Luchino Visconti: The German Trilogy

The Leopard - Visconti

The Leopard (1963)

Movies have been called the art form of the twentieth century so often that it has become tiresome to refute the claim. Especially since this most degenerate of hybrids meshes the worst of all worlds into predictable pastiches of sentimental melodrama geared toward the mummification of the world’s weakest minds. Despite the occasional outburst of brilliance (and there have been over a thousand such cases over the last century) the format of the Hollywood picture is as dumb and as dense as the most trivial soap opera or comic strip.  The mere suggestion of movies as an art form negates that which truly is art.  Take something as abhorrent as Sam Goldwyn’s 1939 treatment of Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights. With director William Wyler and screenwriter Ben Hecht as his henchmen, Goldwyn has transformed Bronte’s wicked masterpiece into a  sentimental puffball, with Laurence Olivier playing the demonic Heathcliff as a spurned romantic, his travails pretentiously and inappropriately underscored by Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Major.  So already we have seen a great book and a great piece of music destroyed by the Hollywood hacks that would have us believe they were creating the new art of the twentieth century.

But don’t get me wrong. If Hollywood failed to elevate their product to a new art form, in Europe the movies were possibly the last breaths of art itself as the continent was nearly swept into oblivion by the Second World War. As Phil Ochs wrote in his lovely eulogy to Western civilisation, “The holy works of love and reverence/ Have fallen to the floods of Florence.” And so it is in Italy that film erupted into an art form. If not a new art form, then surely the final chapter of the Western Canon.  And mostly, I suspect, in Italy.

The Germans were in denial.  The French were in their second childhood. Poland was traumatised. Britain continued in their boring and pedantic ways. Sweden had Bergman, who, in upholding the traditions of Strindberg and Sjostrom, successfully welded theatre and cinema into a worthy, if reactionary, art form.  But Italy, for thirty years in the wake of World War Two, gave rise to  Rossellini, Pasolini, Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci, and Visconti, whose collective work might be the swan song of European art.

Of these six masters, Luchino Visconti is both the most accomplished and the least appreciated.  Although The Leopard (1963) is his masterpiece, it is the direction an artist takes after such an accomplishment that holds the most interest for me. The Wild Bunch (1969), for example, is Sam Peckinpah’s most perfect hour, but I would rather have one Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) than a dozen more ofThe Wild Bunch. So it is with The Leopard and the German Trilogy (The DamnedDeath in Venice, and Ludwig).

The Leopard - Visconti

Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard (1963)

Some say that the overuse of the zoom lens is the sign of a very bad director.  In The Damned (1969), Visconti’s zoom is a curious poltergeist, constantly rushing up into faces looking for the soul behind the façade. Often, this seeking camera finds nothing.  In The Leopard, on the other hand, Visconti uses the zoom only once, and it is magnificent, capturing Claudia Cardinale’s entrance with such exquisite perceptions from both the outside and the inside. It is a moment to savour, yet it passes all too quickly.  And when we remember the beauty of that actress, it is likely this shot that we remember, not the attributes of living flesh that she carries with her from picture to picture. In her first close-up as Sandra (1965), she gave the appearance of a common, mean-spirited bitch.

This brings us to one of Visconti’s dominant themes, in which the attractive young in whom the ageing place their faith for the future will grow into horrible, selfish creatures. In The Leopard, Tancredi (Alain Delon) and Angelica (Cardinale) are the hope of a future that Prince Don Fabrizio Salina ( Burt Lancaster ) will not live to see, an idealised young couple who carry the seeds of deceit, hypocrisy, pride, and compromise, and thus shall provide no continuation of the prince’s noble legacy. 

The Leopard - Visconti

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard

But even though the Sicilian aristocracy is dying, Sicily will endure.  This does not seem to be the case with the Germany that is changing under the Reich. At one point inThe Damned, a fleeing character is warned not to expect, at some future time, to return to the Germany she has known as a child, because that Germany will not return.  Furthermore, the new Germany will spread across Europe and eventually the world.

When the Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck announces his successor, he knows there is nobody worthy of carrying on as president of Essenbeck Steel. He also knows that the prize must go to the man he most despises, because that is the man most capable of holding onto the reins as Europe is consumed in the flames of the Third Reich.  The first third of The Damned takes place at the Baron’s birthday celebration, during which three important events transpire: The Reichstag is burned, Martin does a Marlene Dietrich imitation, and SA man Konstantin Essenbeck is named as the new president of Essenbeck Steel.  These 45 minutes are directed with such perfection that one almost wants to walk out of the movie at their conclusion.

The intrigue commences in the second third of the picture, and Visconti proves livelier when introducing character relationships than when setting up his plot devices. The most lively scenes involve Martin’s games of pedophilia, one of which results in a little Jewish girl hanging herself, a complication that Martin is assured shall create no problems, as pedophilia against Jews is not even a crime. Helmet Berger’s Martin is emblematic of all that is evil in the new Germany, and the diversity of his perversions makes him impossible to define in simple pathological terms. In literary terms, he is an incarnation of bastard Edmund from King Lear and bastard Mordred from the Arthurian legends.

Other literary effigies include Ingrid Thulin’s Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck, a Lady Macbeth figure, and Dirk Bogarde (of the perpetually perspiring upper lip) incarnates the banality of evil with the passive exterior of his Macbeth.  But the literary homages are submerged in the intensity of the present. The viewer does not lean over, as might be the case during a Coen Brothers picture, and whisper to a companion, “Ah, an allusion to Edmund. A tragic negation indeed!”

Although there are parallels to the members of the Krupp family who owned the steel works in Essen, Germany, it can only lead to confusion if one attempts to impose a historical blueprint upon the characters. The burning of the Reichstag and the Night of the Long Knives were more complicated in real life than here, where they serve little narrative function other than to purge the Reich of the SA.  Visconti takes an unusual tactic in prolonging the debauchery preceding the slaughter of the latter, throwing the purpose of the assassinations into question, but does so while deftly alluding to the presence of certain characters that will profit by the dissolution of the SA.

The Damned - ViscontiWith The Damned, Visconti proves he can give up control without losing control. His directing is every bit as precise and assured as in The Leopard, but the characters do not suffer from the constraints of being overly directed. Yet indeed they are overly directed.  There is not a free movement to be found. Yet they swelter and squirm in the furnace of their damnation. The phantom has reclaimed his opera and all hell is breaking loose.

The final half hour of The Damned is a slow and deliberate series of power plays that will shape the future of the Essenbeck’s steel works within the structure of the new Germany. Although the motivations behind Martin’s actions may seem more Oedipal than political, he goes Oedipus one better, and it is not fate that leads him, but purely evil intention.

Death in Venice (1971) brings about the return of tidiness. Seldom has the prose of a brilliant writer been so exquisitely rendered in cinematic terms. And with his countenance enhanced by Mahler’s music, Dirk Bogarde hardly needs to act. The musical score by Maurice Jarre for The Damned, while frequently effective, is pathetic when compared to the use to which Visconti puts Mahler’s music. It is so perfect that many reviewers have erringly mistaken Gustav von Aschenbach (Bogarde) for Mahler himself, rather than the writer who is the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novella.

Many books and essays have been written that impute the rise of the Third Reich to a revival of German romanticism, which is predicated upon the conflict between ordinary life and the desire for artistic perfection. This conundrum will be fully explored in Ludwig (1972), the final film of the trilogy, but is set forth quite simply in Death in Venice, with von Aschenbach’s pursuit of ideal beauty as his own diseased body rots in the heat of a Venetian plague. The object of his obsession is Tadzio, an adolescent boy who traipses around in a sailor suit casting ambiguous glances at his stalker. The second half of the picture becomes so weighed down by this dance of unspoken desire that Mann’s philosophical edge is blunted by intimations of a sexual motivation that was neither Mann’s point nor intent. Visconti’s involvement in this aspect of von Aschenbach’s pursuit is, on the other hand, rather too intense, causing the film to lapse into camp when it should be tearing out your heart. True as his images are to Mann’s prose, the director’s personal obsessions override those of the novella.

Death in Venice - Visconti

Death in Venice (1971)

The wildness contained within the almost boring control Visconti commands over his madness reminds me of Robert Frost, a poet  serene on the surface but  mad in his soul. Compare his measured, traditional verse to the free effusions of William Carlos Williams, and you will see what a conventional shell-head Williams is, covering it all up with mad verse. So it is that Death in Venice, despite its passages of near-inertia, is Visconti’s maddest work, revealing a self-hatred equal to that which Alfred Hitchcock exposed in The Birds (1963).

As a gay man, Visconti was unable to perpetuate his blood line, but was still desirous of an heir.   Failing to find that protégé who could understand him and carry on his legacy, he often chose young men of inferior rank, most notably the actor Helmet Berger with whom he spent the final twelve years of his life. The man seeking a remarkable boy is present in many of his films, although not usually in the guise of homosexual love, but as instances of adopted son-ship. And it is the sadness of the failure of these son-ships that cast a morose spell of mortality over an excommunicated universe. This search for the splendid amid the vulgarity of everyday life is what drove King Ludwig insane, just as the acceptance of its impossibility helped guide Prince Fabrizio gently into that not-so-good night.

Ludwig - ViscontiLudwig begins on the opposite track, with the young King seeking a mentor in composer Richard Wagner, and finding himself exploited by a rascal whose objective is to loot the national treasury.  Ludwig believes the greatness of Wagner’s  music is worth all the mundane glory of an empire, but finally listens to his advisors and expels the mooch when he realises Wagner doesn’t esteem him as the one who has made such creation possible, but has only been a money tree to pick dry.

Perhaps of more significance than the homosexual implications of the betrayal of the adopted father by the pseudo son is Visconti’s fear that the underclasses will never be able to pull off a revolution that will successfully replace the old order. As both an aristocrat and a communist, this paradox was to haunt him throughout his life. Historically, there was always the hope that a people’s revolution would not be co-opted by the remnants of the deposed powers, but by the time of the Third Reich, it had become all too evident that the fantasies of the underclass in replacing the poverty of everyday life with the grandeur of deluded superiority that such ascension through violence would lead only to the end of civilisation. Even in its failure, it brought about the end, not only of Germany, but of all Europe.

To transcend the boredom of common life, Ludwig promoted Wagner’s music and brought the work of many European dramatists to Bavaria. Instead of attending meetings of State and the administration of his kingdom, he built castles that were landscaped with sets from Wagner’s operas and had a close relationship with an actor who was employed to recite dramatic scenes with the King as his non-speaking but emotionally re-active acting partner. Does following such artistic impulses as an escape from the dead materialism of daily reality lead to madness? Leo Tolstoy thought so, when he wrote, in his Confessions, that the explanation for so many suicides among his literary friends was their rejection of god, family, and all those other things that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people. And they were left with nothing but despair and the pages of their so-called great books. Not enough to live for. He thought his own Anna Karenina was a wasteful piece of crap.

Norman Mailer wrote that a saint might not be the best choice to write the story of a construction worker, but that it would be preferable to a construction worker trying to write the story of a saint. I would add that none of the characters in Les Miserables could have written the novel. Only Victor Hugo was capable of such an achievement. In today’s populist world, it is not fashionable to claim that art is the province of the aristocracy, but I am not aware of too many people with day jobs who are writing the next War and Peace on the side. After Sam Peckinpah screened The Wild Bunch for his son, he cruelly and disdainfully told the boy that he would never be able to achieve something like this. Was he wrong? I don’t know, but I haven’t seen much of any use coming out of the untrained directors of today with their digital cameras and volunteer crews made up of baristas and retail clerks.

Ludwig - Visconti

Sonia Petrovna and Helmut Berger in Ludwig (1972)

But let us return to Ludwig. There are some telling similarities between his life and Visconti’s. Both had an interest in directing operas, although there is no evidence as to the quality of the King’s productions while Visconti’s successes in the field are well documented. Both were homosexuals who lived in times when such proclivities were criminally prosecuted, and developed paranoias as a result. Ludwig had it much worse than Visconti, though, as he had been free to do as he pleased until Bavaria was forced to join the unification of the new Germany under Prussia, which had criminalised homosexuality.  He may have feared meeting an end such as Edward II suffered, since he pursued wanton activities in lieu of attending to matters of State, which led to his own government judging him as a dangerously weak leader.

Ludwig was the prototype of the German romantic, one who rejected materialism for soulfulness, preferring to ride his sleigh through the snow under the midnight moon rather than face the challenges of governing a country. He was a fairy tale king who dreamt himself a great artist, but was an artist only by proxy. He was the type that is drawn into personality cults, those masses of swayable ignoramuses who put maniacs like Stalin and Hitler into power.  It was Ludwig who suggested Prussian King Wilheim I become Kaiser of the new Germany.

Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti

Ayn Rand does not write fascist books, but a certain type of person may become a fascist by reading them and identifying too completely with a heroic ideal that is beyond their own capabilities, which leaves them despising other people to whom they feel superior. Both Ludwig and Hitler believed their response to Wagner’s music made them soul brothers to the composer. But neither of them was capable of composing the Ring Cycle, any more than a Peter Keating could design the Wynand Building .

When Ludwig was released, critics scoffed.  Moviegoers certainly did not want to sit in a theatre to watch a king go mad on candy and castles for four hours. When I finally got hold of a VHS copy last year, it looked like crap and I thought Visconti must have lost his wits and descended to the mediocrity of a British television director. Then I got the DVD, and boy was I wrong. The film was designed and directed  with such perfection that I couldn’t stop watching it for a month. This led to my re-watching all the Visconti I could find, and now to this article where I try and fail at the impossible task of summing it up.

I can marvel at Visconti’s strokes, but that doesn’t make me Visconti. I have none of his skills. Yet I am able to delight in his genius without deluding myself that my love of his work somehow makes us soul brothers. This is the crux of the peril of German romanticism. Regardless of the position the neo-German presents today, the Nazis were all little Hitlers running around with their brains cut out, believing they were part of the master race on the brink of world domination.

In The Leopard  and Death in Venice, Visconti shows us two ways to die. We can go out sadly but with some pride in the knowledge that our time and times have ended, or rot heroically in the sand while ogling the people of tomorrow, those who feel no obligation to give continuity to that which is already in the past. In The Damned and Ludwig, he offers the option of suicide.  But he who suicides rarely dies alone.  Ludwig murdered his doctor before murdering himself. Hitler murdered Europe.


About the Author

Bill White frittered away his early years as a rock musician in Seattle WA, then moved to Boston, MA, where he wrote, acted, and directed for the theatre, and made experimental films. Returning to Seattle, he became a film and music critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until its demise in 2009, after which he wrote a novel and a memoir before retiring to Peru, where he married the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Kelly Edery. Currently, he is making anthropological films in Ilo. Peru, and is writing a volume of short stories inspired by popular songs, as well as continuing his work with Washington historian Paul Dorpat on the chronicling of Seattle’s 1960′s counter-culture through commentary on each issue of its underground newspaper, Helix.

24 thoughts on “Luchino Visconti: The German Trilogy

  1. Hi Bill – you really need to see the new Arrow Blu-Ray / DVD of “Ludwig”, with both 5 part TV and full cinema versions. I watched the first half of the cinema version this evening. It is absolutely gorgeous.

  2. You’re so pedantic… “Without Mozart there would be no Mozart”. Bravo, genious! But without let’s say Wes Anderson, there would be no Wes Anderson either, or without Coppola there would be no Godfather…

    Your point is pretty much invalid and outdated. As you say, directors and their teams are not fully aware that they are making art, since they are ruled by producers and at the end they just “make westerns” or whatever… But the same could be said about Mozart or many artists in the past. Mozart was not aware of being making “art”, nor was Caravaggio or El Greco. “Art” is a very recent construction that some narrow minds like yours use to make pedantic assertions. “Artists” of the past worked for the Church or for the King, and they were the patrons and who had the last word about the artwork.

  3. I never called Curtiz a hack. The two hacks i mentioned were Sturges and Donen, and I meant John Sturges. Preston Sturges is a fine director who, like Wilder, benefited from outstanding scripts. Im not a fan of Some Like it Hot, mainly because i find Monroe a bore. It would have been much better with Shirley Maclaine in her role. And I dont think it would have been notably different had it been directed by Sturges rather than Wilder. As for Scorsese, he would be the first to admit how much he owes to other movies. Raging Bull to On the Waterfront, Aviator to Citizen Kane. He is a protege of the movies, not an artist in his own right. When comparing Hollywood and european movies, I am talking about industry, not individual products. I have repeatedly stated that I hold hundreds of hollywood movies in high esteem. But they are, for the most part, factory made, while the best of the european films bear the stamp of individual artists. When referring to the movies as being made for children and feeble minded adults, i was pointing to the current crop of junk and I will stand by my statement that any adult who is wild about don Jon, after earth, gravity, elysium, the everlasting now, the butler, frances ha, or hunger games 2 may well be suffering from some feebleness of mind. While I cited malick as Hollywoods token genius, I must admit i dont care much for his pictures. the exception was The Thin Red Line, which i saw on a double feature with Saving private ryan, and I probably over-estimated it because it was such a pleasant balm after the wretched spielberg disaster. And just recently I saw Kubricks Fear and Desire, from which malick stole the multiple stream-of consiousness narrative voices. Finally, letme emphasize that i agree with you on sturges, wilder, curtiz,and hawks. they are all fine directors who have made excellent movies that are worth seeing repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime. and had they had the opportunity to work free of industry control and interference, they may well have elevate the photoplay to an art form. but they didnt change the movies. they were the movies.

    • I’m going to respond to Bill’s recent comments below here because I can’t seem to reply in the other section. First of all, do you mean John Sturges? By citing “Sturges” I was referring to Preston, who’s much better. And as a huge fan of The Seven Samurai, I also find The Magnificent Seven inferior. So we agree there.

      I don’t agree, however, with a number of your points. To call certain directors “hacks”–Curtiz and Donen? Really? Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Charage and Singin’ in the Rain were hack-worthy?–or imitators (Marin Scorsese? Huh?) and suggest that Spielberg paved the way for “even more incompetent” filmmakers greatly generalizes about some very talented individuals. I don’t subscribe to this point of view and find your assessment of Hollywood as producing “idiotic distractions for children and feeble minded adults” to be simplistic and cynical? I enjoy some mainstream Hollywood movies; does that mean I’m feeble-minded? And to suggest that there’s more of an individualistic quality to the cinema in Europe ignores the spate of big-budget and/or corporate and/or lowbrow extravaganzas coming out of the studios there. Do you think “Les Visiteurs” is a greater film than, say, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”? Junk is not relegated to Hollywood.

      Of course, without Mozart there wouldn’t be Mozart. Mozart was unique. And no one would’ve been able to take his place, but somehow classical (and other) music would evolve over the centuries. We wouldn’t have Mozart, but there was only one to begin with.

      I also disagree with your suggestion that if the some of the directors I’ve cited below were replaced, that the end product would be comparable. I doubt very much that an average director replacing Billy Wilder at the helm of, say, Some Like It Hot would’ve employed the same deft touch. These are directors in command, and to suggest that they didn’t change cinema seems simplistic to me. Of course they changed it; they provided classics that, over the years, have changed the way we look at movies. Without The Adventures of Robin Hood, we might still have action pictures, but we’d miss a chapter in our cinematic history … and one of the most jovial of all adventures.

      Finally, I’m wary of labeling directors with the “genius” stamp unless they’ve proven this moniker via a corresponding body of work. I certainly wouldn’t put Malick in that category; his oeuvre is too inconsistent to warrant the genius sticker.

      • Sorry–in re-reading your response, I noticed that you didn’t include Curtiz in the list of Hacks … Donen, though, was there, which I disagree with. And the Sturges you mention assumedly was not Preston, whom I was referring to.

        • Singin in the Rain is one of Hollywood’s very best musicals,and for that I believe co-director Gene Kelly is mostly responsible. Stanley Donen was a competent director of second tier musicals. Charade, however, was one of the worst imitations of a Hitchock picture I haveever seen.

  4. I remember how “The Damned” felt very claustrophobic for some reason, and thus all the more nightmarish. I particularly remember the shot of the main character’s parents, turned blue from self-administered cyanide poisoning. Ironically, or perhaps as an antidote, immediately after seeing the film, I dined on bratwurst and sauerkraut!

    “Death in Venice” is a reinvention of Thomas Mann’s short story. In the original, Tadzio is clearly much younger and less androgynous than in the film version. Apart from that quibble, Visconti’s rendering stands on its own merits.

  5. I believe ‘The Leopard’ to be an historical saga of great significance as a film, and it contains some wonderful set pieces, and shows real directorial flair, with the benefit of some marvellous performances from the cast too. I am less enamoured with some of his other work, though I agree that ‘Death In Venice’ does capture the writing of Thomas Mann perfectly.
    Thanks for an interesting and informative piece Bill.
    regards from England, Pete.

      • I did see ‘Rocco and his Brothers’, though it was a long time ago, and I was very much a fan of Alain Delon. I remember it being very impressive, and I had no problem with the inconclusive ending that was much-critcised at the time. I have never seen ‘White Nights’ unfortunately, so cannot comment.

        ‘The Damned’ is an interesting one for me. I saw it on release, in my late teens, and thought it was incredibly good. I remember leaving the cinema, convinced that I had seen a master work of cinema. A few years ago, I bought the film on DVD, and didn’t enjoy it at all, finding Bogarde stilted and hard to watch. How tastes change?

        Regards from England, Pete.

        • Pete, I had the same reaction to The Damned after seeing it in a theater upon its initial release. And it was tough to get into it on the DVD at first. The experience of watching a movie just cannot be duplicated on DVD. I had to watch it several times in this microscopic format before i regained my love for the picture. DVD is good for study, but not experience. Another thought: You also mentioned once that you no longer esteemed The Servant as you once did. Maybe you have just outgrown Dirk Bogarde. As a teen, I thought he was a fantastic actor, but my estimation of his abilities have gone down over the years.

          • I thought Rocco and HIs Brothers was brilliant–a compelling film and very operatic. And I agree that Visconti is underappreciated nowadays. This piece offered a good examination of many of his works.

  6. A very strong piece, Bill.

    I have a quick question regarding your position regarding cinema. When you reject cinema as an art form, but note that there are more than a thousand examples of this medium attaining some level of brilliance – it occurred to me that this would seem to have been true of all preceding mediums. While time may have stripped away the memory of many of the mediocre and less significant works of painting, sculpture, and literature, they surely did exist. So I guess my question is, don’t these exceptions make an art form?

    • Good point, James. I believe art can be made from anything. It is the artist who makes the art, not the tools. Much of the Super 8 revolution of the 1980’s was accomplished with scraps of found footage, including home movies, an optical printer, and a cheap editing machine. The essential ingredient in the making of art is the artist. What I am rejecting is the claim that a factory made product such as the Hollywood studio film signals the rise of a new art form. Hollywood movies are a hybrid entertainment manufactured by very large work crews who have little or no interest in art. But sometimes an artist is put in charge of production and uses these resources as tools from which something unique is created, something that resonates so truly in the human spirit that it cannot be judged by the standards of industry or audience expectation. In the early days of cinema, there were more artists at work in the medium, from Melies to Murnau, they were creating a new language of visual storytelling. But the rules of the medium were also established by non-artists such as DW Griffith who just wanted to get something up on the screen that an audience would pay to look at. The sound era stunted the growth of movies as a developing art form, as actors from the stage huddled around a mic on a soundstage and were unimaginitively filmed reciting their lines while displaying trite expressions. Directors rarely did much more than tell their cameramen where to point the camera and their actors where to move. The idea of film as art began with the nudie movies in the late 50’s, in which the use of models constituted the claim of art, and thus the films could be shown publically under the guise of art. The theaters that showed these nudie films eventually started showing European films that violated the Hollywood standards of decency and thus became specialty products in art houses. There wasnt enough Bardot ,however, to go around, and eventually more distinguished foreign product was shown, and the films of true artists such as Bergman, Kurosawa, Bunuel, and dozens of others filled the art cinemas, and a true art cinema market was born. Many of these European and Asian directors made their movies as artists, not corporate foremen, and they saw Hollywood films as personal creations, not industry product, and began imputing all kinds of things to the directors of their favorite Hollywood films that were not the province of the director at all. American critic Andrew Sarris followed their lead and created a pantheon of American directors, and overnight the film director was an artist and Hollywood movies the new art. Now, most forms of creative work require a certain degree of aesthetic perspective, so several artistic personalities will be found on most film sets, but unless the person is in a position of power and control, their aesthetics will not dominate the film. When they do, such as in the cases of the brilliant directors of photography who are responsible for the look of so many highly regarded films of the seventies, such as Apocalypse Now and McCabe and Mrs Miller, the artistic merits of the films are often unfairly imputed to the often directionless director. I agree with you that forms now considered as fine arts, such as painting and music, had humble origins as folk arts, with only a few individual works rising above the abilities of the tribe. Most of these pursuits had a communal, not a personal, purpose. It took the genius dramatists to raise theatre to an art, the genius composers to raise music to an art, and genius painters to raise painting to an art. But is was the work of the geniuses, not the journeymen, who set the standards in these fields. In the Hollywood film industry, standards are set at the lowest level,and almost any moron can sit in the directors chair and yell action and cut. Quentin Tarentino is sure proof of that! But where are the American Viscontis, Bergmans, Ozus, Tarkovskys, Bunuels, or Fellinis? There are none, either in the mainstream or independent waters. My claim is that the cinema failed to become a viable art form in the United States, although there are at least 1000 cases that prove there was once the hope and the possibility for movies to rise to such prestige. Chaplin, Welles, Ford, Kazan, Cassavetes, and Peckinpah are all fine artists, but the industry has never risen to their challenges.

      • Some very interesting arguments here Bill, and much food for thought. I would have placed Welles on that list, as a possible American member of that group of directors you praise.
        Regards from England, Pete.

        • Just to clarify the record, I have nothing against Hollywood pictures. They have been a steady source of entertainment and edification throughout my life. Within my schema, however, a work of art is something that would not exist had the particular artist not brought it into being. We can say that without Mozart, there would be no Mozart music, without Picasso there would be no Picasso painting, and without Shakespeare there would been Shakespeare plays. There is no such individual about whom it can be said that without him, there would be no Hollywood movies. We can pick out certain individuals, however, and say that without Chaplin there would be no City Lights, without Cassevettes there would be no Woman Under the Influence, and without Peckinpah there would be no Wild Bunch. But these pictures and directors do not define the industry. For the most part, they are mavericks. It is the Spielbergs and the Michael Bays who define the industry. And their product is, at best, junk food.
          And they are the ones who would call their product the new art form of the twentieth century. On the subject of art, master director John ord simply answered,”I make westerns.”

          • I think there are two different things being compared here. Without Mozart, there surely would not be any Mozart music … and music would’ve been very different from what it is today. But that’s different from saying that American film doesn’t have a director without whom we wouldn’t have Hollywood films; they’re different categories. Isn’t every talented director a maverick in some way, anyway? Bunuel certainly wasn’t establishment, and his conflicts with the church bolstered that image. Bergman wasn’t either, nor was Fellini. There’s a lot of bad filmmaking produced outside the United States as well as inside; great directors everywhere–like all great artists–are the exception rather than the rule. And I wouldn’t think that without Fellini we wouldn’t have a certain kind of movie. Perhaps Bunuel comes close with Un Chien Andalou, but other greats in other countries (such as Eisenstein) were also crafting radical films. Cinema doesn’t start and end with one person, in my opinion; it’s organic. Just like any other medium. Though I love Mozart’s works to death and consider The Marriage of Figaro possibly the best piece of music ever written, I refuse to believe that without him we wouldn’t have music. It would be different, but someone would have to pick up the slack–perhaps Brahms or Stravinsky. Also, I’m not sure I’d lump Spielberg with Bay; the former director has a lot of great works under his belt, including Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as Schindler’s List. His works of late have been disappointing, but I wonder whether that’s because of other factors, including the lack of great scripts and a tendency to move toward overblown presige projects. He’s certainly more talented than Bay, though. Finally, I’d like to add a number of American directors who have changed the face of cinema beside the ones you mention; Ford (without whom we might not have the Western as we know it), Wilder, Hawks, Sturges, Donen, Cukor, Penn, Nichols, Scorsese, Curtiz. Those are just some names. There are hacks everywhere, and Hollywood certainly has its share of them. But it’s not alone, and it also has had its greats. To suggest that the industry has never risen to the challenge of creating great art is, to me, incorrect. There are a lot of people who care and have created it.

            • My apologies–I just realized you mentioned Ford above. But I think the terseness of his comment doesn’t tell all–just like the versions of, say, Firebird, Petruschka and Le Sacre du Printemps that Stravinsky conducted may not have been as great as the ones conducted by, say, Boulez. Sometimes the great artist isn’t the greatest advocate for or interpreter of his or her work.

            • While individual artists have risen to the challenge of creating art in a factory setting, the factory itself has chosen to follow the leads of their more mediocre and conventional employees. Spielberg was one of the first people to sit in a director’s chair without knowing the first thing about directing, but he was an effective foreman who could bring in a product that would make money. his success opened the doors for even more incompetent directors, such as Michael Bay, and now there is scarcely a director in hollywood who knows his craft.

              Of the directors you cited who you believe have improved the state of the hollywood film, Hawks is brilliant with actors, especially dialogue, and has distiguished himself in almost every genre, but I dont believe he raised the stakes on any of them. Wilder is a genius, and his scripts are among thebest, but his direction is only servicable. cukor and Curtiz are both fine directors, but their films would not be notably different had they been directed by other directors of equal skill. of which there were many. Sturges Donen are out and out hacks. The magnificent seven is an outrage against Kurosawa, as charade is an outrage against Hitchcock. Scorsese is an imitator who who had some fire in his youth. Nichols was a good stage director who made a couple of memorable pictures, and Penn came out of the gate strong then collapsed.

              I did not mean to suggest that music would not exist were it not for Mozart, only that Mozart’s music would not exist had he not been there to write it. But someone else could have directed Casablanca or Grand Hotel.

              The only difference I meant to draw between Hollywood and european pictures is that the former are made by a factory and the latter by individuals. thus, an artist has a better chance of achieving his vision in Europe than on a Hollywood lot. Also, the signatures on european films are much easier to distinguish than on the Hollywood pictures. if we were to play a numbers game, there would probably be more good pictures that came out of Hollywood than in the rest of the world combined. but the issue here is not one of good or bad pictures, but of whether it is fitting that movies have been elevated as an art form by the industry that produces them.

              A similar claim was made by the music industry in the late sixties, when Bob Dylan raised the stakes on songwriting. He opened the doors for dozens of superior artists, from Lou Reed and Nick Cave to paul simon and Elvis costello. But pop music is still ruled by the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. And as long as that is the case, pop music will never be a legitimate art form. By the same token, although Hollywood always has room for its token genius (Terrence malick is a recent candidate), its real ambition is to pump out idiotic distractions for children and feeble minded adults.

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