Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling
by David Bordwell
One night not long ago I found myself once again drawn into a movie from the tail end of the 1940s. This one, with the thoroughly generic title Backfire (not to be confused with Crossfire or Criss Cross or Backlash), did not come with a high pedigree. It had sat on the shelf for two years after it was filmed in 1948, and afterward seems to have faded quickly from recollection. But movies of that time, when they emerge decades later, have devious ways of holding the attention: beguiling hooks and feints lead deeper into a maze whose inner reaches remain tantalizing no matter how many times those well-worn pathways have been explored, and no matter how many times the interior of the maze has led only to an empty space.
an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, March 2–June 10, 2018
Grant Wood became famous pretty much overnight in October 1930, when American Gothic was included (a last-minute choice after being initially rejected) in the annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Chicago Evening Post slapped a photo of it on the front page of its art section under the headline: “American Normalcy Displayed in Annual Show; Iowa Farm Folks Hit Highest Spot”; the image was picked up by newspapers across the country, all quick to underscore the painting’s corn belt authenticity. Wood—whose most notable previous achievements had been successive first prizes in art at the Iowa State Fair—found himself at thirty-nine not only a celebrity but the embodiment of a movement, or at least the journalistic notion of a movement, steeped in patriotic overtones. Few artists have been worse served by their defenders.
an opera by Thomas Adès, with a libretto by Tom Cairns and Thomas Adès based on a screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, directed by Tom Cairns
“People go to a dinner party and for some reason they can’t leave,” a Met patron was explaining to his companion as we waited in the lobby for the doors to open for Thomas Adès’s new opera, The Exterminating Angel. Of all plots it must be the easiest to recap.
Jonathan Gould has written an absorbing and ambitious book about a life cut short, a life devoid of the melodrama and self-destruction that enliven the biographies of so many of Otis Redding’s contemporaries. He was far from an overnight success, but from the moment he began pushing toward a musical career—as far back as his formation, with some childhood friends, of a gospel quartet calling themselves the Junior Spiritual Crusaders—he moved only forward. He lived by his own precept: “If you want to be a singer, you’ve got to concentrate on it twenty-four hours a day. You can’t have anything else on your mind but the music business.”
The rattled breathlessness of Lesley Manville’s delivery as Mary in BAM’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, as if half a second’s interruption would bring everything crashing down, established the state of things in the Tyrone household with no delay: the masks are already off. Manville’s Mary is not merely distracted but positively a junkie with screaming nerves. The play is a work that mercilessly tests each actor’s ability to inhabit roles that are not characters but beings, summoned by an authorial process that can only be conceived as an occult attempt to restore speech to the dead.
Originally made for French television in 1994, as part of a series of hour-long films, Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water was released in France at feature length the same year. A quarter of a century later, with rights finally cleared for Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Nico, Alice Cooper, Donovan, and the others whose music provides not merely flavor but structure, Cold Water can finally be recognized as a singular masterpiece on the most familiar of themes, the sufferings and misfortunes of youthful passion.
The metaphor of couture is hard to avoid in a film so centrally involved with measuring and cutting and sewing, stitching and unstitching. The very visible boldness of the editing, the leaps and ellipses, keep the idea of cutting very much at the forefront. A crucial scene in which a wedding dress must be repaired overnight evokes both an emergency medical operation and the race against time to reshape a film in the editing room.
Measure for Measure invites updating, but it’s in the nature of the work that whatever contemporary analogies are invoked cannot quite make sense of what happens. The play is a perpetual questioning machine, exquisitely functional, set to a relentless tempo, yet a machine that bristles and crackles in its joints with contradiction and discomfort.
Noah Isenberg discusses his new book, Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, with critic Geoffrey O’Brien. Despite the success of films like Detour (1945), Ulmer spent most of his career as an itinerant, overlooked filmmaker.