Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Possessed

In many ways, Possessed (WB, Curtis Bernhardt) typifies the Joan Crawford vehicle: a woman's psychological inability to deal with being unloved drives her to assume rapidly shifting personalities, ranging from warm and maternal to icy and bitchy. Crawford's star image in fact played off these hot-cold transformations. (The best use I've seen of it is Sudden Fear, where it gets exploited to almost Brechtian effect.)


The spin here is that Crawford's character is certifiably psychotic, and Possessed takes on some of the feel of a social problem drama, with extended mental hospital scenes and psychology lectures from doctors. (It came out a year before Fox's problem pic The Snake Pit). What keeps it feeling more exploitation than prestige, more WB than Fox, is the tendency to subsume insanity to the gothic. There's the spectre of the replaced, deceased wife, and the sinister buzzer sound that will get replayed in Baby Jane. The subjective camera work is particularly striking, including an extended tracking shot through the hospital and a handheld shot at night:



I won't spoil too much, other than to say that I was surprised and blown away by one subjective scene.

Also remarkable is the opening scene in downtown Los Angeles early morning, shot in a documentary style that lends an eerie tone to what follows.



Warners may have been removed from the semi-documentary impulse of Fox and some of the independents, but here too the postwar fondness of the mode has inflected more purely generic material and pushed it in a new direction.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Perils of Pauline


Another whimsical, semi-reflexive genre entry from Paramount, The Perils of Pauline (George Marshall) is neither a remake of the silent serials nor a biopic about the star Pearl White, but rather a backstage melodrama that purports to do both. As a historical film about silent moviemaking, it's not entirely accurate, but it does manage to recreate an older film style within. The effect is not entirely unlike the more rigorous project of Noel Burch's Correction Please:


Like Road to Rio, there are moments of putting movie artifice up to the light, in a more complicated way than one might expect. My favorite moment is a war scene that turns out to be a movie set that turns out to be a real moment of armistice:


The women's picture melodrama is stock to the point of being retrograde (Pearl/Betty Hudson's masochistic attraction to John Lund fails to have the complexity of, say, Stella Dallas's masochism). Still, the articulation of Pearl's desire is surprisingly forthright. I wouldn't necessarily hold to the Jackie Byars-esque assertion that visualization of women's desire obviates the asymmetry of male and female subjectivity in Hollywood, but I can't help but relish Pearl's outright cruising of Farrington/Lund in their first encounter:


Finally, on a more purely cinephilic note, I really like the jewelike tones of the Technicolor, even with the inexpensive DVD transfer. I've yet to figure out when and why the technology shines in some films and falls flat in others.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Road to Rio


The "Road to" films, pairing Bing Crosby and Bob Hope with Dorothy Lamour, were extraordinarily popular in the mid 1940s and became a staple formula for Paramount. The Road to Rio (Norman McLeod) is one of the last in the cycle and a good example of the formula: one part topical references, to other films, stars, product brands; one part playful self-consciousness about generic movie conventions; and one part playing Crosby and Hope's star images off each other. (It's strange: I can barely abide either actor separately, but together they have a surprising synthesis.)



What sets Rio above some of the others for me are the clevel moments of movie reflexivity. This scene with Crosby and Lamour in front of a projected film is both clever and touching:


This is one of the few instances I've seen of rear projection being used in Hollywood as rear projection diegetically; remarkably, it shows how strong the illusion of motion is with the technique. Of course, it turns out the "musical" in the background is actual a previous Road To... movie, but what did you expect?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock



The first time as comedy, the second time as farce. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (RKO/California Pictures [Howard Hughes]) is notable as both a rare sound Harold Lloyd vehicle (his last) and a Preston Sturges film. The continuity with Lloyd’s previous work is clear. The film begins, silent, with a five minute excerpt from The Freshman (introduced with a strange pseudodocumentary like claim to authenticity), and a climactic scene replays the skyscraper ledge scenario of Safety Last.




Even the filmmaking shares a silent-film aesthetic, with long takes that refuse to break up the performance, as in this shot that lasts a good four minutes without camera movement.



The continuity with Sturges’ better known work may be harder to place. There’s a hint of Sturges’ cynical humor in places, particularly in the Mencken-esque skewering of the white-collar world at the outset and in the madcap confrontation with Wall Street financiers. But in all the humor seems strangely broadly drawn and physical in orientation, much like a Three Stooges short. I can already see the biggest challenge of this 1947 viewing will be to understand film comedy, some of which is archaic (The Hope-Crosby brand) and some of which is now forgotten.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nocturne




Again, we see an unexpected violation of the 180 degree rule, this time in a standard dialogue setup. But more striking in Nocturne (RKO, Edwin L. Marin) are the shot/reverse shot patterns filmed in with exaggerated depth of field.


And in general, this is a prime example within a film that articulates spatial relations in an extraordinarily complex fashion. But the stylistically baroque quality surely owes as much to expediency as design (and vice versa): the quick shooting schedule behind each of the set-ups is almost palpable.

So much has been written about noir that it’s perhaps obstinate to focus on an essay written in 1979, but I’ve always found Paul Kerr’s essay (“Out of What Past?”) to be a productive and useful argument, first for a materialist film historiography and secondarily for a combination of political economy and “ideology” in the genesis of B noir. Nocturne probably backs up his reading better than anything. I am particularly fond of the scene in which George Raft’s character goes to an RKO set for a Sinbad swashbuckler. Kerr speaks of the nighttime use of existing sets, but here the narrative builds the reuse into the setting.


As for location shooting, the film uses precious little, but what’s interesting is that the postwar penchant for location shooting has its effect on rear projection, which Nocturne uses to suggest a nonstudio locale:

It’s not that rear projection in windows, etc., would be out of place in, say, a 30s film, but generally the practice would be to cheat the angles shot in studio interior scenes so to eschew depicting the outside world where possible. Here, the outside world is embraced, even if the budget cannot afford it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Screen Conference 07

I am back from my travels and from this year's Screen conference. I should probably say from the start that my presence at the conference was not as a presenter but as the recipient of this year's Screen award. The award is for my essay on the prestige film due out in the Autumn issue; needless to say I am both excited and flattered by the honor.

Luckily, attending as observer allowed for a more relaxed experience of a conference I have always enjoyed. Screen is much smaller than SCMS, and the circle of academics seems close-knit without being too chummy. This year's theme, Queer Screen Studies, was remarkable in the impact on the conference program: usually you see 20 or 30 percent of the papers on the topic, but this time it was more like 80 to 90 percent. The topic touched a hunger for a queer studies conference (word has it one is in the works in a nearby institution) and the result was a more subcultural feel and a palpable excitement to the procedings. The plenary conversation between Richard Dyer and B. Ruby Rich managed to be one of those rare conference moments of summing the issues presented in the panel and taking their insights in new direction.

The papers were a mix of quality, naturally, but in general seemed more rigorous than the grab bag of SCMS. I was particularly impressed by a panel (with George Chauncey, Juan Suarez, and Ron Gregg) relating the aesthetic form of the New York underground to its social history. Also, a strong panel on film form held a valuable paper by Tom Brown on spectacle and classicism. Even in a smaller conference, alas, one cannot attend all of the promising papers, especially when the setting (Glasgow) offers its own distractions.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

SCMS CFP: Film History and the Built Environment

I've decided to go the route of organizing a panel for SCMS'08. Please send any inquiries to me: ccagle@temple.edu.


Film History and The Built Environment

Call for Papers - SCMS Conference, Philadelphia March 2008

"Film as architecture" studies have often stood as distinct subfield within cinema studies, one especially removed from the main currents and working assumptions of film historiography. This panel seeks to explore the areas of intersection between mise-en-scene criticism and film history. Papers exploring either specific case studies or general theoretical issues are welcome. They may apply film historical method to areas of mise-en-scene criticism, or use study of the built environment to illuminate issues in film historiography. Some possible areas of inquiry:

- The political economy of set design
- Set design in the broader history of style
- Historically situated ideologies of film architecture
- Sociology of taste and design aesthetics
- Institutional or production history of design in the studios
- Historiographical considerations of the design auteur

The final panel might be broadly conceived or focused on a particular period, as the proposed papers allow.

Send abstracts (500 words max.) by August 6 to: ccagle -AT- temple -DOT- edu.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Gone Fishin'

Not exactly, but I’m headed off to the Screen conference and some vacation time thereafter, so posting will slow to a halt over the next couple of weeks. 1947 viewing (and other posts) will continue when I return.