Film Summer College 2011 (Antwerp)


Summer Film College 2011
 
A report by Peter Bosma
(circa 1400 words)
 
The biennal Summer Film College was held in Antwerp, organized by the Flemish Service for Film Culture of the Royal Belgian Filmarchive. Here follows a short recap of this inspiring week. 

The program of the ‘Zomer Film College’ was divided in three parts:
 
1. ‘Masterwork in context’.
The last late night screening of the week was reserved for an unannouncedmasterwork. In preparation for this revealing each night a relevant film was shown, also unannounced. Before every screening a clue was given through a quote from an interview. This mystery programming prooved to be a good way to stir up speculations and conversation.
The first evening made it clear that the unnamed director championed realism and was influenced by a range of fellow masters. Only gradually more details could be guessed.
At the end of the week we could look back on a wonderful series of six classics, consisting of MIRACOLO A MILANO (De Sica, 1953), LOUISIANA STORY (Flaherty, 1948), MY UNIVERSITIES, the third episode of the Gorki trilogy (Donskoi, 1940), WAGON MASTER (John Ford, 1950) LA BETE HUMAINE (Jean Renoir, 1938) and TWO ACRES OF LAND (Bimal Roy, 1953), all leading us in an unexpected way to ... the first episode of the Apu Trilogy, PATHER PANCHALI (Satyajit Ray, 1955).
 
2. Film and paintings.
Black Box meets White Cube: in the afternoons the dark screening room merged with a virtual museum exposition.
During the week there were four contributors:
-  Wouter Hessels presented two classic avant garde films, made by painters: BALLET MECANIQUE (Fernand Léger, 1924) and VORMITTAGSSPUK (Hans Richter, 1927) and also two Belgian animation films by Raoul Servais: PEGASUS (1973, influenced by painter Permeke) and NACHTVLINDERS (1997, a hommage to painter Paul Delvaux). This Fall Wouter Hessels will be the new general manager of the Royal Filmarchive in Brussels.
-  Steven Jacobs (University of Ghent) expanded in his lectures on his book ‘Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts’ (University of Edinburgh Press, 2011), which was launched during the Summer Film College. Jacobs lectured on the influence of paintings on the visual style of films (AN AMERICAN IN PARIS), museums as ‘strange places’ in films, documentaries about painters, and biopics (CARAVAGGIO & LOVE IS THE DEVIL).
-  Tom Paulus (University of Antwerp) offered us a daring line of thought which was previously developed in a series of undergraduate courses, but not yet distilled in a publication. He shared with us his extensive research of elements of image composition in both paintings and films (the suggestion of depth, the use of windows and doors), using examples as THE LAST OF MOHICANS (1920) and A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985), and stills from films of Thomas Ince and many others. He challenged us to participate in his exploration of a group style among directors as diverse as Erice (THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE), Dreyer (THE MASTER OF THE HOUSE), Paradjanov (THE COLOR OF THE POMEGRANATES), Dovzhenko (ARSENAL) and also references to films Tarkovsky, Sokoerov and Terence Malik and painters like Matisse, Rousseau, Malevitch and Pirosmani. In this quest he was inspired by the essays of Gilbert Perez (‘The Material Ghost’) and Paul Schrader (‘Transcendental Style in Film’).
-  Lisa Colpaert ( free lance researcher) made in her lecture an inventory of the various ways in which painted portraits of women are used in the film noir of the 1940s.
 
3. Dark Passages: storytelling strategies in 1940s Hollywood
Every morning prof. Bordwell placed us in an imaginary time machine and took us to the 1940s. His central argument was that the1940s were a decade of innovative, experimental story telling in Hollywood cinema. Stories got more complicated and also the staging changed. In his lectures he analysed the details of what happened in this decade and he searched for an explanation of these developments in narrative and visual style.
 
The Hollywood studio system was characterized by skilful craftmanship. Films were made in serial manifacture, in a collective creativity aimed at solutions for specific requirements: entertainment firstly, but also genre conventions of plausibility, and constraints of censorship and public taste. There is also the influence of peer pressure and prestige: a competition for praise and fame among rivals. The Hollywood studiosystem has a clearly traceable tradition of preferred solutions, but also a tendency to explore the borders, to stretch the possibilities of narrative and staging conventions, and the available technology.
 
Hollywood films are layered, they are addressing a wide range of audience. Besides the small group of sophisticated incrowd, they are also reaching to ‘Slow Joe at the back row’ and everybody in between.
In the 40s the practice of continuous admission was still common. Scheduled screenings and fixed show times were still exceptional. So the process of narrative suspense was often damaged by the pattern of admission.
 
In the 1940s the movie business was booming, with 1946 as ultimate peak in attendance and profits. For every release a large audience could be expected in this decade. Budgets got bigger, and censorship was lessened. Therefore many opportunities arose for talent: directors became producers, writers became directors.
At the end of the decade a steep decline in attendance and profits followed, from 1949 onwards. The big Hollywood studios lost their power, due to the Antitrust Legislation of 1948, which broke the oligopoly. Opening the market meant the end of unfair trade practices, but it was also the beginning of the end for the classic studio system.
 
The narrative style in the 1940s is influenced by modernism in drama and novels, and also by the rise of the popular literary culture: psychological suspense thrillers, presented in cross media (magazines, books, radio and film). Storytelling in this era is characterized by the creation of a disturbing reality, filled with unclear defined villains, victims and suspects.
 
Basic questions for analysis of the narration are: who knows (sees, hears, experiences) what and when? How is the story information channeled to us? Who moves the action, whose purposes, reactions and decisions determine the action? Through the use of narrative devices the audience is influenced in their sympathy and empathy with the characters.
 
In the 40s the possiblities of a puzzling narration increases: situations can be constructed in conflicting ways, characters have secrets and dark pasts, they could tell lies or deceive themselves.
Elements of the narrative style in the 40s are:
- Mystery and suspense (continuous peril, unknown threats in domestic life and marriage).
- Time shifts through flash backs (testimony of behaviour, investigation of a crisis, recollection of better times), which could be incomplete or untrue.
- Complex characterization (dual or multiple protagonists, who are ambiguous and opaque, often with unclear motivations or false identity).
- Fluctuating subjectivity (unstable point of view and unreliable narrators, often in an insane mental and emotional state).
 
Each decade has also a slightly different dominant visual style, for example how to light a female star, or how to visualize a hallucination, or how to stage a scene: which character can be seen in the frame, alone or together, and how is the topography of the interiors or the landscape being shaped. The 1940s has a distinctive group visual style, characterized by:
- lenghty long takes (complex camera movements).
- crisp low key lighting (dark shadows and high contrast).
- depth staging (deep focus cinematography, tightly packed compositions).
 
This short summary could give only a hint of what prof. Bordwell offered us in his inspiring series of lectures, which hopefully will find its way in a blog entry or book. During the Film Summer College he gave us an unique experience consisting of a carefully constructed explanation and discussion of eleven films shown on the big screen.
 
In conclusion
All films need an audience. Some films needs an acquired taste.
The amazing thing is that in our time also popular mass entertainment of the 1940s do belong in this category. We need a guide to explore this area and prof. Bordwell naturally proved to be just the perfect person to do so.
Another strategy is to put film heritage in the context of a surprising and informing series, as demonstrated in the late night series leading to the revealing of PATHER PANCHALI.
The thematic approach through film and painting offered yet another option to keep the film heritage alive and fresh.
 
The Film Summer College attracted a large crowd of participants, many of them students or recently graduated young people. It is good to know there is a new generation of cinephiles available, curious and capable.
 
The final words of this report are a big ‘thank you’ to the staff and lecturers for all their efforts!

See also the notes of Ari Ernesto Purnama about the Summer Film College 2011, available at URL http://groningenmovingimagekulture.tumblr.com/post/9011585511/going-back-to-gombrich-via-bordwell-some-notes-from
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Masterwork in context: a selection of sources
  • Cardullo, Bert, Satyajit Ray: Interviews. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007.
  • Ray, Satyajit, Our Films, Their Films. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1976.
  • Robinson, Andrew, Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray and the Making of an Epic. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  • Thompson, Kristin & Bordwell, David, Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009 (3rd edition).
  • Wood, Robin, The Apu Trilogy. London: November Books Limited, 1972.

Dark Passages: articles in the reader
- Diane Waldman, ‘At last I can tell it to someone!: Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’, in: Cinema Journal vol 23, no 2 (Winter 1983) pp 29-40.
- Sarah Kozloff, Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Film, University of California Press, 1989 (Chapter 2: Ancestors, Influences and Development Chapter 3: First-Person Narrators).
 
Dark Passages: recommended books
- John Alton - Painting with Light (University of California Press, 1995).
- Mary Ann Doane - The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Films of the 1940s, Indiana UP, 1987.
- Joel W. Finler - The Hollywood Story (Wall Flower Press, 2003).
- James Naremore - More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (University of California Press, 2008).
- Thomas Schatz - Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (History of the American Cinema vol. 6, University of California Press, 1999).
- Dana Polan - Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940-1950 (Columbia University Press, 1986).Review: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC35folder/PowerParanoiaRev.html
- Maureen Turim, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History, New York: Routledge, 1989.
- Kristin Thompson - Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton UP, 1988), contains analyses of LAURA (1944) and STAGE FRIGHT (1950).
 
Dark Passages: films screened
See also: www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2011/08/07/puppetry-and-ventriloquism
  1. SUSPICION (1941): unsolved questions: who is Johnnie (Gary Grant): man or child? Lover or liar? Is he a killer?
  2. STAGE FRIGHT (1950): Eve wants to enter the world of stage acting, she experiences the danger to pretend and she realizes what it mean to love some one. And we realize a flash back is not necessarly always entirely true. And we enjoy the Dietrich song ‘I am the laziest girl in town’, deleted from the final cut.
  3. DAISY KENYON (1947): the narration is organized to maximize our sense of their mismatched moods, desires and plans.
  4. MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942): depiction of fundamental social changes and a study of failures and frustrations. It is a novel, adapted by Orson Welles to a radio show (on line available) and a film, which only survived in a damaged state. Lots of footage is lost.
  5. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941): a subjective sentimental journey about dear memories, but also about the faults of capitalisme, injustice of class relations and the cruelty of religious intolerance. It is a ‘Paradise Lost’ with mixed feelings.
  6. LAURA (1944): rough romance and rivalry in a murder story with a range of plausible suspects and a wrong victim. It starts as a flash back and ends in a series of wonderful twists. Snappy dialogues between the cynical dandy and the mastermind detective.
  7. CROSSFIRE (1947): crime thriller as a social problem film.
  8. LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1948): Very enjoyable social comedy, presented as plot driven mystery film. Three unbalanced mariages causes uncertainity and clashes, ending in a trifold reconcilliation. The invisible fourth woman is bored by suburban social life, to amuse herself (and us) she throws in some cruel intrigue and charm, but she is defeated at the end.
  9. THE KILLERS (1946). See Narration in the Fiction Film, pp 193-198.
  10. LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947): grotesque and over the top, pushing all conventions to the limits with an extreme use of all style elements, most evident in the amazing climax at the mirror house.
  11. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950): marking the end of an era.
 
Clips were shown of, among others:
- HELLZAPOPPIN (1941): self conscious comedy, fast and hilareous
- BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941): contains frenzy montage sequence.
- BLIND ALLEY (1939) and THE DARK PAST (1948): gangsters on the couch of psychiatrists.
- THE WINDOW (1949): the ultimate story about a witness in distress.
And many more. See Bordwell’s blog: www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2011/08/07/puppetry-and-ventriloquism.

- To be discovered: the output of directors at Poverty Row: Edgar G. Ulmer (PRC), Joseph L. Lewis (Monogram), John H. Auer (Republic Pictures). For the latter, see the column ‘Further Research’ of Dave Kehr, in Film Comment vol 47, nr 4 (July/August 2011), 22-23.
 
And further more recommended:
- PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1946) and THE LOCKET (1946). See Bordwell’s blog: www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2011/06/06/chinese-boxes-russian-dolls-and-hollywood-movies.
- ENCHANTMENT (1948). See Bordwell’s blog: www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2011/06/15/julie-julia-the-house-that-talked.
 
Starting up a dvd library:
- 20th Century Home Entertainment: ALL ABOUT EVE (1950); THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946); LAURA (1944). And the BFI dvd-box ‘Film Noir Classics’: FALLEN ANGEL (1945), WHIRPOOL (1949), NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950).
- Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment: THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947); GILDA (1946).