Daily | Auteurs Gone Wild

'The Bitter Tea of General Yen'

‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’

We began the week with a double dollop of David Phelps, his interview with Ken Jacobs for desistfilm and, at the Notebook, the “director’s cut” of his program notes for the series he’s curated for Anthology Film Archives in New York, Auteurs Gone Wild. At Hyperallergic, Michael Blum notes that the series is comprised of “nine films (all showing on 35mm) directed by several de facto auteurs—including Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and Ernst Lubitsch—each of whom maintained a punctilious and sometimes even tyrannical control of the production of their films. Phelps has selected the works that most belie this superlative control (hence ‘gone wild’) and thus violate the stylistic consistency expected of the nearly monolithic authorship promised by the title ‘auteur.’ Yet these films aren’t stinkers, one-offs, or oddballs so much as they are fascinating inlets into the more personal, deranged, or denuded strata of production of artists whose celebrated styles have been hypostatized by their canonization.”

The series opens tonight with Frank Capra‘s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Fritz Lang’s You and Me (1938). Of the former, Catherine Russell has recently written in Cineaste: “Stanwyck as Megan Davis, American missionary to China, has been kidnapped by the debonair general. As she lounges in her fabulous Orientalist suite-cum-prison, she dreams that Yen is breaking into her room but, then, in a series of dissolving shots in which he seems to morph from Nosferatu to screen idol, the fantasy leads to a hazy soft-focus kiss. The scene was scandalous at the time for its implicit miscegenation, and Capra’s treatment renders it a truly dangerous fantasy.”

Miriam Bale for the L on You and Me: “Earthy, delicate and ethereal Silvia Sidney is at her best in this perfect romance. Tragic misunderstandings, endearing domestic details, and a honeymoon staycation in Little Italy and Chinatown mark her whirlwind relationship with former gangster, George Raft. But the highlight of the film—in fact, a highlight in cinema history, in which most plots are based on the lack of capital—is a scene in which Sidney pulls out a chalkboard to prove that crime, in fact, does not pay.”

The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody recommends it as well, adding notes on Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (1932), “an agonized First World War drama… he unresolved blend of love, regret, hatred, and guilt yields one of Hollywood’s most desperate endings”—and Josef von Sternberg‘s The Saga of Anatahan (1953), “about Japanese sailors in the Second World War who survive a shipwreck on an isolated South Seas island. Sternberg created a spikily Expressionistic jungle in a Kyoto studio; when a woman turns out to be hiding on the island, the tale of physical endurance morphs into one of mad desire for sex and power.”

At The Vulgar Cinema, you’ll find Otie Wheeler on Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935), noting that this “story of a love between children, half-remembered and unknowingly re-enacted by adults, is weird at every turn.” Sara Freeman reviews George Cukor‘s Edward, My Son (1949): “I’ve seen it three of four times now and my feelings seem to change with every viewing. Not because it’s narratively a bit flat and disjointed or because Spencer Tracy is miscast, no, that stuff doesn’t bother me. I usually love oddball movies because I’m an oddball gal. What does bother me is the cruelty housed inside its lopsided episodic structure.”

And Neil Bahadur takes on Chaplin’s A Countess From Hong Kong (1967): “Perhaps Countess really is Chaplin’s greatest work, his most personal and poetic.”

Updates, 3/24: Writing for Artforum, Nick Pinkerton notes that, as it happens, Kent Jones‘s piece in the current issue of Film Comment on how the auteur theory’s holding up is generating plenty of discussion: “Jones celebrates the critical revolution of the 1950s and ’60s during which, armed with the auteurist idea, ‘the lovers of cinema didn’t just argue for its inclusion among the fine arts, but actually stood up, waved its flag, and proclaimed its glory without shame’—but also expresses concern that strict allegiance to the doctrine has tended to blind film writers to the evidence of their senses, encouraging ‘the subtle transformation of the actual scene into an ideal one made in the state of artistic freedom.’ … Are the films collected here [in Auteurs Gone Wild] one-offs in their director’s oeuvres, or the quintessence of them? In encouraging such questions, Auteurs Gone Wild is the ideal program for a moment when many movie lovers have begun to dismantle auteurism in order to save it.”

Samantha Vacca at the L on Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949): “While the setting and historicism are atypical for Hitchcock, the ambiguous fear driven by gender inequality and insubordinate male and female power struggles are unmistakably his in this undervalued film.”

Updates, 3/29: Farran Nehme‘s posted thoughts on Under Capricorn, which dislikes quite a bit, Edward, My Son (“full of great twists and question marks”), Peter Ibbetson, which she “adores,” and Broken Lullaby, “definitely an anomaly.”

The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody finds that Under Capricorn is “giddily atypical in its style even as it explores lurid new byways of Hitchcock’s familiar obsessions.”

At the L, Miriam Bale‘s got a few words from Josef von Sternberg himself on The Saga of Anatahan.

Update, 3/30: At The Vulgar Cinema, Preston C. Whistle considers The Saga of Anatahan in light of Von Sternberg’s other work.

Update, 4/7:Broken Lullaby fits alongside Lubitsch’s other tales of con-men who act a part until it comes true,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney for Film Comment, “but here the tale is tragic, and conveyed mostly in an unvarnished declamatory style. It is a bold experiment in heightened cinematic naturalism whose only Hollywood contemporary are the proto-neorealist sound films of D.W. Griffith, like The Struggle from one year earlier. A blast of Eisensteinian dialectical montage fuels the film’s opening, but once the setting shifts to Germany, the style switches to long, unbroken takes. Lubitsch moves from a cinema of speed and collision to one attuned to bodies and gesture.”

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