Tag Archives: Hollywood

King Vidor on European Films!

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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.

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Early Ingrid Bergman at the Bfi Southbank

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A few weeks ago now (2nd January) I was lucky enough to attend screenings of two very early Swedish-language Ingrid Bergman films, at a mini-season of her films at London’s own Bfi Southbank – with my good friend Christian Hayes. One of these was The Count of the Old Town (1934/5) and seems to have been her first role, although IMDb suggests she played, uncredited, a ‘girl waiting in line’ in a film before this. At any rate it’s her first starring role, at the age of 19. Although she doesn’t seem to be quite an actress yet her star presence is there in spades; I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to be able to see the star of Notorious (1946) at the outset, finding her feet.

I’m actually someone who came to the concept of the star persona relatively late, in that I didn’t feel it as an instinct as a child or even as a teenager: first I was fascinated simply by the stories and characters, then by the “art” of the films, focusing on the director. In my early twenties something clicked. There were stars before Ingrid but I think it was the double-whammy of her alongside Cary Grant in Notorious that did it for me. Notorious was my favourite Hitch for a long while, which had as much to do with the Ingrid/Cary combo as with Hitch.. 

In The Count of the Old Town Bergman plays a hotel maid. Our first sight of her is through a slightly ajar door, half-dressed. And this is from the point-of-view of a handsome young man who convinces her to let him hide in her room, away from the cops.

Her face really does light up the screen. Because it’s the very start of her career (as well as partly because I think ordinary films can have a tendency to do this), it feels, watching this, as though you’re getting a pure, unfiltered version of her personality.. Well anyway I took from the film a sense that although at times Bergman came across a little Joan Fontaine-insipid, her true character appeared full of tenderness and inner strength. Here’s a picture from the film that maybe illustrates this:

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In many ways The Count of the Old Town is a fairly ordinary film- although it does have a number of nice, offbeat characters. It’s a little like the folksy atmosphere of a provincial Renoir picture in a way.. The eponymous Count is a drunk and hangs out with another drunk called Cucumber, so-called because this was what he used to get hold of for people on the blackmarket in a time of rationing. There’s some storyline about diamonds being stolen and the police searching for the thief, but thankfully nobody on the film seems to be paying too much attention to the plot. Instead we have a whole host of wonderful character actors filling out a lovely little movie.

The film has, really, one scene that plucks it out of the ordinary which involves our hero, again hiding from the cops, dressed in an incredible beetle-suit that covers him and has a flap covering his face that he can open, to take a look-out. The costume has words on it that say something very strange I can’t quite remember, but which seemed to serve in an obscure way to mean something along the lines of “The End is Nigh”.. We then see him chased by a cop in this beetle-suit. I really can’t explain why this was so funny and seemed so absurd. I think it had to do with the way that he actually looked like a life-sized beetle, being chased down the streets, his feet the only visible human element- it really felt like the spirit of Kafka had taken this otherwise fairly ordinary movie completely unaware. 

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The other movie we saw that night is one I highly recommend: Walpurgis Night (1935.) It stars not only Bergman but the great Victor Sjostrom – yes, another double-whammy actor movie. The film is set around the Spring Festival of the title, which comes about once a year (and which Wikipedia tells me was named, back in the 8th century, after a woman called Walpurga, who, bizarrely, hailed from Devon.) Anyway, Ingrid’s father (Sjostrom) in the film runs a newspaper and, an old romantic, insists on covering the Spring Festival rather than all the more juicy stories around about celebrities and murders. He’s weary of the falsity of the business, particularly critical of his colleagues’ pretense towards engagement with serious political issues, when they repeatedly take the side that’ll sell.

Meanwhile Ingrid is leaving her boss because she’s secretly in love with him – and he’s married. The scene is incredibly touching and the silent love between the pair is undoubtable – maintained throughout a long scene in which everything said is cosmetic alongside those impassioned looks. At times Ingrid seems really a silent movie actress – here she brings an absolutely palpable emotional impact to this scene, through her carefully nuanced movements and gestures, and her eyes. Needless to say he convinces her to come out to the Spring Festival; they’re photographed and when daddy gets shown the photo he buys it, so as to cover up the story.

The title would seem to imply the film’s status as a romantic comedy. Indeed Walpurgis Night opens with a Lubitsch-esque scene as we see a line of mothers with identical prams, one of which has newspapers in it. Cut to the newspaper office and a debate about lack of housing, which Sjostrom blames on young couples being selfish, having kids and taking all the houses! Yet the film swiftly deepens. The story is strong, touching on complex areas such as abortion and suicide with the kind of maturity rarely seen in Hollywood. But it is the performances of Ingrid and Sjostrom, their development of a constantly changing father-daughter relationship, that make the film something special. While Ingrid develops her character silently in a seamless transition from small and modest girl into poised, solemn young woman, Sjostrom gives his performance conviction through a development of his voice alongside his physical performance as a direct extension of his character’s enveloping physical rage. 

I should be headed out to a couple more Ingrid movies tonight – tho Hollywood movies this time round. I’d really love it if somewhere would show more of these early Swedish films of hers – they all sound pretty special.

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Shopping and C******

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I’m an avid fan of Christian Hayes’ Classic Film Show. My thoughts here have developed from and in response to some of those raised in his article The Obsessive Movie Collector: Space, Time and Videotapes. I particularly like Christian’s honesty. ‘You really shouldn’t be buying more movies – you haven’t even watched the ones you’ve got’ he says. ‘Sorry mom’, we respond. Then sheepishly, as if with a little grin he admits, ‘Well, if I’m honest, this weekend I..’

And he’s right. I doubt very much he and I are alone in having many more movies and books in our respective houses than we’re really going to watch or read anytime soon. Christian briefly brings up box sets – I think this is the thing that tips the balance for many of us.. They’re just so damned cheap. And yet each one leaves you with four or five more films you really want to watch but still haven’t. Each time you buy one.. The guilt mounts.. ‘I have too much stuff and no space!’

I’m going to leave aside Christian’s emphasis on collecting, which may be more his thing than mine. I want to talk about shopping and… charity. Like many people these days it is an extremely rare occasion that I buy either books or movies at full price. The reason for this is a combination of having only a moderate amount of money and having a certain degree of pride at being good at sniffing out a deal. I go online, yes, and things are always cheaper. But mostly I go to charity shops. 

In both cases – but particularly the latter – the possibility of buying cheaply comes with an important added prospect. Chance. When you can afford to buy something on the hope that it might be interesting you discover things that, before, would have been out of sight, or perhaps visible only on the periphery. Now they sit on your shelf. You glance up at the dense book called Social Theory and all of a sudden you’ve read a chapter on Hegel and you’re thinking dialectically and feeling very clever. Then you notice the kids’ book that a friend, who’s a schoolteacher, told you was quite special and it turns out to be sharp and breaks your heart. And then again you read a collection of stories because it has Louise Brooks on the cover..

The kids’ book was The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas. I’m going to let you guess about the short stories – Any ideas? I picked up The Moviegoefrom a charity shop, too. I’d never heard of Walker Percy. Just a few examples..

The book Close-Ups (pictured above) set me back £1.50 in a PDSA shop today – it is A4, over 600 pages long and includes writing by industry figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age – writers, directors etc – on the stars of the Golden Age (as well as unfortunately ‘beyond’.) Most books in charity shops are not quite this good value! And, thinking realistically, many of these books I buy remain on my bookshelf untouched. Yet saving money has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. In fact I sometimes like to imagine the duds as counteracting the successes, so that I don’t really save much money, as it makes me feel less as though I’m ‘stealing from the charities.’

Even if I had the money to buy books and films in bulk from mainstream bookstores this kind of chance occurrence simply wouldn’t occur to the same degree.. Firstly, almost all the books I buy in charity shops are simply not available in the mainstream bookstores. Secondly, the shelving is set out to avoid random chance and to set up instead calculated chances, e.g. you’re tricked into only buying recent fiction with special ‘3 for 2’ deals, rather than anything older. (I sometimes feel a little wary of the ‘If you like this, you’ll love these’ operation on Amazon for this reason- that it can deter you from looking elsewhere on the site.) And thirdly, sections of book genre are rigidly separated and subdivided.. Customers that are into ‘buses’ might get disturbed by ‘cars’ every once in a while but that’s about as crazy as it gets.. (The search engine system can cause the same problem on Amazon and the web in general since you decide what genre you want in advance, by the words you choose, rather than really browsing over everything on offer as you might in charity bookshops.) In contrast, charity shop staff are not paid so they are under no obligation to expend too great an amount of energy on shop layout etc!

So. It’s the combination of sheer bulk, obscure titles and genres of book outside one’s normal scope that matters. These three are what charity shops offer a reader who is willing to truly respect chance – to walk into a shop with no idea what kind of book he’ll come out with.. And videotapes too – I found the original 70s TV series of Survivors on video a few years ago. I’d never heard of it before – and it’s terrific. I got Timeslip recently too, another 70s TV series, which may not be as good I fear. That’s the risk you take, but it’s definitely worth it.. And who cares if you end up with too much stuff – just take the stuff you don’t want right back to a charity shop – preferably one that’s for a really good cause like the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research – and let the whole thing come full circle. Happy buying!

p.s. You’ll notice I didn’t even mention second-hand bookshops in this article.. They didn’t even occur to me most of the way through writing – surely a sign of the times, since these can really only be found in Central London now. There’re some that say charity shops are taking over from second-hand bookshops and these people are not happy about this.. Let me know what you think on this anyone? Certainly there are more specialisms and rarities in second-hand bookshops. Tho on the flip-side they always seem to be a bit more expensive and they’re shelved more clearly – both of these lead to less possibilities for chance to have its effects.

Introducing …

 

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(King Vidor, 1955)

 

So let’s get started.. This site’s going to be somewhere for me to put some of my tentative musings about cinema and anything else arty etc that strikes my fancy. Nothing heavily analytical or academic, tho if you want to see some of my work of that sort try: http://www.ayearinthedark.wordpress.com .. That said, I’m not an idiot so it oughta be interesting for anyone with a brain for smart movies! 

 

The title: It refers to the fact that Kirk Douglas plays a man who isn’t a sheriff. Just a tough guy who rolls into town with a chip on his shoulder about barbed wire. But doesn’t want to get involved in violent cowboy rivalries. He reckons you should tear all the wire down and keep the land open and free..

 

Then maybe an hour in he switches. He realises that pulling down barbed wire for a wealthy landowner actually helps her to push out small farmers and he starts putting the stuff up again instead. Sure it’s a nice, healthy dose of anti-capitalist sentiment. But I particularly like the idea that a guy without a star has the right, or the mentality, to flip-flop, where another guy might not..

 

I saw this film a couple of years ago in Paris and it had an absolutely visceral effect upon me. I think it was the moment when Kirk Douglas, wrapped up in barbed wire, was thrown onto the ground- that made me think this was something a little different.. Visceral is good. Cinema isn’t about looking, any mug who tells you that needs his head checked. It’s all about the barbed wire..