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American Classic Films American Studies Today Online

A one-day conference at the London University Institute of United States Studies on Tuesday 22nd May 2001, reviewed four landmarks of American Cinema: Raging Bull; Chinatown; Dr Strangelove; On the Waterfront

 

A report by
Yannis Tzioumakis
, Lecturer, Screen Studies Route Leader School of Media, Critical and Creative Arts Liverpool John Moores University

Raging Bull
Chinatown
Dr Strangelove
On the Waterfront

End Credits

 

Raging Bull; Chinatown; Dr Strangelove; On the Waterfront: four landmarks of American Cinema, four films that have captivated audiences and critics alike from the first day of their release, four films that pushed the art of movie-making to extraordinary heights and left an indelible stamp on post war American Cinema, four films that have earned the right to be labelled as classics.

It was apt, therefore, that a conference dedicated to American Film and featuring papers on the above-mentioned films was entitled American Classic Films. Organised by the American Studies Centre at Liverpool John Moores University, the American Embassy in London and the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London, American Classic Films aspired to modestly contribute to the promotion of ‘The American Film Preservation Showcase: A Millennium Celebration 2000-2001’, an official programme of the White House Millennium Council, whose purpose is to restore cinematic treasures of the past to their original format, before time (and dampness) makes this process impossible. Inherent in this objective is an attempt to preserve and protect a large part of the American heritage with an eye to the younger generations, whose understanding of American culture and history would have considerably been impoverished had institutions such as The Library of Congress not saved 15000 films in the last 30 years.      

In this context, American Classic Films became the platform for a series of exchanges on the cultural value of the afore-mentioned films and, more importantly, on the nature and status of contemporary American Cinema between a 100 people-strong audience and four notable speakers who presented papers on aspects of the above films. With the White House Millennium Council’s mission statement being “honor the past – imagine the future”, American Classic Films provided the participants with an opportunity to do that, to learn more about the past and intervene in the debates about the present and future of American film, and consequently of American culture.

Raging Bull

Raging Bull

After the customary opening greetings, acknowledgements and introductions by Gary Mc Dowell (director, Institute of United States Studies), Ian Ralston (director, American Studies Resource Centre, Liverpool John Moores University and co-ordinator of the conference) and Glyn T.Davies (Deputy Chief in Mission, American Embassy in London) the position at the lectern was handed to one of the most famous, influential and possibly most read American film critic, Roger Ebert. Fresh from attending the Cannes Film Festival, Roger Ebert kicked off the conference with a paper on one of the most celebrated films of the last 20 years, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) entitled ‘Crouching Cuckold Raging Bull’. With Scorsese being at the vanguard of the film preservation initiative in recent years, it was pertinent to start from this extraordinary bio-pic of middle-weight boxing champion Jake La Motta. In addition, Ebert offered another reason for the film’s appropriateness, when early in his paper he referred to Scorsese’s decision to shoot Raging Bull in black and white because he knew that black and white film stock is more stable than colour strip (and consequently less prone to deterioration), and not only for aesthetic reasons.

Ebert’s approach to Raging Bull consisted of a mixture of methodologies that highlighted the different routes film research can take in an attempt to make meaning of a filmic text. Thus, at various points the speaker employed aspects of a psycho-biographical approach to film (how the film related to Scorsese’s life during the late 1970s), the history of film technology (advances in the development of film stock in particular) and mise en scene analysis (where the film critic vividly demonstrated how specific creative decisions by Scorsese and his crew produced the unforgettable aesthetic beauty of the film). Ebert’s analysis was interspersed with a plethora of anecdotes about the history of the film’s production, which threw the spotlight at some - lesser known - artistic choices during the shoot and enhanced our appreciation of the film’s aesthetics. Thus, among others, we found out that Scorsese used a flexible boxing ring, which could increase and decrease in length depending on the effects he intended to convey; that he put wet sponges inside the boxers’ gloves, which would emit fluids after every punch; and that he mixed animal sounds with crowd noises in order to achieve the subliminal aural effects that critics have unanimously recognised in Raging Bull.

After delving into the richness of the film’s aesthetic beauty, Ebert proceeded into a thematic reading of Raging Bull by identifying its major themes and the ways they are supported by the film’s mise-en scene and narration. In particular, Ebert drew the audience’s attention to a fundamental premise in the film’s narrative, namely, that it revolves around the actions of a man who feels inadequate about everything and, consequently, stylistic and narrative techniques tend to foreground La Motta’s sense of worthlessness. The discussion of this major theme was supplemented by brief references to Catholicism and violence, two other key concepts that are evident in Raging Bull and which have constituted Scorsese’s thematic foci throughout his career.

The final key point in Ebert’s paper was his contention that no major studio would finance or distribute Raging Bull in the present day, an argument that speaks volumes about the current state of contemporary American cinema. If filmmakers in the 1970s were trying to produce the great American movie, contemporary directors, according to Ebert, are trying to produce the great American hit, the moneymaker to end all moneymakers. Consequently, it was not surprising for the film critic that the new copy of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was by far the best film in the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, a film originally released in 1979, a year earlier than Raging Bull. In fact, Ebert used this point in his paper to launch an attack on production deals in Hollywood, which, more than ever, have become platforms for endorsing impeccably planned money machines which would exploit the latest trend in audience preferences. In particular, he voiced his frustration regarding the current wave of gross-out comedies, which attempt to replicate the enormous box-office gains of There Is Something About Mary and Scary Movie by pushing toilet humour and scatological references to extremes. In that sense, if the objective of American Classic Films was to honour the past and imagine the future, Roger Ebert’s brief sketching of the present of mainstream American cinema suggested an unpromising, ill-fated and even ominous future, with the independent sector providing only glimpses of hope due to structural (financial) problems.

Chinatown

Chinatown

The second paper, entitled “‘Either You Bring the Water to L.A., or You Bring L.A. to the Water’: Politics and the California Dream in Polanski’s Chinatown” introduced a political slant to the discussion of the films, which was taken further in the next two papers. An active researcher in the areas of American history, politics and film, Dr Ian Scott presented work in progress that looked into California history and its extremely rich representation in American cinema. Chinatown (1974), which is set in Los Angeles of the 1930s, is an obvious starting point and Scott’s attention to the representation of the city constituted a welcomed contribution to the vast amount of literature on Polanski’s film.

Scott commenced from a brief discussion of the origins of the film, which can be located in screenwriter Robert Towne’s fascination with the work of Raymond Chandler and the film noir of the 1940s. The legacy of the classic noir is obvious in Chinatown (not least because the director of The Maltese Falcon, the first film noir, plays a major part in Chinatown), although the speaker argued that the violence of the film had a personal edge, which is owed primarily to the director (Polanski in the post-Sharon Tate era) rather than the screenwriter. The appellation neo-noir that was given to the film before the term became fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s implies this homage to the classic films of the 1940s but, significantly, it suggests also a kind of nostalgia that has been pointed out in discussions of the film. In fact, Scott argued that the look of the film was substantially influenced by The Godfather, though Polanski and his crew tried to avoid putting forward a ‘retro chic’ look, which separates Chinatown from other nostalgic, in tone and colour, films.

In particular, Scott’s key argument was that the story in Chinatown points towards the future development of Los Angeles, and for that reason the sub-plot about the control of water should be seen in a different light and not subordinate to the main family tragedy plotline. In fact, Scott goes so far as to argue that the film is about the attempts for institutional and administrative control of the city, a thesis that seems correct considering that the key players in the film’s narrative are capitalist entrepreneurs, police officials and other civil workers who represent key American institutions. In this struggle for political power, private investigator J.J.Gittes (Jack Nicholson) starts as an outsider and only gradually makes sense (or does he?) of the intertwining political and social threads at work in Los Angeles, whilst at the same time discovers the secrets of a city that seems to possess the keys for all the mysteries.

The nostalgic look at L.A in Chinatown then differs in the fact that it is not a static reconstruction of a never-land set in an imagined past, but a glamorous representation of a developing city that manages to keep its mystery even from the inquisitive gaze of the narrative’s star detective.

Dr Strangelove

Dr Strangelove

Ian Scott’s references to the politics of power in Chinatown made a good introduction for the next paper on Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964) by Alex Cox. Familiar to cine-philes in his capacity as writer/director of highly political films such as Repo Man and Walker as well as his legendary introductions to films in Moviedrome, Alex Cox lived up every bit to the audience’s expectations by delivering a passionate and politically charged speech about the context surrounding the dealmaking and production process of Dr Strangelove. His main objective however was to demonstrate how a 38 year old film continues to be as timely as it is in the face of recent decisions in the American Government’s Foreign and Defence policies as one of his early statements clearly indicates: “Dr Strangelove is as contemporary as George W. Bush.”

After defending the above statement, Cox embarked on a “behind the scenes” account of the film’s production, that involved fascinating details regarding the studio’s (Columbia) position on the issue of the representation of nuclear war and its contradictory marketing and distribution policy, Sellers’ star status and his contractual obligations, the role of the bond company (a financial organisation that undertakes to ensure that a film is going to reach completion) in the creative process, and finally the standard, though in this case worthy of note, clashes between director and executive producer. Drawing on published material but also including various anecdotes, Alex Cox clearly demonstrated how the production of film is shaped by a variety of forces, which are unique to the individual film. Such a micro approach to film history has been also adopted and rigorously exercised by recent academic scholarship since older, overarching attempts to group Hollywood films together have been criticised for tending to erase differences between films.

Another area that was ignored in older forms of film criticism but has earned considerable attention recently in the light of debates on New Hollywood was research on dealmaking, the process by which a production company or a studio (Columbia, in our case) decides to greenlight a project. For that reason, Cox’s considerable focus on the dealmaking process for Dr Strangelove was particularly welcomed as it outlined the reasons behind the otherwise incredible decision of an American studio to make a “comedy” about nuclear war. It was this section of the speaker’s paper that emphasised the contradictory forces at work as Columbia decided to greenlight the film on the basis of Peter Sellers’ box office clout as a comic performer (the financial success of Pink Panther was still fresh) whereas Mo Rothman, executive producer of the film was quoted, stating that “New York does NOT see anything FUNNY about the end of the world” and the Columbia distribution department attacked the film as “a zany novelty flick which does not reflect the views of the corporation in any way”! Additionally, Kubrick’s own approach to the subject was in accordance with the original idea of the studio to make a comedy, though for significantly different reasons, since he did think that nuclear war was too outrageous a subject to be treated conventionally.

With all these conflicts casting shadows over the production from the initial development stage, it comes as no surprise that Columbia refused to give its full support to the film, which got a limited release until it was rediscovered in the 1980s, another era when nuclear war was a key topic on the public’s agenda, and was recognised as a great moment in American cinema. 

The end of the paper was marked by a 10 minute documentary, entitled My Friend Sam, part of a work in progress, where Alex Cox interviews Sam Cohen, nuclear scientist and inventor of the Neutron Bomb. The short piece, which is permeated with humour, attempts to make sense out of the scientist’s mind about the days of the Cold War and the conditions in the American nuclear laboratories. Prompted by Cox’s skilful questions, Sam Cohen’s memoirs do not seem far removed from situations depicted/satirised in Dr Strangelove (which, not surprisingly, is a personal favourite for Mr Cohen) and offer an additional reason for the film’s remarkable power as a political statement.

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront

The last speaker to take his place at the lectern was Dr Brian Neve, who presented his work in progress on another celebrated classic film, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Throughout the last decade Brian Neve has emerged as an authority on the director and the film with publications in journals such as History Today, Film and History and The Journal of American Studies as well as contributions to several collections such as The Movies as History: Visions of the Twentieth Century (edited by D.W.Ellwood) and Cinema, Politics and Society (edited by Philip Davies and Brian Neve). Additionally, the present and the following year will see three more publications by Brian Neve on the above subject including a contribution in the Handbook on On the Waterfront (Cambridge University Press), part of which the delivered paper represented.

After acknowledging the increasing difficulties involved in a new examination of the film due to the amount of scholarly attention it has received throughout the years and its intricate links with HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and the Mass Hearings, the speaker proceeded to a brief commentary of the context within which the film has been traditionally examined. Thus, he made specific references to the American film industry in the early post-war years focusing on the Paramount Decree, the decline of the studio system and, inevitably, on the subject of Communist infiltration of Hollywood. These broad remarks were followed by a review of the academic approaches to Kazan’s work, which have customarily taken two routes, one (the most explored) that looks at the psychology of the characters and its implications for the narrative trajectories, and a second, that focuses on the representation of politics. From what followed it seems that Neve’s research attempted to bring the two approaches together, and hence, present an interesting amalgam that balances the personal with the political, narrative with representation.

The key argument in Neve’s attempt to synthesise was an examination of how the screenwriter’s (Budd Schulberg) emphasis on American unionism links with Kazan’s interest in the psychology of the main character, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando). Thus, although the film fictionalises well-documented corruption in the labour unions, which the screenwriter knew from first hand experience, Kazan’s emphasis on Malloy’s personality and his particular use of mise-en scene shifts the emphasis from issues of political representation and transforms the film to a tragic story about a man who missed his opportunities in life, who missed the chance to become a contender. Thus, the famous encounter between Terry and Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) towards the end of the film becomes primarily a vehicle for the culmination of the narrative trajectory rather than an indictment of corruption in the circles of the waterfront unions.

End Credits Online

If the success of any conference is measured by the participation of the audience in the customary Q & A session following the end of the papers, then American Classic Films can certainly boast an enormous success even when Roger Ebert and Alex Cox’s schedules did not allow them to stay for the above session. An immense number of questions for the two other speakers made evident both the interest of the audience in the four ‘classic’ films that were discussed in detail and, more importantly, in the state of contemporary American cinema, which attracted the vast majority of the questions. If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the various interventions during the session it is that American cinema has somewhat lost its ability to produce ‘masterpieces’ mainly (but not exclusively) due to the studios’ practices, which have been increasingly producing films that can recoup their costs and make their profits from various ancillary markets (through tie-ins, spin-offs and merchandising). This is a sad realisation and a cause for alarm, since a whole new generation of film viewers are entertained solely by action-adventure blockbusters, which dominate in the production plans of every major. Let us hope then that the new copies of the old classic films will give new generations a glimpse of what American cinema is capable of and raise the audiences’ expectations with regard to what makes a great film. In the meantime, we will welcome the restored copies on the silver screen, view the next great American hit and continue to expect the next Great American Film!

Brian Neve has written an extended artcle on On the Waterfront for American Studies Today Online. Read it now.

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