Letters from Hollywood:
by Bill Krohn. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2020. 312 pp., illus. Hardcover: $95.00.
Long overdue, this impressive if pricey collection by the long-standing —indeed, longest-standing — American correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma is eclectically divided into four sections. After an Introduction consisting of a new five-page memoir (“How I Became the Los Angeles Correspondent for Cahiers du cinema”), a fascinating 25-page interview with Serge Daney (then the magazine’s editor) from 1977, entitled “The Tinkerers”, and a brief 1992 obituary for Daney, one encounters “Directors Who Started in Silents” (ten essays), “Directors Who Started in Talkies” (seven essays), “Directors Who Started in Television” (seven essays), and “Directors Who Counterattacked” (ten essays).
These classifications can’t do justice to all that the book has to offer: even if one can puzzle out what Krohn means by “counterattack,” the first “director” he treats who “started in television” is Lucille Ball, justly celebrated for I Love Lucy rather than as a director, and someone whose career as a performer, as Krohn shows, actually began in theater, movies, and radio. But they do point up how original Krohn’s way of positioning himself often turns out to be. A Yale graduate who likes to apply some of the methods and lessons of Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Mikhael Bakhtin, and Roland Barthes to artists in (or just off) the American mainstream, ranging from Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Walsh to Blake Edwards, John Frankenheimer, Monte Hellman, Phil Karlson, John Landis, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Edward D. Wood Jr., most often for a French readership, Krohn exercises a form of intellectual populism that is uniquely his own, even though his practice of linking Hollywood directors to literary heavyweights clearly can be traced back to 1950s Cahiers.
Characteristically, he concludes each essay with “Notations” rather than “Notes” or “End Notes” — adding afterthoughts, occasionally repeating information found in the pieces, and sometimes including rare bits of trivia unearthed by his research. After a detailed unpacking of the differences between Hugh Butler’s script for Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah and the finished film, Krohn concedes that the film “is a turkey, but the danse-contre-danse between Butler and Aldrich…is a rare opportunity to study Aldrich’s politics in action.” A paragraph later, having examined Hitchcock’s screening schedules, he informs us that “the Master liked The Dirty Dozen so much that he invited Alma to see it with him when he screened it again the next day.” (Less trivially, in the main body of his Lucille Ball essay, he reveals that contrary to most reports, the cost of Orson Welles’ The Fountain of Youth, which her company produced, was modest — and less than that of the I Love Lucy pilot.)
In the interests of transparency, I should note that Krohn was a friend, colleague, and occasional collaborator from the late 70s through the 90s–someone who introduced me to Oja Kodar in the mid-80s (and assisted my Welles research in numerous other ways) and whom I later joined in interviewing Joe Dante for a Locarno film festival retrospective. But we haven’t been in touch for three decades. During that time, I was particularly impressed by his essential Hitchcock at Work (Phaidon Press, 2000), delighted to see his superb 1988 analysis of Manny Farber’s My Budd painting posted by the online Rouge in 2008, and energized by the polemics of his takedown in Cinema Scope of Richard Brody’s Godard biography (also available online) the same year. Along with his monographs on Buñuel (2005), Kubrick (2010), and Hitchcock (2014), these are the major Krohn texts I’m aware of that aren’t included in Letters from Hollywood, but they’re all readily available–unlike Krohn’s massive and illuminating 1982 phone interview with Orson Welles, entitled “My Favorite Mask is Myself,” which I wish he’d added to the mix. (I believe this can be found in English only in The Unknown Orson Welles, published by the Munich Filmmuseum in 2004.)
So much for what’s missing from Letters from Hollywood. As for what’s there, it’s worth reporting both the good news that Krohn’s opening memoir is available for free at www.sunypress.edu/pdf/63354.pdf and the bad news that many of the facts imparted in it about filmmaker and programmer Jackie Raynal, who gave Krohn his start (and introduced both him and me to Daney), are egregiously misremembered. According to Raynal herself, she was arrested during the May 1968 riots but not raped by anyone, much less “gang-raped by gendarmes”; she’s never been “a construction worker in upstate New York” or anywhere else; her film Deux Fois ends with a silent, seven-minute closeup of an open-mouthed drag queen, not “a twenty-minute scream by Jackie”; and it was her onetime boyfriend Patrick Deval and not Raynal herself who went to high school with Daney. Fortunately, errors of this kind don’t appear to crop up elsewhere, where Krohn’s skills as investigative journalist — especially notable in his career summaries of Edwards, Frankenheimer, Hellman, Karlson, and Ulmer — are readily apparent.
More importantly, on the plus side, one often finds Krohn selecting unfashionable and/or neglected items in a director’s filmography—a veritable hit parade of seeming lost causes, apart from such critical favorites as Once Upon a Time in America and Zelig–to serve as a fresh lens for viewing an entire oeuvre. Thus Aldrich is viewed via Sodom and Gomorrah, Edwards via Skin Deep, Ford via December 7th, Frankenheimer via his late (as opposed to early) TV work, Hawks via Land of the Pharaohs, Hellman via Iguana and other late films, Hitchcock via his wartime propaganda shorts and Lifeboat, Landis via The Stupids (with the recently deceased Jacques Derrida, no less, serving as the principal guide), Ray via We Can’t Go Home Again, Walsh via Objective, Burma!, and even Edward D. Wood, taken quite seriously, gets celebrated in part for his Final Curtain (1957), a rejected TV pilot. Krohn has illuminating and provocative things to impart in every case — e.g., that Theodor Adorno actually used a TV episode directed by Aldrich to illustrate his “Television as Ideology”, and that Wood’s use of voiceovers offers a key to his artistic identity. Ray’s last film is usefully compared with both The Other Side of the Wind and Ritwik Ghatak’s Reason, Debate, and a Story as multitextual swan songs culminating in the onscreen directors’ suicides. Krohn also persuasively links the mise-en-scène of Welles’ three Shakespeare features to Welles’ early mistrust of cinema as an adequate conveyor of Shakespeare, and he offers the most lucid account I’ve seen anywhere of the motivations and consequences of the radically de-centered narrative form of Full Metal Jacket.
Some of his judgment calls are startling–“Ten years after it was made, [Ang Lee’s] The Ice Storm looks like the best American film of the nineties” — but even when he fails to convince me about this (or about The Stupids being a masterpiece, even though I’m not sorry that he got me to watch it), he nearly always has something enlightening to say on the subject. It’s no surprise that Krohn cross-references Robert Altman’s Prèt-à-Porter with Barthes’ Système de la mode, but not many other American critics would identify Nashville as the beginning of Altman’s decline or could explain why persuasively.
Krohn’s recourse to literary models even when discussing nonliterary filmmakers (his appreciation of Joe Dante, for instance, teems with references to Romantic poetry) can undoubtedly be linked to the French tradition of regarding cinema as literature by another means — maintained today especially by Trafic, the film magazine Daney founded in 1991 after his successive stints with Cahiers du cinema and Libération, which excludes all illustrations apart from a small still or photo on the cover. Krohn contributed a letter to Daney in that magazine’s first issue, and the no less literary letters gathered here honor that same tendency. –- JONATHAN ROSENBAUM