Received Ideas in Cinema
You may remember Christian Keathley from his stimulating guest post on "Uncanny Overlaps" a few months ago. In an e-mail last week, Chris was musing about "received ideas" in cinema, and I'd like to share his thought-provoking words here for us to read and talk about. -- Girish.
Jean-Marie Straub once remarked: “People think Eisenstein was the best editor because he had some theories about it. But the greatest and most precise editor was Chaplin, and Jacques Rivette is a close second.”
I love the way this remark turns upside down certain received ideas that we think are set in stone. The received idea here has to do less with Eisenstein than with Chaplin. The established line is that Chaplin was the great humanist filmmaker, and maybe the greatest movie actor of all time; but when it comes to “cinematic” qualities, Keaton is the one who shines. Apparently, Straub sees things differently.
I read this remark of Straub’s years ago, but was reminded of it when my friend Prakash Younger told me about Robert Bresson’s contribution to one of the Sight & Sound Top Ten polls.
1. City Lights
2. City Lights
3. The Gold Rush
In addition to being funny (indeed, Prakash described this as Bresson’s version of a Chaplinesque gag), this list reinforces something of Straub’s point: clearly, the modernists Straub and Bresson see in Chaplin a formal rigor that the general line does not account for. Even when the rest of us acknowledge the general line on Chaplin as a “received idea,” with all the limitations that term implies, that line still holds an influence that can blind us to these other virtues.
Similarly, there are possibly qualities in Eisenstein that the general line on him overlooks as well. Another of my favorite quotes comes from him: “Suppose some truant good fairy were to ask me … ‘Is there some American film you’d like me to make you the author of – with a wave of my wand?’ I would not hesitate to accept the offer, and I would at once name the film that I wish I had made. It would be Young Mr. Lincoln directed by John Ford.” This remark makes me want to re-watch Potemkin more than Young Mr. Lincoln. Are there common qualities, especially qualities in the Eisenstein, that I hadn’t seen before in these films that seem so obviously to contrast one another in so many ways? Those critics who have typically fawned over Eisenstein, Straub, and Bresson (I’m thinking here of the likes of Michelson, Burch, Sontag) never alerted me to any such correspondence.
A key part of the pleasure of these quotes is that each involves a filmmaker of the highest rank speaking candidly (and unexpectedly) about the work of another. None of this nonsense of a director saying what he thinks he's supposed to say. (In the 1952 Belgian Cinematheque poll, both Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder picked Potemkin as the greatest film of all time. I don’t believe it for a second.) A great example of a director speaking candidly about others is the fabulous interview with Jacques Rivette in Senses Of Cinema. It’s filled with great remarks about other directors. Two of my favorites: “Here's a good definition of mise en scène - it's what's lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” And on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games: “What a disgrace, just a complete piece of shit!” The second remark is just funny, while the first raises a pretty important issue.
A word of thanks to Chris for those reflections. They've got me thinking. Sometimes received ideas become reinforced and cemented by being brought up repeatedly as critical short-hand. For example: Samuel Fuller's films are "primitive"; Lang is all about fate; Ozu celebrates quiet resignation, and keeps his camera low and static; Chabrol makes Hitchcockian films that are bourgeois satires; Bresson is austere and minimalist; Peckinpah's films revel in ultraviolence, etc, etc. Now, these pronouncements aren't exactly false, but by no means are they the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem is that they 'fix' filmmakers too easily and quickly, thus constraining our thinking about them to certain pre-determined pathways.
I'd enjoy hearing from you: What do you think are some "received ideas" in cinema, some too-familar wisdoms that might need questioning or doubting? And are there (like in Chris' examples above) filmmakers who might help us do this by expressing unexpected affinities for certain films or directors we wouldn't normally associate with them?
-- At Auteurs' Notebook, David Phelps has an epic, image-filled post on Rivette and Celine and Julie.
-- New articles at the Moving Image Source: Adam Nayman on Peter Lynch; Jonathan Rosenbaum on Marcel L'Herbier; Mark Asch on Tomu Uchida; and Tom Charity on the Chris Fujiwara-edited Defining Moments in Movies.
-- The debut issue of Experimental Conversations ("Cork Film Centre's online journal of experimental film, art cinema and video art"). via Albert Alcoz at Visionary Film.
-- Kevin Lee posts two enjoyable video essays: C. Mason Wells on Truffaut's Les deux anglaises et le continent; and Chris Fujiwara on Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon.
-- Michael Sicinski has me curious to check out Definitely, Maybe and The Invisible Circus ("I'm ready to conclude that this Adam Brooks fellow may well be a severely underrated pop filmmaker.")
-- On my list to track down at the library: the new issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, which is devoted to Hou Hsiao-hsien and includes pieces by Hou, Adrian Martin, Paul Willemen, Shigehiko Hasumi, Kumar Shahani, and others.
-- Kristin Thompson on types and characteristics of "turning points" in Hollywood storytelling.
-- At his blog The Cine File, Andrew Schenker reviews Richard Brody's new biography of Godard.
-- New DVD releases that I've just added to my 'queue': Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, and Blue; Andre Techine's The Witnesses; Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares; Anthony Mann's The Furies; and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.
pic: Rivette from the interview: "Starship Troopers doesn't mock the American military or the clichés of war - that's just something Verhoeven says in interviews to appear politically correct. In fact, he loves clichés, and there's a comic strip side to Verhoeven, very close to Lichtenstein. And his bugs are wonderful and very funny, so much better than Spielberg's dinosaurs. I always defend Verhoeven, just as I've been defending Altman for the past twenty years."