September 16, 2016

Spanky and Our Gang: 
Jean- Pierre Gorin's MY CRASY LIFE
by 
BARBARA OSBORN 
(from The Independent, November 1992, Vol. 15, No. 9)

     The oil-and-water formula of Jean-Pierre Gorin's new film, My Crasy Life, is only part of what makes it so provocative. Flippantly described by Gorin as "Robert Flaherty meets Sam Fuller," the film is a hybrid that accomplishes its mix well enough for the documentary jury at Sundance last winter (1992) to give it a special award for its "experimental play between documentary and fiction." But the film's significance runs far deeper than the debate over whether it's fair and proper to script scenes in a documentary. My Crasy Life, which was financed by the BBC in association with FR3, seeks to empty itself of moral judgments about its subject: gang life. Since it does not present gangs as a social "problem," the film consequently poses no "solutions"—an approach that directly challenges the formula used throughout network television and in many independent works. 

     My Crasy Life (the "s" mimics Latino English) is about a Samoan Crip gang in Long Beach known as the Sons of Samoa (SOS). Most scenes were developed, scripted, and acted by the SOS gangsters or gangbangers, as they're commonly called. The script evolved through a series of meetings with the gang. Gorin brought in a laptop computer, they told him stories about their lives, and he started mapping out scenes. Gorin would later come back with scenes written down to check for accuracy and get suggestions for revisions. 






     "A great deal of this film was about listening to what these guys had to say and translating that into a cinematic strategy that would impact the film," Gorin says. The gang had very clear ideas about how they wanted to be portrayed. They were intent on including material about their Samoan heritage. The film contains scenes where they discuss Samoan ghosts, and one gang member is filmed taking a trip to Samoa—their mythic paradise lost—to visit relatives. The boyz adamantly refused to be depicted as victims or as a symptom of social disease. They were most concerned with a fidelity to the details of their lives and with portraying some of the joy and empowerment of gangbanging. 

     The film was produced for $260,000. Gorin and crew shot for 15 days in Long Beach with additional filming in Samoa and Hawaii. As they shot, Gorin showed the gang "video dailies" but, he says, the gangsters were less interested in watching than in doing. They came to the editing room only once. But during the shooting, they were fully engaged, yelling "action" and "cut" and debating continuity questions. Gorin offered to pay the gang for their work, but the boyz preferred that Gorin and his producers, Cameron Allen and Daniel Marks, pay for a recording session instead. The film includes the scene in which the gangsters go to the studio to record their raps. 




      Documentary sequences are interwoven throughout the film. (The terms "documentary" and "fiction" are used here in a narrow sense simply to describe degrees of preparation and set up.) Among the documentary elements are a series of unscripted talking head interviews that probe gangster experience. Under the knowing questioning of an older gangbanger named Bullet, the boyz speak openly about why they joined the gang and when they'll quit; their identity as Samoans and Crips ("If you had take out a Samoan or a Crip, who would you kill?"); their experience with family, drugs, crime, jail, and getting even (Joker recalls getting stabbed and the homeys "taking care of what needed to be taken care of ").

     Gorin's documentary camera also follows Sergeant Jerry Kaono on patrol. The police car searchlight cuts the nocturnal stillness of the Long Beach alleys, slithering over doorways and into garages, searching out illegal activity. But Kaono's patrol is uneventful. Like concentric circles, the police presence surrounds gang turf, but the two worlds rarely touch. The most unorthodox and conspicuous of the film's fictional devices is a voice that emanates from the sergeant's squad-car computer. It is just one of many "trip wires," as Gorin calls them—dozens of moments in which viewers are jostled from a complacent reading of the film and reminded that what they are seeing is neither cinema vérité nor Hollywood drama. Gorin resists the temptation to make the voice a source of authority or analysis, although it starts out that way in the film. But the computer's commentary becomes discursive and inconsistent. The patrol car voice taunts the officer's efforts to help the gangsters ("Why don't you give it up, Sergeant?"), coos seductively ("Do you think of me as your companion, Jerry?"), and ruminates on the incomprehensibility of gangster life ("These gangsters, Jerry, do they hold as much mystery for you as they do for me?"). As Gorin explained to an audience at Sundance, the computer's authority degenerates: "It's the voice of God with a Ph.D in Sociology. Then it's Hal. Then it's not Big Brother, but Little Brother, like a faithful dog. So the information is less up here [in the computer] and more coming out of the gangsters themselves." 

      Gorin's mix of "fiction" and "documentary" wasn't meant to dupe the audience into mistaking one for the other. In fact, Gorin is incredulous when viewers don't catch the fiction. "There's a mugging scene with three changes of camera angle!" he sputters. "A gangster comes out of the Samoan jungle and says 'Fuck Margaret Mead' and people think it's documentary!" 




     The film takes for granted the irrelevance of which strategy gets closer to "the truth" of the gangsters' lives and self-image. In an interview, Gorin offered an example of how documentary and fiction blended during the filmmaking process. (Gorin prefers the term "documentation," a word that offers a sense of the process of accumulating layers of information and the drama inherent in that process.) In one instance, they had developed a scene around a routine event in the 'hood: Someone comes to buy drugs. Initial filming was interrupted by a real-life dope deal. They waited and started over. Meanwhile, the gangster who was supposed to transact the fictional deal suggested that he put a "jack move" (mug) on the buyer, played by the film's white intern. Gorin agreed, but didn't tell the intern about the change of plans. The scene, says Gorin, is "close to the ground and, at the same time, it is a pure, fictional construct." 

      Arguably the film's most radical aspect is not its play between fictional and dramatic sequences, but its relation to its subject. Gorin did not want the film to be about the Sons of Samoa, at least not in the sense that a documentary normally has a subject and the filmmaker, sitting in judgment, takes a position outside it. (Gorin, who can be witheringly direct and passionately opinionated, remarked at the Sundance panel Truth In Documentary that, "the pandering voyeurism" of a film like Paris Is Burning was the opposite of what he wanted to do.) Gorin began making documentaries because dramatic filmmaking was formally "locked up." But now he's convinced that documentary is just as entrenched in its own constraining codes of subject-object positioning and melodramatic stories in which conflicts must be resolved. Gorin worked with Godard making films as part of the Dziga Vertov collective in the late sixties. Since coming to the U.S. 15 years ago, he has made two other documentaries: Poto and Cabengo and Routine Pleasures. In discussing My Crasy Life, Gorin repeatedly mentions not a documentary but Luis Buñuel's fiction film Los Olvidados as a touchstone. That film is about Mexico City street kids and was based on stories Buñuel drew from reform school records. Los Olvidados is a film that Buñuel argued had a social argument but made no moral judgments. 

     Likewise My Crasy Life departs from moral grandstanding. There are no good guys or bad guys. In this sense, the film is closer to how gangsters think about their own lives. "They think tragedy," says Gorin, "we think melodrama, with morality. They don't judge their lives or indict the system; they just live them. I want a fiction disengaged from melodrama." 

     Daniel Marks, one of the film's producers and an anthropologist, adds that people never realize how normal gangster life is for gangsters. And yet despite the film's absence of melodramatic framing, the film is not dispassionate. Says Gorin, "When you're on the inside, you feel the warmth, the community. You don't feel the violence." But there is violence aplenty, as the film indicates through its inclusion of police homicide photos showing some bloody hits. "The film avoids violence," Gorin noted at Sundance, "yet it gets to 99 percent of what their lives are about—which is young men talking like old guys who see the end of their lives coming up. 'How old was so-and-so when he died?' 'Fourteen'; That's the tragedy." 




     While challenging cinematic forms, My Crasy Life tries simultaneously to challenge public discourse surrounding gangs. In Southern California, gangs are a subject of daily, almost obsessive, discussion in the press. Some 375 gang-related homicides took place in Los Angeles last year. Despite the endless coverage, the gangs virtually never have a chance to speak for themselves. (It took three days of rioting in Los Angeles before it occurred to any news operation, in this case, Nightline, that they might actually talk to gang members.) "We did not produce a film that replicates bastardized social analysis," says Marks. Gorin agrees that they wanted to change the discourse, and thus eliminated from the film any interpretation by "experts" from the justice system, the welfare system, and so on. 

     Lacking such interpretation, the film impresses its audience as much with the subject's ultimate impenetrability as with its depiction of gangster life. If documentaries are meant to bring problems and people within our comprehension, then My Crasy Life deliberately fails; gangster life remains 
full of paradox and opaque. "You are as inside the ethos, pathos, and rhetoric of gangster life as you can be," says Gorin, and at the same time, "you get your true distance from it." 

     Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Gangster Glossary. Gang members take turns standing in front of the camera, defining gangspeak terms. Gorin calls the sequence a "Dadaist poem" in which slang is used to define slang. The list begins with a couple of easy words, terms that, once defined, we understand. We think we're getting someplace. But as the list continues, the rat-a-tat-tat of gangster speech becomes increasingly difficult to follow and we're left reeling in a swirl of meaning that we only half follow: 

O.G: Original gangster. A gangster back in the old days. 
Baby Gangster: A peewee like me and the rest of the homeys. Young bucks trying to come up.
Golddigger: A bitch who tries to come into the `hood and juice you for your duckets. 
Trippin: When a nigger comes out with a swole face. 
Low: Like me, Lil Cool. Crazy. 
Wolf Ticket: A lyin' ass motherfucka. 
207: Motherfuckin' kidnap. 
187: Murderer. B.K. 
Sissy: A 6-0 from the Westside of L.A. Fuck dem muthafuckers. 
Sherm: The stuff they shoot in dead people to make em so they don't smell bad. 
Sea Rag: Our color. The color of justice. 
Rip: Someone like me. A Crip. 
Gauge: A gun. A rifle that you pump. You shoot slobs with. 

     Anticipating our bewilderment, one of the boyz directly addresses the viewer: "For all you mother-fuckers who don't understand what they saying, as far as you IBM motherfuckers, this is straight from the gangster 'hood. Trey love and we outta here." 

Barbara Osborn is a journalist who writes about film, TV, and technology. She has also worked with gang members through the Los Angeles Probation Department. 


August 3, 2016

Hulot on Charlot

Laughter is the most difficult of the screen arts . . . and the most varied; there are no two comedians alike. Among the world's few great comedians is the Frenchman, JACQUES TATI, who, in this short interview, tells the basic difference in technique as reflected by CHARLIE CHAPLIN's 'Tramp' and Tati's 'M. Hulot'.


THIS is a very delicate comparison. First, because Chaplin has made (and made well) over fifty films while I made (and failed) with two short films, and almost succeeded with two long films. So you see, it is difficult for me to speak of Chaplin; and moreover I believe it is too easy to mention Chaplin as soon as comic films are mentioned. Before Chaplin there was Max Linder, and before him Little Tich. I believe everyone has the right to make a funny film. I am sure that tomorrow a young man with other conceptions than mine will undertake to present the visual effects of the gag. 
What I wanted to present with the character of Hulot was a man you can meet in the street, not a music-hall character—and I know what a music-hall character is, since I have been in the music-hall. For instance, if you invite Chaplin to a dinner you would be certain to have a genial clown who would turn to his wonderful tricks—after eating. With Hulot it is dif-ferent. You may or may not wish to invite him for dinner, because he is a person. He does not wear a label saying: "I am a funny man." He is at the same level as the other people in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot: and besides, he does not know he is being funny. 


Some Do Not Laugh 


Hulot is not necessarily funny to every-body. Some spectators do not laugh at him. Chaplin, from the start, presents himself as a funny character. He finds his gags directly. Suppose Chaplin wants to fight a man much stronger than himself, If this man is unloading a very full lorry, Chaplin will wait until everything is unloaded, when the man is very tired; then he will start to fight him. In Hulot's case, he will never wait until the man has unloaded his lorry, he will not think of waiting until the other man is tired before he starts fighting. That is why I do not think there can be a comparison.





The problem for the comedian is always to find gags, and Chaplin has found some excellent ones; and I hope others will find other very good ones. As far as the construction of the story is concerned, Chaplin takes the responsibility of the story on his shoulders. He takes over the script. Hulot does not do this at all, he passes, he closes a door, you cannot see him, it is for you to find him, it is for you to decide whether he is your friend or just someone you would not care to invite into your house.


Inanimate Objects


When a comedian builds a gag, the ability to use inanimate objects gives the greater possibilities. For instance, recently my wife was ill, she had a piece of pipe to put in her nose—it did not cure her, incidentally—and it looked like a sausage. If this had happened in a Chaplin film, trying to make the pipe work, he would have taken a piece of bread and pretended to eat the pipe. Hulot could not do such a thing. He does not know things, they come to him. He is a fly-paper, he does not look for things. . . . Take, for instance, the scene in the cemetery, the wreath with the dead leaves. Hulot just wanted to take out his car tire, and without his doing anything about it, the leaves stick to it and it makes a wreath. If this had happened to Chaplin he would have deliberately put the laves on the tire, in order to transform it into a wreath and thus be able to decently leave the cemetery. Hulot does not get out, he stays until the end, shakes hands with everybody. The gag as presented by Chaplin might have had a more intelligent value, the idea is the same; but Hulot is not a doer, he is perhaps more childish . .. he does not dare. 


Films and Filming
Charles Chaplin Number, 
August 1957...

July 23, 2016

THE SHERIFF 
by Alexandre Astruc

Originally published in Paris-Match, 1108 (1 août 1970) as 
"'Le Shérif': Alexandre Astruc fait rendre justice à Howard Hawks". 
Translated by Dorothea Hoekzema.




A fascist is, as everyone knows, someone who despises men, believes only in relationships of force, manifests a pronounced taste for quarrels, considers women as subproletarian, privileged by the fact that they are given the pleasure of washing the dishes and wiping the kids. 

Besides, since American directors, and Howard Hawks in particular, are evidently, in so far as they are authors of Westerns, a heap of reactionary riff-raff, of rednecks, of cops, and of militarists, Rio Bravo, a sublime film, merits, without a doubt, the label of fascist. Moreover, Hawks is an old airman, and he must have the mentality of a general. His best pal was the racist Faulkner. Everything fits the pattern: we are at the height of a reactionary period!... Faulkner had an enormous admiration for Hawks, not just because he was his best friend and fought in the war with him. He adapted the war for him. He adapted for him the screenplay of To Have and To Have Not from a novella by this Hemingway who couldn't hold a candle to him. But the greater one is, the humbler he is. The same Faulkner (still for Howard Hawks) adapted detective dramas (like The Big Sleep). Don't be surprised if this The Big Sleep is equally sublime. Let's get back to Rio Bravo, which just came out, to tell--but everything fits the pattern--the profound raison d'être of this film. We are in 1955, and Zinnemann, a so-called leftist, a humanist, and a detestable director, just brought to the screen with Gary Cooper one of these traditional Westerns which permit armchair progressives, especially, to defend a genre which is counter-revolutionary.

This very bad film is called High Noon. In this film in the best tradition, the sheriff Gary Cooper, who is engaged to the Quaker virgin, symbol of the American woman's purity, played by Grace Kelly, future princess of Monaco, makes his exit, his job finished, on the exact day when a killer, whom he had arrested, is going to come back. 

Racking his brains, Cooper, just married to his Quaker in a nice wedding, is in the process of leaving. In the end, duty is stronger. He goes back to the city and tries to find someone to help him keep the dangerous bandit from killing him: naturally, as in all humanist films, men are too cowardly and, because of fear, are ready to collaborate with the killer. Which is normal, all humanism having as its first principle good personal conscience and contempt for the unfortunates who do not have the happiness of being visited by divine inspiration: the classic history of the saved. 

Cooper, finding no one, performs, against his wishes, his role as hero, and, to really show his disgust, before leaving, throws his sheriff's badge on the ground--what admirable audacity of Zinnemann! We are at the height of moralizing, of the traditional, hypocritical, and so-called progressive kind. 

The fascist Hawks is so disgusted with this film that he decides to do a remake of it with his friend Dean Martin. This is Rio Bravo

The only differences are:

1) The role of Grace Kelly is replaced by that of the barmaid Angie Dickinson. She performs honestly her woman's work, which is to love John Wayne. 

2) Put in the same circumstances as Gary Cooper, John Wayne doesn't ask for anyone's help. He has a job to do: he is sheriff; he is paid for that. He locks himself in his office, gets his guns ready and, with the help of a sixty-year-old man who acts as his assistant, awaits with determination the killer's brother, who promised to break into said office. 



3) Stroke of genius. There is a human wreck, a drunk, an alcoholic: Dean Martin. Dean Martin, it is evident, inasmuch as he is a drunkard, does not have a sense of honor, and the function of sheriffs is to despise alcoholics. Well, Wayne protects Dean Martin who, in an admirable scene (I even had tears in my eyes), drunk as he is--but it is well known that Hawks despises the man; he is not like Zinneman, the liberal--finds in himself the moral strength to refuse to pick out from a spittoon money tossed there by the killer. Then, he arrives at the sheriff's and offers to help him. He can't, his hands tremble, he sobers up a little, he succumbs and again touches the accursed bottle. Then John Wayne does this admirable thing: he smacks him in the face, proof of the greatest respect; one doesn't fight with someone one despises--but, evidently, this is again the fascist moral. Rio Bravo is only a Western: a Western is not enriching. This is not like the erotic and avant-garde films of Robbe-Grillet; this is nothing but two tired heroes of forty to fifty years, who criticize each other and drink whisky. 

But it is impossible to leave Rio Bravo (like El Dorado, another film of Hawks, which resembles it like a brother) without feeling proud of being a man. The people who make these films are not hacks, they are not manufacturers; they are moralists, in the true sense of the word. The films of Hawks, even the comedies that he made, like Man's Favorite Sport, go much further in the knowledge of man than the so-called Underground analyses and studies do. Why? Because Hawks knows what a man is, and that is why he can make films. One cannot make films if he does not like life, if he does not believe, above all, that physical manifestations are privileged. The body does not lie, nor does the human face: this is the strength of the cinema and its health as opposed to literature. 




A supplementary reason for the glory of Hawks: he made comedies as well as tragedies. Bringing Up Baby as well as Red River and The Big Sky.

A new reason, naturally, not to take him seriously. It is not serious to make people laugh; it is even shameful. Pagnol and Moliere are an evident proof. Moreover, people who cause laughter are reactionaries; it's well known: American comedy is fascist. 

You will excuse me this one time for having retold the plot of the film, which is not my habit. I did it purposely; I did it because it is simply a question of truth, of this truth which is seen as it is filmed. 


July 22, 2016

A MASSACRE IN SEQUENCE
by Alexandre Astruc

Originally published in Paris-Match, 1139 (6 mars 1971
as "Un Massacre par sequence: Rio Lobo de Howard Hawks.
Translated by Dorothea Hoekzema


As he gets older, Howard Hawks--he must be something like seventy-five years old now--seems to take a mischievous pleasure in multiplying the number of corpses which litter his films' fertile-green carpet, scattered with cow-dung. 

To kill, to shoot, to cool off, to disembowel one's fellow creature by firing at him point-blank with one or another popgun stuffed up to the muzzle with avenging gunpowder was, until now, a pleasure reserved for a small, privileged elite. 

It was like a lord's occupation, a profession carefully protected by a a kind of closed group. Lords and masters delightfully abandon themselves, romping joyously in the tall grass, searching for two-legged game, while a small group of non-violent people, slaves and concubines, cook and make tortillas while raking or hoeing rutabagas or manioc. 

Alas, alas! This division of labor may have seen its last days. In the latest film of Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo, with the long-lasting John Wayne, everybody, absolutely everybody, without differentiation of age, sex, or race, everybody able to move forward while brandishing a harquebus or a catapult, joins the shooting gallery. 

Don't let all that keep you from immediately flocking to Rio Lobo, which is an excellent and marvelous film at the same time as a wonderful example of what a narration of pure cinematographic action can be. 

Unlike so many young people whom we know only too well, this old, super-silvered fox, Howard Hawks, is not going to permit his action to slow down and spoil our pleasure under the pretext of philosophizing or of making crocodile tears flow by lingering on rows of corpses which are barely cold and which he just lined up. 

Oh no! It's useless to stock up on Kleenex. One hardly has the time or the leisure to slow down in Howard Hawks' films, in Rio Lobo in particular, where gunpowder talks rather quickly and clearly.

In short, in this film, as the captain of Jacques le Fataliste by Diderot says: "Every bullet that leaves a rifle has its mark." 

All of this is rather inebriating and exciting for the soul, but it risks not being an especially recommendable spectacle for cardiacs. I greatly fear that I can't advise going elsewhere to all those heart specialists and psychological analysts, who seek in the Western only a new approach in the broadening of the knowledge of man. 



In Rio Bravo, indeed in El Dorado, between two performances of shooting and a drinking bout, Mr. John Wayne, tired as he was, still found time to exchange some condescending off-hand remarks with his partners, Mr. Dean Martin or Mr. Robert Mitchum. It's useless for you to flatter yourself because you are hearing anything other than the sputtering of blazing lead in so many voices coming out of so many mouths of fire. 
 
Psychology, lyricism, photography, explanations: Hawks, this time, has thrown everything overboard, including musical filler. Only a thin and dry guitar underscores, with a few Jansenist chords, a straight-lined production.

There seems to be nothing else on the screen. Nothing more than a fantastically played action, served by a black, ferocious humor, nothing more than the broken wire of a spring which expands and vibrates in the blue-gray sky of the forest. 

Nothing more. Nothingness, that's what. That is, nothingness successively and in the same film and the same breath: the attack of an armored train by Southern forces in flight, with anti-railroad terrorist commandos, bombardment with wasp-filled bags, train on the loose, pursuit in the branches and the marshes, bloody corpses thrown in the ballast, capture of John Wayne, ambush, John Wayne delivered by the yellow scarves, War of Secession continued and concluded. Camps of prisoners, search for the traitor, murder of a mountebank, arrival of a distressed orphan girl, reconciliation of John Wayne and the Southern son of Robert Mitchum, the orphan's assassination attempt, filling the four killers full of lead by the pair Wayne-Jim Mitchum (Robert's son), Rio Lobo in the hands of a sadistic and extortionist sheriff, love affair of the orphan and Mitchum's son, a ranch attack, occupation of the sheriff's office, sequestration, ransom, final explanation, splash in the water. Whew! Stop. John Wayne triumphs. No kisses. Nothingness, as I have the honor of telling you. Nothing: next to nothing. Nothing but great, admirable cinema.

The only question which still has to be asked concerning this marvelous film, the only mystery left unsolved, is the appearance of John Wayne. 

Thick, weighing at least a ton of bones and beef, heavy as an ox lost in the middle of a robbery of thoroughbred horses, a preeminent paunch, bags under the eyes, one wonders how he is able to hoist himself into the saddle, then be able to stay there... Not at all. A good shot of whiskey, then he is off again, dashing and lively. It's because he doesn't want to unleash the old man to give all these young people a chance. He stays in the spotlight. He hangs on, climbing the stairs four at a time like an ex-football player to keep in shape, and sleeping with his boots on. 

Burt Lancaster, with his young fifty-nine years, can talk about rest and think retirement. 

As for John Wayne, he will leave as the brave do, those shooting-off-at-the-mouths, the veterans. 

He will enter the grave as he always lived. 

On horse. 








July 4, 2016

June 21, 2016

May 18, 2016



I kill the living...
and I save the dead.

It is written for everyone to die.
              It makes no difference.

Yes. Except for that little
matter of when, and for what.


Bitter Victory (1957)

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