Hollywood


In the biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jessica Chastain plays the titular evangelist who, along with her husband Jim Bakker, preached the gospel to millions of households via satellite television, before fading away in financial fraud. The female preacher is an unusual but striking figure in cinema, embodying Hollywood’s attitudes towards both organized religion and working women.

In The Miracle Woman (1931), Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) takes to evangelism as a means of avenging her father, who dies of heartbreak after the church board replaces him with a younger pastor. In the film’s opening scene, she rages at the complicity of the congregation and drives them out of the church: “You’re thieves, killers, adulterers, blasphemers and liars six days a week, and on the seventh day you’re hypocrites!”

Director Frank Capra is often associated with sentimentalism, but there is a strong cynical streak that courses through his work. Florence’s business of saving souls is portrayed like a circus, complete with designated freaks and a pack of lions. The employees of the ‘company’ are party animals, and her manager doesn’t mind snuffing out a dissident or forcing himself on Florence.

The Miracle Woman was made at a time when the talkies were increasingly populated by wisecracking city girls. Stanwyck herself represents the quintessential screen cynic, wise in the warped ways of the world, hardened to its injustices. Her Florence is an A-rate con woman, but she is shown as someone with an uncorrupted core. Having abandoned her father’s ideals, she feels guilty and wants to come clean. She redeems herself in a climactic sequence — an inversion of the opening — where she pleads with a gathering of churchgoers to keep faith and not to abandon a burning tabernacle.

The ending of Capra’s film comes from Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry (1927), which was adapted by Hollywood’s in-house liberal Richard Brooks into a 1960 movie of the same name. The protagonist of the film is Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster), a smooth-talking city slicker who starts as a petty salesman and goes on to become a zealous crusader for God. But in some ways, Elmer Gantry is the story of Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a small-town revivalist preacher who dreams of founding her own church one day.

When we first see Sister Sharon, she is dressed like a milkmaid — one among the commoners — and distances herself from the “stodgy old ministers discussing hell and damnation.” Her spiel is successful, but Gantry, who wiggles her way into her good books, has bigger plans for her. Eventually they form a tandem: he puts the fear of Hell into people while she promises them Heaven. Gantry’s increasing influence and hypnotic power is reflected in Sharon’s bewitched, frightened eyes. Caught between the old school revivalists, who still want to it to be a rural movement, and the entrepreneurial churches of the city, Sharon’s dilemma is the dramatic focus of the film.

Elmer Gantry is a caustic work typical of post-studio era Hollywood. It is hard to read Lancaster’s Gantry, who can talk eloquently about the healing power of faith, but also quote from the scriptures themselves to repudiate religion as childish. Lefferts, a skeptical journalist (Arthur Kennedy), stands in for the audience, but the film spares Sharon its cold treatment. While she too is touched by Gantry’s ambitions, her faith remains untainted, so much so that it turns out to be an expression of naivety by the film’s end. She is the New Testament to Gantry’s Old Testament, preaching love and persuading even the hardboiled Lefferts to take a knee for Jesus.

Like Sharon’s, Tammy Faye’s vision of God isn’t retributive. As a child, she grows up in a fundamentalist household where makeup is sin and mortification the only path to grace. In reaction to this punishing puritanism, Tammy projects a positive piety predicated on love for all of God’s creatures. This is what connects her to her husband-to-be, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who advocates enjoying earthly pleasures at a trial sermon in their seminary.

Tammy’s unconditional love also means that she is blind to social codes and taboos that prescribe behaviour. In the film’s view, if Tammy’s actions seem to us to be models of liberal acceptance — disregarding gender segregation at parties, plugging penile pumps or inviting HIV patients on her show — it is only the by-product of her undifferentiated view of human life. “I do my best to maintain a blameless conscience before God and before men,” she tells her professor. Love of God and love of men are for her not just inextricable, but the same. That is why the medium of television exerts such a primal attraction: if TV broadcast offers millions of attentive eyes for Jim, it translates to millions of receptive ears for Tammy to spread the Good Word.

Jessica Chastain’s portrayal is challenging to pull off as well as to evaluate since it is a performance of a performance. Tammy is a superficial woman in the etymological sense of the word. All her emotions show instantly on her face and body. She nods in fervent agreement to Jim’s declarations at his trial sermon. Her professor disapproves of her makeup and compares her to a harlot, and Tammy scowls so bluntly in response that it comes across like sarcasm. “I have no secrets,” she tells Jim, “What you see is all there is of me, I don’t pretend to be something I’m not.”

This transparency and guilelessness are suspect at first: it is hard to imagine that she isn’t hiding something beneath this unambiguous exterior. But Tammy’s surface emotionality only serves to conceal a void. Chastain’s performance turns around the idea that the real Tammy Faye was a creature of the media and a purely external being. The film ascribes this hollowing-out of Tammy’s inner world to parental neglect in her childhood. When young Tammy sulks at the dinner table for not being allowed inside the church, her mother asks her to “stop performing.” To compensate for this maternal indifference, the girl creates an imaginary friend that would later become one of the puppets used on her TV show.

Cinema being an art of surfaces, it is impossible without context to tell performance from mental illness. Or from miracles for that matter. When little Tammy enters the church against her mother’s wishes, she is gripped by religious rapture and falls to the ground spouting arcane exhortations. We can’t quite say if it is really spiritual transport that we are witnessing or a devious act by the girl to get back at her mother.

If the film pathologizes her spirituality, it doesn’t question Tammy’s faith. Like Benedetta (2021), which premiered a few months earlier, The Eyes of Tammy Faye entertains the possibility that its protagonist completely believes in what she claims, even though there is the constant doubt that she may be a charlatan. Practically everything Tammy says is prefaced by a “God tells me to,” but viewers need not believe her proclamations; they only need to believe that she believes in them. By the end, despite Tammy’s dyed hair, tattooed lips and flamboyant eyelashes, despite Chastain’s deforming prosthetics and flashy tics, Tammy registers as an authentic character. This is perhaps the film’s success.

 

[First published in News9]

I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

In the United States

 

The reception of the film by the American press was negative.

Variety (24/6/1949) found the film “cold, unemotional, talkative,” and lamented the overacting: “Underplaying would have served the story better.” The choice of Cooper was deemed “a casting error. Neal is a whimsical heroine. She hasn’t adapted herself to the demands of the screen.” The implication is that she’s just a stage actress.

For Harrison’s Reports (2/7/1949), “the characters are unreal. The subject is a series of digressions,” there is “a whole philosophical salad that average people don’t understand; […] motivations get lost in a maze of blur.”

In the New York Times (9/7/1949), the famous Bosley Crowther, the Ellsworth Toohey of cinema, who called the shots at the time, found the right catchphrase: “A picture you don’t even have to see to disbelieve.” About the explosion, he concluded: “If all were excused such transgressions, then society would indeed be in peril! … high-priced twaddle we haven’t seen for a long, long time.” Roark’s buildings, “from what we see of it, is trash.” The story is “a complex of bickering and badgering among these cheerless folk.”

Easy prejudices, all the more so as Patricia Neal plays mainly with her eyes, which doesn’t belong as much in the theatre, given the distance of the audience. And Cooper was typecast by the critics as a cowboy, although he had already played, in Peter Ibbetson, an architect quite similar to Roark.

Archer Winsten of the New York Post even declared that “intellectually, Vidor is a simpleton.”

The American critics of the time were confined to their own small domain. They knew nothing about architecture and not much about literature. They hadn’t read the novel: eighteen hours of reading…

They were known for their mediocrity and had castigated many great films, Under Capricorn, On Dangerous Ground, Good Sam, Moonfleet etc…

The paradox is that The Fountainhead is a very American film in its search for effects. The opposite of a Mizoguchi, a champion of whittling, who seeks to conceal all effects, Vidor offers them to be seen full screen. If only one film from the whole of Hollywood production had to be preserved, it would be this one. It is so Hollywoodish that it seems to become a caricature of it, which is what the critics must have felt.

It was a rather expensive film (four times the budget of Ruby Gentry), and it made a loss (about $2,100,000 in revenue against a cost of $2,511,000, not including the cost of prints). This is hardly less than the $3,100,000 of epics such as Samson and Delilah or Land of the Pharaohs.

According to Warner and Ayn Rand, the film worked better with the middle classes, and in the suburbs, than with the intellectuals, whom it was principally intended for.

This commercial failure explains Vidor’s reservations about The Fountainhead. In Hollywood, it was in a filmmaker’s interests to not defend one of his children that did not please the public. The producers accepted quite readily that a director could have a failure—one, but not two or three in a row. You can’t always get it right. But you couldn’t transgress the old adage: “The public is never wrong.” And a mea culpa was always welcome in these puritanical lands…

Vidor does not say a word about The Fountainhead in his autobiography. As mentioned earlier, he may have preferred casting Bogart over Cooper. But when I met him, I began to enthusiastically defend the choice of Cooper, and he told me then that I was probably right. It’s hard to prove your interviewer wrong when he says a lot of good things about your work. And in life, King Vidor was a quiet, awkward, welcoming man, a kind of good, diligent student. Just the opposite of his films. In contrast, his French counterpart Abel Gance was really at one with his work, Vidor was inclined to sort things out rather than get into conflict all the time. He was successful in life and work, and had no need to court controversy.

The only point on which he objected to the film for a very long time was the final explosion.

It’s true that it can be a good tactic for a director to speak ill of one of his films, at least in interviews given long after its theatrical release. The interlocutor will be embarrassed, and will tend to reassure such a modest filmmaker. This is a welcome change from all those directors who think of their new-borns as the greatest of masterpieces. I have sometimes practised this method myself, with success.

The end of The Fountainhead is perhaps stupid and ridiculous, as Vidor said in 1962, especially since no architect in the world, to my knowledge, has practised this kind of dynamiting. But it fits perfectly into a work that is not based on plausibility. There is a bigger-than-life aspect to this film.

Let’s not pay too much heed to the author’s word, even and especially if he is great. Pialat, Ulmer, Losey, DeMille, Lara have said a lot of stupid things about their films too. Vidor defended Grease and Monicelli’s Proibito. And let’s not forget—in times when there are many interviews—that it’s boring to always say (or even to think) the same thing. I have experienced this.

More recently, Vidor has begun an about-face: “I don’t want to advocate destruction as a means of enforcing an artist’s integrity. But it’s part of his work. It has been said that sometimes destruction is just a new construction, two sides of the same thing.”[1]

At the end of his life, a little disillusioned by his forced retirement, he even declared: “At the time the film was made, I felt that the hero’s gesture was excessive, I’m not so sure about that today.”[2]

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

The Excess That Transcends

 

Vidor’s craft here is based on excess, an excess that is to be found in the nature of the actions as well as in the characters, which are extremely complex or extremely linear. All this is redoubled by the excesses of an ultra-fast pacing and of techniques used to the fullest extent on every front. Vidor doesn’t deal in half-measures. It’s a series of contradictory phrases that crash into each other, of pointed tips, jagged edges and uninterrupted electric shocks. Here is a clever, knowledgeable, hyper-professional film, but also one that is abrupt, brutal, coarse, chopped, condensed, convulsive, crazy, delirious, discreet, electrifying, fascinating, frenetic, hysterical, icy, rough, scathing, shredded, surreal, torrid, hectic. A barbaric object, a meteorite. The emotion it generates gives you goosebumps. A runaway horse. Pomposity looms large in the end, but is transcended by its very excess.

Vidor employs EVERY classical device—the perfect film for film schools. It’s Duvivier, Delannoy, plus genius. And finally, it’s this shameless accumulation of old effects (there are even superimpositions, blur effects and an abundance of transparencies) that makes it extremely modern. Vidor doesn’t linger on effects like so many others. They are quick, very obvious, and they blow us away. A comparison may be possible with the Fuller of Verboten!, Forty Guns, and Shock Corridor, with a lot more money, or even with Aldrich.

What is strange is that the film combines the Baroque and the flamboyant Gothic, while it’s meant to praise the architect Roark, whose art is quite the opposite, with its search for simplicity and purity, associated with the modernity of America. Roark—and Frank Lloyd Wright even more so—rejects fuss, European influences, Greek art, the Victorian or Tudor style, whereas here we find German expressionism, with the complicity of an Austrian musician and a Russian screenwriter.

We can sense Vidor’s frustration with his previous clients who had deceived him, taken advantage of him. And here he is pulling out all the stops, as they say.

But at the same time, The Fountainhead cuts across a whole tradition of classic American cinema.

It’s highly reminiscent of Frank Capra’s films, with the struggle of an asocial, marginal or lone man against the whole system and its prejudices, as seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. These last two films, moreover, starred Gary Cooper.

The commercial failure of The Fountainhead in the USA can be explained to some extent by the fact that this formula, which had worked well until 1940, seemed outdated after the war. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) resulted in a small loss. And Gary Cooper as the Good Samaritan in Good Sam (McCarey, 1948) wasn’t a success at all.

As with Capra, it seems like a lost cause for the lone man, but the almost miraculous ending allows him to amend the situation. A critique of the society doesn’t keep the great American principles from standing up for the cause of the good in the end. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) denounces the unscrupulous opportunism of bankers too, but rest assured, everything turns out well.

We find here one of the figures of style dear to Capra, the montage sequence where, after a string of quick shots of newspaper cuttings, we witness the violent reactions of the crowd in the street.

Another direct link with American films of the great tradition is the choice of the biopic, the life story of an important man, real or imagined, which we find in Citizen Kane (1940), Sergeant York (Hawks, 1941), Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and The Stratton Story (1949), the two Al Jolson biopics etc. Gary Cooper was, besides, the specialist of the genre.

There is also the principle of rise and fall, greatness and decadence, which mark the itinerary of Gail Wynand, Henry Cameron, and also Howard Roark, who comes close to being jailed, although he finally triumphs. All of them having started from nothing, of course. The pervasive myth of the self-made man, very common in American cinema.

(more…)

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

In The Fountainhead in particular, Vidor expresses himself on all creative fronts, unlike a Hawks, a Chaplin or a Capra who neglect photography a little, a Nicholas Ray who is not good at editing, a Cassavetes who doesn’t care about music or the sets. This versatility obviously tries to make us forget the literary origin of the work, to absorb it.

Vidor is a complete filmmaker who plays on all sides. He cares very much about the visuals (he started painting in 1938), the music (he owned five guitars), the sound (Hallelujah was the first film to really use the capacities of sound), the rhythm and editing (The Big Parade was shot with a metronome) and the sets.

How does that translate here?

Sound

It is the element that one notices right away and which produces the first striking effects of the film. After the first scenes in which Roark successively confronts the dean of the school, Peter Keating and the old architect, scathing in their speed and the haunting verbosity of these secondary characters, we receive the first shock: the architect Henry Cameron breaks the bay window of Roark’s office with a T-square, with a totally unexpected violence, with no obvious reason—it’s a friend’s office—but as if to symbolically break up the buildings in front of him. There are thus multiple sonic assaults that punctuate the film right up to the last scene: another window broken with a stone, at the door of the hated newspaper (an effect that will be repeated in Ruby Gentry, when the whole town rises up against the heroine suspected of murder), the many sirens, that of the ambulance rushing towards the hospital, that of the boat, that of the police car at the exit of Wynand’s wedding (what is it doing there? It seems an unlikely presence to me), the model of the building that Wynand hurls down suddenly, the one knocked down with a cane by the architect who corrects the Cortlandt building, the statuette that falls to the ground, thrown from the tenth floor, the newspapers torn angrily, the boat violently splitting the waves, the work of the drilling machine in the quarry, the marble under the chimney that Dominique breaks frantically, the off-screen blast when we arrive at Dominique’s country house, announcing the final blast. There is an erotic vertigo around breakage and explosion, seemingly translating Dominique rush of desire, like an inner cry from her body. Love = Breakage = Destruction, which is reminiscent of the Eros/Thanatos of Duel in the Sun, and which clearly shows the necessity of the final explosion. Do these sounds recall the sounds of orgasm? Perhaps.

These noises sound all the more aggressive as they are unexpected. Two seconds before their appearance, we can’t imagine them entering the soundtrack. They make you feel uncomfortable. One of them—the statuette falling to the ground—is anticipated by an astonishing echo, occurring earlier, that owes to Steiner’s music.

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

The Individual, the Collective

Vidor’s standpoint, if it seemed clear during the course of the film—in favour of individual creation, and against all collectivist diktats—was in fact rather ambiguous throughout his life: here he collaborated with a novelist who was very much on the right (she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee with great pleasure, even going beyond the McCarthyist doctrine). This seems to tally quite well with the way this filmmaker, who voted for Eisenhower, makes fun of Reds in Comrade X, revels in the massacre of the Indians of the Northwest Passage. On the other hand, there was also the Vidor who filmed the everyday life—sometimes so difficult—of the average American in The Crowd (1928)—a first in Hollywood cinema—and Street Scene (1931), or the beautiful collective struggle of peasants to irrigate their land in Our Daily Bread (1934), a very Rooseveltian film which won an award at… the Moscow Film Festival. Not to mention Vidor’s great film-to-be, Ruby Gentry[1], shot in 1952 and written by Sylvia Richards, a well-known feminist and left-wing activist, which took a swipe at the narrow-minded and upstart bourgeoisie of the South.

We’re thus dealing with a highly complex character, which is also true of John Ford, the director of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) based on Steinbeck, but also of colonialist movies like The Black Watch (1929) or militarists films such as The Long Gray Line (1954) or Korea (1959), and of William Wellman, who could be considered one of the harbingers of socialism in light of Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), but who also made anti-Red products such as The Iron Curtain (1949) or Blood Alley (1955).

To be sure, we can see this as an effort to adapt to the dominant ideology, from the New Deal to the witch hunts, but also as the ambition of a Hollywood director to work in all fields, to show that what counts is his way of doing things, more than the underlying ideology. If it comes to that, the ideal for a filmmaker would be to make a masterpiece out of both the Jud Süß and Salt of the Earth.

And when I try to make an assessment of the situation, everything is rather fuzzy. Because, on one hand, collectivism is as much the motto of soulless capitalism, based on stock exchanges and standards, as of the Soviets. And on the other hand, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and even Lenin perhaps represent the triumph of an individual, under the guise of collectivism, more than that of communism.

To complicate things, we notice that the left-wing press in France, in the years when The Fountainhead was filmed, began by celebrating the great individuality of auteurs fighting administrations and capitalism (Stroheim, Griffith, Welles etc.). And then, after May ‘68, there was a very clear reaction on the left against the all-powerful auteur. Godard, Duras and Resnais wanted to make collective films (or sometimes pretended to make them, by rigging the credits). The auteur was therefore classified as a right-wing figure. To this case file, let us add the brilliant creator Roark, who dynamites a social housing project…

I must add that Ayn Rand, by making Roark an architect who lives solely for his work and the satisfaction it brings him, puts him in a much more limited position than Wright, whose houses were made with the obvious desire to allow his clients to find pleasure in living in them and who was flexible enough to satisfy his client. Thus, in 1895, he built the Moore House in a rather old-fashioned Tudor style. Vidor always had the desire to please the viewer by all means possible. His film is proof of this, and we will come back to it later. Moreover, I believe that, of all the filmmakers, he is probably the one who has given the audience the greatest number of emotions.

Having turned his nose up at The Fountainhead, Vidor asserted solipsism, the doctrine that everything exists through the ego.

It could be concluded that, throughout his life, Vidor never ceased to oscillate between the two extremes, individualism and a sense of the collective, pure auteur cinema (Truth and Illusion, Our Daily Bread) and studio production: he made fifty films within the System. His tactic was to alternate: an easy film, and then a more committed film. Let’s say that, rather than taking a radical stance, he was passionate about the individual/collective relationship, which is what differentiates him from other filmmakers like Lubitsch, Leone or Hitchcock, who didn’t give a damn about it.

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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

Standing: Robert Douglas, Kent Smith, Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey. Seated: Henry Blanke, Ayn Rand, King Vidor.

The Plot

 First part. The lean years (25 minutes).

New York, in the thirties. In his early days, Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), an iconoclastic architect, finds it difficult to break into a milieu very much under the grip of conformism, especially because he systematically refuses all the compromises and traditional embellishments that his clients demand. He is in dire straits. He resolves to become a worker.

Second part. The quarry (12 minutes).

Roark works as a labourer in a quarry run by Guy Francon, whose daughter Dominique (Patricia Neal), attracted to Roark, provokes him. A short and violent erotic relationship between the two ensues.

Third part. The Enright House (19 minutes).

Roark is finally offered a major project, the Enright building. But the originality of this building earns him the hostility of the press, particularly the tabloid newspaper The Banner, headed by Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who doesn’t know what to sink his teeth into and is heavily influenced by his old-fashioned architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas). Roark survives by building individual homes and petrol stations.

Part Four. The Wynand Residence (12 minutes).

Wynand eventually asks Roark to build a house in the country for him and his wife, who is none other than Dominique, perhaps to please her, because he knows that she admires the work of Roark, whom he now supports.

Part Five. Cortlandt Homes (46 minutes).

Peter Keating (Kent Smith), a friend of Roark’s and a drudge of an architect, asks Roark to be his ‘ghost-writer’ and to design a large-scale housing project, Cortlandt Homes. Keating does not have enough imagination to design it, and Roark is blacklisted by clients. Roark accepts the deal, without any pay, on the condition that the project, signed by Keating, be executed without any modifications. But the clients impose major changes on Keating that shock Roark. With the help of Dominique, Roark dynamites Cortlandt, which has just been completed. He is arrested. Wynand’s newspaper supports Roark’s cause, but is disavowed by the rest of the press, by Toohey, the critic that Wynand kicks out, and by the vast majority: nobody buys The Banner anymore. So Wynand backtracks, and begins a crusade against Roark, just before Roark wins his lawsuit in the name of an architect’s moral right. A rival builder buys the site and the ruins of Cortlandt, and allows Roark to rebuild Cortlandt in his own way. Wynand, who has lost face for good, kills himself just after he orders Roark to build the gigantic Wynand Building, on top of which Dominique will join her new husband, Howard Roark. 

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[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book Le Rebelle de King Vidor (“King Vidor’s The Fountainhead”, 2009, Yellow Now)]

From Novel to Film

The Plot — The Novel and Its Author — Why Vidor? — Genesis — Wright or not Wright?

The Creator and His Ego

The Individual, the Collective — The Film Bible — Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) — Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) — Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) — Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey) — Peter Keating (Kent Smith) and Others

Aesthetics

Sound — Music — Sets — Image — Horizontals, Verticals, Diagonals — Editing — Principles of Mise en scène

The Result, the Meaning

The Excess That Transcends — Flaws — The Ambulance — The Statuette — The Quarry — The Boat — The Tree — The Trial — The Revolver Alone in the Frame — The Service Lift

Critical and Public Reception

In the United States — In Europe

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

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949): the delicacy of colours in a new bath scene.

A curious film, which seems to have been made only for its ending. A bit like Vidor and Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946), whose title evokes only the final scene, and which is also one of the few American films of the time to be marked by the final death of the couple, who were also played by stars. A death that both protagonists, here, desire or consent to.

The scene is the only one in the film that exhibits great richness. A temple with an overloaded architecture, like Cabiria or Salammbô, with a sort of embankment at the centre, more reminiscent of the Roman arena and its circus games. There are hundreds of spectators.

The American public were 1949 was quite familiar with the Bible and the story of Samson, and knew that Samson dies as a result of the temple’s collapse, which he triggers with the strength of his arms and … his hair. If, by extraordinary chance, they did not know the Old Testament, they were informed of the ending by word of mouth and by the massive publicity around the film’s release.

The Bible does not mention the presence of Delilah at the temple (in DeMille’s film, she takes the place of the young boy mentioned in the Bible). An earlier scene establishes Samson and Delilah’s connivance, and we understand that they will meet the same fate. Shortly before the collapse, Delilah refuses when Samson asks her to run away: she thus atones for her fault, her treachery.

So here we have a spectacle whose outcome everyone knows, but which is filmed like a suspenseful episode, with preparations and a very elaborate staging. In fact, there is really no suspense. The viewer is therefore one step ahead of the other viewers, those sitting in the temple. He feels superior to them. The suspense, here, has to do only with the “how” of the action. How will Delilah manage to put Samson in such a position that he can destroy the temple? In front of two hundred people who have no desire to be crushed under the rubble, this is far from obvious. There are a series of miraculous coincidences that make the outcome possible and, paradoxically, the film viewer fears that the soldiers’ intervention on behalf of the Saran of Gaza will not allow for the final disaster.

We get the impression of a fatal, irremediable chain of events, and that is what fascinates us.

There is a very great cinematic moment, based essentially on sound, which may seem surprising in such a visual finale: we realize that Samson will succeed when we hear the faint sound of the stone starting to crumble. This noise is followed by complete silence, the silence of the dazed and worried audience (a bit implausible, since they are too far away to hear what we and Samson can hear) and an artificial silence produced by an intelligent sound mix, underlining the gravity of the action. It is all the more impressive because the beginning of the sequence was extremely noisy, with reactions of the crowd and music. The power of the scene lies in the fact that it is based on everything (big spectacle, gigantic set, numerous extras), but it is the nothing (faint noise and silence) that produces the greatest emotion.

This idea was taken up by Howard Hawks with the sealing of the corridor of the pyramid of Cheops in Land of the Pharaohs, produced by Warner. And the film will have a lot of imitators: another famous couple, David and Bathsheba, concocted by Fox, a new Quo Vadis? financed by MGM, a Salome produced by Columbia. Everyone was doing it.

The scene has been reproached for its theatrical quality, although that is quite logical since this temple is a theatrical place, and the theatrical rigidity accentuates the inexorable quality of the action. The cardboard cut-out quality of the collapsing stone blocks has also been criticised: they bounce with a slenderness impossible for such heavy material. That is the DeMille system, which neglects realism in favour of convention.

Only the idea of the collapse matters. In any case, Samson’s story was probably exaggerated by rumour before the biblical text was written.

To describe these bravura sequences, I preferred the chronological order.

That made it possible to establish precise relationships between films from the same period. For example, the four films from the period of eccentricities (1924-1930).

But I could have chosen other scenes, the murder of the Eurasian mistress (the silent version of The Ten Commandments), the shaving scene in Why Change Your Wife, the sequence with Satan Synne (The Affairs of Anatol), the staircase scene in The Godless Girl, the suspenseful finale in the mine in Dynamite, the couple stuck at the top of the broken-down roller coaster (Saturday Night), the scene with the Indians and the compass (Unconquered), and I know how arbitrary this selection can be. I am also aware that a scene from a masterpiece like Kindling could not have served our purpose as everything in it is very smooth and homogenous.

In my classification are a few very different choices, which has perhaps allowed a more logical classification: either the sequence appears within a mediocre (Cleopatra) or a modest (The Volga Boatman) movie, or it remains the most striking scene of a high-calibre work, surfacing in the middle (The Golden Bed) or the end (Wassell), or it is the conclusion of an ever-changing film (The Road to Yesterday, Madam Satan, Samson and Delilah) whose beginning is disappointing but which, little by little, expands in scope until the final apotheosis.

The principle of the brilliant final scene that floors the viewer, who will remember it for eternity, eclipsing the mediocrity of the beginning, is an excellent principle which can be found in many good films (Alexander Nevsky, Griffith’s Way Down East, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer, Ismael Ferroukhi’s The Great Journey). It is certainly more exemplary than the principle of the opening sequence towering over the rest of the film (Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, Almodóvar’s Volver, Ruy Guerra’s The Unscrupulous Ones, Welles’ Othello, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel), but it is now outmoded by the evolution of cinema, which now depends on television broadcast to a great extent. Now, if the viewer doesn’t find the beginning of a film exciting, he is going to change channels. Television channels know this and make their choice partly on this criterion.

It should be noted that, often, a film’s big scene is not the one expected. The crossing of Red Sea, the tussle with the octopus (Reap the Wild Wind) and the sugar garden of The Golden Bed are less striking than other scenes in these films.

A rare case: a filmmaker who is better known for his not-so-good, but more expensive films, but whose best work, as with Jean-Pierre Melville, is to be often found in projects that are nevertheless more modest in appearance. Adjusting for inflation, Kindling cost 489 times less than The Ten Commandments, but is much more accomplished.

This book is dedicated to Vidéosphère.

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

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): a young mother (Edith Barrett) succumbs to gunfire from the boat before her child’s eyes.

A work of a consistent quality, inspired by real events, describing the life of a physician who became a military doctor in Java during the war against Japan. He manages to safely lead a dozen crippled soldiers through the jungle to a ship to America.

It starts with a highly stylised introduction, with snow falling behind a small statuette, and it continues in a comedic tone: Dr. Wassell is paid by his poor clients of Arkansas… with pigs, which run away from the pigsty. Without any resources, he becomes a doctor abroad.

The first highlight of the film is its depiction of the daily life of a group of wounded soldiers lying on their stretchers, in rather wide shots without the hero. And the doctor has a hard time putting on his cufflinks, disturbed as he is by his servant, who tries to tie his tie at the same time. But we quickly move on to the dramatic, or even the lyrical, part. Guessing that the army is not going to repatriate the invalids, a disabled soldier stands up on his legs before collapsing. Driven to depression in the heart of the jungle, Hoppy takes the bandages off his hands so he can shoot the approaching Japs. He is massacred…

But the peak of the film is the end, where multiple effects add up as various characters behave, like before, in very different ways within the frame. The Japs bomb the ship that Wassell and his disabled crew are on. On the same ship, fat cats play chess unperturbed. A lady protests, “Will you stop pushing me?”—the same kind of unusual reactions there were towards the end of Madam Satan. A machine gun kills the mother of a four-year-old child, who doesn’t understand the situation and asks her mother to get up. A soldier, who is busy shooting, asks him: “How about joining the navy, big boy? Try this bonnet on.” And the kid is delighted to collaborate with soldiers, “I’m going to show mummy my new hat.” A blind man, with a very sensitive ear like any blind person, is the only one who can identify the noise of the American Flying Fortresses coming from afar to protect them.

Among the wounded, Wassell suddenly finds the doctor who had stolen the woman of his life, Madeline, from him. The colleague informs him that his wife is going to join him. Wonderful surprise, it’s not Madeline! Mad with joy, Wassell kisses the doctor’s wife, whom he has never seen before.

He learns that Madeline is on another boat, the Pecos. A few seconds later, he is told that the Pecos has been sunk. But it soon is known that there is a boat of survivors, which includes Madeline, whom he will join in the last shots of the film.

Wassell expects to be court-martialled since he has violated an order from his higher-ups. But he finds himself decorated by the president (played by an actor, which is exceptional in cinema, especially as Roosevelt was alive when the film was shot).

After the credits, we are told that Hoppy, the soldier with the bandages, is safe and sound. We then have the impression that all this is true. For, if this ending had been invented, DeMille could have included it in the continuity of the narrative. But it is probably a ruse on C.B.’s part to better validate the progression of his film.

We see that everything works on a constant succession of unusual contradictions, reversals of situations, like this kid who is all joyful just after his mother’s death.

So the viewer is suffocated, as it were, by this rush of strange, miracle-like facts. This is what makes for the power of this masterpiece.

This richness was not appreciated by French critics, turned off as they were by the nationalist side of C.B., who often opens his films with a shot of a coat of arms, or a military or institutional emblem. This preaching is also evident at the end of The Greatest Show on Earth, Kindling and Male and Female. But this naive and almost tacked-on hymn to America works well since it comes at the end of a high-quality work. We are then ready to accept anything. And it is presented so directly, so implausibly, that it becomes a form of private joke.

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