January 26, 2012

“One of the problems for historians of most arts is the ‘transitional figure.’”

– Dennis Bingham, “Shot From the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

“[H]e spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had gone wrong.”

– Bill Krohn, “Jonah,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

Brian Kellow’s new biography of Pauline Kael, one of my lifelong inspirations as a writer, has so many flaws that it would take a second book to enumerate them.  Since Kael falls outside the purview of this blog – regrettably, “television” was something of a dirty word to her, a shorthand for commercial aspirations and diminished attention spans; although Kael may have had some enthusiasm for the made-for-television movies of the seventies, this is one of several points on which Kellow contradicts himself – I don’t have to do any enumerating.  But I will point out one comparatively minor flaw in Kellow’s book that got under my skin: Kellow indulges in a few snotty asides against “academia,” a phrase he uses so generically that it’s hard to tell exactly who he’s trying to insult, or why.  Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that we want to argue back, even when we agree with him.  (The royal “we” is used in honor of La Pauline, although it’s one of her devices that makes me uneasy; I’m afraid to emulate it, although Kael often deploys it with great power.)  I’ve staked out my own position as essentially anti-academic, but even I have to acknowledge that it’s absurd to suggest that no one on a tenure track is doing valuable writing or research on art and culture.  The question is whether those scholars who are creating good work represent the rule or the exception.

Which brings us to the first item in today’s book report: a recent collection of scholarly essays that examine the work of the director John Frankenheimer.  I picked up the book, which was compiled and edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in part because I discovered that its contributors cite my own work a few times (yes, it is possible to accidentally search your own name on Google Books; really, I swear that’s how it happened), and also because I remain obsessed with every outpost of Frankenheimeriana.  As far as I can recall, I’ve only returned to the subject of Frankenheimer’s early television productions once since I wrote that Senses of Cinema essay, but I know I’ll go back again someday.  As Frankenheimer’s work was in its time the most pyrotechnic, the most resistant to the technological limitations of early television, so it stands out today as the most durable, the most modern, the most cinematic, the most alive.

The title of Pomerance and Palmer’s collection is a famous refrain from The Manchurian Candidate, and an odd choice, since (unless I dozed off for a minute) none of the writers in the book quote it.  I would have liked to know why the editors felt that line had an overarching meaning within Frankenheimer’s oeuvre – a meaning even more potent than the trope of paranoia, a word that’s used in nearly every essay in the book.  The title characterizes Frankenheimer as a maverick, a loner.  But while the director may have thought of himself that way, one of the tragedies of the his career is that he was unable to function as a true independent.  Not only did Frankenheimer’s vision require budgets of some size, but in interviews he made it clear that he was invested in the idea of a commercial cinema, of box office victory and mainstream recognition.

Within that context, the book’s key essay may be Jerry Mosher’s well-researched account of the making of Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object (1973), a film that self-consciously attempted a non-linear, ambiguous narrative in the style of Resnais or, in particular, Losey.  Mosher carefully places the ideas behind Impossible Object (incidentally, the only theatrical Frankenheimer feature I have not seen), and its catastrophic post-production phase and consequent non-release, within the context of the personal and professional lives of the director and his collaborators (chiefly Nicholas Mosley, the original writer and later a memoirist who wrote insightfully about Frankenheimer).  Impossible Object became a self-fulfilling prophecy (or Prophecy, as it turned out): Frankenheimer took the film’s failure as an affirmation that art cinema was not a viable path for him, and probably as an excuse to embrace a belief system to which he was he already bound.

Other writers who delve in detail into the production histories of individual films include Matthew R. Bernstein, who describes some of the fascinating real-life figures and incidents upon which The Train was based, and James Morrison, whose essay on The Iceman Cometh is a model diagram of how a film’s meaning emerges from its maker’s technical choices.  Charles Ramírez Berg’s astute formal analysis of The Manchurian Candidate properly contextualizes the film’s imagery as an outgrowth of Frankenheimer’s live television technique.  Berg includes a detailed consideration of “The Comedian” (a terrific Rod Serling-scripted Playhouse 90) as an exemplar of the director’s televisual style.  And I was pleased to see my two favorite underdogs in the Frankenheimer filmography, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line, become the subjects of thoughtful consideration, in pieces by Dennis Bingham and Linda Ruth Williams, respectively.

A Little Solitaire also offers ample coverage of Frankenheimer’s perhaps overstated “comeback” in cable television during the nineties.  Most of these pieces are problematic, but Bill Krohn’s ambitious “Jonah,” fittingly the final chapter in the book, uses the late television productions and some of Frankenheimer’s worst theatrical features (as well as “Forbidden Area,” the premiere segment of Playhouse 90, which has only recently resurfaced in private collections), to stitch together the intriguing argument that, following the assassination of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer became something of a covert, disillusioned radical/nihilist, who consistently charted “the decline and fall of American liberalism.”  I wasn’t entirely persuaded (for one thing, “Jonah” offers without irony the phrase “a superb, understated performance by Ben Affleck”), but Krohn is the liveliest writer in this book, which counts for a lot.

“Coffee has yet another meaning.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out, while there is a connection between daze (the condition produced by the consumption of alcohol) and mystification, and more generally between the use of liquors and group feeling, the coffeehouse has throughout its history been dedicated to the support and preservation of the individual identity: ‘In coffeehouses the I is central.'”

– Murray Pomerance, “Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

About half of the essays in A Little Solitaire didn’t sell me on their theses; or, to be less charitable, they read as pointless exercises in publish-or-perish log-rolling.  That may be a better-than-average success rate for this type of collection.  It’s disappointing to see not even a single essay focused solely on Frankenheimer’s early television work (although the book’s invaluable appendix compiles a more complete Frankenheimer videography than I’ve seen before); but it’s also unsurprising, given that one would have to be a collector, or else log considerable archival hours in Los Angeles or New York, in order to see a large amount of that material.

What I find less easy to excuse is the narrowness of the methodologies on display in this collection.  Only a few of the authors (Bernstein; Pomerance, writing about All Fall Down; and Morrison, who dredged up cinematographer Ralph Woolsey’s memories of filming The Iceman Cometh in an obscure AFI seminar) attempted any archival research, even though Frankenheimer’s tempting and extensive papers are available at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  And the only original oral history in evidence is in Pomerance’s introductory essay, which includes a few superficial quotes from the actress Evans Evans (the director’s widow), and Richard Dysart, who appeared in a single Frankenheimer film (Prophecy, perhaps his worst).  I don’t understand why these approaches, which would yield more concrete insights and discoveries than the kind of tautological interdisciplinary lint-picking that is evident even in some of the better essays in this book (does Birdman of Alcatraz really benefit from being “read” “through” Foucault?), are undertaken so infrequently.  Are they just out of fashion in academia?  Is picking up the phone or getting on a plane somehow behaviorally (or, in the second case, financially) beyond the pale for a college professor?  Or would the weight of actual history be too much of a reality check on a writer who prefers instead to mash an artist’s work into the mold of his or her own professional specialty, whether or not it fits?


“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men.  He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”

– James Garner, The Garner Files

The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire.  Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast.  But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.

A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files.  I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off.  It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.

In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played.  He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed.  (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.)  The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members.  That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him.  Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper.  (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying.  He’s angry and desperate, just like I am.  That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)

Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies.  Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects.  The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows.  Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.

Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that.  But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy.  One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be a Rockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down.  (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)

Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it.  Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone?  Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo?  I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable.  But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.


Stuff to Read

June 21, 2011

In the current issue of Film Comment, the distinguished film scholar David Bordwell offers a vital piece called “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?”  In it, Bordwell points out that cinema, to a far greater extent than more rarified art forms (literature, visual arts, music, architecture), has inspired popular and scholarly traditions of criticism that rarely overlap.  In fact, the approaches of popular film critics (or “cinephiles,” as Bordwell calls them) and university scholars are so far apart that their members are often actively hostile toward one another.  Bordwell, a career academic at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also a blogger widely respected among unaffiliated movie buffs, is an ideal figure of compromise to broach the subject, and he concludes that a “hands across the aisle” rapprochement between the two camps could be brokered via the internet.

Sorry, but I’m not ready to surrender my arms just yet.

Bordwell’s topic might seem like a pointless exercise in inside baseball, and one not particularly germane to this blog (although I will connect it to the subject of television, if you’ll bear with me).  But most of the other film critics and enthusiasts of my personal acquaintance hold strong opinions on the subject, and it has certainly colored my own fifteen years as a semi-professional media historian.

Bordwell’s article resonated with me because it brought back a lot of memories from my own undergraduate education, which was perpetrated during the late nineties in the University of Southern California’s cinema-television program.  At the time, the program was dominated by scholars huddled under the umbrella of “Grand Theory” – a collection of cultural-studies disciplines (semiotics, reception studies, psychoanalysis, feminism & queer theory) which connected only tangentially to art appreciation and aesthetics.  In practice, this meant reading a lot of essays about movies in which no individual film was discussed or even named.  Bordwell uses the phrase “smother living work under a blanket of Grand Theory,” and that accurately describes the dispiriting attitude I encountered all too often.  Instead of embodying a broad curiosity about film as a medium, these cultural scholars tended to cherry-pick texts and trends that supported whatever specialty they had staked out on the Grand Theory map.  (Bordwell: “the habit of interpreting films as charade-like enactments of theoretical doctrines.”)

The few USC faculty to whom I was able to relate – like Rick Jewell, a rigorous historian of Hollywood production methods – seemed to exist on the margins of this not-really-about-films film school in which I found myself mired.  I took what I could from teachers like Jewell, but on the whole I emerged from USC with a sense of resentment towards a curriculum that often seemed to condescend to the material I went there to learn about.  A big part of that problem was the basic indifference or even contempt toward the craft of writing that I encountered in the critical literature I read.  The impenetrability of academic writing is an old joke, but it bears repeating that, as Chris Fujiwara puts it in a response to Bordwell’s article, “there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia.”  My own formal education therefore had the effect of alienating me from its auspices: although I’ve occasionally written pieces that drew in part on some cultural-theory notions gleaned from college (for instance, this post-feminist reading of The Donna Reed Show), I’ve made a conscious decision to place my work on the popular side of cinephilia (or telephilia, as the case may be) because I want to reach an audience who will read about East Side / West Side or The Patty Duke Show because they want to, not because they have to.  (Fujiwara: “The system of ‘publish or perish,’ together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing.”)

One quibble I have with Bordwell’s piece is that, perhaps for reasons of space, he uses the term “research” a lot without ever defining it precisely.  For Bordwell, research seems to represent the serious work of scholars; whenever non-academics produce valuable research, it’s a happy accident.  (Bordwell writes that Joseph McBride’s heavily footnoted Spielberg biography “is academic in the best sense.”)  Of course, Bordwell’s own work is prodigiously detailed and specific (see, for instance, his blog post about flashbacks-within-flashbacks), so I suspect he would be surprised and disappointed by how infrequently I encountered the same breadth of curiosity and rigor among the faculty and grad students in my USC program.  Bordwell suggests that “academic research is less geared to evaluation” but I often found that academics were highly evaluative.  It’s just that they were quick to judge texts based on their usefulness to a particular scholarly discipline or approach rather than on their value as art.

I hit my breaking point with this form of myopia when Jeff Kisseloff published his pioneering work The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 during my USC years.  Kisseloff’s book gave me more insight into understanding how television was made than anything I’ve read before or since.  And yet, when I recommended it to one of my television professors, not only did she have no interest in teaching the book, but she wouldn’t even read it.  It was inconceivable to her that oral history could teach her anything useful about television.  I encountered that attitude – that the work of the scholar should be abstract and contemplative rather than nuts-and-bolts – all the time, and it’s why I take exception to Bordwell’s non-definition of “research.”

My own definition of research, then, would be along the lines of investigative journalism: perusal of archival records, excavation of contemporary publications, viewings of obscure works, and yes, actually talking to people who created the objects of one’s study.  Bordwell’s implication that the success of non-academic scholar like McBride in this area was somehow exceptional offended me slightly because, in my view, McBride is the rule, not the exception.  Much of the best movie and television history (if not always the best criticism, which is Bordwell’s primary focus) is the work of outsiders, not of academics.  Of course, that’s the opposite of how it ought to be.

I promised to apply some of these thoughts to television, and I think the best way to do that is to question another generalization of Bordwell’s: that mainstream or cinephile critics are mainly auteurists.  I guess there’s a broad tradition, perhaps more among editors than writers, of following the DGA’s possessory-credit lead and referring to most films as the work of their directors, without any investigation of who actually did what; but I also think that many good mainstream critics are equally likely to come at movies from a context of national cinemas, movie star personas, zeitgeist notions, or any of a dozen other frameworks.

Anyway, it occurs to me that the idea of an auteurist approach breaks down completely when you try to apply it to television.

That’s because the episodic director is rarely the primary creative force in television (except for cases where a Michael Mann or a Martin Scorsese directs an HBO pilot), and understanding the process of who fills that power vacuum is work that few mainstream (and academic?) critics have attempted.  The “showrunner,” a relatively new term and a relatively modern conception, has become a sort of default auteurist figure among television critics, but it’s often misunderstood and selectively applied.  Most critics probably don’t realize that a showrunner may or may not be the same thing as an executive producer or a head writer (for instance, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows and Jerry Bruckheimer’s C.S.I. franchises all have their own showrunners, and yet more strongly reflect the sensibilities of Wolf and Bruckheimer).  And I don’t understand why Mad Men and Deadwood are widely understood as the singular visions of their particular creators, and yet I’ve never read any auteurist criticism devoted to, say, John Wells or Ryan Murphy (even though ER and The West Wing, once it passed from Aaron Sorkin’s to Wells’s control, have a great deal in common, and Murphy’s superficially very different Nip/Tuck and Glee are of a philosophical piece).  There are also cases where actors, cinematographers, executives, and other less-than-obvious figures who set the tone in television – not to mention exceptional television directors who really are auteurs but whose work is so spread out that they haven’t been recognized as such – but I’ve seen little work that tries to grasp any of that.

The popular/academic schism in film culture in film culture may be bad, but at least it’s indicative that some approaches have been codified.  In the television realm, I sense that the academics are still chasing their trends instead of doing serious research (can I tell you how many Buffy-loving hipsters I ran afoul of during my USC sojourn?) and most popular critics are just trying to keep up with the screeners that land on their desks, without looking hard enough at the bigger picture.


Speaking of academics: Lynn Reed is a graduate student at Skidmore College who has been exploring ideas related to her master’s thesis in a good blog.  Her starting point is Mad Men, which she follows into tangents as inevitable as feminism and as unlikely as Remington Steele.  Reed has a fascinating piece up about a Mary Tyler Moore-like sitcom that Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown pitched to Warner Bros. and ABC – in 1962.  Needless to say, this proposed show that envisioned a female protagonist with a sometime boyfriend she “had no plans to marry” was a bit ahead of its time.  I’d love to read what, if anything, resides in the Warner Bros. Archives at USC to document the reaction of the studio’s television executives (at that time a typically cigar-chomping, old-school bunch) to Brown’s salvo of premature feminism.


Speaking of journalists: My pal Tom Lisanti has a fine threepart interview with sultry France Nuyen on his blog.  He doesn’t say why it was omitted, but evidently the Nuyen profile is a leftover from one of his worthwhile books about sixties ingenues.  Nuyen was Eurasian and hard to cast, but I always thought she was a subtle, wistful actress, with a sexy, marbly voice.  Nuyen is pretty frank but Lisanti didn’t get the one quote I was looking for – a response to the strange, cryptic, misogynistic barbs about his brief marriage to Nuyen that Robert Culp delivered on his I Spy audio commentaries.  Culp evidently had some unresolved issues on the subject, and didn’t mind telling the world about them.

And blogger Mel Neuhaus has another amazing threeparter, this one with child actress turned sixties ingenue Sherry Jackson.  Jackson is forthright about her entire career, but the really eye-popping revelations come in the first installment, during which she reveals the truly toxic environment on the set of the happy-family sitcom Make Room For Daddy.  The whole series (including part two and part three) is a must-read.  There is equal room in my philosophy, I’m proud to say, for both thoughtful criticism of shows like Mad Men and salacious gossip about Danny “Plate Man” Thomas’s kinky sexual proclivities.