My first book Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta is now available for order in a limited edition hardcover version, lovingly produced by Lightcube!

 

Book Description

Since the mid-2000s, Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His sensual, stimulating films are as removed from national mainstream cinema(s) as from the international arthouse tradition. They are, instead, incarnations of a personal quest, a lifelong project of research and self-cultivation. They propose newer forms of cinematographic expression through their constant, ongoing dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought. Taken together, these films constitute a cinema of aesthetic introspection. Despite universal acclaim, including awards and retrospectives across the world, critical commentary on Dutta’s oeuvre has remained scarce.

Modernism by Other Means is the first book-length consideration of the output of one of the most compelling film practitioners active today. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, it examines how Dutta’s work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism, one that bypasses Eurocentric rites of passage, inviting us to reframe our ideas of what being modern in art means.

 

Links

Hardcover book (India only)

Hardcover book (international)

Kindle e-book (international)

PDF e-book (international)

 

Reviews

“A magnificent work, as complete as it is precise, analyzing in depth each of Amit Dutta’s films, intended to be a reference. Congratulations to Srikanth Srinivasan and his publisher, Lightcube. I would like every contemporary experimental filmmaker to find their Srikanth!”

Dr. Nicole Brenez, Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle

Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

– Dr. Omar Ahmed, UK-based Film Scholar and Curator

Amit Dutta might possibly be my favorite filmmaker to have emerged in the 21st century. His mix of playfulness, inquisitiveness, respect for his subjects, his devotion to numerous forms of beauty—all make him a rare and deep talent… I recommend the e-book [of Modernism by Other Means], which is inexpensive, and which is proving to be a really valuable document on a great body of work.”

– Zach Campbell, Independent Scholar

“Modernism by Other Means is structured chronologically, but Srinivasan’s prose flows between influences, memories, and Dutta’s visions of the future of his cinema, invoking Dutta’s style and perspective; he makes the proposition that we are reading about a filmmaker and artist who matters.

– Soham Gadre, Los Angeles Review of Books

With rugged clarity and verve, Srinivasan walks us through an extensive portrait of an elastic artist… Modernism by Other Means is nothing short of an essential aid not only in contextualizing Dutta’s films, but in some cases understanding the absolute basics of what each film communicates, the existing register it is working within or developing upon.”

– Maximilien Luc Proctorphotogénie

Helping the director return to cultural circulation is already a remarkable merit for the book dedicated to his work, but not being involved in the cultural economy gives value to both it and Amit Dutta’s films.

– Maksim KarpitskyCineticle

 

[Trailer for the book]

I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

[The following is a translation of an essay by Nicole Brenez titled ‘René Vautier: droits, devoirs et passion des images‘, originally published in Afrique 50 de René Vautier (2013, Les mutins de Pangée). The translation has been published as part of an anthology of Brenez’s writings assembled by Sabzian on the occasion of the film historian’s State of Cinema address, to be delivered on 23 December 2021.]

“…even when committed to a cause with all his heart and soul, René Vautier subordinates his images to nothing or no one, not in a proprietary sense (on the contrary, they are offered to anyone who needs them; we find them in numerous activist films and this sometimes results in the loss of precious copies too, as was the case with Algeria, a Nation), but in the name of an inalienable liberty. Emerging from the conception of cinema developed by René Vautier is the principle of an autonomy of images, whose existence, meaning and freedom, established in their own right, must be protected with the most vigilant intransigence: a symbolic and inalienable territory organized in time, from which history can be established. This autonomy (in the literal sense of a singular law) belongs to no one, not to filmmakers, not to cinema and not even to the people whose oppression and struggles these images document; everyone has the right to enjoy them and none the right to own them. This autonomy is in no way a counter-history, it establishes the possibility of an exact history.

[…]

One must point out that an autonomy of images has nothing to do with the fetishization of a shot, a motif or a medium (film, video, digital), so common among filmmakers. Rather, it has to do first and foremost with a symbolic operation, the responsibility of images in face of history, which subordinates and reconfigures other authorities: participants, author, signatories, context, intertext. René Vautier’s work deploys a precise and broad conception of the functions and uses of images: to document, to tell the truth, to do justice, to testify, to offer proof at a trial, to converse with other images, pieces of information, instructions and signals, to contradict, to counterattack, to convince… René Vautier explicitly invested images with all these duties: but in order for them to accomplish these, he had to also implicitly conceive of a right of images, which makes them irreducible to the host of uses and instrumentalizations they can be subjected to.”

 

[Full text here at Sabzian]

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

In the United States

 

The reception of the film by the American press was negative.

Variety (24/6/1949) found the film “cold, unemotional, talkative,” and lamented the overacting: “Underplaying would have served the story better.” The choice of Cooper was deemed “a casting error. Neal is a whimsical heroine. She hasn’t adapted herself to the demands of the screen.” The implication is that she’s just a stage actress.

For Harrison’s Reports (2/7/1949), “the characters are unreal. The subject is a series of digressions,” there is “a whole philosophical salad that average people don’t understand; […] motivations get lost in a maze of blur.”

In the New York Times (9/7/1949), the famous Bosley Crowther, the Ellsworth Toohey of cinema, who called the shots at the time, found the right catchphrase: “A picture you don’t even have to see to disbelieve.” About the explosion, he concluded: “If all were excused such transgressions, then society would indeed be in peril! … high-priced twaddle we haven’t seen for a long, long time.” Roark’s buildings, “from what we see of it, is trash.” The story is “a complex of bickering and badgering among these cheerless folk.”

Easy prejudices, all the more so as Patricia Neal plays mainly with her eyes, which doesn’t belong as much in the theatre, given the distance of the audience. And Cooper was typecast by the critics as a cowboy, although he had already played, in Peter Ibbetson, an architect quite similar to Roark.

Archer Winsten of the New York Post even declared that “intellectually, Vidor is a simpleton.”

The American critics of the time were confined to their own small domain. They knew nothing about architecture and not much about literature. They hadn’t read the novel: eighteen hours of reading…

They were known for their mediocrity and had castigated many great films, Under Capricorn, On Dangerous Ground, Good Sam, Moonfleet etc…

The paradox is that The Fountainhead is a very American film in its search for effects. The opposite of a Mizoguchi, a champion of whittling, who seeks to conceal all effects, Vidor offers them to be seen full screen. If only one film from the whole of Hollywood production had to be preserved, it would be this one. It is so Hollywoodish that it seems to become a caricature of it, which is what the critics must have felt.

It was a rather expensive film (four times the budget of Ruby Gentry), and it made a loss (about $2,100,000 in revenue against a cost of $2,511,000, not including the cost of prints). This is hardly less than the $3,100,000 of epics such as Samson and Delilah or Land of the Pharaohs.

According to Warner and Ayn Rand, the film worked better with the middle classes, and in the suburbs, than with the intellectuals, whom it was principally intended for.

This commercial failure explains Vidor’s reservations about The Fountainhead. In Hollywood, it was in a filmmaker’s interests to not defend one of his children that did not please the public. The producers accepted quite readily that a director could have a failure—one, but not two or three in a row. You can’t always get it right. But you couldn’t transgress the old adage: “The public is never wrong.” And a mea culpa was always welcome in these puritanical lands…

Vidor does not say a word about The Fountainhead in his autobiography. As mentioned earlier, he may have preferred casting Bogart over Cooper. But when I met him, I began to enthusiastically defend the choice of Cooper, and he told me then that I was probably right. It’s hard to prove your interviewer wrong when he says a lot of good things about your work. And in life, King Vidor was a quiet, awkward, welcoming man, a kind of good, diligent student. Just the opposite of his films. In contrast, his French counterpart Abel Gance was really at one with his work, Vidor was inclined to sort things out rather than get into conflict all the time. He was successful in life and work, and had no need to court controversy.

The only point on which he objected to the film for a very long time was the final explosion.

It’s true that it can be a good tactic for a director to speak ill of one of his films, at least in interviews given long after its theatrical release. The interlocutor will be embarrassed, and will tend to reassure such a modest filmmaker. This is a welcome change from all those directors who think of their new-borns as the greatest of masterpieces. I have sometimes practised this method myself, with success.

The end of The Fountainhead is perhaps stupid and ridiculous, as Vidor said in 1962, especially since no architect in the world, to my knowledge, has practised this kind of dynamiting. But it fits perfectly into a work that is not based on plausibility. There is a bigger-than-life aspect to this film.

Let’s not pay too much heed to the author’s word, even and especially if he is great. Pialat, Ulmer, Losey, DeMille, Lara have said a lot of stupid things about their films too. Vidor defended Grease and Monicelli’s Proibito. And let’s not forget—in times when there are many interviews—that it’s boring to always say (or even to think) the same thing. I have experienced this.

More recently, Vidor has begun an about-face: “I don’t want to advocate destruction as a means of enforcing an artist’s integrity. But it’s part of his work. It has been said that sometimes destruction is just a new construction, two sides of the same thing.”[1]

At the end of his life, a little disillusioned by his forced retirement, he even declared: “At the time the film was made, I felt that the hero’s gesture was excessive, I’m not so sure about that today.”[2]

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

The Excess That Transcends

 

Vidor’s craft here is based on excess, an excess that is to be found in the nature of the actions as well as in the characters, which are extremely complex or extremely linear. All this is redoubled by the excesses of an ultra-fast pacing and of techniques used to the fullest extent on every front. Vidor doesn’t deal in half-measures. It’s a series of contradictory phrases that crash into each other, of pointed tips, jagged edges and uninterrupted electric shocks. Here is a clever, knowledgeable, hyper-professional film, but also one that is abrupt, brutal, coarse, chopped, condensed, convulsive, crazy, delirious, discreet, electrifying, fascinating, frenetic, hysterical, icy, rough, scathing, shredded, surreal, torrid, hectic. A barbaric object, a meteorite. The emotion it generates gives you goosebumps. A runaway horse. Pomposity looms large in the end, but is transcended by its very excess.

Vidor employs EVERY classical device—the perfect film for film schools. It’s Duvivier, Delannoy, plus genius. And finally, it’s this shameless accumulation of old effects (there are even superimpositions, blur effects and an abundance of transparencies) that makes it extremely modern. Vidor doesn’t linger on effects like so many others. They are quick, very obvious, and they blow us away. A comparison may be possible with the Fuller of Verboten!, Forty Guns, and Shock Corridor, with a lot more money, or even with Aldrich.

What is strange is that the film combines the Baroque and the flamboyant Gothic, while it’s meant to praise the architect Roark, whose art is quite the opposite, with its search for simplicity and purity, associated with the modernity of America. Roark—and Frank Lloyd Wright even more so—rejects fuss, European influences, Greek art, the Victorian or Tudor style, whereas here we find German expressionism, with the complicity of an Austrian musician and a Russian screenwriter.

We can sense Vidor’s frustration with his previous clients who had deceived him, taken advantage of him. And here he is pulling out all the stops, as they say.

But at the same time, The Fountainhead cuts across a whole tradition of classic American cinema.

It’s highly reminiscent of Frank Capra’s films, with the struggle of an asocial, marginal or lone man against the whole system and its prejudices, as seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. These last two films, moreover, starred Gary Cooper.

The commercial failure of The Fountainhead in the USA can be explained to some extent by the fact that this formula, which had worked well until 1940, seemed outdated after the war. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) resulted in a small loss. And Gary Cooper as the Good Samaritan in Good Sam (McCarey, 1948) wasn’t a success at all.

As with Capra, it seems like a lost cause for the lone man, but the almost miraculous ending allows him to amend the situation. A critique of the society doesn’t keep the great American principles from standing up for the cause of the good in the end. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) denounces the unscrupulous opportunism of bankers too, but rest assured, everything turns out well.

We find here one of the figures of style dear to Capra, the montage sequence where, after a string of quick shots of newspaper cuttings, we witness the violent reactions of the crowd in the street.

Another direct link with American films of the great tradition is the choice of the biopic, the life story of an important man, real or imagined, which we find in Citizen Kane (1940), Sergeant York (Hawks, 1941), Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and The Stratton Story (1949), the two Al Jolson biopics etc. Gary Cooper was, besides, the specialist of the genre.

There is also the principle of rise and fall, greatness and decadence, which mark the itinerary of Gail Wynand, Henry Cameron, and also Howard Roark, who comes close to being jailed, although he finally triumphs. All of them having started from nothing, of course. The pervasive myth of the self-made man, very common in American cinema.

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

In The Fountainhead in particular, Vidor expresses himself on all creative fronts, unlike a Hawks, a Chaplin or a Capra who neglect photography a little, a Nicholas Ray who is not good at editing, a Cassavetes who doesn’t care about music or the sets. This versatility obviously tries to make us forget the literary origin of the work, to absorb it.

Vidor is a complete filmmaker who plays on all sides. He cares very much about the visuals (he started painting in 1938), the music (he owned five guitars), the sound (Hallelujah was the first film to really use the capacities of sound), the rhythm and editing (The Big Parade was shot with a metronome) and the sets.

How does that translate here?

Sound

It is the element that one notices right away and which produces the first striking effects of the film. After the first scenes in which Roark successively confronts the dean of the school, Peter Keating and the old architect, scathing in their speed and the haunting verbosity of these secondary characters, we receive the first shock: the architect Henry Cameron breaks the bay window of Roark’s office with a T-square, with a totally unexpected violence, with no obvious reason—it’s a friend’s office—but as if to symbolically break up the buildings in front of him. There are thus multiple sonic assaults that punctuate the film right up to the last scene: another window broken with a stone, at the door of the hated newspaper (an effect that will be repeated in Ruby Gentry, when the whole town rises up against the heroine suspected of murder), the many sirens, that of the ambulance rushing towards the hospital, that of the boat, that of the police car at the exit of Wynand’s wedding (what is it doing there? It seems an unlikely presence to me), the model of the building that Wynand hurls down suddenly, the one knocked down with a cane by the architect who corrects the Cortlandt building, the statuette that falls to the ground, thrown from the tenth floor, the newspapers torn angrily, the boat violently splitting the waves, the work of the drilling machine in the quarry, the marble under the chimney that Dominique breaks frantically, the off-screen blast when we arrive at Dominique’s country house, announcing the final blast. There is an erotic vertigo around breakage and explosion, seemingly translating Dominique rush of desire, like an inner cry from her body. Love = Breakage = Destruction, which is reminiscent of the Eros/Thanatos of Duel in the Sun, and which clearly shows the necessity of the final explosion. Do these sounds recall the sounds of orgasm? Perhaps.

These noises sound all the more aggressive as they are unexpected. Two seconds before their appearance, we can’t imagine them entering the soundtrack. They make you feel uncomfortable. One of them—the statuette falling to the ground—is anticipated by an astonishing echo, occurring earlier, that owes to Steiner’s music.

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

The Individual, the Collective

Vidor’s standpoint, if it seemed clear during the course of the film—in favour of individual creation, and against all collectivist diktats—was in fact rather ambiguous throughout his life: here he collaborated with a novelist who was very much on the right (she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee with great pleasure, even going beyond the McCarthyist doctrine). This seems to tally quite well with the way this filmmaker, who voted for Eisenhower, makes fun of Reds in Comrade X, revels in the massacre of the Indians of the Northwest Passage. On the other hand, there was also the Vidor who filmed the everyday life—sometimes so difficult—of the average American in The Crowd (1928)—a first in Hollywood cinema—and Street Scene (1931), or the beautiful collective struggle of peasants to irrigate their land in Our Daily Bread (1934), a very Rooseveltian film which won an award at… the Moscow Film Festival. Not to mention Vidor’s great film-to-be, Ruby Gentry[1], shot in 1952 and written by Sylvia Richards, a well-known feminist and left-wing activist, which took a swipe at the narrow-minded and upstart bourgeoisie of the South.

We’re thus dealing with a highly complex character, which is also true of John Ford, the director of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) based on Steinbeck, but also of colonialist movies like The Black Watch (1929) or militarists films such as The Long Gray Line (1954) or Korea (1959), and of William Wellman, who could be considered one of the harbingers of socialism in light of Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), but who also made anti-Red products such as The Iron Curtain (1949) or Blood Alley (1955).

To be sure, we can see this as an effort to adapt to the dominant ideology, from the New Deal to the witch hunts, but also as the ambition of a Hollywood director to work in all fields, to show that what counts is his way of doing things, more than the underlying ideology. If it comes to that, the ideal for a filmmaker would be to make a masterpiece out of both the Jud Süß and Salt of the Earth.

And when I try to make an assessment of the situation, everything is rather fuzzy. Because, on one hand, collectivism is as much the motto of soulless capitalism, based on stock exchanges and standards, as of the Soviets. And on the other hand, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and even Lenin perhaps represent the triumph of an individual, under the guise of collectivism, more than that of communism.

To complicate things, we notice that the left-wing press in France, in the years when The Fountainhead was filmed, began by celebrating the great individuality of auteurs fighting administrations and capitalism (Stroheim, Griffith, Welles etc.). And then, after May ‘68, there was a very clear reaction on the left against the all-powerful auteur. Godard, Duras and Resnais wanted to make collective films (or sometimes pretended to make them, by rigging the credits). The auteur was therefore classified as a right-wing figure. To this case file, let us add the brilliant creator Roark, who dynamites a social housing project…

I must add that Ayn Rand, by making Roark an architect who lives solely for his work and the satisfaction it brings him, puts him in a much more limited position than Wright, whose houses were made with the obvious desire to allow his clients to find pleasure in living in them and who was flexible enough to satisfy his client. Thus, in 1895, he built the Moore House in a rather old-fashioned Tudor style. Vidor always had the desire to please the viewer by all means possible. His film is proof of this, and we will come back to it later. Moreover, I believe that, of all the filmmakers, he is probably the one who has given the audience the greatest number of emotions.

Having turned his nose up at The Fountainhead, Vidor asserted solipsism, the doctrine that everything exists through the ego.

It could be concluded that, throughout his life, Vidor never ceased to oscillate between the two extremes, individualism and a sense of the collective, pure auteur cinema (Truth and Illusion, Our Daily Bread) and studio production: he made fifty films within the System. His tactic was to alternate: an easy film, and then a more committed film. Let’s say that, rather than taking a radical stance, he was passionate about the individual/collective relationship, which is what differentiates him from other filmmakers like Lubitsch, Leone or Hitchcock, who didn’t give a damn about it.

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

Standing: Robert Douglas, Kent Smith, Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey. Seated: Henry Blanke, Ayn Rand, King Vidor.

The Plot

 First part. The lean years (25 minutes).

New York, in the thirties. In his early days, Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), an iconoclastic architect, finds it difficult to break into a milieu very much under the grip of conformism, especially because he systematically refuses all the compromises and traditional embellishments that his clients demand. He is in dire straits. He resolves to become a worker.

Second part. The quarry (12 minutes).

Roark works as a labourer in a quarry run by Guy Francon, whose daughter Dominique (Patricia Neal), attracted to Roark, provokes him. A short and violent erotic relationship between the two ensues.

Third part. The Enright House (19 minutes).

Roark is finally offered a major project, the Enright building. But the originality of this building earns him the hostility of the press, particularly the tabloid newspaper The Banner, headed by Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who doesn’t know what to sink his teeth into and is heavily influenced by his old-fashioned architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas). Roark survives by building individual homes and petrol stations.

Part Four. The Wynand Residence (12 minutes).

Wynand eventually asks Roark to build a house in the country for him and his wife, who is none other than Dominique, perhaps to please her, because he knows that she admires the work of Roark, whom he now supports.

Part Five. Cortlandt Homes (46 minutes).

Peter Keating (Kent Smith), a friend of Roark’s and a drudge of an architect, asks Roark to be his ‘ghost-writer’ and to design a large-scale housing project, Cortlandt Homes. Keating does not have enough imagination to design it, and Roark is blacklisted by clients. Roark accepts the deal, without any pay, on the condition that the project, signed by Keating, be executed without any modifications. But the clients impose major changes on Keating that shock Roark. With the help of Dominique, Roark dynamites Cortlandt, which has just been completed. He is arrested. Wynand’s newspaper supports Roark’s cause, but is disavowed by the rest of the press, by Toohey, the critic that Wynand kicks out, and by the vast majority: nobody buys The Banner anymore. So Wynand backtracks, and begins a crusade against Roark, just before Roark wins his lawsuit in the name of an architect’s moral right. A rival builder buys the site and the ruins of Cortlandt, and allows Roark to rebuild Cortlandt in his own way. Wynand, who has lost face for good, kills himself just after he orders Roark to build the gigantic Wynand Building, on top of which Dominique will join her new husband, Howard Roark. 

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[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book Le Rebelle de King Vidor (“King Vidor’s The Fountainhead”, 2009, Yellow Now)]

From Novel to Film

The Plot — The Novel and Its Author — Why Vidor? — Genesis — Wright or not Wright?

The Creator and His Ego

The Individual, the Collective — The Film Bible — Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) — Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) — Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) — Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey) — Peter Keating (Kent Smith) and Others

Aesthetics

Sound — Music — Sets — Image — Horizontals, Verticals, Diagonals — Editing — Principles of Mise en scène

The Result, the Meaning

The Excess That Transcends — Flaws — The Ambulance — The Statuette — The Quarry — The Boat — The Tree — The Trial — The Revolver Alone in the Frame — The Service Lift

Critical and Public Reception

In the United States — In Europe

“Without Franco, I wouldn’t be here, nor this book. Thank you, Francisco. It’s the only good thing you did in your life.” The author behind this characteristic note of thanks is none other than French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet, whose endearing and very funny autobiography, Mémoires d’une savonnette indocile (“memoirs of an unruly piece of soap”) has just been published by Capricci. In 42 chapters, the “prince of shoestring cinema” walks us through his young years as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma, his filmmaking life, and his stints in various professional and educational bodies. The book was announced in 2012, with the intention for it to be published posthumously. Reading it nine years later, with the author still in the pink of health, one senses that the cause for Moullet’s original reticence may have had to do less with his comments on his peers and collaborators than with the encouragement the book might give to the French tax department to come after him.

“My whole life has just been a series of exclusive passions I was ashamed of,” notes Moullet in the first chapter. Frowned upon at home, cinema became clandestine education for this Paris-born recluse, who talked to practically no one and had few friends at school. Haunting the film club of the Latin Quarter, he gradually found a “standing place” at Cahiers at the age of 18, thanks to the detailed filmographies he could assemble with the help of English dailies. A first text on Edgar G. Ulmer was rejected by Truffaut, who “was afraid of being ridiculed by the caricature of himself that I was.” Once into the ranks, Moullet was on the hunt for “unknown and forgotten filmmakers,” this kind of provocative rehabilitation being a sure-fire way to critical limelight. Very soon in his career, he says, he decided to stick to two principles: to write in a way that was “easy to understand,” unlike some of his colleagues at the magazine, and “to educate through laughter”—principles that have evidently remained intact throughout his life.

We also get personal assessments of the other leading lights of the magazine, and hence much of the Nouvelle Vague, whose criticism, declares Moullet, was ratified retroactively by the success of their first films: François Truffaut (“one of the rare filmmakers to not have been flattened by the roller of traditional culture”), Jacques Rivette (“the driving engine of the new criticism”), Jean-Luc Godard (“he put everything into his work, nothing into his life”), Claude Chabrol (“a filmmaker who looks at others… our little Balzac”), Éric Rohmer (“his strength was not getting out of a narrow subject, imagining all its facets with an unusual, fascinating and passionate tenacity”), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (“made all the girls fall for him without wanting to”). Interestingly, Moullet’s views of André Bazin register as more conflicted; the latter’s “art of analysis,” it would appear, was put in service of terrible films (“How could F.T. like this guy who often spent his time defending turkeys and destroying masterpieces?… Was Bazin a great stylist rather than a great critic?”). “In real life,” he adds however, “each of his gestures towards others seemed to be to be a model.”

The transition to filmmaking, Moullet tells us, was much easier, and happened without him even trying, at the age of 23 years. Everything he knew about shooting films at that time was taught to him by Rivette “over a lunch on Washington street between 1 PM and 1:40 PM.” Even so, after initial hiccups, Moullet the filmmaker overtook Moullet the critic, who nevertheless continued to produce texts, even major ones. The bulk of Mémoires is devoted to the discussion of each of his films: the reasons for their making, circumstances of their production, incidents from the shoot, their critical and commercial reception. Hilarious anecdotes abound, but sprinkled throughout are also tips for young directors both tongue-in-cheek (how to behave at cocktail parties, how to fudge your way to state subsidy, how to avoid paying lunch money to your crew) and serious (“never do your storyboarding when you aren’t absolutely sure of the participation of each actor”).

In terms of the information it offers, Mémoires has some overlap with Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, also Capricci), the book of extended interviews that he wrote with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni. All the now-familiar themes of Moullet’s work make regular appearances: geography (“I learnt to read maps before I learnt to read”), cycling (“Truffaut was an autodidact. I was a cyclodidact”), mountaineering (“I’ve seen every film, and I’ve climbed every mountain pass; well, 229 of them”), and naturally, women (“The drama of my life is that I’ve always been a toy for women… I was in love with four Françoises at the same time”). All this intersects with cinema in amusing ways, as when Moullet is scandalized at his own attraction for the Positif critic Michèle Firk: “How could I desire such a contemptible girl, a Biberman fan and a Fuller hater?” The episode would be the inspiration for Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989) two decades later.

But it is, of course, the theme of money that gives the book its tuning note. What makes Mémoires such an unusual, and perhaps even radical, autobiography is its lack of any sense of shame in talking about creative work in terms of finances. It isn’t just that Moullet often translates budget numbers of his films into what it could buy (a small car, two lofts in Paris) or that he discloses all the fraud that goes on around state subsidies. One of the permanent fixtures of this book is the author’s discussion about his personal relationship to money. So he talks about making do with very little, picking “soap from Lelouch’s home, paper reams from Societé des auteurs, newspapers from trash cans… toilet paper from Centre du cinéma.” It’s easy to believe that Moullet completed the script of Brigitte and Brigitte (1965) in small writing in an old school notebook in order to avoid buying a new one, but less so when he declares that he used to remain in the buff at home to avoid large laundry bills.

Some of these no-holds-barred revelations around money are positively discomfiting. It is one thing to create shell companies to avoid tax or to charge Tunisian distributors of his films for old prints already paid for by the British. But it’s something else to be on the dole while producing profitable films or hiking in the Himalayas, and to buy studio apartments in Paris with this welfare money. Moullet’s financial wiles were, moreover, supplemented by inexplicable windfalls, like the time he was credited 80,000 Francs by Crédit Lyonnais owing to a computer error. He describes this incident in some detail in Mémoires and his elaborate efforts to make sure that the money wasn’t retrieved from him. “I have no regrets about it,” he states, “Bravo Luluc (but I had regrets about watching Vidor’s The Fountainhead only in 1958. To each his own morals).” Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have been more sensitive to the feelings of individuals than the rights of institutions in his dealings with money, as is attested by his desire not to ruin Françoise Vatel following the fiasco of A Girl Is A Gun (1971) or his periodic cheques to Jeanne Moreau for Nathalie Granger (1972), which he produced.

Borrowing a journalist’s qualification, Moullet describes his public self as “an unruly piece of soap,” whence the book’s title, as someone who has always eluded grasp, an individual who signs up for one thing and does another. Admittedly, there is a groupie side to him that has wanted to belong to “families” like the ones at the Cahiers or the SRF (Société des réalisateurs de films, where he was once treasurer). Also, as an outsider, an “apraxic autistic Alpinist,” the prospect of sticking to dominant standards, such as making genre films or shooting on digital video, has been an attractive one. But this is counterbalanced by a flight from commitment. The filmmaker explains his refusal to define himself politically as an “instinctive reflex” against his father, who was constantly switching allegiances, being at one point a pro-Nazi militant.

There are other areas in which this perpetual slippage manifests. Moullet admits that, whenever planning a new project, he tried to make it run counter to the grain of the previous one. So the “navel-gazing” of Ma première brasse (1981) was a repartee to the social film that was Origins of a Meal (1978), itself made against the inwardness of Anatomy of a Relationship (1975), a follow-up to the Western A Girl Is A Gun. In his docu-fiction hybrids, such as La cabale des oursins (1991) or Le ventre de l’Amérique (1996), one isn’t always sure whether to take what is seen and heard at face value. Moullet makes reference to pataphysics once or twice in the book, but even without that framework, it’s plain that his films often use trappings of scientific research (enumeration, measurement systems, statistics, reportage, expert commentary) to absurd ends.

In the same vein, at a number of places in the book, it isn’t always clear if it’s the memoirist or the farceur in Moullet who is holding forth; for instance, when he rails against the evils of automobiles or when he performs a ridiculous psychoanalysis of women’s fear of cockroaches. This détournement, this formal displacement as it were, seems to be at the heart of his work.

The tendency for evasion may also be a survival mechanism. The overall impression one gets from Moullet’s book is of a rather easy life, one without much drama, controversy or struggle. Except for a brief lean period following the failure of A Girl Is A Gun, there appear to have hardly been any money troubles for him; friends on festival committees and boards of institutions have lent more than a helping hand in getting his films funded and showcased; the filmmaker has enjoyed a stable marriage of over fifty years and the advantages of a relatively good health—facets that a romantic (and masochistic, Moullet might add) conception would deem unconducive to good art. Shooting only for nine days a year, he seems to have led a life consecrated instead to the pleasures of farniente.

Cinema, in such an order of things, becomes a simple activity, pure game, made for and with pleasure, without any high stakes riding on it. When shooting a scene, writes Moullet, he looks for the easiest way to film it, unlike Delmer Daves, Bertrand Tavernier or Rivette who “willingly complicate life.” How to open a bottle of Coke, what are the challenges in booking a room in a mountain refuge, why do the French deify dogs: these are the burning questions his movies tackle. Moullet’s greatest legacy as a filmmaker, and the prime pleasure of reading his memoirs, may well be to have whittled down the universe to a human size, to have offered a working model of a creative life responsive to the world around it, but not caught up in the social and political upheavals of its time. For an artist, as he wrote back in 1959, “it’s enough to be a maker of objects.”

 

[Originally published at Mubi]