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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[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.

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

The first real appearance (Stagecoach, 1938)

Stagecoach (1938) is distinct in its sobriety and simplicity. There are effects but they aren’t visible. They are perfectly integrated into the continuity of editing. It’s the ideal stylistic exercise for film schools to take note of.

Even so, John Ford went for a flashy effect—just one—which is completely incongruent with the rest of film. It occurs in the first shot John Wayne appears in. Here is the film that will rescue him from oblivion and make him world famous. And how is he introduced? Firstly, notice that we see him eighteen minutes after the film has begun. A delayed entrance that is quite useful and well-planned: we have already heard much about Ringo Kid in the preceding conversation. This delay could seem normal: after all, Wayne’s is only the second name in the credits behind Claire Trevor, and as we have seen, it’s a good strategy to delay the entrance of the second protagonist.

But what an entrance! Everything has been smooth so far. Suddenly, without any narrative reason, there is a tight shot of the unknown Wayne all by himself, with the tracking camera culminating in a closeup, and the Monument Valley in the background, overlaid on a thunderous score. All this for a gentleman who stops the stagecoach with a hand signal, not for a holdup but simply to use the public service: to alert the driver…

We can’t think of a better beginning for a mythification. What’s curious is that it’s for a square almost unknown to the big studios, a handsome, scrappy giant, a sharpshooter trapped in Z movies of Republic Pictures where he had made forty mid-length features in six years. Ford seems to have wanted to create a star, his star, since they were to make fifteen films together in twenty-five years. The most faithful duo in the history of cinema. Amazing intuition, when none of the earlier films helped foresee Wayne’s abilities.

Ford places Wayne in the shadows—mythicizing darkness—as much as possible, while his partner Claire Trevor is frequently in full light in the preceding shot. One wonders if this doesn’t reflect a certain lack of confidence of Ford in the dramatic capabilities of his new protégé. Testimonies confirm this: Ford had asked Wayne to emote as little as possible, to stay impassive. Whatever the case, even if it was necessitated by fortuitous reasons, the mythification is no less present, and will continue to shape Wayne’s future work in a very perverse way.

At the end of the film, Wayne kills two villains within a few seconds. We don’t have time to see anything. As Wayne joins Claire Trevor, he is seen from behind. It’s only when he is very far in the background that he turns and lets us see his face.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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

A for American Cinema

Perhaps more than any of his Nouvelle Vague comrades, Moullet retained a fascination with classical American cinema all through his writing and filmmaking life. Some count with numbers, some others with John Ford’s filmography.

B for Backpacking

Moullet has stated more than once that his real profession is trekking (which explains his love for movies with people on the move). That cinema is just a hobby. A hobbyist’s cinema then, free of the need to make statements or find a purpose.

C for Cinephilia

A great fidelity towards cinema over other arts. There’s are a few literary references, hardly any to painting and almost none to music or theatre in Moullet’s work—quite unlike his New Wave peers. The Cahiers du cinéma is the abiding literary material on screen.

D for Doors

Probably as many as in the Dardennes. There are four or five door-related events in the very first short film, including an appearance by Moullet himself. There’s a whole film about the different ways of bypassing the Paris metro turnstiles.

E for Economics

A perennial obsession with finances, both from a macroscopic, economic point of view and in the transactional, everyday sense. A shopkeeper recounts her dealing with a serial killer. Moullet: “Did he settle his account?”

F for Fake

Master of false histories and forged statistics, Moullet was a devoted explorer of the mockumentary. His short films, in particular, dwell in the slippage between the documentary form and the fictional nature of things being said.

G for Geography

Mountains, plateaus, marshes, rivers, grasslands, slag heaps are the central characters of Moullet’s cinema. It is what he paid the most attention to in his writing as well. Many of his works are virtually excuses to film certain landscapes.

H for Housework

No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe.” Not in his films though.

I for Irony

The Moullet persona is a product of contradictory impulses, his great delusions of grandeur undone by the pettiness of his concerns. A neurotic, self-deprecatory figure somewhere between Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, with a touch of the silent greats.

J for Joke

The Moullet screenplay is an occasion for chaining together quips and visual gags. The joke is often a radical simplification of a situation (Moullet stealing newspapers from a vending machine) or a radical elaboration (a two-minute sequence of a man noting down something from a newspaper).

K for Kitchen

Food, of course, is at the centre of Genesis of a Meal, but has a tangential presence all through. Hunger grounds the intellectual being, the act of cooking, preparing the table and consuming all serve a purpose of reverse-transubstantiation.

L for Lists

“I have 72 ideas for key scenes, I arrange them to have a logical order”. Enumeration is the chief manner by which Moullet builds his films and texts, which overflow with lists of all kinds, often rattled off by the characters themselves.

M for Maps

The capital of French cinema, he wrote, is a rhombus in the Centre region of the French hexagon. The capital of madness, we are told, is a pentagon between the Alpes-Provence regions. A body of work suffused with cartographic imagination.

N for Nowhere

The cinema’s poet laureate of boondocks and bleds paumés, Moullet takes particular pleasure in discovering and deriding the most disconnected and isolated settlements in the country. Mean? Perhaps, what comedy isn’t?

O for Omnidirectional

A Moullet film is a collection of unicellular entities with no central nervous system or sense of time and space. It wants to go nowhere and everywhere at once. The longer the film is, the more apparent its atomization.

P for Province

For a filmmaker born and working in Paris, Moullet gives the city of lights awfully little representation. His cinema doggedly heads for the provinces, militating for a relocation of French capital to the town of Imphy, population 4000.

Q for Quantity

Moullet, who determined that 3.5m² was enough for a new parliament, is nothing if not metrically rigorous: “I had to buy half a dozen cutlets, a half-hour worth of wine, 100 metres of noodles, a litre of fresh eggs, 4 francs of olives, and a pound of cake.”

R for Resourcefulness

Shots, soundbites, narrative threads from one film, one piece of film criticism will be reused in other. Repetitions abound, and not just for the sake of humour. The Moullet cinematic universe—and one could speak of a veritable universe here—is finite and ever-shrinking.

S for Statistics

I’d gather technical information—number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc.—which made subjective positions sound objective.” “Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

T for Transport

Four people depart from Paris for the provinces. One leaves in train, one on a motorbike, another on a bicycle and the last one takes a car. The time to their destination is in inverse proportion to the speed of their modes of transport.

U for Unemployment

Moullet might be the filmmaker most concerned with unemployment, of all of France as much as his own. The sight of waste heaps strewn across Nord-Pas-de-Calais is for him as much an opportunity for job creation as it is aesthetic real estate.

V for Vélo/Love

“Here I had a satisfying relationship that could last hours. One I could dominate, one which involved no problems. I tried to ride in a straight line. The more circuitous things got to be, the more I liked straight lines. I wish my life were a straight line.”

W for Whip pans

The camera oscillates between two points of interest, expressing indecisiveness, or an act of comparison. This dishonoured device finds shelter in Moullet’s cinema, a veritable refuge for such kind.

X for Xerophilia

Fear of water is the main subject of Ma première brasse, but water bodies (or lack thereof) are permanent fixtures. Moullet stays away from the coasts and is attracted to the driest of regions in France. The one film he made in the US was set in Des Moines, Iowa.

Y for Youth

A perennial boyishness, self-styled petulance and a lifelong refusal to grow up and “be serious”. A film on mortality he made at seventy is shot through with an adolescent flippancy towards death.

Z for Zsygmondy

Like the eccentric accommodation scheme of the eponymous refuge, Moullet’s writing and films are often demonstrations of analytical frameworks that are in part or wholly arbitrary. Just like the setup of a good joke.

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s tribute to Jean Douchet that appears in the January issue of Cahiers du cinéma. I’m grateful to Andy for sending the piece to me.]

I met Jean Douchet when he came to Cahiers du cinéma some months after me at the end of 1957. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and others, more and more taken up with preparing for and directing their first films, hardly had time—or the desire, at times—anymore to continue to write criticism. I and Douchet were delegated to take over, as much at Cahiers as at the Arts magazine. We were hence partners, accomplices and at the same time competitors (without overtly expressing this internal struggle). Douchet spent a large part of his time at his seat at Cahiers or at the Cinémathèque, making contacts with young viewers whom he encouraged to write for Cahiers, and with small parallel groups at Cahiers, such as the one that had formed around the Mac-Mahon theatre. He had a real entourage, in contrast to Rohmer, who often refused external contacts. More affable, and exhibiting great civility, he had an advantage over me, who was more preoccupied with making my first short films. But at the Arts magazine, he barely stayed longer than me, following the media backlash against the Nouvelle Vague at the end of 1960. Douchet’s activity at Cahiers was marked by initiatives such as the creation of a Prix de la Nouvelle Critique (which awarded, to his great anger, the prize for the most overestimated film to Psycho) and by strong critical stances for or against certain directors. Douchet violently opposed Buñuel, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kubrick, Peter Brook, Autant-Lara (against whom he lost a lawsuit). This sectarian quality, his somewhat esoteric way of speaking, suited him well: he was highly inspired by spiritualism and the secret societies he haunted. Thereafter, in the spring of 1963, following the eviction of Éric Rohmer from Cahiers, he slowly left the magazine.

            After this, he was mostly involved in public speaking, moderating debates at the end of film screenings, or on television in programmes on cinema, or as a teacher. His writing activity, at times destructive, hence made way for an oral activity, for a dialogue with the viewer, for a more convivial, more measured attitude. For more than half a century, he spoke with a certain serenity, seemingly beyond petty fights, beyond all famous filmmakers (except Antonioni, whom he could never stand). At the end of the day, a richer, more indulgent, more mediatory attitude—a real ombudsman—than during his time at Cahiers. Studying films in minute detail, and thanks to video cassettes, he discovered hidden meanings in certain sequences of Fritz Lang, notably in Fury and While the City Sleeps, that no one before him had noticed. Over the years, he had acquired a Santa Claus-like status. His majestic portliness won him all kinds of good wishes, and numerous filmmakers, from 1958 till his last years, happily gave him cameos, small roles in which he excelled, harnessing his inimitable appearance and voice. Among his very rare forays into filmmaking, one must note two unexpected accomplishments: a short comedy, Et Crac ! (1969), in which Bulle Ogier and Claude Chabrol engage in delicious fantasies, and La Servante aimante (1995), where he successfully integrated the backstage and the hidden face of theatre with Goldoni’s play.

Unpublished, 2009.

            On the level of quality, Hollywood has declined quite a bit, but its place has been brilliantly taken over by American literature.

That’s why, as a fan of the USA, I’ve decided not to talk about its films anymore, but only about its books.

James Ellroy’s first eight novels still respect many of the conventions of the American detective novel. Ellroy, however, distinguishes himself with the size of his books (about a hundred pages more than the standard crime novel), their excessively gory and sleazy quality, the abundance and rapid succession of their actions. These books don’t respect the good old principle of describing a single criminal affair. There is also the desire to limit himself to the LAPD, the Los Angeles Police Department, and to the personality of his investigators (who are more important than the crimes to be solved). A haunting microcosm that equals those, richer in landscapes, of great writers, Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha, Giono and his Haute-Provence, Hardy’s Wessex, Mary Webb’s Shropshire, and Caldwell’s Georgia. We hardly leave Los Angeles with Ellroy. The reader is confined to this limited, airless zone that ends up overwhelming him. He’d like to get out of it, but he can never escape.

A small evolution: after Brown’s Requiem (1981) and Clandestine (1982), Ellroy abandons first-person narrative for an objective point of view. A superficial change since this objectivity is expressed in a very personal way. It’s merely a façade, intended to make the odd, the horrible and the repulsive more believable.

It’s still classical narration that predominates from Blood on the Moon (1985) to The Big Nowhere (1988).

But then, from L.A. Confidential onwards, there is a revolution, a rupture which will be even more drastically reaffirmed in White Jazz (1992) and especially in American Tabloid (1995) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001).

How to describe this change, pre-1989 and post-1989? There are several obvious characteristics.

 

Length of the texts

Ellroy moves from 300 or 400 pages, more or less normal for the thriller genre, to 600 pages or more. Unusual size for a detective novel, which is generally designed to entertain you during a journey (“an airport novel”, it’s called) and shouldn’t be too bulky. This expanse of the books is amplified, as we will see, by the extreme condensation of actions. It makes the reader’s head spin.

 

Accelerated succession of actions and words used

There are provocative ellipses in Ellroy’s work:

Burglars, confessors–physical stats/MO/priors–I took notes. The Wino Will-o-the-Wisp–shit, still at large. Names, names, names– candidates for a psycho framee. Scribbling notes–distracted–flirty carhops, new money. Nagging me: a frame meant no payoff–no way to match Lucille and the burglar to WHY?

(White Jazz, chapter 8)

One would think it’s the first thriller by James Joyce…

The reader understands a large part of this information, probably not everything. He must make an “effort to participate” to grasp the terms or expressions whose meaning remains obscure. If he cannot, he will have the proof of the superiority of the author (and of the “reality” depicted) over him. Similarly, in The Cold Six Thousand, he will have some serious work to do if he wants to know the kind of character hiding behind each name. And there are more than sixty protagonists! In order to get a hold on things—I think that it’s the first time I’ve had to do that—I had to write down the dramatis personae on a card, like at the start of a play, with the name, profession and purpose of each actor in the drama: another aspect which makes the reader a participant in an interactive work, whereas a crime novel fan is most often a passive being.

If the quality of a book is to be measured against the reader’s pleasure, we can affirm that Ellroy has delivered here a production of very high quality, since I had infinite pleasure in dodging Ellroy’s traps and understanding everything (well, I’m boasting: understanding almost everything).

 

Intrusion of lapidary terms

I mean by that press cuttings, police reports, telegrams, taped telephone conversations, confidential notes etc.

Like in Dos Passos, who seems to have influenced Ellroy, and Tom Wolfe and the practitioners of the journalistic novel, these documents end up constituting a good part of the book, a quarter or even a third of it. It’s a device somewhat comparable to the succession of letters in our literature of the 18th century, with the difference being that the nature of these “documents” varies enormously.

 

Starkness

Traditional description of places, faces and bodies so dear to the good old novel and even to the first master of the genre, Dashiell Hammett, is practically eliminated. We rarely know the colour of the hair, the height or the build of the protagonists.

In The Big Nowhere, we could still find some awkward and almost parodic descriptions:

Sodden confetti hung out of windows and littered the sidewalk, and the sun that was looming above the eastern basin had the feel of heat, steam and bad hangovers.

There won’t be any more descriptions.

 

The brevity of sentences

That night, Lesnick left the apartment to get medicine at County General, thinking Coleman’s Upshaw fixation would break him down on his homosexuality, stymie and stalemate him.

It’s Ellroy’s last big sentence, we find it nine pages before the end of The Big Nowhere.

This example clearly shows that Ellroy has never been at ease with these convoluted, winding, very clever sentences where the reader is somewhat lost. The detective novel, on the other hand, has always been written such that people have a good grasp on the proceedings.

But, all through L.A. Confidential and in the novels thereafter, we will largely find brief, very simple, brutal, elliptic and concise sentences.

In American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy proceeds at a frantic rhythm of more than seventy sentences per page. There can be three on a single line. The only exceptions are in the dialogue, or in extracts from the press or copied messages, which seem—wrongly of course—to be not Ellroy’s. This enhances the impression of reality.

We find a good example, among thousands, in L.A. Confidential:

Pops doused his head in the sink, charged with his face scorched black.

A roundhouse to the knees–Papa went down glued to that cleaver. Bud stepped on his hand, cracked the fingers–Papa let go screaming. Bud dragged him to the oven, kicked the pallet loose. Yank the trapdoor, drag the old man downstairs.

Fumes: opium, steam. Bud kicked Papa-san quiet. Through the fumes: dope suckers on mattresses.

(Chapter 66)

This realism is undercut by remarks or comments by real personalities, such as Frank Sinatra or John Kennedy, that are clearly imaginary. We’ll come back to the importance of contradiction and dialectic in Ellroy’s work.

 

The use of nominal sentences (without verbs)

The notion of a sentence is rather vague since the only objective identification of a sentence is the full stop, which we either put or don’t. In the famous sentence from Ulysses (50 pages), there are no separating periods, but we nevertheless notice a multitude of virtual sentences undone by a tendentious punctuation, which helps to stretch matters.

We find excellent examples of nominal sentences in The Cold Six Thousand:

Bob stood up. Bob aimed his pump. Bob shot low. A beehive blew–darts blew–darts on fire.

The spread cohered. The spread hit. The spread severed legs.1

We see that these nominal sentences arrive at the end of a series of short sentences with verbs. They convey the final acceleration of the action.

It’s obvious that Ellroy could’ve combined several of these actions into a single sentence, but that would’ve destroyed the rhythm and the musicality of the piece, all the more powerful because its poetic impact derives from actions that are antithetical to traditional poetry.

Ellroy had already tried out these nominal sentences before, but only on rare occasions. So, in Suicide Hill (1986), we have: “Dimly, he knew his kick-out date was coming and the bulls were leaving him alone because they were afraid of him. But Vandy …” This line is on page 659 of the Hopkins trilogy.

This “But Vandy” corresponds to an idea of a sentence, suggested, undescribed or scratched out while proofreading. It could mean: “But he thought of Vandy” or something else altogether.

These elliptic flourishes certainly gave the necessary impetus to Ellroy’s subsequent career.

 

In White Jazz (chapter 29), Ellroy will go even further:

A white screen.

Cut to:

Johnny Duhamel naked.

Cut to:

Dave Klein swinging a sword.

Zooming in–the sword grip: SSGT D.D. Klein USMC Saipan 7/24/43.

Cut to:

We can clearly see the source of inspiration for this scene as for many others: cinematic découpage like in Eisenstein or Scorsese. It’s possible to suppose that Ellroy wrote his book this way because he had a potential film adaptation in mind. I don’t think so. He didn’t really need that, his books selling very well already. And the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential had to employ a classical decoupage that’s vastly from Ellroy’s. But the interest here is in the odd intrusion of specifically cinematic language in literature, just like how we noted the incongruity of poetic language in the description of crime novel massacres.

 

The importance of numbers

Numbers have a bad reputation in literary culture owing to the old opposition between noble literature and vulgar arithmetic (money + anti-poetic objectivity): to such a degree that, in all novels and in literary or film criticism, as much as possible, numbers are spelt out even if it’s longer (it’s, by the way, more interesting when the author is paid by the word) .

The challenge then for Ellroy is to pack in the most amount of numbers, dates, times, flight numbers, car models, police ID numbers, bullet counts, the sum of money on a body, code and telephone numbers etc.

Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade…

(L.A. Confidential, prologue)

The precision in these numbers is of no interest in itself, but imparts a particular and uncommon rhythm. This documentary aspect enhances the realism of the novel, which, because of its material—several murders and very gory fights—is as unrealistic as possible. And through their repetition, the numbers create a new and unexpected form of poetry.

 

The importance of acronyms

The creative process here is the same as the one with numbers. The acronyms can be of official administrative organizations (LAPD, CIA etc.) or of commercial firms. In the same vein, we find initials of first names, often followed by those of last names (JFK).

 

Punctuation

We notice the frequent alternation of words in lower case and those in upper case (newspaper headlines, especially), as well as words in italics.

The forward slash is the most characteristic symbol in Ellroy’s work: “Chairs/shelves/table” (White Jazz, end of chapter 48). It conveys an enumeration based on options and alternatives.

 

The art of enumeration

This is at the heart of Ellroy’s art.

Ever since book II of the Iliad, we know that literature relies on the extent and quality of enumerations.

Hence, in White Jazz (chapter 27):

11/3/58, 11/3/58, 11/4/58, 11/4/58–Ad Vice.

11/5/58, 11/5/58, 11/6/58–GR 1-4790–John Duhamel, 10477

Just to clarify, this pertains to a list of telephone calls.

 

Repetition of the subject

Wayne aimed. Wayne popped four shots off. Fido’s teeth shattered. Fido’s neck blew.

Wayne heard yells. Wayne saw three VC.

They charged. They aimed carbines. They got kadre klose. Pete stood up. Chuck stood up. Mesplède waved _come on_.

(The Cold Six Thousand, chapter 62)

The name of the character performing actions is repeated for each of his actions, which creates an incantatory, hallucinatory poetic rhythm.

You will notice here that Ellroy resolves through the absurd—and without annoying the reader one bit—literature’s chief problem, unsolved even today: we don’t ever know who’s speaking or acting, the author being afraid of repeating “A said” or “B said”.

 

The one-liner

Common in cinema and especially television, this literary device consists of making each character utter a short sentence, to be translated into a single subtitle. For example, at the end of chapter 19 of American Tabloid, there are forty-five lines of dialogue made just of one-liners.

 

Interrupted sentences

We don’t know how a particular dialogue will end. All we have are the three trailing dots. This allows for the acceleration of the action. Sometimes, the speaker is hit by a bullet.

This could create the impression of realism, as though the speech written by the author was cut short by a reality larger than him.

This effect is sometimes related to the “surprise development”.

For example, characters speak of random, ordinary things. And, in the course of a sentence, the conversation turns into drama, but narrated in the same, trivial tone. At the end of chapter 95 of American Tabloid, we have this exchange:

Kemper said, “Did you really do that?”

“As sure as I’m standing here basking in your light, Boss. As sure as niggers—”

Kemper shot him in the mouth. A full clip took his head off.

 

Alliterations

“BOOZEBLITZED AND BESOAKED BASTION BOOGIE-WOOGIES!” This extract from American Tabloid (chapter 67) reveals an excess of virtuosity that we can find gratuitous, but which is so difficult to imagine that the reader hardly understands anything. Which adds to the chaotic nature of the work and the world described.

 

Onomatopoeias

They often express a sonic reality. Hence the ‘bump’ repeated seven times in a row in L.A Confidential (chapter 73). There are also the nine Gs (White Jazz), each occupying a new line, which seem to announce the arrival of the GLUTTON2. Their purpose can be guessed more than understood through a logical analysis.

These various devices—and there are many more—betray an art founded on artifice. But this constant and unpredictable shift from one device to another produces a strong impression of variety, richness and imagination.

 

Local slang

Vulgar vocabulary, sexual as well as violent, is harnessed to the fullest. This is unusual for an avant-garde work, which often favours a loftier terminology.

 

Evolution towards the macrocosm

Until L.A. Confidential, we only find simple stories about individuals.

Until White Jazz, we remain focused on Los Angeles and the LAPD.

But little by little, the horizon widens.

For one thing, The Big Nowhere is an indirect story of witch hunts.

Ellroy then leaves Hollywood for Dallas and all the states of America to portray the Kennedy years and the Cuban crisis (American Tabloid).

He then goes around the entire world, all the way to Vietnam to depict the post-Kennedy era, the Dallas investigation and the years between 1963-68 (The Cold Six Thousand).

Those who have followed every step of James Ellroy’s so far, book by book, will be very surprised by this sudden, unmeasured opening up towards the macrocosm. An opening up that comes as a considerable shock to the reader, as though Jane Austen started to travel all over the world. A widening that we could object on these grounds: the notion of a microcosm is closer to the essence of the detective novel. The respect for Aristotelian unities, the endearing modesty of the work that shunned “big subjects” made for its power. Aren’t James Ellroy’s super-detective novels comparable to the flashiness of sumptuous and empty super-westerns? On the contrary, what force, what freshness, what radiance!

Ellroy’s conquest of a new identity, following his first eight novels, clearly proves that Ellroy’s style, as we have admired in the past few years, has nothing innate, immanent or essential about it, in contrast to that of Céline, who has always written the same way. What we see is an evolution, a rather slow progression, a tactic even. Which takes nothing away from the power and originality of the works.

This state of affairs is reaffirmed by Ellroy’s other recent stories such as Tijuana, Mon Amour (1999) or certain short stories—Dial Axminster 6-400, The Tooth of Crime, Bad Boys in Tinseltown, My Life as a Creep—or even My Dark Places (1996). These are more conventional or sober (My Dark Places) works—witnesses perhaps to a flagging of inspiration—sometimes written with the left hand, rehashing previously used ideas. But the literary devices are rarely piled up. There are, to be sure, alliterations in Tijuana and terse sentences in most of the short stories. But these somewhat abridged writings don’t have the same sort of power, the same breath in the sum of their effects. Length has become indispensable in order to assert the force of accumulation.

In the first novels, I was quite aware of the character traits and the deeper themes these thrillers had to offer: artistic creation and woman as savoir, the difficult relationship with the father, guilt and redemption…

All these are present in the recent works too, but we don’t really notice them. The frenzy created by the various devices we have studied doesn’t give the reader the time to analyse character psychology, busy as he is trying to decipher the identity of the protagonist underlying each proper noun, the action underlying each sentence. What remains is only the impression of chaos, generalized corruption and nonsense. A pessimistic vision that is erased, so to speak, by our nascent pleasure before the divine fury of writing.

This bird’s eye view of the characters, and the more human meaning of the work, far from reducing the novel’s value, takes it to new heights: the Ellroy of today has nothing to envy Proust, Camus or Thomas Mann.

Could psychology, certainly present here though invisible, simply be a crude springboard for artistic creation? That’s what happens sometimes in cinema and almost always in music, in opera: the libretto must surely exist, but it’s only a subordinate element. Everything is style. The writing produces a new being in Ellroy’s work, regardless of its contents (les valeurs contenutistes).

 

1 [Translator’s Note] The excerpt in French contains more nominal sentences than the original, which has only one.

2 [Translator’s Note] This is a literal translation of Moullet’s line. I glanced through White Jazz and did not find such a passage. Perhaps Moullet is misattributing (as he sometimes does in this essay) to White Jazz what might be present in some other novel by Ellroy or someone else.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Goldsmith of Porto Alegre

Cahiers du cinéma no. 608; January 2006.

We thought he was a flash in the pan. Indeed, nothing, or nearly nothing, from Jorge Furtado reached us after Isle of Flowers (1989), which was increasingly becoming his only and indispensable film, screened more and more frequently: a cult short film, in brief, located midway between Night and Fog and Land without Bread, between La Jetée and Zero for Conduct.

Everything changed in 2005. Indeed, the Year of Brazil in France was responsible for many screenings of unknown, revelatory and very enjoyable Brazilian films, including five short and three feature films by Furtado.

There is a certain ostracism towards Furtado. It stems first of all from the isolation of the auteur of Isle of Flowers: he’s the filmmaker from Rio Grande do Sul, and hardly leaves the region. But it has no real negative consequence: Porto Alegre is a microcosm. I’d even say that this particularity helps Furtado. He talks about what he knows, like Thomas Hardy, Giono and Faulkner, who never left their hole so to speak, like Godard or Guiraudie, constantly shooting around Lake Geneva or in Obitania. The second reason for this ostracization is the choice of comedy, displaying external signs of telenovela (small familial conflicts of the average Brazilian, the investigating kid in My Uncle Killed a Guy, 2005) while Furtado manipulates the telenovela form in an amusing way, dynamiting it. Let’s make no mistake, Furtado’s cinema teaches us a lot about Brazil: the fear of the rich of being robbed and the problems produced by an over-the-top security system (Angelo is Missing, 1997), the anxiety of visitors at the entrance of favelas and the critical attitude of Blacks towards Whites (My Uncle Killed a Guy), the polarization around football (Barbosa, 1988), the love of cosmetics and perfumes (Isle of Flowers).

Furtado makes us clearly see that, in this capitalist jungle, everything is based on plan B: how to print fake bank notes using a photocopier (The Man Who Copied, his first feature film, made in 2002), how a girl makes a living faking pregnancies (Two Summers, 2002), how to assume responsibility for a murder committed by your lover, how to prove an act of betrayal, how to escape the clutches of the police (My Uncle Killed a Guy).

One of the central locations of his cinema is an unusual place, along which his camera and characters wander: the corridor, as important in Furtado as in Fuller, Resnais or Jacquot.

Another peculiarity: while most filmmakers avoid numbers (old opposition: civilization of words against the inhumanity of numbers), Furtado looks for them, infests his films with them. A poetry of numbers. He loves lists: having lost the last two digits of his girlfriend’s telephone number, the hero of Two Summers dials the ninety-nine possible combinations one after the other, with the face of the interlocutor shown each time: a sumptuous microcosm, a cross-section view of the whole society. Furtado’s films offer a perspective on adolescence, an age where you should do everything: slaving away to realize all your emotional and professional desires. A milieu from which Furtado hardly comes out of. His point of view is elegiac, almost romantic, based on trivial or slightly scabrous details. We can’t forget the description of an orgasm in Two Summers anytime soon; roughly: “It’s very curious, I remain whole while having the impression of being disintegrated.”

Furtado’s art is based on an emphasis on situations, on changes in attitude, on options of possible behaviours, through an intensive use of video montage techniques, each shot, each special effect within a shot corresponding to a moment in the thought process of the filmmaker or of the characters. Starting from Isle of Flowers—eighteen months of work for thirteen minutes of runtime—we can appreciate the virtuosity of the goldsmith of Porto Alegre, capable of evoking three levels of meaning from three shots or special effects within the span of a second. Furtado constantly plays with the persistence of vision and the acuity of the ear. Only Godard, with The Power of Speech, will go as far.

Isle of Flowers played with an 18th century effect—Persian Letters and Zadig combined—that consisted of pretending to adopt the point of view of a foreigner, while we are very familiar with the reality depicted, and which allowed for a neutral, objective, cheerful and, in any case, an “other” perspective. Furtado pretends to observe completely unusual and secondary subjects—man’s opposable thumb, his highly developed telencephalon—only to secretly evoke essential questions through indirect means: new, shocking and iconoclastic marriage of the comic and the tragic, the latter invading an apparently playful universe rather brutally. The films attain an absurdist, very corrosive humour, close to Queneau, to Perec (whom Furtado will adapt), to Vian and to Oulio, one of whose ardent fans he proves himself to be.

Furtado’s feature films continue this principle of intensive montage by adapting it to fictional narration and justifying it in the narrative itself, by directly relating them to the arsenal of new technologies depicted (photocopiers, computers, automatic photos). We even see a cursor on the image when Furtado and his researcher want to attract our attention to a particular track.

With these recent films, the wizard of Porto Alegre has conquered the highest realms in the cinema of Latin America and maybe even of the American continent.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]