Filmgeschichte: Tag Gallagher

»Truly Doing Film Criticsm«

Ein Email-Interview mit Tag Gallagher

[1]Auf der Website von Tag Gallagher finden sich Links auf zahlreiche seiner Artikel sowie auf die PDF-Version der überarbeiteten Fasssung seines Buchs zu John Ford.

Tag Gallagher hat herausragende Bücher geschrieben über John Ford und Roberto Rossellini, sowie Aufsätze über Costa, Dreyer, Ferrara, Fuller, Hawks, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, McCarey, Mizoguchi, Ophüls, Preminger, Sirk, Straub, Ulmer, Vidor, von Sternberg und Walsh. Über das hinaus hat er in den letzten Jahren eine Reihe von Video-Essays als Bonus auf DVDs veröffentlicht; über Dreyer, Ford, Hawks, Ophüls, Preminger and Rossellini. [1] Das folgende E-Mail-Interview handelt von diesen Video-Essays. Die Fragen stellte Michael Baute.

It would be interesting to know about some of the backgrounds of your work with moving images. When have you started to do this kind of work? What were the circumstances?

Doing movie criticism on my Mac with Final Cut Pro is the first time in my life I’ve felt I was truly doing movie criticism. My Mac is the »caméra stylo« Astruc said cinema is, but which cinema is too unwieldy and expensive to be. For half a century or more, since I began to talk about movies, I’d always wanted to deal with composition and movement, and with how they relate across shots -- the music of motion, which, as Sirk says, is the emotion of the movies.

With words it was mostly impossible, and long attempts at description turned readers off. Even worse, articles and books, when they had pictures at all, had publicity stills fraudulently presented as illustrations of the movie. This is rather like illustrating a book on Van Gogh with paintings by others of his locations, with those paintings passed off as by Van Gogh himself and lauded as evidence of Van Gogh’s artistry.

Use of frame enlargements was rare until just a few year ago. Publishers didn’t like them because they looked lousy compared to publicity glossies. Film magazines don’t like them because they violate their lay-out rules. And they were the devil to make. You needed a reflex camera, a copystand, a lightbox, a pair of rewinds, not to mention a print of the film, and plenty of eye strain.

And there were copyright issues. »Fair use« permits literary critics to quote up to 299 words, but the question of whether »fair use« applies to quoting one frame out of the 172,800 in a two-hour movie has not been clarified in law. The studios say absolutely no, and some publishers honor their position or, at least, a possible threat. One academic press (without any expectation of recouping its money) paid $50 a piece for permission to publish a hundred frames, pale and matchbook-size, in a detailed analysis of three films from the 1930s. Others resorted to subterfuge – like xeroxing a frame and then drawing on top of it. Others, like me, went ahead without permission, and I’ve not known anyone to be sued. On one hand, copyright holders do not wish to risk a court decision which might declare that »fair use« applies to what they are now often able to charge for. On the other hand, shouting from the roof tops, even without permission, that a movie made three-quarters of a century ago which no one has heard of is a world-shaking masterpiece can’t reasonably be denounced as lowering the value of the copyright holders’ investment.

Today everyone is merrily posting frame enlargements on web pages and no seems to be getting in trouble. Some film magazines, on the other hand, simply refuse to put frames in the text or to print more than a few photos per page, and then jumble the order of the photos so that nothing makes sense, and then ignore authors’ protests. Which is another reason to love the web.

But in terms of dvds, restrictions are big. I can’t make a video about any movie I want to -- if I wish to be published. I can only make a video as an »extra« to accompany a movie which a dvd company has purchased rights for and is now going to publish.

And even then I can’t merrily quote shots from other movies. If, say, I want to compare something in our John Ford movie to similar things in other Ford movies – which is the customary method of talking about an artist – I cannot do this unless my dvd company either also owns rights to these other movies or else permits some »fair use«. Some publishers do permit some; other won’t even reproduce a poster without explicit permission. Large corporations, like Sony or Time-Warner or Fox, naturally respect each other’s copyright claims even in grey areas. And unfortunately the fees demanded even for publicity stills – forget about clips, unless you’re super rich – far exceed what can be afforded for a mere »extra« for a very old movie no one has heard of, particularly in Europe, where sales are limited to one small national market. Yes, people post movie clips on YouTube, and the image quality is so low it’s like throwing Van Goghs into a sewer, and people tolerate it, but now what’s on the screen is only a vague metaphor for what should be on the screen – for specifically those aspects of a movie that I try to call attention to.

Coming back to Astruc's idea of »caméra stylo«, I wondered if there have been any »discoveries« you made/experienced. Has your way of looking at the way a movie is narrated changed due to the fact that you now »make movies« yourself?

No, I didn’t discover composition and cutting using Final Cut Pro. When I wrote about Max Ophüls, I wasn’t thinking of making a video; but when I did make a video, what I’d written became my scenario. The difference wasn’t that video gave me insights, it was that video allowed me to talk about the movie using the movie. Similarly, when I wrote about the dinner scene in Stagecoach, I didn’t use frame enlargements in the book because there was a technology available – in fact, as I said, the technology was virtually unavailable. I used frame enlargements because otherwise I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. Video didn’t open new possibilities to me, it just made them possible.

Do you propose to do essays to publishing houses?

Often, but so far no one’s decided to issue something on dvd because I suggested it. I keep pushing for Wagon Master, 7 Women, The Sun Shines Bright, Anatahan, Thunderbolt, Viva l’Italia, India, Werther, Sans lendemain, La signora di tutti.

Are there specific (national) differences and expectations working for German, English, American and French publishing houses?

I think the general public in Europe accepts an interesting analysis of an old Hollywood movie, whereas in the US such analysis is chiefly acceptable if it’s a »foreign film«, otherwise there’s some hostility toward it, unless it’s background or anecdotal. The notion that Stagecoach might be art still strikes most Americans as macabre. The major studios market movies as entertainment, not as art. They aren’t doing much to encourage people like me, but neither are they actively discouraging. The recent Fox boxes signal a shift, but at the moment I can’t imagine Turner letting me do a video on montage in Mogambo. Yet the more we do do, the more their film libraries are worth.

What kind of reactions have your videos generated?

Some people love them, some feel they’re being lectured to. So far, the sort of video I’m making is pretty rare. I mean, most movies about movies give background, and I do that too, but analysis of mise en scène and montage is something uncommon. It’s the essence of movie criticism, but it’s what movie criticism has been incapable of doing until now except at prohibitive expense. A famous French critic once declared Hollywood cutting »invisible«, and accordingly, to much of cinema studies it became invisible (which is like saying Beethoven has no tunes, but may explain why so much of academe abandoned cinema studies for »culture theory«). I expect that now many people will be making videos celebrating mise en scène and montage in our great, entertaining art.

Have there been developments in your way to approach or to work with a movie or a director due to working on videos (as opposed to working on texts)?

Basically, as I said, video allows me to do what I was always trying to do from the beginning. Of course video is different than writing words. What works in one medium doesn’t always work in another.

Moreover, there is no formula for movie criticism. »Cinema« is not the same »cinema« in Ford and Rossellini, so you don’t use the same »tools« to look at it. Frame enlargements can show a lot of Ford’s art -- composition, camera angles rhyming from one shot to the next, lighting – but almost nothing of Rossellini’s art, because Rossellini turns everything into motion. All the feelings, the motivations, the characters’ sense of self, even morality and philosophy are turned into motion. So I published a thousand pages about Rossellini, but I really couldn’t deal with his cinema, until I made my video about his Francesco giullare di Dio.

Nor does one use the same tools even for the same director. It depends on what’s going on in the movie. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is about color landscapes; The Long Voyage Home is about b&w depth-of-field in small closed spaces; The Sun Shines Bright is about cutting, angles and composition.

What do you mean when you say »rhyming shots«? Are there typical examples for this?

Any two shots in which a composition in one shot »answers« the graphic design in another. This is an example of something which after 5000 words of explanation still won't be clear, but which requires no explanation after a single illustration.

Have you developed a »set of rules« (or ethics) about the way you treat images and sounds?

No. I do whatever can make my point concisely, quickly, easily, interestingly. Where ethics apply is at my goal -- my respect for the movies I’m dealing with. What counts is whether I can serve any purpose toward someone having a richer experience of cinema.

Regarding »respect for the movie« I wondered if there are sometimes hesitations of »intruding« into a scene whilst analysing, describing, pointing towards it. In watching Helmut Fäber's movies from the 70's and 80’s for example one senses a great hesitation to break into the »integrity« of a scene, to stop it, cut it, slow, fasten or mute it. This is a specific way of articulating one's respect. Your way is different.

On a dvd, the movie is there, and one can watch it however one wishes. Ideally one replicates the experience of a movie theater. And afterwards one is free to discuss the movie – although many people shrike in horror at this. But if, eventually, one is going to discuss the movie, surely one must be able to point to a picture, or to re-run a character’s body language, or to re-run a bit of cutting.

It’s precisely the »integrity« of a scene that people often miss and which I want to call their attention to. A freeze frame makes people conscious it’s a picture, a composition, with angles, with meaningful lighting, whereas before they may have been concentrating mostly on the plot. Likewise with cutting. Why did the famous French critic think Stagecoach's cutting is invisible?

Do you have a specific view on the different media movies have been preserved on (16, 35 mm prints, VHS-cassettes, DVDs and digitalized images)?

I used to collect 16mm prints. Passionately. But I love dvd, I love its freedom, I love that it’s possible to have superb contrast, color, sound, proper aspect ratio, subtitles you can turn on and off, and the easy availability of everything, even of missing footage and alternate takes! And you can repeat things and jump from place to place! What one had to go through just to get to see a movie once, before dvds, now seems like communication before the telephone.

»Film restoration«, a few years ago, meant spending lots of money to create a dupe that was grossly inferior in photographic quality to the original, and which would only be seen by tiny audiences in major film archive -- as occurred with Ford’s Hell Bent (1918) which, though free from copyright, no one can see because prints are held by archives hostile to video. In contrast, a really glorious digital restoration by France’s CNC of Ford’s Bucking Broadway (1917) is now available to everyone all over the world on dvd or online. And with digital restoration one can improve the original – remove scratches, replace damaged frames, correct contrast and color. For a movie lover, there’s been no better time to be alive – with all due respect to those who claim that only nitrate is worth watching.

Do you have a specific approach towards repetition?

Audiences want to be entertained by movies. There’s a passivity they prefer. They want a narrative whose style to them is transparent. Thus they overwhelmingly prefer new movies to old ones, because with old movies they perceive the artifice, whereas new movies seem »realistic« because they don’t perceive the artifice.

But part of the job of a critic is precisely to make conscious the artifice, and use that consciousness to plunge people more deeply into the fiction, thus making a movie experience more active and less passive.

Thus still frames are useful first of all because people realise they’re looking at a picture, like at a painting, and because they can see how composition prompts the feelings they have, watching the movie. And more emotion happens with motion and in the rhythms of montage. So it is useful to repeat a motion, or a matching of two shots to point out that they match, and how. At times producers have wanted to delete my repeated shots, because they didn’t get the point of my repeating them, which is my fault. But I don’t want to be saying, »Look at this!« »Isn’t this beautiful!« One has to find a happy midpoint between instructing people so much that they don’t discover things for themselves, and telling them so little that they don’t see anything. Ideally, one doesn’t want to seem to be lecturing.

So I don’t want my words to come between you and the movie. And the clearer my own ideas are, the fewer words I need. On paper, three paragraphs might make a point. On video, three words are better.

Also it is important to entertain. The best advice I ever heard about making movies is something Francis Ford said in 1915: »Keep the audience glad they’re seeing the picture.« The same is true of writing. I use to drive students crazy, demanding that their papers entertain me. No one had ever said that to them. Yet one would hope it would be a priority in academia. It used to be so, for thousands of years.

My audience has lots of people who don’t know what a »shot« is, let alone rhyming camera angles or cuts across the axis. My job is to make such things self-explanatory with the least digression into explanation. I want to keep my »story« going.

One tries to avoid jargon because, if one wants to be clear, terms like »narrative«, »genre«, »myth«, »realistic« are vague, rather like film critics who tell you there’s »good acting« without ever giving you a hint of what they’re talking about.