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Review: Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

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Review: Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Edgar G. Ulmer may have been a filmmaker at the margins, but Noah Isenberg’s new book is completely within the bounds of normative critical biography, constructed as a narrative that diligently marches through the outré director’s life and career with an eye toward chronological and historical enlightenment, but lacks additional engagements to elevate the work above these modest achievements.

Isenberg begins with an all-too-brief framework for establishing what’s at stake in a re-evaluation of Ulmer. Devoting not even two full pages to Ulmer’s status as a cinéaste maudit among those writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s, Isenberg quickly moves toward biographical reconstruction of Ulmer’s childhood years in Vienna. Thus, Isenberg’s early mention of Manny Farber’s “termite art” in relation to Ulmer is less provided as a framework and more a passing reference that gains little traction throughout the remainder of the book.

In concerning himself more with facts than historiographic elucidation, Isenberg embraces the biographic over the critical dimensions entailed in his chosen methodological approach. With regard to facts, Isenberg’s study is overflowing, with hundreds of sources used to cull together a detailed timeline of Ulmer’s professional life, with sporadic attention paid to his private—a wise move for Isenberg, since the inclination to explain Ulmer’s films as expressive of his émigré roots is carefully articulated, especially in regard to the filmmaker’s 1933 film Damaged Lives, which, while outwardly concerned with a man who contracts syphilis while cheating on his wife, expresses the “social ostracism” Ulmer often expressed himself.

As a focus on Ulmer’s filmography, especially the time spent making films on Poverty Row at Producers Releasing Corporation, Isenberg’s detailed accounts of films and production histories are most welcome. The pages devoted to 1939’s Moon Over Harlem cannily explain Ulmer’s persistent career battles with the Production Code Administration. There’s also a lengthy passage on 1945’s Detour that carefully examines the microscopic budget and six-day shooting schedule that came to define Ulmer’s reputation as a filmmaker who helped pioneer the visual style of film noir. As defined by Isenberg, Ulmer’s noirs exist in the margins between classical noir and the more-political film gris, and he does a commendable job of explaining this effect both here and in his stand-alone BFI book devoted to Detour, published in 2008.

Unfortunately, the plethora of factual chronology elides a larger purpose for this monograph, which often reads like a Wikipedia entry on the filmmaker expanded to book length. Fostering this impression isn’t just the relative biographical placidity of Isenberg’s framework, but awkward examinations of individual films, which makes only a moderate effort to penetrate deeper significances beyond each film’s initial critical reception and replete with basic and misplaced analytical claims. For example, Isenberg likens the “meandering plot” of 1930’s People on Sunday to an episode of Seinfeld, a critical gesture that reads imprecise with regard to People on Sunday and perplexingly misrepresentative for Seinfeld, a series that ultimately prided itself on cleverly resolving the plotlines of all four main characters in every episode. When discussing 1934’s The Black Cat, Isenberg notes that the film is “in keeping with the American tradition of happy endings,” which is another reductive bit of summation that says little with regard to specific cultural theorization.

Such a generality comes to define Isenberg’s prose, which finally offers the ponderous statement that it’s “hard not to wonder what Ulmer might have pulled off with little more than an iPhone and his boundless imagination.” In point of fact, it’s quite easy to remain inconsiderate of such a question, since the strangeness and idiosyncratic qualities of Ulmer’s films eludes Isenberg’s grasp, with only minor attention paid to providing Ulmer’s fascinating life and work a suitably, alternatively approached examination of his “expressive esoterica.” For those merely seeking a factual timeline for Ulmer’s life and work, Isenberg’s book will satisfy, but exhaustive research alone isn’t criteria enough to make for a progressive critical work.

Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins is available now from University of California Press; to purchase it, click here.