Monday, April 05, 2010

JOSEPH LOSEY: PICTURES OF PROVOCATION—A Few Evening Class Questions for Brecht Andersch

Like ships passing in the night, Brecht Andersch and I literally met on the BART train on our way home from a PFA screening, introduced by our mutual friend Brian Darr. His essay "Venus In and Out of Furs: Joseph Losey's Eve and Accident" for SFMOMA's Open Space convinced me to catch those two films in PFA's retrospective Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation, currently running through April 16.

Though a Bay Area native, Andersch—a filmmaker and on-call AV Technician at SFMOMA—co-founded the
Austin Film Society in 1986 with Richard Linklater, Lee Daniel, and George Morris, gaining a great deal of his film education from Morris, who had spent 10-or-so years as an Auteurist film critic in New York (roughly covering the 70's), before returning to Texas. Already an Auteurist before meeting Morris, Andersch's understanding of film history, aesthetics, and ethics advanced under Morris's guidance. Morris died of AIDS in 1989, but his presence continues to inform both Andersch's film sensibility, and his writing style when—as he puts it—"I write well."

Currently serving as Board Chair of the Bay Area-based Film on Film Foundation—whose mission is to encourage the appreciation of projected celluloid motion picture film as central to the cinematic experience—Andersch has curated the on-going FOFF series "Radical Strategies" since May 2007, including rare screenings of Jean-Isidore Isou's Traité de Bave et d'Èternité (Venom and Eternity, 1951), Yoshishige Yoshida's Eros Plus Massacre (1969), and Joseph Losey's Accident (1967). He also spent much of 2009 writing the weekly column "Highly Recommended!", focusing on the Bay Area repertory film scene, for the Film on Film website.

Further credits include his role as the "Dostoyevsky wannabee" in Richard Linklater's
Slacker (1991). His interview with Stan Brakhage will appear in A History of the Avant Garde Moving Image in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2005, to be published by University of California Press later this year. Andersch is currently editing two films: a low-budget feature, and a lyrical experimental work in the Brakhage/Baillie mode, both photographed in 16mm black & white. I'm grateful for the time Brecht has taken to generously respond to my inquiries.

* * *

Michael Guillén: How did you come to appreciate the work of Joseph Losey?

Brecht Andersch: I saw my first Losey film,
The Servant (1963), as a 15-year-old. I'd recently purchased my first issue of Film Comment (Nov/Dec '81), which had an article by Raymond Durgnat entitled "Skin Games", dealing with The Servant briefly, along with other films. Although I found it mystifying, I was very taken with it, and Losey's been on my radar ever since. Over the years, I've been able to see almost all his films, whether in the form of fantastic 35mm prints or poor, bootlegged videos. The ones I especially like, I've been diligent in watching repeatedly.

I'm deeply interested in many filmmakers, but I certainly consider Losey in the top echelon. Until the mid 80's, when he died, he was generally considered one of the world's major directors. Since then, there's been a reversal of fortune in critical opinion, and his Hollywood films have been getting much more attention than his later European Art-House output. I love films from throughout his body of work, don't value one period over another (although his late period definitely wasn't the best), and find the arc of his career highly exciting—there have been European filmmakers widely seen as artists who've gone to Hollywood and had successful careers; but, as far as I know, Losey's the only Hollywood filmmaker to reach the heights of European Art Film culture, where he was widely seen as a major figure.

Guillén: In my earlier conversation with Peter Conheim on the PFA Losey retrospective, though recognizing "recurrent themes" that run throughout Losey's work, Conheim appeared reluctant to categorize him as an "auteur". Do you see Losey as an auteur?

Andersch: Peter's definition of the term is very American, coming from an underground, experimental film, and Punk DIY sensibility. But "auteur" is a French word and concept, and I think you have to understand it from its original Cahiers du Cinéma context. The idea was cognizant of, and held up as an ideal, the total mastery and control of a Hitchcock (who to a large extent embodied the practice of Alexandre Astruc's "camera-stylo"—camera pen—conceptualization), but really was applied to all directors who were able to impress their personalities on a film (or—to think of this process as more gentle and humane—to imbue their films with their sensibilities).

One of, perhaps the defining auteur was Nicholas Ray, of whom Godard famously said "Nicholas Ray is cinema". Ray, to some extent, chose his projects, had a hand in writing their scripts (certainly influencing them, or having them re-written by others if he couldn't get what he needed from the original scriptwriter, or re-writing them himself, all this often amidst production), and did the usual work of a director: all the aesthetical production decisions, creating shots, guiding actors in their performances, planning how cuts would work in the editing, and influencing how they actually came out. He never had complete control over his work or career, however, and lasted as a creative artist in full control of his abilities for only roughly a dozen years. By the standard of Ray, Losey was very much the auteur. His films are every bit as impressed with his personality as Ray's, and he was able to get much more control over both individual films (or at least many of them), and his career. Roughly the same age (and of course coming from the same town, LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where they knew each other, having gone to the same high school, and then were later friends and associates in the New York leftist theater scene), they started filmmaking pretty much at the same time. Losey's career lasted much longer, however—over 30 years. He had his best decade, the 60's (winning big prizes at Cannes, etc.), at a point when Ray was dropping out (he stayed out for a decade before resurrecting as a semi-underground icon). So in my opinion, Losey was about as "auteur" as you can get.

To the culture which developed the auteur concept, that is, French cinephilia, Losey was definitely the auteur, or at least he was to a major segment from at least the early 60's. He was a key figure to the MacMahonites, who were also rabid fans of Robert Aldrich, among others. A lot of why he has become ignored in English-speaking cinema culture is wrapped up in his becoming the key figure for 10 or more years in English cinema. The English have a unique talent for lopping off the heads of those who let their brilliance shine all-too-clearly. Look at Michael Powell.

There's also a distrust in Anglo-Saxon culture (obviously including us) to emotionalism, especially by men. The French, on the other hand, love this kind of stuff. Think about New Wave films like Pierrot le Fou, Shoot the Piano Player, or all of Jacques Demy, for example. If these had been made by Americans or Britons, they would have been skewered by the English-language press (not that they were too popular as it was, but I think you get what I'm saying).

This relates to, as Losey might have put it himself, the whole hetero/homo/bi-sexual issue. There's a whole lot to say about this, but let me cut to the chase and say that Losey, who presented himself as a heterosexual who acknowledged homosexual feelings, has never been a figure who's made broad swathes of Anglo-American cinephiles and critics comfortable. You can imagine all the eye-rolling greeting Stanley Baker's exit from the bar in the opening scene in Eve, for example.

At any rate, Losey saw himself as very much the auteur. He was both biting and generous with credit towards his collaborators, but he never saw himself as a hired hand or cog, and constantly sought to exert himself as an artist, and someone who was seen as an artist (another factor which made him few friends in the non-French world).

Guillén: Your comment about cultural attitudes towards masculine self-laceration is fascinating. Since you seem to know a lot about Losey, is there some reason why this theme (which you insinuate as auteurial) is so important to him? I've heard some indication that he had mother issues? Is this vision of women as toxic six degrees away from being misogynistic?

Andersch: I discussed the issues re. his mother and father in the last section of my article, and think this dynamic, as explored in David Caute's biography Joseph Losey: A Revenge On Life (which, by the way, I have very mixed feelings about), pretty much provided the template for his relations with, and feelings towards women. He deals frequently—and especially in both Eve and Accident—with an area not often explored in narrative art: masochistic feelings by heterosexual men towards women. Some great filmmakers and writers have dealt with this, but not often. Josef von Sternberg is the most obvious major figure to delve into this extensively, and maybe his The Devil Is A Woman (1935) is the great masterpiece along these lines. Von Sternberg's film is adapted from a terrific Pierre Louÿs 1898 novel, La Femme et le pantin (The Woman and The Puppet), later adapted as Luis Buñuel's last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Both films treat the man's feelings satirically, ritualistically. There is clear masochistic pleasure taken in the ironies of his situation. Both, however, hint at a feeling plunged into by Losey in Eve and Accident: resentment at women for the power they have within the man's internal psychology. I don't know of any culture which has any love to spare for the straight male who abdicates, or can't inhabit sexual self-assurance, or is prone to open emotionalism (although maybe the French go the furthest). This just really isn't in the normal paradigm of what's considered sexy, so unless you're an out-and-out masochist, as a heterosexual male artist you aren't going to deal with this stuff openly. Of course, large numbers of straight men (no doubt probably the vast majority) want a heterosexual version of what some gay men get to have: much sex with many partners. Few get this opportunity, and usually only by those of great fame and wealth. This is a natural source of resentment.

I don't think Losey saw women as toxic, so much as tantalizing. Being tantalized without satisfaction for those not so masochistic is torturous. The issue of misogyny is often brought up in connection to these kinds of feelings when they're revealed. Personally, I've never understood this label. Is having an emotional issue of some kind with women equivalent to hatred? There are very few men and women who don't have issues with the opposite sex, and perhaps just as few who don't have related issues to their own. I think the world Losey portrays—in my opinion quite accurately—is a sexual battleground in which men and women are in natural conflict with each other for what they desire, and are at the same time in conflict with members of their own sex in achieving their ends.

Towards the beginning of his oeuvre, Losey blames hierarchical, Capitalist society for this situation, and indicates false consciousness as the root of the problem, the factor which keeps us enslaved. This take is best exemplified by The Prowler. As he goes along, Losey observes class dynamics at play, but is less fixed on the idea that they can be addressed via individual or collective enlightenment. By Eve and Accident, he seems to arrive at the sex war situation being archetypal, ingrained into the structures of our psyches. Eve begins and ends with references to Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise (there are numerous citations of this throughout the film, actually)—since eating from the tree of knowledge, man and woman are condemned to pain, struggle, disharmony. By Accident, Losey seems to no longer be protesting this situation, but merely observing it, as indicated by Sassard's departure with the Kali figurine. She's played her innocent role, leaving the lives of all involved in disarray (or in York's case, brought to an end). Bogarde rejoins his family in their home as the sound of the accident plays on the soundtrack. It will be a lingering reminder of a irrevocably disordered world for a long time to come.

I believe you've an interest in Jungian psychology? I don't know of Losey ever mentioning Jung, but I'm sure he would have read him. He kept up with the intellectual developments of his time. Whether he liked him, I can't say, but, as a Jungian myself, I apply ideas from Jung in thinking about Losey. The male artist with obvious resentment towards women has an overpowering anima which seeks expression via his work. Losey tried to present himself as highly rationalistic, but he seeped (mostly understandable) bitterness and resentment from his pores. He tried for many years to ascribe his emotional issues to problems in the set-up of society, but I think the reality is he had a highly feminine aspect to his nature which he tried to suppress but couldn't, leading to the leakage. The heterosexual male artist must deal with this issue—must come to terms with his feminine, feeling aspect—or he'll come apart at the seams. The anima will lead you to where you need to go, you just have to follow, pursue. Losey did follow, and by his fifties or so reached a certain emotional equilibrium after The Servant and its success, but it was a rough ride. As shown by Eve, he had a giant-sized anima; an anima to rule the world.

In Losey's actual relations with woman (as well as non-sexual ones with men), he always tried to dominate. If he could, he would, so I'm not saying anything simplistic regarding his psychology, like he was a simple sexual masochist; although maybe he was, I don't know.

Losey made it very clear in his interview book with
Michel Ciment (Conversations With Losey, 1985) that he found Eve's feminine wiles (and those of his other female characters) an adaptive way of gaining power, and he thought them right to employ these. As his work proceeded, however, there was less and less internal evidence that he thought there was a way out of this paradigm. He's relatively harsh in his judgment of Tyvian (as opposed to Eve), but this strikes me as a little reflexively PC, less connected to his direct feelings as a man than his utopian yearnings. He tried to incorporate a Feminist critical sensibility into his work, but was often criticized as being a chauvinist himself.

Guillén: Associated with the Hollywood Left and forced into exile in Britain to flee the HUAC inquisition, how valid do you think the HUAC's concerns of Losey's leftist leanings were? It might seem like a moot point today, but how much do you think his politics influenced his art? Was there any tell-tale evidence? Especially with regard to his examination of the power structures inifluencing gender and class?

Andersch: I think HUAC could have had reasons to be concerned, because—if some of the info in Caute's biography is correct—Losey could have served as a courier for the
CPUSA; a role which could even be described as a low-level spy. (I want to make it clear, however, I'm—retroactively—totally against HUAC, nor would I condemn any of Losey's political actions, or blame him for his unfortunate delusions regarding Stalin, the Soviet Union, etc. Perhaps I can add more to this topic later.) I think his American film, and to a certain extent all of his films are informed by his Marxism, especially by a Marxian analysis of class and false consciousness. I don't think HUAC had any reason to be concerned regarding the content of Losey's films. Losey was too much of an artist to be in any way a propagandist, and—while he tried to enlighten people, or at least to raise their consciousnesses regarding their social conditions (or, as in The Lawless, that of minorities)—his films weren't going to drive anybody out into the streets to search out Molotov cocktails.

Losey is a fascinating case study of an American Stalinist who lived in a state of self-willed delusion. Through the Ciment book, he left a pretty detailed record of his intellectual development and the evolution of his world-view. By this book you can see how he really believed, and was able to force from consciousness all doubts regarding Stalin, and the mass-murder Stalin was perpetrating in the Soviet Union. Losey was a man of deep perception in any environment he actually was immersed in, but he could invest faith in the Soviet Union because of its distance. This is an interesting inversion to the paradigm we, as Americans, encounter more frequently: those who are able to ignore, or force from consciouness, or excuse injustices right under their noses (or which are caused in other countries directly by the actions of our own) because they've heard that it's much worse elsewhere. However Losey deluded himself about the "elsewhere", he was pretty clear about the insanity of the society right in front of him.

Losey, as an outsider in Britain, was very psychically impacted by the British class system, and this registered very deeply within his work, which dealt with this theme very incisively and much more frankly on a regular basis than just about any British filmmaker has ever done. I think this contributed to the resentment against him, much of which was unconscious. His brazen foregrounding of style was another. It was very un-English, especially at that time. Even many of the best English critics didn't get him. Unless I'm much mistaken, he wasn't very popular amongst the MOVIE critics, for example (certainly the greatest collective of film critics in the English language of that generational cohort). V.F. Perkins for example, in his largely brilliant book Film As Film extols the virtues of Richard Brooks, while using examples from Losey as how one shouldn't make a film! Losey's manner was just too jaunty, too overt, too aesthetically oriented towards the exquisite and, simultaneously, too Brechtian.

Cross-published on


Peter Nellhaus said...

Some very interesting observations about Losey. Too many of his films are still hard to see nowadays. On a related note, I was acquainted with George Morris back when I lived in NYC.

Maya said...

Ah, six degrees of separation, eh?

Brian said...

Six sounds like an overstatement here; seems more like two to me!

So glad you got Brecht's thoughts down on Losey in this manner, Michael! He is an underutilized Bay Area resource!

Maya said...

I agree. I'm been much impressed with the ideas we've been sharing. He and Peter Conheim both.