Correspondence

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‘interesting fact: if you google “david cairns”, shadowplay comes out at the bottom of the page; if you google “christina alepi”, shadowplay is the first result. (!) Typing my own name is the quickest way to get to your blog (after bookmarking, but it can’t beat googling my OWN NAME!)’
~ Christina Alepi, via Facebook.

A few things happening with the old email and Facebook, which I just joined in a spirit of “Why not?” Maybe once I year I do something daft like that: about a year ago I started a blog. Yep, Shadowplay celebrates her birthday on December 1st. Will have to think of some special way to mark it. Suggestions welcome.

Some time back I got one of the few bits of negative commentary I’ve had here, after reviewing a depressing British horror “comedy” called THE COTTAGE. I’ve tended to avoid trashing stuff most of the time, since it’s nice to be nice and it seems more interesting to find the exciting or strange bits of films and pare away the dull stuff, but when it comes to modern British cinema I sometimes get a bit upset. Anyhow, the piece attracted an irked comment from someone pretty obviously connected with the movie, but I never knew who. But when I joined Facebook, it swept through my emails looking for contacts, and suddenly identified the commenter as actor Reece Shearsmith, one of the stars of the film. Mystery solved!

Not sure how I feel about this, since I’m a fan of the first two series of The League of Gentlemen, and would have said at least some nice things about THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’S APOCALYPSE, which seemed an honorable attempt to do something interesting in British cinema. So it’s not like Shearsmith was ever on my shitlist. (Do I have a shitlist? Note to self: compile shitlist.) I may have said something about his performance in THE COTTAGE not quite working, but that’s kind of the same as calling him a flawless genius, since the rest of the film doesn’t work the way a dead horse doesn’t work as an air freshener.

More pleasant correspondence: after the excellent Charles Drazin suggested I contact David Thomson and let him in on The Great Duvivier Giveaway, my scheme to reshape the movie canon, in hopes of getting him to change his mind about Julien Duvivier and maybe rewrite his rather critical piece in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, I wrote to Thomson with a disc of LA FIN DU JOUR, and received this very charming reply:

Dear Mr Cairns,

I was touched to receive your letter and the DVD of La Fin du Jour.  On the spot, I proposed you to the House of Edinburgh Saints (your only fellow there is Mark Cousins – maybe you know each other).

[We do.]

As it happens, yours is not the first plea on behalf of Duvivier. The other one came from no less than Stephen Sondheim (at the Telluride Film Festival). So I am re-examining the matter, and I am very grateful to you for the prompting.

More to come, I’m sure.

All good wishes

David Thomson

So I seem to be in good company. I wonder, if you’re David Thomson, if you’re constantly getting grabbed by bloggers and composers and bums off the street who want to convert you to the cause of John Ford or Tony Richardson or William Wyler?

Makes me think I’m lucky I only have the cast of THE COTTAGE to contend with.

In other news: I was vaguely thinking of starting Borzage Week in a week’s time, but since I have a number of pieces all ready and nothing else to post of any substance, I’m bringing it forward to Monday 17th. That’ll still give us time to invent something suitably exciting for December 1st.

27 Responses to “Correspondence”

  1. If Mr. Thomson is reading then I have no qualms about letting him know that his piece on Ford is among the funniest of wrong-headed Ford putdowns which makes it entertaining to read.

    That said I liked his entry on Bunuel and his piece on Kubrick is good.

  2. There are lots and lots of good pieces in that book. I don’t agree with his attack on Richardson, but I find it an amusing piece of near-invective. He’s factually wrong on Wyler — having heard that WW shot many takes, he talks about shooting lots of coverage, but it’s clear from the films that Wyler was giving his editor relatively few choices. Sometimes not enough! So he obviously shot many takes but not many angles. You can’t call that lots of coverage. There are aspects of the Ford slam I kind of agreed with, and it was a relief to find that there were film lovers who didn’t love Ford. I like some Ford but he’ll never be a favourite, I fear.

    The Kiarostami piece is kind of disgraceful though: to dismiss him as overrated after watching just one film smacks of not taking the job seriously anymore.

  3. Well Wyler worked for Sam Goldwyn, among the least director-friendly of all producers(even Selznick cut more dice), so he had to learn fast to become something other than a fancier Victor Fleming. George Stevens was notorious for doing coverage, James Dean famously mocked him for that on the set of ”Giant” yet he had enough control over his editing. Hitchcock, as per Krohn’s book is even more interesting. He didn’t do coverage but he shot alternate angles of scenes so that he could choose his favourite in the editing room.

    What I disliked about the Ford piece is the usual cliche about disliking Ford. He’s right-wing, blah-blah-blah and saying how Hawks is better(it’s like saying Ben Jonson is better than Shakespeare, they’re not the same thing). Another interesting thing he said elsewhere was that Ford mythified Wyatt Earp in ”My Darling Clementine”. What Mr. Thomson ignored(or perhaps is unaware of) is that Ford’s film on Earp is actually less stylized and mythified, more austere, than other films about Western heroes at that time. And of course the fact that Ford set the record straight in ”Cheyenne Autumn” where Jimmy Stewart sends up his pal Fonda’s performance by showing Earp as an incorigibble gambler and con-artist.

    Still on the whole ”A Biographical Dictionary” is a really amazing achievement, an encyclopaedia on that scale.

    The Kiarostami piece is really sad I know. I am not the biggest fan of him but he’s important enough to get more respect than that. Thomson also has to answer for that piece of crap book on Welles.

  4. Sondheim is a huge fan of La Fete a Henriette, which as you know was remade as Paris When It Sizzles — a Quine I feel merits another look.

    Sondheim is of course immensely sophisticated when it comes to cinema as his musical with Alain Resnais — Stavisky…. — makes plain.

    I long for him to convert my favorite film of all-time Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train — into a stage musical. It has no end of opportunities for song creation in the manner in which he is Supreme Master.

  5. I would relate my problems with Thomson’s Duvivier piece to my problems with his Welles book: not only do I disagree with the thesis, I find it not very interesting, and it plays to a received wisdom which is destructive. Given the suspicion with which Welles is still regarded in America, Rosebud takes the line of least resistance and least curiosity.

    The good thing about the Ford piece is that it does find fresh and interesting reasons to be dissatisfied with Ford, even if one disagrees. The idea that Ford was not truly interested in landscape (hence the default choice of Monument Valley for every western) was a novel, blasphemous idea, flying in the face of everything anybody ever said about Ford, who is always supposed to love the land. So it’s a shocking and stimulating idea even if you disagree. It’s WORTH arguing with.

    Disagreeing with Rosebud basically involves repeating stuff that Bogdanovitch and Rosenbaum have already argued very cogently.

    I’d love to get the Duvivier and the Quine and run them back to back, but it seems only the Quine is around. Hope they didn’t burn the Duvivier!

  6. I have never seen that film either – La Fete a Henriette. Who’s in it?

    In any case Ford didn’t set ”all” his Westerns in Monument Valley, ”Liberty Valance” was shot on sound stages for instance and nowhere near Utah. And Ford’s silent westerns weren’t shot there. It only came into his movies from ”Stagecoach”. The reason Ford used that was because he loved that place and it gave a huge mythical resonance to his movies, even if the stories aren’t set there. Like ”The Searchers” is set in Texas but it’s obviously nowhere in Texas. In any case, Ford’s non-Westerns also show a great deal of landscape like ”Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” or ”The Grapes of Wrath” or ”Donovan’s Reef” and of course ”The Quiet Man”. And besides Ford knew that Westerns didn’t need to be realistic and liked the mythic dimension.

    Thomson who loves Hawks is doing what Hawks loved doing…self-projecting. Hawks famously BS’d giving Sternberg the reins of ”Underworld” so as to talk about that film’s influence on him, and Thomson is saying Ford has no interest in landscape to talk about the total non-importance of it in Hawks.

  7. Dany Robin, Michel Auclair, Hildegard Knef.

    True, it’s obvious that landscape is irrelevant to Hawks. The way Red River jumps between location and studio… and it really doesn’t matter to the film. Whereas in Ford or Mann, The Searchers or Bend of the River, having to shoot the nocturnal campfire scenes in a studio is a bit unfortunate. (Plus it seems harder to do convincingly in colour.)

    The Hawks-Sternberg connection is such a weird one. They’re so different, but the overlap is considerable. Hawks talks a lot about giving Sternberg his best ideas, but the opposite seems true. And Jules Furthman wrote extensively for both directors, but he’s a totally different writer for Hawks.

  8. The opposite IS true. Hawks was notorious for self-projection. Constantly boasting and the like. As for the Hawks-Sternberg connection, Todd McCarthy talks about that in his book on Hawks(flawed but authorative). Both Hawks and Sternberg are set in worlds and places that are hermetically sealed. The difference is that Sternberg does have a realistic side to him…like ”The Docks of New York” or his definitive treatment of ”An American Tragedy” whereas Hawks is totally non-real, save for ”Hatari!”(which is real in so far as it’s a documentary about itself). Hawks also worked with Lee Garmes a few times, a favourite DP of JVS.

    Hawks was very fascinated with ”Morocco” as well. His ”To Have and Have Not” is in that mould. And of course Angie Dickinson’s character Feathers in ”Rio Bravo” is a hommage to ”Underworld”.

  9. Rio Bravo’s opening, with the spitoon and all that, is a complete remake of Underworld’s. And Scarface repeats Underworld’s “The city/world is yours” motto. In that case, Ben Hecht is the big connection, and I guess he’s entitled to reuse his own ideas.
    I’m attracted to the idea of their sealed worlds. It’s less overt with Hawks maybe because he doesn’t feel the need to rewrite history and national cultures to the same extent: see Shanghai Express and The Last Command’s bizarre takes on the political events supposedly being depicted.
    Not much sense of community in Sternberg, that’s a Hawksian addition.
    And Sternberg’s interest in character psychology and narrative is wonderfully inconsistent. Some of his films are meditations on the unknowability of the mind, or seem to be. Whereas Hawks does like clear behaviour.

  10. There is this writer called Tag Gallagher who has a kind of revisionist idea of Sternberg. An article by him on JvS can be found on senses of cinema. One of his interesting ideas is that he argues against the usual Marlene Dietrich as star approach to Sternberg. Most people look at Sternberg’s films through Dietrich since she’s more famous than him. What Gallagher points out is that Sternberg used Dietrich to convey his own ideas and that this differed in each of their successive films. Each character played by Dietrich from Blau Engel to Devil is a Woman is a seperate individual entity and all the men(usually played by v-Sternberg look-alikes) are different characters as well.

    The crucial difference between Hawks and Sternberg is their approach to women. Hawks posits women by and large as a threat to adolescent boys growing up, which he fully submits to but alternatively mourns. Sternberg on the other hand sees women as individuals. Not Hawks(save for Roz Russell and Lauren Bacall).

    What do you think of ”The Scarlet Empress” and it’s take on tha crucial period in Russian history? It cast enough of a spell for Eisenstein to cite it as an influence on his biopic of Stalin…err…Ivan Vasilievich IV(a.k.a. the Terrible).

  11. Dietrich is certainly a different character in each film…sometimes several characters (as in the evolutuion of Catherine from innocent girl to one-woman sexual revolution in Scarlet Empress, and the various impersonations in Dishonored, which are quite complete). Whereas Hawks really deals with the same ideal Hawksian woman every time. That’s why he always cast different actresses: the only way to get any variety.

    Sternberg claimed that all his characters resembled him — “spiritually”. He also said “I am Miss Dietrich. Miss Dietrich is me.” And I don’t really buy the physical resemblance thing. I don’t think Pinky Atwill looks like Sternberg, much. And none of the others do at all, do they? Crucially, none is short.

    But reading Sternberg’s book, the autobiographical stuff in the films pops out. Maria Riva’s book on Dietrich uncovers more elements that are related to her life, notably “I used to work in a cigarette factory,” in The Devil is a Woman.

  12. Oh, and I love The Scarlet Empress. Few films except Ivan have that literally iconic look. It’s one of the visually RICHEST films ever made, and one of Sternberg’s funniest too.

  13. The Scarlet Empress is one of those films that I’ve been just dying to see. I got an email from Criterion yesterday, all their items are 40 % off right now across the board, this may be one of the items I’ll acquire. They’re having a big warehouse move, and a modification of their site, hence the sale.

  14. It’s a very nice item to own! Kevin Brownlow’s interview film with Sternberg makes a great extra (I got a few more of those The Movies shows out of the archives when I worked at the BBC — great stuff, an unexploited resource.)

    Sternberg was someone whose work I absolutely had to have on DVD as soon as I could, VHS just doesn’t do it. His relationship with film was uniquely photochemical…

  15. On ”The Devil is a Woman”, the credits read,

    Cinematography by Josef von Sternberg, A. S. C.

    That film happens to be my personal favourite of Sternberg. It has Marlene’s best performance and the ending is to die for. That long shot of her walking away from the train.

    I have the Criterion DVD of ”The Scarlet Empress”. I like how Sternberg talks about Dietrich and then says, “She was quite a gal.” and smiles wistfully. A rare gesture of generosity and caught on camera. ”The Scarlet Empress” is just about the closest Hollywood came to making experimental films(save for ”Citizen Kane”, ”I Walked With A Zombie”, ”Vertigo”). It’s spectacular in many ways. I love that scene in the beginning when Sophia(Dietrich) is waiting expectantly for her suitor to come and she then claps her hands in excitement, Marlene at her most innocent.

  16. I think all the Dietrich Sternberg’s are pretty experimental. Those last two are probably the most extreme, but there’s an unknowability about Dietrich’s characters that causes the narratives to become abstracted.

    If we don’t always know Dietrich’s motivation, part of Sternberg’s was, as he says, to create a film which is a unified object of aesthetic beauty, the way a painting or sculpture can be. In a certain sense, narrative might only be a pretext to change scenery.

  17. As much as I can get annoyed with Thomson’s pieces in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (there is a brilliant three or four part article somewhere on these Internets of a round table discussion picking up on all of the upsetting, unsettling or off-hand comments Thomson makes), I find him a constantly entertaining read. Anything that makes me consider my own reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the author rather than just nodding in agreement at pronouncements being made I feel has done something worthwhile! To the extent I’ve popped down Have You Seen…? on my Xmas wishlist, knowing that I will vehemently disagree with many things contained therein!

    There have been times when I’ve wished I could have gotten in touch with him with a plea to revisit a certain film or filmmaker again. I’m really glad to know that you managed to touch him with your Duvivier giveaway!

  18. He’s a very good stylist, always readable and engaging and kind of alluring. Even his regular pieces for the back page of The Guardian, where he seems to be required to write about people that aren’t very interesting, especially to him, are pretty decent. And I guess any book with the amazing scope of the BioFilmDic would have a few upsetting failures to engage with the subjects at hand. I’m a little concerned that there are more of these in the recent edition, and from his own pronouncements Thomson seems a bit disenchanted with cinema. Maybe time to find a new subject to write about when that happens…

  19. Perhaps this is the point to mention that Dietrich has a walk-on, wearing a trench coat, in “Paris When It Sizzles”? That’s about as much as I remember from that film, apart from some labored joking about William Holden and Audrey Hepburn indulging in passionate bouts of … Parcheesi.

    Garry Wills had a nice bit in his book on John Wayne about Dietrich teaching Wayne how to deal with directors (Sternberg, Ford) who claim to remodel you as extensions of themselves for the screen. Her advice? Basically to look wide-eyed and tell Mr. Director how inspired he is. (As for the truthfulness of this anecdote …)

    And has anyone mentioned yet how Jules Furthman gave the same retort to both Dietrich in “Shanghai Express” and Bacall in “To Have And Have Not”? It’s the *schtick* where an officer asks the heroine why she came to this troubled territory and she — Dietrich, Bacall — responds “To buy a new hat.”

  20. ack Smith said that Sternberg WAS Marlene. When you’re looking at her you’re looking at him — “a flaming neurotic.” Interesting idea.

  21. Well, flaming neurotic is right. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown around 1940, and seems to have given his analyst hell.

    I’d love to read more about Furthman, who’s a key player in some of the best, and oddest Hollywood films. These Sternberg-Hawks connections are fair piling up, aren’t they? And yet, in so many ways they’re so different. But it feels like Hawks was obsessed with Jo.

    That aftermath of a party scene in Scarface at the beginning starts to look a mite Sternbergian too, with all those streamers…

  22. “Danny Hawkins dad was hanged!” I knew the kid looked familiar, had to pull out my VHS copy to make sure. The smart-alecky little shit mock-throttling himself. He’ll get his. But man, what sick twist would leave a doll hanging from a noose above an innocent child’s bed?

  23. Is it a doll, though? I thought it might be some kind of reel of wool/string or something. At any rate, we are clearly in the realms of symbolism here, of the kind talking pictures rarely attempt or get away with.

    (Those of you scratching your heads, all this will be explicated in Borzage Week. Which kind of kicks off today.)

  24. http://www.archive.org/details/TownThe1945

    I just came across this. In 1945, as part of the overseas War Office, Sternberg was commisioned to make a short documentary called ”The Town”.

    It can be seen online in a watchable(if scratched) print. It’s quite interesting stuff. It’s like Humphrey Jennings’ stuff. Sternberg’s take on this subject matter is one of a kind.

  25. Thanks for that! He mentions it in his book, but I never thought I’d see it. Will watch when I’m sober!

  26. Comrade K korrects: it’s Farber who made the crack about Monument Valley. Thompson treads on similar ground, but doesn’t quite accuse Ford of a disinterest in landscape.

  27. I too think that Thomson is wrong about Ford. I think he is also wrong about Cassavetes. Ford was making great films as far back as the 1930s. Ford’s Pilgrimage is a wonderful film from that period.
    I suppose that we all have our blind spots. For some unknown reason, I have never been able to engage with or warm to the films of Howard Hawks.

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