October 4th, 2008

Paul Newman

Posted in Death, Movies, These United States by ed

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Thoughts looking back . . .

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10 comments

  1. tomw says:

    really enjoyed the cache of paul newman photos that i just stumbled on, looking for a pix of jo van fleet in cool hand luke to add to my photo file by the same name. thanks for working up this collection.

    November 13th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

  2. ed says:

    Cool. Glad you like it.

    Strange that a year’s passed already.

    December 2nd, 2009 at 9:09 pm

  3. Michael Gushue says:

    Also loved the photos, and comments on Newman. And I agree how his life outside his acting was just as admirable as his deep and affecting roles.

    But I’m not so sure about your analysis of what happened to film in the late 50′s/early 60′s. I agree that something was lost, and may have been partially caused by the Nouveau Vague.

    But I can’t buy the logos vs. visual distinction. Stagecraft is an implant, an invasive species, to movies. The logos of movies *is* visual-they were silent for about the first third of their existence. Lubitsch, Stroheim, Murnau and other embody what you are missing in movies now.

    As for the French NV, you may have something re. Godard, but not Truffaut, Rohmner, or others.

    All together though a really nice photo essay. Thanks for doing it.

    February 17th, 2010 at 9:25 am

  4. ed says:

    Aha — howdy Michael. Thanks for the thoughts.

    My own view of the grand history of film is somewhat different and definitely eccentric. In a nutshell:

    First we had the stage. For some thousands of years. Popular if a bit hard to come by.

    (A few performances of big plays per year in cities. Travelling troubadour stuff more common, no less popular, perhaps even more so.)

    Then we suddenly had radio drama. Very popular. Many decades.

    Then we had silent film drama. Some good years worth. Very popular.

    Then we had the Talkies — which I see as a balanced melange of Radio Drama and Silent Film.

    Ie, I don’t see a reason to think that the visual component of the Talkie heavily outweighs the aural, words and music and ancillary sounds.

    I’ve done the simple film class experiment perhaps ten times (not much):

    Take a reputable film you haven’t yet seen and watch it with the sound turned off.

    Standard video-centric theory says, if it’s a good film, you should know what’s going on sans sound.

    But I find that I don’t. And yet they are good films, both by reputation and my own view (latter when I watch subseq with sound on).

    I conclude that what we take to be good films depend a ton on the dialogue, which transmits the lion’s share of the drama.

    The films I did this with left me in the dark sans sound to the extent of not knowing, at end, what the basic relationships among characters were. Quite a fog.

    I don’t think it’s that I’m inept re visual acuity. Rather, that the modern film, like the stage play, relies a ton on dialog.

    I think criticism went ahoo as a result of the French New Wave and bought into / sold an extreme video-centricity.

    Which distortion was then enhanced in academia by the feminism-semiotics alliance.

    Even something like L’aventura. So very visual and lovely.

    (I had seen it in college, thanks to Jim Sorrentino, but remembered nothing but the barren island and Noto when I watched it again while taking a directing class in 2007.)

    Lovely indeed. But I didn’t have a clue, with sound off and sub-titles obscured. Had forgotten the missing person business and barely grasped even that before it was all but over. And of course nothing in particular re the various relationships.

    And it’s not much better with even a hollywood helicopter-and-car bomb extravaganza. One recognizes the good guy and the bad guy. Blood when one sees it.

    But the experience is tedious, boring, intolerable, sans sound.

    March 8th, 2010 at 11:12 pm

  5. Michael Gushue says:

    I don’t think we are that far apart on this, actually.

    More later….

    March 9th, 2010 at 8:09 am

  6. Michael Gushue says:

    Let me work backwards and see what common ground we have. Don’t know how coherent these ramblings are:

    “…the experience is tedious, boring, intolerable, sans sound.”

    Agreed. The reason being that these movies cannot function without dialogue. I realize I overstated my case when I said that stagecraft is foreign to film. I was thinking of extremely stagebound movies, usually films made from successful plays. As good as these movies are, they still seem somehow unsatisfactory to me. What you remember is dialogue, the spoken conflict. But one’s visual memory perfunctory and generic: the jury room, the living room, the diner. In no case is there an image that is unique to the film, or that can stand for the movie as a whole.

    “Even something like L’aventura. So very visual and lovely.”

    I contend that these movies are hybrids. This is not disparage them, but to describe them. They use dialogue and visuals to tell the story, each leaning on the other to a greater or lesser extent. If you left the [dubbed] sound on, and turned the screen to black, would L’avventura be any more coherent than with the visual but no sound?

    Which is to say that L’avventura is not a radio drama any more than it is a silent film. Certain scenes have their power from the image and movement (the ink deliberately spilled on the young architect’s drawing comes to mind), but the film mostly moves forward through the dialogue. I’m just spitballing here, but Antonioni seems to move things forward with dialogue between characters and uses purely visual effects for thematic purposes. I’m thinking of the mountainous islands of L’avventura or the series of shots at the end of the L’eclisse.

    “Standard video-centric theory says, if it’s a good film, you should know what’s going on sans sound.”

    The ambiguity here being, what do mean by “good film?” I think Slavko Vorkapich is useful here, representing the argument for a unique visual language to film. Here are some snippets I’ve picked up from the interweb:

    “Vorkapich was unconcerned about content and intensely critical about the visual properties of moving images and how they cut together. For Vorkapich, the Cut was King. He lectured that cutting between talking heads may facilitate drama but that it wasn’t moviemaking.”

    “…Vorkapich rapidly developed a technique of his own that owed little to the classic theories of the Soviet filmmakers. Where Eisenstein set out to create a dialectic through contrasted images, and Pudovkin’s “linkages” aimed at guiding the thoughts and emotions of the viewer, Vorkapich’s “symphonies of visual movement,” as he called them, were chiefly designed to advance the story as rapidly and vividly as possible.”

    “Towards the end of his life, Vorkapich gave a series of public lectures expounding his theory of film as an autonomous visual language. They attracted large and prestigious audiences, not least for Vorkapich’s iconoclastic readiness to lambaste some of the most revered names of cinema (Eisenstein, Ford, Bergman) for what he saw as technical incompetence.”

    I’m really just using Vorkapich (a “Yugoslav,” by the way. Don’t know if he was Serb or Croat) as a particularly irascible example. A well-versed film friend once said that once the camera was able to move around smoothly, tracking shots, etc., montage and the cut was dead as a stand-alone language.

    If videocentric theory says that a good film is a film that is perfectly coherent w/o sound, then videocentric theory is merely twisting the tiger’s tail. Movies, after the advent of sound, would sometimes tell part of their story visually, sometimes—most times—through stagecraft and writing—the meaning is meant to be heard. I think the historic arc is to see less and less of the story told visually as we moved further away from the silent era, and with advances in technology. Directors who started in the silent era continued to use purely visual storytelling in their movies when appropriate, or when efficient, I should say. Lang, Hitchcock come immediately to mind.

    So where does this leave the criticism, the French New Wave, and feminism-semiotics? To be harsh, a group of intellects uninterested in film’s visual language, dramatic dialogue, and deeper possibilities. Visually illiterate, dramatically superficial, socially irresponsible and morally obtuse. In other words, their hearts are just not in it, and they have other axes to grind. Really, again, I have to exempt a lot of the French New Waves directors from this judgment—it seems unfair, and wrong to say it about them. But maybe French film criticism, as opposed to some of the movies made, is guilty indeed. If anything I would say the auteur theory is a bigger problem than video-centricity. The a.t. exults the Romantic individual where the more accurate context for film is the artists’ studios of the Renaissance and later—places where the art produced was more important (and commercially viable) than who produced it. The whole idea of forgery is to some extent foreign to this kind of environment, whereas now, it is the determinative underbelly of art’s worth.

    “Ie, I don’t see a reason to think that the visual component of the Talkie heavily outweighs the aural, words and music and ancillary sounds.”

    You’re right it doesn’t. See above. The movie at this point is evolving into a different animal. The visual component becomes less independent and more dependent on the aural. I am not saying this is a bad thing. The use of sound in movies can work with the visuals to the same end. Bresson, paring down everything, does this (the unnaturally loud click of the jail door in L’argent is as important as any one shot in that movie). So does Malick, for example. Although this isn’t dialogue, the same can be true for the words. It occurs to me you are right—and I haven’t thought of it before—that the FNW doesn’t take advantage of sound much (excluding—if you include him in the FNW—Bresson). They are kind of deaf to it, and to the worth of dialogue in general. So I guess I’m agreeing with you more here than I was before.

    “Then we had the Talkies — which I see as a balanced melange of Radio Drama and Silent Film.”

    Radio drama seems to be as forgotten an art as silent film these days. Revivals being just that. A shame. I think of both these (RD and SM) as having been made unjustly obsolete before their time. I think both require an active role for the audience/moviegoer that makes them truly powerful, in the same way a participation of some sort is required by the theatergoer.

    I think historically though, your argument here isn’t going to work. Radio dramas didn’t predate silent films—I’m pretty sure (without looking it up) that silent films developed first. Certainly a lot film language was firmly in place sometime in the 1910-1920 decade, the endlessly problematic Birth of a Nation coming out in 1915.

    On the other hand, maybe your argument about the combinatory nature of Talkies make phenomenological sense. I’ll have to think about it, though off the top of my head I think the talkies part of the Talkies early on owes more to theater than radio—radio being aurally more sophisticated at the time.

    Orson Welles is credited with pulling the radio technique into movies (and this is 10, 12 years on from the Talkies taking over), but I don’t know how accurate that is. In a way, though hidden by the visual dazzle, maybe Busby Berkley used some sound techniques from radio? I’d have to think further.

    “First we had the stage. For some thousands of years. Popular if a bit hard to come by.”

    Yes, it makes this other stuff seem just a puff of smoke. What does the stage do? Again, I’m just shooting from the hip. The stage relies (or relied for most of its existence) on words, dialogue, the writing. Shakespeare’s words conjure up Agincourt , Cleopatra’s Barge, a storm at sea, more than any painted canvas backdrop possibly could. And the action of Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, and Phaedra *is* the words.

    Which makes theater seem closer to radio drama to me than movies. You don’t need to see a lot of detail on the stage to get the play—as long as you can hear and know who is speaking. In radio, you don’t see anything except what you visualize in your imagination. More like fiction in that way. Which might explain radio drama’s power to me.

    I think that what we desire from movies is, intuitively, to see. The pleasure of sight is integral to movies.

    And all of this makes me think I might see your original point more clearly. Let me restate with my own spin to see if it’s what you were saying, and what I should have been hearing.

    Once movies became a hybrid art of sound and sight, the writer’s role began to assume greater importance. It moved more towards the center and became increasingly sophisticated, artful and admirable. This through the 1950’s. The FNW, it’s critique of the current scene, denigrated this role, emphasizing the technical aspects of the photography, and dismissing the writer’s role in favor of the auteur—the obsessions and themes of the director.

    So to return to some of your original argument:

    “Hence some of the power and insurgent feel of the New Wave’s naive aneantissement createur, which overwhelmed movie makers and theorists alike, and snuffed New York ‘s stagecrafty approach as stodgy.”

    Absolutely the case that the Cahiers crowd of critics (Truffaut included and perhaps most prominent) crowed loud against the stodginess of what they called the “Tradition of Quality” in the French film industry. This was the laying to waste of almost all French cinema of the time. It must be destroyed so that the FNW may create. On the one hand, with few exceptions, the French films after WWII had little if anything humane about them. On the other hand, those exceptions had just what you miss now, humaneness, compassion and humanity. Max Ophuls comes to mind. And across the Atlantic , same thing. Herman Weinberg eulogizes this better than I could, though I don’t have anything by him close to hand.

    “Not that great American films were not to come, or that the New Wave is not
    a glory of cinema.

    But something humane that I miss was left behind.”

    This is true. A certain coldness crept into films sometime in the 60’s, and which evolved, or was replaced by, and an even colder eye later on, where the most talk about a movie is how much the take was on opening weekend. We are taken indeed.

    March 9th, 2010 at 6:46 pm

  7. Michael Gushue says:

    I also want to mention—though this is far afield—Stan Brakhage. Mostly because his films are solely his own products, and mostly have no sound track at all—no music, nothing. For the most part, I would not put him forward for seeking the humane on film, unless you also consider Finnegan’s Wake humane in the way I think we intend it here.

    But the one exception would be The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. It was filmed in the Pittsburgh morgue over one night and shows several autopsies, the whole process, though edited (but *not* edited for squeamishness). To me it’s humane in the same way some of the Renaissance painting of similar topics are human—showing the human. This is a minority opinion however.

    Perhaps this sums up what you see being lost in the FNW, When asked why Pierrot le fou featured so much blood, Godard said “Ce n’est pas du sang, c’est du rouge” “It’s not blood, it’s red.”

    March 9th, 2010 at 7:12 pm

  8. Ed says:

    Didn’t Katherine Bigelow bounce that line while accepting her Oscars the other night?

    The Hurt Locker …

    March 10th, 2010 at 10:03 am

  9. Michael Gushue says:

    If so, I missed it. She’s quite a number.

    March 10th, 2010 at 8:00 pm

  10. elmerfudzie says:

    If I lived ten lifetimes, they’d never stack up to Newmans’ accomplishments or colorful life. This thought is not meant to hint at enviousness or some shade of jealousy, it’s just one of those cold facts of life, dang!

    March 16th, 2013 at 10:47 pm

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