Thursday, April 01, 2010

JOSEPH LOSEY: PICTURES OF PROVOCATION—A Few Evening Class Questions For Peter Conheim

My first conscious exposure to the films of Joseph Losey was with regard to the Film Noir Foundation's successful efforts to strike a restored print of Losey's 1951 eerie noir The Prowler. I say "conscious" because—though I had seen The Boy With Green Hair (1948), M (1951), The Servant (1963), and Boom! (1968)—I didn't connect the author to his work. And isn't that an oddity? That a director's auteurial legibility evades ready identification? That grievous oversight is currently being corrected by Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation, co-curated by Steve Seid and Peter Conheim, screening at the Pacific Film Archive through April 16 (when the series ends with The Prowler). As different as Losey's films are from each other, this series has intelligently culled out their connective tissue and common concerns.

Reinvigorated commentary on The Prowler has surfaced in association, no doubt, with its recent Film Forum revival. At The L Magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz offers a video essay on The Prowler (transcript here) and Justin Stewart reviews same. At The Auteurs, Daniel Kasman identifies The Prowler's ill-fated lovers—Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) and Webb Gardner (Van Heflin)—as "ciphers" ("you can't call them characters"). While at The Village Voice, J. Hoberman credits Losey's "sordid nocturne" as "the creepiest of film noirs."

Also of note is
Brecht Andersch's analysis for SFMOMA's Open Space of Losey's Eve (1962) and Accident (1967), which proved instrumental in my catching both films at their PFA screenings, if only to honor the goddess Venus in and out of furs. Pre-empted by covering the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I'm only now joining the Losey retrospective in process, with hopes of catching the bulk of the program's second half in the next couple of weeks.

The PFA screening for Eve was introduced by co-curator Peter Conheim who—along with Steve Seid—organized the 15 films plus for the Losey retrospective, as well as writing the program capsules for The Big Night (1951), The Sleeping Tiger (1954), Time Without Pity (1957), Blind Date (1959), King and Country (1966) and The Prowler (1951). Long-time friends Seid and Conheim collaborated earlier on Value-Added Cinema—their scathing indictment of product placement in film—a sampling of which can be found here. Conheim is also a member of the experimental music group Negativland. He is also the co-founder of the band Mono Pause and has played in other groups such as Wet Gate and Neung Phak, as well as in his solo project under the alias The Jet Black Hair People.

Peter was kind enough to respond to a few email questions.

* * *

Michael Guillén: To start with, let's get some background. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your education and how you came to collaborate on PFA's Losey retrospective? How did you and Steve work together to shape this program? Did you divvy up films and, thereby, the research? Was this program affiliated in any way with the recent Film Forum Losey retrospective? In other words, is this a traveling program you and Steve expanded upon? Or did the two of you work from scratch?

Peter Conheim: I'm pretty much a life-long film buff who used to write capsule reviews—complete with one-to-four-star ratings, a system I now despise—when I was about eight years old. My film education has come mainly from mentors at the shops and institutions I worked at in my youth, mostly independent video stores, now deceased.

From 2004-2009 I co-owned and operated a small cinema in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the
Guild Cinema. My former business partner has continued to run it. And when I left the theater, I began looking in earnest for ways to apply the various arcane knowledge I've been storing up, and those ways have generally been as an independent curator and film collector, and ersatz preservationist. I'm currently working mostly in the latter arena and hope to produce some restoration projects over the next few years.

I've worked on and off at PFA since 1997 on a clerical level, though not on a formal curatorial level by any means, and my friendship with Steve Seid goes back to my early video store days in the early 1990s. He's brought me on board several times to work on screenings; we co-curated several outdoor shows in the PFA sculpture garden, and he's consulted with me now and again on his regular shows.

I had been hoping to at least co-curate a Joseph Losey retrospective for several years, and was heartened by
the 2008 series at Harvard Film Archive, which was actually 100% complete. Once I knew they had had success with it, and had located some of the trickier prints, I decided to push harder for such a series at PFA. I dropped enough hints that eventually the idea was put forward, though I can't really be credited with instigating it—they probably would have gotten around to it ... Losey has been sort of "in the air" of late.

We began by drawing up a complete filmography, and once Steve presented me with the various restrictions we had to work with, I pretty much did the first go-round of red-lining titles, passing over certain things in order to be able to show something else (i.e., being able to import Mr. Klein, which is costly, and so only showing one of the two Elizabeth Taylor collaborations—Boom! instead of Secret Ceremony, or choosing Time Without Pity over The Criminal, etc.). We simply weren't able to do it all for many entirely expected reasons. The major omission which was not our doing is The Go-Between, which we were unable to secure a print of. There is only one apparently un-faded color print in existence in the U.S., and it was not available to us for some frustrating reasons best not to go into. So, rather than show a basically worthless print which had faded entirely to red, we chose to omit it. We hope that down the road, Sony—which is the U.S. rights holder—will see fit to do a preservation on this wonderful film, which isn't even available on DVD in the U.S.

Steve did the majority of the research of the prints, and several are from my own collection: Blind Date and King and Country. In those cases, the distributors no longer had any prints and, indeed, Blind Date is arguably the rarest film in the series in terms of availability. I am aware of two extant prints, both 16mm—and that is literally it.

I've begun making inquiries to see if some other venues around the country might want to pick up on the series. The issue for venues is, and will continue to be, the importation of prints from Europe, Assassination of Trotsky, La Truite, Roads to the South, Stranger on the Prowl and nearly all the British films among them. We've not located prints in the U.S. of any of those titles. And Losey's final film, Steaming, apparently does not exist in print form at all—only Betacam video. Which seems crazy, given that it was only made in 1985, but there you are.

Guillén: In your introduction to the Losey doublebill of Eve and Time Without Pity, you made a point of emphasizing how different these films were from each other. And they were. And these two, in turn, differ very much from other films of Losey's I've seen. Can Losey be read, then, for his auteurial legibility? Do you consider him an "auteur" and—if so—can you describe what you perceive to be his creative signature?

Conheim: I would argue that Time Without Pity fits very well alongside his other noir-ish titles, such as The Big Night in particular, as well as The Prowler and Blind Date. I would also argue that Eve fits nicely alongside The Servant and Accident, to a certain degree, but I think it can also be viewed as an anomaly because he was consciously in the grip of Antonioni, Resnais, et al., admittedly so, and I think it's safe to say he was positing himself as making a "serious art film" with Eve. If you read interviews with him, he admits to a certain amount of self-consciousness and excess with the film, and indeed, it's almost hard to believe something as economical as King and Country was made by the same person.

I find the whole auteur concept to be slippery. When you are a filmmaker working with the "system", the products which emerge were and are inevitably born of collaboration (and compromise), so I think there are genuinely few true auteurs in the real sense of the word; I think of Russ Meyer when I think of the word, not Losey. I think of someone completely on the fringes, in total control of their product, who every once in a while pulled the wool down over the eyes of studio execs and accomplished something truly auteurial, such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Whereas Losey took the jobs that were offered to him for the majority of his life. Some of his best pictures he came onto after they had already been originated, sometimes with other directors in mind—Godard was initially slated to direct Eve, for instance.

But Steve did, I think, nail the recurrent themes which run through Losey's work which, I suppose, could be considered the marks of an auteur: characters up against an unfair system, or deeply flawed, being forced to reckon with their flaws. Certainly he filtered his 1950s work through his experiences as an exile—it's pretty hard to separate the work from his life during that period.

There are certainly different ways to approach an overview of a director with as varied a resumé as Losey; from the standpoint of an easily digestible evening at the cinema, we could have put The Big Night and Time Without Pity together, or The Servant and Accident together, but I think Steve was wise in mixing them up, effectively discarding an easy definition of "auteur" for Losey.

Because I am a sick and cruel person, I would have put Boy With Green Hair and King and Country together, myself. On Easter!

* * *

As stated earlier, Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation continues through April 16 at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, with screenings on Friday, April 2, of Blind Date (1959) and Modesty Blaise (1966); on Sunday, April 4, of King and Country (1966), with an encore screening on Thursday, April 8; Boom! (1968) on Friday, April 9; Mr. Klein (1976) on Saturday, April 10; wrapping up on Friday, April 16, with the restored archival print of The Prowler (1951), preceded by Losey's short A Gun In His Hand (1945).

Cross-published on


Anonymous said...

Peter Conheim should have checked with the Library of Congress. We have a 35mm print of BLIND DATE, under the American title, which I think is Chance Meeting. I know because I screened it 10 years ago. Now that the Motion Picture Division is under a new director, not sure that the Library would have loaned him the print, but it never hurts to ask.

George Prepared said...

That's very good news for the future of that film. Indeed, we had only been aware of two prints in the U.S., both 16mm. - PC