Birds do it, bees do it…

Sex and violence are absolute human constants.  They’ve always been with us, and they always will be.  That’s not a statement that encompasses any value judgement whatsoever, it’s a simple statement of fact.  Human beings demonstrate this repeatedly, even at their most “innocent”.  Children throw violent tantrums in their cradles, and children themselves (just like the rest of us) are the result of an unbroken series of successful acts of copulation.  Because I firmly believe in the constancy of these aspects of human nature, I also believe that both subjects are entirely appropriate for class discussion, and that’s definitely the case this week.  By including the topic on my syllabus I’m not offering any moral, ethical or religious opinion regarding the practice or consequences of either activity (which is not to say I don’t have such opinions, but it’s where the discussion really gets thorny).  I’m merely suggesting that it does no good whatsoever to ignore them.  This is especially true as it relates to the development of the American film industry, which has used both to sell tickets without offering a particularly coherent approach to either.

In the early 1930’s, before the industry decided to avoid government interference by rigorously censoring itself, sex and violence were all over America’s movie screens.  Entire careers were constructed around knowing, sassy sexual attitudes and frequent appearances in underwear (I’m looking at you, Joan Blondell).

When the industry decided to rein in such behavior, the prevalence of both subjects dropped to a certain degree, but sex took it on the chin.  The eventual intervention of the Second World War provided an entree for the return of violence, but married couples continued to sleep in separate beds for several decades after the Japanese surrender.  Not only that, but for some time the movies taught us that men and women kissed with only carefully calibrated levels of passion, always returned home at a reasonable hour when courting, and never seemed to wear underwear with anything approaching casual comfort.  Such an approach led to the claims of critic Gilbert Seldes (and others) that the Production Code (by which the industry conducted its self-censorship) drained all love relationships of the natural passions which eventually ensure our survival as a species.  It’s hard to argue that he didn’t make a very good point.

At the other extreme from all this passionlessness we have the existence of a wave of post-Code (and post-Sixties sexual revolution)  pornography in the early 1970’s which tried to re-introduce sex as a legitimate topic of public discussion.  My favorite of these (and the one I excerpt in class) is The Devil in Miss Jones, the first twenty minutes of which (one third of the film!) references Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Catholic doctrine regarding suicide, before reveling in a final forty minutes of extreme copulation (the formerly clean-living heroine is making up for lost time before settling into an eternity in hell thanks to her suicide).  Jaw-dropping intellectual references aside, the film does not manage to take sex seriously enough to incorporate it into a fully developed plot, though contemporary works such as Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses managed that feat with a certain aplomb while remaining somewhat closer to the mainstream.

The attempt to make “real” sex acceptable to a mass film audience never really gets very far, and the public (mostly) continues to remain comfortable with unrealistic depictions of the act in the mainstream right up to the present day (All men spend six hours a day in the gym!  All women are comfortable in bikinis!  Everyone is always under sheets!  No one ever has bad breath!).  It’s either that or similarly unrealistic depictions in less acceptable pornographic films (which sometimes try to have a story, but the requirement for regular sexual interludes gets in the way).

My point here is not to be provocative by talking about sex, or to be a proponent of any moral perspective, but to suggest that it shouldn’t necessarily be that provocative to have the conversation in the first place.  It’s a ubiquitous topic, and it’s not especially useful to sweep it under the carpet.  The movies have tried to deal with it in different ways over the last hundred years (as has pretty much every human being who ever lived) so why not talk about it?  It’s a part of our history and our film heritage, and it involves questions of public morality and art which shouldn’t be debated in a vacuum.  After the conversation (and a few relevant examples), then you can decide what you think and I’ll be o.k. with that.  But let’s talk about it first.

It’s harder than you think…

It is one of the great conundrums of trying to teach anything that sometimes people just have to take your word for it.  It’s frequently the case that there are elements of the lesson which are only fully comprehensible after long experience which students, by definition, don’t have.  This comes up (with great force) when discussing the introduction of sound technology to the process of filmmaking.

The typical narrative of film history in most people’s heads is pretty straightforward.  Movies are silent, creaky and primitive.  Then The Jazz Singer is released.  Now movies have sound (and are SO MUCH BETTER).  The problem is not only that this is oversimplified, but it’s also basically hogwash at every level.  The hinge point is The Jazz Singer which persists as a recognized technological linchpin, though most people have never actually seen it.  It’s mutual notoriety and invisibility makes it a consistently difficult film to discuss, since it’s (a) not remotely the first sound film, (b) barely qualifies as a “talkie” itself, given that most of it is silent with a synchronized musical score and (c) a huge hit which has been popularly promoted as an important turning point in making films better despite the fact that it brings about a painful period of regressive filmmaking among major producers.

It can be made fairly obvious to the uninitiated that silent films are far from primitive, but it’s also apparent that such films are “different”.  They’re just enough outside our conventional experience that unfamiliar viewers approach them as something “historical” which requires a different set of viewing skills.  When we discuss sound films, however, there’s a general sense that we’re on familiar ground.  Even if it’s not in color, we still know how it’s supposed to work, because it’s pretty much the same thing we see in a movie theater on a Saturday night.  There’s a picture, synchronized sound, sound effects and maybe a background score.  Except that from 1928 to 1932, none of that quite means the same thing.

I loathe using clips of things, because I think it’s frequently unfair to selectively excerpt, and it promotes biases and misreadings (one way or the other).  This week, however, I show excerpts from two significant films, The Jazz Singer and Lights of New York.  The former can’t be ignored, but the clip I use demonstrates why its popular reputation is historically inappropriate (the clip begins with a sync score, switches to sound dialogue as Jolson sings “Blue Skies” to his mother, then reverts to the sync score).  Mostly it doesn’t talk.  Point made.  Lights is the first “100% Talking” film, and the scene we watch demonstrates most of the major technical issues which hampered early talkies (e.g., the camera doesn’t move, the acting is awkward, the dialogue is delivered like an elocution lesson, and everyone clusters around a prominently placed telephone which contains the microphone).  These two clips take up maybe ten minutes, after which we move on to Applause, a Rouben Mamoulian film from 1929 which is partly noteworthy because it manages to avoid so many of the pitfalls of early talkies, despite being slightly creaky in other ways.

Here, however, is where the conundrum lies.  I do not show Lights of New York or any other pedagogically appropriate early talking film in its entirety because they are so different from (yet just similar enough to) what students know that I might reasonably expect to be tarred and feathered.  Even the most hardened film historians sometimes quail before a screening of the 1929 Lionel Barrymore/Ruth Chatterton version of Madame X or the jaw-dropping 1930 Oscar Hammerstein musical Golden Dawn, so a roomful of people in an introductory class can hardly be blamed for having little patience with some of these films.  But without watching one, they just have to trust me when it comes to commenting on how relatively good or bad any such film might be – and that hinders a full understanding of the overall point.

I’ve considered showing something that might feel more “modern” such as Cecil B. DeMille’s Dynamite (1929), F. Richard Jones Bulldog Drummond (1929) or William Wyler’s A House Divided (1931), but they’re actually too modern in their technique to make the point.  Instead I’m left with a balancing act, trying to find something awkward enough to demonstrate the difficulties of a hard transition, but not so awkward that it discourages anyone from investigating the whole period further – or encourages them to start a fire to heat up the tar.  It’s the kind of imperfect trade-off that keeps teaching interesting, but it’s a constant concern that I might do a whole period irreparable wrong, or that the ultimate point might not quite go over.  Trust me.


Who wants to be “normal”?

It’s “avant-garde” week, which I always find sort of gleefully entertaining.  Lots of people think they know what a film should be and how it should work, but our preferences are (generally speaking) a conditioned result of the confluence of a natural human affinity for narrative and the willful manipulation of that preference by the established film industry.  I don’t mean this pejoratively since there’s a reason that a standard becomes a standard.  I am suggesting, however, that other modes of filmmaking are foreclosed when any standard is established, and its always useful to keep that in mind.

Arguably the most famous of the films we watch in the class screening for the week is Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, which was a willful attempt by two provocative artists to create a film based entirely on free associated irrationality.  Almost invariably, first time viewers try to impose an order on the plot, which pretty much entirely misses the point.  At the same time, it says something interesting about our urgent desire for some sort of narrative backbone when we watch a film.  We expect a story, and if it isn’t clear to us we grow bored, restless and frustrated.  A film such as Watson and Weber’s Fall of the House of Usher can be even more frustrating, since we know that there’s a vague resemblance to an established plot (it’s based on a novel after all), but it’s so irrelevant to what we see on-screen that it’s even harder to make sense of the imagery.  The “topper” is the trio of Stan Brakhage films which close out the screening, none of which even pretend to have a narrative.  Mothlight, Garden of Earthly Delights and Rage Net consist of insect parts, plant matter and paint splashes (respectively) smeared across film without any apparent rhyme or reason.

All of these leave viewers scratching their heads, but that’s a large part of the point.  They function so far outside of our expectations – and what were used to – that people frequently find them baffling.  The key question, of course, is why we find them so baffling.  It’s fair to suggest that, in part, the creators of these works are happy to confuse us.  It’s their fervent hope to be provocative and make us ponder why we like what we like.  But that doesn’t help answer the question, it only helps us ask it.

Though there are many possible answers, the one I find most compelling is that we’re naturally primed to arrange the world according to the principles of narrative.  We expect a story, and if we don’t see one, we’re perfectly happy to make up something appropriate to our needs.  Certainly, we see this every time someone asks us what we did yesterday.  We don’t relay a lot of disconnected images which may or may not cohere at any given time.  Instead, we tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.  We may not even really have thought about our daily events as a single entity until someone asks, but we connect them in the telling.  Something similar happens with small children when they’re learning to draw.  There’s all sorts of interesting literature analyzing childhood cognitive development through childhood scribbles, but the common theme is that we begin by making certain patterns, which eventually evolve into pictures, which usually tell a story.  Abstract lines become pictures of our families, ourselves, our houses and our surroundings, and we use narratives to fit the images together.

This helps to explain a part of our tendency toward narrative, but it still doesn’t completely overcome the objections of innumerable art professors who fervently believe in the simple power of images.  And those objections aren’t without merit.  When we go to the beach, we might sit for hours watching the waves or enjoying the sunset.  Most of us, however, would run screaming from a film which recounted the same event in real time, even if it completely duplicated the visual and aural experience of that beach lounging.  So why does that make any sense?

At least in part, I’d suggest that the nascent film industry quickly realized that people responded not just to a “cinema of attractions” (essentially movement for the sake of movement), but to actual stories told through film.  As I suggest above, there’s nothing wrong with this, and it may be perfectly natural.  The people who establish those standards don’t even have to understand how they work, they just need to know that they do.  What follows, however, is a hundred years during which the industry refines storytelling rules calculated to pander to this impulse, and to turn us away from just enjoying the beauty of an image on its own merits.  We’re less tolerant of a stunning sunrise, or a spider building a web on film because we expect a story which moves.  At the same time, trying to use film as a simply visual, non-narrative, artistic medium playing in unconventional ways with color, light or images makes most of us move – right out of the theater.

I’m not suggesting that a less narrative, more avant-garde approach is somehow better – though the Hollywood industry is perfectly happy to borrow elements of that approach when it suits their needs (think of the ending of Kubrick’s 2001 or the visual and narrative games of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  I just believe that it’s important to watch something every now and then which isn’t conventionally “normal.”  It’s good to see something which leaves us at a complete loss and makes us consider the source of our own frames of reference.  It gets us to think in new ways, and it might help us appreciate a sunset a little more – both on film and in real life.

As Time Goes By…

It’s “documentary week” in class this week, and it’s always my fervent hope that the conversation will lead to new ways of thinking about the purpose and practice of filmmaking.  Among the films we watch, three occupy the majority of our time:  Henri de la Falaise’s Legong: Dance of the Virgins, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro.  What fascinates me most about these titles pedagogically is the way that the response to them is a function of the individual viewing them and their temporal distance from the films.  Not that that’s not always the case to some extent, but these particular “documentaries” present measured and careful arguments which spoke clearly to audiences at the time of release, and which can be completely missed by later viewers.

At this point, the once common notion that a documentary is somehow capturing a moment of objective reality has mostly vanished.  Students tend to assume that someone is selling them a bill of goods, and (especially when the argument is oversold) they assume it’s a lie.  While I’m a natural born skeptic, and tend to look at pretty much anything with a critical eye, I’m not willing to approach the kind of simple relativism that such cynicism eventually entails.  Even the most even-handed documentarian has to make choices about presentation with which others of good will might legitimately disagree, and there are also plenty of egregiously ax-grinding filmmakers who can tell the “truth” while skillfully slanting reality to support their argument (you can pretty much see this on any “news” program on any network on any day of the week).  That’s just how rhetoric and argument work, and there’s nothing unnatural or necessarily malicious about it.  Even small children know that the selective presentation of facts will regulate the response of their parents to mitigate any attendant punishment for a misdeed.

What’s more interesting, however, is the way in which the result of skillful rhetoric in film can be entirely misunderstood by succeeding generations of viewers.  Every year the fairly obvious intentions of the three films mentioned above are completely misread by students who don’t have the patience, perspective, background knowledge or general inclination to understand what the films are actually trying to say.  Let me hasten to add that I don’t blame the students for this, since (for the most part) no level of education in contemporary America does very much to cultivate the qualities I’ve just mentioned.  It does say fascinating things about our interpretation of history, however, especially since at a certain point an argument constructed on film can assume documentary value by the very fact of its survival.

Legong is a case in point.  Originally intended as a work of anthropology, the filmmakers decided to impose a story while they were on their way to the shoot.  Students generally grasp the issue of how the imposition of a fictional narrative might undermine the “documentary” value of the film, but they also understand that the extended sequences of traditional dance and community rituals might have a value which can be extracted from the film as a whole.  Less clear, however, is the entire background of exoticism which pervades the picture, and the simple fact that most of the audience in 1935 would never have the opportunity of traveling to such a far-flung locale.  As a stand in for actual travel, the narrative would be treated less skeptically, and the film accepted as more “factual” than it’s taken by an audience today (when I frequently have at least one student who has actually been to Bali, so it’s harder to understand why that’s a big deal).

The Battle of San Pietro is even more compelling, since I have yet to show it to a class that ever understands the stridency of its anti-war message after the first viewing.  John Huston’s brilliantly crafted indictment of war was definitely recognized as such by the panel of generals who first viewed it.  He got into a lot of hot water, and the release of the film was basically delayed until after the German surrender (and then was seen without a few of the harsher passages, and with a ridiculously awkward opening apologia from the commander of U.S. forces in Italy).  It’s unflinchingly cynical regarding the general waging of war as it details a slogging campaign which cost many lives and essentially accomplished nothing of consequence.  It also makes it clear that the same thing will just happen again a few miles up the road, ad nauseum.  Unfortunately, sixty-plus years later, viewers can easily dismiss the film as “just another old war movie.”  This is grossly unfair (and flat-out wrong), but without fathers, brothers or friends risking death while fighting Nazis in Europe, it’s the easy conclusion to draw.  Even the fact of two decade long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq gives little pause among CMU students, at least partly because of the socio-economics of modern military service.

In a similar vein, Night and Fog’s carefully organized warning that we are all responsible for behavior which could easily lead to another Holocaust is easily dismissed by viewers who have no direct link to the subject matter.  In a way, Resnais’ film is the most significant to this discussion, since his use of contemporary footage of the Holocaust ten years after the end of the war specifically references the way that we compartmentalize such images as “old” and tend to view them as documents of their own time without fully plumbing their relevance to our own.

As I said, I’m not positing some sort of “blame” here, merely considering how we process these films as historical documents.  Over time, we tend to reduce historical events to certain shorthand collections of images and ideas, and that reduction encourages us to miss a great deal.  In many ways it’s entirely understandable, and it doesn’t even take very long to see this in action (think about the almost immediate censoring of images from 9/11 which took place on the news networks, and how people too young to remember the day itself will soon be reliant on “documentaries” built on similar exclusions), but it’s always worth considering how an argument or idea which might be completely obvious at one time leaves us mystified after only a few years.

If you haven’t seen The Battle of San Pietro, you can watch it here: