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

Boxing films are always something more than about boxing. The violent quality of the sport, the limited space of the ring and the unique social profile of its participants render it conducive to productive artistic interventions. Adapted from Joseph Moncure March’s prose poem of the same name from 1928, The Set-Up (1949) centres on Stoker (Robert Ryan, in a characteristically tough, anti-heroic turn), a 35-year-old boxer riding on a string of failures, getting ready for what may be his last shot at success. Unaware that his managers have made a $50 deal with the opposing team to ensure he loses the match, Stoker prepares for the fight against the wishes of his girlfriend (Audrey Totter), who wants him to give up fighting and settle down.

It isn’t usual for Hollywood films to be adapted from poetry. But March’s composition, which one commentator described as “a noir poem”, with its vernacular language and short, punchy verse lends itself easily to cinematic transcription. March himself was a film enthusiast who admired the economy of movie storytelling (“I learn something of value every time I see a picture, even if it’s rotten—and when it’s a really good one, my eyes pop out and I feel like taking up embroidery as a life work.”) His poem’s protagonist is a black man described thus: “Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown / And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown”. In the screen adaptation, this character is changed to a white man, Stoker, who identifies with the one black boxer in the changing room.

This whitewashing of the protagonist has two effects. One, it shifts the story’s social focus from race to class. Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement was still tongue-tied on the question of race, but it was always more responsive to the plight of the poor white. With the war over and veterans returning to civil life, the triumphalist tone of war-time movies made way for a more sombre atmosphere in films dealing with urban realities. RKO studio head Dore Schary, director Robert Wise and writer Art Cohn were well-known liberals with interest in social themes. In The Set-Up, they use the situation of a washed-out pugilist to emphasize the impossibility of the American dream and the persistence of violence in public consciousness.

The first time we see Stoker, he falls face down on the ring following a knock-out. This downbeat image gives way to a shot of a street with neon lights sardonically reading “Paradise City” and “Dreamland”. Stoker, like his peers, clings to the dream against incredible odds, always believing in the illusion that he is “one punch away” from success. The Set-Up is certainly an underdog story, but one which recognizes that the underdog loses the war even if he wins a few battles, especially when the system is betting on his failure. Stoker does come out on top against his rival in the ring, but soon as he leaves the arena, he is thrashed by a group of men who break his right hand for good. Casinos, those embodiments of the American dream, have taught us the lesson: you don’t get to win against million-to-one odds and walk away scot free.

Making Stoker a white character also imparts a markedly existentialist thrust to the narrative. This is because stories amenable to existentialist reading, or written in existentialist terms, were often structured around a white, male subjectivity. Stoker’s predicament is explicitly formulated as that of a man trying to find meaning in an absurd universe. He is an aging boxer struggling to prove his worth in a world where the new is constantly replacing the old. In the changing room, he experiences vicarious pleasure and fear watching young, idealist debutants getting ready for their first match or expressing their hope for a chance at the title. This boxer of twenty years, whose sole supporter is another aging newspaper boy, sees the doors of his life shutting one by one. The spaces he inhabits in the film—his apartment, the changing room, and the arena—seem like claustrophobic, enclosed spaces with no exit.

More than the boxing ring, it’s the changing room around which the film is structured. This constricted room of male bonding, whose busy activities are filmed in deep-space compositions, is a zone where men can express their vulnerabilities without self-consciousness, a privilege unavailable in the ring or elsewhere. All the emotions Stoker experiences before his final shot at success — fear, ambition, disgust, temptation and domestic anxiety — are externalized through other characters in the room, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The changing room is a purgatory of comings and goings, a limbo between dream and reality. It is also a transitional space located literally between home and the ring; Stoker keeps peeking out to see if Julie has left their apartment, his anxiety relieved when he notices that she might be on her way to the match.

Julie, though, refuses to enter the arena. She spends her evening wandering the city streets, gripped by the dread of imagining Stoker hurt beyond repair. A moment of respite finds her observing young boys and girls indulging in pranks and games of chance at a penny arcade—a dream-like space as artificial as the ring. The film gives the appearance of unfolding in 72 minutes of real time. But it nests two experiences of time within its narrative. Julie’s 72 minutes agonizing over her boyfriend’s fate feels much longer than Stoker’s waiting for his match, which marches on like the clocks we see throughout the film, implacably, indifferently. It’s this binocular perspective of time, accelerating or slowing down depending on whose point of view it’s sharing, that lends the film a meditative, philosophical quality.

Julie’s refusal to enter the arena is also a refusal to partake in its violence. Throughout The Set-Up, and during Stoker’s fight in particular, Robert Wise intercuts the boxing with reactions of people in the arena. As men and women whoop and holler, changing their allegiance to whoever is landing the harsher blows, we witness a primal taste for animalistic violence sublimated in sports. Images of bellowing spectators make us aware of ourselves as movie viewers, revealing the sadistic gaze underpinning all violent spectacle, a gaze that has the power to kill. To this end, Wise photographs the match from outside the ring, so that the ropes are visible at all times during the fight. This decision conflates the film viewer with the spectator in the arena. It also creates a sense of entrapment around the fighters, who come across as captives made to kill each other for mass entertainment.

But that doesn’t prevent The Set-Up from being a spectacle in itself. Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), exhibits a dynamic style comprising of elaborate camera choreography, wide-angle, high-contrast cinematography that makes use of all image planes, and a great sensitivity to the movement of boxers in the ring. The film barely has any musical score, and its soundtrack is made almost wholly of dialogue and environmental sounds. Even so, we don’t feel distanced from the action for a moment. In presenting the fight in all its vigour and energy, but breaking it regularly with somewhat repulsive shots of gesticulating spectators, the film has its cake and eats it too. Like many of the wonderful films discussed in this column, The Set-Up is a thing and its opposite, suffused with those perplexing, contradictory impulses that make the best of classical Hollywood cinema so rich and alive.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Each of the four limbs follows one or two different directions (Indiscreet, 1958)

Cary Grant is in the same boat as Cooper or Wayne: his first films, made for the same company—Paramount, as it happens—during the thirties, offer us a rather aseptic, standardized actor. We have the slightly caricatured proof of that in his role in Blonde Venus (Sternberg, 1932), where he plays opposite Marlene Dietrich as her wealthy seducer and impresario. Despite his brief scenes, we get to see him in the attire of a horseman, a yachtsman, and in several other expensive costumes. The husband, Herbert Marshall, and, especially, Marlene Dietrich get numerous medium shots. Not Grant, who is more of an image, a silhouette. Sternberg’s contribution to the film somewhat surpasses Paramount’s standards. With Cary Grant, Sternberg seems to have wanted to replicate the Gary Cooper of Morocco: the same short sentences, the same emphasis on the nose. Choosing Cary as a first name in 1932 was perhaps not an innocent choice. Grant appears much older than his age of twenty-eight. It’s perhaps the only time in his career that he has a massive appearance. With his large, immobile face, he resembles Sternberg’s future actors like Mature or Mitchum rather than Cooper. He moves very little. He delivers a blow to an adversary the first time we see him. He is entirely a Sternbergian man, having little to do with Grant’s personality of the years to follow.

Sylvia Scarlett (1935), his second excursion from Paramount, gifts us a real actor. The film revolves around a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) who is obliged to dress up as a man in order to help her fugitive father. Grant plays a curious character, an Englishman like himself (while he would be an American in the great majority of his films) of an indefinite status: a conman, he begins by shamefully exploiting the father and the “daughter” before helping and protecting them. He generally plays leading men in other films, but here, he vanishes towards the end, letting Katharine Hepburn marry Brian Aherne. But this isn’t exactly a disappearance, since Hepburn wears Grant’s black jacket and closely imitates his behaviour in the train, seen in the film’s very first scene.

There is a key to better understand, to differently understand Sylvia Scarlett and Grant’s entire body of work. At the beginning of this book, I intended to abstain from talking about the private life of the artists. I hope the reader will forgive me if I contradict this principle. I promise not do so again. But this infraction of critical ethics appears indispensable to me. Grant was married five times, for quite short periods of time. This added to his legend as a handsome seducer. But the recent biography by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley [1] indicates that Grant was bisexual, and that his heterosexual relations were generally, let’s say, less happy than the others. Since the book was not mired in any controversy, we could trust its authors. This explains the brevity of his marriages, and perhaps even Grant’s delayed paternity (at sixty-two years). The many marriages served, if not as a cover, at least as tryouts with varying degrees of success. These particularities were hushed up by gossip columnists. For if it was known that the greatest seducer of women was closeted, the whole Hollywood scaffolding could likely collapse, and the squealers with it.

I probably don’t even have to apologize for this reference to private life. For it fortunately makes up for another, more or less unconscious reference to a fake private life: if we were blind to Cary Grant’s ambiguity, it was because his image as an eternal skirt-chaser distracted us from the reality on screen, and prohibited us from thinking even for a moment of this ambiguity.

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[For its 45th “anniversary”, I wrote the following article on the Internal Emergency as seen by the short films produced by the state-owned Films Division of India]

It’s obvious today to anyone who watches them that the documentaries and newsreels produced by the Films Division of India (FD) conceal as much as they reveal. Set up as India’s official film production unit under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) in 1948, FD had for mission to inform the people of a new democracy about what their government is doing for them, and what the government in turn expects from them as responsible citizens. In short, propaganda. Even so, as Peter Sutoris illuminates in his book Visions of Development (2016), the various organs involved in the making of the films had a margin of creative autonomy that helped usher in some degree of artistry.

This was especially the case after the protean artist Jean Bhownagary took charge of the organization when Indira Gandhi was heading the MIB. FD works of the late sixties and the early seventies are among the most innovative films ever created in the country. When the Emergency was declared on 25th June 1975, however, FD was forced back into its straitjacket and its resources marshalled to defend the clampdown and to sing praise of the PM and her Twenty Point Programme. To be sure, apolitical work such as documentaries on art and culture were still produced, but the films made during 1975-77 that did deal with the political situation had to toe the official line more strictly than ever.

While a straight-up hagiography like The Prime Minister (1976), which follows the dear leader’s everyday routine, still has currency in our political discourse, many FD films about the Emergency remain odd historical curios. One recurring theme was the futility of violence and militant protest. In shorts such as Kidhar Ja Rahe Ho (1975) and Kaisa Andhera (1975), decontextualized, stock images of violence are cut to a Hindi-movie-like song expressing dismay at the damage to public property being caused. In Maa Ki Pukar (1975), an errant young man is convinced by his mother, who bears a resemblance to the PM, that violence isn’t the solution to the nation’s problems.

But propaganda wasn’t limited to purveyors of kitsch alone. Even original voices like S. N. S. Sastry were recruited into smoke and mirrors exercises. In a characteristic fashion, We Have Promises To Keep (1975) mixes approving street interviews, old-style documentary and violent contrasts to develop an impressionistic picture of a country where forces of order are at war with those of anarchy. Though not without some irreverent ambiguity (the film opens with a shot of a skull cut to one of Indira Gandhi’s eyes), Promises offers robust proof that the avant-garde can be put in service of pretty much any ideology.

The career of one particular filmmaker encapsulates the complex, conflicted public response to the Emergency. Sukhdev was a fierce independent who kept his distance from FD, finding real artistic footing in the organization only after Bhownagary took over. In their righteous anger and their rejection of all-knowing voiceovers, Sukhdev’s earliest films, such as And Miles to Go… (1965) and India ’67 (1967), are a far cry from the patronizing, didactic quality of the typical FD production. The years that followed, however, saw the filmmaker taking increasingly pro-government stances. For instance, in Voice of the People and A Few More Questions (both 1974), Sukhdev interviewed common people across social strata about their opinion on the impending all-India railway strike. Focusing on its potentially catastrophic effects rather than the demands driving it, these films present the strike as a selfish action of a few at the cost of many.

Compared to Sukhdev’s first films, Thunder of Freedom (1976) represents a volte-face both ideologically and stylistically. Though made of interviews of people opining on the political situation, the film is held together by the filmmaker’s authoritative voiceover, which interprets public unrest as an abuse of freedom. It walks us through the benefits of the Emergency using the same ‘before’ and ‘after’ model of the FD factory that Sukhdev’s early works violently rejected. With few exceptions, subjects talk to us about the welfare of slum resettlements, crackdown on profiteering and worker exploitation, quality control in ration shops, increased industrial productivity, and vast improvements in women’s safety and civic sense. All those interviewed express a concern that these changes might be reversed once the Emergency is removed.

One of Sukhdev’s last films, After the Silence (1976), presents arguably his most compelling case for the state’s iron fist. Politics remains out of the picture for the most part, the film probing into the horrific effects of legal and illegal bonded labour. The filmmaker is typically brash, even offensive, as he gathers testimonies from rural women sold into Delhi’s brothels, but the film retains a poetic, polemical force thanks to its stark photography and humanist conviction. Having established the urgency of problem, Sukhdev describes how the government has been able to abolish this practice and save thousands from unspeakable misery. It’s a wrenching film, disturbing in its methods but also empathetic in its exploration of intersectional poverty. It also demonstrates that Sukhdev’s relation to the state was more complex than it appears, that people were always at the focal point of his work.

A publication titled “White Paper on the Misuse of Mass Media During the Internal Emergency”, published under the new JP government in 1977, details the way the preceding regime abused the media, including FD, to glorify the Emergency and stoke a personality cult around its leader. This included commissioning a four-hour documentary on Indira Gandhi for an exorbitant sum of 11.9 lakh rupees. The document also hints at the special favours Sukhdev enjoyed, receiving projects directly from the MIB, without having to go through FD. At the same time, he wasn’t indispensable to the state, as no individual is. The MIB rejected one of his films, and he wouldn’t get any commissions from the JP government, which saw him as a collaborator in the Emergency.

An FD film made under the new government indirectly reveals what was, historically speaking, at stake during those 20 months. Directed by Sai Paranjpye, Freedom from Fear (1977) is a powerful account of the horrors of the Emergency: stories of torture, detention and disappearance, accounts of journalistic resistance and statements by students who had no choice but to become politicized. Unsurprisingly, the film promotes the new government as a champion of free speech that not only allows artists and reporters to criticize the state, but even offers a space on national television for the opposition to express itself. The film ends on an uplifting note, with images of children at school cut to a voiceover reading “Where the mind is without fear”.

What is most curious about the film is that we barely see images from the Emergency itself. When it wants to show public unrest, it employs footage from before the period, drawn from the FD archives as usual, like that of the railway strike of 1974—footage that, ironically, Sukhdev had shot. This absence suggests that the Emergency is really a black hole in our cinematic historiography, which makes the oral testimonies in Paranjpye’s film, stilted and preciously few in number though they are, all the more valuable.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[The following is a translation of a chapter from Serge Toubiana’s memoirs Les fantômes du souvenir (“The Ghosts of Memory”, 2016, Grasset)]

Anxious to know if Maurice was suffering, Sylvie Pialat called the doctor. The prognosis was that he’d possibly not last the weekend. We three had a meeting of sorts to decide whether or not to increase the morphine dosage. That very evening, just before midnight, Maurice Pialat died in his bed. He was in the sky-blue shirt that Emmanuèle and I had gifted him on 25 December 2002 during the Christmas meal we were invited to. Sky-blue suited him well, Maurice seemed at peace after a long illness.

Shortly before Maurice’s death, Sylvie did the right thing by inviting all those who mattered in his personal and professional life one after the other. She wanted everyone to have a memory of Maurice, without the regret of not having seen him one last time. But he wasn’t capable anymore of recognizing the person sitting next to his bed. The only one whose voice and presence he recognized by instinct was Gérard Depardieu. Whenever he entered the bedroom, the actor had the gift and energy to banter and make himself heard. Maurice’s face would then light up with a faint smile. The two men loved each other deeply, there was an obvious and natural complicity between them that Maurice had with no one else, except of course Sylvie.

An intense atmosphere reigned all through the night of 10-11 January, suffused with remembrance and shared affection. Death brought together those who were present physically. At one point, I had to take little Antoine in my arms and grip him tightly because his body trembled as he cried. I was able to calm him after several long minutes. He slowly pulled himself together and received his friends from the neighbourhood. The children soon started playing and running around, but ensured they went to see Maurice on his deathbed from time to time.

Around 1 AM, Sylvie asked me to take care of the funeral services. I’d never done that. On the telephone, a man asked me pointed questions that I was unable to answer. Something like: “How many people should the vault accommodate? Two or three? Should the service be religious or not?” “Hmm… a little religious but not too much!”, I mumbled. Behind me, Sylvie, Daniel Toscan du Plantier and Isabelle Huppert burst out laughing. Daniel Toscan du Plantier came up with the right answer quickly: “Antoine is too young; I think a vault for two will do!”

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

With the American economy recovering under the New Deal and workers getting back to the factories, it would seem that a more fundamental anxiety about the industrial age resurfaced in Hollywood cinema. Fordist production of the previous decades had vitiated the skilled workforce, reducing the factory employee to a tiny cog in the production machinery—an awareness that was heightened by the brief favour socialism enjoyed in the country in the late 1930s. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) responded most famously to this alienation of the worker by satirizing the principles of industrial management. The Paramount production Reaching for the Sun (1941) takes a less jovial route, exploring the theme within the framework of romantic comedy and marital drama.

Adapted from Wessel Smitter’s novel F.O.B. Detroit (1938), Reaching for the Sun follows Russ (Joel McCrea), a backwoods clam-digger who moves to Detroit to work in a car factory so he can afford an outboard motor for his boat. He plans to get back to the countryside as soon as he purchases the motor, but just as his roommate and colleague Bennie (Eddie Bracken) warns, he falls in love, marries and has a child in the city before he knows it. Obliged to toil at the factory to support his family, but also facing the opposition of his wife Rita (Ellen Drew) who wants to continue living in the city, Russ finds his dream of moving back to the woods slipping away from him.

Russ is first presented an innocent idealist living in harmony with nature, untouched by the harsh realities of industrial life. He lives for his clams, whistles at birds and deer. There’s not a resentful bone in his body: when he sees another clam-digger making a bigger haul with his motor boat, he simply tilts his head, as though to say “lucky man!”. McCrea’s towering stature bestows a rich dialectical quality to the character. Despite his lumberjack-like build, Russ is a gentle giant who gets knocked down repeatedly by Herman (Albert Dekker), his romantic rival at the factory. He keeps his hands close to his body even when he’s agitated. When he punches through a door in a rare fit of rage, it’s an evidently clumsy blow, made against his natural instinct.

Rita, in total contrast, is a world-wise city girl, a waitress and a taxi dancer who ribs Russ’ Southern-boy courteousness (“What will you have, or is that too personal?”). She has no abiding relation to nature: she doesn’t want to move to the countryside and falls into a brook the only time Russ takes her there. When they relocate to a new house, Rita points to a sorry excuse for a tree, telling Russ she picked this spot because she knows how much he loves nature: “The man said in the spring it has leaves and everything.” Just beyond this tree is a construction crane moving about its limb ominously.

The central theme of Smitter’s book, reprised as a secondary motif in the film, is modern man’s enslavement by his own inventions. “A machine geared to a man is one thing. A man geared to a machine is something else.”, writes the author. When we first see Russ in the film, he wedges out a truck stuck in the mud using a pair of logs. But the initial temptation of an outboard motor gradually brings him in contact with bigger and bigger machines. His first fight with Herman is with bare fists, the second with crowbars and pliers, and his final battle takes place through gigantic machines the two men operate. In the latter skirmish, Russ and Herman are barely visible, having become ghosts in the machines.

The film’s primary focus, however, is the machine that modern life as a whole is. Director William Wellman and scriptwriter Leslie River displace the immediate socio-industrial thrust of Smitter’s story on to an existential plane. Their Russ is a Thoreau-like figure wanting to live away from community in self-sufficiency, but who is caught in the rigmarole of social life, his personality gradually hollowed out by everyday grind. When Rita blasts him for obsessing over his outboard motor, he pensively tells Bennie that, without it, “I’ll be like everyone else”.

The machine thus comes to represent the life Russ dreams of, the identity he tries to hold on to. But, like the car in Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958), it is also a physical entity that supplants Russ’ human relations. Just after he purchases the motor, Russ carries it gently like a baby wrapped in rags. He addresses it with a “she” and nurtures dreams for it. In a humorous scene, he and Bennie try to get the motor started in their boarding house, just as two bumbling men would handle an abandoned baby. The machine competes with both Rita and Russ’ real baby for his attention and resources; at one point, it lies next to him on his marital bed, after Rita and her baby have left the house.

A contemporary New York Times review regretted such a comic treatment of the subject, criticizing the way the film strips away the socio-political import of the book. While this may be a fair objection, it should also be noted that the light touch of the film does not imply frivolity of intention. Producer and director Wellman, who retired early from filmmaking to spend more time with his family, often made pictures about characters who had to make hard choices between professional and personal lives. He recognizes the modern apprehension at the heart of the story. His success lies in finding a form that registers this hefty idea without letting it overwhelm the narrative.

A number of scenes in his film function on a register that is neither wholly comic or dramatic, an ambivalence that works in its favour. In a reconciliatory exchange, Rita inquires how important she is for Russ. Russ tells what she wants to hear, but when she asks “more than the outboard motor?”, he goes silent in a manner that’s both poignant and funny. In another sequence, Russ and Bennie attend a class for to-be-fathers where they are to learn how to handle newborns. It’s a broadly comic scene about changing gender roles, but Russ’ reaction to the idea of washing a baby’s bottom, a mixture of fear and worry, is the opposite of what such a comic scene demands. Towards the end, just after Rita has left with the baby, Russ receives a laudatory certificate from the class for being the best father—an ironic moment that’s tragic even if Rita and the baby were with him.

This heartfelt angst about the costs of domestic life is complex and unresolvable, all the more why the film’s ending seems so ridiculously contrived. Where Smitter’s novel leaves Russ hopelessly crippled after an industrial accident, he not only gets artificial legs in the film, but is able to move to the countryside with Rita and the baby. While there’s little reason to suspect that Wellman, known for his obstinacy and independent spirit, had to compromise, the postcard picturesqueness with which this tacked-on happy ending is filmed — Rita tossing a steak and singing a folk tune in the country house—can’t possibly be taken at face value. Considering that Wellman shows a large banner at the car factory reading “Quality First” (and not “Safety First”) just after Russ’ accident, we may suppose self-parody at work. It may be that a country on the brink of a great war simply needed to believe in such happy endings.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

Jerry Lewis’s romantic comedy Three on a Couch (1966) works off a rather outrageous premise. Chris (Lewis) is an artist who has won a year-long residency in France. He wants to marry his girlfriend Liz (Janet Leigh) and move with her to Paris. But Liz, a psychoanalyst, can’t leave her practice because she’s not making progress with three of her patients who depend on her. Each of these three girls—of a uniformly doll-like beauty, differentiated by accents and hairstyles—has turned into a man-hater following a heartbreak. Liz is helpless and Chris is becoming increasingly morose. Chris’ best friend, the obstetrician Ben (James Best), gives him an idea: seduce the three girls so they can be cured of their misandry and Liz can leave for Paris. Playing three different men with characteristics tailored to each girl, Chris goes about making them fall for him.

As the title indicates, psychoanalysis here is euphemism for sexual intercourse. When Liz penetrates the minds of her patients, her office is lit in saturated, psychedelic colours, like some seedy den of sin conceived by Frank Tashlin. One of the girls, a sportive type, keeps moving her legs, through which the camera moves at one point. Psychoanalysis being a substitute for sex, the three girls are in an unstated romantic relation with Liz. The comedy therefore derives from one man’s attempt to win back his girlfriend from the seductions of other women by seducing away these women. Underpinning the humour is the rather retrograde notion that lesbians simply need a good dick to be cured.

Well, that’s the text. But there’s something else going on underneath, against the flow, reversing the text even. We are told that Chris was once Liz’s patient. During the credits, we see him enter her office with the appearance of a hermit, but we don’t exactly know what his problem was. Given how Liz exclusively works with issues of sexuality, we might suppose Chris too is tormented on that front. In the first scene, Chris goes to the French consulate to claim his residency and reward. He is an artist—one of Hollywood’s euphemisms for a gay man. Posing for the photo-op, he kisses the French diplomat, who tells him that it wasn’t necessary. “For $10000, you’re lucky it wasn’t on the lips”, says Chris.

When we first see Ben, he’s trying to convince Liz to go with Chris to Paris. “Any girl that won’t have babies is anti-business” is the reason this obstetrician gives. Shortly after, he arrives at a bar to talk to Chris. The whole scene plays out like the first meeting of two lovers who have long separated. This conversation, as all of Ben’s scenes in the film, is loaded with innuendo that suggest that his relation to Chris, “his best friend”, is more than platonic. He lays out the plan to Chris: “If I were a girl who hated men and wanted someone to talk me out of it, I wouldn’t go to another girl, I’d go to Cary Grant”. “Man is the cause, man is the cure”, he says, prompting Chris to play the “bohemian” lover to the three girls. Chris likes the idea, but demurs. Ben reminds him of their college days. “You seem awfully happy about this”, notes Chris, to which Ben replies, “Well, it’s good for my business”.

As the plan is afoot, Ben visits Chris in his apartment. The exchange between them strips away all context, accommodating any supposition:

Ben: “What are you so sad about?

Chris: “What am I looking so sad about? Suppose Elizabeth finds out.

Ben: “How is she gonna find out?

Chris: “That’s what I’m worried about.

Ben: “In a city as big as L.A.? It’ll never happen.”

Chris: “In a city as big as L.A. That’s when it does happen.”

Just then, Liz rings the bell. Chris opens fumblingly, and Ben prepares to leave the apartment right away for no reason. The couple sits on the couch as Liz starts recounting how her patients are showing signs of cure, not knowing that Chris is behind all this. Now, Jerry Lewis’ sequencing tends to be rather austere, not particularly marked by camera movements. During conversation scenes, he avoids shot/reverse shot constructions, instead drawing the viewer into the space through axial cuts from medium two-shots to tighter solo shots. But here, he allows himself a flourish. The camera arcs from behind the sofa where the couple are sitting and goes at the diametrically opposite point, reversing the actors’ on-screen positions. The reversal is equally thematic, for Chris is as much a pawn in Ben’s plan as Liz is in his.

Notwithstanding the tacked-on happy ending, one against-the-grain reading of the plot illustrates its symmetry: Chris thinks he’s winning back Liz by seducing the girls, but it might well be Ben who’s trying to win back Chris by urging him to carry out this hopeless plan. So we can’t always say who’s controlling whom; at several points, the three characters move in a way that swaps their positions in the frame.

Ben’s romance is barely veiled. In a ballroom scene, as Chris necks Liz during a slow dance, Lewis cuts to Ben’s reaction, a wholly uncomfortable insert held for too long. Ben forces an awkward, pained smile. As the couple dances, Ben gets up from the seat to encourage Chris to continue dancing, as though he needed that encouragement. In a later scene, Ben and Chris leave a party hall into a private room. Lewis makes an ambiguous cut to Liz discussing with her secretary about how pretty something looks; “a natural romance”, adds the secretary. (The entire party scene—constructed around a Kafkaesque elevator that’s always there but never accessible—is small masterpiece of screen comedy, dialled-up with uncharacteristically tight, claustrophobic compositions that cry for a release.)

In his extraordinary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), which played this week at the Filmmuseum München retrospective online, Mark Rappaport picks out moments from Hudson’s films that surreptitiously relay information about the actor’s homosexuality, revelations often mitigated by a safely heterosexual plot context. The filmmaker extracts these lines and gestures out of their context to build his case that Hudson’s homosexuality was there to see for anyone who cared to pay close attention. This hacking of the texts, this decontextualization, frustrating from an academic point of view, is very much the point of the film, which forges a young admirer’s private fantasy in the vein of Hollywood Babylon from public documents. Rappaport’s explosive work throws light on the complex workings of the Hollywood movie, where several extra-textual narratives intermingle to pin down an ever-slippery network of meanings.

Someone watching Three on a Couch with no knowledge of the actors’ private lives may similarly suppose that Jerry Lewis and James Best were queer, and that this detail was being sublimated in a story about heterosexual supremacy. The scenes between them have a touch of camp, but Lewis’ performance and characterization are especially striking.

A Lewis operation is generally room-wrecking, his physicality dominating every other element of the aesthetic. Here, on the other hand, he is largely withdrawn. He doesn’t begin with the Lewis persona right away. He starts off, in fact, as a rather obnoxious figure, throwing tantrums and blackmailing Liz when she refuses to go with him to Paris. In his scenes with Liz, he is often photographed from the back, not unlike how Cary Grant is filmed in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), the lack of our access to his facial reactions making him seem even more sinister. There are no reverse shots, and his inward-looking body language clearly spells a repressed character.

What’s Ben’s seduction plan for Chris if not an opportunity for him to perform heterosexual romances with women without ever personally investing in it, just like what Rock Hudson and other queer stars of Hollywood always did in their movies? It even offers Chris a chance to cross-dress as a character named Heather. Sexually speaking, the Jerry Lewis persona oscillates between a childish pre- or asexuality and blustering ultra-masculinity. Here, Ben’s plan decomposes Chris’ relatively complex personality into three simple archetypes: Ringo the alpha man of the west, Warren the sportive urban male and Rutherford the gay mamma’s boy. Once this decomposition is in place, all three archetypes are subjected to the Jerry treatment; in a montage of funny courting scenes (chopped up into single gags so as to put Jerry back into his comfort zone), we see how each of these men fails in the sole characteristic he is supposed to uphold.

So I suspect Three on a Couch is to Lewis what Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is to Adam Sandler: a deconstruction, a look at what likes on the other side of his screen persona, defined equally by arrested development. But the more fundamental question of whether it’s legitimate for heterosexual actors like Lewis and Best to play gay characters playing heterosexual characters is a Gordian knot I can’t yet undo.

This kind of in-joking—whether imposed or willed—is not uncommon in the work of queer actors like Grant, Hudson and Montgomery Clift. And unlike, say, Indian male movie stars, who operate in a firmly heterosexual framework that can only allow their drag roles and performed queerness to be read as jokes, Lewis and Best are working in Hollywood of 1966, whose historical and cultural context won’t let viewers brush aside the significations of these ‘crossovers’. Which is to say, Three on a Couch may have been a cultural relic even in its time, like all Jerry Lewis films.

[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

The first real appearance (Stagecoach, 1938)

Stagecoach (1938) is distinct in its sobriety and simplicity. There are effects but they aren’t visible. They are perfectly integrated into the continuity of editing. It’s the ideal stylistic exercise for film schools to take note of.

Even so, John Ford went for a flashy effect—just one—which is completely incongruent with the rest of film. It occurs in the first shot John Wayne appears in. Here is the film that will rescue him from oblivion and make him world famous. And how is he introduced? Firstly, notice that we see him eighteen minutes after the film has begun. A delayed entrance that is quite useful and well-planned: we have already heard much about Ringo Kid in the preceding conversation. This delay could seem normal: after all, Wayne’s is only the second name in the credits behind Claire Trevor, and as we have seen, it’s a good strategy to delay the entrance of the second protagonist.

But what an entrance! Everything has been smooth so far. Suddenly, without any narrative reason, there is a tight shot of the unknown Wayne all by himself, with the tracking camera culminating in a closeup, and the Monument Valley in the background, overlaid on a thunderous score. All this for a gentleman who stops the stagecoach with a hand signal, not for a holdup but simply to use the public service: to alert the driver…

We can’t think of a better beginning for a mythification. What’s curious is that it’s for a square almost unknown to the big studios, a handsome, scrappy giant, a sharpshooter trapped in Z movies of Republic Pictures where he had made forty mid-length features in six years. Ford seems to have wanted to create a star, his star, since they were to make fifteen films together in twenty-five years. The most faithful duo in the history of cinema. Amazing intuition, when none of the earlier films helped foresee Wayne’s abilities.

Ford places Wayne in the shadows—mythicizing darkness—as much as possible, while his partner Claire Trevor is frequently in full light in the preceding shot. One wonders if this doesn’t reflect a certain lack of confidence of Ford in the dramatic capabilities of his new protégé. Testimonies confirm this: Ford had asked Wayne to emote as little as possible, to stay impassive. Whatever the case, even if it was necessitated by fortuitous reasons, the mythification is no less present, and will continue to shape Wayne’s future work in a very perverse way.

At the end of the film, Wayne kills two villains within a few seconds. We don’t have time to see anything. As Wayne joins Claire Trevor, he is seen from behind. It’s only when he is very far in the background that he turns and lets us see his face.

(more…)

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

Warner Brothers was arguably the most interesting film production house of the 1930s, certainly at least from a political and social point of view. Like other studios, it knew how to harness the Depression-era audience’s desire to escape the doom and gloom around them by offering cheerful backstage musicals. But Warner also proved itself willing and capable of registering the harsh reality that this audience lived in. The studio’s tendency to both profit from the general resentment and to assuage it with uplifting messages of hope and courage may have its roots in the political leanings of its chief Jack Warner, a heavyweight supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt who is said to have gotten his wartime directives straight from the White House.

Heroes for Sale (1933) was produced by First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers’ that mostly handled the studio’s second-tier products. There were few stars in these films and the budgets were relatively low, which allowed them to be bold in their choice of plot and setting. While in a Warner Bros. picture, tragic stories would regularly be attenuated with a tacked-on happy ending, the First National films didn’t need to sugarcoat their bitter vision. Heroes for Sale was made just after Roosevelt swore in as the 32nd president of the United States. As though symptomatic of this particular time, the film embodies both a discontentment with the preceding Hoover administration and a hope for the new one, the duality manifesting as an incongruity between plot and character.

Injured in combat during the war, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) returns home to discover that the military accolades he deserves have been given to his army peer Roger (Gordon Westcott). Not wishing to rock the boat, Tom takes up a modest clerical job at the bank run by Roger’s father, only to be crippled by, and sacked for, a morphine addiction he acquired at a German POW hospital. After rehabilitation, Tom starts a family and successfully runs a laundry in Chicago, but finds himself unwittingly caught up in a riot following a wave of automation and job loss. Returning from an imprisonment of five years, he learns he is on a list of suspected communists, and is forced to wander the country as a drifter without a home, a family or a job.

The script, by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (an opium addict himself), has a stark anti-establishment bent. Throughout the film, we witness authority being abused to crush the little man that Tom represents: a commander who sends his soldiers on an impossible mission, a banker who misappropriates people’s money, businessmen who sack their employees without second thought, police who fire at protestors, law that accords disproportional punishment to white- and blue-collar crimes, enforcers chasing vagabonds from their camps. Heroes for Sale is punctuated by images drawn from real events of the preceding years, such as urban breadlines, the veterans’ march to Washington and the ensuing firing. At the end, Tom tells Roger, both hobos on the run now: “You started way up high and I started pretty low. And we end up here in the rain, together.”

While the grim analysis above remains faithful to the reality of the Great Depression, the reaction to it suggested by Heroes for Sale is one of stoic acceptance. All through his ordeals, Tom refuses revolts against his lot, nor does he switch over to the wrong side of the law. As a result, the account of his constant exile from society—army, rehabilitation centre, prison, endless wandering as a vagrant—scans like a modern-day Book of Job, where Christian forbearance, charity and an unquestioning faith in powers that be are presented as the noblest possible response to relentless suffering. This answer is justified by the failure of the anti-automation riot Tom tries to prevent, as well as by the presence of the inventor Max (Robert Barrat), a caricatural communist who is simply a disgruntled capitalist at heart.

This call for patience is wholly in line with the studio’s support for the new regime and the promises of the New Deal. In fact, the film devolves into an unveiled propaganda for Roosevelt towards the end. “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people”, says Tom to Roger, explicitly referring to the new president’s inaugural address. The economy, and with it the morale of the nation, will rise again is the message. After one hour of attacking one American institution after another, here’s a turnabout, an unfounded appeal for trust. Trust in institutions, especially the banking establishments that had lost public legitimacy after the stock market collapse, was what the Warner brothers would have liked too; their existence depended on it: Goldman Sachs was on advisory board of the studio and had co-financed its purchase of First National Pictures.

Director William A. Wellman’s style is notoriously hard to pin down; his personal vision of the world, even more so. There is little formal or thematic consistency across his body of work, except perhaps a certain taste for gritty realism expressed in particular details of action, gesture and setting. Any line of moral, political or philosophical thought one can discern in one film will invariably be contradicted in another. As critic David Phelps puts it, “the films have no metaphysics but physics.” As a result, critical consensus on his work still remains unresolved, his status as a major American filmmaker open to question. Manny Farber was a great admirer of the textures in his films, asserting that “when Wellman finishes with a service station or the wooden stairs in front of an ancient saloon, there’s no reason for any movie realist to handle the subject again.” In contrast, Andrew Sarris declared that, with Wellman, “objectivity is the last refuge for mediocrity.

Be that as it may, Wellman brings a lean muscularity to Heroes for Sale, which possesses a novelistic sprawl without ever turning laboured or precious. The film hurtles from one genre, one setting to another, making vast leaps in time that are all the more striking in that they are executed with straight cuts without transitions. Wellman’s characteristic camera movements expand and contract spaces with considerable effectiveness. He tracks across the laundry floor twice to show the wrecking impact of automation on the employees. Wellman steers clear of sentimentalism despite the thoroughly melodramatic construction of the scenario. A comparison with his collaboration with David O. Selznick, a high-strung sentimentalist, a few months before in The Conquerors (1932) reveals on how light-footed Heroes for Sale actually is.

There’s something about Wellman’s style that makes it free of value judgments about what is being depicted. To be sure, scenes can provoke the desired emotion in the viewer, but only in so far as the script needs it. Many episodes in Wellman’s work seem to unfold in the passive voice, displacing interest from the characters on to the action they are embedded in. The riot sequence in Heroes for Sale is a good example. The strikers wreck the laundry and hurl stones at the police, who fire back. The camera pushes through the fighting mass to pick up Tom’s wife, who has come to look for him. A barely perceptible blow to her jaw knocks her down dead. Since the previous shot shows both the rioters and the police wielding batons, we are not sure who is delivered the blow. Wellman’s staging and editing of the action takes no sides, shifting the emphasis from assigning responsibility to describing results. A riot took place, blows were exchanged, a woman was killed.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

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

One of Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious assets was director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese émigré most known for his seven-film collaboration with iconic actress Marlene Dietrich, who had moved to the States following the success of their first film together, The Blue Angel (1930). The sixth entry in the cycle, The Scarlet Empress, is a loose biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. The arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s had given fresh impetus to studios to remake their silent epics in sound. The year before had seen Garbo play Christina of Sweden in the commercial hit Queen Christina (1933) and Paramount themselves had released Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert, a month before to considerable success. But nothing, not even Sternberg’s earlier films with Dietrich, anticipates the stylistic aggression of The Scarlet Empress, a box-office bomb.

Sternberg’s film follows a fairly linear trajectory. Ordained to be married to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe), Catherine (Dietrich) travels from her hometown in Prussia to Russia, accompanied by the handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge). Catherine falls in love with the count, who has described Peter to her in lofty terms. Having reached Russia, Catherine is subject to a series of rude awakenings: Peter is a sinister idiot who devises torture toys, his aunt the current Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is a cold, cruel ruler who only wants Catherine to produce a male heir to her throne and Alexei appears to be a perennial skirt-chaser. Hardened by her betrayal, Catherine shields herself from the world, weaponizing her sexuality and waiting for the right moment to seize power.

It’s a rather intimate, psychoanalytical retelling of Catherine’s story that casts her private romantic problems as the motor of History. It locates the dissolution of her humanity in a wrenching scene in which she discovers that Alexei is also the illicit lover of Elizabeth. Later in the film, after taking over Elizabeth’s private chamber, Catherine restages this primal scene as a form of therapy, this time forcing Alexei into her old role in order to make him recognize the harm he’s done. Catherine’s ascension is conditioned by her private disappointments—the dissolution of her Prussian identity, her unhappy marriage, her heartbreak with Alexei and the her being reduced to an heir-producing machine. “We women are too much creatures of the heart”, remarks Elizabeth, lamenting the burden of the crown. It’s Catherine’s predicament too, one which she turns to her advantage.

Nothing in the synopsis above obliges Scarlet Empress to be the film that it is. In the hands of another equally-capable director, this might have been a sober, moving tragedy about thrust-upon greatness. But Sternberg was a sophisticated stylist and he conceives the film in an idiosyncratic form that derives from gothic, baroque and expressionistic tendencies in western art and architecture. Every detail of the film—sets, costume, lighting, dialogue, acting, music—is distorted to a grotesque degree having little to do with reality, leave alone history. Sternberg’s genre-bending treatment of the narrative applies horror movie tropes to a historical psychodrama, resulting in a very campy, very exotic aesthetic comparable to what Sergei Eisenstein would devise years later for his Ivan the Terrible films.

Sternberg’s primary means of breaking away from realism is through a ‘encumbered’ mise en scène, a deep physical space saturated with decorative objects all pointing to the unfathomable cruelty of the Russian royalty: a decadent palace housing gargoyle like sculptures, thrones attached to busts of withered old men clutching their faces in grief, clocks and toys depicting sexual deviancy and human torture, expansive clothes that seem like medieval torture instruments themselves, a skeleton leaning over a dining table, tableware and even food that spell out anguish and pain. (It is a curious irony that the contemporary face of evil, seizing power in Germany as Sternberg’s film was being made, glorified an aesthetic that was the polar opposite of the one pictured here.) The human characters are thus lost in layers and layers of clothing and décor, trapped in an ethos of terror they have little agency over. Catherine is doomed, physically and morally, to the same fate as her predecessors.

Nothing is left to accident in Sternberg’s film. Every visual, every gesture and every word planned in advance — Catherine playing with a suspended rope, falling on a haystack and tucking straws into her mouth for Alexei to remove, Alexei bowing his head in sorrow after Catherine asks him to perform an elaborate ritual, Catherine wrapping the tip of Peter’s threatening sword with a piece of her dress, a high official humiliatingly dropping a diamond in a priest’s plate — everything carrying specific meaning. Working with cinematographer Bert Glennon for the fifth time, Sternberg develops a rather complex lighting pattern that favours certain image planes over others (a similar scheme will be developed in India later by Guru Dutt and V. K. Murthy). This produces a film of great visual allure as well as ambiguity.

The chief source of ambiguity, though, stems from Sternberg’s bold mixing of tones. The Scarlet Empress is both a tragedy about Catherine’s sealed fate as well as risqué comedy about her sexual conquests. The challenge the film poses is that it never clearly distinguishes these two elements of the film. The duality of innocence and evil is introduced in the film’s first scene, in which a young, bedridden Catherine clutches her doll as her governor reads her tales of notorious Russian tyrants. The calamity facing Catherine registers clearly all through the narrative, reaching its peak in a gorgeously expressive wedding scene in which the bride Catherine’s halting breath threatens to blow out the candle she holds before her veil. Cutting to a soaring choral score, Sternberg films Catherine and Alexei in increasingly tight closeups, freezing them in their despair and helplessness via a characteristic top lighting.

On the other hand, the film suspends us in an attitude of uneasy humour about Catherine’s destiny. This strategy primarily manifests in the figure of Marlene Dietrich, an icon of screen irony. The viewer never once believes in the innocence of Christina even back in Prussia as a young maiden. Dietrich plays up the plain country girl stereotype, feigning wide-eyed naïveté and real love. Starting from this, The Scarlet Empress effects a progressive ‘defeminization’ of Catherine, her billowing white frock slowly giving way to military furs and finally to a dazzling white uniform with coat and trousers. Catherine’s rise to power thus coincides with a merging of the character with the Dietrich persona. The actor conveys Catherine’s sexual maturity with tremendous humour and wit. The joke on paper (that Catherine the Great slept with the whole Russian army) is taken through all its variations by Dietrich’s actorly intelligence, her manner of introducing wholly gratuitous but suggestive sentence breaks (“And your duties… Dmitri?”) and her typical way of sizing up men around her.

All of this excess somehow passed through the newly introduced Motion Picture Production Code. Part of it has to do with the film’s way of having its royal cake and eating it. A biographical picture situated in a different time and country (Russia, no less) perhaps gave the film immunity from the censors. The sadism, cruelty and debauchery could always be defended by appeal to a dubious historical accuracy. Whatever the case, it’s a wonder that Sternberg managed to go as far as he did, especially at a point where the country was reeling from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Film history is all the richer for it.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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