In popular American nostalgia the 1950s have a squeaky clean reputation – according to our collective memory, it was a time of white picket fences, domesticity, cohesive family units, and the American Dream coming to fruition. Just looking at the movies of the 1950s disproves that notion, as we instead see sexual desire, teenage rebellion, and discontent seething below the seemingly perfect exterior, ready to burst through the seams at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile, cinema was truly going global in the 1950s. Prior to this, the United States and Europe dominated, with some side notes of interest in Japan and China, but in this chapter Cousins highlights notable films from Egypt, India, Brazil and Mexico as well – new national cinemas bursting through the seams onto the world stage.
The world was undergoing great social change in the 1950s – in America, we had the invention of the “teenager” as a social construct and the development of rock and roll, while in Africa and around the world decolonization was creating new nations intent on forging a national identity and with it, a national cinema. What ties these together for Cousins is their shared use of a form of cinema that’s also bursting at the seams – the melodrama. The melodrama has kind of a negative reputation as being overwrought and emotional, but as Cousins will show, there are a ton of great melodramas, and melodrama as a form encapsulates the kind of repressed emotion just waiting to bust out that characterized the 1950s. Cousins calls the melodrama a “pressure cooker of pent-up emotions” and finds them dotting the globe at this point in film history.
In Egypt, he finds Cairo Station, which he calls the first great African film and the first great Arab film. This is really the first point in The Story of Film where I”m on completely unfamiliar ground. Even in Chapter 4, when I mentioned not having seen several of the French 1930s films he mentions, I was at least aware of them before seeing The Story of Film. Cairo Station is new ground to me, and as such it’s a little difficult to see immediately why Cousins is so taken with it. He points to the barely masked sexual repression of writer/director/actor Youssef Chahine on screen, and the buried rage. The whole film played on TCM and I recorded it. Maybe seen in whole I’ll have a better sense of the film’s importance. I did find it odd that Cousins introduces the chapter with 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, then transitions saying that to get to the heart of what’s going on in Rebel, we have to go to Egypt – and a film made three years later. This is perhaps the first time that Cousins gets to test his premise that the story of film should be more global in nature, and he seems a little overexcited about it, not segueing in and out of the sections as cleanly as he could.
Next he goes to India, which is not at all new to cinema, though this is the first time it has appeared in Cousins’ Story of Film. The Indian film industry has been going strong since the 1920s, and Cousins notes that there was a tradition of social realist films as far back as the 1930s, pre-dating Italian neorealism. Was that not worth a mention earlier in The Story of Film, or was there simply not room for it, despite how clearly it would fit into Cousins’ globalizing thesis? Or was it not innovate for him until now? Anyway, the mainstream tradition in Indian cinema followed their musical theatre tradition, and to this day most Bollywood films are musicals. But of course, Cousins is, as usual, barely interested in mainstream cinema, so he focuses on Satyajit Ray, probably India’s greatest filmmaker, who focused on ordinary village life in his three most famous films, the Apu trilogy. Cousins interviewed Ray’s long-time DP, who was a camera assistant on his first film Pather Panchali, who noted the extreme contrast between working on mainstream Bollywood productions and working with Ray – total artifice vs. total realism. On the other side of the spectrum is Mother India, which uses color and pageantry to capture the hardship of India’s lower classes – this one is a musical, but it has a social conscience. In fact, it appears rather propogandistic in the clips shown.
The China segment is interesting because a) Cousins doesn’t actually really show any films from there, b) I’ve never heard of the director he interviews (Xie Jin), and c) the bulk of Xie’s interview he included talks about how Chinese and American culture are so different and that’s why Chinese audiences don’t like American films. I think THAT’s been proven wrong the past few years. American blockbusters make more in China these days than they do here. Anyway. He moves on to Japan pretty quickly, interviewing actress Kyoko Kigowa, who worked with Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and other Japanese masters. There are any number of things you could talk about in a documentary like this regarding Kurosawa, and Cousins actually doesn’t spend as long on him as I expected. I’ll admit that I’m not as up on Kurosawa as I should be, but I was intrigued by some observations that I hadn’t thought of before, like the way Kurosawa filmed from far back, giving his actors plenty of room to work in. I wouldn’t have pegged Kurosawa as an actor’s director, but there you go. Cousins also notes visual similarities between the staggering death-by-arrows in Throne of Blood and the staggering death-by-bullets by the car in The Godfather, but I have to wonder if Bonnie & Clyde isn’t also an appropriate antecedent to the latter.
Cousins winds up his global survey with Latin America, whose filmmakers he says were virtually unknown in North America. The slum locations and characters in Nelson Pereira do Santos’ Rio 40 Degrees reminded me a whole lot of City of God, a connection Cousins probably thinks is too obvious to be worth making – instead, he focuses on the innovative way dos Santos switches storylines within the film simply by moving the camera to from one group of people to another and following them instead, much as Richard Linklater would do throughout Slacker (another connection Cousins doesn’t make – DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING, COUSINS?). I really like that kind of wandering camera, picking up whatever it finds interesting and following that, so I’m curious to check out the film, if I can find it. Then on to Mexico, which is close enough to the US to have cinematographers who trained with Gregg Toland, and where Luis Buñuel spent some time in the middle of his career and made street gang film Los Olvidados, among others.
After this tour around the world (as promised, it is more extensive than any discussion of global cinema up to this point in the series), Cousins returns to America, where movies depicted the idealized view of the Eisenhower era, but also subverted and challenged it, and of course, those are the movies that Cousins is interested in. By this point in the series, it’s hard not to be aware that Cousins is self-selecting to some degree – there were plenty of movies in the 1950s, perhaps the majority of them, even, that unquestioningly upheld Eisenhowerian ideals. On the other hand, Cousins is not wrong in pointing out that these particular films represent something new and fresh in cinema, and they’re also among the ones that have attained true classic status.
He starts with All That Heaven Allows, a perfect encapsulation of his thesis, as it lays out a conservative society where a widow creates a major scandal by falling in love with her younger gardener. This is a melodrama’s melodrama, but with Douglas Sirk at the helm, as he was with so many of the 1950s best melodrama, it earns its emotions. The film is glossy and slick, but simultaneously exposed the superficiality of American society (and the American films that supported it).
Other filmmakers were pushing the envelope – Nicholas Ray with Johnny Guitar, using a lynch mob as a metaphor for McCarthyism and starring an androgynous Joan Crawford. Ray was a particular favorite among the French Cahiers du Cinema critics who would become Nouvelle Vague directors; Cousins shows an archival interview of François Truffaut saying anyone who don’t like Johnny Guitar (and many didn’t – it was panned on release) should stop going to movies, but Jean-Luc Godard famously stated “Henceforth there is Cinema – and Cinema is Nicholas Ray” in a review of Bitter Victory. Cousins doesn’t mention any of Ray’s other films, but most of them are similarly bursting at the seams.
One of the biggest shifts the ’50s saw in terms of cinema was the rise of Method acting. As popularized by the Actor’s Studio in New York, Method acting trained actors to draw upon their own memories and emotions to fully internalize their characters. This was incredibly influential in film, as actors like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Rod Steiger brought a new naturalism and seething animalism to their roles – often quiet on the surface, but filled with repressed emotion just underneath, threatening to boil over at any second. They were the new men of the 1950s, represented perhaps most of all by James Dean, whose three roles turned legendary with his early death. He portrayed a teenager in Rebel Without a Cause, which seems like a social problem film, except as Cousins says, there’s no social reason for Jim’s rebellion – it’s personal and existential.
Cousins talks briefly about Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, and Hawks in the 50s, as well as British directors David Lean and Lindsay Anderson, but not with very much depth or thematic unity. It’s kind of like he just feels like he needs to mention them, but doesn’t have time to do much with them. Here again I’m reminded that as long as 15 hours seems, it’s barely adequate to tell the history of film. This is the Chapter where Cousins really starts to realize his premise that the story of film is more global than we had previously realized, and he does indeed bring out several films and national cinemas that I’m largely unfamiliar with, but it’s also starting to feel rushed, as an hour simply isn’t enough time to fully cover each era globally.
Brigitte Bardot closes the episode with her frank sexuality in And God Created Woman. American films weren’t nearly this open yet, but sexual repression burned right under the surface of many ’50s American films, and films around the world as well. Social change had started, and it would continue, with cinema right in the middle of it. Cousins calls the ’50s “the pressure cooker years” and promises that something has to give, and Bardot is a clue to that something: within the next decade, French filmmakers would explode cinema.
The next two weeks on The Story of Film are collectively concerned with the various New Wave that hit global cinema in the 1960s. “The Shock of the New: Modern Filmmaking in Modern Europe” is the first of thesechapters, and it covers the French New Wave, modern Italian filmmakers like Fellini, Pasolini and Antonioni, as well as other innovative films from Western Europe. This period is one of the most exciting in film history, for a lot of reasons. Young filmmakers who had grown up on cinema looked for ways to break filmmaking apart and put it back together again differently, often with politically charged viewpoints. Social and political revolutions spread throughout the world, and the filmmaking of the time reflects these sweeping changes. Hang on to your butts, folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Where Else to Watch These Films
HuluPlus subscribers are in pretty good shape for the next few weeks – we’re smack in the middle of Criterion’s mother lode, mid-century foreign classics, and they’ve got a lot of them streaming on HuluPlus. Netflix streaming users are mostly out of luck, but most of these are available on disc, and several can be rented from Amazon or iTunes.
Pather Panchali: not streaming; available on DVD in Apu Trilogy box set
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
Nights of Cabiria: Amazon Prime ($1.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental)
Winter Light: HuluPlus, YouTube
Cleo from 5 to 7: HuluPlus
The 400 Blows: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental)
Rocco and His Brothers: YouTube (in 16 parts)
A Fistful of Dollars: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental), YouTube
Accatone: Not available for streaming; Amazon has on DVD
Breathless: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
I Am Curious (Yellow): HuluPlus