Back on the book beat
Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014).
One of my undergrad professors told me: “Bordwell, you have to decide whether you’re going to be a reading man or a writing man.” Professors of the male persuasion talked that way then. When I said I wanted to be both, my mentor puffed his pipe. He really smoked a pipe. He said: “It’s damn hard.” This kindly man knew English Renaissance drama and poetry practically by heart but never wrote a book.
I start to see what he means. For some decades, I managed to read a fair lot and write a decent amount. You’d think in retirement it would get easier. But I have too many interests and projects, and publishers dump a heap of intriguing items on the market every week. The months go by, the books pile up on the side table and on the floor, and I try to keep up. I really do. I’m always behind.
So at intervals I stop obsessing about 1910s cinema and 1940s Hollywood and Rex Stout and how best to think about film form and style, and I swerve to what colleagues are discovering. Turns out, quite a bit. What better time than a plague to catch up?
Flooding the zone
What’s it like to live across the street from a prolific polymath?
For twenty-five years we had as neighbor James W. Cortada, a genuine intellectual range rider. Trained as a scholar in Spanish diplomatic history, he finished his Ph.D. in one of the worst hiring years: 1973, the same year I came out. I was lucky to find work, but Jim took a job selling IBM computers. Eventually he became an executive specializing in innovation and management.
But he was also a compulsive researcher and writer. While holding down a desk job and supervising staff and toting PowerPoints around the world, he managed to publish books in a host of areas. He was a guru of Total Quality Management, producing books and yearbooks on the subject. He also became a premiere historian of computer technology, with such classics as Before the Computer. What I like about this book is the way it integrates study of the tools and machines with examination of the office-based practices of sorting, bookkeeping, and other mundane activities. Unbelievably, Jim continued his graduate interest in Spanish political history. Along the way he wrote a research manual (History Hunting), turned out a study of 9/11’s impact on business, and edited with Alfred Chandler a massive book on information in US life.
Jim writes any size. He has produced The Digital Hand, a magisterial trilogy surveying the use of computers in American life. What about the rest of the world? That’s covered in The Digital Flood, another showstopper. Then there’s IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon, which is the definitive account of a corporate behemoth, with access to information only an insider could obtain.
Not to mention (so I’ll mention it), Jim’s more or less single-handed creation of a whole discipline: the history of information. The ideas are there in early works, but the first crystallization was the stupendous All the Facts, a sweeping survey of how Americans passed along data–not just in business but in cookbooks, diaries, maps, and other vessels of knowledge.
Since 1971 Jim has authored or edited over seventy books. Retirement has revealed what a slacker he was before. Between March 2019 and March 2020, he published four volumes. He also found time to head our neighborhood association, contribute many articles to professional journals, play with his grandkids, and banter over burritos at El Pastor (before lockdown).
You haven’t lived until your neighbor drops by at the cocktail hour with the cheerful greeting, “How many words did you write today?” Fortunately, he’s utterly generous. Jim reads everything I show him, immediately giving me helpful advice. He’s just an all-around intellectual who, because of the 70s job market, wound up in a non-academic line of work. He shows what you can do if you have brains, pluck, and a hunger to find things out. Long before our millennial “knowledge workers,” he showed what a rigorous university education could bring to corporate culture.
Probably the most immediately significant items in Jim’s recent output are two books he wrote with William Aspray. From Urban Legends to Political Fact-Checking: Online Scrutiny in America, 1990–2015 is a scrupulous in-depth account of how fake facts and the debunking of same stretch back to the very origins of the Net. The book digs back to pre-Internet online legends circulated on Prodigy and America On Line, chief among them being the infamous Willie Lynch letter purporting to instruct planters how to discipline their slaves. The bulk of the book shows how over twenty-five years, rumors and half-truths become depressingly long-lived.
In charting the surging infection of lies, pranks, and blatant dumbassery, the authors also show how snopes and other fact-checking bodies try to catch up. Still, I found the persistence of even the stupidest ones discouraging. Trump’s 2015 assertion that he saw Arabs in New Jersey celebrating 9/11 is an example of the “Celebrating Arabs” meme that popped up immediately after the Trade Center was hit. Asked about it, he asserted: “It was on television. I saw it.” That’s all you need.
Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misrepresentation in America is broader and aimed at a more popular audience. It offers eight historical episodes as case studies in rumor and deceit. The earliest instance is the presidential election of 1828, which blended corruption, sex, and racism in an intoxicating cocktail: “General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE. . . . She afterwards married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which member General JACKSON is one!!!” Nice to know triple exclamation points aren’t an invention of tweens and trolls. The book surveys conspiracy theories around the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, mythmaking in the Spanish-American War, and disinformation in controversies about Big Tobacco and climate change. It’s a completely fascinating read.
It’s also fairly dispiriting. It brings out the Mencken in me, admittedly never far from the surface. The books suggest that the venality of hoaxers, the credulity of the multitude, and the social incentives to hide the truth and spread lies don’t promote a public demand for accuracy and nuance. What we see now, in the Republicans’ current attempt at a fascist takeover of our civil society, is the implementation of Steve Bannon’s suggestion to “flood the zone with shit.”
It’s not that the wacko alternatives carry much weight, though they do play to darker desires. More important is the sheer firehose fusillade of preposterous claims. Who can keep up? Nuanced fact-checking seems only to add to the swirl of uncertainty. Are coronavirus cases being undercounted? Overcounted? Confusion and overload are central to the plan. Instead of “Drain the Swamp,” the motto is “Swamp the Drain.”
So books like Jim’s and Mr. Aspray’s buoy us as we paddle to keep our heads above the waves of sludge. Meanwhile, Jim is eight chapters into his next opus.
Jim’s work as a historian of business technology reminds us that tech is a part of film history too. But for many decades, materials, machines, and tools weren’t sufficiently reckoned into the study of film. Scholars of early cinema were, I think, the first to examine the standardization of equipment and film stock; Gordon Hendricks’ dauting Edison Motion Picture Myth (1962) situated the emergence of moving-image technology in the context of Edison’s corporate strategy. Eventually, by the 1980s, people were considering the role of camera and lens design, lighting rigs, film stock, and camera carriages in shaping film style. Our book The Classical Hollywood Cinema was one effort in this direction.
Since then many scholars have turned to the histories of image and sound technology to clarify their research questions. Patrick Keating’s The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood is a model of how to integrate information about labor practices, technology, and industrial organization with the results in the finished film. He shows, for instance, that the menu of options available to filmmakers in staging and cutting scenes had knock-on effects in choices about camera mobility, which in turn was facilitated by particular dollies, cranes, and other gadgets available.
His analyses of scenes from 1930s and 1940s films, both classic and obscure, train the reader in what to watch for. In all, it’s a persuasive meshing of functional explanations of style with causal accounts of what goes on behind the scenes–not least, the sheer sweat of pushing dollies and following focus. He draws an enlightening contrast with the brain-work of producers, screenwriters, and directors.
The work of production is bodily. The actors move their arms and legs and torsos, and the grip and operator move theirs. Each must anticipate the others’ gestures, like dancers in an ensemble. the Hollywood studio system relied on preproduction planning in order to rationalize production, but the process of filmmaking ultimately came down to craftspeople working together in the moment. One type of collaporation was corporate; the other was corporeal (158).
A graduate of our program, Keating carries forward our respect for filmmaking craft, including its more toilsome routines.
No less sensitive to the concrete demands of technology, and the ingenious workarounds that can be discovered, is Charles O’Brien’s account of the international transition to talkies, Movies, Songs, and Electric Sounds: Translatlantic Trends. Like Keating, he’s studying a body of conventions, here those that arose in the vogue for the international “song film” in 1928-1934. And like Keating, he’s very precise. He measuresg average shot lengths and brings out the implications of how much time is devoted to songs or dialogue.
But this is no simple data dump. O’Brien charts the various strategies in which song sequences allude to the theatre situation and absorb themselves into the ongoing story line. He traces a distinction between the Hollywood song sequences, which were quickly relegated to farces like the Marx Brothers films, and the European sequences, which adapted more varied forms, such as pantomime and verse-like dialogue stretches. The latter strategy was especially common in Germany, partly due to the studios’ commitment to direct sound. O’Brien offers a particularly cogent account of the virtuoso carriage scene in The Congress Dances (1931), which in its joyful excess remains stunning today. (See clip above.)
O’Brien further contextualizes his discoveries by considering broader business culture, such as the market in song recordings and sheet music. All in all, a tight, coherent account of how technological change introduces both functional equivalents of existing techniques and spillover effects–unexpected advantages that artists can exploit.
Shawn VanCour’s Making Radio: Early Radio Production and the Rise of Modern Sound Culture focuses similarly on technology and craft at this period, bringing in other institutional pressures on craft workers making audio artifacts. In fascinating detail, Shawn (another UW alumnus) shows how the separation of body and voice created by radio broadcasts posed many problems for engineers, writers, and other staff. One result was a sort of “practical theory,” a body of ideas about what radio essentially was, alongside particular practices that shaped both technology and dramaturgy.
For instance, everybody recognized the need to dramatize story action with sound effects and music, but paramount was the need to keep dialogue clear. The compromises and trade-offs were debated in trade journals and executed on the airwaves, with fascinating effects on standards of proper audibility. One consequence was the valorization of a “radio voice,” the mellifluous tones suited to the new medium’s demands, both technical and institutional. VanCour shows that these debates were picked up in the motion-picture industry at the period O’Brien investigates. Sometimes, less often than we think, inquiries do converge in fruitful ways.
At intervals of a decade, Paolo Cherchi Usai has rethought the ideas and evidence informing his exploration of silent film. Burning Passions (1991) was a precise manual for archival research. Silent Cinema: An Introduction (2000) was a deeper plunge, taking into account digital transformations that he explored in the contemporaneous The Death of Cinema (2001). Now, he has gone Full Cortada with the massive Silent Cinema: A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.
This is an encyclopedia that reads like a series of engaging art history lectures. In his opening, Paolo acknowledges the avalanche of new material he faced. More than fifty thousand features and shorts have survived from the years 1894 to 1929, and research has expanded accordingly. He pursues three questions: What was silent cinema thought to be at the time? How may we study it? And why does silent film matter as an expression of culture? These questions are pursued in fifteen chapters bearing one-word titles like “People,” “Building,” “Duplicates.”
No summary can do justice to the world that this book opens up. We learn about the machines, the venues, the processes, and the people. There are floorplans of studios and theatres, comparisons of different color processes (gorgeous), and discussions of how projectionists regulated the speed of the show. The book devotes a whole chapter to theatre acoustics, the use of sound effects and recordings, and even the clapper sticks used by the benshi commentators in Japan. Another fascinating chapter traces the fate of a single film through multiple versions, from camera negative to digital format. Throughout, Méliès’s Trip to the Moon is used as a benchmark to remind us of all the ways that every copy is a unique artifact, a claim that Paolo has advanced consistently over the years.
Silent Cinema is a must-have book for everyone interested in cinema of all eras. Its publication price made it the film-book bargain of the year, but Bloomsbury and Amazon are now offering it on obscenely generous terms. If you’re not a silent fan, this giddy ride can make you one.
Auteurs never went away
The Headless Woman (2008).
At intervals people tell us that we need to stop studying directors and turn instead to Culture or Other Collaborators or some other inputs. Surely the classic formulations of auteur criticism have some problems. Still, it’s terribly hard to shake the idea that a great many films are usefully understood in light of directors’ purposes and plans. Directors play a central role in the production process and under certain circumstances are granted the possibility of building a body of work. We can argue about Roy del Ruth or Michael Bay, but not certain “strong filmmakers” who have, as Andrew Sarris put it long ago, personal visions.
An obvious example is the obstinately eccentric Jacques Tati. In just a few films, he changed our conception not only of film comedy but of the art of cinema itself. How that happened is the subject of Malcolm Turvey’s fine book Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comic Modernism. Malcolm, who just last week contributed a guest blog on research into neuroscience and camera movement, is a major scholar of cinematic modernism. Here he shows that in spirit Tati is an experimental filmmaker.
There’s an extensive body of close analysis on Tati, to which Kristin in particular contributed as far back as the 1970s. Malcolm adds to this with some keen studies of framing, sound, and gag structures. What he brings to the table is the way that distinctively modernist conceptions of humor and comedy find their way into this vaudeville-inspired entertainer. From aleatory gags–apparently random synchronizations of noises and movements–to fragmented and incomplete or unconsummated gags, such as the precarious taffy that doesn’t quite plop off its hook, Tati intuitively reawakens the spirit of irrational laughter that inspired avant-gardists.
Malcolm traces Tati’s lineage back to Albert Jarry, Jean Cocteau, and the avant-garde’s fascination with circus and music hall. Other sources were Chaplin, Léger, and René Clair. In a sort of feedback loop, the avant-garde borrowed from slapstick comedy, while Tati’s cinematic transformation of music-hall numbers into decentered, absurd, or perplexing cinematic sequences revives the anarchic spirit of the modernists. His satire of the postwar managed society sought to make us see the world around us from a potentially subversive angle. The dreary vacation routines of M. Hulot’s Holiday and the opaque surfaces and chilly contours of Mon Oncle and Play Time are disrupted by characters who revel in disruption, and a filmmaker who imagines our daily march easily turned into charmingly clumsy dance. Beneath the paving stones, the beach, went a May ’68 slogan. “His was the quintessentially avant-garde project,” writes Malcolm, “of closing the gulf between art and life” (p. 237).
Tati went his own way, but many of our auteurs are part of larger schools or trends. From almost the beginning of cinema, historians have talked about movements or schools whose members share broad goals or generational sources, but who then can be distinguished by virtue of their particular sensibilities. Such, for instance, is Christian Petzold. One of “the Berlin School” of filmmakers coming to prominence in the 1990s, he has gained fame internationally, particularly with Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014), and in 2018 Transit. I’m still catching up with his oeuvre, having seen these films at festivals (along with his contribution to Dreileben, 2011), and I’m also roaming among the no less interesting work of his colleagues, particularly Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan.
All the more welcome, then, is Brad Prager’s monograph on Phoenix in the Camden House German Film Classics series. This is an admirable close reading of Petzold’s film, bringing a range of cultural references to bear on the suspenseful story of a woman returning from a death camp to a husband who, it turns out, has his own guilty secret.
Prager skilfully invokes the citations–Vertigo, Siodmak’s work, American noir–and considers how Petzold’s genre affiliations (he often makes politically inflected thrillers) merge with his examination of trauma in German history. It isn’t easy to do justice to the film’s remarkable climax, which I decline to spoil for you, but Prager manages it. This scene is one of the great fake-outs in recent film, I think, and Prager is alive to all its bleak ironies, including the heroine’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.”
Phoenix (the book) is a model of compact, probing analysis. I’d be happy to have Prager tackle another Petzold, especially one I just saw and much admire, his first feature The State I Am In (Die innere Sicherheit, 2000), which seemed to me to do for Fritz Lang what Phoenix does for Hitchcock. More generally, Petzold has a pictorial exactitude we seldom see nowadays, and he deserves wide-ranging study.
The New Argentine Cinema wasn’t as cohesive a group as the Berlin School, but there’s little doubt that Lucrecia Martel emerged as one of its singular talents. I remember the jolt of seeing La ciénaga (2001) and immediately taking frames from a 35mm print so we could feature it in Film History: An Introduction (2d ed., 2002). The Headless Woman (2008) at Vancouver confirmed my sense of a major talent, and most recently Zama (2017) confirmed it. Kristin wrote an appreciation from the Venice premiere. It was the best film we saw there and one of the finest of that year.
All the features of a classic auteurism were here (and in The Holy Girl, 2004): persistent themes, distinctive plotting, signature style. These qualities are given full consideration in Gerd Gemünden’s Lucrecia Martel. Gerd has done a thorough job in surveying her career and dissecting the films. He shows that she is especially interested in rendering physical sensation–textures, touch–through evocative images and sounds. Anybody who has seen La ciénaga can’t forget the opening scene’s glimpses of a scummy swimming pool and flaccid necks and groins, let alone the wine and splinters of glass splashed onto a drunken woman’s corrugated chest. The rain in The Headless Woman is no less palpable, while the humid torpor of the colonial outpost in Zama is sticky almost beyond endurance. This tactility makes Martel’s stringent criticism of class inequities even more powerful.
This critical aperçu finds its place in Gerd’s comprehensive account of Martel’s oeuvre. As is usual in the series Contemporary Film Directors (yeah, an auteur title for sure), we get detailed production dossiers, wide-ranging background on literary sources and cultural context of reception, and close studies of the films. There’s also a rich bibliography and an interview with some surprises; for such an elliptical, visually oriented director, Martel claims that oral storytelling is a primary inspiration.
Auteur studies are not what they used to be. Instead of paeans to directorial genius, they can be subtle, wide-ranging discussions of what Eliot called “tradition and the individual talent.” Acknowledging influences, circumstantial pressures, forced choices, opportunities, and the like, our writers can show that some directors still build up films that yield resonant personal expression. Choice within constraints: that’s the story of creativity in all the arts, and the most nuanced auteur accounts can show how that process works in fascinating detail.
Will we still have books as the coronavirus burns its way through our lives? Can publishers survive? Yes, we’re sequestered, and maybe that’s encouraging us to read more; but people will have a lot less money for books. What will entice us to invest in personal libraries?
An encouraging sign is that so many of the books on film here have very fine illustrations, many in color. So thanks to the publishers for understanding thatwell-reproduced pictures can attract readers as well as document arguments. And Silent Cinema includes a filmography with references to online collections. With books like these, we can correct and expand what my old prof said: You can be a reader and a writer and a viewer. Now we just need time, and safety.
Each of these books represents an integral research project, but all are part of larger research programs too. Jim Cortada’s work is an epic instance, but we find the same trajectory in the film scholars’ careers. As writer, archivist, and filmmaker, Paolo Cherchi Usai has devoted his life to silent cinema. Patrick Keating’s study of camera movement joins his first book on the history of Hollywood lighting. Charles O’Brien has already given us a fine-grained comparison of the conversion to talkies in the US and France. Shawn VanCour is active in archiving sound and is exploring radio’s relation to other acoustic media. Malcolm Turvey’s book on Tati joins his earlier books on avant-garde filmmakers’ conceptions of vision and 1920s modernism in Europe. Petzold’s film is a natural step beyond Brad Prager’s work on Herzog and on visuality in German Romanticism. Gerd Gemünden’s many books include one on German exile cinema and Billy Wilder’s American films.
Kristin’s writings on Tati from the late Seventies are in her Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis.
Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971).