Monday, July 02, 2007

Ana May Wong + William Greaves: Two Kinds of Genius

Tonight I saw both Anna May Wong's feature film debut, The Toll of the Sea (1922), and noted documentary filmmaker William Greaves' classic experiment in cinema verité and psychodrama, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968).

In The Toll of the Sea, a seventeen year-old Wong gives a natural and layered performance from a truly awful script, made more offensive by the passage of years, by noted female screenwriter Frances Marion. Apparently Marion was working under the stricture that the new color process developed by the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation (TMPC) be at the center of the film. Color processing was an aspect of film production from early on with hand coloring and the application of standard tints to particular sequences. Most of this early coloration has faded with the degeneration of film wrought by time, so associations with early film aesthetics tend towards black and white--but this is not always what the director intended. TMPC developed a complicated process allowing for color projection on standard theater projectors that included optical engineering, and a separation of red and green of the color spectrum onto alternate frames of a double-length black and white negative. With each release print "two thin strips of film were dyed the correct colors and cemented back-to-back."(11) Whew! Can you imagine doing that for every print that went out to a theater? Sadly, TMPC didn't think that a strong script would communicated their prowess to the same degree as a number of shots of Wong outdoors, or wearing either green or red silk costumes. But then again, the best costume, best sound, and best special effects Oscars don't always go to the best scripted, directed, and acted films. (Randy Thom's sound work on Brad Bird's critically well-received animated feature, Ratatouille (2007), might be an exception this year--we'll see.)

The script is acknowledged by Marion as "practically the step-daughter of Madame Butterfly"(1915), but set in China (the locations are actually in Hollywood and Santa Monica).(11-12) Similar to that prior tale of woe of a woman of the East exploited by a man of the West who ultimately returns to his life of unfettered white privilege, we know the narrative doesn't to bode well for Wong's character. But in a bold move the studio actually cast a Chinese actress (albeit Chinese American) in the lead role. Early film star Mary Pickford had played Cho-Cho-San (pictured left, still from, the lead character in Madame Butterfly, with a cast of a number of white supporting actors and extras, perhaps with similar make-up as evidenced by Katherine Hepburn as the heroine Jade Tan in Dragon Seed (1944).

Wong plays the part of a young innocent captivated by a foreigner who comes to embody the mythology of "those United States" as she refers to his homeland. She wants him and promises the Sea Siren "anything" if he'll return her love. Wong's co-lead Kenneth Harlan, a noted theater actor at the time, gives less than a fully committed performance, but that serves the duplicitous nature of the character. His friends corner him for five minutes when he intimates he might actually love Lotus Blossom, comparing a "sophisticated" woman of the West with a simple Chinese girl, both of whom are sitting nearby at the cafe they're visiting. You can see Harlan folding about 45 seconds into the exchange; who needs intertitles? Wong's most poignant moments are when she accepts Harlan's new wife and entertains the two of them in her garden, serving them tea while occasionally looking away to regain her composure. At various moments Wong gives the silent cinema version of Emma Thompson reeling from her discovery of Alan Rickman's infidelity in Love, Actually (2003). Like Thompson, Wong is a mother, and progeny need to be protected from the frailties of husbands (even bigamists apparently). The couple has returned to China at the wife's insistence, so that Harlan can beg forgiveness, little humility was on display from him. It's the scene where the wife knowingly returns and Lotus Blossom selflessly gives the caucasian-appearing son (played by a girl) to her while telling him that "Lotus Blossom was telling you fairy tales when she said she was your mother." She then passes herself off to him as the nurse that was caring for him until his "sweet mother" returned. Eat your heart out Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas, 1937). Actor Beatrice Bentley just watches as Wong chews up the scenery, saying goodbye to the boy Bentley now holds in her "nest of kindly arms" a sight that Lotus Blossom has requested so she'll know he'll always be loved. Not great dialogue, but Wong makes it work. The ending of the film has been lost so new footage of the California coast was shot in 1985. The story off course ends where it began, with the Sea Siren getting her due. (reference: Scott Simon's Film Notes from Program 2 of Treasures from American Film Archives)


I unfortunately missed the first fifteen minutes of the Afro-Punk Film & Music Festival screening of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) getting to Brooklyn and trying to find my way from the Atlantic Ave station to BAM the route to which has been made something of an obstacle course with the neighboring construction (hint: don't be fooled by the big BAM sign, look for the banners instead). I have this stubborn refusal to accept the distance to Brooklyn from Manhattan as being as long in minutes as it actually is if you can't get an express train. I'll eventually get over it. Having missed the beginning I was plopped down in the midst of Greaves' film without much context. About fifteen minutes later I realized so were most of the people actually in his experiment. Greaves was shooting a screentest dialogue script depicting a man and woman in the midst of a marital crisis using different actors, different methods (melodrama, musical), and various locales withing New York City's Central Park, with a highly open-ended directing style much to the frustration of a number of the participants. Sounds simple, but Greaves also shot everything that happened in between the moments of shooting: conversations/confrontations with and between actors and crew, a homeless artist/philosopher/alcoholic who wandered onto the set, the double-entendre of a shirtless white man rowing under the bridge where the actors did a take of the scene took place. In some cases this was because they stubbornly refused to read his overview of the project or because having read it they still couldn't understand what his vision was. He does state it during a meeting with the crew and cast late in the film, it seemed completely straightforward to me, but still the production manager says, "I don't understand."

Afro-Punk Film & Music Festival organizer James Spooner said he was moved to program this film because when he was making his first feature (white lies, black sheep, which also screened at the festival) he also experienced his crew talking behind his back and questioning whether or not he really knew what he was doing--the difference being that William Greaves intentionally orchestrated this conflict. Purposefully instigating the peeling back of the layer of mystification that obscures the material and psychological realities of film production. Notably Greaves was enacting this experiment with a predominantly white cast and crew. Think of Peter O'Toole's omniscient and manipulative director in The Stunt Man (1980) on an independent budget, without the special effects and fantastical elements, and insert frank engagements with questions of race, gender, and sexuality. Greaves initially didn't think he had gotten the intended response from the film crew until viewing footage the production manager politely gifted him at the end of the shoot. The footage was of private meetings of the crew variously arguing over the intent, the incompetence, the artifice, the superficiality, the laughable screenwriting, and the possible genius of their director. Greaves was overjoyed.

As I was watching I was reminded of the commentary from noted cinematographer Ellen Kuras and director Rebecca Miller on the DVD Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002) which Miller directed from an adaptation of her short story collection. They talked about how the flexibility of shooting on tape, particularly not having to reload film every 15 minutes or worrying about the cost of film (DV can still be costly, but the expense usually shows up in post-production), makes a huge difference for actors because they can just keep going, as opposed to being interrupted, and the possibilities for capturing intimacy are greater as the cameras can be smaller, be used in greater number or with more mobility--all resulting in fewer set ups and less compromising of the "natural" quality of a set with huge equipment. Greaves had studied and taught at the Actors' Studio with Lee Strausberg, and was interested in the issue of acting for the camera in relation to the Eisenberg Principle (crudely put: the act of observing something or a process, alters said thing or process) and talked about this at length during the Q&A. I asked about his thoughts on digital video in relation to the question of intrusion and acting not knowing that his follow-up to this investigation, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2, had been shot on video. He talked a little about this, and it was my sense from post-screening conversations that varied approached to DV cinematography informed the end result re: raw footage and editing options. This is part of the reason why Kuras is in demand on DV shoots; she evidences a thoughtful approach as to how to approach tape. Notably, her work on Miller's film and Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000)respectively, is distinct despite both film's having been shot on DV. One advantage Kuras had going in to feature films was a background in documentary work, where camera people have to be creative for less $$, and be on their toes about getting the shot--once it's gone, it's gone. The print of Take 1 had been lost to Greaves until it was rediscovered by the Brooklyn Museum for a Greaves film retrospective. Steven Soderbergh saw it at the Museum's screening, and apparently arranged a screening at the Sundance Film Festival Take 2 1/2 was produced 35 years after the initial film experiment by actor/director Steve Buscemi who met and became friends with Greaves after attending the Sundance screening. (pictured right, Buscemi with Greaves) Soon afterwards the print was also screened at the prestigious Annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, both screenings were well-received and resulted in Criterion packaging both films as one of their special Director Approved DVD film collections, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes. An angel gifted me with a copy. I'm so excited to see what happens next. Thanks, Angel.


At 7:42 PM, Blogger John K said...

Again, superb discussions both of Wong's debut and of Greaves's film, which I see as anticipating the lighter and critically acclaimed Truffaut feature, Day for Night (as well as subsequent films that dramatize the behind the scenes tensions and crises in the process of filmmaking). I'm eager to see Spooner's film, but also to watch Greaves 1968 film again and finally see the followup.

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