Monthly Archives: February 2012

Jacques Tourneur’s Killer-Dog

The short films Jacques Tourneur made for MGM (almost two dozen of them, in total) represent a tapestry of the underrated auteur’s crystallizing style. Though they range in quality, each film proves to possess unique qualities that ultimately provide deeper insights into his artistry.

Arguably the best of the bunch is Killer-Dog, a simultaneously tender and intense film about a dog named Major who is wrongly accused of killing sheep. Via a typically nimble tracking shot, Tourneur opens the film in the courtroom as Major is led out to face his trial. From here, we flashback to the time Major first met his owner, the young and precocious Betty Lou. It’s in this flashback that we also learn of Major’s past, namely his peaceful, collie mother and his vicious, wolf-dog father who, himself, is caught killing sheep and put to death. One morning, after sneaking out of Betty Lou’s open window in the middle of the night, a neighboring farmer (the same one who put Major’s father to death) reports that two of his sheep have been slaughtered, pinpointing Major as the perpetrator. Back in the present day, the judge obliges a recess so that Major may prove his innocence, which he does after saving the farmer’s sheep from the real attacker, a vicious coyote who had been stalking the grounds.

Killer-Dog’s story ­is largely dictated by a voiceover performed by Pete Smith, who narrates the film’s action and provides context for the viewer. Because the literal text of the narration is purely explanatory, much of it feels superfluous. Tourneur’s background in silent film, however, allowed him to put emphasis on the film’s images, some of which rank among his most evocative and deftly orchestrated. In a way, Killer-Dog is Tourneur’s most lyrical film, feature-length or otherwise. The film’s fabulistic tone is at once charming, evoking nothing less than the Aesopica in the way it attributes human characteristics to its animal subjects. That said, the film’s mise en scene grounds Killer-Dog in a decidedly naturalistic setting. As is Tourneur’s wont, he shoots his exteriors in an unfiltered, wide-open fashion. Natural sunlight basks the farm grounds in an idyllic but tastefully unsentimental manner. Conversely, despite accentuating the pastoral beauty of the setting, Tourneur makes sure to provide enough space for the possibility of violence within it. For instance, a particularly sweet moment between Betty Lou and Major is cut down by the sound of an off-screen gunshot that takes the life of Major’s father. As serene as much of the film is, Tourneur takes the appropriate steps to keep the film grounded in its very dire stakes.

Killer-Dog foreshadows the later works Cat People and The Leopard Man, a pair of B-horror films Tourneur directed for producer Val Lewton and RKO. Each film examines the line between humans and animals and, in the case of Cat People, the instinctual capacity for violence present in those with a hereditary predisposition for such behavior. This is a particularly luminous revelation considering the artistry of Cat People (as well as The Leopard Man and a third Tourneur film, I Walked with a Zombie) is largely attributed to Lewton. While it’s fair (and accurate) to label Lewton as the chief creative force behind his numerous RKO pictures, Tourneur’s touches are indeed present. Interestingly enough, for Cat People, Tourneur was able to reverse the roles established in Killer-Dog. Rather than an animal with human attributes, the female protagonist of Cat People possesses animalistic attributes. The organization of these strategies, however, is irrelevant as Tourneur is ultimately much more concerned with the concept of dualism—particularly when it concerns instances of humanity.

Because of its concision and clarity of vision, Killer-Dog ranks among the best short film ever produced by MGM. Tourneur’s ability to establish a number of his thematic and visual preoccupations within the film’s 10-minute run time unboundedly led to the formal and narrative economy that would become something of a trademark later in his career. Working within the short form, it can be said, eventually opened up the breadth of his capabilities as a director and an artist.

The function of form

I’m taking a class on Roman Polanski this term. I’ll likely post the pieces I write for it here, just for fun. Here’s a write-up on Repulsion:

In numerous interviews, Roman Polanski has noted how, early in his career, his formal preoccupations tended to trump any thematic or analytic elements he may otherwise have been concerned with. Like many young filmmakers, Polanski had a zealous relationship with the art of cinema, manipulating and experimenting with its language as they search for a more consistent voice. Repulsion (1965), with its emphasis on mood and tone over narrative and subtext, proves to be the perfect example when exploring the early visual strategies of his filmography.

Because the film is so sparsely assembled plot and story-wise, some have labeled it a character study. Though this may be in apt term when attempting the film narratologically, Repulsion rarely divulges any information about its protagonist, Carole. Aside from a closing shot of an ambiguous photo from her past, Polanski proves to be mostly unconcerned about his character’s roots. For some viewers, this could prove problematic as Western storytelling typically puts emphasis on narrative context and continuity (in other the words, the formulaic “inciting incident, rising action, resolution” three-act structure), of which Repulsion is noticeably lacking. In lesser hands, the lack of narrative context would make for a sloppily constructed film, but Polanski’s stern aestheticizing adequately takes the place of such devices. In fact, any additional narrative elements would have felt superfluous. To have all the answers would surely take away from the mystery and covertness of the film. Additionally, the film’s visual style would have also taken a hit: the starkly photographed apartment, with its jutting hues of black and white, would have appeared far less ominous if the cause of Carole’s neurosis had be explicitly defined. Polanski, by eschewing elements of narrative in favor of a more vivid mise en scene, was able to put greater emphasis on the aspects with which he was more overtly concerned.

In attempting to wrestle further with the film’s enigmatic plot, others have described Repulsion as something of a case study or cautionary tale about untreated mental illness. For the audience, Carole’s unstable mental condition is obvious; for those in the film, the people who see her everyday (namely her well-meaning if self-centered older sister) appear to be oblivious. The only person who seems to have some sort concern is Michael, although his condescension masks any sort of sincerity he might have. In any case, Carole’s situation has clearly gone undiagnosed and any explanation for her erratic behavior is attributed to her perceived frivolousness. Of course, analyzing such matters further proves futile considering our perspective throughout the entire film is through Carole’s point of view.

As a most unreliable narrator, it’s impossible to decipher the true nature of her surroundings given her skewed state. In terms of Repulsion being a cautionary tale, such a label would denote a certain amount of sympathy for the case in point. However, it’s safe to say that Polanski feels little compassion for Carole. Her character, instead, proves the perfect archetype for the kind of psychological horror film for which he’s striving. To see Catherine Deneuve, yellow-haired and angelic, in such a ghastly state makes for the sort of unsettling imagery typical of Polanski, who, in turn, pulls no punches in ensuring his actress faces the full brunt of his vision. In particular cases, Polanski skirts with elements of exploitation, namely the sexually violent night terrors that plague Carole’s dreams. It is with Repulsion that Polanski cements a thematic interest in sexual intrusiveness (a la Rosemary’s Baby [1968] and Chinatown [1974]) that would, infamously and tragically*, seep into his personal life.

Moving beyond the film’s narrative elements, Repulsion reveals itself as a largely formal exercise in which Polanski experiments with sound and space to create a truly unsettling atmosphere. Whether it’s the ticking of a clock or the drip from a leaky faucet, the film’s incessant ambient noise has become something of a trademark. It reminds us that, for the most part, noise never stops. Even in situations we perceive to be silent, some semblance of noise is usually present. To heighten this concept, Polanski often layers these seemingly innocuous sounds over images of horror, most notably those aforementioned night terrors. By infusing the mundane with a sense of the macabre, he ensures that there’s nary a moment of rest throughout the film’s 105 minutes. Visually, Repulsion is saturated in expressionistic black and white, heightened by Polanski’s tendency toward extreme angles that seem to fluctuate the size of the apartment. Also present are a number of dexterously executed long takes that glide gracefully throughout the space. Rather than cut from one shot to the next, Polanski is prone to simply moving the camera either closer or further away, artfully moving from an master shot to a two shot with the simple push of his camera. These are precisely the formal elements he refers to when he admits to being less concerned with story early in his career.

As the second film he made in London, Polanski exhibits the stylistics typical of his early career. These elements would begin to crystallize in a number of ways as early as Cul-De-Sac (1966), but to see them in this raw and developmental fashion is essential to understanding his work as a whole.

*By which I mean tragic for the victim, of course.

The Proof Is in the Details

During my Daily Internet Musings™, I happened upon an interesting Q&A session featuring James Benning on his film 13 Lakes, which is excerpted in the video above. Like many of Benning’s films, the concept is simple and self-explanatory: 13 statics shots of 13 lakes across the country, each one lasting about ten minutes.

I’ve partaken in numerous discussions about Benning, usually with people who espouse grand theories of hidden subtext that supposedly run throughout his films. Personally, I’ve always maintained that Benning doesn’t operate under such channels and that his films are as matter-of-fact as they appear. That’s not to say they aren’t brimming with ideas—13 Lakes, for example, is a splendid take on cinematic ontology and the possibilities therein. But in terms of broad, grandiose statements, when it comes to Benning, a mere contextual reading is usually enough to suffice.

So forgive me for feeling vindicated upon listening to this Q&A—which took place at the LA Film Forum—in which Benning, coming off as self-effacing and tastefully pragmatic, explains that the film, more or less, is simply about lakes.

Here’s the five part series, if you’ve yet to partake. Additionally, here’s a nice piece on the film by Michael J. Anderson of Tativille and Ten Best Films.