Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Double Solitaire: Creative Partnerships Made in Hell

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, directed by Wilder.

“When two great saints meet it is a humbling experience." – Paul McCartney, 1968.

1. brackettandwilder

It was called the Golden Age of Hollywood for good reason. The early evolutionary phase of the film industry, which I personally designate as roughly being from 1929 to 1959, immediately established the stylistic devices, narrative techniques, creative content and future direction that cinema would take as both a visual art form and a commercial business enterprise. Most importantly, perhaps, the paradoxical fact that cinema could be both entertaining and profitable, as well as both philosophically challenging and emotionally comforting, was etched in celluloid almost from its beginnings at the turn of the century. Fine cinema is quite simply the best of both worlds.

Among the many screenwriters, producers and directors who blazed that ever-expanding trail, few would have quite the lasting impact on both comedy and tragedy as impressive and influential as the iconic achievements of the volatile collaborative partnership between writer-producer Charles Brackett and writer-director Billy Wilder.

They were ironically referred to as the “happiest couple in Hollywood,” despite the fact that they disliked each other intensely, and the artistic franchise or brand they forged, often identified literally by critics as “brackettandwilder” as if they were one person, permanently place them in the Golden Age pantheon as the makers of two kinds of cinematic icon: the screwball comedy and the film noir classic. Precisely how they pulled this off so powerfully still remains a mystery. Their cinematic art, written together, produced by Brackett and directed by Wilder, amply highlights the paradoxical nature of their mutual genius. They were mutual muses trapped together in a dark mirror of their own making.

How they accomplished this monumental achievement, and the nature of their often painful collaboration, form the basis of a tale of strange magic indeed.

Charles Brackett lounging, Billy Wilder pacing.
Like Paul McCartney and John Lennon, another of the most influential partnerships in history, and one most accurately designated in that order, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder each needed the balancing and opposite aspect of the other’s artistic and emotional temperament in order to most fruitfully produce and manage their mutual gifts. One without the other could be great, compelling, even delightful, but together they formed an almost incomprehensibly brilliant structural unit: the heads and tails of a superbly minted coin.

In science, this phenomenon is called dinergy, the interaction of opposing forces to produce a significant pattern. And the method of controlling the non-prevalent balance is called governing dynamics, first discovered and named by John Nash, who is now recognized as a founder of game theory.

One of the most famous comments about the two apparently competing theatrical genres of comedy and tragedy is that "comedy is simply tragedy plus time." The remark, most often mis-attributed to the great Carol Burnett, may actually in fact have been uttered by Charles Brackett to Billy Wilder in the studio office of an executive who was desperately trying to understand their original intention of making Sunset Boulevard as a comedy!

Their amazing 13-film partnership had begun rather arbitrarily in 1938 with producers at Paramount tossing together the barely English-speaking Wilder with the worldly and senior literary figure Brackett and telling them to write Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife for the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. They also co-wrote one of Lubitsch’s greatest films, Ninotchka (1939), with Greta Garbo. They quickly bristled at having other producers and directors wielding power over their hard-fought words, even though they succeeded so marvelously with the great Mitchell Leisen vehicles of Midnight (1939), Arise My Love (1940), and Hold Back the Dawn (1941). After concocting the wacky wordplay of Ball of Fire for Howard Hawks in 1941, they swore that they themselves would both write and produce and direct all their own future work.

Once the gentle silliness of the superb The Major and the Minor launched their independence in 1942, they never looked back, creating a string of hits which explored the full spectrum of human emotions: from the dark claustrophobia of Five Graves to Cairo in 1943 and Oscar-winning paranoia of Lost Weekend in 1945 to the subtly incisive political satire of A Foreign Affair in 1948.

But it was clearly the bone-chilling noir nightmare of Sunset Boulevard in 1950, a disturbing meditation on our attachment to celebrity and the manic self-absorption of Hollywood itself, for which they are rightfully remembered as cinematic artists par excellence. It alone is visionary in its insights into the fame-addicted world we now inhabit. It also changed my life forever when I saw it on television one lonely, rainy day off from school when I was an innocent 10-year-old. It still has the power to change your life today.

Looked at in its entirety, their collaborative career can easily be compared to the 13 records created by The Beatles when it comes to their sheer impact on popular culture, as can the intimacy and almost alchemical insights of their difficult but magical partnership.

Something was lost in their parting of the ways and that was quite simply each other, the powerful force of their brains blended into that special creative machine, so similar to many other frames of reference within what I like to call the breaking-up-is-hard-to-do, creative-marriages-made-in-hell mold.

For despite their difficulties, Brackett and Wilder still took us to many diverse places in a unique manner, a way of travelling without ever leaving home -- apart from the short trip to a neighbourhood theatre,or the even shorter trip to our living-room television in the middle of the night. Either way, we travelled in darkness, but it was the reassuring and comfortable darkness of communal imagining. The dreams we dream alone are merely dreams, as fascinating as they might be, whereas the dreams we dream together form the very foundational structure of our culture.

2. Behind the Odd Couple Code

Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann,

"Double Solitaire" describes a team of combative creative rivals, incompatible but incomparable, whose rivalry makes the team grow stronger and succeed far in excess of what either competitive team member could achieve alone. As long as they maintain the precarious balance required to channel their dramatically opposite energies in the same direction. The most salient and seminal aspect of this research is the application of what is known as the golden mean to animated human relationships in a way which echoes and parallels the proportional harmony relationships in the inanimate natural world

Governing dynamics exists in both nature and culture. How else can we explain the harmony that results from intense creative discord? Among the best examples are the unique collaborations of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as McCartney’s solo work resulting in a novel form of collaboration with different aspects of his own character, in the absence of Lennon. In addition, the spectacularly gifted producer George Martin and his partnership with The Beatles will reveal the central role he played in making their music what it was and still is.

The Continuing Saga of Fleetwood Mac
This band continues to be a blockbuster almost 50 years after its inception in England as a psychedelic blues band, before morphing into one of the most perfectly produced and successful pop bands in history, second only to The Beatles and The Stones in terms of their impact and influence.

The Alluring and Disturbing Cinema of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski
The five films created together in close proximity and occasional mortal danger by Herzog and Kinski reveal an ideal example of the odd couple code in action. Herzog used Kinski as a surrogate self in order to explore the deep and dark recesses of human nature and emotional relationships. From Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972; Woyzeck, 1978; Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979; Fitzcarraldo, 1982; to Cobra Verde in 1987, they produced a lasting body of work which could have been created by no one else but them. In his retrospective film on Kinski, who died in 1991, called My Best Fiend (also called My Favourite Enemy), in 1999, Herzog said that Kinski had fabricated almost all of his autobiography. The two even collaborated on which insults Kinski included about his director.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, , 1987.

The Elegant Decay of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards 
The Rolling Stones have become an institution, a corporate entity, a compulsion, an experiment in how long rock 'n' roll can maintain its youthful edge origins, and most importantly, perhaps the most exemplary example of how to make the difficult equation of the odd couple code actually succeed over the long term. The Beatles lasted a mere 8 years, albeit they were a high-water mark for proportional harmony, while The Stones, like Fleetwood Mac, have seemingly discovered the essential ingredient for sustaining shared creativity under duress called governing dynamics: the ability for both sides to manifest a non-zero sum game where neither prevails over the other and both manage to nourish a group identity against all odds.

The Cine-Musical Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann
Apart from their obvious mastery, viewers tend to identify one salient aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies: the unnerving impact of the dissonant scores composed for him by Bernard Herrmann. Their difficult and stormy creative partnership was nerve-wracking and occasionally almost violent. The duo fell apart during the making of Torn Curtain, when Hitchcock was attempting to keep up with the times and requested a more light-hearted pop music score from Herrmann, who balked and tried to explain the problem: “"Look, Hitch, you can't outjump your own shadow. And you don't make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don't write pop music."

Where, oh where would our culture be without the stressful relationships of creative people who don’t like each other at all but work together as a team of mutual muses, in order to make something neither one of them could have made on their own?

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called The Devil in Miss Jones: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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