Broe on the World Film Beat
Edgar Ulmer: Summer Antidote for Fascist Genre Films
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I’m Dennis Broe and this is deep summer, a time when, with blockbusters seemingly the only thing to watch, some people stop going to movies. And some people go to movies and start opening fire. I don’t want to say there is a direct link between the very dark sentiments which Warner’s has unleashed in this Batman trilogy and the horrible incident at the opening but while the Dark Knight series--with its open advocacy of vigilante violence, its canniness in bringing childhood trauma into the psyche of the villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker but at the same time its irresponsibility in refusing to trace the roots of that trauma, and its validation of the allure of personal weaponry as in the second part’s romantic representation of the Batmobile storming out of the batcave and down the streets of Gotham as paralleling the US convoys storming out of the emerald city in Baghdad--seems willy nilly to be unleashing a storm of negativity with no thought about the consequences except at the box office and the consequences may have caught up with the series.
There is also, by the way, every reason to believe that Warner’s may end up benefitting from the incident, with a film that was destined to be the main topic of conversation on weekends now becoming the main topic of conversation all week long and with domestic earnings, where the film was supposed to have trouble, placing it as the third largest opening of all time and the largest non-3D opening. Christopher Nolan claims the series is not political, that he is just randomly picking up elements of the society and tossing them in the stew, but that argument assumes that the society that he so intuitively grasps is not political, that it is not a society that is greedier, more desperate and more despairing as it is failing, all qualities that the Dark Knight series registers but refuses to analyze and thus contributes itself to pushing the greed, despair and desperation.
That the opening night, real-life, villain was from a town near Columbine again also reinforces Michael Moore’s point that personal violence is linked to social violence in a society that leads the world in the manufacture and sale of armaments, and in a town which is one of the loci of those corporate sales, since Raytheon, the third largest US weapons manufacturer has a major plant there. Indeed, the assassin, though he claims to be the like the Joker, is actually closer to Bruce Wayne in his personal assembly of public weaponry.
(Footnote, last fall one Saturday I was trying to get to Zucotti Park to visit the Occupy Movement and people were having to circumnavigate the park because there was filming going on. At first, I innocently thought it might be a director making a film about the Occupy Movement and when I asked what was being shot the production people, presumably a little guilty about the interference, would not say. I finally discovered that it was the Dark Knight who, rather than being on the side of the people, was instead on the side of our own Commissioner Gordon and the NYPD, not in fighting crime on Wall Street but in preventing people from taking part in the movement to fight crime there. I think that says something about which side of the 1/99% divide Batman’s brand of vigilante justice comes down on.
Now to less fascist, more pleasant, and, indeed, more resistant, late summer cinema. Since it is summer download, rental season, have I got some downloads for you, courtesy of the French Cinematheque in Paris which is in the process of wrapping a series on a director who is truly the king of the B’s, Edgar Ulmer. It’s safe to say that no director has ever worked in so many different kinds of off-Hollywood production modes over such a long period, persistently either refusing or being refused by the major studios.
The output also really varies. The ‘30s and early ‘40s films are a fascinating melange, ranging from public interest melodramas like the very startling Damaged Lives (1933) where a corporate wonderboy for a wedding present, albeit unwittingly, gives his bride syphilis to race movies like Moon Over Harlem (1939) at the end of the Harlem Renaissance where Ulmer keeps pace with African American director Oscar Micheaux is presenting a slice of Harlem life complete with a villainous figure named “Wall Street,” to Yiddish musical dramas like the shtetl slice-of –life-in-the-fields numbers in The Singing Blacksmith (1938), to Ukranian operas, like Cossacks In Exile (1938) shot on the sly at night on the steppes of, not Siberia, but Winnipeg.
The ‘40s to the mid-‘50s were his Hollywood genre period, where Ulmer all but ran the Poverty Row Studio PRC. They consisted of: what many still feel is the founding text of that permutation of the crime film, called the film noir, Detour (1945); women’s melodrama like the underrated Strange Woman with, it is said Ulmer being the only director who ever got Hedy Lamarr to act in this case as a woman whose desire outstrips the narrow confines of her new England town; social melodrama such as the excellent Ruthless (1948) , which is after The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), perhaps the sharpest examination of the brutality of a postwar capitalist competitiveness and which ends with the two lead characters plunging to their deaths rather than back down on their avaricious claims; and, finally, even westerns, like the noir western The Naked Dawn, in 1955, a far more damning critique of the results of 10 years of postwar greed then say John Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948).
The work as a whole in this period stakes a claim for Ulmer not only as a major director who worked well in all the Hollywood genre staples, the poor man’s Howard Hawkes, but also, as George Lipsitz notes, as understanding and representing the bitter disappointment that the world did not change after the war almost better than any other director. And finally, in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, his mostly forgettable late B’s where the excitement has all to do with watching Ulmer ingest at least a modicum of intelligence into miserable work for hire as in, for example, his working around Victor Mature not even phoning it in, let’s say texting it in, as a bloated Hannibal (1959) in a Warner’s late ‘50s low-budget co-production in Italy with Ulmer, in a feat on a level somewhat duplicating that of the Carthaginian general, figuring out how to get elephants across the Alps on $10 a day.
Ulmer’s early 20th Century Viennese origins--his first film, made in Vienna People on Sunday (1929) tracked the actions of three workers on a typical Sunday in a quasi-documentary answer to King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) and was a who’s who of East European filmmakers on their way to Hollywood, with a script by Billy Wilder and co-direction by Robert Siodmak—imbued his films with a conscious attunement to the political situation, a somewhat doomed sensibility, a German Expressionist sense of the camera and the setting--he began as an art director--as the window of the soul, and a rabid interest in music, all of which served constantly as a way of enlivening his American B films as well as making them strange, of defamiliarizing them.
Thus, in the late B Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), the pilot who breaks the aforementioned barrier winds up in a future consisting of an earth devastated by a nuclear explosion and at the center of it is the leader, not a mutation as are many of the earthlings, but a rather cultured gentleman whose grey space suit cannot belie his Viennese coffee house elegance and the measured pace of his Eastern European accent. Damaged Lives, which might have been nothing more than a public address message about syphilis, instead becomes, in Ulmer’s hands, a twisted critique of the corporate head who after passing the disease on to his new wife, somewhat blithely dismisses its consequences since they have been told it can be cured in a few years. She, though, consumed with shame, in a scene foreshadowing the disenchantment with the optimism of the American dream which will be the subject of Detour, turns the gas on in the apartment and lies down beside her sleeping husband, content to kill them both. The film has a happy ending sustaining the can-do ingenuity of the corporate head which feels quite false and which will not be repeated in the gloom of the lead character’s unredeemable misery in Detour.
Equally critical of the developing power of the American bourgeoisie is Her Sister’s Secret (1946), beginning in the old world decadence of a New Orleans New Year where the heroine is impregnated by a soldier who then departs for the war. Her sister obligingly guards her secret by taking the baby, but since the film is at least partially focalized through the viewpoint of the pregnant woman who continues to want her baby back, the sister’s and her wealthy husband’s magnanimous gesture can be read, since they cannot have children, as a selfish gesture by a class that takes what it likes.
Best of all the melodramas, and the most neglected, is The Strange Woman, in which Ulmer presents the backwoods of Banghor Maine of the 19th century as a savage place filled not with Indians but with rowdy loggers who, egged on by the town’s greedy storeowner stage their own bacchanal, more Walpurgesnacht—the medieval night when all demons appear--then backwoods Saturday night. The film follows the daughter of a town drunkard who grows up damaged but unwilling to renege her desire. She is so in touch with her own passion that she ruins two men, including the shopkeeper, and almost a third until she is finally brought down for her blatant lust, which in the American context, is often translated as a crime.
Ulmer was indeed the king of more for less, mastering the B film technique of shooting at night and using shadows to conceal the lack of budget. He was a match for that other director whose strongest work was in the Eagle Lion Bs, Anthony Mann, who in his take on the French Revolution The Black Book (1949), the title an equating of the years of the French Terror to its contemporary period of the House Un-American Activities Committee, staged the Revolution on a narrow backlot entirely at night. Ulmer’s films are similarly smart and elegant festivals of metonymy and the power of sparse lighting. In Cossacks in Exile, funded by the Ukrainian community in Canada, there is a scene where in this opera set in the 18th century, the Cossacks are forced by the Czar to flee to Turkey. In this part-for-the-whole aesthetic, we cut to one small boat crammed with really a few Cossacks at night looking through the shadows toward Turkey, or, in reality, towards Nova Scotia.
Ulmer had a Viennese love of music, directing loose musical interpretations from the Yiddish theater The Singing Blacksmith, The Light Ahead (1939), a wartime juke musical, Jive Junction (1943), and his labor of love Carnegie Hall (1947), with musicians Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein and conductor Leopold Stokowski remaining the actual stars of a slightly fictionalized narrative around the musical space. But it was again in the Ukrainian operas Coszacks and the lesser Natalka Poltavka 1937) that Ulmer attempted, through his own editing, his montage, to illustrate the thought and feeling of the arias in a way that allowed the music to come to the forefront with the image, so that the image rather than overwhelming the music, enhances it, while still being far more than just filmed theater.
Ulmer claimed he was only ever seeking an A picture Hollwood budget, but since the work in some many different modes of production was so consistently interesting, perhaps his was a case a bit like John Garfield whose heart gave out just before he was to testify in front of HUAC, that is his heart would not let him betray his fellows. Perhaps the same was true for Ulmer whose subconscious would never let him enter the more rigid big budget world of the Dark Knight where a stultifying professionalism, devoid of politics in a conservative society and thus politically conservative, converts all passion into simple box-office gain.
You can also listen to this edition of Broe on the World Film Beat on Newsblaze Newswire.
Next up on Bro on the World Film Beat: “Cinema European et le Crise. A report on the latest victim of the financial crisis, Portuguese Cinema, which despite its featuring its own new wave and one of the most prominent of global up-and-coming directors Miguel Gomes has been entirely defunded by a right-wing, austerity-crazed, government.
WHO WE ARE
Dr David Archibald, University Of Glasgow
Film International, Financial Times, Cineaste
Filmmaker and Culture Critic
Prof. Dennis Broe
Jump Cut, NY Newsday, Boston Phoenix
The Film Files, Writemovies.com
Bright Lights Film Journal, UK
Quarterly Review of Film and Video
University Of Houston
British Film Historian
BlackFemsLens.org, KPFK Radio
Jan Lisa Huttner
TheHotPinkPen.com, Films For Two
WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network
Go Left TV, Huffington Post
Radical Film Network, UK
BBC, Channel 4,
Univ. of Texas, Austin
Beneath The Surface, KPFK Radio
David Spaner, Arsenal Pulp Press
RIP, January 8, 2011
Mother Jones, Film International
LFC Film Club
David Spaner, Arsenal Pulp Press
RIP, January 8, 2011
Mother Jones, Film International
LFC Film Club
So in order to best cover all bases, progressive film critics tend to consider three categories of assessment, rather than two: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The first two are self-explanatory. And the third category is reserved for movies that may have been impressively put together, but there's just something offensively anti-humanistic about them.