The demise of Filmstruck is a major loss to the world of cinema. If you were to log on to film Twittertm – that specialist ghetto of cinephiles (“or what you’d call film buffs” as Matthew remarks early in the late Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) you would realize that many of us are in mourning for a rapidly depleting film culture.
Across the country, most Americans do not have access to an art house theater, and it’s even less likely that they would have access to a repertory theater. Those in New York City can pick their poison between the Metrograph and Film Forum and Village Quad Cinema. Heck they’ve even got the NiteHawk in Williamsburg. Those in LA have the New Beverly. Most of us, however, are just plain out of luck.
Two years ago Filmstruck seemed like the solution. A collaboration between Warner Brothers and the Criterion Collection, Filmstruck was a hand-curated outfit that seemed like film school on a Roku. From Rohmer to Ozu, Sembene to Akerman – world cinema was at your fingertips. You want to spend 83 minutes with Alma from Persona? Sure can. You could check in with Guido Anselmi or Sam Spade or Mabel Longhetti or any of several versions of Orpheus by just pressing a button…and now it’s gone.
A Half Remembered Dream Factory
Every day we seem to forget more of our history. Hollywood is no exception. Often they seem to be leading the way. Hollywood has always been America’s dream factory, and there are some real talented and nice people out there – people who care desperately about movies.
Yet, because of the vagaries of corporate America, and the rush to the all-mighty dollar that capitalism surely compels, Hollywood has become a system that is ruled by puffed-up Harvard MBA’s in slick two-button suits looking for ten percent profit on the next remake.
Now, I don’t really have anything against these people, it’s just that many of them don’t really know or give a lick about the classic days of the industry, the history of world cinema, or even current world cinema beyond their own distribution pacts. They only worry whether their new one hundred million dollar piece of content is going to be allowed to play in China, and whether it will allay some its substantial budget with international pre-sales.
In turn, we have the creation of these monster conglomerates through very big mergers such as Disney buying Fox, or in our case AT&T buying Time Warner, which has led directly to AT&T shutting down Filmstruck.
See, they want to invest only in core businesses that will generate substantial return. This makes complete sense from a business perspective. Except, in the olden days of Hollywood the guys that ran the place, like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, saw the picture business as more than just a profit machine. They understood they were creating a product that was intangible – a motion picture, not a widget.
Sure, they were interested in making money, they damn well weren’t commies, but at the same time they were making something near Art and they were passionate about it.
There was a time when it felt like cinema could change the world. In his review of The Dreamers (to circle back), Roger Ebert reminisces that back in ’68, Chicagoans were lined up on the sidewalk in the rain to see Godard’s Weekend. Imagine that now? Wouldn’t happen.
AT&T closed Filmstruck because they believed it was niche. Great cinema like Casablanca and King Kong, The Seven Samurai and Weekend, which all those people lined up for all those years ago, is now just niche content.
What’s the use of going to a movie theater if movies are just content no different from a YouTube video? Hollywood has forgotten its heroes. Cinema seems to have forgotten what cinema is all about – stories that move us or elucidate the world around us – or even sometimes elucidate feelings or emotions so deep-seated they would never stir without that silver-screen mirror.
The last three movies I watched on Filmstruck were the creepy Japanese ghost story Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959), the vibrantly alive magical realist bossa nova-driven romance Black Orpheus (1959), and Mikio Naruse’s masterful Floating Clouds (1955). Maybe my feeling towards Filmstruck and cinema itself is like Naruse’s lovers’ warmer brighter past in French Indochina – a deeply romantic paradise to which we can never return.
I certainly hope that’s not the case. I hope the future of cinema and the future of repertory streaming services spreads out before us like a mighty bounty.
To ensure this, we all have do our part. Watch movies. Buy movies. All movies. Become cine-literate in everything. Especially the classics.
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Preservation in the Post-Filmstruck Era
What’s next? The terrific physical media company The Criterion Collection is starting their own streaming channel. Will it succeed? Only if enough of us are interested in preserving our globe’s sometimes shared, sometimes divergent cultural heritage.
Films are doorways into past and future worlds. These stories have shaped us, and allowed a plethora of fascinating cultures to share their preoccupations, hopes, and fears with other, sometimes very different people, in every far-flung nook and cranny of this astonishing world. These dreams, stories, and feelings are too important to be allowed to just fade away.
Please preserve them.
Write to David B. Sporn at email@example.com
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Keye Luke: An American Son
Following an in-depth look at American actor/playwright, the late Sam Shephard; Cadrecinematique examines another American film icon, Keye Luke.
Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, two of early Hollywood’s biggest Asian American movie stars, wound down their careers portraying Zen masters on the popular TV series “Kung Fu”. Almost fifty years had passed since anti-miscegenation laws had prohibited Asian actors from playing romantic leading roles opposite white women, and Luke and Ahn were once again playing Asian stereotypes in support of a white actor in yellowface. As playwright Frank Chin asks, “From Fu Manchu to ‘Kung Fu’ – Is that progress?”
However, unlike Frank Chin, Keye Luke was genuinely satisfied with his Hollywood career and what he viewed as the transitioning representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1985 Luke stated that he was satisfied with the progress of Asian representations:
“The Chinese laundryman and the Japanese gardener may still be with us, but most Chinese and Japanese now find themselves in the mainstream of American life.”
Keye Luke was not the first Asian star in Hollywood. Sessue Hayakawa, a favorite actor of Cecil B. DeMille, roared to stardom in 1915. Hayakawa’s performances, like those of other Asian American actors of the early studio era, were valued for their intrinsic otherness. Hollywood played up the exoticism of American born Asian actors such as Anna May Wong who was cast as the proverbial ‘Dragon Lady’ in such films as Daughter of the Dragon (1931).
Keye Luke, although an actor of the same generation, never embraced these stereotypes. Throughout his studio era film career Luke always remained a distinctly American presence. In a career that spanned sixty years and over a hundred films, Keye Luke transitioned from playing brash young Americans to more traditional Hollywood representations of Chinese. This implies that identity is conceived through binary oppositions. One can only be Chinese or American. Keye Luke believed progress in the cinematic portrayal of Chinese and other ethnic groups would be incremental.
Towards the end of his life Keye Luke remarked that no role was ever more satisfying than his role in “Kung Fu”; he was finally able to share Chinese philosophy with the general American public. Keye Luke transcended the dichotomy of being trapped between two dissonant cultures. He remains the exuberant boy next door and the kindly paternal sage for a society in which identity is not solely conceived through race.
Keye Luke: An All-American Boy
Keye Luke was born in Guangzhou, China in 1904, but grew up in Seattle. Luke studied architecture at the University of Washington, dropping out in order to work, after the death of his father. A gifted artist, his first job was designing sheet music covers for a local Seattle music shop. He soon moved to Los Angeles and began working as a newspaper illustrator. His illustrations were highly praised. In a 1928 Los Angeles Times article written by art editor Arthur Miller; Lawrence Binyon, the director of prints and drawings for the British Museum, was quoted as saying,
“I expect that in vitality of line, Mr. Keye Luke altogether surpasses Beardsley… but I confess I fear for the future of this young artist if he remains in the West… I would like to see him back in China bringing new life and inspiration to Chinese art.”
Although critics hold Luke in high regard, few publishers had hired him as an illustrator for Western stories. Miller would ask a question of Luke’s art that holds true regarding his work in film,
“Can oriental and occidental art be blended successfully? It remains for Keye Luke, perhaps, to be the proving ground for or against this question.”
During Luke’s time in Los Angeles he also painted several murals in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1930, after returning to Seattle to paint murals for department stores, he was hired by Fox West Coast to draw artwork for their theater chain. Soon he was moved to the publicity department where he ironically drew illustrations for early Charlie Chan films. In 1931 he moved to RKO where he drew advertising art and billboards. At RKO he illustrated the press-book for King Kong.
In 1933, Lou Brock, an RKO producer, was packaging a sequel to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger vehicle Flying Down to Rio, and wanted Luke to play a love interest for Anna May Wong. Keye Luke remembers turning to Brock and saying, “Lou, I am an artist not an actor.” In a 1934 interview with the LA Times, Luke admits being immediately hooked on the idea of becoming an actor. He believed that his performances could have a positive effect on the Chinese American experience,
“This is something that I suppose -that I hope-I’ve always been headed for…I think I can accomplish much more as an actor than as an artist, because of the wider reach of the medium. I want to play good, representative types, so as to help clear up the debris of misunderstanding and misconception of the Chinese which Americans may have, and vice versa. And I want to be a real credit to the industry…”
Brock did cast Luke in a series of short subjects. Luke’s eloquent command of the English language led to being cast in The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo and his future Charlie Chan co-star Warner Oland. Luke recalls that doors suddenly started opening for him,
“The thing that helped me so much was that all my former advertising bosses and so on opened doors for me. And the newspaper columnists – like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Jimmy Starr – they gave me lots of publicity because I had done artwork for their columns.”
Number One Son
After filming The Painted Veil he was called by one of his former publicity bosses at Fox, who said,
“Come out here and we’ll see what we can do now that you’re a Cantonese ham.”
Luke headed down to the older Fox studio on Western Avenue, and was greeted by Jim Ryan, a casting director, who said,
“Keye, do you know we’re going to put a Number One Son in the Charlie Chan pictures and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play it.”
This meeting was his big break. Fox signed him to a contract. Luke would work opposite Warner Orland in eight Charlie Chan films. Warner Oland’s worsening alcoholism and failing health prompted him to leave a ninth Charlie Chan collaboration which was re-written as a Mr. Moto film albeit with Keye Luke’s Lee Chan playing a large role.
Luke subsequently left the Charlie Chan series when the title role was recast. He respected Warner Oland, and over the course of their eight films together, the Swede had become his mentor. He jumped from Fox to Monogram where he starred in the low budget serials The Green Hornet and The Phantom of Chinatown.
A Chinese Andy Hardy
After those serials ended, Monogram cast him as a supporting character in a series of comedies built around their star Frankie Darro. The success of the Darro pictures prompted MGM to sign Luke and cast him as a young All-American intern in the Dr. Kildare films. His character, Dr. Lee Wong How, is a revival of Luke’s Son Number One star image – brash, enormously positive, and sweet. He also appeared as Dr. Lee in Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, which is fitting because Lee Chan’s all American relationship with Charlie Chan parallels Andy’s relationship with his father, Judge Hardy.
The Dr. Kildare series ended in 1947 with Dark Delusion. Luke returned to Monogram and was cast once again as Lee Chan, playing opposite Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, who was six months younger than Luke. The film roles began to dry up for the youthful looking, but middle-aged actor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Luke shifted to television work and voice acting; although, in 1958 he performed on Broadway in The Flower Drum Song to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s that he experienced a career resurgence.
Keye Luke was cast as Master Po in “Kung Fu” which ran from 1972-1975. The show was extremely popular and his character was a pop-culture sensation. For the first time in his career, Keye Luke’s visage was adorning lunchboxes.
In 1984 Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante cast Luke as the wise Grandfather, Mr. Wing in Gremlins. His last role was as the sage herbalist in Woody Allen’s Alice. In effect, Son Number One became Charlie Chan. Keye Luke, who played highly energetic All American characters for the first half of his career, ended his career by playing a series of traditional (some would argue stereotypical) Chinese characters.
Just as these old men sought to teach Confucianism and natural order to their students, Keye Luke sought to share Eastern philosophy with mainstream America. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke contends that he was never happier than when performing these traditional roles,
“I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue. It worked for me on every level.”
Within the Chinese-American community Keye Luke’s career is divisive. He is recognized as the Chinese-American actor best known to American audiences. As a contract actor in the studio era he played many different types of characters. Many Chinese-Americans lauded him as a man who broke through a racist system and demonstrated that Chinese-Americans were little different from any other Americans.
“I have played many…. characters in the mainstream. Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles — lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.”
However, some Asian-American scholars have demeaned him for appeasing institutional racism. Television scholar Darryl Hamamoto decries that:
“With few exceptions, Keye Luke’s outstanding career was predicated upon his ability to portray the stock array of Asian domestic servants, laundrymen, mystics, gangsters, and enemy soldiers.”
While it is true that Luke has played stock characters over the course of his long and varied career, the Chinese launderer in Manhandled and an evil communist soldier in The Bamboo Prison as examples, these excursions do little to diminish the distinctive American-ness of his star image for the first thirty years of his career. Hamamoto is correct to label Luke’s television output as more problematic. During the 1960s Luke was forced to play an array of stock Asian characters. These roles were all that were available to a middle-aged Chinese American actor at that point in Hollywood’s history.
Focusing on these roles is to ignore Luke’s achievements. For the majority of his career he played characters “lawyers, doctors, businessman,” that were strong role models for young Chinese Americans.
Allan Luke, Keye’s nephew and a theorist studying multi-literacy linguistics at Queensland University of Technology understands Hamamoto’s position but defends his uncle,
“…my Uncle was no dupe, no sellout, no Uncle Tom, no Banana… He was many things. He was a mirror. He was a prism. …And perhaps like so many migrants – he was an actor… he worked to survive in good faith, within and through a fundamentally racist medium.”
The Charlie Chan films are not inherently racist. Charlie Chan is a character of the highest ideals. He is intelligent, resourceful, respected, and modest. He is a family man and shares a strong bond with his eldest son. He is also played by a white man. This did not bother Keye Luke. He understood this type of casting was a commonplace at that time. To Keye Luke, what was important was the portrayal of the Chinese ethic.
In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke was asked about his opinion on yellowface in classical Hollywood films. He replied,
“I didn’t see anything odd about it at the time and I still don’t. Acting is an art that transcends race and color. When I came to Hollywood there were only a few Chinese here and no other Orientals.”
A Real American Icon
The Son Number One character was first introduced in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Paris. Lee Chan does not appear until almost twenty minutes into the film. After investigating a crime scene, Charlie Chan returns to his room. The door, which he left he open, has been locked. He unlocks the door and hears a sound from the bathroom. He pulls out his gun, and in his stereotypical manner says, “Come out, please.” A man comes out, a towel covering his head. Keye Luke finishes drying his hair and pulls away the towel. He looks up at his father and smiles, and immediately begins speaking in an upbeat unaccented machine-gun Hechtian cadence,
“Hello pop! What’s the matter? Did I scare you?”
The character is unlike any other in Hollywood film of the time. He is Chinese sans otherness. As soon as he speaks, the surprised audience pictures a sort of Andy Hardy-esque teenager. The proverbial boy-next-door. Ethnicity is transcended.
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To Hear, One Has Only to Listen
At the end of his career Keye Luke began playing sage older men, similar to Charlie Chan. The two most famous of these traditional characters are Master Po from “Kung-Fu” and the Grandfather in Gremlins. Both characters allowed Luke to channel Eastern philosophy to the American masses. A famous scene in “Kung Fu” revolves around Caine (David Carradine) meeting the blind master for the first time. As they talk, Master Po asks Caine if he can hear the grasshopper at his feet. Caine responds, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” Luke responds, “Young man, how is it that you cannot?” Luke was satisfied that this type of dialogue conveyed aspects of Chinese philosophy.
Critics like Frank Chin disagree, “The more brilliantly meaningless the lines, the more wooden, stilted and archaic the English, the more Chinese they (Americans) think it is.” It is pointless to argue whether these lines themselves have meaning. On the screen, infused with Luke’s warmth and humanity, “To hear, one has only to listen,” can inform a generation, no matter if it was written by a Confucian master or a Hollywood hack.
Towards the end of his life, Keye Luke was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, directly across from Grauman’s Chinese theater, which he helped design more than sixty years earlier.
Keye Luke belonged to the first generation of Asian-American actors. However, he stood out. Within a racist industry, Luke created a purely American star-image.
Keye Luke should not be demeaned for the demands of the studio system. He should be remembered for opening the door for a generation of actors that will never have to endure classical stereotyping and institutional racism.
Write to David Sporn at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Frank Chin. “Kung Fu is Unfair to Chinese” The New York Times
 Arthur Miller. “ROMANCE WEAVES AURA AROUND WORK OF YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN ARTIST” Dec 16, 1928
 The Sequel to be called Ho for Shanghai never materialized. Brock was fired off the project after studio in-fighting.
 Ken Hanke. Charlie Chan at The Movies. History, Filmography, and Criticism
 Los Angeles Times July 22nd 1934
 The New York Times. Keye Luke, Actor, Is Dead at 86; ‘No. 1 Son’ and ‘Kung Fu’ Master
 Darryl Hamamoto. Monitored Peril
 Allan Luke. “Another Ethnic Autobiography”
 In 1972 Keye Luke voiced Charlie Chan in “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” an animated series by Hanna and Barbera. He fittingly became the first person of Chinese descent to portray the character.
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Sam Shepard – America Personified
“Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head. It moves us into an area of mystery…” – Sam Shepard, 1975
Since I was a little boy I always believed that Sam Shepard embodied the American Dream. You could see it in his eyes – the rugged individualism of Western Manifest Destiny that made this nation great. Maybe that’s because I first glimpsed the man in Philip Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) as Chuck Yeager, the most famous of America’s test pilots. And to every kid that grew up watching ‘The Right Stuff’, test pilots were modern America’s cowboys – great adventurous men that lived and worked outside the normal bounds and rules of our conventional society.
The Right Stuff
In the ‘The Right Stuff’, Sam Shepard – tall, lanky, and blessed with those all-American looks that somehow always seem to skip the coasts – is introduced in the desert, silhouetted in front of a giant Western sun. He stands solemnly (do real heroes stand any other way?) in the back row of a small funeral for a nameless fallen test pilot.
After an establishing close-up of Yeager, we next see him on horseback, again first glimpsed in silhouette, watching Glamorous Glennis, bearing an expression that conveys fear, amusement, and a religious fascination with his craft, all hidden under a mask of placid calm. Sam Shepard’s Yeager is a man of preternatural calm. He speaks with that curt profane Western poetry that has all but disappeared from the States. Maybe it never left the desert.
The man is a myth; we never really learn that much about Yeager, we only learn the legend. Sometimes legends are enough. Shepard, like Yeager, is bigger than life, way bigger. No matter! In this case learning a few of the facts will do little to diminish the legend.
Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1943. Fort Sheridan was a military outpost in the affluent North Shore suburbs of Chicago. His mother was a school teacher, a Chicagoan by birth. His father, a bomber pilot in the US military, was stationed in Italy when Shepard was born.
The family moved around constantly, finally finding a stable home in Duarte, California when Shepard was still young. At the time Duarte was a town of about 13,000 people. Although not far from Pasadena, Duarte was an agriculture town thick with avocado groves.
Shepard had a difficult relationship with his father, and described him as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic”. (On a side note – Shepard’s description of his father is a great example of his poetic, near perfect, use of language in a concise and pithy manner that excises that loquacious East-Coast blather. Second side note, years later, Shepard would have his own troubles with drink, culminating in two well-publicized drunk driving arrests in 2009 and 2015.) I’ll allow Shepard to further describe his father thusly –
“He had a tough life – had to support his mother and brother at a very young age when his dad’s farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one. My father was full of terrifying anger.”
From a young age, Shepard’s passions ran towards the outdoors. He excelled at rugged athletic pursuits that one would expect from such a prime example of square-jawed Americana. In 1961, he enrolled in Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California to study agriculture. In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, Shepard described a life-changing moment in his college experience –
“I happened to get into a literature class, I don’t know how exactly, with a lot of guys from that area whom I had never had any contact with; for lack of a better word they were beatniks. They lived in this big old house and one of them was a painter and they were smoking a lot of dope out there, and they had stuff lying around like Beckett plays, Jackson Pollock reproductions, which I’d never heard of. That was the first encounter I had with Beckett, with jazz, abstract expressionism. And then I just left.”
Shortly after dropping out of college, Shepard joined Bishop’s Company Repertory Players, a small religiously oriented traveling theater company. They traveled the country by bus, mainly playing church groups. They performed Christopher Fry plays. Fry’s a great playwright, a favorite of Margaret Thatcher, but a far cry from Beckett and theatrical abstraction.
Shepard escaped the company during a stopover in New York City. The young performer was now alone in an unfamiliar and indifferent metropolis.
Portrait of an Artist
By happenstance, Charles Mingus III, the son of jazz bassist Charles Mingus, was living in Greenwich Village, and had attended Duarte High School with Shepard. Shepard crashed with Mingus, who got him a job as a busboy at the Village Gate, the famous nightclub.
Living and working in Greenwich Village, Shepard found himself in the center of the emerging experimental theater scene. Not surprisingly, the majority of the staff at the Village Gate were aspiring actors.
During his off-hours, Shepard watched plays at the newly opened Caffe Cino, the focal point for the off-off-Broadway movement, which was characterized by a complete rejection of the tenants of commercial theater.
Soon Sam Shepard began writing. His early plays fused the style of Becket with the Western-working-man mores that Shepard had absorbed.
Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Village Gate, who was attempting to open his own theater, managed to produce Shepard’s short play ‘The Cowboys’. Few attended and the critics were ruthless. Nonetheless, young Shepard kept writing.
By 1965 he caught the interest of Edward Albee, the writer of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’. Albee called Shepard “…one of the most exciting individual talents”. His plays were interesting failures. Short, hip, and bizarre, written over the course of long drug-fuelled nights. He was not yet a fully formed talent, but there was clearly intelligence, wit, and more importantly originality in his writing.
This originality lead to six Obie Awards over the next three years. In 1967, he finally released his first full length play – ‘La Turista’. The play is mildly autobiographical; he explains to the Guardian, that it was based on a vacation to Mexico with his girlfriend,
“We were holed up in a tiny sweltering motel room in the Yucatan in a semi delirious state of severe dysentery.”
I Remember You Well in the Chelsea Hotel
1967 was a big year for Sam Shepard, for he also met his first wife, actress O-Lan Johnson. After getting her pregnant, he married her in 1969. Their son is named after Jesse James.
The late sixties were a whirlwind of action for the young writer. He hung out at the Chelsea Hotel, the archetypal rock+roll+drug+sex+anything living space of the era – a habitual hangout (hookup spot) for Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, among others – basically the East Coast version of the Château Marmont.
He drummed in the rock band The Holy Modal Rounders, had an affair with rock legend Patti Smith, who performed with him in a play they co-authored called ‘Cowboy Mouth‘ which they wrote over the course of two nights shoving the typewriter back and forth between them.
They were both known as hellraisers who had seriously self-destructive impulses, and inflicted quite a bit of abuse on one another. Shepard was quite open with his wife about the affair, as he said, “it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs”.
Quick story: Shepard and Smith decided to get a self-proclaimed gypsy and professional muse named Vali Myers to tattoo them, as they were being filmed by experimental filmmaker Sandy Daley. Vali gave him a crescent moon between his thumb and index finger, Smith was left with a lightening bolt on her knee.
As destructive as their relation was, Shepard and Smith remained close friends for the rest of his life. She wrote a touching and lyrical encomium for him in The New Yorker. Her piece is entitled ‘My Buddy‘. Shepherd also wrote for Kenneth Tynan’s (the mostly eminent critic and William F. Buckley JR adversary) sex play ‘Oh! Calcutta!’
Cinema of Dislocation
During this time, Sam Shepard was approached by film director Michelangelo Antonioni (one of the three gods of European art cinema, along with Igmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Antonioni directed ‘La Notte’ which starred Jeanne Moraeu who died on the same day as Shepard, which may be a cosmic coincidence of sorts, but I digress…) to write ‘Zabriskie Point’ which was to become Antonioni’s first American film. The maestro was struggling with his own early drafts. Shepard did not enjoy the experience nor did he enjoy screenwriting in general, as he recounts to the Village Voice,
“I hate it…It’s never just working on a film. It has to do with studios, with pleasing certain people, cutting things down and re-writing. It’s not a writer’s medium…the writer is just superfluous.”
Shepard wrote a couple drafts, the basis for the narrative then left the project,
“I didn’t know how to continue with what Antonioni wanted. He wanted political repartee and I just didn’t know how. Plus I was 24 and just wasted by the experience. It was like a nightmare.”
He even loathed becoming a sought after screenwriter. Neither the promise of money nor Hollywood fame could lure him. Shepard subsequently retreated as quickly as he could back into the world of playwriting.
“…You get these scripts showing up in the mail. Can you do this one? Can you do that one? Twenty thousand for this one and 30 thousand for that one. It’s like an open auction… I find it exhausting; not only exhausting – debilitating.
Nonetheless, he would later write the script for German director Wim Wender‘s appropriately lauded ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) starring the great Harry Dean Stanton as a wandering amnesic.
Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa viewed cinema as the greatest of the arts because it combines all the other arts. Shepard would have rejected that – he believed the same was true with theater.
“…It seems to me theatre contains all the other arts. You can put anything in that space – painting, film, dance, music, it can all be contained. Whereas in other arts everything is narrowed down, a spatial art like theatre is unlimited…I’m really interested in the three dimensional aspect, with human performers performing for other live human beings.”
Exhausted by his destructive and anarchic life in New York City, Sam Shepard moved his family to London. He continued to write, producing several plays during this period. Notably, Shepard directed Bob Hoskins in an original production in the West End.
Nonetheless, he spent much of his time gambling and dealing with mounting depression. He finally decided to return to the way of life that had always served him best, so he and his family moved to a ranch in California. In his interview with The Guardian, Shepard remembers,
“It suddenly occurred to me that I was mainly avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which was the family. I was a little afraid of it, particularly in relation to my old man and all of that emotion…”
The Old Homestead
It was on the ranch that Shepard wrote his most famous plays. The second play of his Family Trilogy – ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize. The play examined the Carter-led economic slow-down of the late Seventies and the destructive breakdown of the nuclear family in rural America.
It’s not an easy play to watch or read, but it is de rigueur. Shepard has the ability not only to document, but also to explore, understand, and codify American malaise with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.
I saw ‘Buried Child‘ performed in college; it shook me on both an artistic and political level. The New York Times quite elegantly describes Shepard’s plays of this era as having a “style that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy.”
The Silver Screen
In 1978 Hollywood called once again. Director Terrence Malick (the hermetic poet laureate of American film) cast Shepard in his western ‘Days of Heaven’, the long-awaited follow-up to Malick’s masterful debut ‘Badlands’ (1973). Shepard played a dying farmer swindled by Richard Gere’s duplicitous seasonal laborer.
Both the film and Shepard’s performance received raves. Overnight, Shepard was in demand as a Hollywood actor. Predictably he turned down parts left and right; he couldn’t adjust to his new life.
Sam Shepard returned to the screen in 1980, just as he was finishing his play ‘True West’. ‘True West’ is considered his second masterpiece. The late seventies through the early eighties were peak years for Shepard’s writing. His second Hollywood film was called ‘Resurrection’ and was a star vehicle for Ellen Burstyn. Although Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award, the film quickly retreated from the public consciousness.
Shepard acted in supporting roles in smaller dramas until 1983 when he accepted the role he was born to play – Chuck Yeager in ‘The Right Stuff’. While the film was not initially a hit, it received rave reviews from critics and earned Shepard an Academy Award nomination for best Supporting Actor for his iconic high-flying performance. The film, as you know, is a favorite of this author.
Shepard subsequently appeared in such diverse films as ‘Steel Magnolias’ (1989), ‘All The Pretty Horses’ (2000), ‘The Notebook’ (2004), and most memorably in Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) in an impactful performance as another great American, Major General William F. Garrison.
The Family Trilogy and a Lover’s Quarrel
‘True West’ which is the final play in Shepard’s Family Trilogy, and a thematic sequel to ‘Buried Child’ was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play examines the fractured relationship between a Hollywood screenwriter and his small-time criminal brother.
After a disastrous first-run at the Public Theater in New York City, which the author boycotted, the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago rehabilitated the play’s reputation in a version directed by and starring Gary Sinise.
Shepard followed ‘True West’ in 1984 with ‘Fool for Love’, considered by many to be his last truly great play. The play follows two young quarreling lovers in a motel in the Mojave Desert.
The following year, ‘Fool for Love’ was adapted into a middling feature film directed by Robert Altman with Shepard, himself, miscast as the lead opposite Kim Basinger. Altman’s film captures little of the manic energy of the stage play.
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That American Spirit
1984 marked the end of Shepard’s first marriage. He had been having an affair with actress Jessica Lange for two years. Lange remembers that he had…
“…that wildness, that typically American wildness, a no-restraints outlaw quality…When we were together we were so wild – drinking, getting into fights, walking down the freeway trying to get away – I mean, just really wild stuff. He left his wife and we drove to New Mexico; and that’s where we settled…He’s a great man, a natural man, which is rare. I’ve known a lot of men. And you know I’ve had romances with what you’d call famous men, and none compares to Sam in terms of maleness.”
In many ways she describes both the Sam Shepard that we see on the screen, and the man that emanates from the pages of his plays – individualistic, rugged, masculine, whip smart, charming, and imperfect.
Shepard could never reconcile his film stardom and play writing. He became truly famous because of his winsome features and laconic tone, while his passion never captured the mainstream. Inside the matinee idol was a shaggy dog experimental playwright.
In the end he was both the embodiment of the rugged Western hero, and a blissfully drugged out Greenwich Village artist writing off-kilter subversions that most audiences will never watch.
Maybe that’s the real American Dream.
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Jeanne Moreau – Living is Risking
Jeannne Moreau, the icon of French cinema, never believed in nostalgia. In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, she asked, “Nostalgia for what? Nostalgia is when you want things to stay the same. I know so many people staying in the same place. And I think, my God, look at them! They’re dead before they die…Living is risking.”
How often we allow what was once dangerous and spry to become entombed in the wax museum of pop culture nostalgia. Moreau, witty – propulsive – anti-establishment (anti every single establishment, including anti-establishment posturing) to the very end, escaped this ignominious fate because she never stopped moving.
Jeanne Moreau – A Beginning
Moreau, in many ways the archetypal French actress and a great bastion of cinematic Continentalism, was actually half English. Her English mother was a dancer Folies Bergère in Paris, France’s most famous music hall. Moreau dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to pursue her interest in theater; she later joined the Conservatoire de Paris, a long-running music and drama school that opened amidst The Reign of Terror.
Jeanne Moreau’s father, a Parisian restaurateur, openly scorned the theater, possibly because of his own troubled relationship with his wife, attempted to disabuse the girl of her career choice, often violently. Nonetheless, the young Moreau persisted. By the mid-1950’s Moreau was a star of the stage, and firmly entrenched in French high culture. Cinema, at the time, lacked the cultural luster of legitimate theater.
Moreau had begun acting in mainstream cinema as early as 1952, however it would be her pioneering anti-establishment work with director Louis Malle that would cement her status.
In 1958 she would star in his ‘Elevator to the Gallows’, a jazzy thriller shot on location – a rarity for French cinema – and an important precursor to the rule breaking looseness of the forthcoming New Wave. Importantly, Malle used little make-up on his star, which at the time was a massive break with the established rules of glamour shooting.
Malle revealed what he referred to as her “essential qualities”, the idiosyncratic beauty of her slightly asymmetrical face, and the modern sexuality that would define her, along with Goddard’s muse Anna Karina, as the feminine face of La Nouvelle Vague.
The Supreme Court & Jeanne Moreau
Jeanne Moreau would again team with Louis Malle for her next film the controversial ‘The Lovers’ (1959). The story of a married woman’s relationship with a younger man, ‘The Lovers’ was the catalyst for a groundbreaking US Supreme Court case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, when the film was banned in Ohio.
In a famous concurrence, Justice Stewart memorably declared:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
Her most famous role was in 1962 in François Truffaut’s ‘Jules and Jim’ as Catherine, the centerpiece of the ill-fated love triangle. Her performance embodies one the actress’s greatest traits, her internal bipolarism. Namely the push-pull between light and dark, happiness and sadness, smoldering sexuality and repressed ennui.
During this era she fashioned indelible performances in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘La Notte’ (1961), and Luis Buñuel’s ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ (1964). ‘La Notte’ is the second part of Antonioni’s dislocation trilogy. The film charts the disintegrating marriage of a couple ensconced in the rarefied, almost hermetically sealed world of high art. ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ is Buñuel at his most bitingly satirical, and features one of Moreau’s most complex performances as a maid who might not be so different from her vicious bourgeoisie employers. She also appeared in four films directed by Orson Welles, a close friend of hers.
Her career faced a downturn in the Seventies and continued to slide in the 1980’s. Nonetheless she continued to seek out new and edgy experiences, including experimenting with directing. A small but pivotal role in Luc Besson’s ‘Nikita’ (1990) proves that she lost none of her poise in the years since her heyday.
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Jeanne Moreau – a Grande Dame of French Cinema
In a 2001 interview, Jeanne Moreau was asked about her image as a Grande Dame of French Cinema. The actress replied in her smoky resonant voice, “That’s what they say because of longevity. As soon as an actress is past 40, they call her a grande dame. ‘Oh God, she’s still alive!’”
Moreau was still alive, still moving, and still always ready to work – to amaze – to shock – and to never look back.
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The Updated Complete Halloween Guide to the Horror Film
Halloween is upon us. The eve of All Hallows’ Day. The sky is overcast. The leaves, adorned with burnt autumnal hues, fall from the trees. Neighborhoods are strewn with pumpkins, skeletons, and plastic graves. Soon the children will scour the streets. In our mass-market post-modern world kids only issue idle threats. Trick or Treat once literal. No more.
It is no longer Samhain, Halloween’s Celtic precursor that marked the end of the harvest. Pre-Tenth Century, the Celts believed that Samhain was a liminal time – a time when our world and the Otherworld merged. The spirits of the dead were among us. To survive the winter we would have to please them. In the days of Samhain, fear was the key to survival.
Today, fear is escape. Horror is a sensation genre. It is not purely intellectual. The viewer has a visceral reaction. The hairs stand on the back of his neck as his date gropes for his hand. Horror toys with our most primitive coping mechanisms – our survival instinct – our id.
As a mirror to our world, the horror genre is superior to all other forms of narrative cinema. The horror genre has always possessed a sense of freedom in its approach to political or sociological concerns. Horror, which has always been viewed as a base genre – a genre that only titillates and excites – has the ability to dissect society through stories that at first glance seem far separated from every day life.
1950’s horror films focused on fears of the Cold War and atomic power; fears embodied by gigantic irradiated monsters and soul snatching pods. In the 1960’s, horror films focused on alienated youth.
A decade later, the televised carnage of the Vietnam War led to the desensitization and the sadism of such films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972). The slasher craze that began in the 1980s was considered by many societal critics to be archconservative in nature, while others, including genre luminary John Carpenter, viewed the cinematic killers as the personification of a constrictive society bearing down upon and repressing the average suburban teenager. Nevertheless, the majority dismissed them as bloody, exploitive, and even possibly dangerous.
In Scream 4, actress Kristen Bell says, “There’s something really scary about a guy with a knife who just… snaps.” This is exactly the point. There’s something out there in the dark. Something you don’t understand. And there’s no escape.
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Ingmar Bergmans ‘Persona’ | Cadre Cinematique
Filmmaker David Sporn’s CadreCinematique explores classic, esoteric, and just plain entertaining films. Nothing is off limits. Sometimes the column will be about a specific filmmaker or artist. Sometimes it will not specifically be about film at all, focusing on politics, literature, or philosophy that has influenced cinematic form.
Film is a pretty big subject. Douglas Adam’s wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really Big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts compared to space.” So it is with film. Welcome to the wild and woolly world of cinema. Let’s dive right in.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was in the midst of a deep depression when he directed Persona in 1965. The prior year saw the release of The Silence, the final film of Bergman’s metaphysical ‘faith trilogy’. The ‘faith’ films are heavy, serious films, grappling with big questions regarding the human condition.
Following the trilogy’s conclusion, Bergman was exhausted. He resigned from the Royal Dramatic Theater (he was also a prolific theater director) and checked himself into a mental hospital. The despondent director was near suicide. At the time, he was married to Käbi Laretei, but he did not live with her. Bergman was having numerous affairs, most notably with his leading actress Bibi Andersson.
A few months earlier Bibi Andersson had introduced Bergman to her friend, a young Norwegian actress named Liv Ullmann. Bergman became obsessed with what he believed was a striking physical resemblance between the two actresses. He summoned the two actresses to the hospital and pitched Persona.
Liv Ullmann would play a famous actress named Elisabet Volger, who had become mute due to psychological distress. Bibi Andersson would play Alma, a young nurse charged with her care. They would live together in a seaside vacation cottage. As they spend time together their personalities merge, almost like psychic vampirism, until there was a complete transference of identity, and the vampirism is made literal at the film’s end. We will examine three key scenes – the opening; a monologue of striking eroticism; and finally the film’s central disruption – as examples of the film’s intensity and elaborate self-reflexivity.
The film was originally titled Kinematography (Cinematography in English), and one needs only to watch the opening scene to understand. The opening sequence of Bergman’s Persona deconstructs the film image and our perception of cinematic reality. Bergman begins with the actual construction of the film stock.
The first image we see is the glow of a carbon arc lamp. Next Bergman cuts to an extreme close-up of a spool of film preparing to be projected. Much like Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov did years earlier with his pioneering ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929), Bergman is breaking down film into its corresponding parts. Unlike Vertov’s deconstruction, which was thoroughly mechanical, Bergman seeks to elucidate the process through which the audience views film. The film is fed through the projector, a process that is made strange by the harsh lighting and odd angle of the close-up. The mechanical adopts organic properties. The image of film being fed into a projector becomes at once both violent and sexual.
The projector endows light upon absolute darkness, a biblical representation of creation. Bergman then focuses on the screen. There is nothing else than black and white leader with some numbers scrolled upon it, fed through the apparatus. Then a brief flash of an erect penis penetrates the eeriness of the drawn and typed images, including numbers, words, and shapes. The penis may signify the phallocentrism of cinematic perception because of the intrinsic maleness of Freudian/ Lacanian sexual development. Or it may be understood as an imprint of Bergman’s male authorship on a film that mainly concerns women. Three of the four characters within the film’s base diegesis are female.
Bergman closes in on the film stock itself and we see an upside-down cartoon of a woman washing her feet, alluding to later scenes on the beach. The film jams and the cartoon character is left covering her eyes, a possible allusion to Elisabet’s inability to accept both her own life. career, and familial relationships. As well as international events that are beyond her control such as a scene later in the film she sees a television image of monks lighting themselves on fire.
When the film starts moving through the projector again the cartoon character starts clutching at her breasts, an apparent adumbration to the bisexuality of the film’s characters. The audience see hands manipulating the film, then more white leader. Bergman cuts to mock horror silent film clips from his earlier film, Prison (1949), an allusion both to the vampiric nightmares that are to come, as well as his own film history, and Persona’s measured artificiality. He also references Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, nodding to both film history and to the surrealism at work in both films. Christ’s hands are then nailed to the cross. To Bergman cinema can present anything and everything.
Finally, we are in a morgue, where a young boy watches the film. He stands in for us. The living and thinking among the dead. This boy bookends the story of Alma and Elisabet. Birgitta Steene, a professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington links the boy to the work of playwright August Strindberg, an acknowledged major influence on Bergman.
“The Boy in Persona, placed the way he is just prior to the master narrative, performs the function of a Bergmanian illusionist, a magician whose hand, moving across a screen door, becomes a wand that conjures for a woman’s face and transforms dead material into live images, which in turn initiate the master narrative at the moment the screen becomes a door in the hospital where Alma and Elisabet (the transmuted face on the screen) will first meet. The boy’s role, limited as it is in visual terms, seems enigmatic unless we see him as a consciousness who sets a product from the ‘dream factory’ in motion.”
Steene links the boy to the Vedic God Indra’s father in Strindberg’s A Dream Play, a character who is heard in the prologue but never within the actual diegesis of the narrative. The opening sequence is a journey through film history and Bergman’s psyche. The boy is a ghost forever outside the tangible reality of the narrative, akin to the sequence he will forever be within.
And so with the brush of the boy’s hand, we delve into the film’s narrative proper. At the cottage Alma speaks constantly. Mainly to break the oppressive silence. When she exhausts her knowledge of trivialities, and becomes more comfortable relating to the silent Elisabet, she begins to address her own anxieties and sublimations.
One night as the two women lounge about the bedroom, Alma describes her encounter with two boys on a beach. The only time she cheated on her fiancée. The scene is told only through dialogue, the camera alternating between close-ups of the two characters. Nonetheless it is one cinema’s most erotic scenes. The dialogue is explicit, the scene would never pass the American production code, yet is belies the myths that:
1 – Bergman is a stolid director.
2 – Cinema needs physical sensuality for tumescence.
Susan Sontag wrote, “In a sense, ‘Persona’ takes a position beyond psychology. As it does, in an analogous sense, beyond eroticism.” Except in this one scene. Alma describes sunbathing completely naked with her friend Katarina. Two boys watch from a distance. The more daring of the two boys approaches. Katarina undresses him, and “guides him in.” After a while Alma asks the boy if he is coming to her too. She describes how he “fell on top of me, completely hard.” The girls have sex with both boys. Then Alma goes home and has sex with her fiancée. She tells Elisabet, “It had never been that good before or after.” She becomes pregnant and her fiancée takes her for an abortion.
As the scene begins Elisabet sits up on the bed, smoking. Alma is on a plush chair, her legs curled under her. Bergman begins with a two-shot (a shot that contains both characters), establishing the geometry of the room; Elisabet straight ahead, but in the distance; Alma on our right, but foregrounded. Bergman uses this shot to set up Alma’s story, introducing Alma and her fiancée’s vacation to the beach, and Katrina, the other girl on the island. Bergman introduces Katarina’s favorite beach, its seclusion, and their sunbathing. The shot is held for slightly over a minute. An eternity in cinema. Right before she mentions the boys, Bergman cuts to a medium shot of Alma. This shot is held for forty seconds. Remember, the average shot length in a modern Hollywood film is just five seconds.
In her story, the boys are watching and Alma does not know what to do. In the medium shot we watch as she flops around the chair in a state of nervous embarrassment. Then Bergman cuts to a medium close up reaction shot of Elisabet in the bed. The reaction shot is shorter, although still unusually long. Twenty-five seconds. With a different director this shot would be painful. With Bergman, as the audience tries to comprehend Liv Ulmann’s expression, we are transported into Alma’s story. Bergman cuts to a close-up of Alma as she begins to describe the boy’s approach. He holds the close-up of Alma for a minute and forty-five seconds. In a single static shot, Bergman lets her describe the sexual experience including her orgasm.
Bergman now frames a similar close-up of Elisabet. The thirty-second static shot amazingly, seems short. He cuts to a medium close-up of Alma. She gets up and moves around the room. The first movement introduced to the scene. It’s not much movement. Just a short walk. Nonetheless, it is freeing. In her story the post-coital pause is over, and the characters start to have sex again. Action matched to movement. Bergman then switches back to a completely static frame, Elisabet close-up in profile. Then cuts to a wide shot. The first wide shot in the scene. Alma alone. Dwarfed by the room, as she begins to describe the aftermath. Bergman cuts in closer, behind Alma as she looks out the window, smoking a cigarette. She turns to the camera, her face filling the frame in a startling close-up, her eyes set past us focused on Elisabet; she describes sex with her fiancée, the best it’s ever been. The point of her story.
Bergman proceeds to break with reality. Using jump-cuts to a close-up of Alma in bed with Elisabet, describing the pregnancy and abortion. Alma looks up at the ceiling. Her face hidden in shadow. Elisabet leans over her, almost motherly, and her face is lit and looking towards the audience. Alma raises her hand to her forehead. Her forearm blocks Elisabet’s eyes, denying us Ullmann’s reaction. The scene is strikingly unconventional. The heat of the beach is tangible. The long takes add a sense of immense realism to the performances until the last cut when Bergman shifts to artifice. This film that Sontag labels “beyond eroticism” may contain cinema’s most erotic scene.
The Central Disruption
Much later in the film, as their identities fuse, Alma and Elisabet’s relationship deteriorates. This is where Bergman disrupts the film. The disruption comes after a long unbroken take. Alma sits on a bench outside the back of the house, drinking. Bergman frames the shot from a distance. The camera is around 15 feet down a path beyond the patio. Alma drops her glass. In an extremely long take we watch Alma slowly clean up the broken glass. After re-emerging from the house she sits down against a rafter and smokes. She finds a single shard of glass and positions it on the walkway. At that moment Elisabet emerges from the house. Bergman cuts to a close-up of Alma passively staring off into the distance, and then to a shot of Elisabet’s bare feet as she trudges back and forth along the path. Then back to Alma framed from behind. Elisabet’s movement is off screen. The suspense is building. He holds the shot, then Alma moves back into the house, and Elisabet steps on the glass. Elisabet stares back at Alma, it is clear she understands the other woman’s intent.
Bergman frames their faces, cutting back and forth, then as he lands on Alma one last time, and the film literally breaks. The film stock snaps. Then burns. All we are left with is white leader. Seeing Persona in the theater, one would believe there was a problem with the projection. The narrative has been disrupted. It has also been revealed as an artificial construct. We see snippets of shots from the opening sequence – the silent film, the eye, the nail in Jesus’ hand. We hear voices played at the wrong speed. Suddenly a curtain opens and we see an out of focus figure moving through an overexposed room. The figure moves to a window, the image suddenly snaps into focus. The figure is Elisabet. The narrative resumes. The story has moved forward. Now, however, we realize that Alma and Elisabet are no more than Bergman’s constructs, even if they are in many ways as real as any of us.
Persona is available on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection. It is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc. Find a night to watch it. It’s tremendously satisfying.
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