Ken Loach on the Auteur Theory

Continuing a closer look at the auteur theory, this excerpt is of Ken Loach’s position on auterism.

I have enormous respect for writers and I don’t subscribe to the auteur theory of film-making. When I direct a film, I don’t try to be the author. It’s self-evident to me that a film is a collaboration, in which, if anyone is the most important contributor, it’s the writer. Still, what the writer has provided is only a stage in the process. What matters is that what is actually on the celluloid is a valuable experience and that there’s a sense of authenticity about what you’ve created. (1.)

1. Graham Fuller (ed.), Loach on Loach, London, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 1.

Exploring Noir: Where The Sidewalk Ends

In the coming weeks and months I will be exploring some “film noirs”, sometimes focusing on just the film and others on how it fits within the noir catalogue. Some will be classics, others relatively unknown and even some thought not to be noirs.

Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Otto Preminger is often cited as an important director in film noir’s high period. This reputation was established in the “masterpiece” Laura (1944). This film is often regarded as Preminger’s best early period film and one of the greatest film noirs. Although I will explore Laura at another time this article is concerned with a lesser known – or praised – film which Preminger made using many of the same actors that starred in Laura. Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) is often seen critically as less impressive – although it was praised at it release for its entertainment value – however, even if it isn’t as important as Laura in the film noir catalogue it isn’tdeserving of being overlooked critically. In this article I will explore the interesting formal features of the film and the striking psychological exploration of guilt, redemption, determination and being “hard-boiled” through the anti-hero protagonist Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon.

The film revolves around the cynical Dixon’s attempt to solve an out-of-towners’ death at the hands of an illegal gambling den’s owners. Dixon is warned, due to regular complaints concerning his violent temper, that if he utilizes “rough tactics” once more then he will be “back in uniform” walking a beat. However, while questioning an uncooperative witness Dixon’s character flaw re-emerges and the consequence is that Dixon kills the war-hero Paine. The subsequent narrative is Dixon’s attempt to deflect guilt away from him onto the gambling den’s owners.

An interesting formal element of Where The Sidewalk Ends is the establishment of a shady, unsavoury mood by the initial inhibition and refusal of an establishing shot which would locate and identifying the gambling den characters. A large collection of men surround a table yet the direction ensures they remain initially an incomprehensible crowd, adding to a mood of suspicion and unease.

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The direction then slowly reveals that the game is rigged. Every gambler, other than the out-of-towner seems in on the scam. Although the out-of-towner attempts to leave with $19K winnings, he is found later dead, stabbed in the heart: the house always wins. Another technique in establishing a dark atmosphere is the use of interplay between dark and light. Shadow is used in one scene to produce a silhouette around every face, almost communicating a dark aura that exudes from the pours of every individual trapped in this tense atmosphere of hate and despair.  

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Where The Sidewalk Ends is also shot primarily at night, adding to the atmosphere and feeling of claustrophobia – because everything is enveloped, choked by darkness. The city scenes are also left without much lighting, only a few sparse streetlights and windows are lit. The darkness is claustrophobic and the desperate isolation soul destroying. Where The Sidewalk Ends drips with a dark atmosphere. Janey Place and Lowell Peterson explain that film noir’s:

moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed not through the films terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through their confusing, often insoluble plots, but ultimately through their remarkable style. (1.)

This film’s shady, dark atmosphere is represented in its cinematography.

The anti-hero protagonist Dixon is a compelling character. His father was an infamous criminal, something the mobsters refer to, and this fact, Dixon’s questionable heritage, haunts him. Dixon seems to overcompensate his disappointment and shame by engaging in rough tactics, hoping at every turn to be able to punish any criminal. He also desires to be punished; if the mobsters despise him and fight him it names him as a cop, an enemy – the polar opposite of his father. This fracture in Dixon’s character leads him, in the pressure of the filthy dark world of New York City’s underbelly, to develop distinctly sadomasochistic tendencies. Every punch dealt-out is the assault and destruction of his father’s legacy. Paradoxically, every blow received is like an emotional connection to, a surrogate replacement of, the loving attention due to Dixon from his father.

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In a fight with Paine – an interesting name – Dixon smiles a sadomasochistic smile after receiving a hard punch or two: the smile is seemingly a response to the pain and the anticipation in dishing out some punishment.  The consequence of his action, and his character flaw, soon pulls Dixon towards a his potential destruction. As Paine lays on the floor Dixon notices Paine doesn’t get up. Dixon kneels down, simultaneously the camera draws towards his panic-stricken face. This close-up allows us to examine and identify with Dixon’s horror and fear as he realises he had just killed Paine.

The character of Paine is also interesting as he was formerly a war hero who fell into crime and grifting, an indication of the loss of self suffered after world war II – a motif often recurring in film noirs. Down-and-out former heroes are just as often encountered where the sidewalk ends as professional criminals and hoodlums.

Understanding that he is staring into his own destruction Dixon attempts to steer the investigation, and suspicion, away from himself and onto the Scalise gang. His attempts in fact place pressure on the innocent cabdriver, and father of Paines’ wife Morgan, Jiggs Taylor.

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In a scene where Dixon and his partner question Morgan the direction is interesting. Dixon turns his back away from Morgan and towards the camera. Lighting a cigarette his mood intensifies as he struggles to deal with the guilt. The direction is important as it continues to allow us to identify and examine Dixon’s guilt. A guilt intensified by placing an innocent face in the whole case and the pain is noticeable – though only to the audience.

In another scene the direction illustrates how Dixon attempts, at a distance, to inhibit, “get in the way”, of the investigation. Physically he is in the middle of it all as well: not only because he is the murderer, but also because of his attempts to steer the investigation away from himself, Jiggs and onto Scalise’s hated gang. Interestingly the central antagonist, and head of the mob, Scalise was set up in business by Dixon’s father, and is therefore the heir and adopted son of Dixon’s father. This fact aggravates Dixon and explains his desire to destroy Scalise: the rival and symbol of Dixon’s dislocation and alienation from his father.

The role of Morgan is very important symbolically in Where The Sidewalk Ends. The character of Morgan offers potential salvation and redemption to Dixon; an escape from the edge of the sidewalk and the gutter than runs by it. Morgan is an escape from the cynical world of gambling dens and isolated alienation – even though that is where he encounters her.

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The restaurant scenes and Morgan’s company offers a safe port away from the dark storm brewing outside in the city and inside Dixon’s mind – although the city still intrudes through phone calls. Morgan also offers an introduction, an invitation, into the domestic sphere. Dazed and confused after a fight, Dixon heads for Morgan’s house – a safe port of domesticity to set his head straight. The love, care and warmth of Morgan offers Dixon something better than chasing two-bit criminals. Morgan is an offer of salvation but it is also an offer Dixon knows he cannot accept with the guilt of Paines’ murder hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Just before Dixon has his final confrontation with Scalise Dixon writes out a confession – to be opened in the event of his death. In this scene he draws a blind down to block out the malevolent glow of the city. Dixon’s act protects Morgan from the place that he feels is corrupting. This paternalistic, loving heterosexual relationship offers a way out and a reawakening of Dixon’s humanity. Dixon has something more to protect other than his reputation. Something more to drive him to truth and justice other than a complex relationship with his father’s legacy and the sadomasochistic pleasure he derives punishing symbols of his father.

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The conclusion of the film allows Dixon his escape into domesticity. Although it is slightly disappointing that Morgan forgives Dixon, the murderer of her husband, it establishes that it is truth which sets Dixon free to engage in a loving relationship with Morgan. The truth sets Dixon spiritually and emotionally free. In the closing scenes we can see the film form illustrating the important symbolic nature of Morgan. As Dixon stares into Morgan’s eyes the camera cuts to a close-up of her face. As she replies that she will give him “every chance” in the world she is shot with high-key lighting and soft focus. The high-key lighting sets her apart from the rest of the film, which is shot in low-key lighting. The soft focus is more interesting: it gives Morgan a bright white aura: the direct opposite of the dark aura which exuded from every individual in the beginning of the film. Where The Sidewalk Ends is an interesting film through its adept cinematography and its striking exploration of issues such as the psychological pressure of guilt, determination, redemption and being hard-boiled.

 

1. Janey Place & Lowell Peterson ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader, New York: First Limelight Edition, 1996, pp. 65-76 p.

Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image

andrebazincat 

Andre Bazin is undoubtedly a famous figure in film criticism and film theory. Bazin was a co-founder of the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, a mentor and friend of Francois Truffaut and firm supporter of realism. A large collection of Bazin’s writings were complied and published posthumously and entitled What Is Cinema?. In a series of articles I will explore Bazin’s essays. The first article will be:

 

The Ontology of the Photographic Image1


If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defence against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.2



What Bazin is arguing here is that at the heart of the plastic arts – painting and sculpture – is a need to make immortal the mortal; to turn the image of our flesh into clay, steel and paint is to transform ourselves and preserve our being beyond its physical existence. Bazin is not, as some critics have argued, asserting that all art is solely defined by an attempt at immortalising the mortal. But that one of the defining characteristics, or innate motivations, in the production of art and artefacts, be it the mummification of Pharaohs, portraits of Kings and Emperors, is the ‘preservation of life by a representation of life’.3Bazin’s position is that the plastic arts, and I would also assert Bazin’s personal opinion in what makes art attractive, attempts to ‘have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures’.4


It should be noted that Bazin died at the age of forty and death stalked him continuously throughout his life. Bazin’s attraction to realism, and an idea of art as a production of the eternal, seems inherently linked to his psychological and physiological state. The attempt to cheat or outlast death through the preservation of one’s image and world seems very close to Bazin. As Bazin explains ‘the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death’.5Just like F. Kafka’s fiction, which is infused with fears of and struggles with consumption, Bazin’s conception of the psychology of the plastic arts seems to be his own.6 That said the foundation of much art is linked to attempts at ensuring an ever-lasting legacy. From statues, palaces, portraits to tombs influential men have commissioned and produced art to represent themselves and the world they live in.

 

Bazin explains that painting, attempting the production of realism, encountered a problem in combining both the representation of the ‘spiritual’ real or emotionally real and the representation of the physical real.7Bazin notes that painting can successfully represent the emotionally real but that the reproduction of the physical real will always lean towards ‘illusion’.8This ‘illusion’, I believe, to Bazin meant the inability, of painting, to truly represent the outward appearances of things; a painting of a cart doesn’t really refer to a cart but rather refers to the painters painting of a cart. The cart refers back to the painter and his paint. And to Bazin not only was this a flaw of painting, in its attempt at reproducing reality, but also the main reason photography and film is so successful in the reproduction of reality. Bazin explains ‘Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image’ is unavoidable. Film, in contrast allowed, for the first time, allowed the image of the world to be:

 

formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of his painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.9


The painter is unable, due to his medium, to escape the appearance of his touch. Photography, according to Bazin, evaporates the human touch: photography removes the artist’s fingerprint evident in the medium of painting and sculpture. Bazin also believes that, because of the technical and scientific method of photography, the aesthetic experience derived is much more in-line with personal perception. Photography and cinema replicates the physically real without the barrier that one encounters when admiring a painting or sculpture. It should be noted however that Bazin invests far too much faith in the technical process of developing film as an objective and not subjective process. The production of film is open to that very same human touch Bazin felt paintings contained. With the birth of photography came the birth of photo modification and editing and films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari show this trend with certain scenes being coloured differently. And with digital film it is hard to really locate an image that hasn’t been altered somewhat for aesthetic reasons. I think Bazin, even if he accepted that film is often modified, would argue that the best cinema would attempt to capture reality as it is. However this position will be further explored in Bazin’s other essays and other articles concerning them.

 

Bazin may have argued, however, that the counter-position – that photography is not objective – incorrectly translates his proper position. Bazin uses the French word objectif, which means the lens of a camera, and overtly, in the French text, plays on this meaning. Bazin may therefore be arguing that by the objective nature of photography he means that the physical appearance of brush marks, the fingerprint of the human touch, are not apparent in film and therefore photography, unlike painting or sculpture, reproduces “reality” without direct reference to an artist or photographer. Bazin therefore may not mean objective as not-subjective but rather “through an object”. Photography removes the appearance of the touch of humanity rather than the touch of humanity.

 

To Bazin the process of photography ‘confers on [an object] a quality of credibility’.10Bazin explains that we ‘accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space’.11Bazin is arguing that photography and cinema communicates an items existence to us and we believe it. A point is often made here that Bazin seems to believe in the naïve position that “the camera never lies”. However I believe that this point is too harsh. Bazin uses the word ‘confers’ which indicates Bazin’s position to be that the sense of real is attached or attributed to the image – this is not the same as saying “the camera never lies”. Bazin is arguing that the reproduction of reality, through the camera, is imbued with an advantage because, unlike a painting or sculpture, a photograph is not an ‘ersatz’.12Painting, or sculpture, is a replacement for an object, a photograph the reproduction. And Bazin believes that this reproduction is treated, commonly, as if it is the object.

 

There does seem to be some truth to Bazin’s position. People often accept cinematic worlds without question and often photos modified, or “photo-shopped”, are accepted as true and real until people are promoted to believe otherwise – Piers Morgan losing his job over now discredited Iraq photos is a distinct instance of this. This common, or regular, acceptance of photography and films’ realism is often targeted by “viral” marketing campaigns and I am reminded of a film – whose name I currently can’t remember – which circulated a simulated, but realistic looking, office fight in order to gain surprise and attract people unknowingly towards the film’s website. It is not that “the camera never lies” but rather that we often accept photographs and films’ visual representation to be unadulterated and true (even though we known it isn’t – a psychological state known as ambivalence).

 

Bazin goes on to argue that ‘the aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare… realities.13Bazin comes to the conclusion that:

 

Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love.14


To Bazin photography makes us see the world anew. Realism strips bare those preconceptions which, to Bazin, we accumulate through the passage of time like dust settling on furniture. Therefore to Bazin photography and Cinema, in the realist style, is a gust of wind which blows away the dust that settles on our way of seeing. A problem with Bazin’s conclusion, that realism blows away our preconceptions, is that it moves from explanation to conclusion without exploration of the logical sequence which would indicate how realism would blow away our preconception. Bazin imbues the realist style, and photography, with magical qualities like the ones he noted in the Egyptian cultures motivation for mummification. However Bazin fails to establish the reason why and how the realist style blows away the dust of preconceptions and it seems rather, contradictory to Bazin’s intended position, that realism relies on preconceptions. Realism is not so much presenting ‘virginal purity’ but rather relying on regular conceptions and perceptions of reality – this reliance is in fact why one would argue realism is imbued with the power of truth. Realism encounters a problem as it seems to rely on “common-sense” perceptions – and those “common-sense” perceptions tend to be a naturalised ideological position.15In ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Bazin cannot support the conclusion he comes to however he does provide a groundwork for arguing that the film is a powerful medium with a technical process of production which allows it to represent an object rather than replace it – which painting and sculpture does – therefore ensuring a sense of verisimilitude to attached to the medium of film. Bazin does go on to argue for realism in further essays and I will cover these in the attempt to uncover his motivation for his assertion that realism is the optimum style of film.

 

 

1‘The ontology of the photographic image’ is an inquiry and assertion by Bazin on the differences between film, and painting/Sculpture. On a wider note Bazin’s ‘ontological’ approach is an inquiry into “what is”, “could be” – and most important to Bazin’s What is Cinema? – and “what should be” in cinema.

2Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967), pp. 9-16, p. 9.

3Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

4Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

5Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

6 It should be noted that, although it is evident that Kafka’s fiction is imbued with the personal fear of death and his physical state, there is great humor and joy even in the struggle and fear.

7Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 11.

8Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 12.

9Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 12-13.

10Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 13.

11Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 13-14.

12Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 14.

13Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

14Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

15See Barthes’ Mythologies or Althussers’ Ideological-State Apparatus

Shallow Focus and the Aura of Authenticity in Gamorra

Gamorra/Gamorrah(2008)

 

Gamorra the film selects several stories from investigative journalist Roberto Saviano’s best seller of the same name. All set in or around the Camorra’s (Mafia of Napoli and its surrounding towns) territories and business interests. Gamorra includes several interesting formal features in which the film communicates the violence, despair, and seemingly unavoidable fate of the central character’s struggle to survive in Europe’s most violent neighbourhoods. The technique of shallow focus is important in Gamorra in communicating this poisoned atmosphere.

 

Shallow focus is the cinematographic technique which shows one plane of field clearly while the deeper plane of field is blurred or out of focus. The shallow focus technique would show a face close up in perfect detail but the background or location out of focus. Deep focus, shallow focus’s antithesis, is the technique which shows an entire image in focus. In exposition shots we see the use of deep focus to clearly identify depth and position. Gamorra uses the shallow focus technique to foreground certain elements important in the communication of the toxic heritage that living in the Camorra dominated south entails.

 

The shallow focus technique is used to indicate, in part, the attempt in the characters to ignore and distance themselves from the violence they are surrounded by. This is indicated in a scene where a money-carrier walks suspicious and fearful of his well-being after he has a gun pointed at his head. As he walks away hastily the background moves out of focus, he attempts to block out the violence he just saw, yet a voice shouts out his name and follows him until he reluctantly stops and engages with the voice that has been stalking him. As he does the film returns to a deep focus. This indicates the futile attempt that is ignoring the context or situation the character’s find themselves in; one cannot step out of Camorra controlled life. The aesthetic of the shallow focus communicates a sense of a constant, ungraspable, unknowable violence which envelops and blurs clear and distinctive perception. The use of shallow focus reminds the viewer that the violent acts and characters are borne out of the poisonous toxic context. The sense of the unknowable and paranoid, added to by the style of death of Maria, also alludes to the actual feelings of the author of Gomorra who lives under protective custody; the truth comes with a terrible price.

 

[[[SPOILER: At the end of the film as these boys are killed the Camorra boss commented that it was a waste of youth but it had to be done. The Camorra blunt and destroy youth and the very little of it that Italy has left are being chewed up and spat out. Gamorra seems to say that unless corruption is destroyed then every generation, in this region, will continue to have a large waste of youth.]]]

 

Gomorra has been linked to, and commented, to be in the Italian Neo-realist style [I have decided to create a full article concerning this statement however one element of the Neo-realist style is relevant enough here to merit bringing it up now; the use of non-actors in significant roles]. Andre Bazin commented concerning Italian Neo-realism ‘It is not the absence of professional actors that is, historically, the hallmark of social realism nor of the Italian film. Rather, it is specifically the rejection of the star concept and casual mixing of the professional’ and amateur. (1.) Bazin argues that this ensures the audience brings with it no pre-conceptions concerning character – the opposite to what Jean-Luc Godard did in Alphaville (1965); that is play with those pre-conceptions. Bazin explains ‘the result is… that extraordinary feeling of truth that one gets from [Italian Neo-realism]’. (2.) In Gomorra several significant, or rather nearly all, roles are played by amateurs and non-actors and this attributes to a sense of authenticity and realism. Skinny young men, fat overweight looking men litter the film; average-looking people, as opposed to the stylised look of Hollywood, imbues the aesthetic of Gamorra with an ‘atmosphere of authenticity’. (3.) This is added to outside of the film by the film’s official website which doesn’t list the actors beside pictures unlike Hollywood film where actor recognition is important.

 

Staying outside of the films’ digesis the aura of authenticity of Gomorra has been further added to by events outside of the film. One of the central messages of the film, and book, is the infectious dominating control the Camorra has in everyday life from the most basic domestic sphere to the world of industrial waste and fashion design. Recently Bernardino Terracciano, who plays a boss, has been ‘arrested on suspicion of extorting protection money and having ties to the Casalesi clan, part of the Camorra Mafia’. (4.) Two other actors, one a boss and the other a hitman in the film, have also been detained by the police. These facts add to the sense that the non-actors are just playing-out their day to day lives but in front of the camera just this once but it also rams home the central message of the film that you cannot escape the touch of the Camorra.

 

 

 

(1.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ in Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?, California: University of California Press, (1971), pp. 16-40 p. 23.

(2.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ p. 24.

(3.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ p. 24.

(4.) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/3186186/Italian-mafia-film-Gomorrah-heads-for-Oscars–as-cast-members-are-arrested.html