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

Warner Brothers was arguably the most interesting film production house of the 1930s, certainly at least from a political and social point of view. Like other studios, it knew how to harness the Depression-era audience’s desire to escape the doom and gloom around them by offering cheerful backstage musicals. But Warner also proved itself willing and capable of registering the harsh reality that this audience lived in. The studio’s tendency to both profit from the general resentment and to assuage it with uplifting messages of hope and courage may have its roots in the political leanings of its chief Jack Warner, a heavyweight supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt who is said to have gotten his wartime directives straight from the White House.

Heroes for Sale (1933) was produced by First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers’ that mostly handled the studio’s second-tier products. There were few stars in these films and the budgets were relatively low, which allowed them to be bold in their choice of plot and setting. While in a Warner Bros. picture, tragic stories would regularly be attenuated with a tacked-on happy ending, the First National films didn’t need to sugarcoat their bitter vision. Heroes for Sale was made just after Roosevelt swore in as the 32nd president of the United States. As though symptomatic of this particular time, the film embodies both a discontentment with the preceding Hoover administration and a hope for the new one, the duality manifesting as an incongruity between plot and character.

Injured in combat during the war, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) returns home to discover that the military accolades he deserves have been given to his army peer Roger (Gordon Westcott). Not wishing to rock the boat, Tom takes up a modest clerical job at the bank run by Roger’s father, only to be crippled by, and sacked for, a morphine addiction he acquired at a German POW hospital. After rehabilitation, Tom starts a family and successfully runs a laundry in Chicago, but finds himself unwittingly caught up in a riot following a wave of automation and job loss. Returning from an imprisonment of five years, he learns he is on a list of suspected communists, and is forced to wander the country as a drifter without a home, a family or a job.

The script, by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (an opium addict himself), has a stark anti-establishment bent. Throughout the film, we witness authority being abused to crush the little man that Tom represents: a commander who sends his soldiers on an impossible mission, a banker who misappropriates people’s money, businessmen who sack their employees without second thought, police who fire at protestors, law that accords disproportional punishment to white- and blue-collar crimes, enforcers chasing vagabonds from their camps. Heroes for Sale is punctuated by images drawn from real events of the preceding years, such as urban breadlines, the veterans’ march to Washington and the ensuing firing. At the end, Tom tells Roger, both hobos on the run now: “You started way up high and I started pretty low. And we end up here in the rain, together.”

While the grim analysis above remains faithful to the reality of the Great Depression, the reaction to it suggested by Heroes for Sale is one of stoic acceptance. All through his ordeals, Tom refuses revolts against his lot, nor does he switch over to the wrong side of the law. As a result, the account of his constant exile from society—army, rehabilitation centre, prison, endless wandering as a vagrant—scans like a modern-day Book of Job, where Christian forbearance, charity and an unquestioning faith in powers that be are presented as the noblest possible response to relentless suffering. This answer is justified by the failure of the anti-automation riot Tom tries to prevent, as well as by the presence of the inventor Max (Robert Barrat), a caricatural communist who is simply a disgruntled capitalist at heart.

This call for patience is wholly in line with the studio’s support for the new regime and the promises of the New Deal. In fact, the film devolves into an unveiled propaganda for Roosevelt towards the end. “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people”, says Tom to Roger, explicitly referring to the new president’s inaugural address. The economy, and with it the morale of the nation, will rise again is the message. After one hour of attacking one American institution after another, here’s a turnabout, an unfounded appeal for trust. Trust in institutions, especially the banking establishments that had lost public legitimacy after the stock market collapse, was what the Warner brothers would have liked too; their existence depended on it: Goldman Sachs was on advisory board of the studio and had co-financed its purchase of First National Pictures.

Director William A. Wellman’s style is notoriously hard to pin down; his personal vision of the world, even more so. There is little formal or thematic consistency across his body of work, except perhaps a certain taste for gritty realism expressed in particular details of action, gesture and setting. Any line of moral, political or philosophical thought one can discern in one film will invariably be contradicted in another. As critic David Phelps puts it, “the films have no metaphysics but physics.” As a result, critical consensus on his work still remains unresolved, his status as a major American filmmaker open to question. Manny Farber was a great admirer of the textures in his films, asserting that “when Wellman finishes with a service station or the wooden stairs in front of an ancient saloon, there’s no reason for any movie realist to handle the subject again.” In contrast, Andrew Sarris declared that, with Wellman, “objectivity is the last refuge for mediocrity.

Be that as it may, Wellman brings a lean muscularity to Heroes for Sale, which possesses a novelistic sprawl without ever turning laboured or precious. The film hurtles from one genre, one setting to another, making vast leaps in time that are all the more striking in that they are executed with straight cuts without transitions. Wellman’s characteristic camera movements expand and contract spaces with considerable effectiveness. He tracks across the laundry floor twice to show the wrecking impact of automation on the employees. Wellman steers clear of sentimentalism despite the thoroughly melodramatic construction of the scenario. A comparison with his collaboration with David O. Selznick, a high-strung sentimentalist, a few months before in The Conquerors (1932) reveals on how light-footed Heroes for Sale actually is.

There’s something about Wellman’s style that makes it free of value judgments about what is being depicted. To be sure, scenes can provoke the desired emotion in the viewer, but only in so far as the script needs it. Many episodes in Wellman’s work seem to unfold in the passive voice, displacing interest from the characters on to the action they are embedded in. The riot sequence in Heroes for Sale is a good example. The strikers wreck the laundry and hurl stones at the police, who fire back. The camera pushes through the fighting mass to pick up Tom’s wife, who has come to look for him. A barely perceptible blow to her jaw knocks her down dead. Since the previous shot shows both the rioters and the police wielding batons, we are not sure who is delivered the blow. Wellman’s staging and editing of the action takes no sides, shifting the emphasis from assigning responsibility to describing results. A riot took place, blows were exchanged, a woman was killed.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

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

One of Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious assets was director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese émigré most known for his seven-film collaboration with iconic actress Marlene Dietrich, who had moved to the States following the success of their first film together, The Blue Angel (1930). The sixth entry in the cycle, The Scarlet Empress, is a loose biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. The arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s had given fresh impetus to studios to remake their silent epics in sound. The year before had seen Garbo play Christina of Sweden in the commercial hit Queen Christina (1933) and Paramount themselves had released Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert, a month before to considerable success. But nothing, not even Sternberg’s earlier films with Dietrich, anticipates the stylistic aggression of The Scarlet Empress, a box-office bomb.

Sternberg’s film follows a fairly linear trajectory. Ordained to be married to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe), Catherine (Dietrich) travels from her hometown in Prussia to Russia, accompanied by the handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge). Catherine falls in love with the count, who has described Peter to her in lofty terms. Having reached Russia, Catherine is subject to a series of rude awakenings: Peter is a sinister idiot who devises torture toys, his aunt the current Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is a cold, cruel ruler who only wants Catherine to produce a male heir to her throne and Alexei appears to be a perennial skirt-chaser. Hardened by her betrayal, Catherine shields herself from the world, weaponizing her sexuality and waiting for the right moment to seize power.

It’s a rather intimate, psychoanalytical retelling of Catherine’s story that casts her private romantic problems as the motor of History. It locates the dissolution of her humanity in a wrenching scene in which she discovers that Alexei is also the illicit lover of Elizabeth. Later in the film, after taking over Elizabeth’s private chamber, Catherine restages this primal scene as a form of therapy, this time forcing Alexei into her old role in order to make him recognize the harm he’s done. Catherine’s ascension is conditioned by her private disappointments—the dissolution of her Prussian identity, her unhappy marriage, her heartbreak with Alexei and the her being reduced to an heir-producing machine. “We women are too much creatures of the heart”, remarks Elizabeth, lamenting the burden of the crown. It’s Catherine’s predicament too, one which she turns to her advantage.

Nothing in the synopsis above obliges Scarlet Empress to be the film that it is. In the hands of another equally-capable director, this might have been a sober, moving tragedy about thrust-upon greatness. But Sternberg was a sophisticated stylist and he conceives the film in an idiosyncratic form that derives from gothic, baroque and expressionistic tendencies in western art and architecture. Every detail of the film—sets, costume, lighting, dialogue, acting, music—is distorted to a grotesque degree having little to do with reality, leave alone history. Sternberg’s genre-bending treatment of the narrative applies horror movie tropes to a historical psychodrama, resulting in a very campy, very exotic aesthetic comparable to what Sergei Eisenstein would devise years later for his Ivan the Terrible films.

Sternberg’s primary means of breaking away from realism is through a ‘encumbered’ mise en scène, a deep physical space saturated with decorative objects all pointing to the unfathomable cruelty of the Russian royalty: a decadent palace housing gargoyle like sculptures, thrones attached to busts of withered old men clutching their faces in grief, clocks and toys depicting sexual deviancy and human torture, expansive clothes that seem like medieval torture instruments themselves, a skeleton leaning over a dining table, tableware and even food that spell out anguish and pain. (It is a curious irony that the contemporary face of evil, seizing power in Germany as Sternberg’s film was being made, glorified an aesthetic that was the polar opposite of the one pictured here.) The human characters are thus lost in layers and layers of clothing and décor, trapped in an ethos of terror they have little agency over. Catherine is doomed, physically and morally, to the same fate as her predecessors.

Nothing is left to accident in Sternberg’s film. Every visual, every gesture and every word planned in advance — Catherine playing with a suspended rope, falling on a haystack and tucking straws into her mouth for Alexei to remove, Alexei bowing his head in sorrow after Catherine asks him to perform an elaborate ritual, Catherine wrapping the tip of Peter’s threatening sword with a piece of her dress, a high official humiliatingly dropping a diamond in a priest’s plate — everything carrying specific meaning. Working with cinematographer Bert Glennon for the fifth time, Sternberg develops a rather complex lighting pattern that favours certain image planes over others (a similar scheme will be developed in India later by Guru Dutt and V. K. Murthy). This produces a film of great visual allure as well as ambiguity.

The chief source of ambiguity, though, stems from Sternberg’s bold mixing of tones. The Scarlet Empress is both a tragedy about Catherine’s sealed fate as well as risqué comedy about her sexual conquests. The challenge the film poses is that it never clearly distinguishes these two elements of the film. The duality of innocence and evil is introduced in the film’s first scene, in which a young, bedridden Catherine clutches her doll as her governor reads her tales of notorious Russian tyrants. The calamity facing Catherine registers clearly all through the narrative, reaching its peak in a gorgeously expressive wedding scene in which the bride Catherine’s halting breath threatens to blow out the candle she holds before her veil. Cutting to a soaring choral score, Sternberg films Catherine and Alexei in increasingly tight closeups, freezing them in their despair and helplessness via a characteristic top lighting.

On the other hand, the film suspends us in an attitude of uneasy humour about Catherine’s destiny. This strategy primarily manifests in the figure of Marlene Dietrich, an icon of screen irony. The viewer never once believes in the innocence of Christina even back in Prussia as a young maiden. Dietrich plays up the plain country girl stereotype, feigning wide-eyed naïveté and real love. Starting from this, The Scarlet Empress effects a progressive ‘defeminization’ of Catherine, her billowing white frock slowly giving way to military furs and finally to a dazzling white uniform with coat and trousers. Catherine’s rise to power thus coincides with a merging of the character with the Dietrich persona. The actor conveys Catherine’s sexual maturity with tremendous humour and wit. The joke on paper (that Catherine the Great slept with the whole Russian army) is taken through all its variations by Dietrich’s actorly intelligence, her manner of introducing wholly gratuitous but suggestive sentence breaks (“And your duties… Dmitri?”) and her typical way of sizing up men around her.

All of this excess somehow passed through the newly introduced Motion Picture Production Code. Part of it has to do with the film’s way of having its royal cake and eating it. A biographical picture situated in a different time and country (Russia, no less) perhaps gave the film immunity from the censors. The sadism, cruelty and debauchery could always be defended by appeal to a dubious historical accuracy. Whatever the case, it’s a wonder that Sternberg managed to go as far as he did, especially at a point where the country was reeling from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Film history is all the richer for it.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

In addition to the historical upheavals it has already produced, it would seem that the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced us to renegotiate our understanding of the real and its many opposites. It’s then bitterly appropriate that the Visions du Réel film festival, which seeks to showcase newer perspectives in international documentary practice, is among the first film events to go completely online following the restrictions imposed by the outbreak.

The epochal nature of this shift cannot be overstated. Film festivals are spaces that do more than bring audiences in contact with films and filmmakers. They connect audiences to themselves, to the reality of the place around them, to its economic and social machinery. That Visions du Réel, which traditionally takes place every year in April in Nyons, Switzerland, is no more anchored to a geographical location, and is instead accessible to viewers from around the world, themselves severed from their immediate reality, is some kind of a metaphor for the times we live in.

This dialectic between indoors and outdoors isn’t new, it’s intrinsic to film experience. The darkened hall of the movie theatre is an escape from reality that promises a return to reality in newer forms. It’s a flight away from community that’s predicated on communal participation. Speaking of his dislike for watching films at home, the French critic Roland Barthes wrote, “not enough of a public, not enough anonymity”. As audience, we are trained to overlook this contradiction, to not even recognize it as such. The current confinement, on the other hand, obliges us to take note of it by forbidding our access to the social dimension of moviegoing.

Speaking to this historical moment, numerous works at the 51st edition of Visions du Réel exhibit a yearning for the social. Many unfold in self-contained worlds with no exit to external reality. Public spaces, random encounters and a desire for community pervade this year’s offering. It’s less that the films, made before the outbreak, were prescient, than that the ongoing crisis has alerted us to a fundamental loss, sharpening our sensitivity to these tendencies, which will only be strengthened in the coming months.

 

Among the finest films at the festival, the medium-length feature Pyrale, made by Roxanne Gaucherand, is the one that most resembles the prevalent state of the world. On a basic level, the film is an intimate documentary about a box tree moth infestation plaguing certain areas of the Drôme department in France. The way the filmmaker photographs these millions of butterflies, rife with sensual shadows and backlighting, imparts the work the texture of science fiction. Superimposed on this composite is a story of burgeoning desire, in which a teenage girl discovers her love for a friend just when two are bound to be separated. With great feeling for the region, Gaucherand paints a moody, melancholy picture evoking the end of the world, where romantic longing comes across as a force of redemption.

In Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari), the urge to reach out to others takes the form of CCTV tapes that the filmmaker’s father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in a crime-ridden area, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a sense of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes.

A pressing feeling for connection equally runs under the placid surface of Intimate Distances (Phillip Warnell), an uneven but thought-provoking documentary about public spaces and the anonymous exchanges they facilitate. Casting director Martha Wollner walks up and down a block in Brooklyn looking for a young actor to play the role of a criminal. While we hear her conversations through mic she wears, she and her interlocutors are filmed from such a distance that they are often dissolved into the urban landscape. What surprises us is the willingness with which the people Wollner speaks to open themselves up to her. In its contrapuntal construction, the film throws light on how the anonymity that cities enforce is also the source of potential intimacy.

The city, its design and its influence on its inhabitants is the subject of the erudite and formally-complex A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke). The location in question is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that was designed according to modernist principles in the 1950s. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs, and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing diverse modes of exposition and crisp digital photography, the filmmakers develop a visually-striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here.

The notion of a city built from nothing is also invoked by Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim), an exploration of life in The Villages, a massive retirement community in Florida planned in the eighties. We see how the elderly are able to reinvent themselves in this place and discover newer reservoirs of inspiration, and this prompts us to question the values of the culture they have moved away from. While the film opts for a less productive, human interest angle, the question of what constitutes a community remains on its periphery, inviting us to ponder on whether a group of people with no historical ties can live in isolation from the wider world without existential repercussions.

In The Marriage Project (Atieh Attarzadeh, Hesam Eslami), on the contrary, it’s the wider world that imposes itself on a secluded populace. The community in question is a psychiatric centre in Tehran, whose director has undertaken a radical project to allow certain patients to marry each other. He believes this can help address their social and sexual needs, without running against Islamic law—a proposal his subordinates object to. We see how the discourses of religion, mental health and love wrestle with each other to exert influence on the minds and bodies of the patients. The filmmaker frames this potent and moving examination through details of her private life, trying to make sense of her own failed marriage in the process.

 

Other films at the festival grapple with the wider world in more direct ways, prying open the anxieties fostered by modern political and social life. Among the most provocative works of the festival is the hour-long Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed), comprising of video footage the filmmaker made after the boat carrying her from Syria sank near the Hellenic coast. Overlaid on the barely legible images of bodies immersed in water is a dispassionate voiceover of the filmmaker’s thoughts that she had while trying to stay afloat. Purple Sea is something of a freak work of documentary, a near-death experience that asserts the existence of those we see here in fragments as more than statistics on immigration debates. It’s a film that’s easier to appreciate than to watch.

Days of Cannibalism (Teboho Edkins) and NA China (Marie Voignier) are complementary works that reflect on the frictions occasioned by global relocation of populations. Edkins’ film unfolds as a Western about immigrant Chinese traders setting up wholesale stores in rural Lesotho. The traders are successful, but their transactional relation to the cattle they are investing in goes against the sentiments of the predominantly agrarian local population, the latter embodying a much more relaxed attitude to money. Voignier’s film supplies a reverse shot, centring on African businesswomen trying to set up shop in Guangzhou. The women scour wholesale markets and pick out quality pieces that could be exported back home, their challenge to find something of value registering as an effort to live authentically. Both films are open-ended and invite the viewer to independently consider the questions they raise.

The clash of cultures manifests on a more personal scale in Sing Me a Song (Thomas Balmès) and Non Western (Laura Plancarte). In the former, a young boy ordained for monkhood at a monastery in rural Bhutan falls in love with an escort in Thimphu, thanks to the invasive power of the internet. Foregrounding its fictional mechanism, the film functions both as a cautionary tale about the dangers of modernity and a Buddhist parable about temptation. The stakes are much higher in Non Western where Nanci, a white woman, is torn between her modern self-image as an independent academic and her role as a wife to a conservative North Cheyenne patriarch, Thaddeus. Despite itself, the film tips our sympathy towards Nanci, with Thaddeus coming across as little more than a slacker hiding behind excuses of tradition and deracination. An intriguing if opaque look, nonetheless, at interpersonal relations being inflected by American’s primal historical trauma.

 

Many of the features at this year’s Vision du Réel share the conviction that films can make fruitful interventions into reality. All of them believe that they can help us better understand the world we live in. At a time when the virus is wreaking an epistemological havoc, undoing our certainties and forcing newer insights every day, this belief can perhaps serve as our lodestar in approaching films as viewers. We are all the richer, then, for the perspectives into reality these films have to offer.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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

The saga of the left profile: Cooper has to always have the most marked face possible… (Sergeant York, 1941)

Gary Cooper became famous, most of all, in uniform: thirty of his eighty-two films present him in attire, starting from Opus 5, Wings (1927), till the penultimate one, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), and we must perhaps also include For Whom the Bell Tolls, where he is in plainclothes but at war. He stands, then, for the conventional, official Right, somewhat perverted towards the end of his career since, in the comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), he plays an officer holding a post that has nothing to do with his capabilities, since The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) shows him as an outcast general criticizing the decisions of the army. And the captain of the Mary Deare, the only man on board the ghost ship that traffics arms, would also go on trial, just like Billy Mitchell.

But more than a moral value, the uniform represents a visual asset: it throws Cooper’s great height into relief. His lean build makes him look almost like a model. All outfits go on him: army, navy, air force, ancient (in Westerns) or exotic (attire of the French legionnaires) uniforms, or both at once (The Lives of Bengal Lancer).

Morocco (1930) is not the first film where he is a legionnaire (there was Beau Sabreur already in 1928), but it’s the one that imposed this brand image. Undoubtedly, the success of Morocco incited lazy producers to cast him as an army man in five consecutive films from 1931 to 1933.

Watching Sternberg’s Morocco, we could say that Cooper is more of a silhouette, a statue, an image, a model, a prop, an element in the general aesthetic of the film. He belongs to the class of Sternbergian strongmen, the giant variety (like John Wayne later) that alternates with the stout variety (Bancroft, Jannings, McLaglen, Beery, Mature), the Mitchum of Macao being both — a predilection that might explain the failure of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov-Peter Lorre being evidently the antithesis of the Sternbergian man.

This mythical aspect goes hand in hand with the spirit of the film. You get the feeling that Sternberg—in this film as in his other works of the period—accepted and even sought out all the already-mythologized elements of convention—a handsome army man, a femme fatale, an impossible love, a rich and wily old French seducer, and the charms and the dangers of mysterious Africa. This strategy allowed him to come out of all charges unscathed: if the film failed, wise guy Sternberg could always claim that it was impossible to make anything from such a ridiculous plot. If the film succeeded, he could boast of having overcome all these superhuman obstacles.

(more…)

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

A projectionist at a Universal theatre sets up his machine and projects a film. On screen, a bevy of beauties are seen walking down the stairs. The stairs turn into a ramp, the ladies slip and fall into an abyss. They end up in a bustling section of the netherworld where an army of devils is forging weapons and canning men and women into barrels. Amidst the commotion, a taxi appears out of which a seemingly endless number of animals step out. They drag two men behind them with a rope. The men have a fight with the tiny driver of the taxi, who hands them a bill several metres long. The two men burn down the taxi with a magic breath. Wanting to see this bit of action once again, they call out to the projectionist off screen and have him rewind the last portion. Somewhere between all this is a title card that reads “any resemblance between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental”.

If the description above makes no logical sense, it is intended so. One of the challenges that Hellzapoppin’ (1941), among the most unclassifiable films in the history of Hollywood, sets for itself is to disrupt conventional logic of film narratives and frustrate our expectations of them. Produced by Universal Studios and directed by H. C. Potter, Hellzapoppin’ was adapted from a highly successful Broadway revue of the same name that premiered in 1938. The brains behind the revue, the comic duo of John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson, are also the “protagonists” of the film. They drag the viewer through a potpourri of one-liners, terrible puns, running jokes, action stunts, visual gags, song-and-dance numbers and meta-cinematic games connected by little other than their presence. Their sole weapon is interruption, their only guiding principle, incoherence.

But Hellzapoppin’ does have a ‘story’ (“because every picture’s gotta have one”). After the frenzy of the first few minutes, Olsen and Johnson are revealed to be actors trying to make a film (“a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin’”). In this film within the film, they are supposed to play guests at a party hosted by heiress Kitty (Jane Frazee). The affluent Woody (Lewis Howard) is in love with Kitty, but Kitty loves the playwright Jeff (Robert Paige), who doesn’t want to upset his friend Woody by returning her love. Olsen and Johnson, playing themselves, device a plot to first hook up Kitty and Jeff, and then to separate them. Orbiting around these figures is an undercover Russian prince (Mischa Auer), a love-hungry young woman pursuing the aristocrat (Martha Raye) and a free agent of no defined purpose (Hugh Herbert) who outbids Olsen and Johnson in their charades.

It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to state that there’s nothing quite like Hellzapoppin’ in classical Hollywood. The film doesn’t particularly obey the conventions of a genre and appears to lie outside of established moviemaking traditions. Its parentage in cinema is therefore hard to establish. If it has a certain affinity to the anarchic spirit of the Marx brothers, especially Chico, its sense of play and gratuitous action have strong echoes of the Dadaist cinema of Europe, such as the work of René Clair and Man Ray. In its tendency to make up the narrative as it goes along, it also recalls the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, where a story or an image passed from the hands of one artist to another, the result bearing the signature of everyone and no one at once.

A more instructive comparison would perhaps be the world of Looney Tunes, the cartoon series produced by Warner Brothers where we find a similar kind of meta-humour at work. These cartoons, especially ones featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, have an elastic narrative universe that accommodates every kind of absurd plot development and prepares the viewer to accept these bizarre turns of events as they are. Like them, Hellzapoppin’ constantly calls attention to its own artifice, as Olsen and Johnson slip in and out of the film (and the film within the film) to directly address members outside the story. They ask the cameraman to stop lingering on bathing beauties. They prompt the projectionist to adjust the misaligned frame weighing down on them. At one point, they instruct one particular member of the audience to go home.

It is also important to note that, before their eastward move to Broadway, Olsen and Johnson were renowned figures of the vaudeville circuit in the American Midwest. In the early 1930s, vaudeville, as a popular form of entertainment, was fighting a losing battle against Hollywood’s talking pictures, which poached both its audience and its talents. Chaining together unrelated variety acts was part of its tradition, but the competition with talkies appears to have obliged vaudeville to distinguish itself even more, not unlike the way cinema was forced to turn more spectacular when television posed a threat in the early 1950s. As a result, Olsen and Johnson’s act turned, per one report, “wilder and zanier”.

This change translated, in the Broadway avatar of Hellzapoppin’, into a gleeful transgression of the theatrical space. Accounts of the revue talk about the ways its action overflowed from the stage into the audience’s space. During the show, it’s said, that a man walked the aisles selling tickets for a competing Broadway musical, another interloper threw rubber snakes at the audience, while a lady ran up and down the hall calling out the name of a certain Oscar. This violation of the audience’s distance from the spectacle—domesticated later by the performances and ‘happenings’ of the 1960s art scene—makes the film’s regular breaking of the fourth wall seem tame in comparison.

Contemporary American reviewers of Hellzapoppin’ the film, for one, seem to have thought so. Writing for Time, James Agee wrote that the film “loses the frenetic quality it achieved on the stage” and that “Olsen & Johnson’s ability to exude a kind of ectoplasm which engulfs a theatre audience and makes it participate in the show is necessarily cut off when the show is confined to the screen.” The notice in New York Times called the comic duo “noisy, boorish and often downright sadistic”. Unburdened by comparisons to the Broadway version, the film appears to have better fared in Europe. The French critic André Bazin, for instance, likened the film’s operation to “the penetration of a neutron into a stable molecule” and stated that its gags “push the metaphysical limits of laughter”.

Even with eighty years of hindsight, we may perhaps not be able to improve on these reactions. For, despite all its chaos and confusion, Hellzapoppin’ conceals no great mystery. It is a film that wears all its enchantments on its sleeve. There’s a plainness and innocence in the way it rejoices in playing with the possibilities of the medium. Early on, Olsen and Johnson walk through the backlot from one set to another. Every time they enter a new space, the shot changes and so do their costumes, thanks to the magic of a straight cut. Footage is quickened, reversed or slowed down. Double exposures are used for amusing special effects. Off-screen space becomes integrated into the shots. And in the film’s crowning passage, familiar to many thanks to a viral clip on the internet, a group of black performers break into an astounding Lindy Hop dance number, jaw-dropping in its physicality and athleticism. It’s as pure as spectacles get.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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

Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933) tells the tale of a group of youngsters taking on the corrupt system that has a stranglehold on their town. Steve (Richard Cromwell) witnesses the murder of his friend, the Jewish tailor Herman (Harry Green), by the local mafia boss Garrett (Charles Bickford). But his testimony is repudiated in court and Garrett walks scot free. Steve and his friends decide to carry out their own investigation and bring Garrett to justice. The film was made at a time when detective novels, especially involving teenage sleuths like the Hardy boys, enjoyed great fandom. While not a detective story in itself, DeMille’s film draws from the popularity of the genre, circumscribing the fact-finding efforts of its young leads within a larger political framework.

As its title indicates, This Day and Age purports to recount the story of its time. It begins appropriately with images of modern technology—aircrafts, zeppelins, motorboats and skyscrapers. But the film views modernity primarily in the possibilities of the younger generation and its power to wash away old structures and bring new moral life to society. As part of a “boys’ day programme”, Steve and two of his friends are appointed as the town attorney, judge and police commissioner for a brief time. They witness first-hand how the “system” fails to protect the innocent: judges trot out rules from books to defend Garrett’s acquittal, the defence lawyer grills Steve until he gives into doubt, and all proof of the murder is discredited. The boys realize they simply can’t win within this system, designed only to sustain itself, and must construct their own, based on their sense of truth and justice: they kidnap Garrett and convict him in a kangaroo court.

DeMille’s paean to youth has touches of what Nicholas Ray would undertake in the next couple of decades. The film’s first real shot is that of students walking into their high school union meeting. We will see their marching feet in closeup thrice in the film. The night they kidnap Garrett, they take over the town’s streets, and DeMille portrays this as the way forward for the nation. The film’s glorification of youngsters as a power in politics has an unnerving parallel with the rise of the Hitler Youth organization in Germany. The National Socialists had come to power a few months ago, and the Hitler Youth saw a twentyfold increase in its membership the year the film was made. This Day and Age capitalizes on this hopefulness about the younger generation pervading the air.

On the other hand, unlike in Nicholas Ray’s pictures, the film smoothens out all the rough edges around intergenerational relations. For one, the parents in DeMille’s film aren’t failed figures imprisoned by social norms. They are sympathetic and supportive of their children’s undertaking. Steve tells his parents that he’s going to get Garrett, and his father simply wishes him luck. DeMille’s paternalistic view of the teenagers finds them stuck between two ages, between the fragility of childhood and the moral urgency of adult life. When one of the boys is shot, he crawls into a foetal position and says, “I want my mother”, before collapsing. This sorry image is dissolved over a shot of Garrett’s cabaret girls dancing to a jazzed-up version of “Rock-a-bye Baby”. This desire for generational rapprochement reaches a peak in the film’s final scene, where the boys’ demands for justice are harmonized and blessed by the old boys of the system.

This Day and Age is an excellent case study to demonstrate that Hollywood films aren’t as much expressions of a coherent set of political beliefs as fruits of numerous contradictions created by conflicting production demands. On one hand, the film evidently draws inspiration from the socialist spirit of the times. The damage wrought by the Great Depression had brought popularity to social movements and trade unions around the country. The socialist writer Upton Sinclair would contest in the Californian gubernatorial elections as the Democratic Party candidate the following year. It’s telling that DeMille and Paramount Pictures, who aren’t generally known for films about everyday people, came together on a project defending the little man. The film, in fact, begins with a student union meeting to discuss unemployment.

On the other hand, a rather strong conservative streak is to be traced in the film’s conception of good and evil. The good, represented by youth, free enterprise and the common businessman who refuses to submit to the tyranny of unions, is brought into a provisional opposition with evil, symbolized by the mafia, politicians (who may be immigrants) and the government. The teenagers’ fight against Garrett is repeatedly cast as a truly American act, the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” serving as a recurring motif. The mafioso Garrett, in contrast, is someone who threatens small businesses and perverts the young, his cabaret corrupting innocent children’s rhymes for lurid entertainment.

Some of the ideological contradictions of the film originate from the figure of DeMille himself, a notorious conservative. The filmmaker was partly Jewish, but also one of the most virulent anti-communists in Hollywood. He reconciles his Jewish identity with his Americanism in the character of the tailor Herman. A fierce independent wary of unions, Herman is glad to cook different foods for his friends, and that includes ham for an Irish boy. “The stomach is the last thing to get patriotic about”, he remarks. DeMille had visited the USSR in 1931, an experience he described in positive terms. The strategic superimpositions and dissolves he employs in the film—the boy detectives crawling at Herman’s house searching for clues dissolved with Garrett’s cabaret girls crawling to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”, shot of a rat dissolved with Garrett’s face—themselves show an influence of Soviet montage techniques.

The film’s ideological confusions acquire tremendous power once Garrett is abducted by the boys. At the end of a robust kidnapping scene involving boot polish and adhesive tapes, Garrett finds himself hunched over like a primate, his hands stuck to his knees. He is carried to a mock courtroom in an amphitheatre populated by the youngsters of the town, armed with ropes, guns and torches. He is strung up and the planks under his feet are removed one by one, and he soon hangs free over a pit of rats. The boys press for a confession, lowering him progressively until only the rope his seen and his screams heard. It’s a scene drenched in sadism—intercut with another disturbing scene of sexual menace—but also righteous anger of the teenagers.

DeMille, a master of Biblical spectacles, amps up the uneasiness in the subsequent scene. Having confessed to Herman’s murder, Garrett is now propped up on a stick like a pagan offering and taken on a procession to the court—a sequence that has an echo in the garish “golden calf” episode of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). The boys march in militaristic unison, waving banners and belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. A shot of Garrett on the stake, haggard and resigned, introduces a rather queasy note in this celebratory theatre of revolution. The mob action is supported by the police and receives official sanction in the courthouse, where Garrett’s confession, though obtained under duress, is used to incriminate him. Couching a crusade for justice within a fascist form, This Day and Age is a work alive with the tensions of the era as well as the dynamics of Hollywood film production.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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

Gary Cooper visits John Wayne on the sets of Rio Bravo

Film actors are always cursed. Not just the second fiddles, but the most famous ones too. Especially the most famous ones, I’m tempted to say. Indeed, their reputation is tied to two primordial elements: first of all, their private lives. That’s to say, their loves, their death. If one had to find an animal that symbolizes the media (just like the squirrel evokes saving, the lion MGM, or the donkey stupidity), it would be the hyena: death gives its victim a dignity, a gravity, a timelessness the person never had during his lifetime. Respect comes automatically: we never dare to speak ill of the dead, especially not immediately. With our praise, we seek to make up for a lack of enthusiasm in the past, sometimes imaginary. We’re ashamed to be living while he isn’t. Nothing like a premature, accidental and especially dramatic death. Valentino, Dean, Monroe… Can we imagine James Dean attaining eternal and universal celebrity if, on 30 September 1955, instead of getting killed in a car, he had simply retired? Marilyn Monroe would probably have lived in people’s minds anyway, but her supposed suicide (nothing more mediatized than this sustained uncertainty), her supposed affair with a president of the United States (with a death no less mysterious), and her measurements contributed much more to her survival than her exceptional work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Bus Stop. Of course, talent helps, as the cases of Dean and Monroe prove. But it doesn’t turn out to be indispensable: had he lived on, Valentino would’ve remained in obscurity alongside other ham actors of the twenties.

The second important element is commercial success. Here, we clearly see the discrimination that exists between filmmakers and actors: directors like Jean-Marie Straub, Roberto Rossellini or Samuel Fuller, who didn’t have a single real success at the box-office, are the subject of a number of monographs. Cults form around their name and their body of work. If not for La Grande Illusion and French Cancan on one side, Breathless and Pierrot le fou on the other, we could’ve said the same of Renoir and Godard. Such a contradiction is impossible with actors: if, in place of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart, I had told my editor that I’d like to write a book on Dominique Laffin, Denis Lavant, Claude Melki and Jean-François Stevenin, I’m absolutely sure that, with due respect, he would’ve pulled a face this long—or even longer—even though the second set of four aces has nothing to envy the first as far as quality of work is concerned.

In short, what counts in the evaluation of a director is the artistic value of his films, and what essentially counts in the evaluation of an actor is the commercial value of products bearing his name.

That’s why I said that great actors of international renown are more cursed than supporting actors. The attraction they exert is based, most of all, on wrong reasons. Which means that we can lump together Gary Cooper with Valentino or Peck or Schwarzenegger… This contempt, this misunderstanding doesn’t exist with great secondary actors like Jean Abeillé, Walter Brennan, Hume Cronyn, Serge Davri, Mercedes McCambridge, Michael J. Pollard, Kurt Raab or Dominique Zardi. We can like them only for the right reasons. And if we don’t like them, it’s probably that we don’t know them. No one knows about Walter Brennan’s love life or the circumstances of his death, and it’s for the better.

(more…)

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book Politique des acteurs (“Actors’ Policy”, 1993, Cahiers du cinéma)]

Politique des Acteurs - Luc Moullet

Foreword

Gary Cooper: Immortality of the Sphinx

John Wayne: Towards Decrepitude

Cary Grant: The Sprint and the Pose

James Stewart: Man of Hands

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

Produced by the short-lived Parklane pictures and distributed by United Artists, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) follows the exploits of low-level private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). After picking up a distressed woman (Cloris Leachman) on a highway, Hammer finds himself embroiled in a mystery too big for him to even understand, leave alone solve. A group of men with sketchy motivations, looking for “the box”, try to kill him, while every woman he comes across falls heads over heels for him. The more Hammer tries to get to the bottom of things, the farther they seem, and the more he risks losing. Ultimately, the film poses this question: how far will the detective go in his violence, misogyny, cynicism and pig-headedness before he realizes that he is only a tragic hero, doomed to failure?

Kiss Me Deadly was adapted by A. I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s detective novel of the same name. Bezzerides, a novelist himself, strips down concrete references from the source material. The object of everybody’s search becomes a box containing a nondescript “whatsit” instead of a drug consignment. The mafia makes way for a nameless, faceless “them” who pull all the strings. Such abstraction lends the film to different readings. Thanks to a reference, however, to the Manhattan Project and the radioactive quality of the box’s contents, the film is traditionally taken to be a commentary on the anxiety about nuclear age. Hammer’s developing paranoia comes to fruition when a femme fatale Lily (Gaby Rodgers) who double-crossed him ends up opening the box on a whim.

In a peculiar fashion, the film proceeds on two fronts at the same time. While the plot marches forward steadily, Aldrich and Bezzerides devote their attention elsewhere. Instead of accompanying Hammer in his search for truth, they reverse the gaze, looking rather at Hammer’s seedy operation, his obstinacy and his escalating paranoia, desperation and violence. Two or three things seem to be happening in parallel in every scene of the film. A debriefing sequence doubles as a game of seduction. A dinner with family becomes a confessional about a killing. Hammer goes to confront the story’s antagonist at the latter’s mansion, only to get into a long romantic exchange with the villain’s excessively forward sister. Full of stubs and false tracks, the plot appears to go nowhere, yet plot is the least of the film’s concerns.

It becomes clear as the film advances that Aldrich and Bezzerides are aiming less for a realistic detective story with allegorical underpinning than a myth with a very physical presence. The legend of Pandora’s Box particularly looms over the ending, but the whole film itself unfolds like a dream. The dialogue veers on the poetic and the actors’ line reading is weirdly protracted with pregnant pauses. Hammer’s dodgy cop friend Pat (Wesley Addy) speaks in an affectless, extra-terrestrial tone, his mechanic pal Nick (Nick Dennis) amps up the Mediterranean stereotype, Lily orders Hammer to kiss her in an incantatory repetition, while her boss, the doctor Soberin (Albert Dekker) makes pensive declarations full of mythological references.

The cumulative effect of these eccentric lines and dialogue delivery is the impression that what Hammer is navigating through is a nightmare of dilated time, a mechanical world of cold images programmed to perform specific functions. The surreal texture of the film’s soundscape is likely the reason British artist repurposed it for his recent experimental film, The Whalebone Box (2019), also about a mythical box with supreme powers. The movie’s oneiric quality is pitted against a heightened presence of the real Los Angeles. Several locations from the city feature in the film, most notably the uphill funicular known as the Angels Flight. In his epic study of the representation of Los Angeles in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), filmmaker and academic Thom Anderson deems Kiss Me Deadly “close to definitive as a portrait of the city in the mid-fifties.”

Accentuating the sense of the story’s oppressiveness is Aldrich’s muscular approach to direction. The story takes place in summer and, even when we aren’t sure where it’s headed, we feel the sultriness of the air. The film’s harsh, directional lighting scheme flashes the actors like headlights on a highway, as the camera lingers on their sweaty faces and jagged features. Doors are knocked down with more force than is usual in detective movies, the punches land harder. Hammer dispatches one henchman down a large flight of stairs. He’ll later jam the fingers of an elderly coroner in a drawer.

Like his peer Samuel Fuller, Aldrich employs a shot division that focuses largely on actors’ feet. The film’s first shot is that of a woman’s running feet. A while later, we see the same feet rise off the ground as the woman is tortured. As the film progresses, the image of feet accrues a frightening aura, belonging invariably to men sporting dark suits and heavy, leather shoes. This disembodied, faceless menace—sophisticated, emotionless and sure in its movement—becomes almost a metaphysical threat. We don’t know who these feet belong to, but we understand that its trace runs deep.

Matching the labyrinthine machinery of the plot is an equally complex cinematography. Shot by Hungarian emigré Ernest Laszlo, Kiss Me Deadly employs a camera choreography that rivals those of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls, as do the low-angle, deep space compositions. A three-minute scene of Hammer questioning a contact at a boxing gym is filmed in a single shot. It includes a conversation about a champion boxer in the ring without even a glimpse of the ring. Another three-minute shot, dominated by horizontal camera movements, finds Hammer grilling a soprano in a cramped hotel room. Aldrich varies his sequence construction from scene to scene, and the film remains as unpredictable on the visual level as on its narrative level.

The single most accomplished element of the film, though, is its multi-layered sound design that imparts complementary values to everything we see. This principle is evident from the credits sequence onwards, in which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues is overlaid with the sound of heavy breathing of the girl in Hammer’s car—we know something is off right away. Throughout, Aldrich mixes in ambient noise—the buzz of the boxing gym, the sound of the sea, street traffic—in a way that expands the world we see on screen. At times, he superposes contradictory sound elements running against the grain of the image. So you have chamber music playing as a voice threatens Hammer on the phone. Or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony over the detective’s interrogation of a witness. In one stylized action sequence, Hammer’s escape is scored simultaneously to a piece of generic music, the sound of the ocean and sports commentary.

A B-movie with no stars or studio backing, Kiss Me Deadly has gathered a reputation among filmmakers and cinephiles over the years as a crime movie classic. The amoral, machine-like operation of Hammer finds an echo in the vigilante of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), itself inspiring Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) pays tribute to Aldrich’s film in its suitcase with glowing contents. But the first to consider Aldrich as a serious artist—and this film a masterpiece—were the young critics at the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Charles Bitsch, who became a filmmaker himself, called it one of the most significant films of the decade and Aldrich, “the first filmmaker of the atomic age”.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]