Hollywood


Cynical

Arts no. 715; 25 March 1959.

Like Lucchini in Bonitzer’s Nothing about Robert, I probably didn’t see the film I’m talking about (or maybe one reel, or the trailer, I don’t know)

NB: Fess Parker was rechristened “Fier” Parker in France1.

Alas, the censors are guilty of authorizing this execrably psychoanalytical, misanthropic and incurably zoophilic hagiography for mutts. Cinema is dogs, says Disney, in agreement with De Sica, painter of the bitchiness of life. The SPA2 must get such movies banned because if, coming out of Cinéma Avenue, I’d found some pup at my feet, I assure you that it would’ve gone through hell as a reward for such nonsense instead and in place of its fellow dogs, of Robert Stevenson, an usurper who has nothing to do with the master of adventure, of Dorothy McGuire, worse than the dog, of Fess Parker, a little too “Fier” in our country. Go for it, dogs and even cynephiles. But cinephiles, stay away.

 

1[Translator’s note] Presumably because Fess sounds like fesses (buttocks). Fier: proud.

2[Translator’s note] La Société protectrice des animaux, the society for animal protection.

 

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

 

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

“While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

It must take a peculiar artistic temperament to follow up one of the decade’s best films with one of the year’s worst. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has no reason to exist except as the by-product of an old pals’ reunion. Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’ Ass Murray play cops Peterson (!), Morrison and Robertson respectively. They are the entire police force in charge of keeping order in Centerville, a town of less than 1000 inhabitants with an overpopulated juvenile penitentiary and cemetery. The officers don’t have much to do, except investigate missing chicken and keep an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. That’s only until the town is beset by strange incidents. A practice called polar fracking has reoriented the earth’s magnetic axis, resulting in exceptionally long days or nights. Animals go missing and the dead rise from their grave. Totally ill-equipped to handle the situation, the residents succumb to the zombies one by one. The linear simplicity of structure and composition that begins the film makes way for crippling hipster irony devoid of purpose or pleasure.

Besides this airless self-referencing, The Dead Don’t Die is also strewn with plugs to other films high and low. It’s clearly Jarmusch’s “take” on the now-buried B-movie tradition: the dialogue is expressly tacky (“Next to her dead body?”), the situations derivative, and the gore overdone. The actors are conscious of being in a Jarmusch movie—a stillborn idea that’s exhaustingly reiterated. But the film is invested in nothing, not even its own existence. The subtexts of Romero’s films are spelled out to intentionally keep them at arm’s length. Climate change is played out as a never-ending joke, as is a stilted redneck character played by Steve Buscemi. The zombies are of the most unimaginative kind, roaming around chanting ‘coffee’ (yes, coffee), ‘candy’, ‘drugs’, ‘wifi’ and other easy pickings like that. Jarmusch manages to make every element a grating presence, from the theme song to Swinton’s antics as a Japanophile mortician. Only Sevigny, with her completely misplaced sincerity and a subtle sense of self-deprecating comedy, livens things up in an otherwise dead undertaking.

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

In The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio recreates the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss from Palermo who turned government informant, leading to the arrest of hundreds of other members of the crime syndicate. The film opens in 1980, the year Buscetta was allowed to flee to Brazil where he’d be later picked up to be coerced into collaboration, and follows him through his “betrayal” over the next twenty years. Bellocchio and co-writers focus on the self-perception of the protagonist as an honourable man, whom Pierfrancesco Favino portrays with solemn dignity. While the mafioso and their workers take him to be a traitor, Buscetta sees himself as the true guardian of the Cosa Nostra tradition and the people he’s denouncing as the true traitors. This self-narrativization, the film underscores, is based on a notion of masculine honour above all else: Buscetta admittedly has a weakness for women (allowing the film to include gratuitous sex scenes); he resists aging and resents his wife supporting him financially in the US, where he’s put under witness protection. He spends his old age in the obscurity of suburban middle-class life, in constant fear of a retribution that never comes.

The 79-year-old filmmaker employs his characteristic, cocky style to dramatize mafia wars. A ticker of the body count flashes on the screen with every murder. Bold, brash texts filling the screen announce important dates and events. The arrest of a boss is rapidly intercut with a trapped hyena. An impressive bombing scene unfolds as a single shot from the back of the victim’s car. But Bellocchio is most attuned to scenes with a theatrical flourish: Buscetta’s deposition and subsequent cross-examinations that were televised. Unfolding in a vast courtroom with Buscetta at its centre and peripheral cells holding the denounced, the trials are filmed in wide-angle shots and echoing sound. Like the opening of Vincere, Buscetta’s composure is contrasted with the agitated, crazy reactions of his rivals. As the denunciations become a regular affair and the public interest vanes, the trials grow modest and the judges less scared of the accused. Despite its baroque touches, The Traitor remains a by-the-numbers biopic, choosing to tread close to history at the expense of insight. There’s another character whose collaboration runs parallel to Buscetta’s, and it is offered in elaborate detail for no other reason than to blink at the audience’s knowledge of the events.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin)

If Lars von Trier’s serial killer movie tempered the gratuity of its graphic descriptions with a dialectical organization, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove drops another layer from the wall separating art and snuff. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) between 1970 and 1975, when he murdered and decapitated women in his Hamburg apartment. Unlike The House that Jack Built, The Golden Glove makes no claims to explaining Honka: barely any detail about his childhood, upbringing or inner life. Whatever we glean about this character comes from the faithful reconstruction of his apartment from photographs: the furniture and linen hint at a lived-in homeliness while posters of naked models coexist with chubby, matronly dolls. Instead, we are presented with shots of Honka binge drinking, forcing the women he picks up on street into violent sex, killing them and parcelling their bodies. Akin films the gruesome acts of rape and murder so that the architecture distances us from the events by partially blocking our view. This considered reserve, which sometimes increases the perversity of the crimes, vanishes as the film proceeds and we are treated to Honka’s fits of rage in full intimacy.

What takes the place of individual psychology is social description. Set in the seventies in West Germany, the film—likely following the book—portrays Honka as a product of his environment. Honka is at the bottom of the social pyramid: he works dead end jobs at malls and construction sites, lives in a cubbyhole and spends his money on alcohol. His face deformed after an accident, Honka is ruled out of the dating market as well. His only social life is at the Golden Glove, a seedy joint for freaks and outcasts (any of whom could be the protagonist of the story) whom Akin describes elaborately without affection. The corpulent, old women Honka lures with the promise of alcohol are also outliers of the free market economy with no social support or means of sustenance except through abject slavery. Seeing them showing no will to live and their old bodies being manipulated and mutilated like inanimate objects is the most distressing and repulsive aspect of The Golden Glove. Consequently, it’s liberating to witness the lucky few who escape this fate, thanks either to a Christian missionary trying to “save” the Golden Glove regulars or to sheer accident: a sentiment that the film structures itself around. The uplifting image of a blonde teen whom Honka idealizes unwittingly escaping Honka closes the film.

 

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar lets go of the generic framework that imparted a sense of mystery and thrill to his narratives. The film is instead simply the story of a filmmaker reminiscing about his past, patching up broken friendships and coming to terms with his creative and corporeal disintegration. Weakened and frazzled, Antonio Banderas is exquisite in his role as Salvador, a successful movie director who has quit working and chooses to fritter away his time in his swanky apartment. Salvador suffers from a number of ailments stemming from his partially paralyzed back. On the occasion of the restoration of one of his older productions, he reaches out to the film’s lead actor from whom he’s been estranged for thirty years. This contact inducts him into a heroin addiction, which Salvador gladly chooses over resuming filmmaking. His heroin-induced stupor provokes memories of his pre-teen years: the suffering and hardship of his poor parents, his mother’s loneliness and resourcefulness faced with the absence of her husband and the precocious awakening of his sexuality in his relation with an older labourer he teaches. Back in the present, he meets an old lover, whom he unsuccessfully tried to save from drugs, and recounts to his doting secretary-friend his relation with his mother in her final years.

None of this information is offered as a revelation or a piece of a puzzle. Neither are they woven into a causal narrative. This lends the film a transparency and directness that critics, perhaps with justification, are quick to read as confession. The film is populated with references to the filmmaker’s life but also details so particular—his mother breaking a slab of chocolate to make a sandwich, mending a sock with an egg as support, Salvador placing a pillow on floor before bending down to access a safe—that they could’ve come from nowhere except experience. But Almodóvar avoids sentimentalism and undercuts the obvious emotions with counter-intuitive musical cues. When Salvador meets his old lover, there’s a cut across the 180° line that positions this film as a sequel of sorts to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, heterosexual domesticity being the implied horror connecting both encounters. For the most part, though, the attention is on Salvador’s pain and physical degradation. The film opens with him suspended under water as though in a womb, and the presence of water bodies throughout the film suggests a time before birth. In that, it’s clearly an autumnal reflection on aging that appears to be favourite theme of the year.

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

“Sirk and screenwriter Peg Senwick caricature the country club as a nosy, disingenuous, gossip-mongering and casually spiteful group. When Cary brings Ron to the club for the first time, in order for him to be accepted by the town, the club members treat him like an alien species and call him names: “nature boy”, “earthy type”. This exoticism, of course, derives from the perceived sexual promiscuity of coloured folk—a subtext that German filmmaker (and Sirk’s protégé) Rainer Fassbinder will make explicit in his remake of the film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)¸ in which the tanned Ron is replaced by a black man, an immigrant and Muslim to boot. On the other hand, the gathering of friends in the woods that Ron takes Cary to is a natural community, spontaneous in their joy and genuine in their affection. The first-name based intimacy of this group, consisting of rugged immigrants and other lively underclass specimen, is in direct opposition to the suffocative banality of the small talk at the country club, with its stiff formality and fake decency.

The two contrasting communities are an opportunity for Sirk—better placed as an outsider to do so—to bring two specific visions of America in dialectical opposition. Ron and his friends are spiritual inheritors of the 19th century transcendentalist movement, which advocated a life of solitude and self-sufficiency in harmony with nature, away from the corrupting influence of civilization. Cary and her town are, on the contrary, contemporary products of 20th century America. Sirk’s film was made during what is known as the Boomer era, a period of American post-war prosperity, accelerated consumerism and cultural conservatism. One of the defining phenomena of the period was the “white flight”: a large-scale migration of white people from the mixed-race urban zones to newly-developed suburban settlements. The war now over, once-employed women found themselves at home and away from entertainment options in the city, leading to an exponential increase in the sale of television sets across the country. When her son gifts her a television set as a cure to her loneliness, Cary is filmed as a reflection on the television screen, trapped by it.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

 

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

Our Daily Bread

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

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

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

The Slide of the Admiral

Cahiers du cinéma John Ford special; 1990

7 Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Joker

(Possible spoilers ahead)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Inspiration and Neorealism

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 483; 19 April 1959.

Wind Across the Everglades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sergeant York

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

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

[Full article at Firstpost]

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