Translations


[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.

(more…)

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

Man Seeks to Conquer the World (1922-1938)

 

The defeated man of 1918 tries to gather himself, and with the improvement in his condition, he forges a less tragic metaphysics for himself. In this normal reaction, we find two successive variations: the revolutionary impulse, where man seeks to become the master of the whole world, and the asocial impulse, where he seeks simply to become the master of his own life and must transgress an all-too-arbitrary law in order to do that. The revolutionary impulse dominates in the German films, while the asocial impulse belongs rather to the American period.

 

The Revolutionary Impulse (1922-1932)

The theme of the man who wants to dominate the world was already present in Die Spinnen (1919), before sporadically resurfacing in the expressionist period (Siegfried, Metropolis). But it’s a motif deriving most of all from the convention of crime stories. As always, Lang starts from the thematic and artistic traditions of his time, and not themes particular to his personality, and deepens them, finding their latent meaning.

In the two parts of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), the first carrying the same title and the second Inferno, we find not a deepening of the theme, but a realist depiction of facts and atmosphere which are its most evident components: secret societies, hidden vices, hypnotism, unlimited violence, multiple disguises, lust and depravity, secret doors and betrayals, thieves and forgers. Mabuse the sorcerer’s apprentice, whom we successively see as a psychiatrist, a drunk sailor and a great financier, seduces a degenerate, the countess Told, the top informant of his enemy, the prosecutor Wenk. He kidnaps her and does all he can to ruin her husband. He forces his regular mistress, the dancer Cara Carozza, to poison herself. He tries to get rid of Wenk twice. He hypnotizes him, drives him to commit suicide in his bathtub. The police intervene in time and rescue the countess as well. Mabuse ends up in an asylum.

Doctor Mabuse’s goal is of a practical, and not metaphysical, order: he seeks power for the benefits it brings him, material and sexual benefits in particular. This need for pleasure is justified as compensations for deprivations of the war and for the moral rigidity of the Empire. By way of an extravagant crime story, moreover, the film only reproduces facts prevalent in the depraved and divided Germany of the time: “The fight between the villains and the police recalls the street clashes ordered by Noske, the socialist home minister” (George Sadoul, Histoire du Cinéma mondial, p. 154).

Keeping things at a descriptive level means that there’s no moral judgment yet: Wenk employs the same sneaky means as Mabuse to defeat him, and he is as amoral as him. He intervenes, not as much to rid society of a criminal as to get back at a rival in love and win back his mistress. But one could say that this comes at a price: the first part, very different from the second as always in Lang, an excellent but banal soap opera, can be defined as a study of human gestures and attitudes, their movements and the relation between their movements, a phenomenological study that owes everything to improvisation and observation and almost nothing to expressionism, and which comes close to modern cinema, particularly Lang’s more recent works like Human Desire. With almost nothing—characters that move from one chair to another, light cigarettes and play cards—Lang creates an autonomous world more captivating and original than the mostly spectacular one of the second part, with its by-the-numbers fights and its car chases inspired from the exploits of the Bonnot Gang and the Apaches of Paris in 1910.

(more…)

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

We must undertake a project, accomplish a more commendable task without fail, by voluntarily letting go of the various means of expression that rely on technical virtuosity and which, by that fact, will always reek of artifice.

Fritz Lang (1926)

Born in 1890 in Vienna, Fritz Lang entered the film world in 1916. Having studied architecture, studied and practiced painting and other related arts—caricature, interior decoration, etching etc.—having amassed a vast knowledge of the world through faraway journeys and diverse experiences, the most painful of which was the war, Fritz Lang approached cinema via the intermediary of theatre at a point where he had already attained a certain maturity as a man.

That explains why, in his first directorial efforts (1919-1921) and even in his first scripts (1916-1919), we find themes, guiding principles and figures of style that we notice even in his most recent films, the only difference being a deepening intensified by the years.

Fritz Lang’s body of work is therefore one and indivisible. It’s founded on a certain conception of the world whose rudiments are distinctly discernible even in the first scripts he wrote. Rather than studying the films in chronological order as common sense demands, we must first study this conception of the world, this Idea existing prior to the creations it brought forth. The only possible order then is the one that traces different evolutionary forms of the Idea, which respect chronology only loosely.

(more…)

[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

[The following is a translation of a set of letters between Raymond Bellour and Marie Redonnet on Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), originally written in 1993 and published in Bellour’s Pensées du cinéma (2016, P.O.L.)]

Days and Nights in the Forest

It’s always strange to walk out of a film with another person when we don’t know them well enough to be sure (a dangerous certainty) that they are thinking what you’re thinking. Especially when the film surprised you, took unexpected turns that you felt you followed well, and you don’t know if the other person, who might not have the same relation to cinema, reacted to the film in a similar way, or will at least use similar words to describe it.

Here, on the other hand, was a certainty, still a silent one: we liked the film. Terribly so: it left us speechless for a while, but we knew we’d have time to discuss it in the evening (a civilized ritual around the 8PM screening: have the dinner after the film in order to work on it slowly, privately, like an event that you don’t want to overload with other things, or digest at the wrong time).

Like all memories, of course, it later becomes something of a dream (I have always admired, with perhaps an excessive mistrust, those who are able to recount old conversations as if they had recorded them: are they so different from me, or do they implicitly embrace a mixture of truth and fiction? Or maybe they take notes immediately. But in that case, etc. etc.) I remember latching on to some references to articulate my surprise, to rationalize my amazement: this Satyajit Ray, who couldn’t apparently be more different, made me think, at least in his setup, of Rohmer (this was suggested to me by a friend of mine who loved the film and urged me to go see it right away), of early Fellini (I Vitelloni, for example), or even of Hawks (the fate of groups, the games of men and women, the transition from light to serious, the logic of plot reversals: the miraculous balance of “classical” cinema, modern though it is). In short, it’s still about the Rules of the Game between ethics and aesthetics (now that I’m writing (to you), I recall that Ray had assisted Renoir on The River).

I perhaps told you this, we thought it was really extraordinary that we could prepare for this transformation, that we could retain all the trivial elements of this story, as though suspended in a fishing net, in order to fully make use of them, in the form of a viewer memory, when the story veers, first slowly and then suddenly (that’s where the dexterity, the miracle lies), into the tragic, assuming a sweeping density by endowing its four merry men with a touch of fate.

We didn’t need to recount the film to each other at that point because we had just walked out of it, but we have to play that (minimal) game here. It’s not wholly true though: we did recount it in way, in order to pinpoint the moments in the film that had struck us and to arrive, unwittingly, at what had transfixed us.

So I’ll recall the crux here: four friends leave Calcutta to spend some time in the countryside. Two of them, familiar actors in Ray’s films, look like respectable executives; the third is a famous sportsman (he’s the only one with a backstory, presented through a really unexpected flashback that occurs during their journey, in the middle of their banter, signalling the future course of the film: his girlfriend has left him brutally following a mediocre, incriminating letter from him.); the fourth is the joker of the gang. They move into a forest guest house after bribing its watchman. There’s another house nearby, and the men get to know the family living there: father, daughter, daughter-in-law and her young boy. There are also women of the village, Duli being one of them. The film tells the story of these four bachelors who are out seeking adventure, going around these women towards whom their desire remains vague, only to turn concrete before their imminent departure: Sekhar, the jester, doesn’t get anyone; the sportsman Hari is committed to Duli; Asim to the daughter, Aparna; and Sanjoy to Jaya, the daughter-in-law (I checked these names in Charles Tesson’s book on Ray).

We were hardly interested in Hari, I think, except in order to notice what was extreme about the beautiful native (Duli) who sells herself, who is of a sensuality at once raw and perverse, mastered and uncontrolled, but very autonomous in any case, during the love scene in the forest, the only scene of lovemaking, of which the hero ends up being the victim (after the young woman leaves, he is assaulted by a villager whom he had unjustly accused of theft: the villager had observed the scene, which thus becomes more intense)

But the impression left by the scene fed into what we were constantly thinking about: that here was an extraordinary film on men and women, extraordinary because of the stance taken by a man to show the superiority of women when it comes to intelligence and behaviour in romantic relations.

We soon arrived at the great scene between Asim and Aparna, which could appear to be the most beautiful moment in the film. The groundwork for it is laid by two previous scenes thanks to which the film takes a turn and speeds ahead: a memory game in the forest in which Aparna crushes everyone, Asim in particular, the only one who puts up a fight; and a visit to the local fair, during which the group splits into three couples, with the sensual counterpoint of traditional dances to go with it—it’s audacious of Ray to film these female bodies so modestly and so sensually, to show them in harmony with the couples trying to find their feet.

We were amazed by how Aparna’s character, quite enigmatic so far, somewhat charming but sarcastic and rather removed, bursts out with a contained violence towards a half-flirtatious, half-romantic and mostly childish man, to whom she nevertheless imparts a consistency because she confides to him: her ability to memorize everything since early childhood, her brother who killed himself three years ago seemingly without reason, her mother who set herself on fire when Aparna was twelve. All this to explain her distance, her inability to enter the game of explicit seduction and her marked singularity (I thought so later, I think so now: is this Ray’s romanticism, an idealism that bestows the woman with an extra bit of aura and depth? Or as we originally thought: the naivete and vulgarity of men with their simplistic, dull desire—or, at least, the image they give of that—which rejects not only what is singular in a woman’s desire, but also the identity proper to a mutual desire, its only chance of being shared.)

But we hadn’t yet come to the scene that became, for us, the scene—that’s why we wanted to see the film together the next day, to freely write a few pages each to prolong the memory of what we discussed that evening, before, during and after the sad result of the elections (I’m looking at this obscene image on channel 2 again, enough to singlehandedly condemn television, which can never be cinema: between Madelin and Longuet, presentable forty and fifty somethings passably done up, stands a pulpy student of twenty-three years, fleshy lips and long hair, supposedly representing French youth and especially showing the desire they may have for her).

I think it was I who stopped suddenly at the scene that was hiding beneath what we had discussed before, like how one stops before an evidence: I told you that we’d just witnessed one of the most violent scenes of desire that cinema has ever offered. Until this scene, Jaya seemed, in contrast to her sister-in-law, a rather simple character: a sociable, cheerful woman (we have just learnt of the suicide of her husband from Aparna, but our attention doesn’t shift to her). Jaya returns home with Sanjoy from the fair to which he had accompanied her; she offers him coffee; they are alone in the house, where Ray has set up a muted but very charged lighting scheme that tightens the space. Jaya goes into her bedroom for a moment (there’s a fluctuation of memory here stemming from one of those loose ends characteristic of great mises en scène) and comes out of it transformed, covered with jewellery bought with Sanjoy at the fair. She offers herself with an absolute immodesty that reinforces what she recounts: the death of her husband, widowhood, the wife’s desire expected to vanish with her husband’s death. Sanjoy listens to her in silence, terrified. He is unable to take a single step towards her or make even one of the gestures he evidently imagined and looked forward to; he can only clam up. The more Jaya’s desire saturates the space the more thoroughly Ray’s sequencing withdraws into itself, so as to suddenly limit the whole world to what is happening—or rather, what is not happening—between this man and this woman.

That is where we began to feel differently. I was with Sanjoy, lost, understanding of his terror, projecting something of myself onto the character without knowing where each of us was, caught in a vague no man’s land. I told you how, when confronted with certain bodies, bodies that are too strange but whose strangeness is fascinating, a kind of imaginary madness opens up; I guess everyone has his own, which he recognizes the day it happens (this is amplified for me here by the evident otherness of the Indian woman that Jaya embodies so strongly: heavy, somewhat fleshy body of a glowing sensuality that doesn’t coincide really with the material body and induces a disorder, a dissociation between seeing and touching, or even between two modes of seeing, two modes of touching, which we’d prefer keeping apart). You seemed surprised by this male thing; and you spoke to me about the woman. You told me (I couldn’t think of it that way): a woman can offer herself like that only in order to want to not be taken. She remains in her mourning, which she bears tragically, which she exhibits, to the point of obscenity. This excess she indulges in is what protects her; this excess in which the other is nothing, can’t project himself into, for she desires him in a dead man’s place, as though to prove to him that he has no place there. Writing to you, I wonder if it’s this very intuition that Sanjoy has, considering that his terror mounts to such a degree: the fear of being denied, like the fear among women, as they say, when they can’t tolerate a pure, immediate physical desire. The harrowing magic of the scene, which we must see again to know more about, at least on the means of producing such a shock, could be in not letting either the man or the woman, who are trying to talk to about it like us, decide whether there’s a shade of comprehension or an opacity in what surfaces and dramatically stops between a man and a woman, whether either of them is aware of the horror they provoke in the other or whether these two horrors simply coexist in a space that has become, either way, unbearable.

R.B.

(more…)

[The following is a translation of an article by critic and filmmaker Pascale Bodet published in Trafic 95 (September 2015). I’m immensely grateful to Mr. Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of the article and to Ms. Bodet for her permission and generous support.]

The Golden Bird

Let’s begin with two dreamlike, unsettling fictional films made by Amit Dutta at the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, the film school he was trained at: Kramasha (To Be Continued, 2007, 22’) and Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan (The Man’s Woman and Other Stories, 2009, 78’)[1].

Here’s one of the three stories in Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan. Married man Jainath is obsessed with the tattoo of his wife Krishna Bai, who has her own name tattooed on the hand. Jainath wants to cut his wife’s hand off. He wanders around with his friend who jokes (“Till the wrist, or till the shoulder?”), then incites Jainath to scrape the tattoo with a blade, then to attack it with sulphuric acid. In this tale, there are no good spirits to suggest tattooing both names—Krishna Bai’s and Jainath’s—on the same hand. The friend makes increasingly evil suggestions until the moment where Krishna Bai’s name appears, not just on her hand, but on the marital pillow. Noticing this new inscription, we understand that Jainath has let go of his evil spirit (who withdraws out of bitterness) to become his own good spirit. Jainath has another obsession now: he loves his wife; he forces her into embroidery. Independently of its sonic and visual (35mm) beauty, of the charm of its sound effects and of the tropical, diurnal, nocturnal dampness, I remember that the character of the friend/evil spirit renders this tale at once more prosaic (two friends wander about, talk, meet again and separate) and more fantastic (the friend is the evil double of an already malevolent hero).

Now, can we review the viability of cinema as an instrument for the search of truth? Money and human relationships always intervene in filmmaking but technology minimizes their necessity, giving more space and time to the inner journey. Filmmaking becomes more personal, almost intimate. It happens outside the purview of an audience, at least a real audience. No money to be earned, nor much fame. Then what is the reward left to the filmmaker? The answer for me could be: ‘the process’*. The possibility now to live one’s film more profoundly and intimately than ever. The kind of subject one chooses, the reading, learning and thoughts one lives through the making of a film become the most important reason for making it. Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty, and eventually truth (?).

*In Kashmir Saivism, some scriptures have the concept of prakriya denoting a prescribed practice (of ritual or meditation), which is the same as the highest knowledge; the path therein is one with the destination. [2]

(more…)

[The following is a translation of an ‘ad review’ by Serge Daney published in Libération on 13 May 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma)]

May 1982. There’s always the temptation to put advertisements under the scanner of film criticism.

The scene takes place in a shop. There’s the saleswoman and there’s a client. What’s being sold? Rolls of fabric arranged in base cabinets or wrapped over an asexual mannequin placed on an old-fashioned sales counter? It’s not very clear. Everything melts into a fuzzy, pastel-coloured set: mauve, pink, green. The two women are in sober clothing. The saleswoman is modern, glowing, with sparkling eyes: she could feature on a leftist political poster. The client is a posh, snooty, idle bourgeois woman: she’s the kind that starts dancing abruptly in American musicals. At least twenty years separate the women. The shop window overlooks an abstract, scarcely-populated street. A pensive, bearded man passes by. The action begins.

  • Could I help you? (a revolving tracking shot, straight out of Universal-period Sirk, accompanies the client towards the counter).
  • I’d like to see that one… show me everything actually (the client is very mobile; she begins a kind of seduction dance in front of the saleswoman, who never leaves the counter).
  • Each one has its own scent… The pink one: rose; the mauve one (close-up of the saleswoman): lavender; the green one: vetiver, I’d say (adds the client dreamily) … Let me see the mauve one under the light (she goes off screen from right).
  • 2-ply, ma’am! (the saleswoman raises her voice from afar)
  • And what sizes do they come in? (Wide shot of the shop showing the saleswoman behind the counter, over the shoulder of the client, who is mincing in the foreground)[1].
  • Just one! (close-up once again). That should easily be enough. (Embarrassed).
  • Hmm! (pauses). Oh! I really don’t know which one to pick. Couldn’t you give me a sample from each? (The acting here is very good: a sudden cutaway shows the slouched body of the client from a three-quarter back profile, as if this body were saying, “I can’t take it anymore, I give up, I leave it to you” and falling apart dangerously only to pull itself together during the movement that brings the client back, beaming and childlike, towards the counter).
  • Certainly, with pleasure. (Close-up of the saleswoman who trots out these words with gleaming eyes, stressing on the word “pleasure”).

All this lasts thirty seconds and thirteen shots. The reader must’ve understood what I’m talking about. It’s about a commercial and it’s about pleasure. The object being sold isn’t silk or batik, but elegant rolls of Trèfle brand toilet paper. A final shot, the fourteenth, shows the multicoloured rolls as a voiceover coos: “Trèfle in four scents: a very fine collection”. There are so many reasons to love and analyse this anal, and hardly banal, commercial that I won’t resist the pleasure of listing two or three of them for cine-telephiles.

Selling toilet paper as though it were a collection of rare and priceless fabric is one idea. Imagining a shop that sells just that is a second (rather dreamlike) idea. To have two women play the scene is a third one. “Normal” sanitary ads generally begin with a dreadful observation about filth in order to construct the ideal of a miraculous cleanliness (one recalls the terrible Mr. Clean). It’s the opposite here. It’s because the whole scene is drenched in the cleanliness of a pastel-coloured dream that the evocation of filth assumes its entire weight. And that it’s a confrontation between two women introduces an undeniably perverse dimension.

This small masterpiece of classical shot sequencing could help introduce our film school students to things as serious as the shot and the countershot, the cutaway and the depth of field. It’s the entire tradition of American comedy that comes alive before our eyes, by way of the obvious reference to Jacques Demy. From McCarey to Cukor. The impossibility of showing certain (lowly) things compelled the American filmmakers to invent a very cunning mise en scène. The dirtier the idea, the cleaner their shot sequencing. It’s the same case here.

For this little film on the pleasure of wiping yourself clearly deals with the unspeakable. The RFP (Régie française de publicité [French advertising board]) wasn’t mistaken either. From what I’ve heard, they may have censored the film. A flushing sound was supposed to accompany the shot where the unrolled roll becomes a kind of umbilical cord between the two women. The RFP didn’t want this noise. Nor this desire.

And yet, the voiceover of the fourteenth shot tries pointlessly to make us memorize the expression “Trèfle in four scents”. But the damage has already been done: it’s the penultimate shot, the thirteenth, with the mysterious “Certainly, with pleasure” that remains in memory. At this precise moment, the saleswoman conveys another message, a message that no product can make us forget, something along these lines: I can satisfy your choice, whatever it may be. Your demands will always fall short of what I can offer you. And that is the real message of the commercial, of all commercials.

 

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s Note: A couple of details in the article are incorrect. Here, for instance, Daney describes the reverse view of what is actually seen in the ad. Two lines later, he ascribes the client’s movements to the saleswoman. I have corrected the text accordingly.

[The following is a translation of Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). With kind help from Laurent Kretzschmar of the indispensable Serge Daney in English blog.]

Satyajit Ray by Nemai Ghosh

February 1982, Calcutta

In which we go meet Satyajit Ray at his home in the city that he never stopped loving.

At any rate, he’s stands tall. Heads and shoulders above the rest. He just celebrated sixty years of life and twenty years of cinema. To the rest of the world, he is “Satyajit Ray”, the symbol of Indian cinema. But in his country, where films are made on an assembly line (743 films in 14 languages in 1981) and dreams are ruthlessly manufactured, he’s the first one to have left the factory. It happened between 1952 and 1956, here in Calcutta, and the film was called Pather Panchali. Since then, with his baritone voice and his impeccable English, Ray has never yielded on the most important thing: to shoot at home in his language (Bengali). A little less than thirty films in twenty-five years. But Indian cinema, the “all India film”, hasn’t yielded to him either. The struggle has been long. When you leave Bengal and ask the man in the street, no one knows Ray anymore. When you remain in Bengal and talk to any kid coming your way: he knows the names of stars, of cricket players and of Ray.

He’s at home in Calcutta. This inconceivable city, where it seems so easy to live and so easy to die, oozes with culture. Ray writes, produces drawings, composes music, and one day, in 1947, the year of independence, he starts the first film club in Calcutta. Ever since, this old capital of colonial India (from 1773 to 1912), this “premature metropolis” that has become a giant village, remains the conscience of Indian cinema. The film festival (called “filmotsav” here) is a genuinely popular event. The theatres—New Empire, Metro, Jamuna, Society, Jyoti, Paradise, Elite and Glove—are full. A ticket is a precious commodity. Tickets for second-class seats are sold on the black market.

Reaching Satyajit Ray’s house isn’t hard. Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t far from Chowringhee, the aberrant centre of this decentred city. Overcrowded arcades face an empty stretch of land where, amusingly, the Russians and Hungarians have been pretending for years to construct a metro that, all of Calcutta likes to think, will collapse with the first train (they still have ten years to go, says Ray who finds the idea funny). The filmmaker’s house is located in a central district of Calcutta, in a rather calm and posh neighbourhood. The houses, their windows and balconies have been fittingly corroded by humidity. Their ochre is turning into black. Ray lives on the top floor of a mansion barely older than him. I notice the spacious office where he receives me. I make out the rest: slow domestic helps, plants, film reels piled up, a diorama of greeting cards on a small table (it’s January, and the winter weather is wonderful), books of course, an old radio, two windows overlooking two streets, folded newspapers and, in an armchair, Satyajit Ray, very relaxed and even cheerful. Ray expects admiration from a visiting Westerner. He knows he deserves it. This respect pleases him but doesn’t surprise him anymore.

That’s for the image. As for the sound, the pitch is set by crows that caw with as much repressed hate as on the soundtrack of India Song. Traffic jams, human cries, honking automobiles, street vendors and assorted birds make for the rest. It’s simple: the city enters by the window.

(more…)

[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.

(more…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Next Page »