Donald Brackett—SFU film scholar and relative to Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett—has curated three programs of films for the Cinematheque.
The first was on his relative’s collaborations with Wilder, like Sunset Boulevard. The Straight interviewed him about the series back in 2013.
The second was “on cinema as painting (The Cinema of Stillness) or certainly films as visual art,” Brackett explains. That was back in 2015, and seemed mostly an excuse to connect visually spectacular arthouse cinema, from Herzog’s Aguirre to Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, with stops along the way for Fellini, Lynch, Godard, and other arthouse stars.
The third—based on the idea of highbrow adaptations of so-called “lowbrow” texts—opens Thursday (May 30) at Cinematheque.
Titled High and Low: From Pulp to Poetry, it focuses on respected, arthouse-friendly films adapted from novels written as pulp entertainments.
For instance, Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom—which Brackett describes as a “grimy pulp novel”—was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s “mercurial and visionary” High and Low, a tense, noirish kidnapping drama starring Toshiro Mifune.
It serves as the opening night feature; Brackett will give a presentation beforehand, introducing the series.
Also playing opening night is Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing—an early example of a film with overlapping, a-sequential time strands, and one of the obvious influences on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
The Killing connects two names in the realm of pulp: Lionel White, who wrote the novel it is based on, and Jim Thompson (author of The Grifters, The Getaway, and The Killer Inside Me), who wrote the screenplay (Kubrick shafted him a little in the credits, the story goes).
Bear in mind when watching it that the horse assassin, played by Timothy Carey—a legendary eccentric who tended to go on about farting, and who also appeared in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory—was later considered by Alex Cox for the role of Bud in Repo Man. (He’s in the Monkees’ Head, too!).
Patricia Highsmith—the snail-loving Texas-to-Europe expat best known for The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, and for the source novel behind the semi-autobiographical Carol—wrote the novels that inspired Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (with Dennis Hopper as a slightly incongruous Tom Ripley) and Réne Clément’s Purple Noon (with Alain Delon fitting the Ripley bill much better).
Highsmith took umbrage with the film’s ending, we gather—she preferred criminals who (spoiler alert!) get away with it.
Other titles announced include adaptations of David Goodis (Shoot the Piano Player) and, pulpiest of all, John Boorman’s Point Blank, based on The Hunter, by Richard Stark (also known by his birth name, Donald E. Westlake).
The latter, of all the films on the program, maintains the thickest brow-ridge, more or less faithfully telling the story of a ruthless thug (played by the great Lee Marvin) taking on the mob.
While some of the writers mentioned have been embraced as writers of literature—Highsmith faring best, perhaps—they emerged from the underbelly of American culture. (Highsmith’s early career included working on comic books.)
So how did the bill get put together, and what brow-level does Brackett find himself on?
“I dreamt it up as a homeopathic remedy to assist in maintaining a sense of humour, while expanding our stylistic boundaries,” Brackett replies via email.
The professor himself operates at the “no-brow” level, he tells the Straight—but that’s not because the concepts of “highbrow and lowbrow” are meaningless, he explains, “only because life is too short for territorial gambits. I enjoy Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes at the same time as Jason Statham and John Wick movies. I’m just as fond of James Bond movies as I am of Ingmar Bergman films. I like Citizen Kane just as much as I do Plan 9 From Outer Space. To me, everything is meaningful, literally, since everything is an ‘embodied meaning’ of some sort.”
For his previous two programs, Brackett “focused on works that were obviously splendidly artful, and I wanted to reveal another side, not just to my own character and tastes (I love pulp and kitsch and camp as much as I do Resnais) but also to the ability that film as a medium has to elevate simple, basic, even gritty stories into a visual art form.”
Brackett has quibbles with the concept of post-modernism—he thinks we’re just “in the late, mature phases of modernism”—but the idea of post-modernism, implicit in celebrating filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, for example, is that culture is organized horizontally, “with everything being equal to everything else.”
But modernism was much more vertical.
“In the modern and modernist era, which lasted roughly from 1840 to 1970, there was always an implied if not implicit division into high and low aesthetic pursuits and artistic expressions. Some found it daunting, an ivory tower of sorts, with lofty high culture such as classical painting, sculpture, opera and architecture occupying a rarified realm in the clouds, while far below it scrounged the popular culture of entertainments such of music hall, comics, cartoons and pulp. Modernist classic films are generally revered as works of visual art, among them films by Herzog, Greenaway, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, Lynch and Fellini.”
That kind of distinction still exists for some people:
“On the one hand we have movies, entertainment, and on the other hand we have films, cinematic edification. For some of us however, these two polarities are a lot more closely aligned than they might at first appear to be. My thesis with this current program is that adaptations from the supposedly low to the supposedly high have been going on for ages, and it is my intention (while not fully embracing a postmodern stance) to erase the illusory borderlines between good and bad taste and to celebrate the experiences that result when we do so.”
Trash without guilt! Sounds fun to us.
And indeed, maybe that’s precisely why so many academics focus scholarship on “lowbrow” cinema, these days. It’s more entertaining.
You get scholars like Carol J. Clover, who professionally teaches about Scandinavian folklore, applying feminism, psychoanalysis, and her own scholarly background to the study of slasher movies.
Not knocking it—Clover’s great—but could part of the reason academics are drawn to pulp be that they, too, just want to be entertained? And that pulp is simply more entertaining to watch and analyze than "difficult" arthouse fare?
“I don’t exactly subscribe to the idea of something being easier or more entertaining than something else, as per my horizontal metaphor,” Brackett replies. “Only things being ‘close to’ or ‘far away from.’ I tend to be a rhapsodic writer and curator, and also as a critic, I never tell people what not to see or read or look at, my philosophy is that life is too short to say what failed to work, instead I focus on what works so well that it will change your life, regardless of what outward shape (i.e. what embodied meaning), it assumes. Therefore I don’t have any actual use for the term ‘difficult,’ for instance, I love listening to both the romantic pop brilliance of early Scott Walker just as much as the dark vat-metal symphonies of late Scott Walker. My response would be that only intolerance is difficult.”
“In all cases,” Brackett holds, “the artistic results of this blind date between bad and good taste were culturally stunning, and they remain mesmerizing to this day. This film program could also be considered a study in the radical transformation from lowbrow to highbrow: how mostly American pulp literature sources were enhanced dramatically and elevated to a new stylistic standard by European and Asian film makers with a shameless and limitless love for their original gritty Yankee realism.”
What follows is a Q&A with Brackett about the actual films in the program.
GS: It's kinda neat to see a program like this without a Hammett or Chandler adaptation. Something like Altman's The Long Goodbye would have fit in pretty nicely, or, heh, Yojimbo, maybe, as a Hammett adaptation! Were Hammett and Chandler excluded for a reason, as too obvious, or…?
Brackett: In a way, they may have been slightly obvious, but actually moreso because to me they weren’t “pulpy” enough, as per Thompson, Cain, Goodis or White. In fact, by comparison, they’re almost rather similar to Melville. With the current program, High and Low: From Pulp To Poetry, we venture into a parallel and somewhat paradoxical artistic realm: great movies made from humble source materials. This eclectic program celebrates the ironic fact that many movies considered by most audiences to be high art were adapted from what they would also consider humble pop art source material. Sometimes, the greatest works of cinema were even transformed from actual pulp novels of considerable grime and grit into commonly acknowledged visual poetry at the highest level. The Long Goodbye is fine, although I’m allergic to both Altman and Gould…and again, Chandler was not (to me anyway) pulp, whereas Cain and Thompson and Spillane were…no one has done much with Mickey’s work though, I wish they would…(by which I mean…no one like Wenders or Herzog, I wish Herzog would have made I, the Jury….the film makers who made Mickey films were still operating at the same stylistic level, without “elevating” it (even though I still liked some of them...)
It’s okay—I'll take two Patricia Highsmith adaptations in place of Hammett or Chandler, any day! Are you a Highsmith fan? The films of hers you chose are kind of revealing: they're not, maybe, the most faithful Highsmith adaptations, but they're the most "respected." (I would argue myself, of the adaptations I've seen, that the unheralded English-language version of The Cry of the Owl, with Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles, is actually the most faithful rendition of one of her books—it's certainly my favourite—but it wouldn't fit the "poetry" angle of the bill.
Yeah, but of course poetry is a relative term, one person’s Wallace Stevens is another person’s Rod McKuen, after all. I agree Cry of the Owl is great, and I also felt a little guilty even including Highsmith in the series, since she’s so literary and I think she’s so good that she just barely (or maybe not at all) qualifies a pulp even….
We could also talk Goodis... I love Goodis, but I haven't actually seen the Truffaut film In the program. Do you have favourite Goodis texts, or adaptations? Did you ever see The Moon is in the Gutter? What did you make of that?
Moon in the Gutter was great, so was Betty Blue, to me. I’m very fond of Dark Passage and also Street of No Return.
It seems absolutely essential that there be at least one French New Wave film on the bill. If you hadn't had access to the Goodis adaptation, did you have another one in mind? (Would you have been tempted by Breathless, or would that have been outside the scope of the bill, since it's not actually a literary adaptation?).
Oddly enough, I wanted Breathless in the bill, especially since it was based on a series of newspaper crime articles, but again some cost limit prevented them from getting it. And I did include the Malle feature [Elevator to the Gallows, to screen in the second part of the series in July] with Miles’ music...
You mentioned wanting to screen Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, which is a Jim Thompson adaptation, and being unable to. Is The Killing in there because you wanted to represent Jim Thompson? I do not know Lionel White—is he considered an important figure in canonical hardboiled writing, or…?
The Cinematheque couldn’t access the Tavernier for some licensing reasons, or perhaps expense…but oh yes, Lionel White is a kind of god, with Pierrot le Fou of course a good example of elevating him, but mostly sideways...
Have you read the Richard Stark novels? Again, Point Blank is the most successful "elevation" of the text, but it's not the most faithful adaptation (which would probably be either The Outfit or the director's cut of Payback). If it wasn't for the "poetry" angle, what are your favourite Stark adaptations?
Comeback and Backflash are great ones…..God Save the Mark is good too (by Westlake though).
Was High and Low received as an arthouse film in Japan at the time? I was under the impression—maybe I'm wrong—that Kurosawa's reception inside Japan was different from how his films were treated here, but I don't know how that applies to High and Low.
I believe over there they saw it as a film noir homage, kind of experimental, not quite arthouse as much as avant-garde, and they love the procedural style of storytelling, as per Kobo Abe. And in '63 they were just as fond of American grit as maybe France was, although somewhat less so due to the memories of their defeat in the war of course...
Were you tempted at all by Hitchcock for this bill?
Well, we do have Vertigo on the bill [again, to screen in the second part of the series in July] which was adapted from the French novel From Among the Dead, by Boileau-Narcejac (1954) and to me it balances nicely with Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows.
Anything else I've missed? Personal favourite films that you would have liked to include, that didn't fit the bill? Personal favourite film that is on the bill…?
I really would have liked Visconti’s wild version of Cain’s Postman, called Ossessione….it’s an insane gem…..I think my favourites that we DO have are probably The American Friend and Point Blank. These listed below are the ones I wanted Cinematheque to acquire but they couldn’t get, for one reason or another…they would have made the program downright utopian in my opinion, so maybe at some point in the future we’ll revisit these ones for a separate program perhaps!
Missing in action:
Coup de Torchon: Bertrand Tavernier, 1982, based on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, 1964
Ossessione: Luchino Visconti, 1942, based on James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934
Breathless: Jean Luc Godard, 1960, based on a News In Brief article, 1959
Serie Noire: Alain Corneau, 1979, based on Jim Thompson’s novel, A Hell of a Woman, 1954
The Grifters: Stephen Frears, 1990, based on Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters 1963
Pierrot le Fou: Jean Luc Godard, 1965, based on Lionel White’s novel Obsession, 1965
The Hair: Seppo Huunonen, 1974, based on Lionel White’s novel Obsession, 1962
Le Samourai, 1967, Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville: a French noir detective-assassin film based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which was in turn based on a series of short stories.
Thanks to Donald Brackett for taking the time to answer these questions. For more information on High and Low: From Pulp to Poetry, go here.