Thursday, October 11, 2018

Behind the Mirror: The Cinematic Uncanny of Michael Curtiz

A scene from Michael Curtiz's final film The Comancheros (1961).

“Hide in the mirror. No one will look for you there.”  – Ljupka Cvetnova

“Movies are magic.”  – Van Dyke Parks

When I was coming of age in the mid-60s in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, there wasn’t much to do apart from reading books and watching television. Well, there were some other activities, but they were illegal back then. And one of the accidental benefits of primitive television in the days, before the advent of cable, TCM and Netflix, was the ironic fact that old movie studios used to provide the bulk of late-night programming in the form of classic films from the golden age. Especially late-late-late night television, for the likes of me, for whom there was no better way to come down from the excitement of attending all-day outdoor rock festivals with ten stellar bands.

As a result I caught magical glimpses of some of the great cinematic gems and enjoyed many of my favourite flicks in a film festival occurring only in my own mind. It turned out that many of my favourites were produced and directed by the same quietly titanic but toweringly talented individual. Back then I was also able to actually rent 16-mm versions, along with the projector, from our local library (another thing of the past) and even to order the films themselves by mail order from outfits called Blackhawk and Castle Films. I used to screen these at home for friends, often with my own substituted soundtracks, in the case of some grand silent masterpieces.

Where to begin to unravel the wildly multi-phrenic universe of one of the most gifted and underrated geniuses in film history: Michael Curtiz? Perhaps by asking a basic question: what might all the following drastically divergent and highly stylized visual entertainments have in common? Just one single but remarkable thing, which was the result of the commercial ascendancy of Hollywood after both the end of the First and the Second World Wars, when a flood of talented newcomers washed up on its sunny shores from a conflict-ravaged Europe.


One of these refugees in particular would have a massive and lasting impact on the way films were made in America, and as an result would also impact the rest of the world’s perception of cinema as both art and entertainment. He also exemplified Hollywood’s early internationalism during its golden age and was, in the words of R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance , co-editors of the recently published The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz (University of Texas Press), a “man of many cinemas, not just one, and his achievements were marked by substantial differences rather than recognizable similarities or signatures. He was the very best of the flexible, multitalented metteurs en scène upon whom the industry depended for its continuing success.”

A brief survey of the 166 films he directed in his lifetime – which include the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935), classic dramas like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), and musicals such as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and White Christmas (1954) – could only offer a minute smattering of the mind boggling horde of hovering spectacles all made by the same person, Michael Curtiz, né Mihály Kertész, 1886-1962. He made movie magic with everyone from Boris Karloff to Elvis Presley, from Ingrid Bergman to Joan Crawford, from Errol Flynn to John Wayne (in
The Commancheros, his final postmodern Western from 1961). He could literally direct anything, often making four or five films in the same year, unlike the whiners of today’s Hollywood, who appear to need a long vacation after shooting one simple scene. Curtiz took us behind the mirror and outside of our everyday lives: the essence of what makes any film so captivating. And he demonstrated the nearly mystical quality of that brilliant darkness that communicates a complex narrative to an audience, solely in the optical language of images.

Every film ever made, by its very nature as an unreal montaged evocation of life in sequential images, is somewhat inherently surrealist in nature, and this fact is never more clear than in the amazing productions of the golden classical age of the Hollywood studio system (roughly 1920-1965). This marvelous book explores these many filmed polarities of life and death, as well as the cinematic dualities of waking and dreaming, through the strange affinity that spookily exists between those uncanny effigies, “the movies,” and the artistic disruptions of aesthetic representation in certain cinematic studio traditions. Indeed, the cinema, as a form of realistic replication for life itself, is already embedded with a strong strain of the uncanny: familiar yet unfamiliar realms where reality and surreality first merge and then disappear into one another before our very eyes.


Curtiz in contemplation mode, in between scenes.
Films are, oddly enough, a kind of living wax museum. The image of the wax museum, especially as portrayed by Hollywood masters such as Michael Curtiz, looms large in visual cultural history. As both a source of macabre spectacle and educational entertainment, the image of a site which copies life (as the wax museum and cinema both do to a certain extent) and the exotic notion of the cinematic uncanny sheds new light on how film negotiates the development of unsettling new genres of representation. This is especially so in the case of a master craftsman such as Curtiz, who emigrated to Hollywood via first Hungary and then Austria, and grabbed the studio system by the collar to make it do his bidding. He managed this feat by being super-organized, disciplined, cost effective and commercially insightful, all at the same time as he was phenomenally gifted as a visual artist and storyteller using the ever-evolving technology of his age.

The cinematic image is deeply wedded to the living human body in motion, but it is also haunted by stillness and death, as exemplified so clearly by the eclectic Curtiz films examined in this excellent book (which, in addition to editors Palmer and Pomerance, features insightful essays by twenty other critics and historians). Curtiz, while still Kertész, had already made about seventy-five films, mostly silent, in both Hungary and Austria, before arriving to embrace and enhance the classic American dream.

His first was Noah’s Ark (1928), a partially talking picture that was much better than the sappier and offensive Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer, and his last was The Comancheros (1961), a hard-to-describe gritty vehicle for an ultra-American hero.

In between these two borderlines, as this book documents so well in the perfectly titled Many Cinemas of, he captured the American imagination with a combination of artistic sensitivity and business-like efficiency, showing an ability to master the mass production techniques of pure industrial splendour in the delivery of his often excellent products. Even a poorly received Curtiz production, meaning one that didn’t bring in enough money for the erstwhile Jack Warner studio, was still an exceptionally well-made work of cinematic art.

Lionel Atwill in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).

As Pomerance notes:“Technically proficient and with a flair for effective dramatizing, the hard driving Curtiz perfectly suited the studio’s not easily reconciled needs for efficient, rapidly production and palpable aesthetic value. Curtiz had learned how to quickly make films that were both inexpensive, under budget, on time and good. In the course of the 1930s, he turned out forty-five features for the studio in an impressive demonstration of energy and competence that was not matched by any of his contemporaries.”

And after all, I am claiming in this appreciation of his prowess, how could could anyone match him? He made The Adventures of Robin Hood brilliantly as well as Angels with Dirty Faces (both in the same year,1938); he made Flamingo Road as well as Young Man with a Horn (both in the same year, 1949); and he made Breath of Scandal as well as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both in the same year, 1960.) So you can see why I applaud his agile navigation of something I can only call multi-phrenia.

The study of early film history is replete with depictions of the cinema as itself an uncanny medium, a silent (and later sound-filled) domain of light and shadows, of ghosts that appeared to be on the verge of coming to life. To this day, cinema, even of the most conventional sort, remains an unsettling experience at some deep unconscious level – one which "entertainment" often distracts us from.

This is all the more the case when the films in question take as their starting point the experience of the uncanny as their primary subject matter: as per cinema’s mechanics and its uncanny photographic illusion of real life. The real and the fabricated are interwoven so tightly that the “movie” itself, especially any Curtiz movie, becomes something like a hall of mirrors, in which the real is lost in a play of poetic illusions. Call it the art of forgetting that we’re watching something instead of experiencing it ourselves.


Casablanca, 1942.

One of the best examples of the fact that movies are magic mirrors, and the Curtiz movies are visually splendid revelations by an exemplary magician, is the uncanny fact that whenever we so dutifully follow the emotional vagaries of doomed lovers such as Bogart and Bergman on their way to that airport, we totally forget that someone else was always there with them. That gifted and mercurial man with the strong Hungarian accent standing quietly behind the camera. The camera we never realized was even there at all.

Thus, using a movie theatre as a space for reflecting on the wax museum’s complex illusion of life (as Curtiz did so masterfully in 1933 in The Mystery of the Wax Museum, one of the first films I ever watched breathlessly on black and white television as a kid) becomes a complicated game of intersecting perceptions. It is a game of highly participatory impulses, appetites and expectations, in which the viewers are compelled to experience emotions despite the fact that they know them to be entirely fabricated representations. We enter into the film, especially if it's by Curtiz, rather than merely remain outside it as spectators.

As Colin Williamson put it so astutely in his assessment of the many cinemas of Michael Curtiz, and through his exploration of the strangely diverse scale of his dizzyingly diverse works, “This mystery will be conjured again when the cinema intersects with interactive virtual reality technologies that promise to renew how we think about the nature of moving images. We might say that the waxworks museum haunts the cinema in the same way that the corpse haunts the waxworks. That is, as a reminder of the cinema’s endurance as an uncanny medium.”


A scene from A víg özvegy (Mihály Kertész, 1920); The Wanderer, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

An additional reminder of both photography and cinema’s crucial and culminating role in the history of art, especially for a visual art critic and curator such as myself, is a simple comparison between a frame from one of Curtiz’s early silent films and one of European art’s signature paintings, and perhaps the ultimate form of silent film. Both Curtiz/Kertész and Caspar Friedrich share the same solitary romanticism in their delivery of a salient and deeply moving human image. The only difference is that Friedrich crafted his icon alone in his studio, while Kertész crafted his in a studio with a hundred technicians, cast, editors, lighting crews and musicians hovering around waiting for his shouted instructions.


Many images culled from any Curtiz film you might choose are also iconic indicators of the steady flowing continuum from the formal art history of painting through to the popular entertainment industry of its apotheosis in cinema. Two in particular, silent frames from his first American feature Noah’s Ark, are so striking in their painterly composition style that they could easily be imagined appearing on canvas somewhere in the Renaissance (the first Renaissance, that is, that startling self-advertising campaign paid for by the Medici Family, with the second Renaissance of art occurring, in my opinion, subsequent to the Lumière brothers almost at the turn of the 20th century, and with their exploration of the moving image, ricocheting rapidly right up to today’s digital realm).


Scenes from Noah's Ark  (1928)

The same painted-image link is true in Curtiz’s last film, Comancheros, a classic Ford-like Western with Wayne and Lee Marvin reprising an often told narrative motif, but with many Curtiz images of nearly supernatural beauty and economical elegance. By this time, in 1961, the boldly innovative Hungarian émigré had become even more American himself than the average Yankee citizen. Maybe largely because he designed, fabricated, manufactured and sold all of us some aspects of the American dream which he must have first found so inviting upon his expulsion from a disintegrating Europe.

The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz goes a long way to explaining and clarifying how and why the uncanny medium of cinema makes it a fair claim that filmmakers such as Michael Curtiz were actually painters with light and sound. It’s just that their paintings spoke and moved like living things, because that’s what they were: darkly shining reflections from behind the mirror.

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 Pacific Cinematheque. His most recent work is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in November 2018.

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