Hollywood


[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

III. CONCLUSION

 

Lang and Our Times

 

Lang’s body of work is among the most important in Germanic cinema. It’s generally placed before those of Lubitsch and Pabst, but immediately after that of Murnau. From an international perspective, Lang is always cited among the greatest, but never among the highest echelons, often because of a respect for tradition rather than a knowledge of his work. He tends to be considered a filmmaker of the past, an academic director. Rare are those who love his entire body of work, from 1919 to 1960: older critics see him disappear from cinema in 1926, reappear furtively in 1931 (M), or even in 1936 (You Only Live Once). The youngest don’t like his first expressionist films, and locate his real beginnings towards 1924, or 1928, or 1936, or even near 1946. Leftist critics consider only the films between 1928 and 1938 as valuable. There’s a fierce and vain battle between the supporters of German Lang and those of American Lang, which hasn’t facilitated the understanding of his work.

As a matter of fact, Lang’s body of work is one and indivisible. That’s what makes for its power and its weakness. Its power, because this unity is evidently made of equal (or almost equal) films, or at least ones worthy of interest, except Guerrillas. It can’t then be said that Lang, who has more than thirty successes to his credit, has made bad films. It’s a performance that was equalled, by Hawks, by Hitchcock most notably, but never surpassed. None of these films is really independent of the others. The body of work is to be explained, in its totality, by the course of its evolution. And it’s nothing less than the moving course of a human life that we have the pleasure of following, a pleasure superior to the one felt before any one of these films taken alone, which is only one moment in the evolution, and thus incomplete.

The period of search, of artistic youth, is logically completed by the period of maturity, which marks an end point. The contrary is equally true, for this second period lacks the power, the ardour of youth. Hence the difficulty in selecting films that are representative of Lang in the public’s eyes, films that stand apart from others and allow us to describe his art to the layman who has neither the time nor the possibility to see his forty-three films, of a total length of sixty-seven hours. Der müde Tod, Siegfried, Metropolis, M, say the old. M, You Only Live Once, say the more moderate ones. M, Fury, Hangmen Also Die, affirms Lang. Human Desire, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, according to the young. Finally, the two Hindu films for the extreme-right among our critics. The game is rather vain, and I don’t think it’s any useful to play it. But it shows clearly that there aren’t any perfect masterpieces, superior to the rest of the films, like it is the case with Buñuel, Capra, Dreyer, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Gance, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Stroheim, Sternberg, Vidor, Vigo, Welles, who are “auteurs of films”. Along with Godard, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Rossellini, Lang belongs to the class of “auteurs of bodies of work”.

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[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Contemplation (1954-60)

 

The last phase of Lang’s work embodies, not the view of a man who asks himself painful questions about life, its meaning and the moral value of men of his time, but a superior view, that of God, which observes the indifference of the external world to the individual, the difficulty of communication between individuals caught up in the Social Order. Lang responds to it with an equal indifference that establishes his superiority. That was already the attitude of his positive heroes, stingy when it came to gestures and movements.

Critique now gives way to contemplation. Films like Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious, and The Big Heat at times demonstrate this contemplative style inherited largely from a tradition of objectivity in classical American cinema and from the commercial necessity for double games. But now contemplation attains an excessive degree, moving far away from classicism.

Truth be told, there was a film foreshadowing this tendency even in the German period. Twenty-six years before Human Desire, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1928) reconciled its sets and its style: it’s indeed a lunar film. The plot, centred on the conquest of the moon and on the conflicts between scientists and profiteers in search of precious metals, conflicts aggravated by the presence of Gerda Maurus, is simply a pretext to showcase the sets and to place characters within these sets. There’s no human emotion. Everything here is a decomposition of the emotional and physical movements of characters who are analysed with a meticulousness, a mania that makes Frau im Mond the longest (two-and-a-half hours), the most boring and the most painful film by Lang for those who aren’t interested in following the work of the creator through the plot. There’s here the same abstract scheme as in Kriemhilds Rache, a scheme based on the repetition of identical movements, on the rotation of similar acts that end up bestowing even such excess with the outline of a vertiginous, wholly intellectual fascination, producing a new form of poetry.

Five films fall in this line, two American works, one of them rather Germanic in its style, and three other German ones. All five reprise earlier attempts made from a very different point of view, one which isn’t that of contemplative maturity: Human Desire (1954) is an improved version of Clash by Night (1951), in the similarity of its atmosphere and themes, and The Big Heat (1953), whose actors reappear here, but not in their critical virulence. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) takes While the City Sleeps (1955) further, minus the critique once more. Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (1958), Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) rework Lang’s earlier films (1922, 1932) and scripts (1919).

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[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Critique of Our Times

Clash by Night (1951) is an adaptation of a play by Clifford Odets. Lang is certainly at ease in modern New York theatre which wallows in the spectacle of human degradation. But where the New Yorkers ascribe degradation to a kind of undefined Ananke, clumsily associated with the social constitution of America, and mostly explicable by the playwrights’ resentments, Lang insists on the notion of responsibility. Fate, represented once more by the movement of waves, becomes one with the realist document, the presentation of port life, boats and fishermen in the credits sequence.

This time around, the characters are bestowed with a certain psychological depth, which rules out implausibility. After ten years of tumultuous life, Mae comes back home to lead a more orderly existence; she marries Jerry, a brutish and unsophisticated fisherman older than her, whom she leaves for one of his friends; but she returns to her house for her child. Jerry is full of good will, but can’t understand a woman who has lived in other milieus. In contrast, Earl the lover is rather abject; with Jerry refusing to hand over the child to the adulterous couple, and Mae refusing to leave without the child, he splits without confronting Jerry. Earl is a violent lunatic.

It’s one of the rare occasions in Lang’s work where secondary characters have their own existence, which can be explained by the faithfulness to the original play. There’s the completely senile grandfather, tormented by the image of an abandoned baby girl, the infirm and alcoholic uncle, and especially the typical young American couple: Marilyn Monroe plays a worker who knows perfectly what she wants, where she’s going and whom she wants to marry. The man she has chosen, Keith Andes, is passive, listless; he lets himself be led around by the nose. It’s a microscopic study of American society, run by women, just as they dominated the fake Übermenschen of the German period.

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Judy Versus Capitalism (Mike Hoolboom)

Hoolboom’s hourlong documentary is a biography of Canadian feminist and activist Judy Rebick presented in the voice of the subject herself. Divided arbitrarily into six chapters—titled ‘weight’, ‘abortion’, ‘others’ etc.—it traces Rebick’s childhood, the influence of her father on her romantic life, her first activist interventions, her conscious decision to gain weight as a defence mechanism, her involvement in the pro-choice movement leading up the legalization of abortion in Canada, her mental disorder and its roots, and her continuing struggle for the cause of social justice. As the years progress, we see Rebick’s concern grow beyond feminism, gradually encompassing questions of mental health and Israel-Palestine, and we end up with a picture of resistance and activism as a way of life. The account is chronological, and Hoolboom lets Rebick’s words drive the narrative. He illustrates her words with photos and videos from her personal album or associated archival footage from the corresponding time periods. The film is at its most inspired when Rebick opens up about her dissociative identity disorder, about the way it serves as a protective shield against the trauma of childhood abuse. As she talks about her various alters, Hoolboom, whose Scrapbook (2015) constitutes one of the most resonating cinematic explorations of selfhood and the ego, cuts to a series of faces of different ethnicities, genders and ages—a witty, sideways association with Rebick’s activism that’s constantly bound up with the question of ‘others’ outside herself. But for the most part, Judy Versus Capitalism falls short of its inventive title and remains a conventional portrait. Because Rebick’s testimony is powerful and stands on its own, Hoolboom is (rightfully) obliged to respect it and let it take centre stage. As a result, there’s little here that couldn’t have been accomplished by a more academic documentary.

From Time to Time, I Burn (Carlos Segundo)

With his dazzling debut Slits (2019), Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Segundo initiated a meditation on the nature of the digital image, and its relation to reality, memory, loss and mourning, against a backdrop of flagrant social inequality. In From Time to Time, I Burn, he continues this interrogation into the ontology of images and the way they fundamentally alter reality. But this time, he approaches them from the other end of photographic history. The quantum physicist of Slits studying high-definition digital images makes way for an experimental photographer, Louise (Rubia Bernasci), who works with the most rudimentary of photographic devices: a pinhole camera that she exposes to orchestrated movement of human bodies for several minutes. Standing naked before the device, she enacts a pseudo-ritual of seduction with another model. With its aperture always open, the camera ‘combines’ these bodies in a process of chemical communion into an organic composite in which racial and gender distinctions don’t hold anymore. Louise, an Afro-Brazilian who takes care of her pious, ailing mother, experiences a kind of religious epiphany when one of her models whispers something into her ear. Like Slits, From Time to Time is an enigmatic film about a subjective experience with images, and its narrative feels like an abstracted version of a longer treatment. In a short introduction, in which he also expresses solidarity with artists resisting the current “political virus” in Brazil, Segundo cites the Holy Trinity as an inspiration for both works. The claim is as baffling as the new film, but one gets the sense that, for Segundo, there’s something fundamentally religious about image-making, particularly in the kind of transubstantiation it effects between reality and representation. It may be that Segundo is shrouding very concrete political ideas in quasi-religious mystery, which seems to be a foundational value in his films. His subsequent work will, no doubt, throw more light.

Marriage Story (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

In its pared-down quality, Marriage Story seems to take off from the audiovisual abstraction that So Pretty (2019) ended with. This new short film does away with many of the narrative layers of the latter feature—community life, literary adaptation, political action. Even the carefully panning camera and exceptionally dense sound design of So Pretty give way to simpler formal elements. In fact, there are only three shots in the film, which may narratively be described as a rudimentary sketch of an afternoon session of sex between Rovinelli and her girlfriend Anika Kash. In the first, the filmmaker prepares coffee on a stove. In the second, she and Kash make love on the living room couch while, in the third, Kash sits on a chair reading out a text detailing a passionate sexual encounter with another woman. Bright red frames punctuate the film, and they constitute the entry and exit images as well. In every shot, a quotidian middle-class décor is subverted with elements that don’t typically belong there. The kitchen of the first scene is a picture of conventional piety and domesticity, complete with a religious painting on the wall. But Rovinelli has a slow stream of red light wash over the muted colours of the kitchen as though from a discotheque or a police siren. Combined with the sight of Rovinelli’s unconventional, naked body with its tattoos, breasts and dense armpit hair, the setting becomes something else. Similarly, in the third shot, we only see Kash’s ‘topless’, bare body on a chair, while a television set next to it projects the image of her head speaking the lines. Drawn from disparate sources, including the Song of Songs and writings by St. Theresa of Avila, the text conflates sacred and profane ecstasy in a manner that recalls Bernini’s St. Theresa. With all this, Rovinelli appears to be reintegrating what bourgeois religiosity keeps apart, i.e. the experiences of the spirit and the flesh.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer)

Thank heavens for Werner Herzog, for he is one of the few remaining auteurs who still believe in the capacity of film for cosmic reflection, in whose work man is more than a moral-political creature. The visitors in Fireball are meteorites, i.e. rocks and dust formed millions of years ago in the far reaches of the universe that grace the earth. Herzog and British geologist Clive Oppenheimer go across the world in search of stories about these interstellar travellers—myths, legends, rituals, scientific accounts—even accompanying an Antarctic expedition for space rocks. They position these meteorites as objects alternatively of scientific research and around which the film’s human subjects create meaning: the rocks are rare minerals, but also existential tokens, like cave paintings, whose transhistorical origin relativizes our own lives. This bivalence could produce two different responses to the film. A viewer looking for a scientific investigation could be frustrated by the mystification Herzog’s methods bring, just as a viewer seeking philosophical edification could find the geological explanations wanting. While the film’s scientific orientation could arguably be ascribed to the influence of Oppenheimer, the manner in which it juxtaposes the absurd and the sublime is vintage Herzog. It’s the mark of the filmmaker’s strength and sophistication that he is able to identify both these potentials in his material without undercutting the value of either. Under his camera, the eccentric takes on a heroic aura just as the erudite acquires a touch of the ridiculous. Herzog shies away neither from Malick-like preciousness nor from Hollywood cynicism; he can break a solemn philosophical mood by joking that Bavarians like him are not made of stardust, but he can also provoke a tear or two with a cut from an aboriginal painting to a telescopic view of a meteorite crater. A borrowed shot of an explorer breaking down at a momentous discovery while the rear end of a busy team member occupies the background of the frame sums up the film’s all-accommodating generosity. Apt, considering the film’s theme is the twin role of meteorites as a destructive as well as a life-creating force.

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan is a fanatic who has been increasingly willing to throw himself under the bus for the sake of his truth. Interstellar (2014) left behind his fanboys, Dunkirk (2017) thumbed its nose at sacred filmmaking tenets, while this new film ventures into even more untested terrains. That he has gaged a $250 million project for his personal desire to revive cinemagoing in the middle of a pandemic, moreover, cannot be ignored while evaluating the film. The world’s most popular poet of time has, once again, conceived of an ingenious, impenetrable syuzhet in which narratives in forward and reverse chronology are woven together within the framework of a spectacular if old-fashioned Euro-thriller: a CIA operative (John David Washington) must thwart the efforts of a future generation that seeks to annihilate all past in order to preserve itself. This chronological mesh makes for some unwittingly funny, but eye-popping reverse motion sequences that descend directly from the Lumières’ self-constructing wall. What’s impressive about Tenet, and its predecessor, is the filmmaker’s unapologetic privileging of an abstract figure of style over grammatic or affective considerations: the ‘trans-temporal’ crosscutting in Dunkirk, reverse motion here. In a way, these are bold, formal experiments that, in their failure, throw light on the mechanisms of classical storytelling. Nolan, who has always taken care to place his characters’ emotional or moral predicament at the centre of his narrative contraptions, does away with it in Tenet, Washington’s unflappable protagonist being little more than a sexless, humourless cipher. Despite the overwhelming intensity of the exposition scenes, he has also seemingly let go of the need to tie up the logical loose ends of his hypothesis, letting the contradictions and loopholes remain as they are. While a more thoughtful story could’ve drawn out all the themes of the intriguing premise, it is notable that Nolan, who has been crusading to preserve and employ celluloid from within a media climate hostile to such backward-looking attitudes, chose to make Tenet the tale of a man who fights to preserve the past at the expense of the future.

Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel)

In Toponymy (2015), Perel pursued the traces of Argentina’s military dictatorship on its landscape, examining in essence the way governments inscribe preferred narratives onto geography. In the new film, he continues this exploration by looking at the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. The structure is simple: in static shots from the dashboard of his car, Perel photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. But Corporate Accountability also exhibits kinship to landscape films such as Too Early, Too Late (1981), Landscape Suicide (1986), and to the more recent Did Wolff von Amerongen Commit Bankruptcy Offenses? (2004) and Status and Terrain (2019). The question that Perel raises is this: how do you film criminal responsibility when you are removed in time and space from these acts, and when you can’t put a face on to the perpetrators? After all, corporations aren’t people and you can’t indict a logo. The filmmaker foregrounds this crisis of representation by emphasizing the primacy of the source report, which carries the burden not just of describing the crimes but of differentiating criminal accountability from mere complicity. Perel’s reading out of the report’s copyright page is thus bitterly ironic since adapting it is precisely what he cannot do.

[The following is a translation of a program note that Godard wrote on Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940). The note, originally written in 1956 on behalf of UFOLEIS (Union française des œuvres laïques pour l’éducation par l’image et le son) for film club screenings of the film, was republished in Godard par Godard (1985, Cahiers du Cinéma). 

A. Presentation

I. The Director: Fritz Lang

 The Return of Frank James is the third film Fritz Lang made in the United States. F. Lang was forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, and he had taken refuge in France (where he made Liliom) before leaving for Hollywood, where he settled down in 1934. Naturalized as an American citizen in 1939, Fritz Lang is today a veteran of Californian studios and, like his compatriot Otto Preminger, has adapted himself to them very well. He’s the last representative, along with Carl Dreyer, of that glorious era which saw the combined talents of Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau (on this subject, refer to a volume of film history for F. Lang’s role during German expressionism).

Fascinated by the Far West since his youth, he worked from 1938 to 1940 on a film that would retrace the entire history of the American West, a sprawling fictionalized documentary like the one Eisenstein had attempted with Mexico and the one Orson Welles would dream of with Brazil. The project was shelved, but Lang’s penchant for the Far West and its legendary heroes encouraged the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, to entrust him with the direction of a typical Western, The Return of Frank James, which marked Lang’s debut in colour film.

II. The Western

It would be incorrect to classify the Western as a separate genre. What sets a Western apart from other films is only the setting in which it unfolds. In fact, there are historical Westerns, crime Westerns, comic Westerns, and cowboy psychology can be as meticulously probed as those of Bernanos’ peasants or R.L. Stevenson’s adventurers. To be sure, characters in Westerns are among the most ‘stereotyped’ in the whole of cinema, but that’s because myths play a significant role in their existence. Jesse James [1], the ‘beloved bandit’, or ‘The Durango Kid’, are first of all heroes from legend; they are treated by screenwriters as such, in the same way as The Song of Roland or Chanson de Guillaume. That explains the frequent comparisons made between their reactions and those of Corneille’s characters: the same concern to act solely on the given word, the same respect for a homespun morality ruled by a sense of honour.

III. Practical Tips

As part of the projection, we could use the disc Rocky Mountains of Times Stompers (Vogue EPL 7201) in order to create an ‘ambiance’ that will put the viewer in a favourable mood. This disc includes famous tunes from the Far West such as Oh Susannah, Old Faithful, Down in the Valley etc.

 

B. Discussion

I. Dramatic Value

a) The Return of Frank James is the story of a revenge. After gaining notoriety in the West, the James brothers lead a peaceful life. Frank learns from one of his friends, Clem, that Jesse has been murdered by the Ford brothers, their old enemies, who have been acquitted after a trial. Frank, followed by Clem, vows to avenge his brother and sets out in search of the Fords. To get the money that they need, Frank and Clem hold up a cash desk at a small railway station, but a clumsy move by Clem ends in the death of an employee. Frank is wanted for murder. In order to mislead the Fords, Frank passes himself off as dead with the help of Clem and a young rookie reporter, Eleanor Stone, whose articles about the death of the famous Frank James create a nationwide sensation. This way, Frank manages to catch the Ford brothers off guard. One of the Fords plunges fatally during a fight, but the other, Bob, manages to escape. Wanting to save Clem [2], who is charged with the death of the railway employee, Frank James falls into the police’s hands. Bob Ford reappears during his trial and taunts his adversary. But Frank is acquitted thanks to a skilful defence by an old lawyer friend of his. Right away, Frank goes after Bob Ford, who flees after he hears the verdict. Young Clem tries to stop him, but he is shot in the fight and dies in Frank’s hands. Bob Ford is also hurt and dies in a nearby barn. Having had his revenge, Frank James marries Eleanor, the pretty journalist.

b) The theme of vengeance is Lang’s favourite (we find it in all his works, in the second part of the Nibelungen films, in Man Hunt, in Rancho Notorious, in The Big Heat): a man leads his peaceful little life and refuses to poke his nose into other people’s affairs until he loses someone dear to him. He takes law into his own hands, not in the name of society, but on his own behalf.

All of Lang’s scripts are constructed the same way: chance forces a man to come out of his individualist shell and become a tragic hero insofar as he ‘forces the hand’ of the fate abruptly imposed upon him.

II. Cinematic Value

a) Fritz Lang’s mise en scène is of a precision that borders on abstraction. His découpage is a mixture in which intelligence trumps sensitivity. Fritz Lang is more interested in a scene as a whole than in an insert shot, like Hitchcock for example. The role of sets is primordial in each one of his films. Let’s recall that he was once a brilliant student of architecture. One image could singlehandedly define Fritz Lang’s aesthetic: a policeman takes aim at a fleeing robber and is about to kill him; in order to bring out the inexorable quality of the scene better, Lang has a viewfinder attached to the gun; the viewer immediately senses that the policeman cannot miss and that the fugitive must mathematically die. 

b) If The Return of Frank James has an happy ending, in contrast to so many of Lang’s other films, it shouldn’t be seen as a concession to the American censors. Going beyond the moral man, Fritz Lang arrives at the sinful man, which explains his bitterness. But more than the sinner, it’s the study of the regenerated man that attracts the most Germanic of American filmmakers. If the fierce individualist Frank James finally finds happiness, it’s only after he is rewarded morally for his troubles. “Why are you so happy today?”, asks his fiancée; “Because, from today, I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed”, replies the former outlaw.

III. Additional Reading

– The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence, J.-L. Rieupeyrout and A, Bazin (Éditions du Cerf).

 

(UFOLEIS notes published in Image et Son, issue no. 95-96, Oct-Nov 1956)

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cf. Jesse James, a film made by Henry King in 1938, whose sequel is The Return of Frank James.

[2] [Translator’s note] It’s actually Pinky, Frank’s black ranch hand, who is charged with murder.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

II. MATURITY (1951-1960)

 

Critique (1951-1955)

 

Having attained complete maturity, as much in expression, progressively simpler if we discount the recent tendency for aestheticism (1945-49), as in content, which glorifies man’s adaption to the world and rejects revolt, Fritz Lang now assumed a higher perspective, posing a judgmental eye on the world surrounding him, contemptuous and sarcastic, whose finesse went completely over critics’ heads. This severity was that of a wise, old man who was now more than sixty, but also that of an isolated and bitter man and especially that of a foreign observer who reacted violently to the social order imposed by the American way of life. This scepticism produced by the vision of contemporary reality found an echo in the evocation of times gone by. There was now, on one hand, a critical vision of this romanticism, of this spatial and temporal exoticism once so dear to Lang, in two “historical films”, the western Rancho Notorious (1951) and the adventure film Moonfleet (1954). On the other hand, there was a critique of contemporary mores in Clash by Night (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1952), While the City Sleeps (1955) and The Big Heat (1953).

Critique of Romanticism

Made for the producer of House by the River, the Technicolor film Rancho Notorious (1951) follows Frank Haskell, who shoots the accomplice of his fiancée’s murderer and hears the man’s final words on his friend’s whereabouts: Chuck-a-Luck. Wandering the West seeking his vengeance, he learns that Chuck-a-Luck is a ranch in the wilderness offering a hideout for thieves in exchange for 10% of their loot. Frank gets deliberately imprisoned with Frenchy, the lover and the second-in-command of Altar, the lady boss and owner of the ranch. He manages to get to Chuck-a-Luck, suspects Frenchy, but discovers the real culprit and has him arrested. Suspecting Frenchy of a betrayal, the bandits shoot at him, but kill Altar who gets in the way.

The theme of vengeance isn’t treated here as dogmatically as before. There’s no evolution for the hero, who, at the most, stays back a little too long at Chuck-a-Luck, where everything is so nice and pleasant. Vengeance mostly represents a poetic and mythic force here. Rancho Notorious in fact showcases the myths of the Western, and views them with a critical and disabused eye. The real hero here is a woman, played by Marlene Dietrich, who rules the lair of bandits—as magnificently organized as Mabuse’s gang, with everything in proportion—with an iron fist. Frenchy the cowboy is little more than a prince consort. In the thoroughly moral universe of the Western, what dominates is robbery, rape, and murder, as Frank affirms at the end in a speech full of lyricism. In a brief flashback, Lang seems to lament the good old days of the traditional Far West. The whole film is drenched in a cold atmosphere that accentuates the desolate quality of the setting. The limitation of human power is underlined by the omnipresence of luck, roulette wheels, and games of chance. The ranch itself is called Chuck-a-Luck. These themes and critical observations are diluted in the very natural presentation, in the realist discretion of this apparently lazy chronicle, which doesn’t exclude the virtues of friendship between men from its framework. Honour and word aren’t empty terms here. This objectivity constitutes the film’s strength.

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[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Crime Dramas (1944-49)

The war about to end, Lang turned to more intimate, less general subjects set within the scope of contemporary America. The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and Secret Beyond the Door (1946) form a new trilogy, to which we can add House by the River (1949) and which can be called psychological, even psychoanalytical, crime dramas. After the struggle against Nazism, here’s a struggle with oneself.

Featuring the same actors, three of whom are present in the first two, photographed by the same cinematographer, and the last two produced by the company Lang founded, Diana, these films are hinged on repetitions. An evolutionary repetition with corrective variations from one film, one scene to the next. Like certain great filmmakers, Hawks for example, Lang is a specialist of remakes, the first form of repetition. Remake of films by others: Scarlet Street is a remake of La Chienne (Renoir), Human Desire that of La Bête humaine (Renoir), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal those of Das Indische Grabmal (Joe May), only written by Lang. We must also count the four Mabuse pictures (1922, 1932, 1960), the multiplication of films through two versions or two very different episodes, whose fans know that one is always superior to the other: one must be “for” Das Brillantenschiff, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler, Kriemhilds Rache, Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse, Der Tiger von Eschnapur, and “against” Der goldene See, lnferno, Siegfried, Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse, Das Indische Grabmal, films of a more demagogic beauty. Not to mention constant reworkings from one film to the next, reworkings that are more often of themes than of forms. For the same theme, Lang would conceive of different forms, the second of which improved on the first; similar forms, however, appeared across different genres and subject matters. That’s why it’s impossible to distinguish between a still from Scarlet Street and one from The Woman in the Window, while the films seem very different when watching them.

Repetition from one scene to the next, because Lang, who seeks to deepen reality, realizes the complexity involved, corrects the first attempt with a second, contrary attempt. Hence the principle of double endings, partially considered in Fury. At times, Lang credits himself for it (cf. his statements on The Woman in the Window), and at times, he rejects it, attributing it to an interference by the production company afraid of the Censor Code (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). It’s possible to believe that this denial served as Lang’s excuse against criticisms of implausibility that were made over the extraordinary twists towards the end of the film, or that it shows an influence of his detractors or his friends following the completion of the film. Perhaps the Hays Code did occasion these twists, but Lang was always able to integrate the corrective ending into his own world view. The consistence and sameness of this principle, at times admitted to by Lang and foreign to American cinema, has to do in fact with his metaphysics and moral codes: man constantly oscillates, as we have seen, between revolt and submission to law or to his own individual reasoning. His reasoning rests on trifles, and it isn’t unusual that there are multiple endings, because if chance plays an essential role in human life, the direction it takes is purely accidental. Reality always has two faces and undercuts the importance that tidy endings enjoy among the audience, which is used to neat dramatic structures in line with an artistic order reflecting a Social Order. Only the action counts.

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[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Spy Films (1941-43)

With war looming over the USA, and much before Pearl Harbor, Lang began to contribute to the struggle against fascism. Not in order to exculpate himself from any affiliation to Nazism, as certain historians claim, but because of a profound and personal desire expressed in the second Mabuse film, among others. Five films in all, four of them in succession if we count Confirm or Deny (1941) which Sam Fuller speaks about elsewhere and which Lang quit during the shoot—just as with Moontide (1942)—which proves that Lang cherished his freedom of expression more than the beneficial domesticity imposed by Fox, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1942), Ministry of Fear (1943), and as addendum, Cloak and Dagger (1946).

The last one is a little odd: if it reuses all the elements of the other spy films, its aesthetic is based on an outmoded, even embarrassing sentimentalism, impressive and convincing in the audacity of its excesses than in its quality. It feels too loud not to be sincere. Is it the nostalgia of the exile that’s speaking? We can’t say.

These works, with the exception of Hangmen Also Die! with its 1961 rerun in Paris, were poorly received by critics. It is true that they bring nothing new to Lang’s work, but even so, they are undeniably successful, clearly superior to the spy films Walsh churned out serially at the time, and more perfect than even Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, contemporary films by Hitchcock. It’s understandable that finicky critics don’t like these films, for what they have in common is a total disdain for realism, and particularly for local colour. The Austrians (Man Hunt), the Czech (Hangmen Also Die), the Swiss and the Italians (Cloak and Dagger) and even the English (Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear) are characterized, in their behaviour as in their living conditions of the time, with a schematism that could seem repulsive to local population and to those who knew Europe under occupation or at war, and which could be compared to Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But, with the ties between America and Europe severed, Lang only had access to second-hand accounts. This rejection of realism also seems voluntary. Everything holds together thanks to the implausible, the fantastic and the extraordinary. The synopsis of the plots is telling.

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City Hall, or 272 minutes of “the future that liberals want”. I don’t know if Frederick Wiseman intended his film to coincide with the run-up to the American elections. But what is certain is that this wide-ranging documentary on the day-to-day operation of the Boston municipal government presents the city as a kind of laboratory offering a glimpse into one possible future for the nation. Mayor Marty Walsh, who is a something of a protagonist in the film, says so in no uncertain terms: he hopes Boston will be a model for other cities to follow. If Boston is a laboratory, what are the experiments? More equitable contracting opportunities, better rehabilitation facilities, reinforcements for food banks, construction of homeless shelters, more funding for eviction prevention, pushback against discriminatory renting practices, certification for same-sex marriages, authorization of marijuana retailing, increase of inner-city school capacities, and so on. True to his style, Wiseman films all these processes non-intrusively, in which the subjects don’t interact with the filmmaker or even look at the camera. Most of the film’s scenes are either speeches to an audience or a group discussion, both of which allow the filmmaker to compose them with countless portraits of attentive faces.

While what we see is practically the ‘Democratic agenda’ made real, Wiseman remains focused on a central theme. Boston, we are told, is 55% non-white, a fact that the city hall hopes to reflect in its policies. Wiseman, likewise, picks out diverse faces in the audience speaking or listening closely, as though to mirror Boston’s demographic distribution. In a way, City Hall is a picture of how a multicultural city comes to terms with its ethnic reality, how identity groups gain in power and how values enshrined by institutions are challenged and modified, all through democratic, constitutional means. However, given Wiseman’s non-interventional style, we aren’t told what to make of these observations. Wiseman doesn’t provide any reaction to the municipality’s policies from people and institutions outside it. In this absence, the audience’s own opinion about the proceedings comes into play in a significant way. In other words, viewers from the extreme-right could find as much material to justify their beliefs as liberals might.

On the other hand, the fact that there is hardly any friction within the operations of the city hall itself tilts the film’s balance. For a film about democracy in action, we barely see any dissent within the meetings themselves. We get new angles into specific issues, sure, but nothing that resists the fundamental thrust of the institutional charter. Only a faintly humorous, somewhat superfluous sequence late in the film, in which businessmen seeking to commercialize marijuana in an impoverished district face the cross-examination of the district residents, comes anywhere close to capturing the fault-lines of the democratic process. Moreover, Mayor Walsh unequivocally comes across as a political hero dedicated to the cause of his people. The mayor is everywhere, now supporting a gathering of nurses on strike, now thanking a group of war veterans, now extending support to Latina hopefuls, now organizing an NAACP rally. The only opposition he faces in his work is Trump’s federal policies, which register as an abstract external threat that the paternalist mayor will help his people overcome. In this respect, the film veers uncomfortably close to propaganda.

So it’s ambiguous whether City Hall is really ambiguous. The film adds to the impression of objectivity by expanding sideways. Almost obsessively, Wiseman documents operations at every organ of the city hall, located all across the city: from traffic control to pest control, from animal shelters to archaeological repositories, from cross-cultural cooking sessions to construction sites. This breadth is aimed at exhaustiveness, to show that the municipality’s operations touch every aspect of the city’s life. To this end, Wiseman glues together his sequences with shots from the city streets showcasing residential and official architecture, commercial establishments and the sea port. This offers a dialectic in which the city hall’s work becomes the invisible labour sustaining the order and beauty of Boston’s visible surface. Conversely, these digressions also risk scattering the focus of the film, all the more so because they are presented in bits and pieces, almost half-heartedly. City Hall is at its strongest when it depicts Boston as a seismograph of the larger changes afoot in America. At the same time, when it remains on its focal point, it starts losing its nuances. More than Boston, it’s Wiseman’s film that is a real litmus test for its viewers.

Orson Welles has been quite productive of late, considering he’s been dead for 35 years. Produced by the same team as The Other Side of the Wind (2018), Hopper/Welles is a documentary born of the director’s filmed discussions with Dennis Hopper in 1970, prior to the making of Wind. Coming out of their graves to give us company in our collective confinement, Welles and Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Talk is perhaps not the right word here, for what Welles to Hopper does may better be described as an interrogation, a grilling. He plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, pulling theories out of nowhere to counter him and never allowing him a respite or a resting ground. While part of it is low-key ragging, Welles’ insistence clearly comes from a place of goodwill and seeks to draw out the young man’s best. Hopper, in his early thirties, is rather unsure and self-contradicting before Welles’ towering figure. Sporting a hat, he constantly caresses his beard, qualifying all his tentative, half-joking answers with a nervous, self-protective giggle. What Hopper lacks in persuasiveness he makes up for with his keen attention and youthful vigour; his eyes are full of life. “You’re a hard man to talk to”, he tells his questioner.

At the beginning of the film, a short text let us know that both Welles and Hopper changed the face of movies with their respective debuts. In doing so, it places both filmmakers at par with each other. That doesn’t quite reveal the entire picture. Now, in 1970, Welles is a greatly respected, almost legendary figure, but whose glory days are behind him, something of a ‘has-been’ if he ever ‘was’ for Hollywood. Hopper, on the other hand, is a star hot off an era-defining blockbuster in Easy Rider (1968). Yet, in their conversation, they are able to find a common ground, namely the question of authenticity in filmmaking. We never see Welles, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. Hopper’s eyes, wide in evident admiration, follow him everywhere he moves in the off-screen space. At several points, the Caravaggesque Hopper literally looks up at Welles, who appears to be playing some kind of metaphysical force, re-orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for Hopper. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, between the subject and the author, between the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. Hopper’s cinematic forefather looms large over him even as he speaks about the need to one-up his old man.

I can’t imagine what form the film would’ve taken had Welles edited and completed it himself, but as it exists, it looks nothing like what he has done until this point. Shot with multiple handheld cameras and a single lantern next to Hopper, the film never ‘settles down’. The operators constantly move around the room, seemingly for no reason, relocating the camera, changing focus, zooming in and out in a way that may be disorienting for those interested solely in the dialogue. The camera’s magazines run out and the clapboard cracks indifferently in front of Hopper’s face even when he is in the middle of an important point. Whether on Welles’ instructions or on editor Bob Murawski’s, the view keeps switching from one camera to another at a frenetic rhythm, with inexplicable black leaders inserted in between shots. The overall impression is that Welles is making something like a Cassavetes picture, improvising the whole film with his actor by placing him in a dramatic situation and teasing out his responses by way of direct questioning. Welles, we are told, is also in character, as the filmmaker from Wind, and Hopper calls him Jake (Hannaford) as well. So the film may be said to operate in some undefined region between documentary and fiction, a precursor to F for Fake (1973); as much a story about a director shaping and rehearsing with his actors as a record of a man eating, drinking and getting drunk over two hours.

But the primary pleasures of Hopper/Welles are rather straightforward: two maverick filmmakers in a terribly fascinating conversation. The movie-related anecdotes that emerge are very interesting, for instance Hopper’s relationship with the Fondas, or his work on Crush Proof (1972), a self-financed experimental film by architect François De Menil (scion of the Schlumberger family and a cousin to Sylvina Boissonnas, producer of avant-garde French films including the early work of Philippe Garrel), as are the political talking points, such as Welles’ support for Francisco Franco, his prediction about a black US president and Hopper’s observation about the rift between the counterculture and deep America as he saw it in the varied response to Easy Rider. Most of all, it is compelling to see two artists grapple with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of the time. As the discussion turns around the films of De Sica and Antonioni, Hopper and Welles reflect on the challenges in dealing with boredom and lack of drama on screen, a few years before Jeanne Dielman (1975), among other narrative films, would do away with drama altogether. Going public after 50 years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Should Man Revolt or Adapt? (1940-1949)

No matter its results, the revolutionary impulse seems to be condemned by Lang as foreign to nature and inspired by the desire to create a new social order, a new collective morality, while the asocial impulse—often stemming from the barriers that Society places around itself for protection—seems to him to be more congenial, as though reflecting an individual and natural morality. But these are only tendencies that we sense in the direction of actors, or which the dramatic construction hints at. Except when he’s dealing with some typical examples of the American society, ones particularly marked by it, Lang doesn’t judge and remains objective. He judges neither Joe Wilson nor Eddie Taylor, no more than he does the killer of Dusseldorf. He doesn’t show a path to follow. What counts for him are facts, their circumstances, their immediate significance. Even when there appears to be a moral significance, it is, more or less, simply the reflection of a metaphysics.

On the other hand, in this period, Lang becomes more of a moralist than a metaphysician. Not happy with simply showing reality, he now reflects on what he’s showing. His style becomes simpler, less lively, and more sober because he doesn’t have to recreate the world as he sees it anymore, i.e. through formal experiments, especially expressionism; Lang now simply shows how and why people act the way they do in a given milieu—which is the reason characters become more important than the sets—and tries to draw out a moral point of view.

America seems to be the chief reason for this evolution: in contrast to Germany, America is a country whose essential problems are moral and immediate. Now, Lang worked in three genres, the Western, the spy film, and the psychological drama. The first of these, especially, and the second, in part, are typical of America and are always conceived in moral terms. What we have here then is an adaptation of Lang’s world to existing genres, a period of trial and errors, of reflection which makes the oeuvre go around in circles, and which, though very successful, is less memorable than the previous period.

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