The text that follows is an edited version of a lecture I gave some years ago to introduce a series of Ferens Fine Art lectures at the University of Hull on the topic of Post-Impressionism. The initial focus was on the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1910, what it contained, and how the reaction to it was symptomatic of what was going on generally in the arts at this time. I have always thought that the period between roughly 1910 and 1914 was one of the most remarkable periods of creativity in the arts ever, and it was to be the topic of my PhD, but a book on Billy Wilder intervened; the thesis was never finished; and my career took a very different direction.
To begin with the quotation that provides the title of this essay, a famous quote from Virginia Woolf in an essay entitled ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ published in 1924. “In or about December 1910,” she wrote, “human character changed.” Virginia Woolf was often deliberately playful and provocative in her artistic pronouncements; she was never, however, frivolous. The date she cited was carefully chosen: a conscious allusion to the first Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London, which was the first extensive viewing that the public in England had been given of the work of artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso. The change in human character that Virginia Woolf was suggesting was not so much of a change of personality per se but a way of perceiving personality (1910 was also the year when Freud was giving a famous lecture on the origins and development of psychoanalysis) and also of the way of portraying character, in paint and in print. In the early years of the 20th century, artists in different fields were seeking a new language or mode of expression to render what the art critic Roger Fry called “the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.
“I don’t think he’ll change. At 21 or 22, so many things appear solid, permanent and terrible, which 40 sees as nothing but disappearing miasma. 40 can’t tell 20 about this; 20 can only find out by getting to be 40.” (Eugene’s letter to Isabelle in The Magnificent Ambersons)
“Nobody knows whether the world is old or young.” (G.K. Chesterton)
In Billy Wilder’s scintillating portrait of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950), there is a moment where a former star of the silent screen (Gloria Swanson) is outlining the plot of her comeback film Salome to a cynical young screenwriter (William Holden). “The princess in love with a holy man,” she says. “He rejects her. She dances the dance of the seven veils. She demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.” Comments the screenwriter sardonically: “They’ll love it in Pomona.” It is a vicious reference. On March 17, 1942, the Fox Theatre in Pomona, California was the scene of one of the most notorious previews in film history, that of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The derisive response of the audience was to trigger a chain of events which was to lead to the cutting of the film by about a third from its original length of 131 minutes. It was an act of aesthetic vandalism whose severity had not been seen in Hollywood since the savaging of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923) nearly twenty years earlier. Welles’s relationship with Hollywood never recovered.
“It’s like meeting God without dying,” said Dorothy Parker on first encountering Orson Welles. Still in his early twenties, Welles’s fame had preceded him: the boy wonder who could read by the age of two; who could quote chunks of King Lear by the time he was seven; who had written a treatise on Nietzsche and published a best-selling book on Shakespeare before he was out of his teens. A voodoo version of Macbeth and an anti-Fascist modern-dress Julius Caesar had established his stage reputation as a stupendously original director. His sensational radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween night in 1938 had been powerful enough to provoke mass hysteria on a scale unprecedented for the modern media, either before or since. When at the age of 25, he produced, directed, starred in and co-wrote his debut feature Citizen Kane and it turned out to have the artistry and authority of an authentic film ‘auteur’ before the term had even been invented, there seemed only one possible way Welles’s career could go: down.
When he was asked if he knew at the time he was making an important film, Welles replied with the swagger of the young Kane himself: “I never doubted it for a single instant”. Time has proved him right: Citizen Kane remains the Great American Film against which all contenders must be measured. Yet one cannot forget how closely Welles’s audacity courted catastrophe. In constructing a character portrait so close to the public and private life of the ruthless newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who angrily tried to suppress the film, he came very close to making a masterpiece that would never be shown. Moreover, although the film radiates with the youth and precocious talents of its flamboyant collaborators, most of whom were new to the cinema, it also aches with the central character’s sense of frustrated achievement. It is a film of echo and shadow dominated by a gigantic but hollow man whose life trails into a shadow of what it might have become. Kane is always making promises, but they remain unfulfilled, like his own promise. It was as if Welles was tempting Providence, making a prophetic film of his own possible development. By a curious coincidence both Kane and Welles were to die the same age.
Readers of this short article will be forgiven if their initial response is: “Frank who?” And if they then consult a variety of respected reference sources (e.g. Halliwell, Katz, the BFI’s screenonline website, Robert Murphy’s edited anthology of British and Irish directors, Brian McFarlane’s epic Encyclopaedia of British Cinema) they will be none the wiser, for he is not mentioned in any of them. A BFI Film Forever source cites a Frank Nesbitt who was born in Chicago in 1938 and died in 1990, but he seems to be simply the namesake of the director with whom we are concerned, who was born in South Shields on 27 June 1932 and died in Los Angeles at the age of 74. He directed three feature films in the 1960s and early 1970s whilst he was still in his thirties, but then, to the best of my knowledge, never made another film.
My curiosity in him was piqued when I was researching the career of Carol White for a booklet I was writing for the Network blu-ray release of John Mackenzie’s film Made (1972). I had never seen Frank Nesbitt’s film, Dulcima (1971), in which White co-starred with John Mills and which was considered good enough to be a British entry at the Berlin Film Festival. There is no reference to it in the BFI’s critical anthology, Seventies British Cinema (2008). Gill Plain’s fine study of John Mills’s career in her book, John Mills and British Cinema (2006) contains no reference to Dulcima either, although it seems to me (having now caught up with the film) one of the finest character performances of the actor’s later career. Curiously, Mills’s own autobiography, Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please does not mention it.1 Perhaps he thought the subject was a little too close to home: he plays a middle-aged man who falls in love with a woman who is thirty years younger than he is; that same year his daughter Hayley, without her father’s full approval, was marrying a man 33 years her senior, the producer/director Roy Boulting.
The following is a slightly edited transcript of the audio commentary I gave for the Criterion Classics DVD release of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. (I was also interviewed about the film on the Masters of Cinema DVD/blu ray release.) This essay will probably make more sense if you have viewed the film recently. I’ve kept the relatively informal style and hope the commentary will be of interest. For a number of reasons, personal and artistic, no director has been more important to me than Billy Wilder.
Plain credits on a parched, soil surface: Ace in the Hole announces itself immediately as a gritty film featuring characters with hearts of stone. The name that dominates the credits is writer/producer/director Billy Wilder; and Ace in the Hole (1951) is following on from such hard-hitting Wilder movies as Double Indemnity in 1944, The Lost Weekend in 1945 and Sunset Boulevard in 1950 which shone a harsh spotlight on unsavoury aspects of American life. Like other acclaimed writer-directors of the 1940s in Hollywood, such as Preston Sturges, John Huston and Joseph L.Mankiewicz, Wilder had become a director to protect his own scripts. ‘It isn’t important that a director knows how to write,’ he would say, ‘but it is important that he knows how to read.’
‘Tell the Truth’: Enter Chuck Tatum
Wilder was very adroit at giving his main characters memorable entrances – think of Marilyn Monroe’s first entry as Sugar Kane in Some like it Hot (1959) where she gets a wolf whistle from a train – and Kirk Douglas’s first appearance as Chuck Tatum, as he is towed into Albuquerque, is appropriately unorthodox here. Wilder is establishing three things very quickly: that Tatum is down on his luck; that he is nevertheless good at exploiting even adverse situations to his advantage, so he gives the appearance of being chauffeured into town; and also that he is interested in newspapers – and looking around for the next angle or opportunity.
Book review: Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 435pp.
This is a fabulous feat of film scholarship, both for the range of material it encompasses and the lucidity with which it handles complex ideas. The book is aimed primarily at undergraduate and postgraduate students of film; and, as a concise scholarly introduction to the thorny theoretical topics of Genre, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Queer theory, it could hardly be bettered. The theory is then applied to a variety of film soundtracks, and familiar films are paired with less mainstream examples for purposes of analysis, comparison and contrast. In the process dazzling insights are offered into acknowledged classics such as The Searchers (1956) and Rebecca (1940) as well as less well known films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ten Canoes (2006). One of the most revelatory sections is devoted to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), where, through a closely argued commentary on the way in which the soundtrack reflects the hero’s difficulty in pulling things together, the chapter offers a convincing critical rehabilitation of a film that was widely derided and misunderstood on first release. A coda combines all these theoretical approaches in a brilliant reading of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which makes the film sound a lot more interesting to hear than I found it to watch.
Lovers of British cinema owe a debt of gratitude to Network Distributors, whose DVD and blu-ray releases of British films have offered a fascinating mixture of acknowledged classics; worthy programme fillers that are revealing about the tastes and social attitudes of the time; and obscure or neglected works that, in some cases, never found an audience and, in most cases, deserve to be much more widely known. It is this third category that I wish to highlight in the following notes on six recent Network releases of films from the mid 1960s and early 1970s.
These six films are directed by film makers whom critics would be disinclined to view as auteurs, though all have their distinctive directorial personalities; and, anyway (and for better or worse), auteurs are relatively thin on the ground in British cinema. It is also true that, if some of the directors here failed to live up to their early potential, the reason might have as much to do with lack of opportunity as with lack of talent in a national cinema that has always struggled for stability and continuity. None of the films has achieved canonical status (some do not even get a mention in some published histories of British film); none of them has been widely shown since first release, even on television; and none of them is easy to classify, which is a tribute to their originality. Four out of the six deal with the subject of childhood, a theme at which the national cinema, for various reasons, has excelled. Carol Reed, Alexander Mackendrick and Jack Clayton are amongst the best directors of children in the history of the cinema. And so to the six films:
I’ve always had a soft spot for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It was the subject of the first film review I ever published, in a now-defunct magazine Films Illustrated which had a section that invited readers the right of reply if they felt a film had been under-rated (or over-rated, I suppose). The reviews I had read of Barry Lyndon when it had first opened described it as overlong, boring, indecipherable, embalmed, symptomatic of a tendency in modern cinema for directorial self-indulgence, so I had gone to the cinema with comparatively low expectations. Three hours later I had emerged in a daze, convinced I had seen a film of quite exceptional artistry.
I think one reason why critics at the time had been baffled was the choice of material. Kubrick’s three previous films (Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971)) had been futuristic fantasies whereas this was a leap back into the eighteenth century. Moreover, the film was based on a virtually unread novel by Thackeray, published in 1844, which the novelist had intended as a demystification of the lovable rogue hero which he felt had not been done since the time of Henry Fielding. (A number of critics of Kubrick’s film had alluded to Tony Richardson’s film version of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1963, book 1749), as if expecting a similarly jolly experience, but there’s a world of difference between the high spirits of that film and the ominous tread of Kubrick’s.) The story charts the rise of its hero, Redmond Barry, by virtue of a prosperous marriage, and Thackeray’s intention was satirical, a first-person narrative by a hero who fancies himself as an eighteenth century gentleman but who unwittingly reveals himself as an unscrupulous scoundrel. By contrast, Kubrick’s tone is sombre, and the rise and fall of Barry Lyndon is told mainly through a combination of images (Barry doesn’t do a lot of talking for himself) and an off-screen narration, suavely intoned by Michael Hordern, who sometimes sees into the future in a way that Barry cannot, giving a sense of fatalism to the hero’s progress and the flavour of a cautionary tale. The narrator will sometimes puncture Barry’s romantic illusions and draw attention to the indifference of history to the individual life. Of a battle in which the hero takes part, the narrator notes dryly: ‘Though this encounter is not recorded in any history books, it was memorable for those who took part.’ It is particularly memorable for Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) because he is killed, one of several father/protector figures Barry acquires in the first half of the film who fall away in the second half, leaving him isolated and vulnerable.
Book review: Maria Pramaggiore, Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: Art, History, and Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), £16.99, 216pp.
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was a modern adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Victorian novel about the rise and fall of an 18th century scoundrel. To put it another way, it was an adaptation by an American film-maker of an English novel set in Ireland. The significance of these temporal and national disjunctions are at the heart of the argument behind this stimulating new book on what has long seemed to me Kubrick’s greatest movie. In America, it was the most commercially unsuccessful film of his career and was memorably lampooned by MAD magazine under the title of Borey Lyndon. In the final chapter, assessing the place of the film in the context of 1970s cinema, Maria Pramaggiore suggests that its failure with American audiences was to do with its ‘non-Americanness and its non-manliness’.1 This book sets itself the task of examining the highly original way ‘emotion and thought find a place in the rhythms of the film’.2
Book review: Anthony Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, December 2014), £23. 95.
After a brief spell at RKO, Charles Brackett became a staff writer then producer at Paramount from 1934 to 1949; and his journals covering that period provide a riveting perspective on the daily routine of a Hollywood studio in its prime. Brackett also became half of the most celebrated screenwriting partnership in Hollywood history. In just over ten years he and Billy Wilder collaborated on thirteen screenplays, most of them critical and commercial successes, some of them enduring classics of the screen. They wrote two of the greatest screen comedies of the late 1930s, Midnight for Mitchell Leisen and Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch (both 1939). After scripting Ball of Fire (1941) for Howard Hawks, they became a producer-director as well as writing team, with Brackett as producer and Wilder as director; and proceeded to make audacious trailblazing dramas such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). As most film buffs will know, the title of this book is a famous line from Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden’s down-at-heel screenwriter has recognised a former star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and said: ‘You used to be big.’ ‘I am big,’ she has retorted imperiously, ‘It’s the pictures that got small.’ Less well known is the fact that it was Charles Brackett who was savvy enough to see the importance of that moment and recommend that the line be re-shot in close-up, probably also sensing how it foretold the devastating final close-up of that magnificent film.