Hollywood


[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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There Is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof)

Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that the most illuminating film on the concentration camps would deal with the everyday routine of the camp guards. Rasoulof’s Golden Bear winner, There Is No Evil, takes off from a similar idea, imagining four stories of soldiers in Iran’s army whose responsibility it is execute prisoners sentenced to death. The first of the four episodes in the film deals with the home life of a middle-aged executioner, not a soldier, but a freelancer who carries out assembly-line executions in batches. In the second segment, a young musician, newly recruited to the execution unit of the army, refuses to kill and tries to hold his ground. One of his mates in the army, who doesn’t have these scruples about simply carrying out orders, constitutes the subject of the film’s third part. The final section revolves around another middle-aged physician who had, as a youth, refused to kill prisoners and was forced to be underground ever since. So the four episodes echo each other in direct ways: the hangman of story 1 could be the older version of the soldier in story 3, just as the doctor of story 4 could be the elderly equivalent of the renegade of story 2; stories 2 and 3 themselves are mirror images of each other, as are consequently 1 and 4, exploring two opposed attitudes faced with the compulsion of having to act against your conscience.

Working within a broadly mainstream narrative idiom, Rasoulof gives different textures to the four episodes. The first segment unfolds like a short story, immersing us into the domestic minutiae of a middle-aged head of the family. We see him pick up his wife from work, drive her to the bank, prepare meals for his ailing mother, go out with his family for pizza, shop at the supermarket and dye his wife’s hair for a wedding the following day. He gets up before dawn, heads for his work, where he pushes a button to send half a dozen prisoners to death. The ending shocks us, all the more because it comes at the end of a series of quotidian activities. It’s all part of a day’s work for the man, inured to the executions. The anxiety induced by this ending is sustained till the end by the second episode, an existentialist parable shot with the fluidity of a video game, in which a conscientious rookie executioner breaks out of the army camp by tying up the guards. The third, the longest and arguably the weakest section of the film, is novelistic in its examination of a personal relationship broken irreparably by the guilt of a soldier who has just killed his lover’s idol. Despite the ample presence of barren, rural exteriors, the closing episode is essentially a chamber play about a simmering family secret that is the consequence of a physician’s desertion from the duties of an executioner. While the film’s subject matter will dominate discussions about it—as it should; Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison following the Berlin premiere of the film—it’s the director’s versatility and stylistic nuance that register foremost.

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Lee’s latest film is an action-adventure tale based on a pretty incredible outline: four Black Vietnam war veterans return to erstwhile battlegrounds in order to recover a chest full of gold bars they had buried forty years ago. The consignment, we are told, belonged to the US government, which sought to pay mercenary troops with it, but “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), their unit leader, now dead, convinced them that the gold must be used for the racial reparations that America hasn’t been willing to voluntarily make. As the “Bloods” trace and recover the gold, running into volunteer minesweepers and undefined guerrilla outfits, Paul (Delroy Lindo), the only fleshed-out character of the group, begins to succumb to greed and war trauma. This already eclectic, charged outline allows Lee to weave in quick history lessons as well as contemporary political talking points without upsetting the genre framework. He is literally delivering a Geschichtsunterricht when he intermittently cuts to photos of figures from Black political and cultural history that his characters regularly evoke in seeming self-satisfaction. But for the most part, the adventure story progresses robustly, with both character development and pamphleteering kept on the sidelines.

A film professor, Lee is very well aware that Hollywood movies tend to enforce a form of historical revisionism and that he is working within a subgenre that comes loaded with certain cinematic, social and philosophical baggage. On one hand, he is making yet another war fantasy in which Americans come out trumps. But he is also parodying, reconfiguring the image the Vietnam war—the ‘American war’ as the Vietnamese characters put it—has in the minds of movie audiences. Locating the Civil Rights Movement within the context of the Cold War, as the opening newsreel footage does, Lee’s film casts the Vietnam war as one without cause for the Blacks, one in which Black soldiers were sent to the front along with whites, even as they were denied equal rights back home—this injustice falling in the long line of unreciprocated acts of patriotism by Black people (ask not what the country can do for you etc.) Politically astute as he is, Lee inscribes this racial contradiction within the larger colonial context of Western presence in Indochina. While this trip is a therapy and even a means to racial justice for the Bloods, for the Vietnamese, their invasive, re-colonizing presence (first as soldiers, then as tourists—“they didn’t need us; we should’ve just sent McDonalds”, remarks one Blood) only revives the terrible injustices of an unequal war. Whatever they are back home, the Bloods are, for the rest of the world, GI Joes. Lee acknowledges this by periodically puncturing the film’s identification with the Bloods by testing it against the Vietnamese’s view of them, and also by including archival image of the war violence the Vietnamese suffered in the same manner that he includes photos from Black history. (Whether these images are drawn exclusively from Western sources is, however, unknown.)

The film’s various heterogenous elements don’t cohere as they would in a more classical film. But this disharmony is in keeping with Lee’s brash, all-accommodating, critic-proof style, which is hinged not just on assembling disparate formal and narrative elements, but also on ruffling simple, self-contained elements. Notice the way he cuts the plainest of conversation scenes to the point of upsetting spatial coherence. Conversely, he employs a more cohesive sequencing where a more frenetic composition is de rigueur, namely the battle scenes. The abrupt, almost cavalier manner in which he ends scenes is apparently agnostic to the emotional value scenes. If, at times, these cutaways seem premature, at several other places, they undercut the melodrama rather wittily. Finally, the fable-like quality of the story serves as a rather powerful mould for Lee’s political vision, all the more so because it is so general, so apolitical. The tale of a group of idealists losing their idealism under the temptation of individual, material gain goes perfectly with the parable of renewed racial solidarity the filmmaker wants to narrate. In the process, Lee is contributing to a new foundational narrative of America erected on popular Black mythology—what Birth of a Nation (1915) was for the Southerners, Lincoln (2012) was for the Unionists, or America, America (1963) was for immigrants.

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

I haven’t closely followed Tsai’s work since Visage (2009), and because I regularly find myself disappointed by one-time favourites, I expected some amount of disillusionment with Days. I am relieved to report that Days is not just a fine film, but also one of Tsai’s most representative and resonant works. The filmmaker’s eternal muse, Lee Kang-sheng, plays a lonesome pisciculturist (?) who is ailing from some kind of nervous disorder. He travels to a city, or perhaps to another country, for treatment. In parallel, we see the everyday life of a young man, played by Anong Houngheuangsy, who lives out of his suitcase in a loft in a urban commercial complex. In long stretches, we see him prepare his meals and get ready for work. He works at a small clothing retailer at night and also freelances as a gay masseur. He meets Lee when the latter hires him for a full-body massage at his hotel room.

As is his custom, Tsai develops this outline very sparsely. In extended shots, we see either character performing one particular action. In the process, Anong’s modest but devoted meal preparation assumes a dignified, nearly religious quality, not unlike Lee’s perambulations as a Buddhist monk in Tsai’s earlier films. But Tsai’s sensorial radar is much wider and picks out the voluptuousness of everyday objects and settings. He is a filmmaker sensitive to the household textures of the Asian working class: patches on the wall left behind by the previous tenants of Anong’s loft, where probably lived children, its ivory-tinted doors of compressed-wood, the pastel-coloured tiles of the bathroom, the polish of fluorescent light as reflected on Anong’s humid skin, the extra-green vegetables he chops into an extra-red container, the reflection from his triangle-shaped steel ear piercing, the various objects of recycled plastic around the studio all compose a veritable symphony of the inanimate.

There has always been an undercurrent of ‘post-apocalyptic spirituality’ in Tsai’s cinema, a ‘neo-animist’ generosity that finds possibilities of rapture and communion in the most modern, lifeless settings. But equally, his work taps into the sensual charge that the human figure can have on screen. Critics often talk about the presence of a star, but Lee here is reduced to just that, a presence: at many places, his body is hardly anything more than still life. Even so, our attention is riveted on the human figure (no more than two or three shots in the film without it). I also believe that the current health crisis might have sharpened my (our?) general sensitivity to the human presence on screen: in their complete lack of human figures, for instance, the shots in James Benning’s Maggie’s Farm (2020) are haunted by an absence, crying to be ‘filled up’. All this to say that the super-erotic, super-relaxing massage sequence is only different in degree, and not in kind, from the rest of the film; a different note on the same scale.

There’s no intellectual algebra to be performed here. Tsai films loneliness, and the refuge from it offered by fleeting intimacy. That’s his great subject, the way reincarnation is for Apichatpong or romantic entanglements are for Hong. He also likes filming Lee (one is the corollary of the other). Here, as in the past thirty years, he films Lee eating, sleeping, walking, just sitting or staring into the void. Now, additionally, he also films him ailing, suffering, undergoing treatments and perhaps healing—making the film a sequel of sorts to I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006). It’s Warhol, on a less playful, more spiritual key. This inextricable nature of Lee’s presence in Tsai’s cinema is also the reason the equally important presence of the second actor, Anong, introduces a somewhat unsettling note. Days is, quite unequivocally, a series of contrasts between Anong’s blooming, young physique and Lee’s older, hurting body. Is Tsai changing muses, committing a form of artistic adultery? The film ends, not on Lee, but on Anong’s wandering on the city sidewalk, fidgeting with a sappy music box Lee has handed him—a decision that lends the preceding, wonderful shot of Lee’s face in the morning a valedictory aura. Tsai’s next project will, no doubt, throw more light on this seeming transition.

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Five Russian characters, variously of aristocratic and bourgeois background, assemble at a chateau somewhere in Mitteleuropa in winter and debate religion, morality, metaphysics, politics and aesthetics, as silent butlers serve them lunch, snacks, tea and dinner around the clock. Puiu simply parachutes us into this situation with no introductory information. Who are these people, why are they discussing these topics in French, and most importantly, why does no one give up? As the conversations progress, we learn that it’s sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. It is plain that the two men and the three women are all grappling with the intellectual upheavals of their times. Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) is appalled by the desacralization of military duty, Edouard (Ugo Broussot) believes it’s Europe’s mission to civilize the entire world, Olga (Marina Palii) is convinced that a pacificism rooted in Christian teachings is the key to the question of violence, Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) plays the devil’s advocate to her, taking the philosophical foundations of Christianity to its absurd limits, and Madeline (Agathe Bosch) assumes a moderating voice. Extremely polite and formal, the exchange reeks of sexless, stereotypically Caucasian sangfroid, even when it’s intimidating and contemptuous.

If there ever was a clinching argument for dubbing foreign films over subtitling them, this is it. It’s not just that the characters never stop talking. It’s that as you are reading the subtitles, you are likely to miss the minimal physical action unfolding on screen—just like the video where you don’t notice a bear crossing as you are busy observing the basketball being passed. Puiu expressly uses physical action to counterpoint the incessant pontification. All through, the butlers, especially the head steward Istvàn (Istvàn Teglàs) on whose movement Puiu often begins his extremely long but imperceptible shots, wander about serving refreshments to the five statue-like speakers, who are almost oblivious to their presence. They are also attending to the sixth aristocrat in the house, a bedridden general, who needs to be bathed, clothed and fed. At exactly the one-hour mark, Olga faints to the ground, producing the first significant movement, and the first break in the discussion, in the film to our great delight. Puiu’s curious but detached camera observes the speakers from a close distance, slightly panning left and right to follow a character now and then. Characters are regularly framed against doors and windows and, in conjunction with the many framed elements of the décor, are rendered as static and stuck-in-time as the furnishings.

Whether one finds these debates riveting, like I did, or insufferable is a matter of taste, but what is evident is that Puiu is interested in more than the subject matter of these discussions. Like in a William Wyler film, the working class is constantly present at the margins of a bourgeois chamber drama that takes centre stage. And this dialectical presence, along with the increasing clarity that we are close to 1905, forebodes a turbulence that comes, sure enough, in the middle of the film. We perceive that the supreme refinement and courtesy with which the debates take place, in fact, conceal a violence that is a response to the ethnic, nationalist and class agitations Russia and its bourgeoisie are facing at the time. The extremely hierarchized, class-coded relations of the butlers within themselves—exemplified by Istvàn striking one of the manservants under him for spoiling the coffee—provide a picture of the larger social structure outside the chateau.

But more than Wyler, it’s Buñuel that Malmkrog frequently recalls; whence the subterranean humour of the film. While its apparent why the characters are indoors—they’re snowed in—it’s absurd the way they refuse to perform even the smallest of physical gestures, like moving a chair or passing the plate. It’s patent that they can’t do an errand even if their life depended on it. We get the impression at the very beginning of the film that, for all their lofty discourse about the destiny of Europe and the meaning of war, the bunch is oblivious to the ferment right under its nose. When, in the middle of the film, the butlers don’t respond to their call, the characters sit at the table in disbelief, ringing the bell again and again as though that will set things straight. The punchline for this setup comes when the group is promptly sprayed down by a line of bullets. At the same time, despite this deliciously morbid humour, Puiu doesn’t undermine his characters or their beliefs, as is discernible from the way he arranges the six chapters of the film non-linearly. What the characters debate over, in the final analysis, are important philosophical questions in their own right. It’s just that their idealism is superseded by events that may only be made sense from a materialist perspective. So, in a way, these are tragic figures, spirited away by History just as they think they’re approaching enlightenment.

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

Lang and Me

In 1941, when rumours began to circulate that Hitler’s ships were assembling to cross the English Channel, then known as the Corridor of Hell, and invade England, I had an idea for a script: what would happen if the London office of the Associated Press were to be destroyed by bombardment, if the AP set up shop in the wine cellar of the Ritz, and if its head found himself trapped by a German time bomb in the same cellar with the official censor of the British press? I’d thought of this story from the particular point of view of a practicing war correspondent, whose work has its own rules and duties: when must he deliver the information? Should he instead keep it a secret? What should he decide, redacted or good for print? Who can judge? What is the best solution? My AP head, a prisoner of the cell and the bomb, decides it’s good for print. The government deems him wrong; the profession deems him right. You probably remember, or were at least told about it, that Hitler’s attempt to invade England failed. The boats were scuttled, the Channel was full of oil, the free countries heaved a sigh of relief. That was the general situation at the time. In my original script, the AP head was killed by the bomb.

Since I’d never set foot in England, I sought the help of an old friend, the late Hank Welles. He had covered the Great War for The Chicago Tribune and had, at one time, managed the Paris office of the Tribune. I asked him a load of questions about London’s streets, its slums, its cellars, about transatlantic cable terminals near Penzance etc.  I wrote ninety-two pages of the adaptation in fifteen hours. Hank prepared cocktails of coffee and cognac. As I asked him technical details about London’s atmosphere, I played the keyboard—I mean I worked on the typewriter—while listening to him. 20th Century Fox bought the story, titled Confirm or Deny, for $20,000.

Hank and I were delighted to learn that Fritz Lang was to direct this film. A peerless creator, Lang remains a symbol full of meaning for all filmmakers. Darryl Zanuck had Jo Swerling adapt the script.

A while later, we heard that Lang wasn’t involved in the film anymore and that Archie Mayo, I think, was to replace him. Why? What had happened? Mayo, I know, was also a filmmaker with a lot of experience. But there were certain touches, certain nuances, certain secret flashes as imperceptible as an exclamation point in literature that Lang could’ve harnessed to the smallest detail, with which he could’ve nailed it so perfectly that you’d have your hair standing on the head.

Whatever it was, I was very disappointed. I knew Lang’s stylistic signature from M until Fury, this admirable cinematic account of mob rule and blind justice.

I was disappointed by the film too. It was a cheerful, rather ordinary melodrama sprinkled with love scenes and punctuated by humorous touches. There was everything except my original idea: the journalist’s struggle with himself to decide whether to print or withhold an information of international importance at a time of war. There was a syrupy love story, with a dash of the sour cream of goodness, embodied by an old journalist. This sermon didn’t move anyone. The war cry seemed to be coming from behind a lectern rather than a teletype. One of my key scenes was when the editor, caught in the trap and finding it impossible to warn the hotel manager that a bomb is about to go off in the cellar, uses the Allied transmission code to send an SOS to the rest of the world, so that it can reach the manager, who is five metres away on the other side of the wall. I thought this scene was sensational.

One day, at the bar of the Screen Director’s Guild, I met Fritz Lang and asked him what had happened to the story of Confirm or Deny. If I remember correctly, he told me that he had read the adaptation I’d written, that he had liked it, and that the final script had nothing to do with the original anymore. So he left the film, which I’ll always regret. I often think that if he hadn’t left, he might have introduced some of the original flavour that had excited him in the first place.

Now, I have something else to reveal to you that will amuse you. In 1946, I had an idea for a film. It was set inside an insane asylum [1]. I sent the script to Fritz Lang. His assistant returned it to me on June 26th 1946 with a letter from Universal under the letterhead of Diana Productions. The letter said that Lang thought my script was very interesting, but that he was already preparing a film on the same lines.

(Unpublished, 1962)

 

Footnote:

[1] It was to become Shock Corridor.

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

The Asocial Impulse

In these countries [that Lang migrated to], the difficulty consists in living without transgressing the law or becoming its victim. The heroes aren’t ambitious or vengeful anymore, like they were in Germany, but individuals like others, bogged down in the anonymity of apparently affluent and carefree crowds, common to both France and America.

Liliom (France, 1933) is loosely adapted from the play by Molnar. Liliom is a thug from the suburbs of Paris who once killed a man somewhat inadvertently. Will he go to hell or the purgatory? Up there, they discuss his case using movie projections of important moments from his life. A good deed allows him to return for a day to earth, where he meets his old friends. Liliom is something of a victim of his unfortunate circumstances and the film is an interrogation of his responsibility, his guilt or his innocence. The categorical affirmation found in the silent films makes way for an uncertainty about objectivity. That, in the film, it’s cinema that furnishes the case files comes across as a tribute to the art Lang has chosen. This intrusion of cinema into cinema will turn up again in Lang’s work from Fury to Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, passing through Clash by Night. A tribute that’s at the same time a critique: appearances, as cinema unveils them to us, are misleading and could easily be contradicted with the evidence of another moment or of another camera angle. Adding to this fallibility of cinema is the theme of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Lang displays a real pleasure in dominating the world through film and seems to place himself under a slightly critical eye. A reflection on the notions of justice and responsibility, a reflection also on the value of his art, Liliom masks its seriousness with fantasy.

Lang’s humour, more substantial and more Bavarian in films between 1928 and 1932, turns out to be of a great finesse here; it’s accompanied by a certain nostalgia rather close to that of Max Ophüls, but more tender, less bitter. This nostalgia manifests particularly in the creation of a dreamworld that supplants reality. At that time, Lang was already doubly stateless: an émigré from the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, an exile from a Germany defeated by arms and reduced to slavery by Nazism, separated from his wife whom he’d be forced to divorce, he had no ties other than those preserved by memory. As it happens, Liliom was made after the shelving of a project that demonstrated a nostalgia for old Vienna, Die Legende vom letzten Fiaker (The Legend of the Last Vienna Fiacre): in 1918, fiacres had to cede their favourite ground, the Hauptallee, to cars. The last coachman dies of bitterness and wants to take his fiacre to Heaven. They don’t allow the fiacre to enter. “Okay, I’ll go to Hell”, retorts the coachman. God intervenes: “Alright, alright, drive me in your fiacre…” The fiacre enters, getting mixed up with the Chariot, God’s regular vehicle. No doubt that Lang reused much of this project in Liliom.

We notice that the fable doesn’t reject reality, but moulds itself over the harshest, most unpleasant truth—that of the suburbs, its poor, and its apaches—affirmed here with power. This raw reality is always depicted with a poetry that transforms it into phantasmagoria. This dialectic gives the film its colour. The dialogues are deliberately theatrical and romantic. The actors deliver brilliant performances: chiefly of note are Antonin Artaud, Charles Boyer, Madeleine Ozeray, Florelle, Mila Parély and Viviane Romance, whom Lang discovered with this film. The amorous duo exhibits a rather outmoded romantic sensibility, notably in the flower scene. Unfortunately, Lang’s stylistic efforts in terms of sets and lighting don’t add up to much because the film, a commercial semi-failure, was massacred during its release by distributors, who mutilated it left and right, doing away with its Germanic aspect that threw the French audience off balance, and thus destroying the meaning of the work. It’s also unfortunate that the last reel of the film hasn’t been found yet.

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[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). The book consists of two parts: Moullet’s monograph and a collection of writings by and on Lang. I have chosen not to translate the second part because (a) Lang’s articles and interviews were originally published in English and are thus available in English elsewhere, (b) many of the texts on Lang (by Bazin, Godard, Rivette etc.) are already translated in their entirety into English, and (c) I think the second part, with its patchwork of excerpts, registers more as filler material that adds little value to Moullet’s monograph.]

I. Search (1916-1949)

II. Maturity (1951-1960)

  • Critique (1951-1955)
    • Critique of Romanticism
    • Critique of Our Times
  • Contemplation (1954-60)

III. Conclusion

  • Lang and Our Times

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Within the first five minutes of Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a widescreen turkey directed and produced by Howard Hawks for Warner Brothers, the original audience must’ve gotten what they paid for: several thousand extras marshalled into a spectacular victory parade through the Egyptian desert. Teeming crowds are amassed on the sidelines and instructed to wave awkwardly at the passing army that, clad in multicolour uniforms, consists of soldiers supplied by the Egyptian military. I can imagine Harry Warner, or some other honcho at the studio, walking out of the preview after five minutes, assured that the money spent can be seen up there.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

If the parade and its reception vaguely resemble Nazi rallies, they are intended to be. The man leading the parade is the pharaoh Khufu. He’s just returning from a war campaign that has won him vast amounts of treasures and slaves. The pharaoh, a voiceover tells us, lusts after riches and power. In the ideology Hollywood sells (but doesn’t itself believe), this means only one thing: Khufu is going to bite the dust. Hollywood filmmakers were adept at condemning vice while harnessing its spectacular possibilities to the fullest. So the next hundred minutes of Land of the Pharaohs details the wrongheadedness of Khufu’s pursuit even as it invites us to marvel at the wonderful the result of his sin: the Great Pyramid of Giza he builds for his burial. This duality also dovetails with the production’s obligation to promote Egyptian tourism while upholding Christian admonition against pagan pageantry.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

But it isn’t Khufu who is the artist figure of the film. That would be the slave architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), recruited to design an inviolable labyrinth around Khufu’s future tomb. It isn’t clear what tribe Vashtar and his kinfolk belong to, but they serve as stand-ins for the film’s Western audience, covertly commenting on the barbaric practices of pharaonic faith and law. Vashtar is righteous, willing to sacrifice his own life for the freedom of his people. He bargains with the pharaoh, using his expertise to carry out his social vision. He is the filmmaker equivalent to the studio executive Khufu, who does little more than exploit his artists and workers to death in his quest to immortalize himself.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Khufu is played by British thespian Jack Hawkins. Like Rex Harrison later in Cleopatra (1963), this stage actor, with his stately line delivery and swaggering gait, brings gravitas and finesse to a two-dimensional role. He’s absent for considerable stretches of the narrative, which only enhances the impression of his importance. There’s an impressive little gesture he does to get the prostrating crowd back on its feet. However, I am with Luc Moullet in wondering how it might have been with John Wayne in the role. Wayne, who was busy playing Genghis Khan at the time, would at least have bought something of the ridiculous and the sublime to the rather staid proceedings.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Being a Hawks film, the romance between men overshadows the heterosexual ones emphasized by the script. The object of the pharaoh’s affection is his chief priest Hamar (a demure Alexis Minotis) who goes to the grave with his ruler at the end. When the jewellery-loving pharaoh returns home in the first scene, his fondness for women is on public display, while he reserves his affection for Hamar for his private chamber. He comes out of the shower bare-chested, eats a plum, and reminisces about his youthful days with Hamar. The conversation is interrupted by the queen, who has come to urge her husband to spend more time at home. Women, as is not unusual in Hawks, spell trouble: Khufu’s first queen discourages him from war, his second queen discourages him from peace.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Watching the film, I was reminded of Straub-Huillet’s Too Soon, Too Late (1981), the second half of which takes place in the fields and streets of Egypt as well. I’m fond of Serge Daney’s article on the latter film, which makes a distinction between acupuncturist-filmmakers and meteorologist-filmmakers. Where the acupuncturist Straubs, through trial and error, attempt to feel out the only morally defensible choice of lenses and camera placement in each of their shots, Hawks the meteorologist always goes for the widest possible angle from the farthest possible distance, so as to pack the greatest number of extras within the wide frame. At times, like the Straubs, he films extended panoramas to expand the space and multiply its spectacular possibilities. It’s a proto-fascist idea—of reducing people to specks on a hagiographic canvas—that results in a number of awe-inducing compositions.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Finally, while the Straubs are looking to capture something of the real present—the winds sweeping Egyptian fields, the gaze of the workers trickling out of a factory—Hawks’ film exudes Hollywood fakery on every level. The dialogue is heavily dubbed, with dilated, accented voices replacing the original. “They sang songs of their faith and of their joy”, tells the voiceover, even as we see thousands of men and women, who may have never been before a film camera, reluctantly march past, barely trying not to stare at it. The irony of an American super-production hiring Egyptians as dispensable extras to build a turgid monument in CinemaScope is, no doubt, lost on the film. But, hey, they got paid.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

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

Four hands: another contagion effect (No Highway in the Sky, 1950)

James Stewart appeared on the firmament of the film world in 1938 with Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. This celebrity comes about awkwardly: first of all, Stewart has only the fourth role in the film, after Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur. More importantly, even though he is the prototype of the indolent dreamer, his character belongs to the world of the rich, while his fiancée lives in a family of outcasts, among whom he feels totally at ease. The interest is thus centred on the conflict between the heads of the two families, Stewart putting them in contact with each other. His role could’ve been stronger had his character reproduced the mentality of the rich, whereas it’s the opposite here.

This shakiness is aggravated by the fact that Stewart hasn’t yet found his line as an actor. With his co-star Jean Arthur, he copies Cary Grant (and she, Katharine Hepburn) as he moves across the restaurant, stuck behind her to hide the ridiculous inscription she has on her back, some months after the similar—and more successful—scene from Bringing Up Baby. The second film he makes with Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, contains some shots—notably during the turbulent meeting with the press after the publication of an article ridiculing him—that relate him to his great friend Henry Fonda: his hair falls over his forehead and comes close to his cheeks, making his face look very thin. We perceive in him the hunted, rebellious man of You Only Live Once. At one point in You Can’t Take It with You, he has, on one part of the forehead, the famous little lock of hair of Gary Cooper, the protagonist of the first Shopworn Angel that Stewart just remade. Moreover, Mr. Smith, with Capra’s help, is a close cousin to Mr. Deeds.

This proximity can be linked to the fact that Cooper, Fonda and Stewart are all Tauruses. I had the greatest contempt for astrology until the day I realized that most great actors (Fonda, Welles, Gabin, Fernandel, James Mason) were born under this sign. It’s too good to be a coincidence, especially considering that Capra was born on the 19th of May, a day before Stewart, and that Borzage (who gave JS the leading role in Mortal Storm) belonged to the same vintage: it’s really a great family…

From You Can’t Take onwards, Stewart’s individuality starts to manifest itself: his novel play of hands often has a precise signification. So the dance of his fingers on the table constitutes a direct allusion to the guests who are enjoying themselves at the house of his future father-in-law. The work on repurposed gestures is very successful: he raises his hand toward the boy employed by his father, as though to slap him. He abandons his primitive impulse, and regains his gesture in a way, so as to not look like an idiot: in the continuity of the movement, he goes on… to brush his jacket.

This work on hands is quite good in one scene of a film made slightly later, Made for Each Other (1939): he informs his mother that he is married to the girl next to him by pointing his thumb alternatively towards the girl and himself. In the same film, we find an identical principle, but with the head this time: he lets the viewer know that he has understood his wife’s allusive speech suggesting that she is pregnant, simply by lowering his head four times in a twitchy manner. Before this, we weren’t sure of the real meaning of this speech. This sharp movement, mixed with emotion, helps us understand everything. Great art consists of doing away with speech, of saying everything through gesture, especially when it involves important events: a marriage, a birth.

In You Can’t Take, his stubborn way of keeping his mouth open without speaking is particularly audacious. This trait allows us to better place the character: it’s the Capraesque Naïf, dazed and out of sync with reality. This perfectly suits Stewart, who displays the temperament of a dreamer in real life and whose physique, with his wide cheeks somewhat depressed towards a visible chin, midway between Jerry Lewis and Eddy Merckx, and his lanky figure, give the impression of ingenuousness.

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