A few Christmas’ ago I received the Criterion Collection John Cassavetes box set. For the longest time it sat on my shelf collecting dust, not for lack of interest, for believe me my interest was indeed piqued. I found this box set incredibly daunting for some reason or another, but recently, as I’ve been watching good films to aid in my staying away during overnight shifts, I decided to take on the Cassavetes challenge and have systematically watched all five of the films over the course of the past couple of weeks.

After the first film of the set, Shadows (1959) I had a slight idea of what I was getting myself into, yet it wasn’t until the next (chronological) film, Faces (1968), where I was introduced to the working relationship between Cassavetes and Gena Rowland that I really began to see the potential power of this American cornerstone director. While I truly enjoyed, and could go on and on about the emotional evocation of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), for me it was the duo of Cassavetes and Rowland that carried the most intense empathetic power. First in Faces and even more so in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977) I found both Rowland’s performances and Cassavetes’ innately personal, beautiful and brutal treatment of his leading lady irresistibly and irreversibly pulling me deep into the inner workings of the disturbed yet average human mind.

In all three of the aforementioned films, but most especially on the latter two, Rowland portrays incredibly complex and inherently human characters. Cassavetes’ unflinching eye in cohabitation with Rowland’s’ no holds bared performances profoundly (and in many ways, disturbingly) moved me. While the characters and the situations were in essence very simple in execution they engulf the viewer in a very harsh, unstable and unforgiving world. Even when things seem to turn out fairly well the viewer is still left with an overwhelming feeling of being lost, while we may have weathered this storm there’s most certainly more where that came from.

While this effect is also achieved with many of the other characters through, what I’ve seen of, Cassavetes’ cannon and it seems to be his specialty of sorts, never before have I felt so insanely connected to characters as Rowland’s’ Mabel  and Myrtle (in particular). Upon finishing the viewing of these two films my mind was reeling, twisting and turning, overpowered and overcome by the immensity of the world. The often over the top yet perfectly warranted and subversivly subtle Rowland and the voyeuristic and up close and personal directorial style implanted a certain insanity within me, and one that only seems to grow upon further reflection.

Looking back my initial hesitation toward Cassavetes’ oeuvre, I was completely correct to see these films as dense and daunting, honest films, but having taken the plunge I’m forever altered and indeed enriched by the experience. Left now with haunting images of a bleak world of the past, that’s still directly relevent today, I was moved to attempt to put down in words the unsettling and amazing feeling I’m filled with. If you’ve been there I hope you’ve made it out okay, if you haven’t I strongly urge you to venture that way.

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Lois Weber

Lois Weber

“A real director should be absolute.”
~Lois Weber 1916 (Slide 38)

In the readings for this week we, as the readers, watched as movements, production companies and many brilliant capable women directors rose and fell. Through Mahar’s book in particular we read along as the early Nickelodeon days gave way to the ‘uplift’ movement. This movement catered even further to the sensibilities ‘inherently feminine,’ continued the trend toward distinguished and longer films and was Lois Weber’s true entrance into prominent cinema. But even this movement was relatively short lived. Sharing its limelight with serials and comedies, these three rather different movements all ushered in the era of the ‘new woman,’ however soon (in the late teens, early twenties) the audience realized it was done being preached to and simply wanted to relax and escape into respectable cinema.

Through Mahar’s text (and an off hand comment from Weber herself) it became evident that the motion picture industry was becoming a commodity. Through Weber’s ‘hay day,’ the ‘uplift’ movement (which was initially brought on by the preliminary prospect of state sponsored censorship), the industry realized that there was an audience to be capitalized on in the middle class reform movement. However as tastes change and wars were entered/fought the prospect of going to a theater to be ‘preached to’ became less attractive to the everyday movie going citizen. This coupled with the entrance of new censorship threats, spearheaded by the Supreme Court decision that films, as a marketable commodity, didn’t ‘fall under protection of the first amendment,’ was the beginning of the end for often ‘crude’ comedy, ‘dangerous’ serials and the stark moral and social commentary of unflinching filmmakers such as Lois Weber.

However the time leading up to these events, which seemed to be the initial blow in the decline of prominent women directors of the time, was a rather productive, innovative and harrowing time for women practicing the ‘art’ of the cinema. From women like Weber (discussed in all of our texts Acker, Mahar and Slide) to Mary Pickford to Mabel Normand to Lillian Gish to Ruth Roland to Dorothy Davenport Reid, women seemed to be rising all over in the industry. As stars, directors, writers, editors and producers women were on the rise. And with the entrance of the ‘new woman’ the representations of the female sex was no longer the same. Often times the women were the heroines of the films, whether moral sermon films serials or comedies, and the women acting in the dangerous and physically taxing comedies and serials were often known for doing their own elaborate and treacherous stunts.

It was clear that this ‘new woman’ was a rising power. Women were now not merely glorified ‘mantle pieces,’ they were speaking out about what they saw as moral injustices. They were also chewing gum and smoking, in public. This ‘new woman’ was breaking out into the public sphere and doing so with a vengeance. In extreme examples as stated prior women were now willingly and happily doing outrageous stunts, placing themselves in danger, basically starting to break down the gender barriers, showing that they were capable of doing most anything a man could do.

However as stated in the previous essay (while there certainly are exceptions such as Lillian Gish to name one) these women were often paired with a male, who was often times their husband, a fact, which often resulted in a seemingly inevitable downfall or down playing of the career of the woman. This in addition to a growing industry in constant flux, with studios and production companies, often started (but obviously not only) by talented female stars and promising women directors, opening and closing their doors left and right (production companies much more than studios) created an environment where that eventually led to the silencing of the female voice that the industry had relied so heavily upon to get to the place it was.

However I digress, in order to pay specific, more in depth, attentions to the director in focus for this week, Lois Weber. Anthony Slide, in The Silent Feminists referring to Weber states “Along with D. W. Griffith, Lois Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production and one who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.” (Slide 29). I personally found this statement to be rather intriguing, for I have, for a long time now, had an affinity for the auteur theory (first made popular and prominent by the writers at Cashiers du Cinema and the French Nouvelle Vague movement), and upon reading about the life and films of Weber, as well as seeing a selection of her films for myself, I would have to agree with Slide’s rather grand statement.

Lois Weber, whose background was heavily entrenched in religion and stage performance (musical as well as theatrical), certainly had a vision that she wished to impart upon the world through the utilization of the cinema. She even went so far as to title her pictures “missionary pictures” in one interview. In spite of this, she also tended to have artistic intent. In her own inadvertent, and ahead of her time, statement of directorial authorship (or auteurist theory), started at the heading of this paper she went on to say “He (or she in this case) alone knows the effects he wants to produce, and he alone should have authority in the arrangement, cutting, titling or anything else that may seem necessary to do to the finished product. What other artist has his work interfered with by someone else?… We ought to realize that the work of a picture director, worthy of a name, is creative.” (Slide 38, italics and underlines are my emphasis) Through this statement as well as the breadth of Weber’s work seems to go along with the statement made in my prior essay that, along side Alice Guy-Blaché, she saw the artistic potential of the cinema.

However the differences between the two lie in a couple of important disparities. First of all Weber was as prior stated a moralist, secondly she pushed much more blatant borders further than Guy-Blaché, and thirdly she seemed to be more aware of the audience as a sort of ‘lamb’ as well as a commercial public. While Lois Weber produced many interesting films, had a tremendous influence on directors of the time as well as the future and succeeded in being the highest paid and most trusted director of her time, she, as stated in her own words would “never be convinced that the general public does not want serious entertainment rather than frivolous.” (Acker 15) and this in the end was what led to her fade out of the spotlight.

Still from The Blot (1921)

Still from The Blot (1921)

The readings are however simply there to enhance and educate our readings of the actual films, of which we viewed snap shots of two, Hypocrites (1915) and Where are my children? (1916), the entirety of one feature, The Blot (1921) and one short, How Men Propose (1913). Through the viewings of these films the legend of Lois Weber told through the text came to life. Weber’s vision was no only resolute in its moral message, but it was also artfully and skillfully done.

In the two snap shots that we initially viewed, I found myself glued to the screen, wanting to see more. Regardless of the validity of the moral messages of the films in relation to my own personal beliefs, the techniques utilized as well as the ways in which she weaved her moralist realism with somewhat surrealist filmic techniques was mesmerizing.

In the first of the two, Hypocrites, she proposes to enlighten the general public about their own hypocrisies by ‘holding the mirror.’ In this film, which may very well have had an effect upon Vera Chytilova’s Fruit of Paradise (1970) in it’s imagery, the viewer is presented with the provocative metaphorical vision of ‘the naked truth.’ This ‘character’ who is superimposed and hence a mere ghostly figure dancing on top of and around her surroundings provided not only an extremely intriguing cinematic technique but also a brilliant visual metaphor.
Though the clips of the film we saw Weber’s ‘elusive’ truth figure, dances through allegorical scenes of the past and present, in essence shining a reflective light upon the hypocrisies of past and current societies, concurrently making the point that truths elusiveness is nothing new. In the film, which comes full circle, both the modern and past clerical seekers of ‘truth’ (who enlighten people and their loved ones to their own hypocrisies through her mirror) end up ‘martyrs’ when their respective congregations refuse to acknowledge truth in its raw form. In this film Weber utilized many different filmic techniques in order to create a complex and beautiful argument for her own moralist point that society hides from, ignores and is often mortified by ‘the naked truth,’ which often points to their own moral pitfalls.

In the second film that we viewed clips from, Where are my Children? Weber’s moral realism shines it’s divine light upon the quandary of readily available birth control as prevention of abortion. In this film, which opens with a beautifully (multiple) super imposed vision of heaven and the hierarchy of the unborn, Weber makes quite clear her moral objection to abortion. The titular line refers to the sadly ironic statement from the district attorney as he questions his wife about her secretive abortions. It is at this moment, when both of the characters realize the gravity of their situation that the emotion read on their faces and body language pulls at the heartstrings of the viewer. Through this as well as the bulk of the rest of the film Weber is in earnest trying to put forth what would have been considered a compelling argument against abortion, and through this and the comparison with birth control attempts to propose the latter as the morally just alternative.

In addition to this being entertaining and intriguing morally propagandistic film, it also masterfully utilized many different innovative filmic techniques. Aside from the aforementioned use of multiple superimpositions in the opening scenes, as well as a masterful utilization of natural light and deep space (as Weber was oft to use), the concluding scene, which we viewed in class, blew me away. In the viewings of clips from this film and the film prior, I’m like to believe that Weber was simply a master of utilizing superimposition in an effective way. In the melodramatic conclusion to this film the viewer watches as the children they would have had fade in and out as they (the couple) and their ‘lost’ children gracefully age. Having the couple sitting in the same spot subtly aging and having the children and prospective adult children wafting through the surroundings created an undeniably emotionally evocative as well as proving an impressive narrative technique.

Following the viewing of clips from Where are my Children? We viewed one of Weber’s masterpieces, The Blot, in full. This film which initially proposed itself to be about the immoral deficiencies in pay for those that “clothe the mind and soul” (i.e. the educators and the clergy) ended up much more an investigation of socioeconomic class, and the gendered roles involved in the aforementioned classes. Brilliantly Weber not only comments upon the chasm between the pay of educators and clergymen and those of the skilled workforce and inherently rich, she does so though a melodramatic story focused upon the difficult decisions and almost allegorical moral representations of greed and pride, as well as her somewhat characteristic focus upon the functional material possession of shoes (also the metaphorical and allegorical focus of Shoes (1916)).

The most intriguing aspect of this film is the way in which Weber stunningly intercuts between four completely separate cultural and socioeconomic representative groups. With the beginning of the film we are introduced to the academic family (in the introduction to the much parodied father) as well that of the bourgeois student. Brilliantly Weber immediately identifies her sympathies with the academic through perspective as the camera looks up at him and down at his pupils. These are two of the most contrasting groups, because while the academic is fit to impart knowledge upon these brat children of the rich, he himself is immediately shown in despair, unfulfilled by his job and unjustly compensated (as will become further evident as we follow him home.
As the Professor (prof Griggs played by Philip Hubbard) returns home to his family, a wife (Margaret McWade) and child Amelia (Claire Windsor) he brings with him a representative of one of the other ‘classes,’ the local minister. This minister (whose name and the actor who played him I couldn’t find) has ambitions to marry the angelic Amelia, however, has little more to offer her than her own father. With this introduction of the ‘clergyman’ of the story Weber has fulfilled her initial purpose of shining her moral projection light upon the desperate circumstances of those who ‘clothe the mind and soul.’ However there is yet one more group that she wishes to introduce, that of the skilled laborer.
For this the viewer only has to voyeuristically gaze next door at the Olsen family, who has recently become rich due to their father’s hard work as a shoe maker (yet another reference to Weber’s favorite class symbol, the shoe). The Olsen family is large, boisterous and pompous, absorbed in their own wealth. While the majority of their children are selfish oblivious brats and the mother is a despicable symbol of greed and self-righteous consumerism, the father and ‘model’ son are both firmly grounded. This is the middle ground. On many aspects the clergyman and the professor are seen on the same level and the bourgeois rich ‘jazz’ meets ‘country club’ representatives are seen on a completely different level, the Olsen’s are seen as the middle.

Through the contrast and the voyeuristic ways in which it is shown to us, we become blatantly aware of the mindsets of the different levels of wealth. On top we have the ‘students’ (and the representative thoughts of their parents) as the oblivious rich. They don’t even think about the plights of the lower classes. Then on the next level we have the self-righteous greedy middle class fully aware of all of the class separations and glad to be where they are. And at the bottom of the spectrum, we have the enlightened and the educated, who not without fault are prideful. While we are presented with a few example of atypical characters (Father Olsen, his son, and in a way Phil West, high class suitor of Amelia, played by Louis Calhern as he comes out of his own haze of oblivious indifference) the pedestal character of the film is the ever angelically lit Amelia, who judges no one, merely exists as an almost allegorical ideal of how a pious, polite, beautiful and kind young woman (no wonder everyone’s in love with her).

In the end this film, which is filled with subtle and interesting filmic techniques, such as the use of voyeurism (in all facets of the word, viewer and character) and interesting composition most notably that of the hierarchal representations through composition (Phil above the clergyman as the both court Amelia), is a luminous example of Lois Weber’s ‘uplift’ moral realist melodrama. And, upon conclusion (and throughout, with the transformation of Phil West), she makes a point of showing that everyone is capable of change.

As a quick conclusion to our study of Lois Weber we were presented with an example of a short slapstick comedy of hers, How Men Propose (1913). While The Blot at times seemed to be a bit of an indictment of the ‘new woman,’ this short film whole-heartedly embraced it and invited the viewer to laugh at the humorous and absurd situation, which the central ‘new woman’ figure orchestrated. Satisfying its purpose, this film was entirely ridiculous and amusing, as well as an intriguing bit of commentary on the conventions of gender relations.

So, I have decided that as I am now in a new film class, I shall post all of the weekly papers up on this blog. So, from this point I will post these papers which are somewhat rough, yet as usual I put an equal amount of passion into each.

On to the content of the papers. The class is titled “Women
Directors in Film History,” so such will be the content. I will be analysing both the texts read for class, initially Ally Acker’s Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present, Anthony Slide’s The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors, and Karen Ward Mahar’s Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, as well as the films screened. As the class goes on the text analysed will change, and will be indicated when there is a change.

This will be the first installment, yet since I have turned in 3 papers I will post the others in quick succession of posting this.

Alice Guy-Blache

Alice Guy-Blache

“Of all of the arts there is probably none in which they can make such splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man and so necessary to it’s perfection.”

~ Alice Guy Blaché speaking of woman’s role in film
From “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production”

In our class’s introductory couple of weeks, we have been studying the very origins of the cinematic art and the roles that women played in the birthing of said art. All of the different readings (Mahar, Slide and Acker) and documentaries (Women Who Made the Movies (1992, Foster/Dixon), The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993 Goodman/Slide) and Silent Garden (the Alice Guy Blaché doc. 1995, Lepage)) that we have watched as precursory viewing/reading have painted a rather casual and friendly environment for women in early film. However, as the text and documentaries embellished this environment was completely conditional, the depths of which would end up in a marginalization of their efforts for the most part.
I found the quote, which introduces this paper, to be a rather interesting one. Once I finished the readings and started to think about all of the different accounts that we have been exposed to through this last few weeks, I decided to go back and look at Blaché’s essay presented in the back of Anthony Slide’s The Silent Feminists. Upon reading this passage, one specific word popped out at me a few times, art. While reading Kane Ward Mahar’s in depth account of films conception in general in Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood I started to notice an interesting pattern, that when there was a discussion of the men involved in early film there was barely any mention of art. Whenever such men were discussed they always marginalized the prospects of cinema. For many if not all of the original filmmakers this new medium was simply an intriguing new scientific innovation. They were (for the most part) mostly fascinated by the fact that they could produce a moving image.
Through Mahar’s book idea is continued in the way that she discussed the fact that while many different jobs were available for women in film the few that remained almost all male were those of the technicians, cinematographer etc. as well as that of the accountants etc. When I started to think about this in relation to Blaché’s essay, it all started to make sense, sure while men may have been the ‘creators’ of the new innovative medium, it took the sensibilities and imagination of a woman, Alice Guy (Blaché) to shine light on the practical and artistic possibilities of the medium, with her first film (widely considered the first narrative film) La Fée Aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) (1896). While this is certainly not to downplay the artistic films to be made after this by such brilliant male directors as Georges Méliès, for example, it is just to state that it took the perspective of the ‘gentler sex’ (as Blaché herself puts it) to unearth the narrative and artistic possibility of the medium. And for this Blaché was rewarded with respect and a relatively (since it was cut prematurely short and has been criminally overlooked) successful career, aiding in the productions (as director, writer, producer etc.) of hundreds of films (the exact number isn’t agreed upon by the different references) working on early sound film, starting her own production company, Solax, and continuing to strive for, and achieve, cinematic excellence until the end.
Other than the prior discussed director, the introductory material was also effective in a few other veins. Through the books and documentaries we were introduced to many different personalities who we will investigate further throughout the semester, as well as the ways in which the filmmaking system worked, and the places in which women found roles in such a system. Through these introductory materials we were introduced to such important names such as Blaché, Lois Weber, Lillian Gish, Dorthy Arzner, Ida Lupino Maya Deren, Lola May Park, Cleo Madison, Germaine Dulac and many more, and given a snap shot at the contributions each has made to the history of film.
Along with that we were introduced to the concepts involved in film production. From the fact that in the beginning directors, stars, producers and technicians names were unimportant and took a back seat to the studio title, to the different ways in which film was sold and displayed for the masses (nickelodeons etc.), to the legality of it all (much of which surrounded the arrogant and paranoid Edison) the reader/viewer gains a pretty clear perspective on how the silent beginnings of film worked. And further the roles of women, as well as the evolutions of these roles, were laid out.
In the beginning the roles available for women were said to require ‘dexterity but not skill,’ such as coloring and printing of film. However many different events, as well as a natural evolution of sorts, started to open further opportunities for women. Events such as the need for a more respectable and moral image, theatrical blueprints being utilized in the furthering of film as an art, and the rise of the star system (to name a few) brought with them a much more collective and equal everyone pitch in and do what you can environment to filmmaking. With this rise women happened to be the most prominent and beloved ‘stars’ and hence carried quite a bit of weight in the growing industry. Through this and the fluidity of roles brought on by the theatrical system (which was also quite female weighted), women gain the opportunities to try their hands at many different jobs. From producer to director to writer to editor to set design to owners and operators of theaters, the cinema seemed to be the most promising field of employment for women of the day (as was alluded to by many of the journals of the day). However, even before Mahar mentioned it, I started to notice another trend, and that is the fact that while at this time there were many powerful women involved in film, the majority of them seemed to be paired with a man, keeping them safely shaded little did they know that it wouldn’t be long before this shade would soon engulf them leaving the majority of them in the dark.
As the class progressed from Documentaries to the actual films of our first director Alice Guy Blaché all of the previous tidbits we had learned came to life on the screen. While Guy Blaché, who ‘had a velvet glove, but was capable of using an iron fist’ (paraphrase) and strove to produce films under the creative motto of ‘BE NATURAL,’ produced hundreds of films few have survived (although more are being discovered regularly). Of the available films we viewed three, Making an American Citizen (1912), Falling Leaves (1912), and The Consequences of Feminism (Les Résultats du Féminisme, 1906). While this is merely a cursory glance at her enormous catalogue, it certainly proved good examples of her true brilliance.
The first film viewed was The Making of an American Citizen. This film was a scathing and hilarious satire of America as well as many different immigrants. Through this film, which was with out a doubt a comedy Guy Blaché used on location shooting and deep focus as well as ridiculously over dramatized caricatures in order to create a critical portrait of an emerging powerful ‘melting pot’ of a country, as well as it’s legal system. In this film she presented many different minorities and the ways in which they had assimilated to the ‘American way.’ This is even further intriguing as Guy Blaché herself was an immigrant, which likely brought further insight for her.
In addition to and in accordance with the idea of assimilation, Guy Blaché seems to expressly deal with the treatment and roles of women in America. In the end of the film the husband who has been imprisoned in order to ‘teach him a lesson,’ returns home and all is well. He treats his wife better, he does all of the hard labor, even doing so with an air of femininity (the satirical treatment of masculinity giving way to femininity seems to be a theme in some of her works, certainly in this film as well as the last of the three we viewed) and both of them seem to have been converted to good god fearing Christian American citizens, and all’s well that ends well (with a detected hint of sarcasm).
The second more serious film was the melodrama Falling Leaves. In this film Guy Blaché’s artist eye became a tad clearer. In this film she continued to execute brilliant use of deep focus and extremely interesting composition with a focus on variant focal planes and interesting compositions. While Blaché’s comedies were much better known, this drama was completely enrapturing. Through the perspective of a child Trixie (the ‘Solax Kid,’ Magda Foy) the audience watches as her family tries to come to grips with the mortal illness of her older sister.
A number of scenes in this film are exceptional examples of the brilliant techniques of Guy Blaché, the first of which that struck me was the scene in which Trixie eaves dropped as her parents (played by Blanche Cornwall and Darwin Karr) and the initial doctor discuss the impending death of her sister Winifred (Marian Swayne). In this scene the silent shadowy presence of Trixie is beautifully handled. With the adults in the foreground and Trixie dancing around the back so as to stay ‘out of sight.’ While it seems as if the adults would have noticed her, the way in which this eavesdropping is given a visual life is incredibly complex and intriguing and gives depth not only to the focal plane and composition, but to the furthering of the plot as well.
The second scene that really stuck out to me was the scene where Trixie distraught about her sisters imminent passing ‘by the time the last leave hits the ground’ (beautiful imagery) escapes her perfectly lit bedroom to go outside and tie the previously fallen leaves back onto the trees. This scene extremely well put together. With the action in the lower half of the screen and often to the side, the viewer’s eye is drawn throughout the frame as Trixie struggles passionately to reattach the fallen leaves. This scene is also interesting in the way in which the trees frame the composition, the path to the gate providing an opening into deep space with beautiful hazy scenery in the background.
In the end this film is in many ways a typical melodrama at heart signified by the ‘happy ending’ with a newly prospective marital couple presented at the close, previously terminal Winifred and her savior Dr. Earl Headley (Mace Greenleaf). However Guy Blaché’s flair for the beautiful and artistic makes this an interesting film and important living artifact.
The third and final Guy Blaché film viewed was the absurdist comedy The Consequences of Feminism (Les Résultats du Féminisme, 1906). Through this film Guy Blaché truly went far out in her depiction of gender role reversals. In this Guy Blaché showed the different sexes completely embodying the opposing gender roles, which could be taken as a sort of indictment of the feminist movement, or it could be taken as a feminist picture in which Guy Blaché is in a way trying to show how absurd it is to have either sex completely embody the any gender.
In this film the men cross dressed, sewed, took care of the children, acted daintily, were thinner and more fragile and enacted all of the typically ‘female’ chores with an especially over dramatized femininity. Where as the women were big, brutish, smoked, drank, sat as the men took care of the chores, and were extremely aggressive in their sexual advances. Basically in the end this is a brilliant satire that worked in the time because of the ambiguity of its end message, and the fact that in the end the men rebelled and order was restored. This provides us with just another example of Alice Guy Blaché as a brilliant director that handled satirical social commentary with an impressive finesse.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of narrative, and the power of story as told through, but I can’t help but think about ho I am indescribably moved by the non-narrative absract films of Stan Brakhage. I just recently bought the By Brakhage set that the criterion collection put out, and was floored as I watched all of the films in succession, just glued to the screen watching as his techniques and subjects evolved. Everything from his early stuff which has a somewhat tangible narrative to his work with straight glueing actual objects directly onto the film strip, had a variety of different effects on my emotions and thoughts.

So I guess I just wanted to create this post just to say that, while I am obsessed with narrative film and the ways in which story are conveyed through the filmic medium, as well as the subtleties of plot and the devises utilized within, I still LOVE getting lost in the chaotic and confucingly emotional world of abstraction, of which Brakhage (thus far) has been perfection, in my humble opinion.

The reinvention of a genre is something that, can often be manifested with conflicting results, while this could also be said about the Italian’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ very few people will dispute the importance of and intriguing innovations brought upon the Western genre by famed Spaghetti Western champion Sergio Leone. However there is also a much lesser known Sergio, whose influence upon and innovation within the genre, while less pronounced, was still vast within the cinephile circles, and that Sergio is Sergio Corbucci.
Corbucci, born on the 6th of December 1927 and often referred to as the forgotten Sergio, is considered by many film scholars to be the second most significant Spaghetti Western directors. He wrote and directed a wide multitude of westerns, a few of which are widely thought of as extremely important. Corbucci and his brother Bruno both played important roles in the Italian cinema, however their work only had a very small cult following outside of the Euro-Asian continent. Sergio, who tried his hand at the variety of different genres, began his career in film, as a critic. His critical career, led to his assistant direction under such important auteurs as Roberto Rossellini and the patriarch of the Spaghetti Westerns himself Leone (prior to his foray into the Western genre). It was at this time when he began to formulate his ideals about the cinematic art. From this point Corbucci began his ascent into the world of writing and directing his own features, the beginning of which were Italian comedies as well as some documentary work for Canadian television.

While working with Leone on his feature Pompeii in Spain, Corbucci was quoted as remarking to Leone, “Hang on a minute, we could make an amazing Western here, couldn’t we.” (Frayling, Sergio Leone 95) While Leone neither confirmed nor denied it, it seems as if this (as well as Leone’s close examination of the themes brought forth in Akira Kurosawa’s Yokimbo) was at this point that the Spaghetti Westerns began. Corbucci himself began his foray into the genre with the film Red Pastures (1963, co-directed by Albert Band). While this film as well as the following two subsequent Westerns, Minnesota Clay (1964) and Johnny Oro (1966), were marginalized, Corbucci truly found his stride with his later 1966 film Django. In the beginning as well as throughout his Western career, Corbucci continuously upheld the ideals of the Spaghetti Western, to depict a much more harsh and unforgiving, morally ambiguous, west.

These cinematic ideals were all enormously present in Corbucci’s magnificently over the top Django. Stark photography captures the luminescent reds of both the copious amounts of blood and the hoods of the confederate ‘klan.’ This film, accepted as Corbucci’s first true break through into remarkable film, sparked a stream of non-authorized sequels ultimately creating Western icon in the titular character of Django, played by Franco Nero, who Corbucci saw as his Eastwood. (Simpson 157) Interestingly enough, the initial sketch of the character was based off of jazz legend Django Reinhardt, who at one point in his career recovered from a devastating accident to become an even better guitarist. (Hughes 59) However from the moment that Django walks into the frame it is clear that this is a larger than life persona, this is exemplified by the opening sequence, which is a shot from the ground up as Django walks over the camera and out of the frame dragging a coffin. This is where the mystery begins, and it quickly becomes apparent that Corbucci isn’t going to reveal much to the viewer through, as is custom is a genre where the less dialogue and motive the better.

Motivation becomes a very intriguing concept through this film as Django seems to be completely consumed by a hunt for revenge, yet his intentions are often muddled by extenuating circumstance, and the viewer is never quite clear whose side the brooding, blue eyes hero is on. A perfect example of this is in the first true scene of the film, as the music comes to a close and the camera pulls back to an typical landscape scene in which almost the entire composition is filled by cloudless sky, the viewers attention is quickly torn from this callously segregating shot to a scene brutal scene in which the female lead is being tied up and whipped (a scene which seems to be the prototype for many of the cringe worthy rape scenes in Django’s assistant director, Ruggero Deodato’s later film Cannibal Holocaust (1979)). As the camera rapidly cuts to close ups of the faces of her tormentors, they quickly realize that these men are the roving Mexicans, thus introducing one of the two rival gangs of the film. As this is going on our reluctant hero, Django motionlessly watches from his isolated cliff, after a few lashes shots ring out and the Mexicans fall. From this Corbucci has the camera quick pan and zoom up to a paralleling position across a dried up river where we are introduced to the representation of our second rival gang, the constantly bright red clad ex-confederate ‘klan.’ As these men approach the tied up lacerated woman, it becomes clear that their intentions are certainly no more pure than the Mexicans who they killed to get to her, thus solidifying the Spaghetti Westerns pattern of a west where your heroes are often nothing but yet another form of sadism. In Corbucci’s west, as in Leone’s (and some of the ‘classic’ American westerns), everywhere you turn there is one form or another of danger, and not even your protagonist should be trusted to uphold any sort of moral system.

After the two separate ‘gangs’ have been introduced, Corbucci adds the third entity into the battle, the force of nature Django. Equally as quickly (if not more quickly) as the small band of reds had done away with the Mexicans the confederates all fall to the ground and the camera pulls back revealing Django to be the cause of their deaths. The most intriguing aspect of this first scene is the way in which it beautifully establishes the three separate forces involved throughout the film, without actually telling the viewer anything. By relying on instant read icons as well as simple and lack of dialogue, as well as close ups and eye matches Corbucci, sufficiently places the upcoming events into a sort of veiled context. The film is still filled with mystery, and the viewer still isn’t sure the exact identity of any of the three forces, and there is certainly the looming mystery of Django’s dragging coffin, yet there are certain allusions to truths to be further unraveled as the film goes on.

However, at this point as Django helps the woman down from her metaphorical ‘cross,’ through lack of dialogue Corbucci leads the viewer to believe that he’s our moral character, the one with which our sympathies are supposed to lie, but this is an interestingly played omission of motive. Yet this is merely the beginning of the omissions of motive through the entire picture, the only real suggestion that Corbucci gives us as to the motives of our protagonist is in the scene where Django’s sitting playing solitaire with his meaningfully blank stare through piercingly icy blue eyes, and in response to the ex-confederates allusion to the war he replies with something regarding the fact that he is fighting his own private war. This holds true through motivational twist and turn, right as the viewer has decided that Django has feelings for Maria (the woman he saved played by Loredana Nusciak) he turns her over to his ‘friend’ Gen. Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) the leader of her initial sadistic torturers. However, these are just a few of the twists and turns regarding Djangos motivations and his muddied sense of morality seems mirrored by the use of setting.

Throughout the picture setting also plays a key role, whether it’s the sun bleached dry outskirts of the town, the gloomy mud covered town itself or the climactic use of quicksand, the landscape seems to play the role of the forth force, danger lurks at every turn. While the muddy facet of the town aesthetic may seem rather atypical for a Western, it seems to play well into the ideals behind Westerns as a dirty unforgiving genre through which to tell a story. Apart from that though the mud seems to represent something further, the ideology of ambiguous, conflicted and confusing morality (or ‘muddy’) that is firmly rooted in the past. As Django slowly and laboriously lugs his coffin through the mud of town it seems as if death looms over his him weighing him down as he strives forward, to the point where has can ‘bury Django,’ avenging the death of his wife and relieving himself of the pressures and weights of the coffin.

While Corbucci’s Django most definitely has its moments of ridiculousness, the mud wrestling scene, the many scenes of machine gun round after another mowing enemies down and the ear severing/force feeding scene (which Tarantino obviously ripped off for his famous scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992)) to name a few, the core of the film is firmly rooted in typical Spaghetti Western tradition, and Corbucci’s style begins to shine through. While the film contains many typical elements such as the quiet loner protagonist and the jilted fallen woman as well as the pompous and racist ex-confederate villain Major (Maj. Jackson played by Eduardo Fajaro) Corbucci’s ideals regarding the political left versus the right, as well as his tendency toward tight close ups, often brought upon by a quick zoom and in contrast to wide landscape pans are more than apparent in this picture.

All of the ideals come to a much more mature fruition in that film that is widely considered his masterwork, The Great Silence (1968). While Corbucci made a few films between Django and The Great Silence these are generally considered his the two films where Corbucci’s flair for the Western truly shined. This offering from Corbucci provides the viewer with many ways in which to do a proper deconstruction. From Corbucci’s use of a slightly agitated camera style, the interesting shifts in perspective (often voyeuristic with some amazing point of view compositions) to the thematic elements of rich right versus underprivileged left and the silent dutiful protagonist to the hauntingly poignant soundtrack provided by Ennio Morricone (these only being a few of the intriguing aspects of the film) there is certainly no lack of depth to this picture.

With this film Corbucci seemed a lot more grounded in his message, as well as quite a bit more comfortable and in control of his cinematic out put, and through this he provides the viewer with one of the most brutal visions of the west the cinema has ever seen. The first striking element of the film is the setting. In contrast to the typical Western setting of the bleak arid desert, Corbucci presents us with the snow-blanketed winter of Utah. Once again Corbucci plays with the use of setting showing once again that the desert is, not the only suitable setting for a ruthless severe Western. The frigid winter setting once again provides an interesting and equally unforgiving landscape for the narrative to follow.

In this film the viewer is confronted with a drastically different and conflicting view of the bounty hunter than Leone’s westerns. In this film the bounty hunters are the villains, running around killing the outlaws, who were merely forced into a life of crime because of extenuating circumstances (stealing to stay alive). The foremost villainous bounty hunter, Loco, is played scathingly by infamous German actor Klaus Kinski, with his amazing devilish blue eyed stare. With human life merely a source of monetary funds, Loco ravages the land savagely killing with ruthless disregard justified by its ‘correctness,’ with further justification in the ‘patriotic’ nature of the ‘job.’ “All according to the law,” he declared with a devilish grin and an elated faux-naïve look in his eyes.

The antithesis to Loco’s exaggeratedly evil character, who smoothly talks his way out of trouble with skewed justifications and sly demeanor, is the tragic protagonist of the story, the aptly names ‘Silence’ (Jean-Louis Trintignant). With this character Corbucci took Leone/Eastwood’s idea of the silent loner with minimal dialogue to the extreme. Silence is the representation of the righteous downtrodden left with which Corbucci obviously associated. Silence’s association with this demographic comes from the death of his parents, which we find out through flash back (which was brilliantly switched to through the use of light, candle in a relatively dark room goes out of focus and when focus returns the viewer is presented with a much brighter scene) was the result of crooked a crooked lawman and devious bounty hunters. Because of the tragic death of his parents, which he himself witnessed, hence the bounty hunters cut his vocal chords so that he couldn’t tell what he had witnessed, Silence became somewhat of a mercenary “avenging justice and defend(ing) the innocent.” Silence’s lack of voice is made up by Corbucci’s constant focus on extreme close up grounded heavily in eye-match, his cold facial expressions and cool eyes seem to tell it all, and in direct disparity to the eyes of Kinski’s Loco. Another way in which Silence is given a voice is through the score. In Howard Hughes’ essay “Since When Are Wolves Afraid of Wolves?” he stated that, “Morricone’s music is Silence’s voice and the voice of the landscape.” (Hughes 200)

Along with Corbucci’s characteristic use of eye match and focus upon facial expression (which isn’t so much singularly typical to his work as it is to the Western genre), he utilized the camera slightly differently in this film in comparison to Django. In Django the compositions were always very sharp, however while the majority of composition through The Great Silence are also in sharp focus (often an interesting deep focus on a bleached white landscape) here Corbucci is not afraid to float in and out of focus adding a sort of voyeuristic realism to the cameras views. As he shifts the focus of the composition he employs a slower focus adjustment, whether this was a purposeful tactic, it serves to add an additional air to the film.

Many of the different aspects of Corbucci’s typical thematic as well as cinematic elements are perfectly illustrated through the unexpected and powerful finale to the film. The end of this film is quite possibly Corbucci’s biggest break from Hollywood Western tradition, for the simple fact that the protagonist falls and the villain smirks and rides away untouchable, as it was “all according to the law.” However this scene truly embodies Corbucci’s ideals from its beginning. As in Django our protagonist has narrowly escaped a previous battle where his hand, his weapon, has been badly wounded leaving him seemingly unarmed. But, as in Django where Django says “I gotta deal with this in my own way,” Silence also has to confront his fate. Both men are firmly grounded in their sense of duty, whether or not morality plays any part, they are obligated not to shy away from opposition. So as Silence ventures out into the austere black of night, with little light, other than that reflecting upon the large snowflakes that fall around him, obviously injured he still has a very stern collected look in his eyes. As he ventures forth Morricone’s music plays liltingly and ominously in the background, as the hero practically stumbles into the face of insurmountable odds, the kind of odds audiences are used to heroes overcoming. Yet through the use of soundtrack as well as compositions the harsh reality of the situation becomes uncomfortably real to the viewer, and as Silence walks out of the shot and his lover, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), run into a composition where her whole face aside from an noticeably perturbed eye is obscured into back by a house, the inevitable looms over the viewer.

As Silence moves into the paralleled position to that of the lawful villains, all of his personal tactics are used against him as the camera focuses on the naturally calm Loco sits soothed in his ostentatious fur coat with a piercing stare into no where, as his henchmen inform him of Silence’s arrival. After a few moments of tension building pause, where Corbucci’s camera quickly cuts in closer and closer on all of the characters faces, shots ring out and Silence’s already impaired hands are rendered useless. As he had done to many different amoral bounty hunters, they (not Loco, but one of his cronies) shot his thumbs off. At this point Loco slinks over and slowly opens the doors to the saloon, and standing triumphantly centered in the composition with the camera pointing up at him as if from Silence’s perspective then switching to the camera looking down at Silence as if from Loco’s. And after a long pause Silence reaches for his gun, and just as Silence has done all his life Loco waited for this moment and reacts, out of ‘self defense.’ Two shots ring out, first from someone else and then a head shot from Loco, and Silence falls in slow motion. The brutality continued and in the end only the villains are left alive, and the final scene brilliantly illustrates the brutality of the film, as the camera focuses on Loco riding away in a windows reflection, and then shifts focus to the dead housed inside said window.

In the end, Corbucci provides the viewer with what are in some ways typical Spaghetti Westerns, but in many ways challenge not only the ideology of Hollywood Westerns, but also the Westerns of his contemporaries such as Sergio Leone. His stylistic and thematic principles were incredibly interesting and helped him to convey certain messages through each film. The films of Sergio Corbucci are violent, relentless, harsh, stark, off the wall and introspective, offering Western fans arguably a more realistic unsympathetic view of a tired west.

Works Cited

Edwards, Daniel. “Sergio Leone.” Senses of Cinema. Sept. 2002. 5 Mar. 2009 <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/leone.html&gt;.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2000.

_________________. Spaghetti Westerns Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (Cinema and Society). London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

Hughes, Howard. Once upon a time in the Italian West the filmgoers’ guide to spaghetti westerns. London: I.B. Tauris, In the U.S. and Canada, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Simpson, Paul. Rough guide to westerns. London: Rough Guides, Distributed by Penguin Putnam, 2006.

Weisser, Thomas. Spaghetti Westerns – the Good, the Bad and the Violent: 558 Eurowesterns and Their Personnel, 1961-1977. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992.

In the first segment of class this semester we have already covered quite a bit of ground, from the humble (yet intriguing) beginnings of the genre with The Great Train Robbery (Porter 1903) to some films from the more innovative directors who spearheaded the “classic” period of the western, the most captivating of which would have to be Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959). In this film Arnold, who had already shown himself to be a very versatile director with a flair for noir-ish observant direction, presented the viewer with a new take on the western genre. Instead of having the showdowns and the obvious moral denotations, Arnold creates a western that, not unlike Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), calls into question the viewers ideals about the western ‘hero’ and the moral codes that seemed to be staples at the time.
In Zinnemann’s film we watch as a whole town one by one deserts the only person who has ever really been there for them, the only character who has really been there and with confidence and morals ‘in spades.’ This idea of the town full of people, who seem a lot more trust worthy than they actually are, is taken in a different direction by Arnold in No Name on the Bullet. With his film Arnold presents another very bleak representation of a seemingly ordinary western town, yet in contrast to Zinnemann’s town of cowards and felons (or felon ‘sympathizers’ i.e. people who profit of the presence of felons), Arnold takes a much more observant psychological approach, much like the methods of the films antagonist, John Gant played perfectly by Audie Murphy.
From the commencement of the film the atmosphere is impeccably set, a very desolate and isolated farmhouse. Two seemingly ordinary stock characters, a barking dog, and ominous music, create the setting in which we first encounter John Gant as he strolls up on his horse and inquires about his destination. Gant’s cold calculated manner coupled with the use of ominous music and the brechtian and uneasy use of the dog bark as well as the slow and seamless flow of cinescope to fashion a broad and vast landscape, brilliantly set the stage for the psychological “chamber” western that Arnold has just begun.
From this starting point Arnold proceeds to build upon this already noir-ish western set-up by presenting us with an austere, façade ridden average western town, and having emotions, or more importantly, tensions run high with the entrance of the ‘force of nature’ that is John Gant. One specific line from the film that wholly emphasizes the general importance of Gant’s character within the narrative as being of chaotic passive initiator is when the physician, while conversing to Gant, says “Right now I’ve got one big public health problem, and I’m looking at it.” (As quoted from you, quoting from Graham 1989; 273) This quote brilliantly describes the effect that Gant has upon this seemingly ordinary, run of the mill town, an effect that runs rampant through the minds of the towns people from the moment the hotel managers’ mistake of calling him Grant is corrected with the perfect stoic-ly delivered line “It’s Gant, John Gant.”
At this point on the seed of destruction has been planted and a growing unease quickly spreads through the town. The only people who appear to be immune to Gant’s force are Dr. Luke Canfield (i.e. The physician, Charles Drake), his father Asa (R.G. Armstrong), his fiancé Anne Benson (Joan Evans), and her father Judge Benson (Edgar Stehli). All of these characters have their own reasons for not being worried, but what’s interesting is that these characters, except for Judge Benson, who represent different pillars of morality seem more closely aligned with John Gant himself than with the rest of the town. Arnold doesn’t seem to place any judgment on Gant, instead he more or less presents the viewer with a characters who, obviously, has a warped vision of his own morality, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about him. While the clearest conclusion the viewer can deduce is that Gant is clearly the bad guy, the way that Murphy plays the character coupled with the deplorable conduct of the citizens of the town, brings into question, who really is the monster of the film? Is it Gant himself, or is he simply the vehicle through which the real monsters are revealed?
Another main theme broached through the film is that of calculated reaction, as opposed to action. This is not only evident in the way Gant carries out his ‘occupation,’ but is also skillfully mirrored through the cinematography. The camera plays the part of a voyeuristic omnipresent yet unseen character that watches and waits to see how everything will play out. The compositions of striking scope, often utilize deep focus through which the viewer is given many different choices of where to focus their attention and yet, no matter where the ‘action’ of the scene is, the viewers focus is often beckoned to shift from the action to the reactions of the minor characters in the scene, as well as Gant himself, whose presence seems to be felt in every scene regardless of his physical presence (or lack there of).
One of the more interesting ways in which Arnold places Gant in different compositions is through the use of the colossal mirror in the saloon below the hotel. Gant is often shown at a bit of an angle through this mirror, and often in shots where the immediate focus is on the person confronting Gant, or purposefully avoiding a confrontation. Through the wide deep focus scope Arnold is free to show the action and the reaction (or lack there of) of Gant, with the use of the mirror.
In this same vein, the voyeuristic air in the film is well executed through the use of over the shoulder, out the window shots used not only to create a certain atmosphere but also to further the narrative. For example, many of the scenes with which the citizens’ internal fears come to an emotional or chaotic climax, such as the suicide or the scene where the apathetic couple fight about the jilted ex-lover that ‘obviously’ hired Gant to kill them for running off together. Both of the aforementioned scenes begin with an over the shoulder, out window shot, which pulls back creating a change in focus from out the window to the inside where Arnold will now focus on, or allude to the character(s) with whom the viewer has just shared a perspective, reaction to what they (as well as the voyeuristic viewer) have just witnessed (or the implications of the action seen just prior). While the camera stays in the same room, it simply pulls back and changes the focus. This subtle and swift use of cinematography is a perfect example of one of the director’s auteurist stamps (as discussed in class). Arnold has an affinity for less ostentatious shots that have a subtle yet undeniable effect upon the viewer.
Another even more intriguing way in which the theme of reaction is envisioned is the way in which all of Gants’ movements seem very cold and calculated preemptive reactions. This is an aspect that is especially interesting when one gives more than a passing thought to the chess game between the physician and Gant. Through this game Arnold creates a perfect metaphor for Gants’ vocational life. To be successful in chess, the player is reliant on thinking a few moves ahead, all the while trying to lead their opponent into various ‘traps.’ In the end, chess very similarly to Gants’ strategy behind legal murder, is all about entrapment. What’s also fascinating about the use of chess is how the cinematographic and compositional choices during the chess game focus on the dialogue and the faces of the two players showing their reactions rather than the actual action taking place, that of the physical moving of chess pieces. For Arnolds’ vision the action is of very little importance in comparison to the reactions.
Along the same line as Arnolds’ noiresque focus on reaction is his unrelenting focus on the tension-ridden build up toward an ever-illusive climax. From the initial contact with Gant, the aural aspect of the film is heavily weighted with ominous music and well-placed silence, both of which are utilized to instill a sense of anxiety in the viewer, who is constantly waiting for the moment that Gant will strike and break the ever-growing tension. Yet this moment is postponed many times through the film. Arnold repeatedly raises the stakes, only to reveal a pay off much less gratifying that the viewer would have hoped. Through the constant build up and let down, Arnold is also playing with the viewers’ head. The viewer may think that when Gant is confronted by the sheriff that the pay off has finally come, and every aspect of scene, composition (the imposition of blatant oppositional roles) and a drop of soundtrack in particular, leads the viewer to believe that this is the moment, only to be let down by a minor instance of anticlimactic action. While some might assume that the moment Gant shoots the sheriff would be a fairly gratifying climax, the fact is that it furthers the narrative very little, and only serves as a way to bring the tension to a boil and then give the reader no true reward.
Possibly the most interesting scene that truly embodies all of the different aspects discussed throughout this essay, is the scene where the physician leads the charge to try and eject Gant from the town. The viewer watches as the mob amasses and, once again, though the use of voyeuristic camera work we feel as if we are there ourselves, preparing for the confrontation we so desire. Then, as the seeming moral compass of the film, the physician takes the lead, calming the crowd enough to the point where they will allow him to ‘give peace a chance,’ the confrontation is once again prolonged, but tensions are high and as the camera seamlessly switches from the approaching mob to Gant sitting calmly on the porch, it seems so evident that the climax is near. As the physicians pleas are refused, and the camera switches from Gants’ perspective looking down on the mob and the mobs perspective, the mob even starts to move toward Gant with every intention of bloodshed. Yet once again Arnold finds an inspired way to trump your expectations, with the climax leading to a speech from Gant where he calls the mob out by saying that they could kill him, but he would be taking some of them with him. It is then that the camera cuts to each of the characters he claims he’ll take with him. Through the eye matches, in combination with Gants’ confident smirk, and excellently delivered concluding line “That’s my prescription physician, you’d better get it filled,” once again puts a cap on the climax.