The first half of Happy as Lazzaro, like Alice Rohrwacher’s previous work The Wonders, offers itself as a portrait of a community. The film opens at night time in the imaginary village of Inviolata. A group of men are serenading a young lady, but we see the scene from the point of view of the women in the balcony. There are about half a dozen of them of varying ages in the room—The Wonders prepares us to assume they are blood sisters. As the young man is asked into the house, we realize that this social ritual is a rite of passage for men and women alike. The women of the house offer drinks and snacks to the male visitors, sealing the relationship. Lit by a sole incandescent bulb, the scene is filmed like a home video and is chock-a-block with incident: grandma carried to her designated seat, a wine glass passed from hand to hand, a sleeping baby, an unexpected visit by a chicken. The specificity of these details makes it clear that they derive from Rohrwacher’s own memory, as is also evident a while later when a character from the city gives children candy after a tap on their forehead.

Inviolata, as the name suggests, is a commune untouched by time, geographically cut off as it was from the rest of the country following a flood in the seventies. There’s hardly any electricity, only a handful of light bulbs, no media and no technology save for one transport vehicle. The fifty-odd people of the village aren’t divided into families; they form a single social unit. They share accommodation and marry within themselves. Lording over them is the family of the marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco baron who keeps Inviolata in the dark about the progress outside the commune. The villagers work as sharecroppers—a practice outlawed in Italy in the seventies—indebted to the marquise, who believes that exploitation is the way of the world. It’s not just the physical isolation of Inviolata sequestering the villagers; their fear and lack of curiosity turns them into sheep fenced in by legends and superstitions. Rohrwacher interweaves the oppression of the villagers with the barren landscape they inhabit, the juxtaposition producing metaphysical connotations about slavery.

One of the sheep in Inviolata’s womb is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a cherub-faced, slack-armed, wide-eyed emblem of Doomed Innocence who is, in turn, exploited by the exploited villagers. Lazzaro is given the short shrift right from the first scene, where he’s the only one to get no drink and is sent out to guard the sheep while others celebrate. He is the village donkey, burdened with all chores, petty and heavy, of the villagers. Bullied by even babies, Lazzaro is at the very end of the oppression chain, abused by both the villagers and the young marquis, who manipulates him into a brotherly relationship as part of a kidnap ploy to extract money from his mother. Despite the string of disappointments that he faces, Lazzaro doesn’t show any emotion. He is, in fact, not human, floats as he does as a pure symbol amidst the physical reality of the film. At the midpoint, state authorities finally discover Inviolata and bring the villagers back to contemporary civilization. Lazzaro, as usual, is left out and remains in the deserted village for twenty years.

Part of the reason Happy as Lazzaro sustains interest is this intrusion of the fantastical into the realist tapestry of the film. In its first half, Rohrwacher’s film depicts the hardships of country life at what appears to be the turn of the nineteenth century in the vein of Olmi or Bertolucci. To be sure, there are anachronistic elements like the motor vehicles, but there’s no sense initially that the film is working against reality. We see the villagers at work, harvesting tobacco, tilling the fields and threshing hay. Their strongly Mediterranean faces, combined with the dazzling colour and light quality of 16mm film, recalls Pasolini, adding to the film’s lived-in aspect. But the magic-realist elements at the periphery—the rain of hay, Lazzaro’s catatonic spells—soon come to the fore, taking over the film once the villagers are rehabilitated. In the second half, when Antonia (a splendid Alba Rohrwacher) discovers that Lazzaro hasn’t aged a day unlike herself and the other villagers, she kneels in prayer to Lazzaro. Rohrwacher recognizes the comedy, but doesn’t undermine the piety the scene evokes. In a lovely shot coupling the profane and the sacred, she films Antonia and Lazzaro through a sheet in the back of a truck, making their profiles seem straight out of a religious painting.

Religion, as the opiate of the oppressed, is also at the crosshair of the film’s criticism: the hypocritical marquise gives Sunday classes to the folks of Inviolata, who are elated at the sight of a religious sticker. Rohrwacher’s sights, though, are on contemporary politics as well. Detailing the feudal relationship between the marquise and the villagers—and the villagers and Lazzaro—allows her to transpose these relations onto comparable power equations under capitalism. The first thing Lazzaro notices when he enters the city is a scene of immigrant workers bidding to get a fruit-picking contract. Lazzaro is the ideal worker: he doesn’t eat, sleep, shit or feel pain. Most importantly, he doesn’t question things. He is consequently at the bottom of the pyramid in either system. Despite the necessary progress it brings, modernity produces its own form of violence that one can’t put a face to. Happy as Lazzaro is a mannered but polyvalent work, with plenty of interesting details that can’t be reduced to a single idea. I look forward to Rohrwacher’s future films.

We see a man waiting at the beach, looking towards the sea. He is dressed in a purple frock coat, wields a sword and sports a tricorn. His left arm posed on the sword and his left knee bent, the man strikes a dignified pose. He’s filmed in profile, with the horizon bisecting the frame, like in a respectable oil painting. What is he waiting for? A ship to take him home perhaps. We don’t know yet, but waiting is what Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s fever dream Zama is about. The man, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a small-time magistrate in a Spanish outpost in South America at the turn of the eighteenth century. He doesn’t have much to do in the village, except solve petty disputes between European-origin locals like himself and Indians, who have now come to terms with the new colonial order and its institutional violence. Zama longs to get back home to Argentina, where he claims to have a family. In order for that to happen, though, he needs his superior to write a letter to the Spanish throne.

Adapted from a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama trains its attention on the less-explored intersection between the colonial project and sexual politics of the period. Zama is a single white man besieged by tropical malady and romantic frustration. It appears that process of his transfer back home could be expedited if he fathers a child. We learn this only later in the film, so Zama initially comes across as a loner looking to let off steam. He solicits the daughters of his landlord, a group of three white girls who turn down his advances, taking him instead to be their protector. He then warms up to the wife of the local treasury minister, Luciana (Lola Dueñas), whose mixed signals lead him down a dead end. He finally does produce a child, but with a native woman, which makes the case for his transfer weaker.

Zama is a man split between his European ancestry and his South-American birth—a fact that is brought up by Luciana and others to put him down. This anxiety of not being a “real” European translates initially in Zama into a fear of losing his racial purity. Just after the opening scene at the beach, he spies on a group of women bathing, covered in mud. At first, it’s not clear if they are white, black or native. When a black woman spots him and tries to nab him, he slaps her twice. There are also instances of the Europeans around him “going native”: a white doctor comes under the spell of a witch doctor and loses his moorings. There are legends about a ruthless European renegade, Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), who does unspeakable things to his captives à la Colonel Kurtz. On the other hand, as Zama’s professional situation grows bleaker, his romantic criteria become looser. He seeks only white women in the early part of the film, while his interest slowly shifts to mestizos and then to natives.

Zama details the disintegration of the pompous official of the first shot, looming large over the colonial landscape, into a hapless man at the mercy of natives. While he despairs about his transfer, which is always postponed for fickle reasons, Zama contracts the cholera spreading through the colonies. He loses his job, moves into a ramshackle hut where he’s taken care of by native women. He hallucinates, sees ghosts, his rational worldview now questioned, as was the case with the European tourist in Jan Zabeil’s The River used to be a Man. He does pull through, though, and the film jumps a couple of decades in time. Zama is now part of a mercenary outfit searching for Vicuña Porto. He’s grown a beard; his frock coat and tricorne are tarnished, but he blends better with the landscape than he did at the film’s opening. The search ends badly and concludes with Zama reduced to a shadow of his imperial self.

Martel treats this narrative obliquely, in a pronounced anti-realist style that allows for inexplicable incident to occupy the frame. As Zama and his peers are torturing a native into confessing a crime he didn’t do, the camera remains planted on the calm face of the white men. Later, when Zama is captured by a group of natives, there’s a frantic bit of editing that imparts a misleading feeling of danger. When he visits his landlord’s daughters, one of whom is raped by a subordinate who will also compete with Zama for Luciana’s attention, the ladies move about him like the Three Graces. A llama walks into the shot as Zama is discussing with his superior in his office. Martel imprisons Zama in nested frames and details of décor, and she accentuates the environmental aspects of scenes: the heat, barking dogs, buzzing insects, the clinking of distant bells that amplify Zama’s fever-induced perception of hopelessness. I’m not sure if all of Martel’s stylistic and narrative choices are successful, but there’s a sense that every shot and edit is thought over, giving Zama an artisanal quality comparable to Jauja.

The Cannes Congress (extract)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 213; July 1969

The three great films at Cannes, the Italian Carmelo Bene’s Capricci, and Nagisa Oshima’s (Japan) Death by Hanging and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, devote themselves to exploring new planets in cinema.

The most daring of the three is the Bene: hardly any plot, even less psychology. It’s cinema at a state of purity never seen so far. There is nothing here other than cinema, other than ideas about cinema and without anything to do with tried and tested ideas of cinema. I don’t want to talk about technical ideas, even though there are technical ideas. It’s a hodgepodge of all kinds of ideas including technical ones. Until now, filmmakers who took off too directly from reality in order to arrive at the nonsensical, the absurd or the enlightening have fallen on their faces. I’m thinking especially of Richard Lester’s ill-fated Help. Bene is the first one to have succeeded without falling back on conventional references. It’s true that he resorts to parody, especially on the subject of gerontophilia. But this parody is too excessive to be effective as parody. It soon become lyrical and assets itself as a new value independent of what it caricatures. Bene’s success probably stems from a ceaseless descent into excess without hesitation or respite. Though there are moments stronger than others, it becomes almost impossible to remember all the elements, the viewer being overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the whole affair and the elements too far from reality to be readily absorbed by the mind.

Death by Hanging, too, has this quality of a compact monument. Oshima, however, doesn’t start off from the beyond. The film begins with a simple description of hanging and it is only slowly that we enter increasingly strange horizons. The viewer is captivated and carried away by this continuous progression. The fantastic acquires greater power as it is presented in a classical, sober and rigorous style that compels us to accept everything. At the same time, there is a constant exchange between these two contradictory elements. The film revolves around a death row convict who survives his hanging and must be hanged again immediately. But in Japan, you can be hanged only if you’re in a state of complete conscience, something that’s difficult to get after a first hanging. The officers of the prison mime the crimes he committed in order to bring back his memory, the prison director playing the role of the raped girl etc. This is only the starting point of a story which has infinitely more original events to follow, with a final return to social realism that assumes an extraordinary character by being situated after such narrative and thematic extravagance. It’s the most fantastic script in the history of cinema. And it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve been possible not to make a masterpiece out of it. I mean that, at this degree of ambition, it would’ve been impossible to shoot such sequences if they hadn’t been perfect. The actors couldn’t have been able to perform, the technicians couldn’t have been able to continue… That’s why I was doubtful about Oshima’s value. Perhaps he was a flash in the pan of The Brig kind. When he isn’t supported by a strong subject, Oshima would probably collapse. That’s why I wasn’t in a hurry to see his Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. I stayed through Biberman’s film and only saw the second half of Diary. Coming out of this other masterpiece, I was even more annoyed with Biberman, clearly made to look ridiculous in front of such films. Sex, theatre and social politics are indissolubly united here in a series of surprising confrontations of elements no less surprising. The film’s foundation might recall Godard, but the developments are absolutely personal. One is amazed to learn that this unknown filmmaker with a devouring personality is not a beginner, but has already made fifteen films in ten years. The law of averages guarantees that there are some more masterpieces in there in reserve. Forgotten masterpieces exist not only in the past, but also in our own time. The jury at Bergamo, where Hanging was in competition, refused even to give awards; all the films seemed mediocre to it. I’m perhaps slightly overrating Oshima’s work since I’m almost completely unaware of his context and this ignorance increases the impression of originality: there is a tradition of excess in Japan—which we admire in Yasuzo Masamura too—and a tradition of amalgamation, ghosts rubbing shoulders with social politics in Teshigahara for one thing. Be that as it may, Oshima towers over everything that we know of these traditions.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Our Daily Bread

“Vidor was a filmmaker with a strong visual sensibility—he was also a painter—and it shows even in this modest production. The film opens with a markedly diagonal shot of a staircase in an apartment complex—a diagonality that will reappear in the wipe transitions linking different scenes. This vertical urban space is contrasted later with the horizontal sprawl of the open fields, and the upward movement of the characters in the first scene with the downward movement of the water towards the viewer in the final shot. A champion of camera movement, Vidor constructs his scenes with gentle pans and tracking shots, as when the camera follows the couple into the house after they have expressed surprise at its condition. He often composes outdoor shots with the horizon near the top of the frame, and his low angles produce a sense of wonderment at nature’s bounty. A Christian Scientist, he binds men and nature in a religious aesthetic, with the farmers in the foreground facing the vast fields in the background, whose fruits they have to earn through the sweat of their brow.

Vidor was also a filmmaker with social-realist aspirations that didn’t go down well with the established studios. The Crowd dealt with the struggles of the average Joe and Jane within the alienating machinery of the city during a time of general economic prosperity. Hallelujah (1929) was a production with a mostly African-American cast intending to show Black life in the South. In an introduction to Our Daily Bread, filmed years later, Vidor explains that he proposed the idea for the film to MGM, who were encouraging but didn’t want take the risk. As a result, Vidor had to secure funding independently, mortgaging his house in the process. Produced by Vidor himself under the banner “Viking Productions” and distributed by United Artists with the help of Charlie Chaplin, Our Daily Bread was also one of the earliest films to comply to the production code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the effect of which shows in the film’s coy dialogue and sexual dynamics”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Cahiers du cinéma no. 99; September 1959.

If we are publishing this text that seems to have only a distant relation to film criticism, it’s because we think that good literature is worthier than bad cinema and that this article constitutes a good “short story” (Ed.).

I’ll take the liberty of breaking with the tradition that requires you to present with great erudition the city where the festival you are invited to takes place. Getting down from the train, I looked around anxiously for any particularity that made San Sebastián (Spain) a Fullerian, Hawksian, Rossellinian or Cukorian city, in order to be able to better place it in the mind of Cahiers readers. To be sure, extremes rub shoulders this “Basque Nice” as we seamlessly glide from the rococo palaces of Rio Urumea to the wooden huts and scattered sheep of the harsh ridges surrounding the city. But to be fair, I think this allows me to clearly discern in San Sebastián the signs of an internal dialectic comparable to those in Eisenstein or Hitchcock.

 

Awareness of the social self

I’m looking at festival reports published by Cahiers. It’s expected that you give your opinion on the value of each festival. Which bores me a lot. To say that this festival is mediocre or that festival is excellent not only seems difficult to me, but I also believe it means nothing at all.

Reviewers generally start by criticizing bad organization or praising the efforts of the festival committee. If they are sincere, they redeem themselves by acknowledging the quality of the competition. The fact of the matter is that it’s rather impolite, and embarrassing to the person who does it, to demolish a festival that spent fifty thousand francs on your invitation—accommodation, food, screenings etc. Let’s confess frankly that we could have enjoyed the two screenings of North by Northwest, which essentially justified the existence of this festival, even in the small MGM theatre in Paris, since Paris already had a copy of the film ready before the festival. Of course, everyone knows that the festivals committee of San Sebastián doesn’t organize this festival to spread the knowledge of film art but to serve as local publicity, with all the concomitant effects on tourism, which will fill the cash registers of San Sebastián and Madrid more abundantly. But you don’t need to go far—five hundred metres in the city, fifteen kilometres in the countryside on bad or sometimes even forbidden roads, and when there are roads, it means that the communes are rich enough to pay for them—to note that gloomy misery prowls in the vicinity. Yes, let’s say it since it must be said even if the reader of Cahiers doesn’t give a damn, and he is absolutely right, we were well fed, well lodged, well served, and the organization was almost perfect. But it’s just this that I’d hold against the festival. We were too well fed, too well lodged and, to the direct detriment of the Spanish people, even if it was negligible, even if it was indirectly made up for by the money brought back by the event’s publicity power. The national government is more interested in ostentatious pomp than depth. And what shocked me definitively is not so much the fact that I stole something, at least virtually, from the Spanish people. After all, I was maybe the least guilty of my colleagues of this involuntary theft, in that I was perhaps the one critic of all who rated North by Northwest, the film that brought the most awareness of this festival, at the top. This awareness of the social self, as Domarchi would say, manifested itself through this comparison devoid of its serious character. No crises, except for a certain embarrassment, and an amused acceptance. It was enough for me to look up the list of French critics invited and find the name of Michel Capdenac of the Lettres françaises there. I don’t know Capdenac, but I am quite sure that he enjoyed the same privileges as me, that he didn’t turn down a drink, a meal or the cosy bed offered to him, and even that he didn’t bother himself with these questions like me, even though he is a practicing Marxist1. In short, just thinking of Capdenac made me chuckle and freed me of all social complex. Ah, here I must continue my sentence: as I was saying, what shocked me the most was that the Spanish people, a part of which was waiting applauding for two or three hours, sometimes under the rain, for the entry and the exit of festival-goers at each soirée, seemed to create this tragic and absurd farce at its own expense. I found this admiration of the working class for the rich and idle class, in which it likes to see itself mentally, identical to and brilliantly and cunningly portrayed in The Last Laugh, screened here in the retrospective section at twenty-four frames per second and without the last reel.

 

The anti-dialecticism of intellectualism

I’m still looking at festival reviews in Cahiers. Some find that the schedules are badly thought out and prevent them from seeing all films, others complain about the flowers that block the view from the front rows, or other trifles. So, I’d reproach the 12th San Sebastián Festival for not having anything to reproach it in the pages of Cahiers. On second thoughts, I have a whole lot to complain about. For instance, what’s terrible about the luxury hotels where we are put up is that everything runs smoothly, everything is done for the supposed comfort of the customer, and it’s this that is unpleasant. They take the suitcase from my hands, they bring the breakfast to my bed, I had the feeling of being good for nothing, of being treated with the respect usually reserved for Réné Clair, Marcel Camus or some other doddering geezer. They’ve just stopped short of bathing and grooming me. The most ordinary gestures of everyday life, which even the greatest geniuses can’t live happily without, are prohibited for us. No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe. At the most, I open the tap of my washbasin, hoping deep within that it’ll burst and that I will have to repair it and stop a flooding. There is running water in my washbasin, and even hot water. But I’d have preferred to be in the mountains where a litre of cold-water costs a hundred francs, because it’s at least fun to calculate how much water I can waste at the most. There is a bed in my room, and even curtains, but I’d have preferred a sleeping bag and some hay, firstly because it feels better and also because it allows for some amusing, involuntary nocturnal slipping and bizarre awakenings. Where am I? Where is the north? Good God, where could this north be that I’ve lost? I want to take the stairs, but the overzealous lift boy drags me into the elevator: he doesn’t know that, as a fan of Touch of Evil, I never take elevators, in order to struggle with it by my own means.

 

Clerics, clerics, clerics

Let’s be serious. What’s the San Sebastián festival worth? I’ll tell you: it doesn’t matter. Besides, I don’t see why that would interest you since you don’t go to festivals often. What I say would only interest the director of the festival. I am a critic of films, and not of film festivals. And then, an organiser doesn’t merit praise for producing a good festival. There are no miracles in cinema, and if there are, nearly all of them are predictable. There are about twenty film auteurs in the world, those that are lauded in the Cahiers. After them, a void. That’s it. Respected organisers of big and especially small festivals, please invite their latest work and, if possible, the first films of promising directors whose names we have at Cahiers. If Cannes and Venice seize Bergman, Buñuel, Rossellini etc., catch hold of Cukor, Minnelli, Ray, Fuller, Hawks, Lang, Vidor, Cottafavi, Melville, Barnet, Losey, Godard, Kinoshita, the condemned of competitions. You’ll be right every time. Avoid at all cost directors who have more than two films to their credit and not a single success. Look down on national selections, they are the ones responsible for the sufferings of Saint Sebastian endured by critics. The selection committees tell themselves: San Sebastián is Spain, so we need clerics, we need moral, well-intentioned, children-oriented films. This is the reason there were thirteen bad films of the twenty-two in competition, most of them vile. This is not a criticism: Cannes prefers the average to the vile. But the average isn’t out of place in a festival any more than the vile. Let’s compare the two festivals: 1 point for great films, ½ for good films, half-price for out-of-competition premieres: The 400 Blows + Nazarin + Desire + India + Hiroshima + Anne Frank = 3 ¾ points for Cannes. The Hitchcock plus the Bulgarian film and the Indian film plus the Ford = 2 ¼ points. The difference isn’t great, Cannes wins it thanks to the value of its out-of-competition films, and it would’ve been enough for Verboten! and Rio Bravo to go to San Sebastián to reverse the trend. So, let’s not try to establish a list of best film festivals. San Sebastien 1958 with Vertigo, a Monicelli, a Sirk and a Guitry clearly had the upper hand over Cannes 1959. Let’s not attach too much importance to the prize list of festivals.

 

A gradation in sublimity

Cinema is not a sport or a beauty contest. The best remain the best for forty or fifty years. The spectacular and publicity interest of awards can endure only if it brings something new, something original, if it distinguishes itself from its precedents. Now, had the judges been fair, Hitchcock would’ve already won eight times at Cannes and Venice, Rossellini seven times, Welles five etc. It would’ve made no sense. It would’ve made sense if there were a festival of all the best films of the year. But these are scattered across six or seven competitions and win hands down over others, as expected all along. We understand hence that The Nun’s Story, a mediocre film by Zinnemann, but the third least bad film by little Fred, was crowned at the expense of the great Alfred’s admirable North by Northwest, which arrives only at the nineteenth position among the forty-six Hitchcocks. Only one awards roster this year will have some meaning because among the losers there will be virtual winners: Venice. We’ll give the winner the only campionissimo of Italian cinema, the leader Roberto getting ahead of Otto by a wheel, Claude by two laps, Ingmar bringing up the rear, Mario and Jerzy winning the peloton sprint, but it could be the other way. There, it would really be the films that triumph and not auteurs. We notice that the greats produce at most three or four works superior to their other films, and it’s these that a festival should award, thanks to a general confrontation without any exclusion. Orson, Roberto, Luis, Alfred, Ingmar, Charles, Jean, Fritz and some others would block the road forever and the best, even Murnau, wouldn’t be able to win more than four times. So, no academism. And we’ll gain in lucidity. For one must be strong to be able to prefer India to Nazarin or Hiroshima. To establish a gradation in sublimity, that’s the purpose of festivals. It’s the most difficult, the vainest perhaps, but also the most enriching of all intellectual exercises.

In short, here’s my award list at San Sebastián:

★★★—1. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (USA)

★★—2. Shakti Samanta’s Insaan Jaag Utha (India)

★★—3. Nicolai Korabov’s Malenkaia (Bulgaria)

★—4. Jerzy Passendorfer’s Answer to Violence (Poland)

★—5. Vladimir Pogačić’s Alone (Yugoslavia)

★—6. Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (USA)

 

North by Northwest

(Silver Shell for the good quality of its creativity, its ingenuity, its subtlety) Admirable in itself, disappointing for a Hitchcock. Had I enjoyed Hitchcock’s artistic and commercial position, I wouldn’t have gambled on a subject that emphasizes so little on the nature of the characters, which are of an amazing richness in comparison to those of The Nun’s Story, but which suffer in comparison to those of Vertigo. It’s a more evidently commercial film with numerous holes in the course of its hundred-and-thirty-six-minute runtime, of a constant, rather surprising beauty and sparse sublimity, which owes a lot to the private joke (A.H. literally misses the bus), to the idea of pure mise en scène, harnessed here to the detriment of the script. It’s an art that places all its stakes on volumes, colours, duration, the concept of an already geometric and abstract figure, and Hitchcock wins every time thanks to the disconcerting neatness of an execution that’s as simple, as pared down as possible. There are here four or five greatest scenes that Hitch has ever shot, but we ask more of him. Eva Marie Saint makes a good screen debut. Mason is good. Grant excellent. Burks too. Saul Bass, brilliant, eclipses the windbag McLaren’s Serenal, which progresses at the rate of one idea every three minutes. But Serenal only lasts two minutes and fifty seconds. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

 

Two revelations

The only two other “cinematically thought” films crush the mass of films towards the direction of scholarly or aestheticizing actors. Uneven, of bad taste, botched up, they remain attractive thanks to the spontaneity and inventiveness of the acting, to effects that never borrow their power from morality or sentimentality. I don’t understand Hindi and I didn’t try to understand what happens in Insaan Jaag Utha. This film is good because the actors sing and dance here with talent, because the tics of the secondary characters are pushed beyond the grotesque, because there is action and plot twists. The best scene, the final fight in the quarry, is delirious: hanging on their respective ropes, midway between the summit and the depths of a quarry, which is going to explode, the two heroes try to knock each other off with kicks and blows. Good music. Margarita Ilieva, the Bugarian Malenkaia, isn’t very pretty, but she’s as lively as a Castellani heroine. Her partner is good, many little ideas in the intimist style. Good scenes in the streets of Sofia with well-directed extras. Colourful and exuberant formalism: a love scene seen through a distorting fishbowl. Gratuitous but funny. Critique of contemporary society that puts itself in an awkward position. Korabov (30 years) doesn’t care. Samanta neither. We neither. May they continue!

 

And the Polish?

Answer to Violence (critic’s prize and direct rival to The Nun’s Story), to which I preferred a new viewing of the Alfred, strikes us seemingly with the effectiveness of a raw document: the preparation and execution of an attack against an SS general, Warsaw, 1942. One point, that’s all. Out of competition: Farewells, Wojciech Has’s cerebral and baroque love story that I didn’t see; A short, talented Red Balloon called A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw, the latest Wajda, Ashes and Diamonds, cinematically average and impresses only with its baroque peaks, which are often unpleasant (emphasis on WCs). But the shirt that goes up in flames under the impact of bullets, the dying man who sweeps the ground with his feet to alleviate the pain, all these are not bad. Interesting script. The hero hesitates between homo and heterosexuality, but Wajda, the impulsive intellectual and aesthete, matches up poorly with his intentions (cf. Plazewski’s excellent article in our 96th issue). Documentary or baroque, Polish cinema occupies only an honorary place in world cinema. Nothing more.

 

L’il Fred won’t grow up

In The Nun’s Story (Golden Shell for the content inspired—for the contained inspiration, I’d say—by its theme, the purity of its direction on human and aesthetic levels), Audrey Hepburn, mediocre and out of place in the role, but Best Actress prize, tosses away her veil at the end of fifteen years and at the end of three hours and a half, which the Christian charity of Jack Warner cut down to two hours and a half. I had taken my precautions and napped before the screening; it was necessary, I wouldn’t have lasted otherwise. If Domarchi was at San Sebastián, we wouldn’t have known the end of Eisenstein’s secrets2, for this drudgery would have killed him for good. Zinnemann takes a stab at colour again like Huston, and it’s bad; he drones about metaphysics, it’s awful, he misses the mark completely. Let’s not be mean: the style comes across as simple, documentary, medical (it’s also about medicine, like the best Zinnemann, The Men; all the better, Zinnemann has everything it takes to be a doc). Not too many aesthetic experiments. The document is perhaps false, Aretino described the life of nuns differently, but the simplicity holds your attention, like in The Goddess. Even so, at the end, we have the desire, like Kyrou, to become a priest-basher. A film like this does considerable wrong to Christianity. I give it a rating of 53.

 

Miscellaneous, summer films

Since Zinnemann, whom I can’t be suspected of having a weakness for, comes sixth, only inanities must follow! Alone is a decent, suitably played, popular-democrat-style war film. Ragpicker’s Angel (the OCIC prize for showing a Japanese Christian) plays firstly on its baroque setting—not bad—and then collapses into pathos. I nodded off, I opened my right eye for a second, I closed it, I opened the left one: oh boy, what torture! I stayed because they told me Gosho was a good guy, but I’ll only trust myself from now on. The Rest is Silence (special prize), decently played, modernizes Hamlet with ridiculous results: expressionism, Claudius, head of a factory in the Ruhr, sells to SS his brother who, now a spectre, telephones Hamlet, who escapes from an airport… Marine expressionism in Wolf Hart’s Abseits, mediocre Golden Shell for Short Film. Among the Ruins started very well: the script is funny. The professor and his charming pupil fight in class, but fall in love with each other. After this, a horrible, melodramatic flashback for an hour and a half in order to remain faithful to the novel. In the first reel, Ezzel Dine Zulficar reveals himself to be as enjoyable as his relative Mahmoud Zulficar, but the rest of the film shows us that talent is not hereditary. The Light from the Top starts with beautiful landscapes, the actress is good, Portuguese is sweeter to hear than Spanish, but God, what melodrama, what sermonizing after that!

In two sequences of From the Apennines to the Andes, the actors eat naturally, and in the last, Rossi Drego undresses rather prettily behind a bedsheet put out to dry, which won it a joint Silver Shell with Hitchcock! Capdenac is completely crazy to see a masterpiece in For whom the Skylarks Sing, a dull peasant film. In Crime After School—jazz party—Vohrer, the German Molinaro makes the pretty Corny Collins ugly. G.B, N.T.R. Death in the Saddle, a parody Western, shows that the Czechs don’t yet know how to suitably use cinemascope. The films in Spanish are impossible: susceptible to pretension, theatrical actors, ugly language. Despite his Nobel prize, the savant in Leap to Fame (award for Best Hispanic Film and for Best Actor) doesn’t manage to interest us. I’ve not seen the Mexican film: they showed me some photograms earlier, that was enough; nor Everyone’s in Love: that gives me a good pretext to remain courteous to Jacqueline Sassard, which is very difficult after seeing her films. To be frank, let’s say that, not being a masochist, I stayed till the end of only about a dozen films. Life is short and spending more than ten minutes with a turkey is bad. If there’s nothing at the end of ten minutes, there’ll be nothing beyond. Which allows me to judge the value of films according to time: I stayed for 11 minutes, 23 seconds for Death in the Saddle against 8 minutes, 23 seconds for Convict no. 1040, 2 minutes, 47 seconds for Adolescence of Cain and 22 seconds for Leap to Fame. So, Death in the Saddle is superior to Cain by 8 minutes, 36 seconds.

 

India mon amour

Outside competition, The 400 Blows (France was not officially represented), not bad at all4, John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers and the sublime India, the most dizzyingly rapid and the most dizzyingly slow of all films, the most disconcerting, not the finest, but the newest of all, much newer than even Journey to Italy. Some yelled in rage in their seats, the others nodded off, exhausted by Rossellini’s incessant merry-go-round. I was speechless, completely astounded. And to think that certain critics at Cannes could see a good documentary without personality in this work next to which Ivan the Terrible comes across as an aborted bastard of the tradition of quality and which establishes itself as the firm favourite of the Moscow Festival. I hardly like unjustified hyperboles, but I think that, until we have the advantage of two or three screenings, for once, it’s there that the only reasonable and impartial criticism that one could make about the film lies.

 

A fine Ford

Over two hours and the American Civil War, a commando unit lead by Wayne and Holden advances into Pittsburgh. Mediocre photography by Clothier. But Ford is in full form. A curious thing: what irritates the most in Ford—a rather crude and embarrassing humour—is what explains his success and enables the fleshing out of subtle and endearing characters. More than a moving film—scenes of butchery and the advance of child-soldiers towards the Yankee army are nice, but nothing to cry about—it’s a sensitive film. Ford is uneven within his films, but there is a crowd of little details here that pack a punch. Walsh is clearly beaten by a long distance. Wayne has never been better than in this scene, full of invention, where he starts drinking his whisky, gets annoyed and ends up smashing everything.

 

1As his review shows.

2Domarchi had written a series on Eisenstein in Cahiers.

3The Catholic Central’s most negative rating.

4It’s a form of private joke.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival, organised by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bangalore, opened with the premiere of Lalit Vachani’s Recasting Selves. Revolving around the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, the film is a respectful but not a celebratory description of the institute’s activities. With an aim to hone students from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) background for jobs in the private sector, where there’s no affirmative action, CREST conducts five-month-long diploma courses for batches of thirty-odd students. Participants are trained in public speaking, presentation, group work, assertive body language, positive thinking and personality development. They learn the basics of corporate etiquette through engaging audiovisual support. The teachers are dedicated and nurturing, but don’t have illusions about the course. They acknowledge that it’s too limited an experience to be transformational. Recasting Selves, which follows the induction and graduation of one particular batch of students, is not a success story; yet some progress is made at the end: some students get placed, some become first graduates from their community, and some others go back to their traditional professions.

The film is a mix of talking-head interviews with the institute’s staff, vignettes from the classroom and scenes at students’ homes in villages far from Calicut. In the latter, we get a peek into the Aranadan community, to which one student belongs, their non-Vedic beliefs and their disappearing language. At the home of another, we have a conversation between the student, who wants to start a fashion boutique, and her tailor father, who advises her to take up a stable job. These exchanges are performed for the camera, which is a little discomfiting for the viewer as it is for the participants. Back in the classroom, during the presentation sessions, the handheld camera stands close to the students, sometimes making them freeze in fear. It redoubles their consciousness of being seen and heard, which is what is the course helps them overcome. On the other hand, the students are more articulate when the camera is on a tripod. They talk about their aspirations. They recount their personal experience of caste discrimination, or lack thereof, and present their opinion on reservation. All of this in English.

The batch is fairly divided between boys and girls. It’s a much better gender ratio, in any case, than at the IIM campus they visit for a workshop on public speaking: the sight of CREST girls in their colourful salwar kameez, moving as a mass into the IIM lecture halls implicitly questions the gender distribution at IIMs. Recasting Selves points out that, beyond their social identity, these students are also products of a pan-social generation. Not just in their entrepreneurial ambitions and ease with technology, but in their tendency to substitute questions of opportunity for questions of rights. In their desire to rise beyond politics and assimilate into the corporate workforce, they represent a paradigm shift within Kerala’s social politics. One Adivasi student, we are told, was actually a BJP candidate of his constituency, a choice that he explains in terms of exposure and personal progress. Politics, whose ubiquity Vachani captures in shots of party posters across towns, appears to have lost its hold on this generation, whose symbolic counterpart is the English-language coaching centre banners competing with the party posters.

There are traces of institutional critique as well. Vachani asks the head of CREST about the lack of DBA teachers in their campus. The director doesn’t see that as being an issue, while quickly promising to include “at least one Dalit faculty” soon. In an awkward moment of hand-wringing, a programme coordinator says he doesn’t think there’d be Dalit pedagogues willing to teach the social theatre that’s part of the curriculum. Likewise, a famous newspaper that recruits CREST students as interns discusses the under-representation of DBA groups in their newsroom—a concern that comes across as a PR talking point. These institutional blind spots call to mind an early scene in the film, where the CREST direction, apparently none of them from a DBA background, is choosing candidates based on representational quotas. The scene prompts the question of self-sustaining privilege in even socially-conscious academic and journalistic institutions, of who gets to say which groups are more vulnerable and need opportunities.

Running through the film is a tension between an assertion of the students’ caste identity and its suppression. The film was shot just weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the discourse surrounding the event prompts students to confront their identities. They take cognizance of the invisible barriers they have come up against during their schooling. They recast their experience in terms of discrimination and envy. It is plain that Vemula’s suicide has instilled feelings of vulnerability. One of the boys points out that it could happen to any of them. At the same time, many students make it clear that they want to move on. Recasting Selves brings this dialectical line into sharp focus in the final sequence of the film. As part of their end project, students are required to mount a street play together. The choice of subject is between Vemula’s suicide and Bengali immigration to Kerala. Working with activist and theatre director Dakxin Bajrange, they research the two topics, make presentations and take a vote. The second topic wins by a significant margin. Asked why they don’t want to talk about Vemula, one of them says discussing caste isn’t going to fill their stomach. Another is just fed up of having to talk about discrimination all the time.

Going by their line of questioning, the CREST faculty are strongly in favour of the first subject. So is the film: when the students present the perceived ills of Bengali immigration—criminality, terrorism, job loss, lack of hygiene, language barriers—Vachani accelerates his editing to produce a feeling of dread that wasn’t present in the presentation on Vemula. It is evident that the film is underlining the intersectional nature of oppression, and the irony of the film crew and the non-DBA faculty wanting the students to engage with DBA identity politics isn’t lost on the film. Recasting Selves recognizes this as a double-bind in the discourse around caste. The students’ refusal to perform caste is located in a political landscape where communist consciousness has suppressed discussion about caste (one faculty member mentions that Kerala accounts for the fewest inter-caste marriages), itself couched within a climate of assertive identity politics.

In this light, their choice to speak about Bengali immigration scans as the other side of the coin: by deflecting the question of caste onto immigration, the students, it appears, are able to assume a broader Malayalee identity—a mainstreaming that the subject of Vemula’s suicide doesn’t afford them. It also speaks to their generational anxiety about vanishing opportunities within the fixed pie of neoliberal order. Vachani’s film demonstrates that this dilemma of the students is, moreover, the institute’s own. CREST intends students to work through their complexes by owning up to their roots. Their curriculum involves participants researching into the history of their communities. Outside their classroom, the boys and girls unite in folk ballads about feudal oppression. At the same time, the institute is forward looking; through its training in the theatre of social relations, it helps students be corporate-ready, to shed their caste identity and blend into the wider middle-class. Recasting Selves resumes this identity crisis in its the cut from the hardy face of an Aranadan woman at her village to a laptop screen in the classroom.

 

[An edited version was published in The Hindu]

The Slide of the Admiral

Cahiers du cinéma John Ford special; 1990

7 Women

My article championing The Rising of the Moon was rejected in 1957 by Cahiers, who asked me for an article on Ford in 1990…

The first impression upon contact with the John Ford phenomenon is that of immensity: hundred and twelve feature films and about twenty short films. No other great filmmaker has been able to compete with such abundance. No one ever can. Indeed, Ford’s extreme productivity is related to, among other things, his activity in the silent era. Talkies demand more time.

While it doesn’t rule out familiarity, this high productivity seems to refuse the possibility of a synthesis. It takes four months for a necessarily incomplete retrospective since about thirty movies from the 1920s were never found. By the time the last work is screened, the memories of the first ones have already dimmed. Forty years have passed between my first contact—The Informer—and North of Hudson Bay, which I could see a few days ago. Forty years, almost as long as Ford’s working life. The abundance becomes a handicap here: you don’t dare to write on something that overwhelms you, you don’t dare to speak about it. From there to oblivion…

It’s true that this concern for thorough knowledge is a relatively recent demand. Should we go back to the principles of old criticism which based itself only on the most noteworthy works? The first John Ford fanboy, Jean Mitry, used to say that it’s stupid to want to watch all the films of a director. All the more so for Ford… Should we dream, like we do for writers, of a “portable Ford”? The hiccup is that no one agrees on the choices. It’s possible to imagine two books on Ford having no common title in their table of contents. In fact, the books by Jean Roy and Lindsay Anderson aren’t far from this this extreme hypothesis.

High productivity is an important part of the body of work that we can’t ignore or hide.

Even though, at certain times, Steamboat Round the Bend or Tobacco Road get preference in my estimation, I think that my favourite Ford is Seven Women, the last of the hundred and twelve films. Not only do I prefer Seven Women but I what I like the most in the film is its last minute, the triumphant suicide, Ford’s coda leading up to an aggressive, brutal laconism unheard of in his body of work and open to multiple meanings.

I fell in love when I saw Seven Women during its release, when I didn’t know it would be his last film. And I also think Ford (who had other projects at the time and wasn’t the kind that thought of retirement) didn’t conceive it as a testamentary film. It’s thus at once a natural expression—for Ford—and a natural emotion—for me—entirely related to the film and unrelated to the context.

But that it’s the last hour of the longest filmography in the entire history of cinema past and future, the very last minute of some ten thousand minutes of film (work of an old gentleman of flagging health) that moves me the most is something altogether stunning.

I wonder if I could ever, in life like in art, find an occurrence that propels me more towards optimism, a pure optimism free of dross since it’s produced by one of the most tragic scenes.

You’ll tell me it’s a choice peculiar to me. But it’s close to the current critical norm: the referendum organized by the Brussels Cinematheque in 1977 revealed the pre-eminence of The Searchers, the 108th Ford picture, over all others. It established the clear lead of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, number 109, over The Informer, once a central pillar, now dispensable.

There is also a very surprising trend in Hollywood cinema, where the late career of “greats” is always a little disappointing or withdrawn (Hawks, Hitchcock, Vidor, Griffith, Borzage, Capra, Chaplin, Mann, Preminger, DeMille etc.) I can think of only Mankiewicz who overcame this challenge, thanks to a somewhat anticipated retirement.

 

Though it would be adventurous to define the silent period about which we know little, it’s permissible to think of it as the break-in period, with some titles more notable than others (Hell Bent), and to say that Ford’s body of work really begins towards his fiftieth film, somewhere near Three Bad Men or Four Sons or Arrowsmith.

It’s the opposite of modern European careers, where the first feature is generally among the best, if not the best, and where one barely reaches twenty or thirty films at the end of the career.

This abundance has produced an experience, an incomparable self-assurance. In his early talkies, Ford seems to be a master of all situations when he takes on the most ambitious projects. It’s hard to imagine him anxious on the eve of a shoot, or during takes, or during the release date. Shooting becomes an everyday reality and loses its importance. Ford makes films like a baker makes bread. The notion of a body of work doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for him. He never lingers on the editing table. He never wastes time at the launch of a film. The pleasure of getting back with his shooting crew can become the primary motivation.

One could evoke Walsh in this regard. But he pushes this laidback quality too far: he doesn’t always come to the shoot. Reading his memoirs, it seems that screwing an actress or fighting with a rival was more important for him that the final product. There isn’t a thematic unity in his work.

Only Mizoguchi—a little less productive—can be compared to Ford. Moreover, it would be very instructive to see Oyuki the Virgin (1935) and Stagecoach (1938), its remake of sorts, one after the other since both films take off from Boule de Suif. Sansho the Bailiff shares the perspective of The Grapes of Wrath. The difference between the two men lies in the great care Mizoguchi demonstrated towards his scripts. On the other hand, Ford sometimes took them as they came, days before the shoot for which he was assigned at the last moment. I think he made no fundamental distinction between his films and those by others for which he shot some difficult shots.

Other differences relate to the pre-eminence of the individual—and women—in the Japanese filmmaker and the small group—and men—in the American. And then Ford was more a raconteur and Mizoguchi a storyteller.

 

Ford’s laid-back nature, which can account for his power, also makes for his weakness. The politique des auteurs found it rather hard to assimilate him since it postulates that great filmmakers manage to ennoble everything they touch. Now if, after the early years, we find practically no false notes in Hawks and Hitchcock, it must be admitted that Ford is something of a concern. He is successful with one in every two films. At sixty, he still finds a way to churn out three insipid works one after the other: Mogambo, The Long Gray Line, and Mister Roberts. Not to mention duds like The Black Watch, Wee Willie Winkie or Gideon’s Day: films that had no chance of success owing to the mediocrity of their raw material, made for money, the desire to travel and work as a team, the presence of a mascot or a pet cause.

We often speak about Ford’s eclecticism on account of the variety of genres he handled. But this eclecticism turns out to be illusory: no musical, no horror film. There is no crime movie except the mediocre Gideon’s Day. Clearly, Ford doesn’t like the detective genre. On two other occasions (Up the River, The Whole Town’s Talking), he dissolves into comedy. Admiral Ford is fascinated only by the navy. If he encounters the army (What Price Glory) or the air force (Air Mail), he diverts everything into comedy.

To distinguish the Westerns from the Irish films is vain: Indians and Irishmen are similar minorities, just like Mormons (Wagon Master) or Jews (Little Miss Smiles), and he sometimes pits Irishmen or Mexicans against Indians.

In fact, the eclectic quality of the scripts is almost always nullified by the polarization along some well-known principles: small groups, mothers, families, comical sidekicks, the ball scene, twilight figures from the last decade. Always the great outdoors, or the small town. New York almost never appears. With a little exaggeration, I could say that Ford has only ever made one film. We are far from the bulimia of a Duvivier or a Tavernier.

 

If one likes Ford, one could be shocked that the filmmaker had no political leaning except those of his clients, or whatever was fashionable. One would’ve loved to find something constantly, deeply moral, to trace anti-racist seeds much before Sergeant Rutledge or Cheyenne Autumn, in the first Westerns or in Stagecoach, to uncover a common thread between the generosity of The Grapes of Wrath or the sectarianism of This is Korea! or Seven Women. Notwithstanding some brilliant theses on this topic—Ford’s bonhomie softening the harshest features of almost all his characters—opportunism appears to be the sole truth. But is it really opportunism? Isn’t it rather a somewhat systematic acceptance, with no ulterior motive, of whatever the era has to offer? A concurrence with the silent majority, which sometimes he precedes by a little (Fort Apache)? Ford, like many first- and second-generation immigrants, has a principled respect for his country of adoption and its beliefs. The very fact of having taken the surname of one of capitalism’s greatest henchmen as his alias is revealing.

 

Ford’s power resides firstly in a dialectic between the presentation of mythologies and familiarity, the absolute and the relative, the thought-over and the lived, the moral and the picturesque, heavy clouds of Fate and hands on the ass. It’s the vigour and spontaneity of McLaglen, Fitzgerald or Ward Bond that help the spectral compositions of August or Toland push through. Not always: monotony looms large, and so does vulgarity.

The picturesque aspect has to do with the abundance of living beings (hence the small group), the multiplicity of their actions in the shot or in the sequence. Ford is perhaps the American filmmaker who has worked the most on the difference in dialects and accents (Doctor Bull).

The expression of mythologies is carried out either through the meaning of actions or through the photography: shadows, back lights, immense settings that diminish man. Mythologies in Ford become extremely dangerous when they are limited to themselves (cf. the clear failures of The Fugitive and The Informer). Photographic overload and second-hand expressionism make the films go around in circles, while most often, the image skilfully serves as the lyrical amplification of realistic everyday details.

We could, however, invert the proposition and assert that the picturesque leads nowhere without the help of mythologies. We have for proof the success of Tobacco Road. But that was an exception. Dialectic nevertheless makes for the greatest part of Ford’s body of work. Its two components can be found in the same instant or be linked by a pan shot or a cut. What counts is the variety of links Ford finds between them.

There are other related forms of contradictory balance within a film, or across films. It could be said that Ford takes wicked pleasure in doing the opposite of what he has just done. His greatest quality is concision, but in The Searchers, he does his best to make us feel the long passage of time involved in a hunt spanning many years, rendering the ideas of revenge and racism ridiculous. In The Rising of the Moon, from one sketch to another, he alternates the impression of rapidity and slowness for both characters and viewers. This probably explains his political fickleness better. Ford, the champion of the macho movie, the maker of two films without women—Men without Women and The Lost Patrol—that were perhaps the first of their kind, also made hymns to mothers and ended his career on a film almost entirely without men (Seven Women), the two male characters being a weakling and a monster.

 

We could define Ford’s art as an art of “sliding between notes”. Hence, the importance of dissolves and other transitions (The World Moves On, The Grapes of Wrath). The viewer shouldn’t realize he’s watching a movie and that the movie has already started. Often, moreover, nothing of importance really happens (Judge Priest, Doctor Bull, Tobacco Road, The Long Gray Line etc.). We wonder what we can say about the films, which sometimes leads to a negative judgment. All very classical values. After all, isn’t Ford the only classicist in the history of cinema worthy of interest? And our critical armada isn’t up to the task to deal with this exceptional case.

One problem remains: this precious sense of “sliding” seems to be the same in both the masterpieces and the failures of Ford. We nevertheless sense a huge difference in quality between them. We could point out the customary concision of a scene in Gideon’s Day or The Long Gray Line, but we could also wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better had he dropped the entire scene, or had he not made the film at all.

Ford’s art seems elusive, impossible to pin down. It’s in the method, but it surfaces only when the material is rich. It takes us back to a very old rule of thumb: to make a good film, you need a good script and then good direction. Isn’t it symptomatic that three of his best films (The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road and, more obliquely, Stagecoach) were adapted from high-profile literary works? Isn’t The Grapes of Wrath better than How Green Was My Valley simply because Steinbeck is a better writer than Llewellyn? Ford is the opposite of Hitchcock, who often needed a terrible, totally unbelievable script (Psycho, North by Northwest) to be able to rise above its faults and outdo himself.

 

Why is it that the film version of The Grapes of Wrath has survived in people’s minds more than the book, while there’s no big difference between the two? Is cinema so weak an art that a solid adaptation of a good book can pass for a masterpiece? In contrast, there’s much higher competition in literature. Even so, there are more concessions in Ford’s film, such as the inversion that pushes the most optimistic episode at the government camp to the end of the film; and this immaculate, smooth-talking Fonda (Fonda is outstanding, but that is not the problem) who is clearly a reflection of the Hollywood hero, absent in the original.

The difference is that agricultural migration was dealt with more often in writing and almost never on film. But isn’t all this to the credit of the very idea of filmmaking?

The difference is that Steinbeck rubs it in, harnesses all the possibilities of every scene, while the film skims over the facts, taking their essence and moving quickly to the next scene. It has become the first road movie, a succession of signposts producing an unquestionable, objective curtness that limits pathos. But weren’t these omissions made in order to cut the film down to two hours from six? And isn’t it the scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson who’s primarily responsible for that?

Ford succeeds when he appears to efface himself behind others, behind the material of his films. Might his role simply be that of a supervisor, a mediator? And might not our concern for analysing Ford’s specificity go against the grain of his body of work?

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Asuran

After two modest, moderately successful projects in Polladhavan and Aadukalam, it seemed to me that Vetrimaran truly hit his stride with his third feature, Visaranai (“Interrogation”), an unflinching look at police brutality whose intelligent structure stoked and then implicated the viewer’s apathy towards the issue. But delusion of precocious grandeur caught up with the filmmaker sooner than I expected, his next film, Vada Chennai (“North Chennai”), a hollow, self-styled epic mistaking scale for vision, straining for import at every turn. Vetrimaran’s new film Asuran (“Demon”) assures us that Vada Chennai wasn’t a stray blip, but a sign of things to come. A mediocre work in terms of not just artistic merit, but even basic technical competence, it continues the rapid plunge of a director who was briefly the white hope of Tamil cinema.

Vetrimaran’s second literary adaptation after Visaranai, Asuran begins in medias res, with Sivasami (Dhanush, in his fourth collaboration with the filmmaker) and his son Chidambaram (Ken) making their way through a water body. They have murdered a VIP from the village and are being pursued by the dead man’s family. As they pause at a hilltop, a narrator (the director himself) takes us into the reasons for their flight. Sivasami’s three acres were being eyed by the upper-caste family owning most of the land in the area, and this led to a series of confrontations between Sivasami’s hot-blooded son Murugan (Teejay) and the landed family, resulting the murder that triggered Sivasami’s flight. A large part of the “present” traces Sivasami and his son walking day and night, traversing the lawless terrain of the countryside in the hope of getting to the nearest city, where they have a hope of surrendering themselves to the law.

Like Vada Chennai, the nested structure of Asuran seeks to dig beneath present-day conflicts to reveal the deep-rooted nature of oppression. In another flashback on their flight, Sivasami details his tragic past: his job as a toddy-maker with an upper-caste baron in another village, his romance with his sister’s daughter, the organized struggle of his brother towards getting back lands their community lost to the baron, Sivasami’s own political awakening following his boss’s betrayal, the escalation of violence succeeding a volley of public humiliations, ending in a bloodbath modelled on the Keezhvenmani massacre. In the present, Dhanush plays a character well above his age: a timid middle-aged drunk with a curved spine, a ridiculous patch of white hair, a loose shirt, a soiled veshti hovering above the ankle and a Palakkad towel on his shoulder. It’s a character that’s emasculated to prepare us for the Sivasami’s heroics in the past: the sight of Dhanush’s young, thin frame taking down scores of thugs, always punching above its weight.

These passages of poetic justice are also what vitiate the film. Every time the narrative pries open the question of structural violence, Vetrimaran sublimates it in the macho spectacle of Sivasami dishing it to his oppressors. In a film full of institutions failed and functional, it’s only the agency of brute person-on-person violence that’s given any real weight. And how? Vetrimaran depicts all acts of lynching, humiliation and aggression in full detail, allowing the audience to partake in it, while at the same time using these scenes to drum up sentiments in favour of Sivasami’s retribution. For a filmmaker who was so clear-eyed about audience participation in Visaranai, he treats the viewer like a Pavlovian dog, introducing an exhausting trumpet theme to whip up emotion every time Sivasami moves in shallow-focus, slow motion to take down a gang in a bloody skirmish.

The first part of the film (the “present”) contrasts Sivasami’s non-violence with his son Murugan’s machismo, a trait that the younger Chidambaram inherits a while later. Chidambaram (and his mother played by Manju Warrier) belittle Sivasami’s submissive impotence, permitting film to restore his masculinity through a triumphalist assertion of Sivasami’s bravery through his violence. This presentation of Sivasami as a supremely macho, courageous man also allows the film to seal his lineage, Murugan’s and Chidambaram’s sense of honour being only a bequest of the respectable patriarch. Following the bloodshed of Sivasami’s youth, the narrator notes in all sincerity that Chidambaram understands now that his father isn’t useless. This demagogical bent of the film isn’t part of some legend-building exercise, for Sivasami’s political consciousness vanishes as quickly as it came. At one point, the wise, old Sivasami tells his son that acting on impulse is what led to his family—a patently untrue claim that falsifies the bigger battle his brother was fighting. At the end, he gives a hollow-sounding sermon about education (!) as the sustainable solution to their oppression.

But Vetrimaran’s focus, justifiably, is not on the politics but the spectacle. The entire thrust of the story is not on whether Sivasami will get justice, but on whether he and his son will get caught in their flight. And the director uses several devices at his disposal to bludgeon us into revulsion: a lynching that’s staged the same way a boar hunt earlier was, a public humiliation around a pair of slippers (a symbol of self-respect of the oppressed akin to the towel around Sivasami’s forehead) photographed and edited sensationally, the extended, CGI-enabled sight of a rotting, decapitated corpse. The tactic was the same in Visaranai, but the sadism there was integral to what the film sought to do. Moreover, the dubbed sound of Asuran is significantly out of sync with the image, which lets us suppose that that major rewrites were involved post-shoot or that last-minute self-censorship was called for. In any case, it suggests that Vetrimaran’s daring stems wholly from the script and, when that’s compromised, the filmmaking is too.

Of course, Vetrimaran is not a hack, and there are aspects that come through. He composes almost the entire film in wide shots, sometimes extremely long shots à la Mysskin that turns characters into mice in a maze. His eye for landscape is still intact: Sivasami and Chidambaram sneaking through marshes, shrublands, rocky fields and plantations like in a studio Western gives an existential counterpoint to the father-son relationship, which is one of the film’s focal points. He also emphasizes the difference between the well-lit, geometric streets of the upper-caste main village and the irregular, moonlit pathways of the theru, the kutcha settlement of Sivasami’s community. And it’s commendable that he resists the temptation to DI-enhance the dull colours of the landscape, which here simply exists.

On the other hand, there’s a markedly rushed quality to the shot and sequence composition bordering on embarrassing (at least two shots with the .ari file name on them visible!). The edits are constantly confusing and one particularly egregious scene of a Panchayat meeting cycles through scores of shots of random perspectives just in order to dramatize the proceedings. Sivasami’s past proceeds at a breakneck speed to show betrayal and revenge even before the initial dynamics are settled—clearly an afterthought to reduce runtime. Vetrimaran arm-twists Sivasami’s relationship with his elder son into a sympathetic register through a set of rather outmoded choices. The distance offered by his wide-angle, long-shot composition—with actors moving about the space like on stage—collapses when he is dealing with scenes of violence, which simply advances on auto-pilot. The sound-mix, likewise, is overly detailed with redundant information even when the shots allow the actors to breathe. A dire undertaking that continuously short-changes both its viewers and subject matter.

Joker

(Possible spoilers ahead)

You were never really here is what the Joker thinks the world is telling him. It is also the title of the film I was most reminded of watching Joker, nevertheless reminiscent of several other works whose influence it carries lightly. In Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 thriller, Joaquin Phoenix played Joe, a traumatized war vet living in a New York apartment with his eccentric mother. In trying to clean up the rotten system ruling the city, Joe also struggled against an inheritance of malady, a violent disposition that might already be running through his veins. Explicitly channelling Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s film was a meditation on violence and masculinity that offered a critical distance to events Scorsese’s film denied. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro feature in Todd Philips’ new film, but masculinity is hardly the pressing question here, for Joker is the story of a subjectivity reduced to dust.

When we first see Arthur Fleck alias Happy alias Joker, he’s in front of a mirror putting on clown makeup. He’ll be in front of mirrors two more times in the film, but he’ll look at his own image on the newspaper and television all through. There’s a split between Arthur’s external and internal selves that Philips and Phoenix emphasize through a range of formal choices. Arthur is a social outcast, and in the opening passages of Joker, he alternatingly comes across as a threat and a victim. The melodramatic scenes depict him being ridiculed and bullied, while his interactions with decent people forebode an outward aggression. Moreover, Arthur has a medical condition—he laughs uncontrollably in stressful situations—which makes those around him suspect he’s being funny, even though he’s feeling the opposite in reality. Arthur’s behaviour belies the conventional equation of laughter with comfort and control. And Phoenix does a phenomenal job of embodying this duality.

This split perspective of Arthur as a comic and a tragic figure suspends the viewer in an uneasy relation with the character. Scenes of Arthur’s debasement prompt us to sympathize with him and expect retribution, but it’s far from liberating when he does get back at his tormentors. Part of the reason for this is that Philips and co-writer Scott Silver remove the character from the mythos of the comic world and plant him within a realistic discourse around mental health. Arthur is admittedly deranged and acts of vengeance aren’t gratifying or cool; for the most part, they are untimely and disproportionate. Philips, in fact, distances his revenge from any sense of poetic justice. The first time Arthur hits back is in a subway where three Wall Street types are beating him wild. Arthur kills them with the gun he’s carrying, but Philips composes the sequence as though it were an accidental happening. The first bullet goes off during a scuffle under flickering light and Phoenix plays the scene like a survival attempt.

Arthur tries uneasily to comply to social codes, but he’s always laughing at the wrong lines. His internal life, on the other hand, is tenuously held together by a handful of relations: his self-deluding mother living in the past, the man she says is his father, the woman next door he grows close to and De Niro’s comic talk show host Murray Franklin whom he takes to be a father figure. When these relations are proven to be lies one by one, Arthur’s inner life collapses and he becomes a purely external being, a public image without connotation. Joker traces in these disappearing connections to the reality the seeds of the character’s nihilism. With all narratives about himself falsified, Arthur becomes a being without history or future, and the universe emptied of import. The money-burning, neutral chaos that the Joker stands for corresponds to a loss of internal signification. The anarchy he witnesses at the end of the film, consequently, is a pure spectacle without meaning.

When asked about his motivations, the Joker maintains that he’s apolitical and that he has nothing to do with the anti-rich movement his subway murders have initiated all over Gotham city. It’s the world around him that ascribes a political meaning to his actions. To be sure, the Gotham city of Joker is not a morally neutral space. The garbage flooding the town is as much moral as physical—a detail that is established in the first scene in which a teenage gang harasses and beats up a hapless Arthur. The head of the Wayne corporation, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) is a neoliberal figure running for mayor’s office who thinks that the city needs to be cleaned of its super rats and that vigilantes like the Joker are losers hiding behind a mask. Funding for social welfare and healthcare is being cut down—Arthur’s medical visits are forced to end—and resentment about inequality is in the air.

Arthur too shares the sense of disenfranchisement the Blacks around him experience. But the Joker is no Bane. For him, the sight of protesters donning clown masks and taking to the streets has no political weight; it’s a show to be enjoyed. Even though the protesters appear to take him as a figurehead, he doesn’t represent any community and religion is wholly absent in this world. There’s no feeling of injustice (to him or to his mother) fuelling Arthur’s actions, which are merely reactions to an environment trying to erase his existence. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly nihilistic act. That’s why the film’s climactic passage doesn’t wholly cohere: when Arthur (now self-christened Joker) is invited to Murray’s show to be humiliated, he launches into a screed about how the world is indecent and malevolent—hardly the words of a person who sees no meaning to things. What the harangue does is to provide a cri de coeur for someone who has been proven to be hollow.

This last scene also underscores the film’s starkly non-mythical bent. Though the Joker might be nihilist, the film is anything but. In trying to understand the origins of Joker’s anarchism, the film exhibits the sort of empathy and insight-creation that’s usually the reserve of realist cinema. Given the industrial context of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, which depend on fan loyalty and familiarity for their signification, I think it’s also commendable that Joker offers a self-contained work that uses the Batman mythos only as a remote backdrop, like the way, say, Ben Hur uses the Bible. Compare the film’s sustained engagement with Arthur’s experience to the third-act shift in The Dark Knight Rises, which few viewers outside of fans could find interesting. The result comes close to the semi-independent cinema of the seventies. Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher balance warm and cool colours in almost every shot—reflecting Arthur’s split image—to produce textures that, to my eyes at least, resemble 16mm. Their 1.85:1 ratio Gotham city seems painstakingly reconstructed from archival documents of Manhattan. Phoenix, in an evidently virtuoso performance, walks its sordid streets, going up and down staircases, looking up and down television images, contorting his emaciated body in a combination of ballet and tai chi. Thankfully, the film does justice to him.

On Inspiration and Neorealism

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 483; 19 April 1959.

Wind Across the Everglades

It’s not because—in accordance with his sacrosanct habit of quitting a film on the eve of the last day of shooting when it’s not commensurate with his genius—Nicholas Ray abandoned the “set” of Wind Across the Everglades that it must be considered a lesser work. It’s not a masterpiece and it will figure perhaps at the eight position among the seventeen films of its auteur; but it’s nevertheless above the mean.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those ambitious films intended for an adventure movie market and, in this market, way too far from the norm. If he likes big subjects, Nicholas Ray nonetheless doesn’t consider the adventure movie a minor genre. For him, action, the behaviour of man in the natural world, teaches us everything about the individual and the universe. That was what was novel in Bigger than Life, where each psychological feature was expressed by the most violent of physical gestures.

Contrary to what we might think before seeing it, Wind Across the Everglades isn’t any Hollywood film. It’s an independent production put together by Budd Schulberg, writer of socially-oriented films like On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, who hates nothing more than Hollywood. But the story of this film demonstrates that he hasn’t understood what Ray sought beneath the neorealist principle of the film. For Ray, neorealism is a passkey to profundity while, for Schulberg, it’s neorealism for the sake of neorealism. Since Italians make good films in the street, it’s enough to copy them and sit with your arms folded.

Made on a small budget in the vicinity of a small village in the marshes of Everglades (Florida)—a wild, tropical Bresne—in entirely natural settings, with unknown, indigenous and amateur technicians and actors—it’s a jockey playing the ex-jockey, a boxer playing the ex-boxer, a famous writer playing the man of law—Wind Across the Everglades is first of all a documentary. Ray isn’t satisfied reusing footage from Warner Bros’ documentary stock. He films himself the shots of birds and reptiles which are among the most beautiful that cinema has given us. Beautiful in their violence, in their striking framing, in the poetic movement (which we find again in the scenes played by actors) by which the camera moves towards the animal, in the very manner that Ray directs these animals by making them overcome various obstacles. A Walt Disney crew already went to the region, but couldn’t give us as lively a document.

The subject? Like in all Nicholas Ray films, it’s violence. At the turn of last century, a young professor of natural science, now a guard at the Everglades natural reserve, seeks to stop the massacre of millions of birds that Cottonmouth, surrounded by outcasts, lunatics and convicts, hunts for pleasure in the depths of the marshes. The most surprising aspect is this portrait of beings on the margins of the society that interests Ray, who spent a part of his youth rummaging in the least civilized regions of the USA (even The Lusty Men and Hot Blood focus on bohemian lives and gypsies). But the portrait here is very cruel (cf. the jockey character). The struggle of the young man against violence is only of secondary interest. Ray has already dealt with that subject a number of times, and today he has dedicated himself to seeking the poetry of reality.

And so, the guard takes great pleasure in the lives of his worst enemies. Like in Bitter Victory, whose most subtle scene—the snake and the gunshot—we find reversed here, which also recalls the ending of Run for Cover, Wind Across the Everglades shows us the fever of men and the uniqueness of things. A very 1900s bath in the sea, a baroque pleasure house, an insane feast and a dying Burl Ives calling out to the crows: “Come and get me! Swamp-born, swamp-fattened!” The actors—Christopher Plummer, Chana Eden, Sammy Renick—are excellent since Nick Ray knows how to make them accomplish very natural gestures, which he accompanies with very short camera movements that give the impression of improvisation. In such a feverish life, the hero is always dishevelled, just like the film. The colour is average; the script, editing and music, very mediocre.

Will a more homogenous, more complete work, where the subject is just a pretext, emerge from this return to nature, whose beauties Nick Ray has naively sought to capture with the same love for life as a Griffith (Schulberg, though, hardly likes it)? That’s what happened with Renoir and Rossellini. Unfortunately, Ray is unemployed since a year thanks to a lack of clients.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Sergeant York

“The film follows York’s outward spiral, from his self-centred individualism to his coupledom, to his community membership, and finally his American citizenship. This corresponds with an opening up of the film’s consciousness as it moves from the secluded life in the hills, to the national melting pot that is the army, and to the veritable international forum that is the war trenches. Hawks is in his elements when dealing with the egalitarian camaraderie of the recruits at the army camp, and the idea of inverting the village topography in the war field is interesting. But for the most part he’s clamped down by the material’s reverence. Hawks and his cinematographer Sol Polito shoot a good part of the film in Warners’ house style full of lights and shadows, but York’s transformation scenes are conceived with a preciousness and sentimentalism closer to Frank Capra territory. His second conversion is a baroque sequence filmed on the edge of a rock, with the silhouette of York and his dog set against the sunset, as the conflicting demands of the pastor and the captain on the soundtrack. Once York’s moral quandary is resolved, the film goes down the hagiographic slope.

In his Oscar-winning role here, Gary Cooper refines the naïf character he developed in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Forty years of age, Cooper interprets the character with a boyishness endearing in its absurdity. He grooms himself awkwardly in front of a mirror as “Ma” fixes his pants and makes his meals. His characterization as a great shooter who eschews violence gives him a power that pays off at the end. That he could finally kill the German soldiers the same way he shot turkeys back home bestows on him an aura of innocence beyond corruption. Cooper conveys his entire character with a play of his fingers, especially his thumb: he adjusts his suspenders, dabbles with “bottom land” soil on a plate, turns the page with a lick of his thumb, hesitates with his left hand and, more remarkably, wets the aim of his rifle with saliva before shooting—a single gesture that seals his status as a son of the soil untainted by war, business and the big city life.”

[Full article at Firstpost]