Monday, June 16, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.  

“RADICAL HOLLYWOOD – THE UNTOLD STORY” by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner (first published New Press, New York, 2002)
“CINEMA OF PARADOX – FRENCH FILM-MAKING UNDER GERMAN OCCUPATION” by Evelyn Ehrlich (first published by Columbia University Press, New York, 1985)

It’s not something that I talk about a great deal now, because my interests have moved on. But there was a time when I was a film reviewer. Each week I would dutifully trot off to see two or three new movies (most of them ephemeral and forgettable) at press screenings. When film festivals came around I would pig out on thirty-plus movies in the festival fortnight, thanks to complimentary passes. This lasted for a neat 30 years, from when I began reviewing for an Auckland newspaper as a university student in 1974, to when, in 2004, I moved out of Auckland to take up a research position in Wellington. I also pride myself on having written (in A Decade of New Zealand Film, published 1985) the first book-length study of the revived New Zealand film industry.
I am sometimes asked by film buffs if I miss being a film reviewer. The short answer is that I do not. I grew tired of having to spend hours watching rubbish. On the other hand, I have never lost my interest in the film medium, and have continued to be somewhat addicted to watching older movies [see the posting “Oh it’s You Again” via the index at right]. Of course I am suspicious, as any sane person is, of the “theory” that is supposed to go with the appreciation of films. When academics start talking semiotics, and apply it to simple and brainless genre movies, I yawn and move on. But I am interested in attempts to relate films to their social situation, and to see how films can and do create a collective mythology.
Which brings me to the two quite different books, which I have chosen as this week’s “Something Old”.
 One attempts to yoke everything that was creative in Old Hollywood to a particular political perspective. The other looks at one nation’s cinema in a time of crisis. Both, for all their defects, do at least see the film medium as having a real social impact.
Let’s consider Paul Buhle’s and Dave Wagner’s Radical Hollywood – the Untold Story first of all.
The main purpose of this book is fairly simplistic. It argues that all the most creative people working in Hollywood between the 1930s and the 1950s were left-wing in their politics. It links this tendency to the gangster and social realist cycle of films in the 1930s, the anti-Fascist American war films (after 1941) and the post-war films noirs, which it interprets as a reaction to the end of wartime idealism. It further argues that with the coming of McCarthyism and the blacklist these, the most creative people in Hollywood, were driven out of Hollywood and that therefore American films became blander, more vacuous and less analytic of the real problems of American society.
Apart from the fact that it is a piece of special pleading, there are a number of problems with this book.
First, in order to make its case, its sampling of films is very skewed. While it does make some interesting connections between films and the political affiliations of their screenwriters, it ignores whole categories of films (musicals, romantic comedies, escapism etc.) and many illustrious film-makers whose political profiles don’t match the ones that the authors admire.
Second, its definition of what is and what is not left-wing is very slippery. It seems to range from Communists to anyone who, even temporarily, supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Third (and especially to me, with extensive experience of viewing films of the vintage of those the book discusses), it makes many assumptions about the worth of the films it discusses which cannot be sustained by actual viewing of those films. There may indeed have been much social and political intent in screenplays that were written for Hollywood movies in the 1930s and 1940s. But the resulting films were usually made to commercial formula and in most cases do not stand up as an adult scrutiny of any given social issue.
Finally, in order to sustain their thesis, the authors are driven to argue that the films of the 1950s were a bland wasteland, and that the emergent “art films” of the 1960s were a failure. In other words, ignoring such magnificent Hollywood films of the 1950s as John Ford’s The Searchers – surely the most profound celluloid confrontation with American imperialism – the book is written by two people whose preferred aesthetic runs to the socially conscious Warner Brothers melodramas of the 1930s. Dead End, Black Legion etc.
The full subtitle of this unbalanced book is “The Untold Story Behind America’s Favourite Films”. But this is exactly what the book is not, as many enduring favourites simply do not fit into the authors’ political agenda and are therefore left out.
Having said all this, however, I have to admit that Radical Hollywood is very valuable for tracing which screenwriter, director or (less commonly) actor did indeed have left-wing or liberal-left connections in Old Hollywood. The authors make a point of noting, whenever a name is first cited, who was or who was not a blacklistee or an “unfriendly” or “friendly” witness to the HUAC in the McCarthy era. They also play the usual tiresome games (so common among left-wing ideologues) of denigrating, or diminishing the importance of, people like the talented directors Edward Dymtryk and Elia Kazan, who turned against the Hard Left and who, for very good reasons, were willing to name names. And as is usual in books of this kind and persuasion, the implications of Communist Party membership in the 1940s and 1950s, with its inevitable endorsement of Stalin’s regime, are either glossed over or covered in sly apologia for Stalinism.
Typical of the film’s style would be this passage, dealing with the notorious wartime propaganda film Mission to Moscow (1943), which presented Stalin’s Soviet Union as a cheerful, progressive, open democratic society. To justify this film, the authors write in a singularly dishonest passage:
Mission to Moscow… was…real Hollywood in its often grotesquely caricatured narrative realism. Since silent days, a similar degree of narrative leaps had been common fare about any manner of American (and other) subjects, historical and current, not at all infrequently romanticising human rights violation in the name of progress, notably when aimed at unruly non-white natives of any kind. Gone With the Wind, Hollywood’s biggest film of the decade, would be hard to beat as historic justification of a system vastly more widespread, brutal and lasting than Stalinism. Likewise, the usual treatments of warrior colonizers, whether Euro-Americans in the Indian or Mexican-Indian Wars, the British in India, and so on, earned no censure outside the left-wing press.” (p.240)
This paragraph is a typical example of what the historian Robert Service has called the “you too” argument to which members of the old Hard Left are driven when the sins of the regimes they once admired are revealed and proven. Apparently, according to this paragraph, a film that whitewashes Stalinism is perfectly acceptable because there were Hollywood films that whitewashed colonialism, slavery, imperialism and so forth. Surely it would be more rational to argue that none of these films was really justifiable.
Interesting though I found some of the incidental detail, I finally closed Radical Hollywood with a thought quite at odds with what the authors clearly intended me or other readers to have. A reader unsympathetic to the authors’ viewpoint could easily take the hard data they produce as evidence that there really was in Old Hollywood a group of people intent on undermining mainstream American values, and that therefore measures taken against them were fully justifiable.
But this reading is hardly what the authors intended.

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Evelyn Ehrlich’s Cinema of Paradox is quite a different kettle of fish. This is a systematic study of how French cinema fared in the four years (1940-44) that half of France was under direct Nazi German occupation, and half was controlled by the collaborationist Vichy regime. The interesting point here is that French cinema, in the 1930s, had been dominated by people of liberal-left persuasion. On the whole, the same personnel continued to work in French films during the period of Occupation. With a few tweaks, the type of films they created were the type they had been creating before the war. So this is the “paradox” of the title – liberal-left film-makers making films that were acceptable to Nazi and Vichy censorship, but oddly without too severely compromising their artistic standards.
I’ll say at the beginning that some of the fascination of this book resides in its documented anecdotes, at least some of which contradict popular legend.
One concerns the misanthropic, but brilliant, director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who has sometimes been described as “the French Hitchcock” because of his severely intellectual approach to the suspense thriller. (Clouzot is probably best remembered now for two hits he made in the 1950s – La Salaire de la Peur / The Wages of Fear, and Les Diaboliques). Immediately after the Liberation in 1944-45, Clouzot was in deep trouble because of one film he made during the Occupation. This was Le Corbeau (The Crow), released in 1943. As brilliant and misanthropic as all Clouzot’s films were, Le Corbeau is a very unflattering story of life in a small French town, which is pulled apart by anonymous poison pen letters. After the war this film was interpreted as anti-French propaganda and leaders of the Resistance managed to get Clouzot blacklisted for three or four years, and prevented from resuming his career as a director. There was circulated a story (totally untrue, as it turns out) that the film had been released in Nazi Germany under the title A French Village…. Like All the Others, with the implication that Nazis enjoyed seeing its unsavoury characters as “typical” of French “decadence”. But as Evelyn Ehrlich is able to document, the film had been planned, and its final shooting script completed, before France’s defeat in 1940. Le Corbeau riled people (Vichy censors as much as Resistance leaders) for its relativistic view of morality at the time when people on all sides wanted morality to be seen in more black-and-white terms. Clouzot had made a great film at a very inconvenient time.
Another series of interesting anecdotes in this book concern the actor Robert Le Vigan. Before and during the war, Le Vigan played a series of supporting roles under leading French directors, often in films that starred Jean Gabin. But the characters he played were often fanatics or mentally unbalanced. In 1935 he played Jesus (!!!) to Jean Gabin’s Pontius Pilate in Julien Duvivier’s Golgotha, one of the few French films to tackle a biblical subject. He played the despairing actor who commits suicide in Jean Renoir’s Les bas fonds (1936), an adaptation of Gorki’s The Lower Depths. He played another suicide in Marcel Carne’s proto-noir thriller Le Quai des Brumes (1938). And he played yet another suicide in Jacques Becker’s story of peasant life Goupi Mains Rouges (1943).  Most convincingly, Le Vigan portrayed men who were wild-eyed and staring and clearly somewhat unhinged. And there was a reason for his being so convincing in these roles. Le Vigan himself was mentally unbalanced. Late in the war, Le Vigan had sided with the violently anti-semitic writer Celine and was pouring out radio propaganda for collaborationist radio. He was cast in a leading role in Marcel Carne’s masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis, but by then Allied armies had landed and were advancing on Paris. Knowing that he would be punished for his outlandish propaganda work, Le Vigan scarpered (first to Germany, later to Spain and to Argentina), and his role in Les Enfants du Paradis was taken over by the great actor Pierre Renoir (Jean Renoir’s brother).
But here’s the really odd thing about Le Vigan’s story. Even French actors and directors with impeccable anti-Nazi and Resistance records were very protective of Le Vigan, and tried to have him removed from any post-war blacklist. This was because the whole French artistic community was aware that Le Vigan really was psychologically damaged, a fantasist given to hallucinations and wild mood swings, and that in a very real sense he wasn’t responsible for his actions. (As late as the 1960s, the nouvelle vague director Francois Truffaut was trying to have Le Vigan rehabilitated.) The man was a real nutter who played fictitious nutters.
Fascinating anecdotes such as these apart, the chief purpose of Evelyn Ehrlich’s Cinema of Paradox is to document how films were produced in the years of Occupation. Her main contentions are these:
First, that in the first couple of years of Occupation (1940-42), Vichy censorship, trying to promote the Petainist ideal of Travaille – Famille – Patrie, was actually much harder on French film-makers than the German censorship in the Occupied Zone was, it being always understood in both zones that certain topics (politics, the war, Occupation) could not be handled at all in films.
Second, that in wartime France there were virtually no overtly pro-German or propagandist films made. The very few that appeared – such as the anti-Freemason Forces Occultes and the anti-Jewish Les Corrupteurs – were second features that were poorly attended by audiences, poorly received by critics and soon withdrawn from circulation.
Third – and this is Ehrlich’s main thesis – the strategy of Dr Goebbels was really to leave French cinema alone and not interfere with it, so that it could be the “prestige” European product that would obliterate memories of Hollywood. Ultimately, Goebbels hoped, wartime French cinema would be the Trojan Horse that allowed German films to penetrate new territories. The wartime production company Continental Films was an almost-entirely German-owned outfit that financed many “prestige” French films of the era that are still regarded as classics.
Given that most of the personnel who made films in wartime France were the same liberal-left people who had made films in pre-war France, the post-war “epuration” (“purification” or “purge”) ended up punishing very few people in the film industry – and then usually the wrong ones.
Quite rightly, Ehrlich is very sceptical of the claims, often made after the war, that many wartime French films carried covert and allegorical Resistance messages. One famous example is Marcel Carne’s medieval fantasy Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942), a story of the Devil arriving in person on Earth and thwarting the lives of lovers. At the end of the film, the lovers are turned to stone, but the Devil is enraged that their hearts are still beating. It is often claimed that this was intended as an allegorical presentation of France under Occupation (the Devil = Hitler), and the beating heart was meant to symbolise the survival of eternal French values. But as Ehrlich points out (a.) the film’s scriptwriters disavowed any such allegorical intent, even after the war when they could have claimed such intent to their credit; and (b.) Vichy and German censors, even if they were serving a monstrous cause, were not idiots, and were capable of seeing, and weeding out, any “Resistance” allusions, should they appear. I would add (c.) that having seen Les Visiteurs du Soir a number of times, I find it to be overwhelmingly a witty discourse on love in the classical barbed French fashion, and if any political intent is there, it is so fleeting as to make no impact at all.
And yet, of course, desperate for at least some sign of Resistance in their wartime viewing, there were members of the French audience who clung to this “beating heart” image as a sign of hope, regardless of the film-makers’ intentions. 
One final point – Ehrlich notes that films which presented French characters in a positive light were often embraced equally by both collaborators and resisters. Her prize example is the 1944 film Le ciel est a vous (The Sky is Yours), about a French couple who become heroic aviators. The film was praised equally by the Vichy press, which saw it as the story of French characters thriving under their regime; and by the covert Resistance press, which saw it as dramatizing the qualities that would enable France to rebuild after the Germans were gone and the war was over.
Truly, it can be a perilous business assigning a precise political significance to feature films.

Silly but necessary footnote: Not too long ago, it would have been very difficult to access and view many of the films mentioned in this review. Now, thanks to Youtube, and thanks to the DVD collections of university libraries, it is possible to access very many of them. In reviewing this book about French wartime cinema, I can say that the only films mentioned which I have not seen are Golgotha, Le ciel est a vous and the two propaganda films Force Occultes and Les Corrupteurs, which are probably suppressed and which I’m not sure I’d want to see anyway. Thank you, Youtube. Thank you university libraries.

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