Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Screen Conference bound

I am heading off to this year's Screen Studies Conference. I may try to do some light blogging from the conference, but otherwise, I'll pick up the blog later in July.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fun on a Weekend

One medium term project I hope to spin out of this 1947 viewing is a closer look at 1940s comedy. Very little of the comedy I'm examining for this year makes much of an appearance in the canonical accounts of canonical Hollywood, and I'm inclined to think the omission is not accidental.

One problem is that I don't necessary have a good critical vocabulary to talk about comedy as a cultural form. The other is that I'm unfamiliar with radio comic traditions, which inform Hollywood considerably.

I can imagine a strong radio influence in Fun on a Week-End (UA/Andrew Stone Productions, Andrew Stone), a lowish budget independent comedy starring Eddie Bracken and Priscilla Lane as two down-on-their-luck people who meet on the beach of a fictionalized Palm Beach and hatch a plot to con their way into high society and wealth. There is a vaudevillian comic timing and delivery here, and both Bracken and Lane fit familiar comic types of the 30s and 40s. At the same time, the film draws upon the Preston Sturges films, with a send-up of upper-class mores and a madcap sensibility.

A couple of things work against a completely generic comedy, however. Eddie Bracken's vulnerability lends an edge of anxiety to the depiction of class. Accordingly, the film surrenders its barebones narration on occasion, as when a long-take tracking shot, one of the least ostentatious I've encountered, follows the protagonists during a scene of emotional transformation.

Desert Fury

I wish I could read the PCA files for Desert Fury (Paramount, Lewis Allen). Much like Born to Kill, there is a subtext of a gay relationship between a criminal and his sidekick. But where in Born to Kill, the subtext was a secondary shade of characterization, here the narrative centers on a love triangle that develops when Paula (Liz Scott) enters the picture. The narrative development makes sense without acknowledging the gay subtext, but barely.

To the extent that this film gets remembered today, it's as a rare "color noir." But it's not really a noir, or at least only tangentially so. Sure, there is the familiar iconography of the dusty California desert town, popularized by James M. Cain for its intimations of deserted seediness and favored by Hollywood for its affordable location shooting.

But the narrative syntax is of a melodrama, the overlay of maternal-dynastic conflict with two love triangles. The semantic elements of gangsterism, gambling, and the American West serve mainly as backdrop to this. I have no idea if Desert Fury informed Johnny Guitar almost a decade later, but it's surprising how similar they are.

As for the color, much of the film is in a basic high-key Technicolor flooded in light.

There are, however, moments of subtle warm-cool contrast and use of effects lighting.

Sorry for the lousy image quality here. Just another testament for the need for Paramount to release their catalog on DVD. I'm still trying to get a fuller sense of the studio's releases. I am curious to see how Desert Fury fits in with the full offerings. Given the expense of Technicolor and the reputation of Paramount as a safer genre-oriented studio, the choice for color for this film seems surprising.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Woman on the Beach

Some of the films on my 1947 list I approach cold, without previous knowledge or reading. And maybe I shouldn't confess this, but I really have little knowledge of Jean Renoir's work after leaving France. I have seen The Southerner (1945) a couple of times and had a vague sense of the reputation of aesthetic mismatch, of a great European auteur who suffered from the transplant to a more rigid studio system.

And at first blush, The Woman on the Beach, seems to bear that reputation out. The 70-minute RKO sort-of-noir shows much evidence of cheap production values and a bare-bones house style, from the sets... the starkly plain lighting setups.

And then there's the uber-psychologized shellshock-vet motif common to so many of the postwar films. I'm still not quite sure what the nightmare scenes of the Robert Ryan character are doing in the film or if the frame structure actually makes any sense.

But the film is about illogic, and feels like a long-lost poetic realism classic. Particularly in the eponymous scenes on the beach, where the fog effect is unexpected in its heavy-handedness.

The main theme centers on an artist, Tod (Charles Bickford), whose blindness has kept him from painting and has imprisoned him to live in the past. (There are some clear parallels to Renoir père's battle with arthritis). It's not unusual for a Hollywood to use blindness as a conceit, but here the treatment is more complex. To begin with, the script has a genuine empathy for Tod's psychology - even more than it does for the ostensible main characters played by Ryan and Joan Bennett. Furthermore, the development of the narrative changes what the film seems to be saying about blindness and artistic creation.

I know in this review I've switched back to auteurist film critic mode instead of film historian mode, but I also can't shake the feeling that this work is at best merely adapting to industrial trends and at worst marginal to the direction of those trends. Much of my work with 1947 is to think about ways of constructing the "typical" of the studio system, but - unless I see more to see new patterns - Woman on the Beach seems not to match these ideal types.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Style sheets

Now that summer's here, I'll be coming out of the regrettable blog hibernation.

For now, I have a petty gripe: why is that some publishers insist on their own citation style but give guidelines that are about a page long? There's a reason that the common style sheets are many pages long: there is a wide variety of sources that may have specific documentation needs.

That's aside from the question of why a standard citation style sheet couldn't do.