The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Five
Movies had to get this raw because life had become this raw.
I’m running behind, as Chapter Six aired last night on TCM. I’m hoping to get caught up tomorrow.
The world changed in the 1940s, a world war casting its presence over half the decade and its shadow over the rest. Nothing would ever be the same, and neither would cinema. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, Marc Cousins states that prior to the 1940s, movies had focused on fantasy and escapism, but in the ’40s, movies darken visually and morally. Obviously, this is an oversimplification (and to some degree Hollywood-centric), but Cousins knows that. In the episode, he gives the escapist cinema of the 1940s a passing mention with a Betty Grable musical, but quickly affirms that the essential cinema of the ’40s is neo-realism and film noir, a claim that’s not particularly unreasonable.
But before he goes into the development of neo-realism in Italy and film noir in the United States, he goes back to look at the development of deep staging and deep focus in Stagecoach and Citizen Kane. The Hollywood romantic tradition preferred long lenses which threw the background out of focus, drawing attention to and flattering the star. Deep focus democratized the frame, allowing the viewers’ eyes to wander at will, while encouraging deep staging to emphasize spatial relationships between people and things. Cousins shows shots from Stagecoach that use deep focus and deep staging, including a wide shot of a room including ceilings, something that Citizen Kane is often credited with doing first (Robert Osborne even mentioned the ceilings as revolutionary in Citizen Kane in the intro, but Cousins didn’t challenge him).
When Cousins does move on to Kane, however, it’s immediately clear that though Welles may not have introduced deep focus (or ceilings), he certainly took it further and did more with it than any other filmmaker had done before. Stylistically, Kane is very theatrical, almost to a fault when compared with the naturalism that neo-realism would bring in just a few years. Yet Kane‘s democratic deep focus and problematic main character (Kane is romanticized, but unrelatable) set it apart from the cinema of the ’30s, just as Stagecoach‘s social commentary and egalitarianism marked a more thoughtful direction for the western.
And here Cousins does another of those thematic excurses that I enjoy so much, following deep and shallow focus up to the modern era, explaining just enough about the lenses to be interesting without being too technical, and showing the effect that different focal lengths have on how the image is perceived. I would watch a whole hour-long episode on this topic. After showing the way deep focus can create tension through composition, allowing multiple things to go on in the frame at the same time, he points out that deep focus fell out of fashion in the ’50s because of the flatter compositions of widescreen, and shows how European filmmakers of the ’60s went the opposite direction, pulling focus to create extreme blur in the background. He didn’t go into how ubiquitous it’s become to use focus to direct our eyes in movies these days, but it has. The democracy of deep focus has almost completely given over to the casual tyranny of shallow focus, but that’s a rant for another time.
In the post-war era, the spotlight moves to Italy, where limited resources forced filmmakers out on the streets. The great studio Cinecitta was used as an army barracks, lights and film stock were precious, so the rubble of the city became the backdrop, with natural lighting and untrained actors taking the stage. Italian neorealism came about partially because of physical necessity, but also as a sort of battle cry against the gloss and escapism of Hollywood – ordinary life was also a fit subject for cinema. Cousins quotes Hitchcock saying “Cinema is life with the boring bits cut out,” and suggests neorealism’s manifesto would be “Cinema IS the boring bits.” But of course, the best neorealist films are not boring, though they are plainly shot, dedramatized, and take ordinary life as their subject – they are vital and visceral with the worn, lived lives of real people. When a stolen bike in The Bicycle Thief threatens a man’s livelihood (and that of his family), it isn’t just a stolen bike – it is life itself. When Umberto D‘s pensioner cannot pay his bills and wastes away, it is life itself. And like life itself, neorealism films allow themselves to be messy, to not tie up every loose end in a nice narrative bow. Chekhov’s Gun need not necessary apply. In its insistence that ordinary life and all its messiness is interesting, neorealism has been incredibly influential on everything from the French New Wave to New Hollywood to modern American independent film.
Moving back to America, Cousins sets up film noir with one of the best introductory segments in the whole series. I might be biased because I love film noir so much, but his nighttime shots of Los Angeles and his voiceover talking about how the darkness falls over Hollywood, with few streetlights, and few people walking, so you can hear everyone’s footsteps, the smell of honeysuckle, and barred windows casting shadows across everything just captures the feel of noir so well. War brought destruction and disillusionment, and men returning from war found a society that didn’t understand what they’d been through and a workforce of women who didn’t want to cede their wartime jobs back to the men.
Noir is such an interesting beast (not quite a genre), pulling stylistically from the heightened lighting and angles of German Expressionism and tonally from the downtrodden realism of neorealism, with character types from the hardboiled detective fiction of Chandler and Hammett, all wrapped up in a pessimistic, deterministic viewpoint. It’s often a misogynistic genre, usually telling the stories of men led astray by the wiles of a femme fatale, and yet I, as a woman and an optimist, somehow can’t help loving it. Cousins interviews writer Robert Towne (Chinatown), who discusses the character flaws inherent in the men of film noir, that weakness that makes them choose destructive paths rather than escaping, even when they have that choice. Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) also points out the social and gender dislocation that men faced in the post-war period as a major source of noir’s cynicism.
The thing is, with noir you almost always have to discuss it in terms of what other categories it falls into, because noir isn’t not really a genre – it’s an term invented by critics a decade later to describe the dark and existential films of the ’40s and ’50s. Most of them are crime films, or have crime in them, but some are also melodramas (Mildred Pierce), others are also dark comedies (Sunset Boulevard), others detective films (The Big Sleep). Cousins points out the documentary influences on Gun Crazy, which used a long take from the back of a getaway car and improvised dialogue instead of showing the bank robbery in full, and points out how it influenced later films like Bonnie and Clyde.
Schrader gives the common ending point of 1958 and Welles’ Touch of Evil for film noir, but Cousins points out the continuing influences in modern cinema, from L.A. Confidential to Blade Runner and The Dark Knight to Bollywood’s Shiva. When he started going through these, they were all such obvious examples (L.A. Confidential is blatantly a neo-noir) that I was glad he at least included one outside the box with the Bollywood film. If he wasn’t going to talk about neo-noir as a genre, it would’ve been nice to at least have some more interesting and offbeat examples of modern noir that aren’t such obvious homages.
After discussing deep focus, neorealism and film noir, Cousins talks about some of the historical realities that were going on in the post-war period which affected film. One, of course, was the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, with Senator Joseph McCarthy seeking out Communism wherever he could find even hints of it. This was a hugely divisive event in film history, as some people refused to testify or name names and were blacklisted in Hollywood for years and others did name names and are now ostracized by the film community. Director Elia Kazan was given as an example – he testified, but when his name came up for a lifetime achievement Academy Award in 1999, there was a lot of opposition (even during the ceremony) due to his collaboration with McCarthyism. Fifty years later. It just proves how traumatic the McCarthy era was for the film industry, and how deep those wounds still run.
In addition to McCarthyism, 1948 saw the beginning of the breakdown of the classic era studio system, when anti-trust laws forced studios to sell off their theatre chains. Previously studios had controlled their own theatres, owning both the production and distribution processes and guaranteeing a release for all of their own films. The studios would continue to hold most of the power until the 1960s, but this was the beginning of the end for the dream factory as it had existed since the early 1920s.
It’s interesting that two of the filmmakers discussed in this episode, John Ford and Stanley Donen, both resist the analysis their interviewers try to tease out of them. Cousins uses footage from Peter Bogdanovich’s film about Ford, with Bogdanovich asking Ford about the content of his films getting darker over the years and Ford refusing to acknowledge this, and interviews Donen himself, suggesting that the crane camera move during the “Singin’ in the Rain” number itself expresses exuberance and Donen disagreeing, saying the camera is only a pen and doesn’t express anything. Both these directors are from a pre-auteur theory Hollywood, while both interviewers clearly have an auteurist perspective on film history. By and large, I really enjoyed the Donen interview – he’s funny and unassuming, and willing to admit he was wrong about Busby Berkeley.
Finally, Cousins turns to British cinema, noting the way Powell and Pressburger melded fantasy and realism in A Matter of Life and Death, something no other filmmakers of the ’40s dared to do, and holding up the docudramas of Humphrey Jennings and their portrayal of “Britishness,” the singular belief of the British that they had something special nationally, and they were willing to fight for it. And then to The Third Man, which is British and noir and Expressionist and cynical and funny and European and realistic. Cousins calls it a compendium of 1940s cinema, and I’d buy that every penny. It’s hard to get much better than this.
And that sums up my feelings about this episode, which is almost certainly my favorite in the entire series. I mean, with Citizen Kane and film noir and neorealism and Stanley Donen and Powell and Pressburger and The Third Man all in the same chapter, how can you go wrong? This is the longest entry I’ve written in this series (which is probably why it took me so long to finish it) and I could easily have gone on twice as long about each thing.
Well, as of this posting, Chapter 6 has already aired. In it, Cousins discusses the explosion of world cinema in the 1950s and the common themes that marked both world cinema and Hollywood – an obsession with sex, with melodrama, and with cinema that was bursting out of its seams. We’ve had plenty of European film and some Chinese and Japanese film in previous episodes, but here we get Egypt, India, Brazil, and Mexico added to the mix as their national cinemas get off the ground and really start making an impact in global cinema. Up to now The Story of Film has only superficially challenged the accepted histories. With Chapter 6, Cousins brings in films and national cinemas I had barely heard of and certainly haven’t seen. Bursting at its seams indeed.
Where Else to See the Films
Stagecoach: HuluPlus, YouTube, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Citizen Kane: Amazon Prime, YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
The Best Years of Our Lives: Amazon Prime ($3.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Rome, Open City: Hulu Plus
Singin’ in the Rain: Amazon Prime ($9.99 purchase), YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Double Indemnity: Netflix, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
The Bicycle Thief: Netflix, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental)
Gun Crazy: not available to stream (Netflix and Amazon have on DVD)
The Big Sleep: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental)
A Matter of Life and Death: YouTube (in 14 parts)
Pather Panchali: not available (used to be on Criterion DVD, but appears to be out of print)
Cairo Station: YouTube (in 6 parts)
Throne of Blood: Hulu Plus
The Seven Samurai: Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Rebel Without a Cause: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
All That Heaven Allows: available on DVD from Netflix and Amazon; not streaming
Johnny Guitar: available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon
Los Olvidados: not available
…And God Created Woman: Hulu Plus