Tag Archives: Griffith

A Conference Crawl: ‘Textual Revolutions’ at the University of Stirling and ‘Pioneering Endeavours’ at the University of Essex!

This weekend I spoke  at two conferences, one at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and the other at the University of Essex. This is the first time I’ve given papers.. Friday I read my paper in Stirling and took the sleeper train down that night. Saturday I was in Essex and read the paper again there. So, a bit of a baptism by fire!

The first conference, at the University of Stirling, was on ‘Textual Revolutions.’ It was interdisciplinary and its Call For Papers, put together by organisers Gary Cape and Steven Craig, was an extremely inspired one, if a little intimidating:

Hegel’s belief in the redemptive power of revolution – that revolution is part of an essentially benign process of history – is at odds with Friedrich Nietzsche’s position that revolution is a ‘source of energy in mankind grown feeble but never a regulator, architect, artist, [or] perfector of human nature’.  This tension over the nature of revolution constitutes our point of departure in an interdisciplinary forum that seeks to explore ‘revolutions’ and the language of revolution.

 I won’t lie – I modified work that I already had, making it fit the conference title.. At the same time the title and the questions posed were thought-provoking and had some effect on my final draft. The conference at Essex, called ‘Pioneering Endeavours’, was a smaller occasion, with my fellow PhD students, and I got some particularly valuable feedback here from colleagues. I’m really surprised at how much writing a paper for a real audience, and working on the assumption that many of them would not be from a Film Studies discipline, helped me to clarify for myself a sense of what my study is all about. It makes you simplify things too. While this can certainly have its problems, it does allow you to see things in a slightly more abstract way, seeing the bigger picture to some extent. Talking of which, I publish below the “abstract” that I initially sent out. I’m hoping to get a video-recording up here too, fairly soon, of the full paper, along with a text version. But for now!:

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Between Griffith and Brecht: Cinema and the Transnational in Fritz Lang’s Fury.

Fritz Lang’s first American film Fury (1936) poses both ontological questions on the nature of cinema and political questions on the position of the émigré. Close textual analysis of the ways in which these questions interrelate within Fury reveals a work deeply engaged with the complexities and contradictions of the turbulent 1930s.

Beyond more obvious readings of Fury as representing either Nazism in Germany or lynching in America, we can see the film as offering a transnational discourse on the nature of cinema. This is achieved through a division at the film’s mid-point, shifting from an impulsive cinematic style to a rationalist meta-cinematic one, codified as in turn “American” (via e.g. the technique of cross-cutting developed by Griffith) and “European” (via e.g. Brecht’s lehrstucke, or learning-plays.) Contrary to readings of the film as, through its outsider protagonist, in support of the apparently superior perspective of the “exile” filmmaker, this dialectic places both the director and audience within the text as active agents of cinematic form. Considering Lang under the alternative paradigm of the “tourist” reveals, ironically, a politically committed filmmaker. Caren Kaplan notes that ‘Rather than simply inventing modernity through … recognition and documentation, the tourist acts as a witness to the breakup of modernity. The tourist … straddles eras, modes of production, and systems of thought.’ Close analysis of Lang’s Fury reveals a Marxist filmmaker, grappling with his new role in Hollywood, not merely allegorizing the differences between “American” and “European” cinema (as in his previous films) but rather tying this dialectic into the film’s structure and its patterns of audience identification. Encouraged to recognize the inevitably “touristic” nature of the cinematic experience the viewer of Fury becomes, potentially, part of a transnational cinematic language of revolution.

King Vidor on European Films!

king-vidor-1931

 

I reprint below an interview with King Vidor on European cinema. It’s taken from Close Up, a ‘British’ film magazine written from 1927 – 1933 for an ‘international’ audience (which, of course, means Western Europe and America – copies were sold in Paris, Berlin, London, Geneva, New York and LA.) The magazine’s editor Kenneth MacPherson was British and lived in Switzerland and the magazine had foreign correspondents in each city in which it was sold, as well as in Moscow. 

Close Up is highly critical of the American dominance of the global marketplace and often displays blatant anti-Americanism – as when its editor states that ‘damp and treacly’ ‘American sentiment’ is horrible for the ‘European mind’ but is alright for Americans who are ‘naive’, ‘adolescent’ and ‘unsophisticated. Nevertheless the magazine is at the same time not uninterested in Hollywood and can also include some quite rational and interesting reflections on the relationship between European cinema(s) and Hollywood. 

Close Up didn’t need to make a profit since it was funded by MacPherson’s wealthy wife Winifred Bryher, who also funded his only film Borderline. We can therefore assume that sales to America and foreign correspondents not being necessary for commercial success, rather point to an editorial interest in American cinema culture, even if mainly as an antithesis to the great ‘art’ cinema coming from Russia and Germany. 

A particularly likable example I found is of a letter from an American reader who writes to offer Close Up ‘all the ecouragement I can in your venture’ as well as a few corrections of the magazine’s position on America. The latter include the fact that ‘Griffith is not producing much now, and we can see pictures that were shown 10-12-15 years ago’, due to the nation’s size keeping the films in circulation, a reference to Close Up‘s ambitions for cinemas in Europe that would play older films. The writer also notes that the eyelashes of Greta Garbo, who had moved to America by this point, were not sewn on, as Close Up had previously stated. 

The magazine’s interest in American cinema had a lot to do with the wish to compare or contrast it to European cinema. The interview I am reprinting below is with King Vidor and was published in Close Up in October 1928. It takes an opposing view to the mainstream position of criticising Europeans cinemas for trying to copy the Hollywood model. It seems to me that the wish to print the views of an American on the state of cinema in Europe shows a willingness to accept a multiplicity of opinions on cinema and an openness to debate. Here’s the interview in full:

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KING VIDOR ON EUROPEAN FILMS

 European producers, instead of competing with American films on a straight production basis, are fighting for supremacy with freak and futuristic screen experiments.

 This was the finding of King Vidor, noted director, who studied the foreign production field during his extensive trip abroad.

 “The foreign producers are more courageous and making more headway than in the past,” Vidor observed. “This progress, however, has not been from a solid foundation of sound production methods as was the development of the film industry in America.

 “There are any number of ‘little theatre’ movements to be encountered, and it is in these houses that the unique productions being made abroad are to be found. I saw one in which the entire story was told in close-ups, a daring experiment that is admirable, in effort, but scarcely to be considered anything more than a very well done novelty. Others were done along similar lines, the producer attempting to strike upon some unusual camera work or treatment as an outstanding feature.

 “All of these pioneer steps are laudable and hold much promise. They are interesting and worthy of the attempt. But as earnest competition to American films they are woefully lacking.

 “It is apparent that the foreign producers are not trying to match their products with those of American producers. They have not built up their organizations and concentrated for their actual benefit upon straight productions. They are more intent, it seems, upon a cinematic fishing expedition that might net something worth while, but in all probability will be quite unproductive.

 “In my opinion the chief fault with the foreign producing market is that they appear reluctant to invest sufficient capital in their films to make really good productions. They cannot seem to see what enormous returns they can obtain from such investments by making good pictures. These ‘arty’ efforts are splendid, and often show strokes of genius. But they will not and cannot make money. And unless pictures make enough money to justify the tremendous financial outlay the producers cannot weld together a strong organization.

 “Another thing I noticed abroad is that while films are very popular, yet there are a great number of people who seldom find time to go to the picture theatres. With this great potential audience yet to be educated to screen entertainment it would seem that the foreign production market would have a very happy opportunity to expand and enlarge upon their production methods.

 “There is plenty of room in the film field for the foreign producer. There is no cause of any jealousy on this point. Better pictures raise the standards of the entire industry regardless as to who makes them.”

 Vidor, who directed The Big Parade and The Crowd, as well as Show People, soon to be released with Marion Davies and William Haines co-starring, expressed a desire to make a film abroad.

 There are many ideal location possibilities, he said, that can only be found in Southern Europe, where many towns remain to-day as they were hundreds of years ago. Such an atmosphere, he declared, defies reproduction and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.