time the first screen version of True Grit was released in 1969, it was already seen as something of a “return” to a genre that had largely changed shape, especially in the wake of the Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” trilogy. Starring John Wayne, and directed by a stalwart studio craftsman – Henry Hathaway – the film was a welcome return to the genre – a revenge story in the classic tradition – and it was perhaps that feeling of familiarity in an otherwise tumultuous year for Hollywood that helped earn Wayne his one and only Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn.

The Western has continued to change shape quite a bit since 1969. There were the revisionist Westerns of the early 70s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man), the parodies (Support Your Local Sheriff, Blazing Saddles) and eventually the return to the genre in the guise of gentler, “purer” vision of the West (Dances with Wolves). Of course, the Western has never really disappeared from television, whether in the form of “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” or TV movies starring the likes of Tom Selleck and Chuck Norris, and of course the genre received a big boost with the series “Deadwood”, starring Jim Beaver. Perhaps, as Janet Staiger suggested, what all of this goes to show is that the Western, like all genres, is really just continually blending and morphing with elements of other genres, in which case trying to pinpoint a “pure” example of the Western genre becomes pointless.

Which brings us to the Coens’ film of True Grit. Part revisionist Western, and part Classical throwback, the film works surprisingly well, thanks in no small part to the quirkiness of the Coens’ direction (their style is much more subdued here than usual, but still present in key ways). The performance of Jeff Bridges is rather remarkable, too. He’s no larger-than-life personality like John Wayne, but he takes the role of Rooster Cogburn and turns it into a real character. Part of the skill in his performance is how well he blends gruffness, humor and even sentiment, often within the same scene. In her big-screen debut, Hailee Steinfeld is perfectly cast as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who seeks out US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a man possessing – she is told – “true grit”, to help her get revenge on Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot and killed her father.

So far, a conventional “revenge” setup. What’s interesting, though, is the way in which Mattie becomes a character of equal importance in the film’s narrative, rather than just a catalyst for the events of the narrative. The story, in fact, is told through her eyes as an adult, giving it all a poignant touch. Both headstrong and determined, she insists on accompanying Cogburn on his journey, since she is paying his salary and demands to see justice served. Cogburn is reluctant, and in fact starts off on the journey without her, but she catches up with him, much to the chagrin of a Texas ranger, LeBeouf (Matt Damon) who is also pursuing Tom Chaney for his own reasons and has joined forces with Rooster Cogburn to bring him in. The story takes a negative view of revenge, demonstrating the senselessness and danger of it, albeit nowhere near the same extent as a film like The Searchers.

Like so many Hollywood “remakes”, the publicity for the film feels it needs to justify its existence by emphasizing that it’s truer to the book, a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, and so on. This is one of the few remakes that does not need such justification, as the film works on its own terms. Presumably, this promotional aspect is partly to help convince people that they’re not just watching a “new version of an old John Wayne movie”, but that it’s a unique work on its own terms. It is, but of course, it’s also hard to escape the influence of the earlier version.

The second half of the film is not without its problems, however. There are a few moments that feel just too convenient, including one cliché of the action film that just refuses to die: that is, the moment when the protagonist is cornered by the villain during a confrontation, and there is absolutely no possible escape, when just at the last possible moment, there is an eleventh-hour rescue by another character. How many times have we seen the set-up, for instance, where the protagonist is just about to be shot, point blank, by the villain, and when we hear the gun shot that we assume is coming from the villain’s weapon, the villain slumps over dead, and behind him we see the protagonist’s friend aiming his gun. As clichéd as this moment sounds, there is a similar moment in True Grit, and I must admit I found myself almost taken out of the film by this scene, because it’s simply such a lazy way of getting the protagonist out of danger.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, what struck me most about the film is that it is something of a “revisionist”-revisionist Western, essentially circling back to the Classical approach, both in its themes and in its style. The Coens make masterful use of long shots, encompassing the beauty of the scenery, and allowing the action to play out in well-staged action scenes that take full advantage of the choreography of the actors within the frame. The beauty of the American west is captured in a series of breathtaking shots that take on an epic quality rarely seen in contemporary films.

True Grit is a rare film from Hollywood these days. It manages to work creatively within the Classical style, to tell an interesting story in interesting visual terms, and to present living, breathing characters enhanced through performances of truly great actors. It is a tribute to, and a demonstration of, the versatility of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose personal style never intrudes on the overall vision they achieve with this film.