April 2008
Discovering Orson Welles Online
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The last year has been an extraordinary one for English-language writing on Orson Welles, with no fewer than four important books hitting the shelves since August 2006. Now we have Discovering Orson Welles, a collection of essays by the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has been wrestling with Welles’ career and what it says about American culture since 1971, when he published a rebuttal to Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” in the pages of Film Comment.
The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959 Online
by Peter Lev
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The conventional wisdom regarding the 1950s is that it was a time of conformity and conservatism, of gray flannel suits and suburban migration. While there is certainly some truth to the stereotypes, all one needs to do is look at the Hollywood films of the era to see that underneath the calm surface, American culture was afflicted by political hysteria — anxiety over class, gender and race, and the fear of nuclear annihilation.
Post-Pop Cinema: The Search for Meaning in New American Film Online
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Film buffs talk about 1939 as the best year in the history of American movies, but for thematic complexity matched with technical ingenuity, one doesn’t have to go any farther back than 1999.
Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews Online
by John Gianvito (Editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few directors have inspired as much intense devotion with as limited an output (seven feature films and a few shorts) as Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. While some audiences might find Tarkovsky’s deliberate pacing tedious, viewers responsive to his work’s unusual rhythms will argue that it contains totally unique, profoundly poetic expressions of spiritual impulses.

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Discovering Orson Welles
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The last year has been an extraordinary one for English-language writing on Orson Welles, with no fewer than four important books hitting the shelves since August 2006. First came Simon Callow’s exhaustively detailed biography Hello Americans, which was followed by Welles associate Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, a study that combined memoir and critical analysis to produce one of the best books ever written about the director. Next came It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey, Catherine L. Benamou’s comprehensive study of the film that gave Welles his reputation as a man incapable of completion — a reputation that was largely fictionalized to serve the corporate interests of the Hollywood studio system.

Now we have Discovering Orson Welles, a collection of essays by the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has been wrestling with Welles’ career and what it says about American culture since 1971, when he published a rebuttal to Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” in the pages of Film Comment. That piece and 25 others are gathered in Rosenbaum’s new book, and the fact that the volume has been decades in the making is entirely appropriate given Welles’ own penchant for long-term projects (such as his adaptation of Don Quixote) on which he worked for many years.

Critics have had a difficult time with this aspect of Welles; his tendency to work on films for the pure pleasure of the process — and his willingness to allow them to remain unfinished — have led writers to characterize Welles as a Hollywood failure rather than an independent innovator. Time and time again, Rosenbaum points out the inadequacy of this perspective and embraces the incomplete or alternate cuts of Welles’ films as works of value in and of themselves. To do otherwise, Rosenbaum argues, would be like dismissing the writings of Franz Kafka, an artist with a far more erratic record of completion than Welles.

Thus, Rosenbaum devotes as much time to such obscurities as The Merchant of Venice and The Deep as he does to Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, seeing the director’s unfinished and unreleased works as keys to understanding Welles’ life and art. The book expands upon the ideas in Rosenbaum’s earlier Movie Wars, his brilliant dissection of the ways that studios and media outlets collude to marginalize all but the most mainstream films. In Discovering Orson Welles, the author examines how even the academic community plays into corporate imperatives by prioritizing Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil — films that are readily available and thus able to fill studio coffers — at the expense of the director’s substantial and almost completely overlooked post-Evil output. This kind of thing is what led to the erroneous (and still widely held) assumption on the part of most Americans that Welles spent the final years of his life as a lazy, gluttonous wine salesman.

Thankfully, the intellectually insatiable Rosenbaum is just the person to dissect the myths and expose the inaccuracies that have grown to define the Welles legend. In a book that has both breadth and depth, he provides production history, aesthetic analyses and a detailed chronology of Welles’ films and their availability. His work is characterized by specificity — when he challenges other writers’ pieces on Welles (something he does quite often, given that several of the essays in this book are reviews of other Welles tomes), he backs up his criticisms with rigorously researched details. And like most of Rosenbaum’s best work, Discovering Orson Welles is not only a meticulous examination of its subject, but also a revealing description of its author’s own methods and prejudices. In Rosenbaum’s thoughtful introduction, he details his evolving relationship to Welles’ oeuvre over the years, and he also provides commentary before each individual piece in which he explains the historical context (both in the larger sense of film history and in the more personal sense of his own career history), while correcting his own factual or analytical errors.

The upshot is that the author engages in a lively dialogue not only with Welles’ films but also with his younger self and his fellow critics, and his perpetually open mind yields a number of insights. Rosenbaum’s structure makes the book more than just a collection of the writer’s previously published work on Welles; it becomes a commentary on the act of critiquing itself, as well as a history of Welles scholarship in which the author revises his own work in relationship to others’ studies. This approach places Rosenbaum at the other end of the spectrum from a critic such as Kael, whose sloppily researched polemic essay “Raising Kane” continues to be taken at face value in spite of the fact that most of its assertions have been refuted by scholars such as Robert Carringer (whose article “The Scripts of Citizen Kane” puts to rest Kael’s claim that Welles had virtually nothing to do with the writing of that landmark film). Whereas Kael was notorious for refusing to reconsider or repudiate her assessments, Rosenbaum sees the act of film criticism as a fluid endeavor in which critic, subject and culture influence each other in different ways as time passes and the world changes. This willingness and ability to question and reexamine not only specific films but one’s relationship to them make Rosenbaum the perfect critic to wrestle with the complexities of Orson Welles’ output and its reception, given that Welles had an equally active mind and a similar aversion to conventional thought. When Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? was published last year, I wrote that “it is a book against which all future writings on the subject will be measured.” What a gift to Welles aficionados that it only took a few months for Rosenbaum’s equally useful study to arrive.

University of California Press
$60.00 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)

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The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959
by Peter Lev
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The conventional wisdom regarding the 1950s is that it was a time of conformity and conservatism, of gray flannel suits and suburban migration. While there is certainly some truth to the stereotypes, all one needs to do is look at the Hollywood films of the era to see that underneath the calm surface, American culture was afflicted by political hysteria — anxiety over class, gender and race, and the fear of nuclear annihilation. Though escapist entertainments such as the popular Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies and Marilyn Monroe musicals painted a rosy picture of American life, darker masterpieces such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers and Vertigo reflected the insecurities of a troubled society in transition. As film scholar Peter Lev demonstrates in The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, this transitional sensibility was no coincidence — like post-WWII America itself, Hollywood was in a state of flux in the 1950s, and the changes it underwent had a profound impact on the art and business of cinema.

In just over 300 pages, The Fifties covers an impressive array of topics, with particular attention paid to the shift from the established studio assembly-line process to independent production. Lev, who covered a similarly tumultuous period in his earlier volume American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions, provides a riveting look at how the combination of waning attendance and federal legislation (most famously in the antitrust action that forced studios to divest their exhibition holdings) forced studio bosses to drastically alter their practices. The transfer of creative power from executives such as Jack Warner and Dore Schary to hands-on producers such as Otto Preminger and Hecht-Hill-Lancaster affected not only the finances but also the content of American movies, which became more varied and daring as the 1950s progressed. The author does a beautiful job of delineating the factors that led to this change, describing how technology, censorship and commerce intersected in unique ways to shape one of the richest periods in the history of cinema.

Lev is less perceptive in his analyses of individual films, often providing only superficial readings. His section on anticommunist movies, for example, writes off Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street as a stylish but one-dimensional red-baiting screed — an assessment that ignores key passages of the picture that explicitly critique American values and prejudices. The author also has a tendency to underrate certain works by measuring them against irrelevant standards, such as when he mistakes the melancholy, adult tone of the 1955 musical It’s Always Fair Weather for a weakness, by complaining that the picture is less exuberant than its predecessor, the more conventional On the Town.

Lev’s uneven analytical skills are also apparent in more general discussions, as in his mind-boggling suggestion that CinemaScope was little more than a marketing gimmick — like 3-D — and had almost no lasting impact on American film. Lev fails to question the assertions of film historians Andrew Dowdy and John Belton, who see anamorphic formats as novelties that failed to truly revolutionize cinema, which is an absurd claim that could only be made by someone who’s never studied the aesthetic innovations of Vincente Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray and about a hundred other filmmakers since the 1950s.

Yet if some of Lev’s conclusions may be suspect, his historical acumen is formidable. While one can argue with the author’s dismissal of wide-gauge photography as an artistic movement, his well-organized cataloguing of widescreen formats is immensely valuable. Lev takes readers through a detailed narrative that explains the technological and economic determinants of CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and several other widescreen processes that emerged in the 1950s, and he addresses further innovations such as Eastmancolor and 3-D in a clear and thorough manner.

The book also takes a look at a key impetus for all this experimentation: The rise of television and the new medium’s complicated relationship to the film industry. Chapter 6, “Hollywood and Television in the 1950s: The Roots of Diversification,” is a fascinating account of the movie business’ attempt to come to terms with its new rival, as guest writer Janet Wasko goes beyond standard assumptions to explain just how ambivalent the association between the two media was. The most enlightening aspect of this chapter is Wasko’s exploration of failed experiments such as pay subscription television, which certainly came back with a vengeance decades later, and “theater television,” in which patrons were expected to pay to watch TV shows in a public venue.

The section on television is one of five chapters penned by guest contributors, who supplement Lev’s work with essays on science fiction, documentary and experimental films. The richest guest chapter is Brian Neve’s “HUAC, the Blacklist, and the Decline of Social Cinema,” which examines one of the most extensively written-about periods in American film history from a relatively balanced, objective perspective. As in the rest of the volume, Neve’s chapter takes a complicated subject and clarifies its essential components with accessible but intelligent language. The author is especially good at charting the sometimes convoluted relationship between Washington and Hollywood; he is also good at distinguishing between filmmakers who were communists, ex-communists and merely mainstream liberals caught in the crossfire. The issues raised in Neve’s chapter permeate most of The Fifties, which makes a convincing case for the blacklist as the defining influence on early 1950s Hollywood. Anticommunism affected not only individual careers but also the content of films themselves, and Lev and his collaborators explore this topic from a variety of perspectives — it plays a part in chapters on censorship, sci-fi and international co-productions, among others.

No single volume can adequately encapsulate an entire decade of American pictures, but The Fifties does contain an extraordinary wealth of information. Although Lev never comes close to the critical insights of a book such as James Harvey’s Movie Love in the Fifties or Jackie Byars’ All That Hollywood Allows, his work serves as a useful companion to those works. He breaks down genres and technical developments comprehensively and with great clarity, and his elegant prose makes potentially dry economic and political topics compelling. The Fifties may not be the definitive tome that its title suggests, but it is nevertheless a valuable resource.

University of California Press
$27.50 (paperback)

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Post-Pop Cinema: The Search for Meaning in New American Film
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Film buffs talk about 1939 as the best year in the history of American movies, but for thematic complexity matched with technical ingenuity, one doesn’t have to go any farther back than 1999. The philosophical inquiries of Being John Malkovich, the action-packed political satire of Three Kings, the visually beautiful outpourings of longing in Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut, the sharp satire of Election and Fight Club, and the structural audacity of The Limey created an explosion of rich filmmaking that could have — and should have — changed cinema. Though there hasn’t been such a concentrated burst of originality since, the directors at the helm of many of these masterpieces (Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, etc.) have continued to aim high in their subsequent work, and the new wave of personal filmmaking has found icons in the form of such filmmakers as Richard Kelly and Sofia Coppola.

This significant movement in American cinema — of post-sex, lies and videotape directors who have made stunning use of the creative freedom afforded by the changing landscape of the film business and the culture at large — is the focus of Jesse Fox Mayshark’s Post-Pop Cinema. The book’s subtitle, The Search for Meaning in New American Film, is appropriate given that so many young directors are wrongly dismissed by the press as trendy stylists with nothing to say, a problem that has been particularly true for David Fincher and, to a lesser extent, Paul Thomas Anderson. In a strange way, these directors are punished for being too dynamic and energetic — as if they couldn’t possibly be saying anything truly profound in films that are so damn entertaining.

Unfortunately, Mayshark himself falls prey to this way of thinking in some unsupportable oversimplifications regarding the Scream films and the work of Quentin Tarantino. He sees the self-consciousness and pop culture references of these films as being barriers to the creation of meaning, without considering that Scream director Wes Craven, Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson and Tarantino might be using those devices as tools to generate meaning. Yet while Mayshark has a tendency to dismiss films he doesn’t like without backing up his criticisms — with his lack of interest occasionally leading to the carelessness of inaccurately referring to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” — the flipside is that he acts as an astute and passionate commentator on those works he does appreciate.

Post-Pop Cinema is essentially a collection of essays on key directors (and one screenwriter) from the class of 1999 and beyond: Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, Richard Kelly and Sofia Coppola. Mayshark clearly has an affinity for his subjects, whom he sees as linked in spite of their superficial differences. As he explains in his introduction, all of these filmmakers are concerned with how we make (or fail to make) emotional connections in the modern world.

Mayshark’s thesis proves to be convincing as the book progresses, with him showing how characters in nearly all of the movies under discussion search for love and meaning, whether they are able to articulate it (such as the protagonists of Linklater’s Before Sunset and Waking Life) or not (such as the intensely emotional hero of Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love). The author asserts that the filmmakers in his study are reacting to the postmodernist irony that characterized much of early 1990s pop culture, from the music of Nirvana to the novels of Douglas Coupland and such movies as Pulp Fiction. None of the artists Mayshark analyzes can avoid the inevitable self-consciousness that comes with this media-saturated age, but for the most part, they move beyond their self-consciousness to a position that is sincere rather than detached and ironic. Yet there is irony in the very reception of these films, as many critics have failed to see their deeper implications and have instead lazily brushed them off as exercises in style over substance.

The greatest strength of Mayshark’s book is his probing mind, which finds complexity in unfairly maligned works such as Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Many of his conclusions may be debatable, but any reader with an open mind will find his or her own opinions challenged and enriched by the author’s perspective. Mayshark has a way of perfectly summing up complex films in simple terms that reconfigure one’s assumptions about an entire movie, such as when he refers to Three Kings as neither pro-war nor anti-war, but “pro-knowledge and anti-ignorance.”

If his book is occasionally light on detailed visual analyses, it nevertheless provides a solid starting point for further examination — and when Mayshark is truly engaged with his subject, as in the terrific chapters on Linklater and Haynes, he comes up with observations so smart and accurate that they make the reader want to watch the films immediately to test his theories. Even if one disagrees with the author’s value judgments about specific films, the fact that he takes them seriously puts him several steps ahead of such authors as Peter Biskind (Down and Dirty Pictures) and Sharon Waxman (Rebels on the Backlot), whose studies of Sundance-era directors are so heavily weighted toward gossip that the actual content of the movies is little more than an afterthought. Like the filmmakers he examines and the characters they have created, Mayshark is a seeker determined to find meaning, and the clarity and passion with which he undertakes his quest makes Post-Pop Cinema an engrossing read.

Praeger Publishers
$44.95 (hardcover)

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Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews
by John Gianvito (Editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few directors have inspired as much intense devotion with as limited an output (seven feature films and a few shorts) as Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. While some audiences might find Tarkovsky’s deliberate pacing tedious, viewers responsive to his work’s unusual rhythms will argue that it contains totally unique, profoundly poetic expressions of spiritual impulses. Masterpieces such as Andrei Rublev (1966) and Solaris (1972) are of particular interest to film buffs and craftspeople due to their elaborately choreographed long takes and evocative sound design, and it’s a testament to Tarkovsky’s mastery that he counted fellow legends Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa among his fans.

From his early years as a Soviet director in the 1960s to his death from cancer in 1986, Tarkovsky was a serious thinker capable of clearly articulating his intentions and methods. His 1986 book, Sculpting in Time, is still a staple in film schools, and it contains an abundance of inspiring writings on everything from aesthetic concerns to philosophical and spiritual matters. Though Tarkovsky was a lucid commentator on his own work, he was forced to address his films from a different perspective when taken out of his comfort zone. He disliked interviews and, as a result, journalists were able to reveal hidden aspects of the director’s personality and technique, as Tarkovsky either answered questions differently than he did in his own writings or revealed more of himself via the way he refused to answer what he regarded as pointless inquiries.

In spite of his protestations, Tarkovsky gave many interviews in numerous languages, and several excellent examples are collected in editor John Gianvito’s Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews. This book is neither a substitution nor repetition of Sculpting in Time, but is instead an essential companion piece that complements and clarifies many of the ideas in Tarkovsky’s own book. Gianvito has gathered 22 interviews that were conducted by American, European and Soviet journalists between the time of the director’s first feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), and his last, The Sacrifice (1986). Though there is some redundancy in a few of the interviews (a consequence of Tarkovsky’s clearly defined opinions), Gianvito has made an immeasurable contribution to English-language film scholarship by organizing the translations of these pieces into a chronological narrative. Following Tarkovsky’s interviews from one film to the next not only provides a picture of the director’s career and attitudes, it also shows his evolving relationship to the Soviet film industry and the world around him.

From the beginning of his career, Tarkovsky demonstrated an aesthetic philosophy that eschewed the limitations of traditional narrative and sought something more abstract: the manifestation of time and its passing in visual terms. In the collection’s first interviews, the then 30-year-old director elucidates his theories in a manner that seems shockingly prescient, given how accurately his pronouncements describe his later films such as The Mirror. As the book progresses, Tarkovsky elaborates on the concepts he established in the earlier interviews, discussing the difficulties of making films from artistic, economic and political points of view.

The latter point of view is perhaps the most intriguing component of Gianvito’s collection, as readers can begin to trace Tarkovsky’s increasing disillusionment with his homeland — a disillusionment that led to his defection in 1984. Tarkovsky’s fear of governmental reprisal and censorship makes him cautious in early interviews, though he becomes slightly bolder with his opinions in later years, despite never ceasing to think of Russia as his homeland. He also becomes bolder about his own artistic aims, claiming that the goal of filmmaking is nothing less than the resurrection of spirituality in modern life.

If Tarkovsky comes across as a bit pompous, at least his work bears out the loftiness of his ambitions. Indeed, after reading Tarkovsky’s interviews in conjunction with watching screenings of his movies, fans will be struck by the breadth of both his mind and his abilities. Though his sensibility was so distinctive that there are undeniable continuities from one film to the next, his career, in spite of its relatively short length and small number of works, is remarkable in its diversity of subjects and genres. Tarkovsky tackled the major themes of his time — from war in Ivan’s Childhood to political, artistic and religious oppression in Andrei Rublev to the very nature of existence in Solaris — yet he was equally capable of expressing the most intimate moments between an aging man and his family in The Sacrifice.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews is the contradiction it reveals between Tarkovsky’s personal sensitivity and his attitudes toward women, which were archaic to say the least. His borderline misogyny comes out most interestingly — and most entertainingly — in a 1984 interview with Swiss psychologist Irena Brezna, who admired Tarkovsky and was thus shocked to learn that the man responsible for so much visual poetry believed that women should be subservient to men and that her own questions were barely worth his consideration. After her initial shock passes, Brezna refuses to let Tarkovsky off the hook, and her challenges to his positions lead to some candid confessions on Tarkovsky’s part, with him discussing his deepest self-doubts.

Their combative but revelatory exchange validates Tarkovsky’s claim in Sculpting in Time that “truth is reached through dispute.” Clearly the director’s quest for truth was a pervasive force in his life and, throughout Interviews, readers can sense Tarkovsky wrestling with it. The upshot of an interview book devoted to such a searching, complex artist is that it is as rich and rewarding as Tarkovsky’s films themselves.

University Press of Mississippi
$50.00 (unjacketed cloth), $22.00 (paperback)

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