Sunday, November 01, 2009

Lines of Inspiration: Popular Cinema to Art Cinema

One of the best and most fascinating things about cinema is the tension between its status as art and its status as industry. There is nothing new about this idea. But the way we construct the categories of 'popular cinema' and 'art cinema'--in starkly opposing fashion--holds them further apart than they really are or should be. It's good to be reminded of this on a regular basis.

So, my ears always perk up when I hear art filmmakers claim popular filmmakers as inspirations and influences. Let me relate a recent instance. Last month, of the 25 or so films I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival, the most memorable was To Die Like A Man, by Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues.

To Die Like A Man is a rich but challenging film about an aging drag queen/cabaret singer on the brink of a sex change operation. She has volatile and difficult relationships with both her junkie lover and her young, psychologically unstable son. The film is challenging because it never settles into a single comfortable narrative mode; it's forever shape-shifting. At various points, it becomes: melodrama, "queer realism," a musical with songs (but frequently without musical accompaniment!), a Wizard-of-Ozian fantasy, a breathtaking ode to silent cinema, and (in one brilliant moment) a medical documentary in which a doctor demonstrates a sex change operation using origami.

But here's the important thing: These shifts don't resemble the collage and pastiche practices that we sometimes associate with a certain kind of popular "postmodern cinema". To Die Like A Man presents itself to us, with no confusion, as an art film.

In the Q&A after the screening, someone asked Rodrigues about the film's unusual opening, resembling a war movie, in which a squad of soldiers moves through a forest in the darkness. It was inspired, he answered to everyone's surprise, by Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! He added that he screened Douglas Sirk films for the cast during production. I would not have dreamed, without being told, that this film held classic Hollywood as an important forebear.

This isn't an isolated, freak example. In 1995 the journal Projections, in collaboration with Positif, devoted an issue ("Film-makers on Film-making") to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of cinema. In this issue, each filmmaker contributes an essay, big or small, devoted to her or his signal inspirations in cinema. The number of art filmmakers choosing to speak about popular films or filmmakers is eye-opening.

Chris Marker turns in an impassioned 8-page essay on his all-time favorite film, Vertigo. Catherine Breillat performs an insightful analysis of Elia Kazan's Baby Doll, which affected her powerfully and spurred her to write 36 Fillette. And arch-modernist Greek director Theo Angelopoulos writes of growing older and refashioning his personal history of cinema in the form of fragments: a few faces, gestures, shots, and words. Turns out they all belong to popular cinema:

The cry 'I don't want to die!' in Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces; Orson Welles' damaged face in Touch of Evil; the young Irish girl dancing with Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine; Ingrid Bergman's face full of love in Notorious; Peter Lorre's monotonous whistling in M; these short moments, shots cut out of the films they belong to, make up the one film which marked me, the film which still does.

One the best accounts comes from Raul Rúiz. He tells the story of seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat for the first time, and experiencing an utter revelation: here was a film that was an unconscious inspiration, a proto-Rúizian narrative unbeknownst to him.

Several times I had been linked with Edgar G. Ulmer and I usually disagreed [...] People as different as Jérôme Prieur, John Zorn and J. Rosenbaum had compared me to him. Now at last recognition came to me, and as in an old melodrama, I exclaimed: "Father!' and he replied 'My son!'

For at least twenty of my films find their source in The Black Cat. Each scene in the film is transformed, and completed, into one of mine.

A couple more examples. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about Straub's admiration for Chaplin:

Over a decade ago, Jean-Marie Straub made this startling observation: “A lot of people think that Eisenstein is the greatest editor, because he has some theories about it, but this is not true. Chaplin was greater, I think, in editing, only it is not so obvious. Chaplin was more precise than Eisenstein, and the man after Chaplin who is the most precise is surely Rivette.”

What Straub had in mind, I think, is Chaplin’s and Rivette’s ability to edit in relation to content: emotional content, narrative content, performance content. For both directors, editing is a precise answer to the question of what a particular shot’s meaning is–where this meaning begins and where it ends.

Finally, Pedro Costa's love for Jacques Tourneur is well-known, and is also evident in his first feature, O Sangue.

So, I wonder: can we collect some examples here of art filmmakers who have held up popular cinema as an important inspiration or influence?

pic: Boris Karloff in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). Also: here are two valuable interviews with João Pedro Rodrigues, by Michael Guillen and Dennis Lim.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When does "popular" cinema become "art" cinema? What strikes me about all of your examples is the fact that an older popular cinema (classical H'wood) is serving as the inspiration for a later generation of art filmmakers.

November 01, 2009 11:22 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"What strikes me about all of your examples is the fact that an older popular cinema (classical H'wood) is serving as the inspiration for a later generation of art filmmakers."

Yes, Anonymous, this is exactly the topic of my post.

You ask an entirely different question--and a good one.

November 01, 2009 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Just Another Film Buff said...

From what I understand by this wonderful roundup of confessions, I guess one can include the whole lot of Cahiers filmmakers for their love for genre films.

Fassbinder, for one, drew heavily from Sirk melodramas. So does Almodovar. And there's also Polanski's love for film noir (that is if you consider him not as a pop filmmaker). Melville almost bought the film noir. Bertolucci, even though I'm not sure revered classic Hollywood, he made sure he represented them in his films - by making Brando 'play' Brando, De Niro 'play' De Niro etc.

I also think there would be many more arthouse auteurs who would almost surely cite Hitch or Fuller as inspirations.

But on second thoughts, even the reverse phenomenon seems interesting - wherein purely pop directors draw inspiration from purely art house flicks a la Tarantino.


November 01, 2009 12:04 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Thank you for the shout-out, Girish; always appreciated. And I'm delighted that you considered To Die Like A Man as vital and important a piece of cinema as I did.

Your subject is, of course, a fascinating one and one--which as you state--we need to remind ourselves of now and again. But it likewise comes fraught with all the trappings of auteur theory. The industrial underpinnings of auteurial filmmaking, and one has to wonder if an art film can only be recognized by contrast to a studio film?

Recently I read an interesting critique of auteur theory by Lindsay Anderson, the director of If.... in a screenwriting journal emphasizing that auteur theory ignores the collaborative creativity between directors and screenwriters, a theme Guillermo Arriaga first proposed to me when he said a film is helmed by auteurs, not a single auteur. Lindsay criticized Cahier du Cinema's review practice of American cinema, which he felt overlooked the reality of the studio system, one in which the director has little latitude in terms of creative input, as scenarios are often imposed upon them by producers.

Perhaps it is this industrial limitation on Hollywood directors and what they were able to achieve despite such restrictions that remains the main inspiration of creating against odds, a synonym as good as any for the "art film."

November 01, 2009 12:32 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Then again...the trajectory from popular film to art film is not always so evident.

Recently I spoke with avant-garde filmmaker Robert Beavers. His are what I would truly call an art film. But despite his being a great fan of Douglas Sirk as a young boy watching movies at his local cinema, he made a point of stressing that Hollywood studio cinema would never have made him become a filmmaker: it took other avant-garde filmmakers and the silent films of Dreyer, Murnau, etc. to accomplish that; silent films that could arguably be considered art films themselves. Thus the "line of inspiration" moves from art film to art film. Contingent, of course, on whether one considers avant-garde cinema to be art cinema.

November 01, 2009 12:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, JAFB!

Anon., a couple of thoughts: "Popular cinema" and "art cinema" are categories, they are constructs. (David Bordwell, Steve Neale, and others have written about this.) "Art cinema" is associated with a certain set of practices, having to do with certain modes of production and distribution. Most cinephiles and film scholars would agree that Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life or Hitchcock's Vertigo, for example, are indubitably works of art, BUT they are not art cinema. They are works of popular cinema (even if they weren't very popular when they first appeared). Did you have any examples relating to your question, i.e. popular cinema becoming art cinema?

November 01, 2009 12:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, just read your comment, Maya!

November 01, 2009 12:41 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

There's an issue inherent in this question -- very often, people who make films for the a popular audience are more radical than those that work for arthouses. Whoever defines themselves as an "art" filmmaker ultimately creates than definition along lines that have been drawn by "popular cinema." So they are in some ways trapped, whereas the popular cinema, the commercial cinema, can do whatever it wants, provided the audience will come. It exists in opposition to nothing.

November 01, 2009 1:21 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...



Imitation of Life was probably more popular then than it is now -- we shouldn't forget that it was one of the ten highest grossing films of 1959.

November 01, 2009 1:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Very good points, Ignatiy!

BTW, it's probably clear already, but I wasn't drawing a binary opposition between "art cinema" and "popular cinema" and privileging one (art) over the other (popular) in terms of ingenuity, innovativeness, radicalness, etc. And the Sirk film wasn't a good example on my part. We can substitute any Hollywood film that is today considered to have great artistic/aesthetic value but wasn't very popular when it was first released.

November 01, 2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Ignatiy: I love your comment! I think you've nailed it. There is an odd complicity in art film's appropriation of popular tropes, and its reverence for the enthusiasm inherent in popular cinema.

I know in my case after one too many art movies I run for something popular and entertaining to keep my love for cinema alive. Genre is juicy.

November 01, 2009 1:35 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


I actually think Imitation of Life is a good one to bring up -- as a phrase and a film. As a phrase, it works in the sense that the popular cinema represents a sort of cinematic life -- not just in that it's the cinema that plays the largest role in most people's lives, the cinema they don't have to seek out, which comes to them when they turn on the TV or have two hours to kill at the mall, but that it maintains a vitality. It can be said that "cinematic art" often exists in imitation of "cinematic life." As a film, it's a good example of something that's gone from being the very definition of "popular," the sort of movie that would repel any "sophisticated" audience, to the opposite -- which brings us back to Anon's question at the top.

November 01, 2009 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm intrigued by the relationship between the three realms invoked in this discussion: 1) mainstream, commercial or popular cinema, 2) art cinema (which usually refers to feature-length, narrative cinema), and 3) avant-garde film. The regular influence of 1 on 2 seems to have been Girish's original topic: and among others, one could provide a massive list of Godard's acknowledged inspirations. But the influence of 1 on 3 is especially fascinating, since even the shared reliance of 1 and 2 on narrative, characters, "realistic" sound, etc. isn't often shared in the move from popular to experimental cinema. But consider Maria Montez films and Jack Smith, Hollywood stars and genres and Andy Warhol, the Hollywood mythos and Kenneth Anger, film noir and Maya Deren, melodrama and the Kuchar brothers, silent cinema and Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage's loving lectures on Chaplin and other silent comics, the influence of the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup" on Bruce Conner's "A Movie," etc.

November 01, 2009 6:56 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

One of Ignatiy's comments made me think of the potential difference, too, between films shown on the "arthouse" circuit and "art" films (in English-speaking countries, anyway, since that's what I'm most familiar with).

In the UK and the US, most films in languages other than English are shown in arthouse theatres whether the makers thing of their work as "art" or "popular" cinema. This has led to amusing results at times in Q&A sessions I've attended at the Harvard Film Archive, where the audience tends to be primed to see non-English-language films as "art" cinema.

For instance, the Burkinabe director Fanta Regina Nacro was asked about her influences at a screening a couple of years back and startled the audience by rejecting any influence from other African filmmakers and emphasising instead the impact of Hitchcock and Chaplin (Apichatpong Weerasethakul has also mentioned the influence of Hitchcock). It seemed to me that this was also a way of rejecting the pigeonholing of her films - as well as their relegation to one circuit of the cinema.

I read an interview with Vincent Ward last year in which he cited the influence of Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang in particular, although he also mentioned Dreyer (but not Tarkovsky, whose name came up constantly in connection with Ward's early features).

November 01, 2009 7:28 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I've never been particularly fascinated by the influence of Hollywood on art-cinema (and vice-versa), although I am curious about those who are influenced by more obscure Hollywood choices. There are a number of Hollywood directors whose influence is inescapable everywhere: Chaplin, Hitchcock, Griffith, Ford, etc. And I think this influence is a driving part of what shapes the canon, and the induction of directors like Sirk, Fulller, Tourneur, or Ray has been driven, I feel, by their influence on art-house filmmakers. But the most interesting influences, like Ruiz's perhaps, are those influencing films/makers which which seem to be unique and yet to gain a wide critical appreciation (or go against previous critical appraisal)(perhaps because those influenced themselves have not gained wide appreciation).

I'm interested in hearing more singular picks.

November 01, 2009 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Not quite an answer to your question, but Monte Hellman told me his favorite film was Huston's The Maltese Falcon.

November 01, 2009 9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today at AFI Fest,in LA I caught up with the superb POLICE, ADJECTIVE,
a film which, among other of its considerable aspects of interest, belongs to the long tradition of films influenced by Hitchcock's Rear Window. This is a roundabout way of saying that the greatest popular influence on art-cinema of all time is Hitchcock. No comparison. Now, this may be problematic in terms of categories, since we all at this point accept Hitchcock as, himself being a singularly important artist.
But he had his drastic influence on many film-makers before this status was an academically accredited article of faith. But just as one example,think of the varied and various art-film children of Rear Window--Blow Up, The Conversation,The Last Metro, Camera Buff, A Short Film About Love,
The End of Violence, Police Adjective, all of these films are variations on the narrative-visual-editorial schema set up by Rear Window and borrow so much of their structure from it.

Just recently, came across Richard Allen's essay on the affinities between Bergman and H's Psycho, a film Bergman admitted to having seen and admiring. Persona is a film that splits in the middle as is Psycho. The narrative-structural point-of-view experiments that define the structure of Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho have radiated into every remote facet of the practice of world cinema. Most of the work of Kubrick, Roeg, Cronenberg, and Todd Haynes is all about managing the seismic impact of Hitchcock and inconceivable apart from his influence. And one ought to remember that for most of the film makers so influenced, Hitchcock's films were powerful and influential not under the rubric of their canonization by academic/theoretical study--but in their presentation to the world as popular movies (the exception in the above group would be Haynes who probably learned his Hitchcock during his training in semiotics at
Brown University.)
Hitchcock is the primordial case of a popular mainstream film maker who has been an indispensable disseminative force in the creation of art cinema.'

Larry Gross

November 02, 2009 4:13 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Limiting myself mostly to western cinema, but it seems to me most instances of popular cinema inspiring art cinema still tend to come from classical Hollywood, which seems to me probably still a consequence of placing oneself in the Nouvelle Vague tradition. NV admired Hitchcock, Fassbinder admired Sirk, Carax remade a film by Walsh, all the way to Pedro Costa now who is, like you say, influenced by Tourneur, but also Ford. Maybe it's just that I don't know about it, but I've yet to come across a considerable body of great art film-makers who can claim to have been considerably influenced by, say, Romero, Peckinpah or even more "popular" (though definitely less good), Walter Hill.
Probably Hong Kong cinema is slowly changing that and providing a new eldorado of popular cinema inspiration (Johanna Vaude's Samourai, though that draws mainly on Japanese films)... It would be interesting to hear from you what the situation is for indian cinema, actually!

November 02, 2009 4:28 AM  
Blogger dave said...

Straub: I don’t know what a minority is ... Lenin answered this question anyway, when he said that the minority of today would be the majority of tomorrow. So it’s meaningless ... But then we can’t know ... If the films which are accused of being made for a minority were given the same facilities of distribution and publicity as the films for the so-called mass market, the problem wouldn’t exist. But they’re not.

November 02, 2009 4:33 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I have often noted the influence of B films on avant-garde filmmakers: mainly for their 'abstract' or severely formal side, at least if viewed through an abstract-formal eye ! For example, not many people beyond a small group in Australia and France would know the person or work of Ken Shepherd, who made experimental films from the late 50s to the mid 70s; he came from an avant-garde art/architecture/music scene in Melbourne in the '50s. Ken once wrote a piece explaining that the film which most inspired he and his young colleagues circa 1960 was not A BOUT DE SOUFFLE but Boetticher's THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND (which they viewed at cinemas over and over), because it seemed to them such a wonderful formal play on a 'restricted' set of elements: in other words, an avant-garde piece par excellence! In a different but related vein, Brakhage in his later years avowed how exciting and inspiring Scorsese's movies were to him - and in De Niro's face he saw a "shimmering of what a love for cinema can be", or words to that effect!

November 02, 2009 8:46 AM  
Anonymous adrian said...

Nathan's reference to Johanna Vaude brings to my mind the fact that - as I know for meeting many of them down the past 10 or so years - a great many contemporary French experimental filmmakers are incredibly influenced by the 'experimental side' of Dario Argento, Woo, Tsui Hark (a big influence), Peckinpah, De Palma, Ferrara, Hellman ... and a significant 'bridge' there has been the formidable presence of Nicole Brenez as writer, teacher and programmer. Nicole's essay on popular HK cinema and its effect on the new French avant-garde (in the HONG KONG CONNECTIONS book) is a classic in this regard. And a whole generation of budding mainstream' Australian filmmakers like George Miller, Philippe Mora and Philip Noyce were soaking up avant-garde films (amidst much else) in the largely left-wing 'filmmakers co-operatives' of their youth. De Palma, in the American context, had a similar formation, as did Scorsese (and Cronenberg). The whole 'art school/film school' crossover in many times and places is a history well worth investigating. Another Australian, Philip Brophy, famous for his articles on modern horror cinema and his Cronenbergian BODY MELT (1993), cut his teeth in art school and the local university film socieites on Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton ...

November 02, 2009 9:04 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Adrian: Your grasp of these matters is always astounding. Thank you. Especially for your reference to Ken Shepherd. I'll put a bug in the ear of the SF Cinematheque to explore that suggestion.

Some avant-garde filmmakers like Chick Strand did some amazing and highly entertaining work with found footage from Grade-B studio films (I'm thinking Loose Ends.

But more on Girish's intended theme: Kiyoshi Kurosawa would be another contemporary filmmaker who has acknowledged the influence of the Hollywood directors from the '60s and '70s; Siegel and such.

November 02, 2009 11:33 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I assume Buñuel would be considered an "art" filmmaker, though he probably would've argued the point. So much of his Mexican output was made for blue-collar audiences, but his artistry is evident (sometimes between the lines) in Susana (Buñuel's Russ Meyer movie), Archibaldo de la Cruz, El Bruto, etc.

Buñuel was a fan of Fritz Lang, especially Der Müde Tod. Lang was the one director he tracked down for an autograph. Buñuel also admired Hitchcock. The influence of both can be seen to some degree in Buñuel's work.

November 02, 2009 2:06 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I think the question gets complicated when you try to sort filmmakers into the two camps. Which side is Lang on? or Murnau, even. Or Mizoguchi or Ozu, even Kurosawa? either Kurosawa - isn't it possible to see Kiyoshi as either an art film maker or a popular filmmaker? Akira's influence on American filmmaking seems to operate as both an art film influence, and a popular influence... Ozu's influence in the US at least seems mostly as an art film director - but his own films were solidly popular - and he was influenced by filmmakers from Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd to Orson Welles...

Also - Walt Disney has to be in here somewhere - he was influential all over the place - Eisenstein loved him, Ichikawa, filmmakers everywhere...

November 02, 2009 6:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

Avant-garde influences on Kubrick have been pretty well documented, I think: Jordan Belson on 2001, Wavelength on The Shining, that he wanted Arthur Lipsett to do a trailer for him. I wonder whether La Region Centrale grew out of 2001, but there's a zeitgeist there: Brakhage's films of the time are really close as well. But where do you draw the line? Not with L'Herbier, Epstein, Eisenstein, not with Resnais or Duras--not in the 20s or the 60s, but every other decade? Bresson has a clear indebtedness to gangster movie structure he parodies in 4 Nights and L'Argent. Where would recent films by Bay, Scorsese, Tarantino lie, all of which use editing to completely destabilize a space and style, and beautifully so.

One filmmaker I'm particularly curious about is Richard Fleischer, whom both Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Albert Serra evidently identify as a major influence. Maybe Fleischer's total no-nonsense flatness, in every way--flatter than Preminger (who opens up space in depth), flatter than Tourneur (who opens up space to the side and in shadows)--has found its time?

November 03, 2009 12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really, I don't think many filmmakers may ever have said to themselves (and yet less to a producer) "I'm going to make an art film". So the barriers between so-called "art/minority" films and "genre/commercial" movies are mostly constructions and/or labels after the fact. Most foreign films are released as "art" and probably will not be seen by a major audience, but these films could have been very popular and not regarded as "arty" or "difficult" in their country. Likewise with "old" films, which are show later mostly as "art". And then, most vocational (i.e. personal) filmmakers want to make the kind of movies they grew up with (and people rarely grow up watching Bresson, Eisenstein, Brakhage or Godard, or in Europe or the U.S. Mizoguchi), so it's much easier to find so-called "minority" (much to their regret) filmmakers whose roots are in popular cinema, while the other way around is somewhat more unlikely. But I think if you grew up watching Walsh, Ford, Wellman, Curtiz or Hawks you can understand and like as well Dreyer, Renoir, Ozu, Bresson or Godard, and perhaps, if you become a filmmaker, sadly become an "uncommercial", "marginal" filmmaker only because that's the way the production/distribution/exhibition system works: nobody makes films for oneself or festivals.
Miguel Marías

November 03, 2009 4:11 AM  
Blogger David said...

Miguel, I completely agree labels are after the fact, and problematic (the irony is that Vertov's films about a universal, revolutionary consciousness enabled and reflected in films are themselves treated as niche cinema and fodder for the academics). But I can't speak for Europe--I know in France, farmers know who Godard is even if they don't watch his films, and in Spain, farmers know who Bunuel is and they *do* watch his films--but in America, I'm not sure anybody grows up watching "Walsh, Ford, Wellman, Curtiz or Hawks." Personally, I discovered them around the same time I discovered Bresson, Eisenstein, Brakhage, and Godard, and often later, which is one reason I'm loathe to make distinctions. For me, Wellman's 30s films feel as close to Hou as they do to Hawks, and that's probably at least partially because I wasn't raised to see them apart.

November 03, 2009 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Omar said...

‘Lines of inspiration’ from popular, mainstream cinema is an interesting one yet it is much easier to simply dismiss such populist influences on art cinema because to equate the world of the art house auteur with that of mainstream directors for hire makes all cinema relative. It is very problematic to define how we should perceive certain film makers including Terence Malick and Jim Jarmusch; do they fit the mould of an art house discipline or is the middle ground they straddle bring accusations to do with creative compromise, thus invalidating their supposed reputation as art house auteurs. Here are some examples of art film makers who have been inspired by popular cinema (mostly Hollywood):

Haneke & the Hitchcockian influences (however, Hitchcock seems to have influenced everyone)

Jim Jarmusch & Nicholas Ray

Akira Kurosawa & John Ford

The Dardenne Brothers & Chaplin – most noticeably in ‘L’Enfant’ which borrows from ‘The Kid’

Kiarostami & Chaplin (actually Chaplin as an inspirational figure spans across a number of decades – De Sica being an obvious example)

Terence Malick & Murnau with ‘Sunrise’ – especially at the end of ‘Days of Heaven’ with the burning fields / also ‘Badlands’ & Ray’s ‘Rebel without a Cause’

David Lynch & The Wizard of Oz (‘Blue Velvet’ is effectively a reworking of this much loved classic)

Brit film maker Shane Meadows & the films of Martin Scorsese

De Sica & Chaplin (most significantly in ‘Bicycle Thieves’)

Wong Kar-Wai and Hitchcock (though he seems more indebted to Godard) – ‘In the Mood for love’ was influenced by both ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘Vertigo’

November 03, 2009 7:39 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

The invalidity of the distinction between "popular" and "art," which Girish pointed out at the outset, is what makes it easier to discuss this idea than illustrate it, I think.

There's a romantic assumption that people who work for the multiplex are more compromised than those that for the arthouse, which of course isn't true. It's probably the opposite: fact of the matter is, Michael Bay makes exactly the films he wants to make, which can't be said of most American "independent" directors. Omar's list (also prefaced by his doubts on the distinction) brings this to the forefront: isn't De Sica the more mainstream director drawing on the more personal, rigorous Chaplin? Same goes for his Kurosawa / Ford connection -- Ford certainly had more integrity, even on his minor films, than Kurosawa could ever muster with his costumed armies. The "art" directors and the "popular" directors could easily switch places.

So far, all of the examples of "popular" filmmaking cited come from before the mid-1970s. So I'll throw in one after the period: once upon a time, a teenaged Leos Carax praised Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley in Cahiers. He was right.

November 03, 2009 8:12 PM  
Blogger Jesús Cortés said...

David, sorry to disagree but in Spain I don´t know any farmer (same to almost every occupation from primary production and I live in a region full of them) who know who Buñuel is.
Here people grow up with horrendous TV programs and don´t care about cinema at all, except the blockbusters of the season. That´s the general profile, of course.

November 04, 2009 5:53 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Jesus--maybe someone should do a poll of Spanish farmers? When I was on farms in Spain (very rural, but also with farmers taking in American kids who probably are more culturally curious than most), cinema didn't come up much, but Bunuel certainly was known, and the habit of small towns throughout Spain to project a film a week on DVD in the town hall is basically unknown in the states. It's strange: almost no small town in the states is as rustic and isolated and antiquated as most of the small towns I saw in Spain, yet cultural literacy--perhaps because these towns are so immersed in the infrastructure of thousands of years--is much more valued in Spain. In America, small towns largely exist to market a rustic identity from 70 years ago to tourists and city folk at high premiums. That's a generalization, of course, but it holds true from coast to coast.

The policy (correct me if I'm wrong) in France and Spain of sending out DVDs on Sundays to subscribers of the major newspapers is the most phenomenal of small cultural differences: in cities, middle class homes have their bookshelves stocked with Borzages, Walshes, and Von Triers, many of which aren't even available in the states. And that anyone can pick these up for resale at newspaper vendors on the city streets.

America has nothing like that culture where it's taken for granted that watching Borzage is part of being a well-informed citizen. Quite the opposite. In Granada I got to see El Dorado with a live gypsy orchestra and Gentleman Jim with a free 50-page booklet of Walsh criticism on the same night, in different venues, 35mm, for a total of 3 euros. That kind of culture is all but unknown in the states outside Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

November 04, 2009 1:30 PM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

Hmm, not sure about Spanish farmers in general but I bet the landowning ones from Las Hurdes knew/know of Buñuel... David is, however, correct about the greater reach of cinephilia in Spain - that chimes with my experience of living there. Anyhow, to join with Flickhead in thinking about Buñuel's popular cinematic influences, I've always enjoyed seeing the obvious echoes of Buster Keaton's comedy in his work. In 1927, he wrote a review of Buster Keaton's College (1927) [see]: "Asepsis. Disinfection. Freed from tradition, our gaze revels in the juvenile tempered world of Buster, the great specialist in fighting sentimental infections of all kinds." The review closed by setting twoing two schools of cinema against one another: a European school, "sentimentalism, antiquated notions about art and literature, tradition, etc."; and a Buster Keaton American School: "vitality, a cinematic essence, [an "absence of Culture"], and fledgling traditions." There's something vividly traced there about the particular lure of the American popular for him. Thanks for such a stimulating post, Girish.

November 04, 2009 1:51 PM  
Blogger Jesús Cortés said...

David, I don´t know the results of the poll you mentioned but could be interesting. Probably the results wouldn´t be so different from many famous local critics favorites of the year lists.
I have met more sensible farmers than interesting critics, you can be sure of that.

November 04, 2009 1:53 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks Catherine, though where would Bunuel be without a decadent European tradition to tear apart? Sherlock Jr. isn't too far from the late films...

"I have met more sensible farmers than interesting critics, you can be sure of that."

Me too!

November 04, 2009 1:57 PM  
Blogger dave said...

I want nothing more right now than a film blog written by Spanish farmers.

November 04, 2009 3:40 PM  
Anonymous Ian said...

I'm instantly reminded of Apichatpong's assertion that BLISSFULLY YOURS was conceived as a military-experiment-gone-wrong film... maybe he was being flippant and coy about his artistic aspirations, but it's a neat thought

Then there's Bresson saying in an interview that he took his daughter to see FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and was inspired by the range of cinematic possibilities, LOL.

Adrian isn't wrong about Brakhage's love for Scorsese... his five most influential 'dramatic filmmakers' (according to the FIlm Comment 90's wrapup: for him are David Fincher, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and John Cassavetes.

November 04, 2009 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Just Another Film Buff said...

Ian that was a great Bresson anecdote! Adding to that, Tarkovsky is supposed to have admired certain aspects of The Terminator!

November 04, 2009 7:57 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

And Rivette digs Verhoeven!

November 04, 2009 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Jesús, I hope you are giving out (on a monthly basis) CAHIERS DU CINEMA ESPANA to those farmers ... just kidding !?

November 05, 2009 4:18 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

The Bresson interview where he talks about going to see For Your Eyes Only is on Youtube (the Bond bit is at the very end).

November 05, 2009 9:20 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Does it work in reverse? Commercial directors who like art films? Aren't frustrated muzak studio hacks frustrated symphony musicians? Wouldn't the person painting on black velvet for the local shopping mall like to paint like Matisse? Not to put him in the same category, but Hitchcock's name keeps coming up here, and lately Bresson's. Did Hitch like Bresson?

November 05, 2009 3:36 PM  
Blogger dave said...

caboose ,
I'd venture to say that's much more common. I bet half of Hollywood's current crop are trying their best to be Godard.
[e.g. this article about the writing duo behind both Transformers films and the recent Star Trek]

November 05, 2009 5:05 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Well yes, that's what I was suggesting with my muzak and black velvet analogies. But how much do we really know? And there may be a difference between the current generation of art-school and film-school graduates making TV commercials full of references to Godard and Eisenstein and more historical examples - did Hitch like Bresson? Did Preston Sturges like Renoir? I'd be curious to know.

November 05, 2009 6:37 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Off topic: Jonathan's example of Straub's legendary comment about Chaplin is interesting, if only because their methods were so different. Chaplin had an enormous shooting ratio, no doubt because he had the means to let the camera run while they did take after take of routines, and because in this line of work - comedy - a lot of material wouldn't make the grade. Straub rehearses scenes to death off camera and uses film as if it were vital medicine about to run out during wartime. My question is this, if Girish will permit this somewhat off-topic riff on the comment by Jonathan he quotes: does anyone know how involved Chaplin was in the editing process? Given the mountain of footage and his very precise idea of what he was after, I would, once again, be curious to know.

November 05, 2009 7:16 PM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Also, here is an interview of promising Japanese filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi. He cites Fuller, Spielberg et al as inspirations

November 05, 2009 8:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, all, for this conversation, and all the offshoots and riffs that have grown and are growing from it.

November 06, 2009 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

My friend Stéphane du Mesnildot wrote on Facebook: "Dixit Bong Joon-ho : "je dois être le seul cinéaste au monde à avoir été influencé par Missing in Action de Ted Kotchef". - translation: Bong Joon-ho said "I must be the only filmmaker in the whole world who has been influenced by Ted Kotcheff's MISSING IN ACTION" !!

November 06, 2009 5:37 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Stéphane Du Mesnildot's blog is one of the great losses for non-french-speaking members of the blogosphere. He is consistently interesting, and his research goes in directions that are always unexpected and stimulating.
I'm still trying to make up my mind about Bong Joon-Ho though...

November 07, 2009 6:32 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Stéphane Du Mesnildot's blog, Les Films libèrent la Tête, is one of the great losses for non-french-speaking members of the blogosphere. He is consistently thought-provoking, and the directions he goes in are always unexpected and enriching.
Still trying to figure out what I think of Bong Joon-Ho though...

November 07, 2009 7:08 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Sorry, my connection acted weirdly on that one, didn't mean to post that twice.

November 07, 2009 7:09 AM  
Anonymous adrian said...

Nathan, I will be happy to make up your mind for you right away: Bong Joon-ho is fantastic! I was with him at 'hello' (i.e., BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE). THE HOST is a wonderful and enduring film. I will hopefully see his new one soon in Thessaloniki.

November 07, 2009 8:54 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

That's certainly an element of response :-). I remember adoring The Host when I came out of it, but then finding Memories of Murder virtuosic but a bit empty, not really satisfying outside a few supremely energetic scenes. I do need to revisit both, though, and all the ones I haven't seen.

November 07, 2009 9:02 AM  
Blogger Arthur S. said...

One shocking example was the revelation that Ozu had little interest in contemporary Japanese film-makers and actually was a compulsive watcher of American movies. His favourites were Vidor and Lubitsch.

Then, as per Tag Gallagher, Rossellini was a big enough fan of King Vidor to sneak a screening of Duel in the Sun at a drive-in theatre with Ingrid Bergman during his brief excursion to Hollywood in the late 40s. He later met Vidor at his home and liked him a lot.

November 09, 2009 7:02 AM  
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