Friday, July 25, 2014

From my archives: 'Hell's Hinges'

(A recent discussion about great Westerns led me to republish this piece. This essay originally appeared in Senses of Cinema in July, 2005.)

Hell’s Hinges 
(1916 USA 64 mins)
Prod Co: Kay-Bee Pictures/New York Motion Picture Corporation/Triangle Film Corporation 
Prod: Thomas H. Ince 
Dir: Charles Swickard (William S. Hart, Clifford Smith) 
Scr: C. Gardner Sullivan 
Phot: Joseph H. August
Cast: William S. Hart, Clara Williams, Jack Standing, Alfred Hollingsworth, Robert McKim, J. Frank Burke, Louise Glaum
It seems highly unlikely today that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation (1).
However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.
Hell’s Hinges is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcend its most egregious clich├ęs. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.
Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family travelled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.
Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.
Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he made his name as the original Messala in the first theatrical version of Ben-Hur.
Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a production of The Squaw Man. From then on, “audiences… associated him with cowboy characters” (2).
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful!… I was an actor and I knew the West…. The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.” (3)Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.
By the time Hell’s Hinges was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films, and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system (4).
Given his head (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been best known for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to the as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.
Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through his incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably John Wayne.



Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either cat’s-paws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In Hell’s Hinges, the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.
The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. Hell’s Hinges opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterised in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth”.



His superiors seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God”. This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real”, elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasises briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)
Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him (5).) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasises the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.
As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterised with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.
Hart is Miller’s confederate Blaze Tracey, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)
Tracey’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracey’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracey has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.
Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each others’ territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade”, hold their first service – until Tracey forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracey, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the film is an angled shot of Tracey marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)
The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracey’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.
A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.
The final sequence is undoubtedly what propelled the film to eventual inclusion on America’s prestigious National Film Registry in 1994. “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand”, Tracey, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) and returns to settle the score.



His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracey becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel”, a popular 19th century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity”, which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.
Rivetingly, Tracey backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”). Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracey then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s Unforgiven.
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell” (6), as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.

No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially cited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes (7), but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably be credited to Colorado-born photographer Joseph H. August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as The Informer (John Ford, 1935),The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939, William Dieterle, starring Charles Laughton), and Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939) (8). The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night”, although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.
At film’s end, Tracey takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion… or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

Endnotes

  1. Andrew Brodie Smith, Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent Western Films, American Culture, and the Birth of Hollywood, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2003, p. 183. 
  2. Smith, p. 160. 
  3. William Surrey Hart, My Life East and West, B. Blom, New York, 1968 (reprint of 1929 ed., Houghton, Mifflin, Boston), pp. 198-199. 
  4. Diane Kaiser Koszarski, The Complete Films of William S. Hart: A Pictorial Record, Dover Publications, New York, 1980, p. xv. 
  5. Ronald L. Davis, William S. Hart: Projecting the American West, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2003, passim. 
  6. George N. Fenin and William K. Everson, The Western, from the Silents to the Seventies, Grossman, New York, 1973, p. 91. 
  7. Kevin Brownlow, The War, the West and the Wilderness, Knopf, New York, 1978, p. 270. 
  8. Robert S. Birchard, “The Founding Fathers”, The American Society of Cinematographers Web Site, 2004. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

‘Fight Church’ review: in the name of the father?

By BRAD WEISMANN

Fight Church
2014, 84 min.
Dir: Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel
Scr: N/A
Phot: Daniel Junge, J.R. Kraus, David Williams Lamb, Bryan Storkel
Ed: Bryan Storkel

"Can you love your neighbor as yourself and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?"

The first law of journalism is never to ask a question that you don’t think you know the answer to. In the you-can’t-make-this-kind-of-stuff-up new feature documentary “Fight Church,” the answer is seemingly, “Almost invariably, yes.”


The topic is the all-too-real recent upsurge of evangelical Christian churches and ministries that feature mixed-martial-arts clubs and training programs for young men (and a few hardy young women), and the stepping of young and enthusiastic pastors into the ring – in this case, cage. The stated impulse behind this intersection of sport combat and spirituality is to teach Christian qualities such as courage, endurance, the ability to bear pain, and the like – as well as the ever-present opportunity to witness and recruit for Christ in the seemingly unsavory arenas and auditoriums where audiences cry out for blood.

However, co-directors Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel don’t take the easy path of condescendingly condemning or poking fun at the men behind this trend. More disturbingly, they take a handful of subjects and take them seriously, follow them open-mindedly, let them express themselves fully, and let the camera record emotional subtleties and contradictions that alternately undermine and bolster their assertions.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re not in favor of it, as the co-directors’ in-person comments at a recent screening at the Sie Film Center in Denver, under the auspices of the Denver Film Society, recently proved. But, like all good observational, non-advocacy documentarians, they do a pretty good job of living up to the well-known Christly admonition, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

The protagonists whose stories we follow include Paul Burress of Rochester, NY; Preston Hocker of Norfolk, VA; John Renken of Clarksville, TN; Nahshon Nicks of Jacksonville, FL; and Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan of Houston. All these men talk openly about dedication to their faith and its relation to their enthusiasm for MMA fighting, and there is much dialogue about ensuring that the message that Jesus is for men, not just women and children, and concern about the “feminization” of the culture, that a warrior ethos might serve as a corrective.

However, a subtext that audiences pick up on and the directors say they keyed into as the editing progressed is the theme of fathers and sons, the need to prove oneself to an expectant/demanding father, or to compensate for a lack of one. The constant urge to man up, the mantra that “Jesus never gave up, never ‘tapped out’” resonates as we see these guys train, struggle, lose, or win. The sense of identity this discipline instills is palpable, and so is the camaraderie of the training room, gym, and arena. Why are men compelled to be tough? Why is conflict the accepted route to self-esteem? “Fight Church” doesn’t tell us, but it shows us.

As the film progresses, we see Renken rant, watch Hocker and Nicks clash, “pastor vs. pastor”; witness Sullivan reject the sport as inconsistent with his Christian values. We meet the other side of the MMA debate in the form of an eloquent priest and a recalcitrant New York legislator. We see the ambiguity and concern, not triumph, on Nicks’ face after a victory. And we see Burress’ validation and redemption after he overcomes his wife’s concerns and steps back under the bright lights, facing an opponent head-on.

In other words, “Fight Church” gives us no easy out and refuses to make up our minds for us. Good job! If I would have any caveats, it would be on two points. First, it seems that all matches and press opportunities include women in blatantly scanty attire, which no one on or behind the camera questions – a telling point in and of itself. Camouflage bikinis? That’s probably a documentary all by itself.

Secondly, the directors acknowledged that presentations of the fights themselves were extended via multiple camera angles, slo-mo, and editing to make them more intense and seemingly longer. “When the fights are 43 seconds long, you have to do something,” Storkel stated. Additionally, both Junge and Storkel discussed the extensive “punching up” (no pun intended) of sound effects that sound designer Lawrence Everson added to the fights, describing it as the most augmentation they’d had to do yet on a film.

I wonder what kind of perspective seeing the raw footage, brief and less concussive, might have brought to the story. If the narrative demands dictate that the actual action of “Fight Church” be blown up into more steroidal dimensions, what does THAT say about the culture’s inescapable need to cast our macho impulses into a heroic light – whether it’s appropriate or not?

"Fight Church" is set for release on Netflix in October.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

FORMATIVE FILM II: ‘THE TOY THAT GREW UP’ AND JANUS FILM ON PBS

An autobiography in film; some personal milestones and revelations, for better and/or worse, in relation to movies I’ve seen.

By BRAD WEISMANN

My fascination and its focus intersected gloriously.

How fortunate was it? When I became interested in films I was exposed to some of its greatest and most challenging achievements first, in scope of time and geography most broad, in quality the finest. And of course, it all happened through our crappy little black-and-white television set.

As you will probably figure out as we go along, I had absolutely no aesthetic supervision growing up. I saw, read, and listened to material way out of my age range. Thank goodness. In contrast to the cinematic junk food I was dragged to as a little kid (see Part I of this series,“Disney’s Trilogy of Trauma”), and the more sufferable Disney fare I sought out such as “The Sword in the Stone,” along with any and every James Bond movie, overblown historical epic (Charlton Heston as Moses, Charlton Heston as El Cid, Charlton Heston as Ben Hur, Charlton Heston as Michelangelo . . .), war movie (seal of approval: anything derived from Alistair MacLean), sci-fi flick (anything would do, but hello again, Charlton! The Heston Trilogy of Doom: “Planet of the Apes,” “The Omega Man,” and “Soylent Green”), along with the last-gasp entries of the second great musical-film era (“West Side Story” through “Hello, Dolly!”), there was other film fare that I couldn’t resist.

"Broadsword calling Danny Boy . . . "
Early public television in America was notoriously short of material. Boring local for-credit history shows alternated with bad documentaries, primitive children’s programming, and reruns of older, quality material. (BBC imports such as the original adaptation of “The Forsythe Saga,” and “The First Churchills,” both of which entranced me, didn’t hit our airwaves until 1970, developing slowly into the “Masterpiece Theatre” pipeline of highbrow cultural fare for Anglophile Yanks.)

But here and these were astonishments, always in the form of films. First there was “The Toy That Grew Up,” a show created curated by Robert C. Seipp and broadcast out of WTTW in Chicago from 1962 to 1972. Seipp collected and gained the necessary clearances in order to show uncut, best-version-available, mostly American silent films. He enlisted cinema organist Hal Pearl to do accompaniments, and stalwart WTTW announcer Don Ferris hosted.

Hal Pearl
WTTW's Don Ferris.
I am still searching for log information on this show, but it appears that more than 100 films unspooled during the life of the show. In contrast to the busy, full-color complexity compositional and sequencing levels of theatrical films, and the flatly lit, square affect of TV programs, the simple, streamlined, and more painterly silent-film compositions and narrative lines were a wonder.

Silent film was, by virtue of its limitations, a global art form, and the necessity that it make itself understood by any pair of eyes made it immensely powerful. A young film lover couldn’t do better than learn the grammar and syntax of cinema than soak the work up, which I at precisely the right time. It’s all there: how to tell a story, how to delineate character swiftly, how to engage and maintain attention, how to evoke emotion, how to build tension and narrative arc -- how to create meaning in time and space.

I was immediately struck by Chaplin, of course, but even more so by Keaton. “The General” astonished me, its comic geometry always so perfectly balanced.
The deliberate audacities of Laurel and Hardy, the domestic insanities that Charley Chase endured, even the primitive, vaguely frightening, grotesque rampages of the Keystone gang all made a deep impression on me. There was the grim, haunted face of William S. Hart in “Hell’s Hinges” and the more light-hearted cowboy adventures of Tom Mix and Ken Maynard.

Lon Chaney’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame” were there, as were the Gish sisters in “Orphans of the Storm,” Douglas Fairbanks in “The Mark of Zorro,” and even “serious” stuff such as “The Big Parade” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” The power they possessed pushed me on to seek out and view all the silent film I could, a quest that continues and still reaps benefits.

Then there were the Janus films, the blessed, blessed Janus films. I can’t remember under what moniker these gems screened under, “Cinema Classics” or some such generic title, but I remember sitting crouched at the TV screen in the kitchen, my mother smoking beside me, as these fantastic things just rolled out at me. “The Toy That Grew Up” primed the pump; the next stage blew my mind.

What riches! Here I found my first foreign-film director heroes: Renoir, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Cocteau, Lang, Wajda, Ichikawa. Here are some of the most vivid snatches that leap out at me, branded onto my cortex:

The Battle on the Ice from “Alexander Nevsky”


Cherkasov’s profile, contrasted against the winding line of approaching supplicants in “Ivan the Terrible Part I”


 The sickening heartbreak of the ending of “Jules and Jim”


 Richard III’s evil, hypnotic charm, delivered by Laurence Olivier


Block looking into the face of the woman condemned to burn in “The Seventh Seal”


The climax of “Fires on the Plain”


 Harry Lime in the sewers in “The Third Man”


The smash cut from a woman’s discovery of a body to a train leaving a tunnel in “The 39 Steps”


Machiko Kyo’s unnerving portrayal of Lady Wasaka in “Ugetsu”



Emil Jannings’ insane crowings in “The Blue Angel”


 Magwitch’s revelation in Lean’s “Great Expectations”


 Cesare’s mission in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”


The dog with the severed hand in “Yojimbo”


 The passage to the other world in “Orpheus”


Mizushima’s farewell in “The Burmese Harp”


The digging of the canal in “Our Daily Bread”



How could I not love, and continue to love, these films? Films that still show me something new every time I see them, dozens upon dozens of screenings later?

“M”


Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”


“The Red Shoes”


“Kanal”


“Grand Illusion”


“Metropolis”


“Shoot the Piano Player”


“Children of Paradise”


“The Seven Samurai”


I didn’t know it at the time, but this huge chunk of art was going to spread shoots, connecting me to all other disciplines, deepening and broadening my roots, keeping me strong in the face of the chaos and disappointment of my waking life.


Beyond that, it taught me the importance of keeping these in the public mind. I caught a big break. I got the exposure I needed when I needed it, and it changed my life.

How can we keep this chain of love and witness called cinema alive? Where can kids today get a chance to see what I saw? As with all other art forms, we must focus on continuing to make them available to all, illuminating these frames with whatever candlelight we can summon.

Anything I can do to share these marvels and memories, to teach the history and aesthetics and craft of these arts, I will do. Today, this story is one way to do it.