A Close Look at a Deserving Director by RSMorgan [WorldCat.org]
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Self and society in the films of Robert Wise

by Justin E A Busch

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A Close Look at a Deserving Director   (2011-04-13)

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by RSMorgan


Self and Society in the Films of Robert Wise

            There are four books on the director Robert Wise in English.  Frank Thompson’s Robert Wise: A Bio-Bibliography and Sergio Leeman’s Robert Wise on His Films, both published in 1995, are excellent sources of information regarding, respectively, reactions to Wise’s films and Wise’s own cinematic recollections, but neither was intended critically.  The third, Richard C. Keenan’s The Films of Robert Wise (2007), set a high bar for subsequent work on Wise.  Chronologically arranged, it is as much concerned with the making of the films as with Keenan’s own analyses.  Keenan, having seen all of Wise’s films and enjoyed most of them, contextualizes each film using brief biographical details and contemporary reviews.  Nuanced judgements of minor films, films unlikely to be familiar to most of his readers, add depth to lengthier descriptions of better-known ones.

            Keenan only occasionally explores the subtexts in Wise’s films.  The most recent book on Wise is more concerned with presenting a consistent, specifically political, view of Wise’s work.  Despite the title, Busch examines only about half of Wise’s films.  He deliberately structures his discussion so as use what he considers Wise’s lesser films to set the stage for examinations of those he considers most significant, and his analyses of the latter are considerably more extensive than Keenan’s.

            Busch’s central thesis may be summed up in two parts.  His first contention is that Wise, usually treated as a minor filmmaker with no discernible style, is indeed an auteur, but one whose auteurism stems from his subjects rather than recognizable cinematic gestures.  Busch wastes no time plowing through auteur theory, which would needlessly inflate the discussion, but rather cites specific comments regarding Wise from the auteurist standpoint and then advances his own position.  Wise cared more about content and message than visible personal touches, designing each film with an eye toward realizing its subject appropriately.  “Wise may be no auteur as the term is normally understood,” Busch claims, “but there is indeed a method to his subjective eclecticism, one which does not simply encourage what has been perceived as a lack of stylistic consistency, but even requires it.”

            This is a minor element.  The major part of Busch’s thesis is both more interesting and far more fully developed.  Wise, he says, concentrates on depicting characters who ought to be able to overcome the film’s crises through their professional expertise but who find instead that this expertise is precisely what hobbles their imaginations and thereby sabotages their intentions.  Underlying this, Busch argues, is a strong sense of what Daniel Bell described as “the cultural contradictions of capitalism.”  People act in contradictory ways because they have absorbed contradictory aspects of modern culture.  Wise is, on this view, a deeply committed political filmmaker worthy of careful examination.  It is that examination which Busch attempts, largely successfully, to provide.

            The first chapter whips through short discussions of fifteen films, including some of Wise’s most famous (The Sound of Music gets about two pages, for example).  Examples of expertise gone wrong in various ways are drawn out, with quick character studies pointing the way forward.  Some of these mini-essays are in themselves compelling, especially those on The Haunting and Star, but most are sketches for later portraits.

            The second chapter takes up the underlying social tensions driving Wise’s films more forcefully.  Busch here uses more space than in the first chapter to examine just four films-- The Body Snatcher, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Odds Against Tomorrow, and The Andromeda Strain--, adopting the approach he will use for the rest of the book, providing complete plot narratives along with detailed considerations of staging and camera movement.  Readers who know these films may find the narration overlong, yet Busch clearly considers it vital to tightly link story with cinematography in order to support vigorous claims regarding the overall political aims and achievements of each film.  Most successful is the section on The Day the Earth Stood Still, which documents surprising parallels between the film and contemporary ideas, including those of Albert Einstein.

            Each of four final films-- Born to Kill, Executive Suite, The Sand Pebbles, and, surprisingly, Star Trek: The Motion Picture-- receives its own chapter, Busch evidently considering these to be Wise’s best work.  Explicative details abound, Busch often providing lengthy shot-by-shot descriptions of events lasting only a few seconds on the screen.  He also draws out the political elements at even greater length than before.  The thoroughly worked-out chapter on The Sand Pebbles is especially convincing, as this film was avowedly intended by Wise as a critique of American foreign policy, but many readers may see less criticism and more celebration of American capitalism in Executive Suite than Busch does.  Busch makes a stronger and more plausible case for considering Star Trek as a major cinematic achievement than one might expect, and his comparisons of it with Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris are provocative, even if it is unlikely that most of his readers will be persuaded.  Future works on Wise will have to take Busch’s complex and well-supported analyses of these films into consideration.

            Readers looking to engage with Wise’s films more fully will find much of value here.  Busch has obviously given considerable thought to his subject.  His arguments are solidly grounded, with frequent script quotations and careful explanations of the nature and impact of the manner in which the cited scenes are filmed, all illuminated by material judiciously drawn from various political philosophers.  There is an intriguing, if not wholly fleshed out, comparison of Wise and Ingmar Bergman which raises serious points about the nature of great cinema.  The book is ridiculously overpriced (65.00 for a paperback of well under 300 pages!), which will deter most readers, but it is worth getting from a library.  This is an excellent study of a substantial body of work by an all-too neglected director.



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