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Andrew Sarris (#110 of 17)

Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema

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Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema
Review: James Naremore’s An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema

If Daniel Herbert’s Videoland views the video store as a history without a future, then James Naremore’s new book, An Invention Without a Future, suggests that cinema, as it came to be defined by various cultural forces throughout the 1960s and ’70s, may be meeting a similar fate as well. At least, the title seems to suggest as much, though it’s actually taken from cinema pioneer Louis Lumière, who supposedly made such a statement regarding the cinema to his brother around the end of the 19th century. There’s no actual record of the remark; Jean-Luc Godard, among others, has attributed the statement to Lumière. Whether apocryphal or not, its ambivalence suits Naremore’s tongue-in-cheek title quite well, since the totality of An Invention Without a Future is anything but a coup de grâce for cinema. Quite the contrary, as Naremore’s collection of essays here, some written years ago, though amended in key places to address contemporary developments, is divided into three sections, but coheres to form an urgent, nearly comprehensive plea to take cinema seriously from a multitude of perspectives.

Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

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Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951
Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

In spite of a subtitle that suggests a survey of German exile cinema over an 18-year period, Gerd Gemünden’s new book cunningly circumnavigates the typical pitfalls of cinema historicism by turning his focus to a variety of themes, influences, and industrial forces, rather than singling out only one. While canonical films such as 1942’s To Be or Not to Be and 1943’s Hangmen Also Die receive chapter-length studies, so too do less exhausted works like 1934’s The Black Cat, 1939’s The Life of Emile Zola, and 1949’s Act of Violence, each with precise and comprehensive results.

Gemünden is an excellent writer; his introduction clearly sets the terms of analysis without losing the rigor one expects from an academic text. In particular, his extensive definition of “exile” draws on the likes of theorists Theodor Adorno, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie to explain how complex self-expression can become when displaced from one’s homeland—what Adorno would call the “damaged life.” Nevertheless, Said and Rushdie are more optimistic, emphasizing that while many things are lost in translation, something may also be gained. Gemünden defines this gain for German exile cinema during this period as an “in-between” state that engages the traditions of Weimar cinema, but also forms a “dark mirror of Nazi cinema.” Ultimately, this leads to one of Gemünden’s larger questions: What does authorship mean in relationship to exile?

Review: David Andrews’s Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond

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Review: David Andrews’s Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond
Review: David Andrews’s Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond

As evidenced by the title of David Andrews’s latest book, his scope entails both offering an evolved definition of “art cinema” and explaining how said definition must relate to numerous cinemas, be they traditionally labeled cult, mainstream, avant-garde, or art. The plurality in “cinemas” is of utmost importance, since one of Andrews’s primary objectives is to dismantle the lines between legitimate and illegitimate art cinemas, explaining how there is and always has been a considerable overlap between these various incarnations. As such, his ambitious and heavily researched work addresses issues of auteur theory, the historical relationship between avant-garde and art films, and the role that technology has played in redefining these terms.

Andrews produces here an academic text, with its litany of references to film journals such as Screen and Camera Obscura and even addresses the practice of film studies explicitly at times, explaining how several scholars have needlessly complicated these issues by conflating terms such as “mainstream” with “Hollywood,” or insisted upon retaining dividing lines between various forms of cinephilia (he cites Jonathan Rosenbaum as a primary culprit here). Nevertheless, Andrews remains acutely attuned to both potential criticisms in his logic by addressing them head-on, while never sliding into overtly academic-speak or rhetoric that could obscure his points, which makes Theorizing Art Cinemas a thrilling revelation from front to back.

Death by Art Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

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Death by Art: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento
Death by Art: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

“What the fuck is this bullshit psychoanalysis?” are the wonderful words spoken by Jeremy Irons’s Beverly Mantle in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), and if you follow the arguments of L. Andrew Cooper in his new book, the films of Dario Argento often share a similar opinion. Cooper claims Argento, though labeled early in his career as the “Italian Hitchcock,” spent his early, gialli-focused years lambasting and lampooning “Freudian proclivities,” most notably in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), which positions itself as a Psycho (1960) homage, only to jest at Hitchcock’s insistence upon closure via psychological ends. In fact, Cooper argues that aesthetics, especially beginning with Deep Red (1975), become a replacement for both psychoanalysis and narrative in Argento’s films, leading him toward an interest in visual excess, which would culminate in Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), films that “in their combinations of wild visuals and storylines that challenge storytelling itself, were unlike anything the world had ever seen.” If the previous claim reads slightly clunky and definitely hyperbolic, it’s likely because Cooper’s book, on the whole, is torn between its academic and populist inclinations. Unlike Maitland McDonagh’s revelatory Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, which strikes an invigorating balance of analysis, theory, and historicizing, Cooper states from the onset his desire to “eschew a traditional auteur approach.” Necessarily, this leads him down a rather predictable post-structuralist path, replete with deconstructionist close-reading after close-reading—all of them informative and knowledgeable, certainly, but few, if any, of them truly illuminating the depths of Argento’s oeuvre, beyond relatively fundamental distinctions between form and content and Argento’s non-normative subversions.

Understanding Screenwriting #97: Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave, Bernie, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #97: <em>Snow White and the Huntsman</em>, <em>Brave</em>, <em>Bernie</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #97: <em>Snow White and the Huntsman</em>, <em>Brave</em>, <em>Bernie</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Snow White and the Huntsman; Brave; Turn Me on, Dammit!; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; Safety Not Guaranteed; Bernie,; An Appreciation: Richard Zanuck; Two Semi-Appreciations: Andrew Sarris and Nora Ephron; The Conspirator; Bunheads, but first…

Fan Mail: Generally by the time Keith posts one column I have the next one written. I then wait a couple of days to read the comments, add my comments in this “Fan Mail” section and send it. On #95 I sent it off without yet having seen the very interesting comments by “DevilMonkey.” He had been sent a link to that column by a friend who thought that since DM didn’t like superhero movies, “it’s practically made to order for you.” DM thought that column was merely “okay,” but since he remembered reading my book Understanding Screenwriting, he decided to read some of the past columns and ended up reading all of them. That’s above and beyond the call of duty, and if I gave out medals DM would get one.

He particularly liked the Sturges Project and would like to see me do one on Billy Wilder. The advantage to doing Sturges that way is that he had that four-year period of great creativity, while Wilder was wonderful off and on for thirty years. But there are some Wilder films I really want to do. I got a DVD a couple of years ago of Ace in the Hole (1951) that I still have not watched and that I want to do in the column. What other Wilder films to pick? The list goes on and on.

DM raised the very interesting point that I have not done a lot of films from the ’60s and ’70s. He asks, “Is it a silent commentary on your sentiments about films from that era, a matter of personal taste, or just a question of priority and time?” I first wrote that the answer is all of the above, which is usually the best answer to a question like that. But I do like films of the ’60s and ’70s very much. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, and covered in depth in my Understanding Screenwriting book) and Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963) are two of my favorite movies. And of course Coppola’s two, The Godfather (1972) and The Conversation (1974). I think part of the reason I had not dealt with the films of those two decades is that I dealt with them a lot both as a historian and writer (look at the Annotated Study list in my 1982 Screenwriting book) and as a teacher. At one of Coppola’s many bankruptcy auctions we picked up a gorgeous 35mm print of The Conversation, which I showed nearly every semester for thirty years. I covered several films from the period in my screenwriting class, showing them in sequences over the course of the semester and discussing them in screenwriting terms. So I sort of felt I had dealt with those. But I still have my notes. And scripts for some of them. Did you know that the “dream scene” of Harry and the wife (Cindy Williams) in The Conversation was a “real” scene in the screenplay? Or that Harry originally had a wicked sense of humor? So now that DM has provoked me, you may look forward to more films from the ’60s and ’70s.

Oh, like any good writer, DM saved the punchline until last: it turns out he had not read the book Understanding Screenwriting at all, but something with a similar title. I assume he is making up for that lack in his life even as we speak.

And now, on to the comments on #96: Matt Maul had a different reading of the last scene of the season finale of Mad Men. Matt thought that Don was walking away from the commercial shoot unhappy rather than satisfied. I am not sure there is the visual evidence for that in the shot, but it’s perfectly possible to read it that way. Which is the sort of ambiguity that we love about the show. David Ehrenstein noted that they did give the black secretary a nice scene with Peggy. It was a nice scene, but I still wish there had been more of them. Ah, well, that’s what next season is for. Maybe she’ll become romantically involved with Don. Or with Joan.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, screen story by Evan Daugherty. 127 minutes.)

This is the script Tarsem Singh should have directed: You may remember that one reason I whacked Mirror, Mirror in US#94 is that I did not think Tarsem Singh was the right director for it. He did not handle the comedy well, and the producers hadn’t provided enough production values to make it live up to his visual sense. There is hardly any comedy in this script, and the producers give the director Rupert Sanders the kind of production values Singh would work wonders with. Sanders works enough wonders that when I first saw the trailer, I assumed it was Singh’s film.