Monday, January 26, 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Robin Wood on Communal Art



I'm a big fan of the late critic Robin Wood. He wrote two of my favorite books on movies: HITCHCOCK'S FILMS (1969) and HITCHCOCK'S FILMS REVISTED, REVISED EDITION (2002). The first book was a masterpiece that forever altered the way people viewed Hitchcock as an artist (I think you could argue that it's the most influential work of scholarship on any filmmaker). The second book was something truly amazing--a radical rethinking of the previous book in light of Wood's growing preoccupation with gender theory. You don't have to agree with any of Woods's arguments in either book to appreciate that you're dealing with a brilliant scholar bringing the full weight of his thinking to an important artist.


I say that all at the beginning because although Wood has been lumped in with auteurist critics he was quick to admit that movies are a form of communal art. I'm writing an article right now on the great screenwriter Leigh Brackett's work with director Howard Hawks, and I was flipping through an old copy of Wood's book on Hawks's masterpiece, RIO BRAVO. Here's what he had to say at communal art in that book:


"Classical Hollywood seems to have been the last stronghold of 'communal' art, in which artists, artisans and mere hacks could learn from each other, borrow from each other, share a common legacy of idioms, forms, genres, and conventions: the kind of community that nurtured Shakespeare, or Mozart and Haydn, all of whom vastly extended the legacy they inherited without feeling the least need to jettison it. We still (whatever the transformations of modernism, post-modernism, etc.) live in the lingering aftermath of romanticism, the notion of 'personal' art produced by some 'genius' out of his own private cerebrations. The richest periods of art have always been the communal ones, in whatever culture, whatever period. Hawks's achievement should not be belittled simply because he had the good fortune to develop within such an environment. He used existing forms and genres and idioms, he welcomed and worked with collaborators without feeling any qualms about 'stealing,' about 'originality,' about repeating himself (or others), and his name is on a body of work of quite exceptional richness, individuality, and integrity. I see no contradiction in these statements, though I would certainly acknowledge certain differences between writing King Lear or composing Le nozze de Figaro (in private) and filming Rio Bravo with actors and technicians on a set. I would go further and claim that 'communal' art, with its acceptance of sharing and collaborating, the 'ivory tower' as far removed as possible, is the ideal and necessary configuration for a 'democratic' or 'socialist' art. It is of course ironic that what seems to be (for the time being) its final flowering should have taken place within a supremely capitalist industry or 'dream factory' supposedly dedicated to lulling 'the masses' into hypnotised acceptance.... In any case, when I use the word 'Hawks' in what follows, I want it to refer to the total signifying practice of the films that bear his name.... With the proviso that I do not believe the films could ever have existed without the presence of Hawks himself somewhere at their centre."

Poverty Row Professionals: Edward L. Cahn

My new piece on the director Edward L. Cahn appears in the Winter Issue of NOIR CITY. It's the newest entry in my series on Poverty Row Professionals, and Cahn certainly fits the description. He was the kind of workman who cranked out picture after picture at studios all over Hollywood--though the bulk of his work was produced at small outfits that operated on shoestring budgets. Despite these constraints, his work was always interesting and he made some notable additions to film noir.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Long Wait of Norman Foster


The 13th edition of Noir City: The San Francisco Film Noir Fesitval kicked off with a showing of the latest film to be rescued and restored by the Film Noir Foundation, WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950).

A couple of years ago I wrote about the film and its director, the long overlooked Norman Foster, for Bright Lights Film Journal. You can click here to read my essay The Long Wait of Norman Foster

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Talking to Christopher Rouse about WICKED WOMAN


My piece on actor Beverly Michaels, her husband director Russell Rouse, and the making of their classic film noir WICKED WOMAN appears in the new issue of NOIR CITY. Check it out.

For the article, I interviewed Chris Rouse, son of Beverly and Russell, about his parents. Chris is an Oscar-winning film editor who's probably best known for his work with director Paul Greengrass on the Bourne action movies. He's a busy man, but he was kind enough to make time to answer my noir geek questions about his folks and to provide some pictures for us to use in the article. I used quotes and information from him throughout the article, but there was a segment of the interview I wasn't able to fit in for space reasons. I thought I'd include it in its entirety here. For the Beverly Michaels obsessives out there, this should be really interesting.:

JH: What was she like? I only know her as the brassy dames from her noirs. What was she like in real life? What did she like to do, to talk about? What did she care about?

CR: Mom was a very complex and highly intelligent woman. She was the product of her upbringing--a girl who grew up quickly on the streets of New York--becoming a model, a showgirl, and an actress at early ages. Not a typical path for a girl, and not an easy one. And so she was tough and brassy in real life as well, but Mom also had a huge heart, and would do anything for the people who mattered to her.

Mom loved films, plays--all the arts. She loved to read, both fiction and non-fiction. As I said, she wrote plays but stopped after while. She was highly political--a very liberal Democrat--and was involved in several political causes and with several groups throughout her life (for example “Another Mother For Peace”).

JH: The big question that all Beverly Michaels fans would want me to ask is why she retired from films. You said she was a bit of a cipher about her career, so what I would be really fascinated to know is how she felt about it overall. How do you think she saw it? I know that some of the actors who eventually became noir icons still always regarded their careers as failures. Which is to say that they got into movies hoping to be a big star like Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman, and since that never happened they regarded their career (even if they eventually became a cult figure) as having failed. Would that describe your mom, or do you think she saw it another way? Did she appreciate that she had become something of a cult icon among noir geeks?

CR: The short answer is that Mom retired because she wanted to start a family, and she couldn’t reconcile having a career and giving her kids everything from her she thought they’d need. As years passed I think she began to feel the loss of her career more profoundly… It’s very difficult to give up such a large part of your identity, no matter how noble the cause for which it has been abandoned. Though she never gave voice to it, I imagine she wished she had become a “bigger” star. And I do think she felt somewhat underappreciated in her day… That for the most part her roles were seen as less significant “B film” endeavors, rather than as dynamic parts which portrayed complex, empowered women.


Years later when she began to realize she was a bit of a cult icon, it pulled her in two directions. She was truly flattered by the attention she received, but because she’d become increasingly private as she got older, she never really embraced it fully. 

For more of my interview with Chris Rouse, check out the article in NOIR CITY e-mag, available now. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

THE DEEPENING SHADE is here!

My short story collection THE DEEPENING SHADE is now available. People have said some nice stuff about it. Here's a little something from some of those people:

Benjamin Whitmer, author of PIKE and CRY FATHER, calls it "The best short story collection I've read in years."

Eric Rickstad, author of REAP and THE SILENT GIRLS, says, "These stories are a feat of black magic conjured by a master wordsmith and storyteller intimate with both the dark side and the resiliency of humanity."

Crime Fiction Lover calls it "a superior effort" with a "sympathetic portrayal of down-on-their luck people."

Pulp Chronicler says, "Each one of these stories will plant its seed in your brain and leave it there to grow long after the stories themselves are done."