Cinematic Vocabulary – The Opening to Went the Day Well? (1942)

In my recent piece about Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) I discussed the difficulty of attaining genuine cinematic realism.  But this makes a number of largely unwarranted assumptions about realism as a concept.

It assumes that there is a difference between something being factually correct and something being realistic.  Johnny Mad Dog might well express true stories about what it is like to be a child-soldier but this does not necessarily mean that it is ‘realistic’.  In fact, in my piece, I chide Sauvaire for allowing an editorial tendency to creep into the film.  I reasoned that because the world does not contain neat little truths, any attempt to present a cinematic audience with neat truths is unrealistic.  This suggests that realism is an entirely different formal quality than factual accuracy.  It assumes that ‘realism’ also carries with it certain aesthetic demands and formal demands.  This is, to put it bluntly, an idiosyncratic view.  It presents realism as an aesthetic and moral ideal that can be aspired to but almost never achieved :  Art, being artificial, is necessarily in some sense false.

For this piece, I have decided to look at the issue of realism from an entirely different perspective.  To present it not as an ideal but rather as an affectation, a stylistic quirk.  A quality that has only a tangential relationship with factual truth and almost no relationship whatsoever with the moral imperative to speak the truth and present the world as it really is.

What better place to start then, than with propaganda?  Art that is conceived precisely not as a means of telling the truth, but rather as a means of convincing people that a false vision of the world is in fact correct.  One way in which propaganda can be made more believable is if it chimes in some sense with the world-view of the people it is aimed at.  Propaganda films are works that are false but have that ring of truth.  They rely upon that ring of truth to be effective.

One of the best examples of this kind of film-making (along with 1942’s In Which We Serve by Lean and Coward) is Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well? An absurdly fantastical every-day tale of valiant little Englanders banding together to fight off a cohort of brutish Nazi paratroopers dressed as British soldiers.

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Cinematic Vocabulary – Three Moments from Irma Vep (1996)

So far, Cinematic Vocabulary has focused upon isolated cinematic scenes.  The reason for this is that, while matters of style and technique impact upon entire films, it is frequently easier to isolate these aspects of a film by filtering out issues of narrative and characterisation that tend to function more on the level of entire films than on that of individual scenes.  However, as with atoms and tables, there is a point where the small things come together to form something recognisably large.  This column is about how a series of scenes can link up in order to form a part of a wider thematic arc.

A few months back, I wrote about Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002).  Intrigued by the cerebral and somewhat extreme piece of French film-making, I tracked down the best known of Assayas’ works, Irma Vep (1996).  Set behind the scenes of a fictional remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent era crime pulp Les Vampires (1915), Irma Vep casts Hong Kong martial arts veteran Maggie Cheung as herself playing the titular Irma Vep character.  Much like Truffaut’s Day for Night (1974), Irma Vep uses its film-within-a-film structure to comment upon the nature of film production in general and the health of the French film industry in particular.  The result is a hugely rewarding film filled both with touchingly funny moments of human frailty and insightful critiques of what French film has lost and where it should be heading.

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Cinematic Vocabulary – The Opening to This Man Must Die (1969)

As with most of the big names of the New Wave, Claude Chabrol began his cinematic career as a critic for the Cahiers du Cinema.  This critical career culminated with the release in 1957 of a book about the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  This attraction to Hitchcock’s style and subject matter followed Chabrol when he ‘crossed the aisle’ from criticism to film-making and his early output quickly earned him a reputation as the ‘French Hitchcock’ and the influences can also be seen in the film I am going to be writing about today.

Que La Bete Meure (1969) was adapted by a novel by the British poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis.  It is the story of a man who tries to avenge the death of his son by tracking down the man who ran him over.  After seducing the man’s sister-in-law and infiltrating himself into the killer’s family, the grieving father discovers that the family have no more love for the thuggish monster than he does.  The scene I want to talk about is the extraordinary opening sequence leading up to the death of the child and the father’s discovery of the body.

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Cinematic Vocabulary – The Psychotic Break from Repulsion (1965)

It is a pleasure to return to Cinematic Vocabulary and kick off Polanski Week by looking at what I consider to be one of Polanski’s less appreciated films.  While The Tenant (1976) is the darling of cinephiles and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is second only to Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) in terms of mainstream appeal, Repulsion is sometimes overlooked as an early work, sandwiched as it is between Polanski’s break through film Knife in the Water (1962) and his more famous Hollywood projects.

However, it is my contention that Repulsion is a substantial landmark on the the road of Polanski’s artistic development.  The low-budget British Horror film allowed him not only to perfect some of the cinematic techniques that would feature prominently in his later works but also to tackle some of the themes dear to the generation of 1930s surrealist film-makers who clearly had quite an influence on Polanski’s thinking.

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Cinematic Vocabulary – Opening Scene of Touch of Evil (1958)

Write enough reviews and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of films as discrete cultural units.  Artefacts cut asunder from the rest of the world and presented to the audience in a neat little package.  Thinking of films in these terms tends to lead one to focus upon macroscopic issues such as plot, performance and theme whilst ignoring the fine-grained details of the film such as the cinematography, the sound editing and the techniques used to convey those plots and themes.  In an attempt to wean myself away from thinking of films as discrete cultural artefacts, I have decided to write a series of pieces that focus on individual scenes from a critical perspective.  My own take on the Anatomy of a Scene series if you will.

The first scene to go under the microscope is the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

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