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By Olaf Möller
Thirty, maybe even 40 years ago it was already high time for somebody to publish a tome on Victor Fleming, yet nobody did until Michael Sragow set down to work on Victor Fleming: An American Movie Maker (New York: Pantheon Books). Before that, the only extensive appreciation of Fleming’s oeuvre appeared in Between Action and Cut: Five American Directors (Scarecrow Press, 1985), a Frank Thompson-edited anthological excursion into the realms of the forgotten, the unheralded and the never-even-remembered. The others discussed besides Fleming in that long out-of-print treasure are William K. Howard, Roland West, Rowland Brown, and Charles T. Barton—an interesting selection, covering as it does just about everything from the inspired craftsman-artist to the maverick auteur to the hack with an occasional knack (your guess as to who’s what). While including the man credited with directing The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (both 1939) in a compilation of essays trying to shed some light into the more obscure recesses of classical studio-era cinema seems a bit bizarre, considering the fact that these films are more often than not used as evidence for the genius of either the system or the producer, and that Fleming’s name got tarnished due to his work on them (he was homophobe Clark Gable’s choice to replace George Cukor on Gone with the Wind), it was actually quite an inspired move by Thompson back in the mid-‘80s.
A book on John Sturges was equally long overdue, and with the decades passing by the prospects of seeing one got slimmer by the year, as Sturges was neither the kind of auteur considered canonical enough to merit a serious study nor obscure enough to provoke an MA thesis that would only be released by some specialized press living off of academics’ desperate need to publish. Sturges was the middle of the middle, too obvious for anybody to notice, not fancy enough to be considered “original” yet too good to be dismissed as a hack, and therewith to become a possible object of veneration for this sect or that cult. Old-school auteurists despised him, while new(er) school(s) ones never evinced much of an interest in reassessing the former’s reassessment of Hollywood. But now, from the same publisher that gave us a monograph on another ultra-unhip director, George Stevens, comes Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
So, two industry worthies with precious bounty to their names, if only one with enough serious consistency to his work to merit deeper research (Fleming), get their dues long overdue. Two books on Hollywood craftsmen, one from the studio and one from the early independent producer era, both biographies, both a bit wanting in analysis while strong on production as well as personal histories, both brimming with cautious passion, both very much worth having—though the Sturges tome, sad to say, lacks a thoroughly researched filmography. Neither Lovell nor Sragow make any exorbitant claims for their subjects: the latter simply insists that there’s more to Fleming than he’s usually given credit for, which is true, whatever that might mean in terms of a precise “ranking.” The former, meanwhile, gets quite precise in terms of canonical status and rank when he suggests in the introduction that Sturges isn’t some paradigmatic auteur but an accomplished master of his craft, someone best considered in the company of Mann, Wise, Boetticher, or Hathaway—which is debatable, as Sturges ultimately ends up quite below Mann and Boetticher, and possibly even Hathaway (who’s equally uneven, yet in quite a different fashion: Sturges is either metrically precise or a monumental mess, while Hathaway has paler and more flamboyant moments).
As one can already guess from this one example, Lovell’s comparisons tend towards the off-kilter or even off-putting, especially when Michael Bay is called upon as a witness for the on-going influence of Sturges’ dynamic groupings—honestly, is there any “action” director who seems to have understood less of what Sturges is all about: cast-iron, solidly built set-pieces whose sense of space is positively anal-retentive? Comparisons such as these, of which one finds quite a few in the book’s 344 pages, make one thing pretty clear: film history is here just something to toss into the discussion, pepper the argument with, rather fanboyishly. With Sragow, things are a bit different: he’s commendably circumspect in the way he reconstructs the history inside which Fleming lived and worked, especially in his early days. He’s comparably guarded in his assessment of Fleming’s contributions to the films of other directors or certain prominent “group efforts,” above all that epochal 1939 double-shot, which he convincingly argues might be of a more personal nature than they’re commonly believed to be—all very tactfully, mind you, and delivered with a sense of adding something to an on-going film cultural discussion.
On the other hand, the Sturges is indelibly marked by Lovell’s knowledge, however subconsciously, that he’s written something that comes too late and is at the same time too timely: isn’t Sturges the talented version of the kind of director a producer-dominated film environment like our own wants and needs and breeds? To put it in a Lovell-y way: Aren’t the likes of McG and Zack Snyder the dumbed-down prole-version of the Sturgeses and Flemings? Yes, if one accepts that the former pair hack their way to prominence in a one-investment-at-a-time climate while the latter created their films in a studio culture, and that the former know shit about cinema and the latter everything (which nonetheless doesn’t help if lacking that certain spark).
But who, then, is the like of Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Could it be Giorgio Ferroni, the illustrious Veronique Gartenzwergel, or even J-L.G. himself? Some of our readers might remember our esteemed editor-in-chief’s ravings about Cinéastes à tout prix (2004), Frédéric Sojcher’s baffling documentary about three Belgian amateur filmmakers with nothing to lose and even less by way of talent, but with more drive and vision than the whole of Cannes that year (or almost). The most enigmatic of the triad was the improbably named Jean-Jacques Rousseau, creator of adorable aberrations like Dossier Absurdus 2. L’Invasion des succubes (2006)—the sequel to Dossier Absurdus 3. Le Chasseur de succubes (2005)—La Revanche du sacristain cannibale, and Irkutz 88 (both 2004), to name only a few feisty titles. But who has seen them? And do they really exist? Somehow, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is just too good to be true, but I’m more willing to believe in him—and that’s what the Sojcher-edited Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Cinéaste de l’absurde (Klinksieck: Archimbaud) does. Again, little by way of an analytical discussion of the films themselves—instead one gets tons of ecstatic exaltations on the uniquely Belgian genius of this masked avenger, including an auto-analytico-biographical ABC in which Rousseau explains it all (cf. the entry on “cagoule”). And the best part is that there’s actual state money in the book: it’s made with the support of Belgium’s French-speaking community.
Fleming — Sturges
There’s some harmony here.