Lines of Inspiration: Popular Cinema to Art Cinema
One of the best and most fascinating things about cinema is the tension between its status as art and its status as industry. There is nothing new about this idea. But the way we construct the categories of 'popular cinema' and 'art cinema'--in starkly opposing fashion--holds them further apart than they really are or should be. It's good to be reminded of this on a regular basis.
So, my ears always perk up when I hear art filmmakers claim popular filmmakers as inspirations and influences. Let me relate a recent instance. Last month, of the 25 or so films I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival, the most memorable was To Die Like A Man, by Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues.
To Die Like A Man is a rich but challenging film about an aging drag queen/cabaret singer on the brink of a sex change operation. She has volatile and difficult relationships with both her junkie lover and her young, psychologically unstable son. The film is challenging because it never settles into a single comfortable narrative mode; it's forever shape-shifting. At various points, it becomes: melodrama, "queer realism," a musical with songs (but frequently without musical accompaniment!), a Wizard-of-Ozian fantasy, a breathtaking ode to silent cinema, and (in one brilliant moment) a medical documentary in which a doctor demonstrates a sex change operation using origami.
But here's the important thing: These shifts don't resemble the collage and pastiche practices that we sometimes associate with a certain kind of popular "postmodern cinema". To Die Like A Man presents itself to us, with no confusion, as an art film.
In the Q&A after the screening, someone asked Rodrigues about the film's unusual opening, resembling a war movie, in which a squad of soldiers moves through a forest in the darkness. It was inspired, he answered to everyone's surprise, by Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! He added that he screened Douglas Sirk films for the cast during production. I would not have dreamed, without being told, that this film held classic Hollywood as an important forebear.
This isn't an isolated, freak example. In 1995 the journal Projections, in collaboration with Positif, devoted an issue ("Film-makers on Film-making") to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of cinema. In this issue, each filmmaker contributes an essay, big or small, devoted to her or his signal inspirations in cinema. The number of art filmmakers choosing to speak about popular films or filmmakers is eye-opening.
Chris Marker turns in an impassioned 8-page essay on his all-time favorite film, Vertigo. Catherine Breillat performs an insightful analysis of Elia Kazan's Baby Doll, which affected her powerfully and spurred her to write 36 Fillette. And arch-modernist Greek director Theo Angelopoulos writes of growing older and refashioning his personal history of cinema in the form of fragments: a few faces, gestures, shots, and words. Turns out they all belong to popular cinema:
The cry 'I don't want to die!' in Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces; Orson Welles' damaged face in Touch of Evil; the young Irish girl dancing with Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine; Ingrid Bergman's face full of love in Notorious; Peter Lorre's monotonous whistling in M; these short moments, shots cut out of the films they belong to, make up the one film which marked me, the film which still does.
One the best accounts comes from Raul Rúiz. He tells the story of seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat for the first time, and experiencing an utter revelation: here was a film that was an unconscious inspiration, a proto-Rúizian narrative unbeknownst to him.
Several times I had been linked with Edgar G. Ulmer and I usually disagreed [...] People as different as Jérôme Prieur, John Zorn and J. Rosenbaum had compared me to him. Now at last recognition came to me, and as in an old melodrama, I exclaimed: "Father!' and he replied 'My son!'
For at least twenty of my films find their source in The Black Cat. Each scene in the film is transformed, and completed, into one of mine.
A couple more examples. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about Straub's admiration for Chaplin:
Over a decade ago, Jean-Marie Straub made this startling observation: “A lot of people think that Eisenstein is the greatest editor, because he has some theories about it, but this is not true. Chaplin was greater, I think, in editing, only it is not so obvious. Chaplin was more precise than Eisenstein, and the man after Chaplin who is the most precise is surely Rivette.”
What Straub had in mind, I think, is Chaplin’s and Rivette’s ability to edit in relation to content: emotional content, narrative content, performance content. For both directors, editing is a precise answer to the question of what a particular shot’s meaning is–where this meaning begins and where it ends.
Finally, Pedro Costa's love for Jacques Tourneur is well-known, and is also evident in his first feature, O Sangue.
So, I wonder: can we collect some examples here of art filmmakers who have held up popular cinema as an important inspiration or influence?
pic: Boris Karloff in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). Also: here are two valuable interviews with João Pedro Rodrigues, by Michael Guillen and Dennis Lim.