Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Cinemastudies; Von Sternberg and Subtext
Josef von Sternberg
"Belated Appreciation of V. S." written by Jack Smith, famed American performance artist - originally printed in Film Culture #31 (winter, 1963-'64)
"People never know why they do what they do. But they have to have explanations for themselves and for others.
"So von Sternberg's movies had to have plots even though they already had them inherent in the images. What he did was make movies naturally - he lived in a visual world. The explanation plots he made up out of some logic having nothing to do with the visuals of his films. The explanations were his bragging, his genius pose - the bad stories of his movies. Having nothing to do with what he did (and did well), the visuals of his films.
"In this country the movie is known by its story. A movie is a story, is as good as its story. Good story - good movie. Unusual story - unusual movie, etc. Nobody questions this. It is accepted on all levels, even "the film is a visual medium" levels by its being held that the visuals are written first and then breathed to life by a great cameraman/director. In this country the blind go to the movies. There is almost no film an experienced & perceptive blind man couldn't enjoy. This is true. I was a B'way barker once and was approached by a blind man! The B.M. was right - there must be others! The manager - nobody thought it was strange - at the time I didn't - and don't now. I do think it strange that nobody uses their eyes. Occasionally a director will put in a "touch" - that can't be explained with words, needn't be, and this is always telling. But the literature of the film, its words, trite, necessarily so far as they are always doing something they shouldn't have to do, they are forced into triteness because they shouldn't be there at all - they should be in novels, anecdotes, conversations etc - (No, movies are not conversations - why should they be so limited!). Music belongs, film is rhythm, so is music - if dialogue could be seen as rhythm it would belong. But just rhythm - not the printed page.
"I don't think V. S. knew that words were in his way, but he felt it - neglected them, let them be corny and ridiculous, let them run to travesty - and he invested his images with all the care he rightfully denied the words. And he achieved the richest, most alive, most right images of the world's cinema - in company with men like von Stroheim, the genius of Zero de Conduite, early Lang, & that limited company - Ron Rice today.
"His expression was of the erotic realm - the neurotic goth deviated sex-colored world and it was a turning inside out of himself and magnificent. You had to use your eyes to know this tho because the sound track babbled inanities - it alleged Dietrich was an honest jewel thief, noble floozy, fallen woman etc, to cover up the visuals. In the visuals she was none of those. She was V. S. himself. A flaming neurotic - nothing more nothing less - no need to know she was rich, poor, innocent, guilty etc. Your eye if you could use it told you more interesting things (facts?) than those. Dietrich was his visual projection - a brilliant transvestite in a world of delerious unreal adventures. Thrilled by his/her own movement - by superb task in light, costumery, textures, movement, subject, and camera, subject/camera/revealing faces - in fact all revelation but visual revelation. An example of how visual information informs. The script says count so and so (in Devil as a Woman) is a weak character. The plot piles up situation after situation - but needlessly - von Sternberg graphically illustrates this by using a tired actor giving a bad performance. If his hero is a phony for the purposes of the story, V. S. casts an actory actor in the part & leads him into hammy performance. Which comes to acting in V. S. films. He got his effects directly through the eye. If the woman is deceptive he would not get Dietrich to give a great (in other words the convention of good acting wherein maximum craft conveys truthfulness) perf. of a woman conning. He would let her struggle hopelessly with bad lines she couldn't handle even if she were an actress. He let her acting become as bad as it could become for her. A bad actor is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing of himself not of the bad script. Select the right bad actor and you can have a visual revelation very appropriate to the complex of ideas and sets of qualities that make up your film. V. S. knew this and used bad acting regularly as a technique for visual revelation (not story telling). For he was concerned with personal. intuitive, emotional values - values he found within himself - not in a script. With people as their unique selves, not chessmen in a script.
"Possibly he might have been afraid of reaction if it were known that this visual fantasy world was really his own mind. He might have deliberately obscured, distracted attention from the shock that might have occurred if his creation had been understood through the eye. To close the ears would have thrown the viewer into an undersea, under-conscious world where the realities were very different from what the script purported. He needn't have worried . As it was, no one had that ability to see. He was misunderstood and well understood. Well understood in that his covert world disturbed; Misunderstood in that no one knew why or appreciated the wonder of being disturbed. Misunderstood and done an injustice to in that finally when opinion turned against him it was for the wrong reason: (wrong not because people should not be disturbed) the insipid stories, bad acting, bad dialogue etc. Wrong reasons because they were, to be true to his expression, deliberately bad. Then he was punished - turned out of Hollywood and never again allowed to work. Only frightened people punish. Ostensibly because he had violated good technique. Good technique being used as something people hide behind when they are frightened by something they wouldn't like in themselves therefore is in themselves. And the hypocrisy of good acting, good this, good that - good movies being perpetuated - good empty - banal - untrue movies - impersonal movies."
- Jack Smith
I know - where did that come from, huh? I led up to it on the Lighting Control thread at SMA, which has been going strong and is chock full of cool lighting stuff, but turned quite naturally (at least to me) to von Sternberg. Here's another Great writeup about von Sternberg that I find endlessly fascinating. At the end of the Lighting Control thread I discussed subtext, something that's been under discussion lately among my blog brethren through email - though more in relation to dialogue. I think subtext is the key - to creating a good script with "realistic" (ie banal, incoherent, overlapping) dialogue and also to creating films without conventinal narrative structure. Von S did it under a thin veil of babbling unnecessary dialogue and narrative 'structure'. But to appreciate all this, you really must see his films. I think I'll be putting to gether a Scarlet Empress trailer showcasing some of his incredible cinematography and posting it under the influences section of my site (and of course linking it here for you, my loyal readers!).