Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta

I’m elated to announce that my book on Indian independent filmmaker Amit Dutta has now been published! I’m really grateful to Lightcube for editing, designing and publishing this smashing-looking volume and to the Raza Foundation for its financial assistance.

The book is a critical study of Dutta’s work, from his earliest diploma films to his recent digital production, as well as his three books. It devotes special attention to formal qualities of the films and attempts to locate them within a broader national and international artmaking context.

I’m convinced that this is the most significant writing I’ve done so far, and I’m very hopeful this book will fill an important gap in the literature on experimental cinema in India.

Mubi India is having a retrospective of Dutta’s films till October (and a global retrospective is likely in the months that follow). For the first time ever, you can watch Dutta’s films from your home. And I’m confident this book will serve as a good reading companion to your viewing and provide useful insight into Dutta’s work and practice.

The volume has been published independently and with modest means. Its life will depend entirely on the backing of kind readers and generous patrons. I request anyone interested in supporting this book to share this information in their personal and professional networks. Please buy the book, yes, but more importantly, please review. That will help give the book some crucial momentum.

Links below for the book. We hope to bring out a paperback version the coming year. If you represent a publication and would like a review copy of the book, please drop me a message below or at justanotheremailid@gmail.com.

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

Link for the Kindle e-book: http://getbook.at/modernismbyothermeans

Link for a pdf copy: https://shop.lightcube.in/Modernism-By-Other-Means

 

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 Proctor, photogénie

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Reap the Wild Wind (1941).

A film by Cecil DeMille is first of all a well-rounded story. We don’t necessarily notice it today because it has more or less become commonplace. But in the years 1915-1925, it wasn’t all that common. It could even be said that DeMille is a kind of forerunner in this respect.

Some of his films, especially those with an unusual runtime—from two to three hours—contain very complex, nested plots, such as those in The Whispering Chorus (1918), The Golden Bed (1924), The Road to Yesterday (1925) and Wassell (1943). And in the end, we manage to understand everything. The Road to Yesterday was perhaps a bit harder for viewers at the time, but today, with a little attention, we are easily able to. At the end of the film, we are proud of ourselves for having managed to get everything.  

The complexity often has to do with the multiplicity of characters, whose comings-and-goings are made less difficult by the casting of well-known actors or those with remarkable faces or costumes.

And also by their well-spaced entries in the plot. In Reap the Wild Wind (1941), Paulette Goddard appears at the fifth minute, John Wayne after eleven minutes and Ray Milland at the twenty-third minute. Information should always be spread out. Two divers get into a fight, and their harnesses make it difficult to identify who is who, but John Wayne has a big nose that is very different from Ray Milland’s, and that’s enough.

Another variation: different members of a family are individualized one by one (Male and Female), with a brief pause between each new approach, because we follow a wholly secondary character, an imp seemingly from Lubitsch’s films, who places shoes at the door of every bedroom: shots of each pair of obviously different shoes, and of each character with an emblematic attitude and costume.

A device that is typical of such complex construction is the use of a second flashback within a first flashback. It’s a very rare effect in cinema (I can think of Passage to Marseille, a Curtiz film from 1944, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made by Buñuel in 1972, but that was a double dream). That is the case in The Road to Yesterday, when we return to 1625 to Malena the gypsy woman, who recounts an even more distant past.

The differences in place and time are made more evident with the help of different colour tints: red, green, yellowish, blueish. The problem is that one film reel runs for about thirteen minutes, which may not necessarily be the length of the sequence to be tinted. And we are also helped by intertitles introducing characters and actors, which takes advantage of the occasion to hypocritically move the plot forward.

It’s only in the silent version of The Ten Commandments that it derails a little. The allusion to the pretty girl who suddenly comes out of a jute bag is too (in)explicit, probably owing to the deletion of a sequence during editing.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Old Wives for New, with Sylvia Ashton: bodybuilding in the America of 1918.

We don’t think of DeMille as a maker of comic films. Yet, he often provokes laughter, as much as a Blake Edwards or a Preston Sturges.

Above all in comedies, of course: at one point in The Affairs of Anatol, a furious Elliott Dexter breaks everything in the apartment of his fiancée, Wanda Hawley, when he realizes that she hasn’t given up the easy life set up for her by Theodore Roberts, the rich man who has kept her. It’s a fine destruction scene—within the setting of a modern apartment—comparable to those in regular epic films. At one point, Theodore Roberts makes his job easier by handing him a piece of furniture to destroy, when he should be shocked by this fury directed at the girl he loves. The weight loss cure that Sylvia Ashton (Old Wives for New) undergoes remains an irresistible comic monument, as does the folding bed concealed by a fake piano (Saturday Night). There would be no end in sight if we wanted to draw up an inventory.

But the dramas arouse laughter too: in The Road to Yesterday, the character of Rady, a nerdy runt, is comical from start to finish. I’ll always remember his disgusted reaction, at a corner of the frame, when he sees the two leads kissing, although he is the one who is supposed to marry the pretty heroine.

Another very funny scene: Roland Young parachutes into a den of lions, just before their feeding time (Madam Satan).

North West Mounted Police is supposed to be a serious Western. But the best part of the film is the little game between two privates, the Scotsman McDuff and the Canadian Duroc, who belong to rival armies and play at shooting at each other all through the film, without ever touching each other of course, by aiming at the top of the hat [1] or knicker buttons (hence the shot of Akim Tamiroff… in underwear). And when another soldier notices McDuff’s latest miss and kills Duroc for good, there is a general consternation among the two fake enemies, who first believe that the other has betrayed the secret pact uniting them, before realizing, happy in the face of a death suffered or caused, that it was not so. It’s the duo Akim Tamiroff-Lynne Overman once again, already present in the previous film, Union Pacific. One takes the same and starts over.

 

Footnote:

[1] An idea inaugurated in The Road to Yesterday: the kid who shoots arrows.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Union Pacific (1939) with Barbara Stanwyck: reading out the love letter to the dying man.

Conflicts in DeMille’s work sometimes evoke Cornellian dilemmas and conjure all their power.

For instance, John Tremble, the hero of The Whispering Chorus must make a choice: either manage to prove that he didn’t commit the murder he is accused of—which now seems possible—and return to his wife, or accept going to the electric chair to avoid ruining the life of his wife, now remarried to the governor, on the eve of her delivery.

Jim Brett (Northwest Mounted Police) loves young April, but he must arrest her brother, guilty of desertion and threatened with a firing squad. And he knows well that if he arrests him, April will never forgive him…

There are several conflicts of this kind in The Greatest Show on Earth: Brad (Charlton Heston), the injured circus director, can only be saved if he agrees to receive the blood of Sebastian the acrobat, his rival in love who has almost compromised the survival of the circus with his misdemeanours. He begins by refusing this gift, but he has no choice. His friends tease him: if Brad marries the woman he loves, their children will have Sebastian’s blood.

The film’s credits mention that James Stewart plays the role of Buttons, the sad clown with his face permanently covered by a mask. The film’s viewers recognize James Stewart by his characteristic way of speaking. Stewart’s work is magnificent, playing solely on his voice and movements.

But Buttons was once a doctor who euthanized his wife. Pursued by the police, he found refuge in the circus with the help of this mask.

The policeman who tracks him down shows Brad a photo of the man he is looking for. And we see a photo of James Stewart. It’s the only time in the film that we see his face. The audience is thus one step ahead of the film’s protagonists, which it appreciates.

Brad needs a doctor for his blood transfusion. And his sweetheart is chasing Buttons, who smells trouble and prepares to leave the place. She convinces him to stay and perform the operation, under the supervision of the policeman, who even assists him and who realizes that Buttons is the doctor he is looking for. He arrests him after shaking his hand, congratulating him for his conduct and sacrifice. I could have just as well mentioned these sequences in the chapter on mistakes.

We are quite close to Corneille territory in Union Pacific: a dying, wounded man wants his fiancée’s letter, which he has just received, read out to him. Barbara Stanwyck has no time to look for the letter and takes out a piece of paper from a neighbour’s pocket. It’s an ordinary advertisement, and she begins to read it out as if it were a love letter, improvising with verve and lyricism. There are some variations of this principle in Wassell, with the love letter dictated to the nurse, but in fact inspired by her, while it is theoretically addressed to the fiancée, and with the blind man showing the photo of his younger sister. But we see that it is, in reality, that of his old grandfather.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Affairs of Anatol (1921): the peephole that serves every use.

It is generally defined by three characteristics: implausibility, decorative overload and bad taste.

These are indeed the characteristics that can be found in the work of DeMille, the renowned king of film kitsch. They can be seen as negative. And yet, DeMille intrigues us, fascinates us and arouses our admiration.

Let’s first say that plausibility isn’t indispensable to a film’s success. The question isn’t even asked when it comes to animation films. Why should implausibility be necessarily included in the list of charges just because there are actors who are filmed?

Decorative overload is of two kinds:

Either we see edifices to the glory of a god built by the Babylonians, the Aztecs, the Pharaohs, the Philistines, the Romans of the Empire, cruel people who are against the Christians we are supposed to be, against the Buddhists of today. They are all inspired by a taste for extravagance. It’s a universe that is often shown as detestable, but which is striking in its unusual quality.

Or we see the modern world of the 1920s. With post-war wealth comes numerous eccentricities, probably corresponding to reality, but which are exaggerated through the talents of set designers such as Wilfred Buckland, Paul Iribe, and above all Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), a mannerist who later directed remarkable comedies like Easy Living and Midnight.

And it’s a veritable festival of baroque or rococo ornaments, as noticeable in the costumes and the choice of props as in the sets. Let us randomly mention the safe that looks like a cigar box and which hides a telephone (Old Wives for New), the boots with curved tips in the shape of Viking ships or snakes ready to bite, or the pool that you enter in tailcoats (Don’t Change Your Husband), the skin of an entire beast, complete with the head, on the stairs, likely to make you slip (Saturday Night), the giant peephole in the middle of the door in The Affairs of Anatol, which defeats its own purpose because you can put your hand or head into it, the garden entirely made of sugar in The Golden Bed, the electric machine of the mechanical ballet in Madam Satan, which follows a fashion show with seven models in increasingly bewildering outfits, with feathers in the shape of tentacles, endless trains and furry hairstyles, the huge mansions of Arizona that look like expressionist sets (The Road to Yesterday), and I could go on for a long time… Americans have an adjective to describe this clutter: lavish. You can sense C.B.’s mocking humour in this extravagant display, but he is also making fun of himself since he offered these very things as a source of attraction for his guests during weekend parties at his luxurious second home. Of course, there might be a direct relationship between ancient architecture (allegedly faithful to reality) and the eccentricities of the 1920s (which one supposes are more imaginary), but it is not a given: in Male and Female, the ancient episode comes just after a scene set in the barren backdrop of a deserted island. It’s only C.B.’s unmotivated desire for a flashback that occasions this parenthesis.

Some of the humour is lost today, because we can no longer tell eccentric outfits from normal ones, which have also become very laughable.

Bad taste is obviously part of the game. The worse it is, the better it is. How does one draw the line? By going beyond. A little kitsch would be banal and mediocre. It’s the excess of kitsch that makes for the film’s strength, arouses laughter, mixed with an admiration for the set and costume designers’ inventiveness. After Madam Satan (1930), kitsch has a smaller part to play. From the period of colour films, the interest of costume work is no longer based on extravagance, but solely on the beauty of the outfits and their arrangement in the shot.

Kitsch certainly makes its appearance later too, in Moses’s entrance or in the schematized relationship between Samson and Dalilah, or Paulette Goddard’s lipstick after an aquatic and desert marathon (Unconquered), but it is less present. I miss it a little.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): a festival of colours.

DeMille takes a real, rather sadistic pleasure in showing disasters. It could be a sinking ship (The Little American, Male and Female, Cleopatra, Reap the Wild Wind), a zeppelin deflating in mid-air (Madam Satan), a train derailment or two trains colliding (The Road to Yesterday, The Greatest Show on Earth, Saturday Night and Union Pacific), a collapsing temple (Samson and Delilah, The Woman God Forgot), the Red Sea drowning the Pharaoh’s army (The Ten Commandments), and I’m certainly forgetting some others. This kind of scene is repeated over thirty-nine years of his career.

It’s like this: a destructive machine (train or any other) moves towards the viewer, breaking through obstacles (scrap metal and wood work, stone walls). It’s direct, unabashed penetration (which doesn’t surprise us in C.B. DeMille’s highly sexual cinema), often in the direction of the viewer, sometimes seen from a distance in a frontal and artificial manner.  The camera sways and the framing goes askew, as masses, beans and iron bars fall in the foreground, momentarily hiding the actors behind. Everything moves, changes places. A fundamental principle with DeMille is to always show falling masses or passing extras in the foreground. In Madam Satan, the effect is further accentuated by the sinking airship’s exasperating squeaking and creaking. Dust rises. Water invades the living room, its furniture and its books (Male and Female). A beautiful disorder is an artistic effect. In a colour film like The Greatest Show on Earth or Reap the Wild Wind, this chaos of iron and steel is enhanced by the intrusion of beautiful clothes or pretty spots of bright colours.

This technique is different from traditional cinematic disaster based on the bluff of numerous brief insert shots (which is obviously less expensive). DeMille works with frontal wide shots, while his colleagues express dramatic shock through aggressive syncopated editing.

Disorder is underlined by very different positions of extras within the shot. It’s almost a catalogue of all possible attitudes, conveyed with the most divergent broken lines of weapons or destructive objects.

The same disorder is found in scenes without disasters, such as the Roman orgy of Manslaughter or the magnificent golden calf sequence of The Ten Commandments of 1956, where extras occupy the entire image, following the tradition of academic painting. On closer inspection, these scenes make reference to famous pictorial models.

These scenes of chaos often conjure one of the four elements, namely fire, which is quite visible in The Woman God Forgot, Joan the Woman (with a very impressive single shot in colour), The Road to Yesterday, Triumph, The Godless Girl, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. The fire at the Parisian hotel in Triumph derives directly from an experience C.B. had at the Ritz on the Place Vendôme.

Along with fire, there is also electricity, natural (the lightning of The Ten Commandments) or more artificial (Madam Satan, The Godless Girl).

There’s also water: we have seen the frequency of shipwrecks and there is even a flood during the Siege of Orléans in Joan the Woman.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Why Change Your Wife? (1919), with Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson: domestic struggle for the use of the bathroom, which inspired Lubitsch (The Marriage Circle)

A certain number of directors, when they film indoors, have their favourite setting: for Wyler, it was the staircase; for Resnais, it was the corridor; for Masamura, it’s the bedroom; for Hitchcock, it’s rather the cellar. For DeMille, it’s bathrooms. An innovative choice since it is a room that is not noble at all, a place to ease oneself, which was hitherto concealed by novels and films.

It begins with Old Wives for New (1918): the husband is angry with his wife, who has left the sink dirty, and he has to scrub it now. He reproaches her of never washing her hair.

And it continues in Why Change Your Wife? (1919): the couple fights over the place, since he is shaving when she wants to take toiletries from the little cupboard in front of him. Disturbed by her arrival, he risks cutting himself. It’s the beginning of the film, and it’s a classic scene since most other films begin with a less trivial sequence. Daily life can be a source of interest, of fun.

The largest element of this room, the bathtub, appears in Male and Female (1919). This one is of a refined luxury: a thermometer to measure the temperature, stylized ornaments on the levers and buttons. It’s a decoration that one expects to find at a king’s place rather than in the bathroom of an individual house.

Of course, eroticism comes into play. We never see Gloria Swanson naked in her bathtub. The foamy water hides her body. But the viewer knows well that she is naked, like anyone who takes a bath. This theoretical presence of nudity excites him. This is a typical reaction of the 1920s that is hard to understand in the 21st century.

Saturday Night (1921) goes even further: there is a shower in the shape of a giant, bright geyser, which will be echoed by the primitive, icy shower of The Godless Girl, which turns into torture. And there is Poppaea’s bath in The Sign of the Cross (1932), filled with donkey milk, whose entire circuit we see, from the milking of the animal to the pipes to the palace, and it’s only then that we understand what the milk is for: sovereign humour, no pun intended.

There is then the shower in the jungle in Four Frightened People (1934), Paulette Goddard’s very dirty tub in Unconquered, Hedy Lamarr’s bath in the small lake in Samson and Delilah (1949) and that of… doctor Wassell, which could be taken as a bit of humour.

It is difficult to imagine a Cecil DeMille film without baths or bathtubs. The viewer looks forward to a bathtub scene because it’s a film by him, just as he looks forward to an ancient interlude (and like he would later look for the shot Alfred Hitchcock appears in). He drools. He is reassured when the scene comes. I have the impression that he might ask for a refund if there was neither a bath nor an ancient interlude in the film.

This presence of baths is evidently linked to Puritanism, which always looks for purification (with its somewhat sectarian deviation: immersion, emphatic baptism). A civilization of bathtubs, which doesn’t exist among Catholics, especially in France: France has always been rather dirty.

DeMille thus accentuated the glorification of bathrooms, which helped the economic expansion of the cleanliness industry in the USA and, as a corollary, in France, during the Americanization of our country after each of the two world wars. DeMille is partly responsible for the contemporary obligation in France to shower, which is nevertheless excessive in character: we had managed very well without it for fifteen centuries. I only shower on Sundays myself.

[On the request of a reader, here is a translation of a text on Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955) written by Jean-Claude Biette in issue no. 281 of Cahiers du cinéma in October 1977. The copy of the article I have seems to be missing a few words towards the end; but with this kind of writing, you never really know.]

The Story

Cowboys are about to enter Wichita with a large quantity of cattle, Wyatt Earp, who is going the same way, joins them. As is their custom, the cattle owner’s employees intend to spend a large part of their pay at saloons and brothels. Earp, on the other hand, wants to deposit his savings and start a business, no matter which one, in Wichita. He likes order. The bigwigs of Wichita like order too, but if they want their town to prosper—not survive, but prosper, as is often mentioned ––(the newly built railroad allows the cattle gathered by the cowboys in Wichita to be shipped and resold at a large profit to all the surrounding states), they have to accept the traditional outbursts, shootings, drinking and debauchery of the cowboys who mark their passage with revels. The mayor, however, asks Wyatt Earp to ensure an order that the town lacks under the current sheriff, who is venal and ineffective. The famous gunman (W.E.), who wants peace and doesn’t want to be used as a target in any case, refuses the sheriff’s job. The death of a five-year-old child by a stray bullet on the first night of revelry persuades Earp to accept the sheriff’s star. He begins by forbidding firearms within the confines of Wichita and expels all those who violate this rule from the town. The bigwigs know that the cowboys wouldn’t want to part with their firearms, and that they might not want to work with Wichita anymore. They decide to force the resignation of the intransigent sheriff who applies the law too harshly. Fresh disturbances interrupt the bigwigs’ demand to Wyatt Earp and force the latter to send for his two brothers, whom one of the bigwigs—like the viewer—mistakes for killers whom he expects to hire. The daughter of a rich landowner has meanwhile fallen in love with Wyatt Earp. The father, fearing that his daughter will be widowed too soon (being a sheriff means being a permanent target), does everything to prevent the affair and the marriage. But it is his own wife who is killed by a bullet intended for Wyatt Earp. After the funeral, the cowboys, who had been driven out of Wichita once, return for a final showdown with the sheriff. Wyatt Earp is victorious and, having imposed his order (the elimination of the two brothers, who are too violent to be a part of the society of Wichita: they put their personal vengeance above the possibility of dealing with things on economic or ideological grounds), regains the confidence of the bigwigs. He can now get married and set out to restore order in another city…

The Film

The invisible thread that links the story, as we can sense it from the script, to the mise en scène, as the film exhibits it today, is constituted by the double opposition of the “two brothers” theme, a theme that is redoubled, multiplied by two or rather multiplied by itself, and thus surreptitiously highlighted, throughout the film. When, at the beginning of the film, Wyatt Earp joins the cowboys, he is, as night falls, robbed of his savings by two brothers who are presented as violent, devious, united in evil, full of hatred for the law which they instinctively feel is embodied in Wyatt Earp. He settles scores with them—humiliates them and takes back his money—in front of other cowboys. And these two brothers will become W.E.’s most relentless enemies—without their perpetual, muted presence, the mise en scène would end up striking a balance between order and violence, a compromise between Wichita and the cowboys’ outbursts with the help of one or more contrivances set up by the script, but without any organic necessity in the film. It is they, these brothers—this is not just the script’s craftiness, but a fundamental theme of the film’s mise en scène—who convince the other cowboys to obey their desire for revenge (which, as it happens, involves the frank acceptance of death).

There comes a moment when the social law (that of a society for which the supreme value is prosperity) and the law of representation (that of the Western) reach their climax: the romantic idyll with the necessary consequence that is marriage (then, of course, family etc.)—namely, the picnic scene where the location of the two characters forces Earp to pull up his fiancée (who has just declared her full acceptance of the role imposed on women) into his shot so that she can place her lips onto his; It is in the few shots that immediately follow this climax—the perfect Hollywood kiss—that two hitherto unseen riders, whose close resemblance in height, facial features and expressions designate them as brothers and as a replica of the two cowboy brothers driven by vengeance, commit a formidable transgression on many levels.

  • They enter Wichita with their guns, blithely crossing the sign on which they have just read the ban.
  • They take the ambiguity about them to an extreme by posing as hitmen in order to catch a bigwig red-handed in the act of hiring hitmen to kill Wyatt Earp, who is none other than their brother (the mise en scène makes you sense the solidity of the institution of law all the more since it excludes the viewer from the knowledge and power of this ruse for a while before revealing it in its unquestionable effect: The police officers’ word cannot be doubted, especially as all three are brothers).
  • These two brothers exude a virility (they are the only ones in the film with really blue eyes, which, as actors know, is a sign of seduction—it registers strongly on the film stock), which seems amplified by their resemblance (the outlaw brothers don’t resemble one another), a virility too radiant to not convey a sense, threatening or stoking the possible homosexuality of the cowboys (which is integrated without fuss into the network of violence, disorder and acts that are uncontrollable and spontaneous, nocturnal and warm, whose vehicle in the film these men are) of the homosexual character of the law, a law that is deceptively clear and icy, which constantly unites the image of what it orders (the Hollywood kiss signifying marriage) to the equally seductive image of what it forbids.

The certainty now that Wyatt Earp is indeed the brother of these two strange riders adds to the threat and the sparkle perfidiously maintained by the law, those of an incest, perhaps even a double incest, the last safeguard of the police word.

What then is the function of these two new brothers in the film?

It consists in amplifying Wyatt Earp’s action on the story level, in multiplying its effects by the unbreakable link of the double (and therefore infinite) brotherhood, but above all in reinforcing the dynamics of the revenge of the two other brothers, the cowboys, wronged by their theft and humiliated, and in compensating for the extreme linearity of the script (which threatens to be mechanical) with lines of force that are secondary at first sight, but which, underneath, revive the struggle between law and order on the one hand (with their bases: the economic interests that enable the prosperity of the city, i.e., of the bigwigs) and disorder and violence on the other (with their bases: hatred, revenge and also greed).

At this point, it is difficult not to see that the script constitutes the foundations of the mise en scène, since the latter seeks nothing other than to go as deep as possible into the social, ideological, moral and semantic content of the script. (Besides, I don’t see what other function the mise en scène of a film could have). Whether or not Jacques Tourneur wanted to achieve this versatility is of little importance. That he is able to find his bearings, after having made this type of cinema, is not, for us, viewers, critics, filmmakers or apprentice filmmakers, essential: he never sought to hide himself or his films behind his mastery, and film historians have not been mistaken in not considering him a master; he is much better than that.

We can limit ourselves to seeing that his mise en scène is based on an equalisation of strong and weak moments which allows everything—characters, settings, camera movements, episodes (the death of a child, the death of a mother as a driving force that makes W.E. act and identify with the law)— to be transformed into signs. Jacques Tourneur sticks to the indispensable minimum of realism: someone galloping or fighting is not filmed according to a criterion of efficiency, as in many Westerns, but according to the function he occupies in the narrative; as a vehicle in a narrative time. To this end, as in Hawks’ films, everything calls for an equal importance. The mise en scène is thus the current that runs through a network of signs—here, the signs of the genre that is the Western—thanks to the vehicles that are the characters and the sequence of events (the causal relationships and the rhythm proper to each action from shot to shot etc.).

One may note, in Wichita, the full use of the widescreen, where the depth of field is provided by the diagonal of the screen, and the countless entries and exits from the frame, which are a legacy of the densest silent cinema.

Finally, as they are, the themes and meanings (the economic and ideological links within the small society of Wichita, and between Wichita and its off-screen zone marked by the boundary sign on which the prohibition of armed entry into the town is nailed—a “historical” fact) are the result of the mise en scène: the script is satisfied with proposing the former in the raw form of absolute truths (the emphasis on the characterization of the hero as being naturally attracted by law and order, just as the cowboys are naturally attracted by “Wine/Women/Wichita”, as it is posted on a stagecoach of whores that crosses the entrance sign to Wichita) and relies on the director’s conventional vitality to soften the latter with the grace of a calming and willingly picturesque illustration. Rather like Hawks, Jacques Tourneur corrects nothing, questions nothing, and doesn’t mount a direct critique through the voice of characters that Hollywood would never fail to break or silence: he accepts everything that a script gives him and is content to carry the logic of the script as far as possible. But then he constructs his own agenda:

  • by filming values (those proposed by Hollywood or any other system of representation firmly rooted in the social) as things.
  • by filming things as signs.
  • by filming characters as individuals who believe in values as much as things (for which the viewer experiences the same illusory faith, since he can see and hear them in the film, and the capacity contained in the film to surprise the metamorphosis) and who live in a social network of signs.

For Jacques Tourneur, the characters in a story are perfect strangers whose mystery does not have to be clarified or explained.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman (1916)

With mistakes come trials. And C.B.’s work accumulates trial scenes, either reconstructions of trials that actually took place (The King of Kings, Joan the Woman) or invented from scratch (The Cheat, The Whispering Chorus, Manslaughter, Reap the Wild Wind, Unconquered).

The treatment is realistic most of the time—like the depiction of the place where suspects and convicts remain before or after judgment, I mean prison. Screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson had even spent several days in jail to perfect her documentation for Manslaughter.

DeMille has done a lot of work in the casting of jurors, who should, in principle, for contemporary films, belong to different strata of the society. It’s incidentally in the choice of extras that American cinema has always excelled: a bit typical, but not too much either. And in The Whispering Chorus, we also find those little sketches that journalists make during a trial, since cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.

DeMille doesn’t neglect any of the various stages of the trial and tries to push the suspense to its peak: acquittal or conviction, with multiple variants since he films not only contemporary trials but also those from all places and times, beginning with that of Christ.

When it had the means, American cinema never failed to take advantage from this dramatic setting inaugurated by DeMille. It is an extremely good setting because of its official, almost frozen quality, with the basic elements remaining the same from film to film: defence attorneys, prosecutors, judges, jurors, crowds, defendants, all easily identifiable by the viewer. One actor, Gary Cooper, was even a regular of courtroom dramas, almost always as a defendant. Capra, Preminger and Stanley Kramer would become regulars of courtroom dramas.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Robert Preston in North West Mounted Police (1940).

Many of C.B.’s films turn around the notion of fault: someone, usually quite nice, commits a fault. He redeems himself, either in a more or less heroic death or by confessing his mistake, or by benefitting from the indulgence of a superior.

It begins with The Squaw Man. The squaw kills a man, but it is to protect the one she loves. She confesses her fault and kills herself.

Maggie, the maid of Kindling, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a burglary. Her mistress eventually pardons her.

Edith, a woman of high-society, misappropriates money from a charity, whose treasurer she is, to buy a chic dress she likes, which sets the drama in motion (The Cheat).

The English soldier Eric Trent betrays Joan of Arc, his benefactor, who will be burnt alive because of him. And in 1916, his namesake, also played by Wallace Reid, sacrifices himself deliberately by destroying the German trench posing a danger for French soldiers. Joan, who then appears in a superimposition, is happy. The soldier of 1916 has rehabilitated, in some way, his supposed ancestor.

Marcia, the heroine of The Devil Stone (1917), accidentally kills her husband, who has seized, by dubious manoeuvres, an emerald that brings bad luck. This death and Marcia’s confession ensure that the ill fate no longer works. And the detective chooses to close the case.

The accountant of The Whispering Chorus (1918) commits a forgery. He is tracked down, arrested for a murder he hasn’t committed. But his return home would compromise the future of his wife, who has remarried. And he prefers to atone for his mistake on the electric chair—the “supreme redemption”, according to the film’s French title.

The odious Elizabethan count of The Road to Yesterday is absolved of his crimes when, on his way back to the America of today, he converts to Christianity and rescues his wife from a burning train.

The two protagonists of The Godless Girl inadvertently cause the death of a student, but redeem themselves at the end by saving many lives in a fire accident at the prison.

Ronnie Logan, Madeleine Carroll’s bad brother, deserts his combat outpost, resulting in the death of several other soldiers (North West Mounted Police); he too redeems himself in his death—just like the husband in Union Pacific, responsible for the death of a man during a holdup, and played by the same actor, Robert Preston.

John Wayne (Reap the Wild Wind) is responsible for the sinking of a ship. But in fighting the octopus which threatens the life of his rival, he redeems himself while losing his life.

A jealous Delilah delivers Samson to the Philistines. To make amends, she helps Samson destroy the temple and the power of the Philistines. She dies during this destruction.

The evil animal trainer of The Greatest Show on Earth organizes the holdup of a train, but he tries to prevent the convoy with his sweetheart from crashing, at the cost of his life.

Here we see Christian ideology come to the surface: crime and purifying repentance, or sacrifice. But this is more of a dramatic contrivance than a real ideological message.

The persistence of this motif across films becomes a bit tiresome.

Does it attest to a certain lack of imagination, or a desire to exploit a formula that works very well with the viewer? Filmmakers from the thirties were not afraid to steal from themselves, as films only had an ephemeral life then, exacerbated by technical progress (advent of talkies, of colour).

Other hobbyhorses: the distant sound of bagpipes or music announcing the arrival of rescue troops (The Plainsman, North West Mounted Police, Wassell, Unconquered), wedding through a go-between object (the sword of The Crusades, the necklace of The Road to Yesterday), the glove, a theatrical prop par excellence (The Crusades, The Godless Girl, Fool’s Paradise).

Also note the omnipresence of animals, dogs and cats in the comedies, monkey (Four Frightened People, The Godless Girl), donkey (The Road to Yesterday), wild animals (Male and Female, The Sign of the Cross, Samson), asp (Cleopatra), sharks (Feet of Clay), octopus (Reap the Wild Wind), zebras (The King of Kings), not to forget Noah’s Ark in the circus film. In contrast, children are almost completely absent. They are mischievous characters, confined to secondary roles (The Road to Yesterday, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife).

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Unconquered (1946), Gary Cooper’s supernatural entrance.

We have seen, with Feet of Clay and The Road to Yesterday, how much DeMille was fascinated by the idea of reincarnation. In her memoirs, Gloria Swanson writes that DeMille was a firm believer in it. It is indeed the only problem for very rich people who have achieved everything in life. Walt Disney even had his body preserved in optimal conditions so that he could be brought back to life the day science would allow it. The problem is certainly less distressing for a Christian like DeMille, who believed in paradise (Paradise was incidentally the name of his pleasure house). But it does exist.

Whence this taste for back-and-forth journeys to the heaven (cf. the unfinished project The Sorrows of Satan and Feet of Clay).

But this motif can be found more discreetly in many of Cecil DeMille’s works, beginning with a play he co-wrote in 1913 called The Return of Peter Grimm. The list is long: the accountant in The Whispering Chorus who was thought dead and who reappears suddenly, just like the “KIA” husband of For Better, for Worse, or the hero of The Plainsman, who miraculously survives all the Indian arrows. In The Story of Dr. Wassell, Gary Cooper believes that his dear Madeline has disappeared forever from his life, that she is even dead, but in the end, we learn that it’s not so. And the same Cooper (Unconquered), decidedly in charge of immortality, plunges with his frail skiff into the furious waters of a frightening Niagara, but miraculously comes out by grasping on to a providential branch (an unbelievable moment, but it is a playful film). He emerges, like a ghost, from a smoke cloud behind an Indian encampment. Victory is then achieved because the English place the bodies of all their dead soldiers in wagons, seated and not lying down, to make the attackers believe that they are outnumbered. A theoretical resurrection which makes them winners.

DeMille wasn’t an exception. Reincarnation—or resurrection—was a frequent motif among great American filmmakers (cf. all of Frank Borzage’s work, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizons and It’s a Wonderful Life, James Cameron’s The Abyss, even Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s Laura).

“Reincarnation” means “victory over death”, with which one man can help: the doctor.

More than the priest, who is somewhat forgotten in the work of this great Christian, the doctor is very present in For Better, for Worse, throughout Feet of Clay, a little in The Road to Yesterday, and much more in Wassell and The Greatest Show on Earth.

The doctor doesn’t intervene without reason. That’s why there are many cripples, disabled children (For Better, for Worse), blind people (The Ten Commandments, Wassell, Samson, Fool’s Paradise, Something to Think About) with a subjective shot of the person who loses or regains sight, mute persons (The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments of 1956), people who can no longer use their arms or hands (The Road to Yesterday, Wassell, The Greatest Show on Earth), and disfigured heroes (The Whispering Chorus, For Better, for Worse, Fool’s Paradise). Handicaps typical of melodramas.