Here, since I’ve been speaking of the importance of archival materials in my previous post, is an amazing site from the Nuclear Vault, which at this moment has 1,098 different videos, including vintage military films, civil defense films, and other official government projects from the 1940s through the 1980s. More are added every day. If you’d like to find the true history of this period, from the official government perspective, this is the place to start.
Archive for October, 2011
The atomic bomb, the Cold War, fallout shelters, the Red Scare, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the HUAC — we don’t remember any of the bad stuff about the past. We only remember what we want to remember, or what we’re told to remember, as in the film above.
Here’s a link to an excellent article, The Other American Kitchen: Alternative Domesticity in 1950s Design, Politics, and Fiction by Caroline Hellman, about the ways in which these images of domesticity and comfort are created, and then propagated as a historical record, when in fact, what marked the 1950s more than anything else was conformity. History is nothing more than the version of events that the dominant culture wants us to remember; never forget that. The truth – whatever that might be, and however we might discover it - is buried in the archives.
“We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. But more often, Madeleine and I would be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make… and secretly wanted to live.”
Jean-Luc Godard went through his most brilliant period as filmmaker in the 1960s; though he is still active today, it is for his work in this period that he is best remembered. It was during the ’60s that he had his finger firmly on the pulse of the youth movement, and was already becoming deeply interested in class issues and politics.
Made for less than 150,000 dollars and shot in flat back-and-white by the great Willy Kurant, Masculin, féminin (1966) chronicles the rise of young pop singer Madeleine (Chantal Goya, in real life ruling the ’60s French pop charts with her “ye-ye” hits, catchy songs of transient adolescent passion and romance), who will stop at nothing in her rise to the top.
Along for the ride are Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rather aimless revolutionary drifting through a series of dead-end jobs; Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert), who acts pretty much as Madeleine’s groupie; and Robert (Michel Debord), a punk revolutionary who sees hypocrisy at every turn. Much of the dialogue centers on the differences between the sexes, and the fears, hopes, and desires that confronted teens in the 1960s.
Godard’s style was, and is, revolutionary; breaking into the narrative at random intervals, he offers the viewer bold intertitles that comment on the action (the most famous being “This film could be called the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Think of it what you like”). There is also a stunning ten-minute take in which the real “Miss 19″ of 1965 (Elsa Leroy) is directly interviewed by Léaud off-camera, as she professes complete ignorance about world politics, methods of birth control, and anything other than the disposable pop world of the moment.
Godard also throws in bits of pop theater, as two actors (one of them the Algerian director Med Hondo, in an uncredited role) perform a scene from LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman on the Paris metro, while Paul looks on in horror as the scene degenerates into a subway shooting. Godard’s vision of the world, here as elsewhere, is sardonically nihilistic; a man confronts Paul with a knife in an amusement arcade, and then, for no reason, turns the knife on himself, plunging it into his stomach.
In another sequence, a man trying to set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War has to borrow some matches to make good his threat. Brigitte Bardot turns up in a café cameo, and much of the dialogue is improvised, but at the same time, strictly controlled by Godard’s intensely personal vision. Once seen, never forgotten, this is a moment frozen in time, and one of the key films of the French New Wave in the 1960s.
“To those who like me — I’m back. And to those who don’t like me — I’m back.” — Jerzy Skolimowski, 2008
Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing (2010) is one the best films of the year, just getting a release in a very limited fashion in the United States as 2011 draws to a close. Earlier this year, I was interviewing the British director Michael Sarne, a friend of Skolimowski’s, and rather than talk about his own career, Sarne kept interrupting himself to urge me repeatedly, “you’ve got to see Essential Killing.” Now I can see why.
Vincent Gallo doesn’t speak a word in the film, yet is utterly convincing as Mohammed, a man captured by American forces in the desert of an unnamed country, flown to an Eastern European country, also unnamed, and subjected to torture. We get brief glimpses of the action from Mohammed’s point of view; he can’t hear, and seems to be affected with tinnitus, so everything for him is just a constant, irritating ringing in his ears.
Mohammed escapes, and goes on the run, killing to survive, but in the end succumbs to a combination of the harsh climate, lack of food, and wounds suffered during his escape. Intercut with this are flashbacks of his earlier life, which seem simultaneously idyllic and mysterious. We never know why he’s been captured; we never know what crimes he may or may not have committed; all we see is Mohammed’s fight to survive in a hostile landscape.
The end result is a shattering experience, superbly directed by the 73 year old Skolimowski, who took 17 years off from directing to paint and act, before returning to film with Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anną) in 2008. Born in 1938 in Poland, Skolimowski was part of the Polish New Wave in the 1960s, with such landmark films as Identification Marks: None (Rysopis, 1964), Walkover (Walkower, 1965) and Barrier (Bariera, 1966), but these films are child’s play compared to this new work. A truly international film, shot in Poland, Norway, Ireland, and Hungary, Essential Killing is essentially a parable, rather than a political film, and remains very much an enigma throughout its compact 83 minute running time.
As Skolomowski said of the film in a recent interview, “I don’t even say whether the film starts in Afghanistan, Iraq or maybe some other place, whether it’s an American military base, where the prisoners are kept, whether it’s situated in any of those countries. I don’t say whether the plane which is landing somewhere in Europe is really landing in Szymany, in Poland. For a long time not even a word is spoken in Polish. Only later, in the second part of the film, we can hear parts of dialogues in Polish.
So, all this is very enigmatic, camouflaged, because it isn’t at all about any documentary truth. The film doesn’t describe any particular event. It is all fantasy. And it’s kept rather in the style of a poem or a fable which merely slides over some events which could possibly happen, which most probably haven’t taken place, for we would probably know something about it; or maybe it was so strictly kept a secret that we will never find out. [. . .] That’s why I don’t treat this film as political. I would rather call it poetical and I hope this is the way it will be perceived.”
See the trailer here; see the film as soon as you can.
Jennie Linden and Brenda Bruce (bottom frame) in Freddie Francis’s Nightmare (1963)
As Donald Guarisco writes, “This Hitchcock-inspired blend of mystery and thriller from Hammer Films is gimmicky in the extreme but that’s also part of its charm. Nightmare hinges upon a rather flamboyant narrative from house scripter Jimmy Sangster: some logic loopholes become apparent if you look at his wild plot too closely but he attacks his storyline with great gusto and pulls off a clever, Psycho-derived plot switcheroo that will throw the audience for a loop. It also helps that Nightmare is directed with great panache by Freddie Francis, who uses John Maxwell’s moody black-and-white photography to tremendously atmospheric effect. Francis creates a number of genuinely intense setpieces along the way, cleverly using his framing choices and editing to comment on the story’s events. Finally, Nightmare benefits from committed performances by a solid cast: Jennie Linden offers an intense turn as the film’s troubled young heroine and her work is supported nicely by strong turns from Brenda Bruce as a wise, sympathetic teacher and Moira Redmond as a mysterious nurse brought in to watch over Linden. To sum up, Nightmare is an effective little chiller that packs a surprising punch for a film of its age.”
The Internet Archive, which I’ve previously blogged on, also has a remarkable collection of classic television programs, commercials, government proceedings, and more — all available at the touch of a button for either instant streaming or download.
Right now, one of the most popular collections being viewed is classic television commercials from the 1950s and 60s, available by clicking here.
Complete classic television programs, from Dragnet to The Ed Sullivan Show to The Beverly Hillbillies, to the BBC’s production of George Orwell’s 1984, along with thousands of other programs, are available by clicking here.
From Imre Szeman’s review of Bourdieu on Television, translated from the French by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. New York, 1998: The New Press, as published in Topia, The Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies.
“It is clear that Bourdieu believes that, when it comes to television, it has become increasingly dificult to accomplish anything that might be seen as intellectually constructive, no matter how carefully one approaches it. Television becomes, in Bourdieu’s analysis of the journalistic field, a field that dominates other fields. Not only does he argue that television has altered the function of the entire journalistic field, forcing the print media to approximate it more and more in form and content, he maintains that television has profoundly challenged the autonomy of all other fields. ‘The most important development, and a difficult one to foresee,’ he writes, ‘was the extraordinary extension of the power of television over the whole of cultural production, including scientific and artistic production.’ Television now holds a virtual monopoly on what today constitutes public space, and, as such, it controls cultural producers’ access to the public.
You can download a pdf of the review here.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1964) finds the director in an unusually playful mood; this black and white feature is from Godard’s early period, and is a combination of sketches and improvisations, loosely wound around a thin narrative thread.
The gif above is of Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Odile (Anna Karina) and Franz (Sami Frey) doing “The Madison,” a dance sequence that sort of “interrupts” the film — which is very free form in any event — for no particular reason at all, other than the audience’s enjoyment.
As Any Taubin famously noted, “Band of Outsiders is the Godard film for people who don’t much care for Godard: a proto-slacker mood piece about two nondescript guys trying to persuade a beautiful girl to help them commit a robbery. Adapted from Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold, an American ’50s crime novel published in France as part of the pulp Série Noire, it’s more [Jean] Renoir than [Samuel] Fuller—the least preoccupied with American culture of any of Godard’s ’60s films [. . .]
Godard’s adaptation vacuums the novel of its predictable character psychology and plot twists, leaving only the most minimal narrative. In between the play-acted and the real shooting, the film kills time with a series of set pieces: the celebrated mad dash through the Louvre [. . .] and of course, there’s the sequence where Odile, Franz, and Arthur dance the Madison in a half-empty café (the sequence that both Quentin Tarantino and Hal Hartley fell in love with and borrowed for their own films).”
Here’s Steve McQueen at the peak of his powers in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a film centering on a marathon, high stakes poker game set in the Depression-era 1930s, directed by Norman Jewison. It’s not a great film by any means, but a solid period piece of 1960s genre work, with a powerhouse cast: McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn and veteran musician/actor Cab Calloway. As Kevin Hagopian notes, the script is by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern; it was Lardner’s first major studio work since his 1947 blacklisting as one of The Hollywood Ten.
Sam Peckinpah was supposed to direct the film, but wanted to shoot it in black and white, among other things, and was forced out by producer Martin Ransohoff soon after shooting started, leaving it to Jewison to finish. It’s a resolutely commercial film, but McQueen is riveting to watch, and as he always maintained, he’s better at reacting than acting; Robinson, McQueen’s chief opponent, more than holds his own against McQueen in all their scenes together — which really are the bulk of the picture — and handles most of the dialogue. Despite a certain predictability — even with its supposed “twist” finish — the film is better than average mainstream entertainment, and one of the best poker films ever made.
About the Author
Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or email@example.com.
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