The Slide of the Admiral

Cahiers du cinéma John Ford special; 1990

7 Women

My article championing The Rising of the Moon was rejected in 1957 by Cahiers, who asked me for an article on Ford in 1990…

The first impression upon contact with the John Ford phenomenon is that of immensity: hundred and twelve feature films and about twenty short films. No other great filmmaker has been able to compete with such abundance. No one ever can. Indeed, Ford’s extreme productivity is related to, among other things, his activity in the silent era. Talkies demand more time.

While it doesn’t rule out familiarity, this high productivity seems to refuse the possibility of a synthesis. It takes four months for a necessarily incomplete retrospective since about thirty movies from the 1920s were never found. By the time the last work is screened, the memories of the first ones have already dimmed. Forty years have passed between my first contact—The Informer—and North of Hudson Bay, which I could see a few days ago. Forty years, almost as long as Ford’s working life. The abundance becomes a handicap here: you don’t dare to write on something that overwhelms you, you don’t dare to speak about it. From there to oblivion…

It’s true that this concern for thorough knowledge is a relatively recent demand. Should we go back to the principles of old criticism which based itself only on the most noteworthy works? The first John Ford fanboy, Jean Mitry, used to say that it’s stupid to want to watch all the films of a director. All the more so for Ford… Should we dream, like we do for writers, of a “portable Ford”? The hiccup is that no one agrees on the choices. It’s possible to imagine two books on Ford having no common title in their table of contents. In fact, the books by Jean Roy and Lindsay Anderson aren’t far from this this extreme hypothesis.

High productivity is an important part of the body of work that we can’t ignore or hide.

Even though, at certain times, Steamboat Round the Bend or Tobacco Road get preference in my estimation, I think that my favourite Ford is Seven Women, the last of the hundred and twelve films. Not only do I prefer Seven Women but I what I like the most in the film is its last minute, the triumphant suicide, Ford’s coda leading up to an aggressive, brutal laconism unheard of in his body of work and open to multiple meanings.

I fell in love when I saw Seven Women during its release, when I didn’t know it would be his last film. And I also think Ford (who had other projects at the time and wasn’t the kind that thought of retirement) didn’t conceive it as a testamentary film. It’s thus at once a natural expression—for Ford—and a natural emotion—for me—entirely related to the film and unrelated to the context.

But that it’s the last hour of the longest filmography in the entire history of cinema past and future, the very last minute of some ten thousand minutes of film (work of an old gentleman of flagging health) that moves me the most is something altogether stunning.

I wonder if I could ever, in life like in art, find an occurrence that propels me more towards optimism, a pure optimism free of dross since it’s produced by one of the most tragic scenes.

You’ll tell me it’s a choice peculiar to me. But it’s close to the current critical norm: the referendum organized by the Brussels Cinematheque in 1977 revealed the pre-eminence of The Searchers, the 108th Ford picture, over all others. It established the clear lead of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, number 109, over The Informer, once a central pillar, now dispensable.

There is also a very surprising trend in Hollywood cinema, where the late career of “greats” is always a little disappointing or withdrawn (Hawks, Hitchcock, Vidor, Griffith, Borzage, Capra, Chaplin, Mann, Preminger, DeMille etc.) I can think of only Mankiewicz who overcame this challenge, thanks to a somewhat anticipated retirement.

 

Though it would be adventurous to define the silent period about which we know little, it’s permissible to think of it as the break-in period, with some titles more notable than others (Hell Bent), and to say that Ford’s body of work really begins towards his fiftieth film, somewhere near Three Bad Men or Four Sons or Arrowsmith.

It’s the opposite of modern European careers, where the first feature is generally among the best, if not the best, and where one barely reaches twenty or thirty films at the end of the career.

This abundance has produced an experience, an incomparable self-assurance. In his early talkies, Ford seems to be a master of all situations when he takes on the most ambitious projects. It’s hard to imagine him anxious on the eve of a shoot, or during takes, or during the release date. Shooting becomes an everyday reality and loses its importance. Ford makes films like a baker makes bread. The notion of a body of work doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for him. He never lingers on the editing table. He never wastes time at the launch of a film. The pleasure of getting back with his shooting crew can become the primary motivation.

One could evoke Walsh in this regard. But he pushes this laidback quality too far: he doesn’t always come to the shoot. Reading his memoirs, it seems that screwing an actress or fighting with a rival was more important for him that the final product. There isn’t a thematic unity in his work.

Only Mizoguchi—a little less productive—can be compared to Ford. Moreover, it would be very instructive to see Oyuki the Virgin (1935) and Stagecoach (1938), its remake of sorts, one after the other since both films take off from Boule de Suif. Sansho the Bailiff shares the perspective of The Grapes of Wrath. The difference between the two men lies in the great care Mizoguchi demonstrated towards his scripts. On the other hand, Ford sometimes took them as they came, days before the shoot for which he was assigned at the last moment. I think he made no fundamental distinction between his films and those by others for which he shot some difficult shots.

Other differences relate to the pre-eminence of the individual—and women—in the Japanese filmmaker and the small group—and men—in the American. And then Ford was more a raconteur and Mizoguchi a storyteller.

 

Ford’s laid-back nature, which can account for his power, also makes for his weakness. The politique des auteurs found it rather hard to assimilate him since it postulates that great filmmakers manage to ennoble everything they touch. Now if, after the early years, we find practically no false notes in Hawks and Hitchcock, it must be admitted that Ford is something of a concern. He is successful with one in every two films. At sixty, he still finds a way to churn out three insipid works one after the other: Mogambo, The Long Gray Line, and Mister Roberts. Not to mention duds like The Black Watch, Wee Willie Winkie or Gideon’s Day: films that had no chance of success owing to the mediocrity of their raw material, made for money, the desire to travel and work as a team, the presence of a mascot or a pet cause.

We often speak about Ford’s eclecticism on account of the variety of genres he handled. But this eclecticism turns out to be illusory: no musical, no horror film. There is no crime movie except the mediocre Gideon’s Day. Clearly, Ford doesn’t like the detective genre. On two other occasions (Up the River, The Whole Town’s Talking), he dissolves into comedy. Admiral Ford is fascinated only by the navy. If he encounters the army (What Price Glory) or the air force (Air Mail), he diverts everything into comedy.

To distinguish the Westerns from the Irish films is vain: Indians and Irishmen are similar minorities, just like Mormons (Wagon Master) or Jews (Little Miss Smiles), and he sometimes pits Irishmen or Mexicans against Indians.

In fact, the eclectic quality of the scripts is almost always nullified by the polarization along some well-known principles: small groups, mothers, families, comical sidekicks, the ball scene, twilight figures from the last decade. Always the great outdoors, or the small town. New York almost never appears. With a little exaggeration, I could say that Ford has only ever made one film. We are far from the bulimia of a Duvivier or a Tavernier.

 

If one likes Ford, one could be shocked that the filmmaker had no political leaning except those of his clients, or whatever was fashionable. One would’ve loved to find something constantly, deeply moral, to trace anti-racist seeds much before Sergeant Rutledge or Cheyenne Autumn, in the first Westerns or in Stagecoach, to uncover a common thread between the generosity of The Grapes of Wrath or the sectarianism of This is Korea! or Seven Women. Notwithstanding some brilliant theses on this topic—Ford’s bonhomie softening the harshest features of almost all his characters—opportunism appears to be the sole truth. But is it really opportunism? Isn’t it rather a somewhat systematic acceptance, with no ulterior motive, of whatever the era has to offer? A concurrence with the silent majority, which sometimes he precedes by a little (Fort Apache)? Ford, like many first- and second-generation immigrants, has a principled respect for his country of adoption and its beliefs. The very fact of having taken the surname of one of capitalism’s greatest henchmen as his alias is revealing.

 

Ford’s power resides firstly in a dialectic between the presentation of mythologies and familiarity, the absolute and the relative, the thought-over and the lived, the moral and the picturesque, heavy clouds of Fate and hands on the ass. It’s the vigour and spontaneity of McLaglen, Fitzgerald or Ward Bond that help the spectral compositions of August or Toland push through. Not always: monotony looms large, and so does vulgarity.

The picturesque aspect has to do with the abundance of living beings (hence the small group), the multiplicity of their actions in the shot or in the sequence. Ford is perhaps the American filmmaker who has worked the most on the difference in dialects and accents (Doctor Bull).

The expression of mythologies is carried out either through the meaning of actions or through the photography: shadows, back lights, immense settings that diminish man. Mythologies in Ford become extremely dangerous when they are limited to themselves (cf. the clear failures of The Fugitive and The Informer). Photographic overload and second-hand expressionism make the films go around in circles, while most often, the image skilfully serves as the lyrical amplification of realistic everyday details.

We could, however, invert the proposition and assert that the picturesque leads nowhere without the help of mythologies. We have for proof the success of Tobacco Road. But that was an exception. Dialectic nevertheless makes for the greatest part of Ford’s body of work. Its two components can be found in the same instant or be linked by a pan shot or a cut. What counts is the variety of links Ford finds between them.

There are other related forms of contradictory balance within a film, or across films. It could be said that Ford takes wicked pleasure in doing the opposite of what he has just done. His greatest quality is concision, but in The Searchers, he does his best to make us feel the long passage of time involved in a hunt spanning many years, rendering the ideas of revenge and racism ridiculous. In The Rising of the Moon, from one sketch to another, he alternates the impression of rapidity and slowness for both characters and viewers. This probably explains his political fickleness better. Ford, the champion of the macho movie, the maker of two films without women—Men without Women and The Lost Patrol—that were perhaps the first of their kind, also made hymns to mothers and ended his career on a film almost entirely without men (Seven Women), the two male characters being a weakling and a monster.

 

We could define Ford’s art as an art of “sliding between notes”. Hence, the importance of dissolves and other transitions (The World Moves On, The Grapes of Wrath). The viewer shouldn’t realize he’s watching a movie and that the movie has already started. Often, moreover, nothing of importance really happens (Judge Priest, Doctor Bull, Tobacco Road, The Long Gray Line etc.). We wonder what we can say about the films, which sometimes leads to a negative judgment. All very classical values. After all, isn’t Ford the only classicist in the history of cinema worthy of interest? And our critical armada isn’t up to the task to deal with this exceptional case.

One problem remains: this precious sense of “sliding” seems to be the same in both the masterpieces and the failures of Ford. We nevertheless sense a huge difference in quality between them. We could point out the customary concision of a scene in Gideon’s Day or The Long Gray Line, but we could also wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better had he dropped the entire scene, or had he not made the film at all.

Ford’s art seems elusive, impossible to pin down. It’s in the method, but it surfaces only when the material is rich. It takes us back to a very old rule of thumb: to make a good film, you need a good script and then good direction. Isn’t it symptomatic that three of his best films (The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road and, more obliquely, Stagecoach) were adapted from high-profile literary works? Isn’t The Grapes of Wrath better than How Green Was My Valley simply because Steinbeck is a better writer than Llewellyn? Ford is the opposite of Hitchcock, who often needed a terrible, totally unbelievable script (Psycho, North by Northwest) to be able to rise above its faults and outdo himself.

 

Why is it that the film version of The Grapes of Wrath has survived in people’s minds more than the book, while there’s no big difference between the two? Is cinema so weak an art that a solid adaptation of a good book can pass for a masterpiece? In contrast, there’s much higher competition in literature. Even so, there are more concessions in Ford’s film, such as the inversion that pushes the most optimistic episode at the government camp to the end of the film; and this immaculate, smooth-talking Fonda (Fonda is outstanding, but that is not the problem) who is clearly a reflection of the Hollywood hero, absent in the original.

The difference is that agricultural migration was dealt with more often in writing and almost never on film. But isn’t all this to the credit of the very idea of filmmaking?

The difference is that Steinbeck rubs it in, harnesses all the possibilities of every scene, while the film skims over the facts, taking their essence and moving quickly to the next scene. It has become the first road movie, a succession of signposts producing an unquestionable, objective curtness that limits pathos. But weren’t these omissions made in order to cut the film down to two hours from six? And isn’t it the scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson who’s primarily responsible for that?

Ford succeeds when he appears to efface himself behind others, behind the material of his films. Might his role simply be that of a supervisor, a mediator? And might not our concern for analysing Ford’s specificity go against the grain of his body of work?

 

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

On Inspiration and Neorealism

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 483; 19 April 1959.

Wind Across the Everglades

It’s not because—in accordance with his sacrosanct habit of quitting a film on the eve of the last day of shooting when it’s not commensurate with his genius—Nicholas Ray abandoned the “set” of Wind Across the Everglades that it must be considered a lesser work. It’s not a masterpiece and it will figure perhaps at the eight position among the seventeen films of its auteur; but it’s nevertheless above the mean.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those ambitious films intended for an adventure movie market and, in this market, way too far from the norm. If he likes big subjects, Nicholas Ray nonetheless doesn’t consider the adventure movie a minor genre. For him, action, the behaviour of man in the natural world, teaches us everything about the individual and the universe. That was what was novel in Bigger than Life, where each psychological feature was expressed by the most violent of physical gestures.

Contrary to what we might think before seeing it, Wind Across the Everglades isn’t any Hollywood film. It’s an independent production put together by Budd Schulberg, writer of socially-oriented films like On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, who hates nothing more than Hollywood. But the story of this film demonstrates that he hasn’t understood what Ray sought beneath the neorealist principle of the film. For Ray, neorealism is a passkey to profundity while, for Schulberg, it’s neorealism for the sake of neorealism. Since Italians make good films in the street, it’s enough to copy them and sit with your arms folded.

Made on a small budget in the vicinity of a small village in the marshes of Everglades (Florida)—a wild, tropical Bresne—in entirely natural settings, with unknown, indigenous and amateur technicians and actors—it’s a jockey playing the ex-jockey, a boxer playing the ex-boxer, a famous writer playing the man of law—Wind Across the Everglades is first of all a documentary. Ray isn’t satisfied reusing footage from Warner Bros’ documentary stock. He films himself the shots of birds and reptiles which are among the most beautiful that cinema has given us. Beautiful in their violence, in their striking framing, in the poetic movement (which we find again in the scenes played by actors) by which the camera moves towards the animal, in the very manner that Ray directs these animals by making them overcome various obstacles. A Walt Disney crew already went to the region, but couldn’t give us as lively a document.

The subject? Like in all Nicholas Ray films, it’s violence. At the turn of last century, a young professor of natural science, now a guard at the Everglades natural reserve, seeks to stop the massacre of millions of birds that Cottonmouth, surrounded by outcasts, lunatics and convicts, hunts for pleasure in the depths of the marshes. The most surprising aspect is this portrait of beings on the margins of the society that interests Ray, who spent a part of his youth rummaging in the least civilized regions of the USA (even The Lusty Men and Hot Blood focus on bohemian lives and gypsies). But the portrait here is very cruel (cf. the jockey character). The struggle of the young man against violence is only of secondary interest. Ray has already dealt with that subject a number of times, and today he has dedicated himself to seeking the poetry of reality.

And so, the guard takes great pleasure in the lives of his worst enemies. Like in Bitter Victory, whose most subtle scene—the snake and the gunshot—we find reversed here, which also recalls the ending of Run for Cover, Wind Across the Everglades shows us the fever of men and the uniqueness of things. A very 1900s bath in the sea, a baroque pleasure house, an insane feast and a dying Burl Ives calling out to the crows: “Come and get me! Swamp-born, swamp-fattened!” The actors—Christopher Plummer, Chana Eden, Sammy Renick—are excellent since Nick Ray knows how to make them accomplish very natural gestures, which he accompanies with very short camera movements that give the impression of improvisation. In such a feverish life, the hero is always dishevelled, just like the film. The colour is average; the script, editing and music, very mediocre.

Will a more homogenous, more complete work, where the subject is just a pretext, emerge from this return to nature, whose beauties Nick Ray has naively sought to capture with the same love for life as a Griffith (Schulberg, though, hardly likes it)? That’s what happened with Renoir and Rossellini. Unfortunately, Ray is unemployed since a year thanks to a lack of clients.

 

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

Better than the Bridge on the River Kwai

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 474; 15 February 1959.

The Naked and the Dead

South Pacific, 1943. Three protagonists. A sadistic general who professes the greatest contempt for his soldiers and who enjoys throwing his cigarette butt on ground to humiliate his camp officer by asking him to pick it up. He’ll present him lame excuses in the end, lose face before the entire army and resign. A brutal, fascist lieutenant who crushes small birds with his fist, spits his beer on women’s faces, pulls out gold teeth from the Japanese he kills for fun and for reselling the teeth in question. His need for violence will drive him to his death. An idealist and human officer who leads a difficult mission across an island infested with enemies. Injured, he will be saved thanks to the friendship of his men.

Adapted from Norman Mailer’s great war novel that appeared about a decade ago and which has become a classic since, the script of this film recalls another famous film, adapted from another well-known war novel: The Bridge on the River Kwai. The same old song about the ideal of man and the absurdity of war.

But Raoul Walsh’s film trumps that of Sam Spiegel and David Lean solely through the strength of its mise en scène, a constant throughout the film’s 130-minute runtime.

The death of a soldier bitten by a strangely beautiful snake is depicted with a striking violence and realism. All resources of landscape—jungle, tall grass, the rocky peak that the small troupe scales at the end—are harnessed with virtuosity and variety. For once, we are in a real jungle, and the camera weaves in and out of it with as much difficulty as the hero.

In non-combat scenes, it’s the good mood that sustains interest. The relationship between solders is described with a charming bonhomie. The interludes of familial life, full of freshness, grace and poetry, contain some of the best shots ever filmed by Raoul Walsh, whose career nevertheless features more than a hundred films, of which seventy-five are worthy of interest. One must see Barbara Nichols and Aldo Ray play Bulls and Cows, trying to out-moo each other, and especially the extraordinary tracking shot that closes Cliff Robertson’s dream. One must also point out James Best’s excellent performance and remarkable composure. In short, a beautiful film, a super-production that’s also a work of quality and which completely deserves the success the public has given it.

 

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

Metaphysics of the Arabesque

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 444; 20 July 1958.

The Quiet American

When it appeared in 1955, the Englishman Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was a big succès de scandale. With the recent guerrilla wars in Indochina as the backdrop, it tells us the story of a typical British journalist, Fowler, who colludes with the communists to plot the death of his rival in politics and love, his friend Pyle, the typical American. Pyle believes that neither the communists nor the French can find a solution to the Indochina problem. He supplies ammunitions to an army of dissidents that represents, for him, a life-sustaining “third force”. This fascist third force increases its horrible attacks, like the one where explosives are hidden in bicycle pumps. It’s because the lives of thousands of innocents are threatened, because Pyle, an always self-assured Bostonian confident of his ideals and convinced of the moral value of his acts, remains unconscious of his actions that Fowler agrees to his murder. The Americans made a hue and cry about this book, which violently expressed the eternal aversion the British have for them. Not without reason: Greene’s partiality crudely pitted the calm, sceptical and praiseworthy objectivity of the Englishman against the ridiculous, criminal and naïve self-assurance of the American. A puerile simplification that’s far from the truth: the particular stands for the general. And it’s obvious that all Americans aren’t like Pyle, nor all Englishmen like Fowler, that each civilization contains good and bad values in equal parts. Moreover, the style left a lot to be desired, with its false journalistic objectivity awkwardly inspired by the first Malraux.

Total change of tone in Mankiewicz’s film. The eighth quarter-hour makes us suppose that Pyle was a brave fellow and that Fowler, the intelligent and lucid Englishman, was taken for a ride by the communists, whose skilful manoeuvres had forced him to judge Pyle guilty. He was only too happy to condemn him: Pyle’s disappearance will allow him to win back the favours of his eternal mistress, whose hand Pyle had just asked. That’s the explanation of the third man, Vigot, the cunning French inspector. The most surprising part is that this interpretation corrects multiple plot holes and improbabilities of Green’s novel. And we’ll still never know the exact truth… Like for The Barefoot Contessa, we can quote Pirandello without being way off.

This dramatic turn of events, this unpredictable reversal is presented with a diabolical intelligence. No dramatic insistence whatsoever: a turn of dialogue just when our attention goes lax reveals the trick; the word “plastic”, based on whether it’s said with an s or without, whether it’s French or English, changes the face of the world. It’s appropriate here to insist particularly on the value of this reversal: some “modern” films and novels—it’s enough to name Orson Welles—go against the idea of the “message”, so dear to ambitious artists, and locate their meaning, just like the exceptional range of their aesthetic, on the destruction of a carefully elaborated message; truth lies way beyond moral stances. Critical towards Pyle and generous towards Fowler, the film finally inverts these values. Pyle’s self-assurance lay on a solid and honourable base. Fowler was just a coward, a victim led astray by the gullible idiocy of tortured, hung-up English intellectuals: the last shots make him a pitiable, ridiculous quiet Englishman. The film is the sum of these two points of view.

This explains the film’s surprising critical and commercial failure: Mankiewicz cheats his viewer, who thinks he’s watching a traditional display of anti-Americanism and gets a confirmation of his prejudices for two-thirds of the film, only to be taken for a ride at the end, just like Fowler. Mankiewicz has perhaps ended his career for having caught false intelligence, which seeks not the truth but to distance itself from tradition at all costs, and the famous fear of being fooled in their own trap. Some claim that the end was more or less imposed by the distributors; in truth, though, we have here one of the most independent films that America has ever sent us since it was even produced by our auteur-director and his company, whose name pays tribute to Beaumarchais.

Moreover, the aesthetic confirms the meaning of the work: it’s in the line of Giraudoux. Arabesques, an affectation and a literary style are its major features. The mise en scène takes pains to reproduce reality in all its forms for us: lightness and “fluidity” make way for dramatic composition and psychological study. The impression is that of liberty: things and beings seem to present themselves to us as though the auteur had nothing to do with them.

The film is more satisfying when objects occupy more space than characters. This can be explained by the literary, and not cinematic, character of the great Mankiewicz, who is only a good metteur en scène. This perfectly neutral Saigon as it presented itself during location shoot, with its suburban look cluttered with scrapyards and wastelands—while our detractors asked for local colour—is very curious. The festival scenes which open and close the film are among the most beautiful moments of contemporary cinema. This ballet with masques, confetti, garlands, monster heads and heroes scattered by the crowd represents in a typical fashion an 18th century universe, which is Mankiewicz’s own. It recalls The Rules of the Game and The Golden Coach without paling in comparison.

Over two hours, our protagonists talk in a room. Mankiewicz was thus hard put to find a novel way of directing actors. We have here a great progress over The Barefoot Contessa: to be sure, Audie Murphy, Michel Redgrave and Claude Dauphin seem to be acting in the same fashion, with their banal looks, creased foreheads and worried faces. But such performance corresponds more with the film’s subject than with the excellent and inventive direction of actors that we usually find in Mankiewicz’s work. In a ballet, individuality is subsumed in the whole.

Finally, one must point out the richness of the dialogue and their constant creativity. Mankiewicz is always on the lookout for the odd and the fantastic. He often plays on language conflicts and ambivalence of words. With him, cinema gives us not a filmmaker, but a genius litterateur. We are perhaps losing out on something there. But what are we complaining about? Even if the opposite is impossible, cinema can always contain within itself both cinema and literature. Even if the latter dominates, we don’t have the right become vociferous defenders of a cinematic specificity which, over the years, has proven to be highly fallacious.

 

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

Austerity of Style

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 408; 10 November 1957.

A King in New York

In this quixotic narrative, whose only point of reference is the central character, various themes intertwine as they do in music. This style goes hand in hand with the expression of a complex reality that words can hardly express: everything can be both irritating and pleasant. “Life would be dull without all these worries”, affirms King Shahdov. Hiding behind the hysteria of rock’n’roll is the beauty and sensitivity of a night club singer. Polemist, Chaplin still is, but having become wiser and more lucid with old age, he towers over events and ideologies.

His style? He presents facts without technical affectation and in a very concise manner (see the revolution scene), but lingers over that which seems secondary to us. Every other scene is a discussion in a hotel room, an interlude but also a reflection of reality: modern life alternates action with the rhythm of a telephone. The triteness with which the scenes are presented without relief only increases the force of the smallest original notation, be it dramatic – the young hero’s tears – or comic – Dawn Addams’ play with legs in the shower – or the king’s abrupt emotional attack.

Like all creators, Chaplin forces himself into extreme austerity. Dramatic surprise is avoided, the gags pitilessly dissected and the end effect predictable from a long way away (see the fire hose). Product of subtractions more than additions, the result is better, bringing to cream pies their intellectual coefficient.

 

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

Nothing but Facts

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 383; 23 June 1957.

Men in War

If war movies make for the best box office in America, they are also highly subject to commercial and philosophical conventions. And rarely has this amalgam been rewarding: From Here to Eternity or Attack (whose last shot is reprised here in contrast), despite their audacities, don’t entirely win us over. Men in War, last of the series, rejects both philosophical theories and traditional psychology about the small group. The synopsis is extremely barebones: in the course of the Korean War, seventeen American soldiers separated from their division must, in order to get back on track, conquer “Hill 465”. Only two of them will make it. To mention a few elements of secondary interest borrowed from the original novel – war novels today are constructed on the image of films: the Black foot-soldier with a soft heart, the paralyzed colonel and his hot-headed companion. But these bits of information, rather than being harnessed by the mise en scène, are neglected in favour the mystery that the simplicity of each character’s traits hints at. Anthony Mann likes heroes who are all of a piece since these are the richest. Each of them being more or less crudely stereotyped, it would have been easy for him, as it is for his peers, to fill his hundred minutes of film with detailed psychological analyses, tedious dialogue about homesickness. He didn’t do that: at one point, the exhausted captain looks at the photo of his wife and kids. This simplicity of trait has all the power of evidence.

This new style is to be explained by the fact that we are dealing with the work of a metteur en scène and not that of an auteur. And, for once, it’s for the better. There’s nothing here that isn’t justified by some notion of a purely physical order. For example, the character of the sergeant is a purely cinematographic creation: he is fascinated by the immobility of his paralyzed colonel, which contrasts with this ever-changing world, and devotes great care to him. “Tell me the story of the foot-soldier, and I will tell you the story of all wars”, goes the epigraph. And the story of the foot-soldiers is summarized through an accumulation of facts: the best shots of the films depict soldiers, dishevelled, sweaty but always active, the one scratching himself, the one removing his shoes in fatigue, the one contorting on ground, the one struck down dead with a weapon in hand, like a Hugo hero (played remarkably by Anthony Ray, son of the director); others show us, thanks to excellent photography, all the sparse “black and white colours” across nature, shadows of clouds that cover combatants in darkness, the sun that seeps through the woods, the blades of grass of unreal tones that form the real setting for the battle. One should also note some very nice ideas, the paralyzed colonel getting cured suddenly while mechanically holding the cigarette he smokes, the sergeant who pretends not to see the enemies on his heels and kills them in one blow, the lieutenant’s clenched fist on which the film closes.

Despite inspired by a classicism of admirable reserve, Men in War could be criticized for some overly studied shot sequences, especially the first one, for some borrowings from the crude art of ellipses, the radio face cut in two by the framing, the militiaman’s hand spread over the tree he hides behind, a soldier’s death seen through the movement of his feet. But the discretion of the mise en scène that seeks, most of all, the effectiveness of a simple and unique detail, there where others prefer to disperse interest, succeeds in imposing itself on us. Let’s note, finally, the remarkable musical score by Elmer Bernstein (whose services are sought by the greatest directors today).

Is Men in War warmongering or anti-militarist? I would be hard pressed to say since it’s one of those rare films whose impartiality we can praise. The work of a man preoccupied solely by appearances and their infinite richness, it allows us to see, and therein lies the essential. Up to you to make up your own mind.

 

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

Frozen in Hate

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 392; 21 July 1957.

The Last Hunt

We know that almost all Westerns are of great topical interest. The journey back in time gets the viewer interested in political theses and it gives progressive filmmakers a greater latitude in establishing their ideas.

The Last Hunt, like certain other films by director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value) attacks racism: it tells us the struggle of two buffalo hunters, who have directly contradictory ideas about their professions, at the turn of last century. Charlie kills for the pleasure of killing; Sandy needs money and is repulsed by the massacre he commits. This contrast explains the attitude of the two heroes towards their fellowmen. Charlie has a profound contempt for Indians, whom he kills every time he has the chance, and for humanity in general. Disgusted, Sandy leaves, taking with him the squaw who refused Charlie’s animal love. The last hunt is not to be, since Charlie, on watch outside Sandy’s refuge one winter night, dies in the cold. This statue of ice from the film’s last images – the evil eye, revolver in hand – resumes in a striking way the sterility, impotence and the ridiculousness of ultimately self-destructive, racist hate.

The intelligence of Brooks’ scenario lies in the fact that it explains the conflicts of a racial order through psychological motifs, through the taste for violence: killing Indians or massacring buffaloes helps satisfy one’s unhealthy needs without being pursued by justice. In contrast to literature, like that of a number of directors from across the Atlantic (Losey’s The Lawless, Biberman’s Salt of the Earth), it refuses pure and simple racism and relates it to the vagaries of individual conscience with great objectivity.

However, the film takes into account only one aspect of the problem, whereas the transposition should have allowed it broach more burning topics without fear of repercussions: if racial prejudice still exists in the United States, it’s to be explained first of all by a certain intellectual movement, typically of academic origin and completely alien to the desire for violence. Discrimination today affects Whites too, who are now victims of Blacks or, especially, dissident Whites, as much as it does Blacks.

Richard Brooks’ well-known honesty, so far rewarded, finds its limits here and the mise en scène affirms both the high and low points of the script. The Last Hunt is a curious Western, extremely slow and barely commercial. Brooks substitutes for the application and inventive sobriety of his previous films a somewhat belaboured sobriety. And there’s no contradiction between these two propositions: it’s a question of placing the characters within a framework that eliminates elements foreign to the psychology and the intentions of the auteur, particularly grand spectacle, fights and situation scenes. But if this kind of intellectual cinema is new and more probing than in the rare films that inaugurated it, is it desirable? Does it indicate progress? It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the anti-racist plea would’ve found a greater force in the exploitation of genre conventions than in this rather literary style, which instils – deliberately, I believe – sadness, boredom, barrenness through a sluggish narrative, perpetually dark colour palette and uncertain direction of actors.

These comments don’t stem from a misplaced sense of severity. The suspension of the mise en scène can be explained by the orientation of the script: the film describes beings in flight, real bodies without soul, and their blood-tainted existence. One must recall the splendid final image in this regard, which justifies the film’s style to the letter. None of this is cheerful. If The Last Hunt stands the test of time, it’s perhaps because the cinematographer, Russell Harlan, foremost of the chief operators in Hollywood, has been able to pin down this curious universe in images and because Stewart Granger and especially Robert Taylor, who gets his best role here, have been able to “embody” beings who are tortured and tormented for no reason other than the emptiness of their conscience, beings “devoid of life”.

 

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

A “Nonsense” Gem

Arts no. 471; 23 September 1959.

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

We aren’t surprised that Passez muscade, whose original title is the deliciously euphonic and mysterious Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, appears in France some eighteen years after it was made. This attempt, which the Surrealists gladly categorize among the twenty greatest dates in the history of cinema, perhaps constitutes the best example of nonsense offered to us on screen. W. C. Fields’ film, like Hellzapoppin’ which follows it chronologically, goes farther than the Marx Brothers without however equalling them. And the public is likely to express its frustration by a certain reserve.

The champions of nonsense for the sake of nonsense will praise it to the skies for its intentional alone. Those who hate nonsense will leave the theatre furious at the end of fifteen minutes. However, in fact, if this film is so amusing, it’s somewhat despite the nonsense. Because the idea of this genre is to go against all established rules, especially those of good taste, quality and reason. To put it simply, let’s say that the result tends to become better when the film becomes worse. The critic has nothing to counter this perfectly-founded argument, all the more so because Fields has thought ahead. Through a device often reused since, he tells us the story of a crazy old actor who submits a nonsensical script to a director, a script which will obviously be rejected but whose unfolding on screen we follow.

To be sure, it’s not unpleasant to see the cinematic materialization of automatic writing, which so far has seemed to be the domain of animation. Animation makes everything possible and it’s been a long time since the viewer has batted an eyelid to such excess of improbability. On the other hand, the unreality of the filmed image, rarely highlighted, strikes us at every step. These mad car races, these inaccessible rocky peaks, these free falls of the hero across space fire our imagination. But a film like Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, which accepts the laws of logic, is ten times funnier, ten times truer and also ten times more beautiful. To discover the real through falsehood, or falsehood through the real, is a more successful approach than that of Fields, forced to remain forever in a purely critical universe.

The absurd soon becomes tiresome and the amusing aspects that remain could also have been part of a more realistic and commercial movie. I’m thinking of the beautiful scenes between Fields and the bar owner, between the director and his young actress. Such observational humour, which has no place in a burlesque and which is generally banished from the Marx brothers’ films, is ultimately Fields’ greatest success.

 

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

CICIM Munich no. 22-23; June 1988.

Le Pont du Nord

French cinema of the last few years is based, above all, on the personality of its directors. To trace great trends in it runs the risk of giving a false impression since they are often foreign or contrary to the personality of the leading filmmakers, who run the risk of being sidestepped by our desire for generalization.

We then run the risk of forgetting unclassifiable auteurs or ones in constant evolution such as Demy, Varda, Biette, Gainsbourg, Serreau or Depardon. We run the risk of forgetting a very important stylistic principle such as Robert Bresson’s Partitivism: in his framing, the director of Lancelot du lac indeed tends to isolate one part of the body, to exclude the head, to favour an object or a series of objects, the moment the interest of the image seems hinged on this body part.

But if one had to absolutely put a label on current French cinema, I’d say that it’s a school of hazard. If the preceding decades had produced an art very much planned out in advance, one which attained its limits because of the permanent repetition of this premeditation, contemporary filmmakers, on the other hand, set out on in search of hazard, which alone seems to be capable of bringing something new. We have here Rozier, Rivette, Pialat, who, in the course of the film (Maine Océan, Le Pont du Nord, À nos amours), veer off into a fascinating, unplanned direction. Even a super-classical filmmaker like Rohmer adopted this practice in Le Rayon vert. This is also the working principle of the magnificent Petite suite vénetienne made by Pascal Kané and of Godard’s films. We even find a premeditated hazard in Bergala (Faux-Fuyants, Où que tu sois), whose scripts set off in directions which (wrongly) seem the products of chance. More simply, such hazard can be discovered by the actor’s improvisation (in Doillon, in Téchiné).

That brings us to a cinema of actors, hinged on the expression of emotions binding two or more characters together. A cinema that replaces social tapestry with bourgeois individualism so criticized by the Marxists. That’s normal for a country like France which, in the past forty years, hasn’t really know great crises: neither famine, nor revolution or dictatorship or war.  This is the cinema of Rohmer, who strikes us with his exacerbated minimalism, of Doillon, whose psychoanalytic sense is in struggle with a taste for improvisation and in whose work love comes about through the artificial creation of a conflict, a breakup, of Pialat, of Breillat (Tapage nocturne) and often of Truffaut (La Femme d’à côté).

There is also a cinema founded on the grandeur of the image which, except in Garrel, seems independent of the principle above. Contrary to what one might suppose, this essentially visual cinema, full of light and shadow effects (Garrel, Bard, Azimi, Duras) is often a broke cinema with a precarious existence. A new variant is the music-video-movie (Beineix and, on a more elaborate level, Carax): every shot wants to be a masterpiece and is built on a strong conception of lighting. But this is often at the expense of the story, if by misfortune, there is a story.

Another characteristic is the dissociation of image and sound, which we find in Hanoun, Duras, Straub, Godard, Ruiz, a new variation on counterpoint as defined by the Russians in 1930. The most famous example is the noise of seagulls over Parisian metro in Godard’s films – a way of glorifying both elements through their contrast, where an audiovisual coincidence usually tends to put the viewer to sleep.

Counterpoint doesn’t stop there in Godard. It is systematized, extended to other elements every time it can be, notably to the relation between different parts of the image. Ruiz, on the other hand, narrates a fantastic story on trivial images (Brise-glace, L’Hypothèse du tableau vole).

In France, there is a family of dark humourists (Mocky, Blier, Marboeuf, Grand-Jouan, Sentier). There is also a whole new art born of the economic necessity of shooting quickly (one to three weeks for Vecchiali, Duras, Biette). We also notice writer-filmmakers moving from one mode of expression to another with the greatest of ease. Among the golden quartet of current literature (Weyergans, Duras, Breillat, Cavanna), three of the four have made films. Rohmer alternates between theatre and cinema. Pierre Kast has been able write a novel, Le Bonheur ou le Pouvoir, the same year he made a film, Le Soleil en face, which are both of high quality. End of specialization…

We also find classical filmmakers of quality (Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut), who – the first two at least – are faithful to a traditional structure in the same genre. More generally in the past few years, we notice a return to narrativity, to a more classical presentation, the structuralist and poetic audacities of post-1968 tending to disappear perhaps under the influence of commercial censorship or self-censorship. It’s difficult today to imagine non-narrative films like those of Bard or Silvina Boissonas, even of Garrel. On the other hand, there is a public and critical consensus towards narrative forms like those of Chabrol and Rohmer, quite identical from one film to another, which allows for a certain perfection but also carries the risk of fossilization. French cinema, like the Italian one, tends to become a cinema of the old. At Venice in 1984, French cinema was represented – brilliantly for that matter – by the four great Rs: Rouch, Rohmer, Resnais, Rivette, with an average age of sixty-two. In contrast, the fifties generation has brought us no revelation whatsoever till date.

Experimentation seems to be reserved for certain senior filmmakers who can have their way thanks to their reputation: Resnais, whose every new film constitutes a challenge, a wager, Duras, who approaches her themes through successive recurrence of undulatory movements, Godard.

Ever since Jack Lang became the Minister of Culture (1981-1986), France is also the host country for foreigners like Hollywood once was: South-Americans (Ruiz, Jodorowsky, Santiago, Solanas), North-Americans (Kramer, Berry), Algerians (Allouache), Japanese (Oshima), Italians (Monicelli, Ferreri), Egyptians (Chahine), Polish (Zulawski, Polanski, Wajda, Borowczyk), Greek (Papatakis), Belgians (Akerman), Portuguese (Oliveira), Dutch (Ivens), which makes the notion of nationality often outdated.

Another surprising aspect is the pre-eminence of meteors, exceptional films overlooking an uneven or disappointing body of work (Blier’s Tenue de soirée, Deville’s Dossier 51) or other unique or near-unique works (Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Koleva’s L’État de bonheur permenante, Dubroux’s Les Amants terribles, Breillat’s Tapage nocturne, Rouqier’s Biquefarre, Devers’ Noir et Blanc). Isolated bodies of work like those of Lampedusa, Clarin, Chamisso, Lautréamont, Lowry. This unsettles a number of people in the country where the politique des auteurs was born.

We can also list negative commonalities: predominance of crime movies, highly stylized photography working against the film, moral anachronisms (soixante-huitard behaviour in films set in the past), virtuoso verbalism of the characters for the dialogue writer to showboat with, leftist boyscoutism, where we find nothing more than in the day’s edition of Libération, overload of plot twists to avoid slow passages, lack of first-hand information about the milieux described, endless repetition of characters’ chief trait etc.

 

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

Journal de la SRF no. 7; February 1982.

Sauve qui peut la vie

The best films in France today have, for the most part, what is called a “reduced” audience: between 15,000 and 1,000 viewers for Femmes femmes, J’ai voulu rire comme les autres, Passe-Montagne, Le Berceau de Cristal, Courts-circuits, Guns, Rue du Pied-de-Grue, Dora, Daguerréotypes, Vincent mit l’ane…, In girum imus nocte…,Sérail, L’Automne, Agatha, Out One, Dehors dedans, Paradiso, Le Jardinier…

The responsibility for these “failures” is often attributed to a non-conformity to the standardization imposed by the Big Villain, the three-headed oligopoly. But that’s to forget that the situation is similar, or worse, in our neighbouring countries without an oligopoly (Benelux, Switzerland) and that, in most of these cases, the Big Three have done what they could… That’s to say very little. For the problem is more serious: there is a refusal by the majority of the viewers to leave their house to go to the movies.

Hence the importance of television, our staple medium, over which our attachment to the past often prefers theatrical screenings. Let’s recall Gilson’s La Brigade: 3,000 theatrical admissions, 9 million television viewers.

It’s viewers who push the oligopoly (which sometimes prefers the nice role of the patron of the arts) towards standardization through trends, genres, and guaranteed names so that their precious time away from home and the money they spend are a sure investment while the quality of the films could only be the product of copyists.

Over eighty years, this demand for standardized products, reinforced by the capitalists of silent cinema, has continued to a point where, for a lot of viewers, the notion of quality has become one with the notion of standard. Especially in France, the cradle of an old, tired civilization, much less open to difference than the American and the African ones. For proof, you just have to look at all the customers who walked out of the aforementioned films midway.

It’s difficult to overwhelm the viewer when we, the filmmakers, ask retailers for the same cigarettes, the same aprons, beefsteaks, rump steaks, the same brand of shirts through the years.

And how could a viewer appreciate Rivette, De Gregario or Kast if he doesn’t know South-American literature (which too has a readership in France of less than 15,000), an indispensable stage in the thought process of these filmmakers? Can he appreciate Grandperret’s sense of ellipse if he has never tried his hand at editing and if he hasn’t been exasperated like us by the humdrum of the dominant narrative? If he watches ten films a year, isn’t it normal that, like the non-filmmaker creators in Cannes juries, he finds originality in the standardized product that we, after two hundred viewings a year, hate?

From Matisse to Schoenberg, from Joyce to Calder, from Beckett to Straub, contemporary art tends to be an art for the initiated. Is it possible to appreciate modern painting without having followed every step of its evolution over the last hundred years? Can we like a book without learning the language? Renoir, who passes for a popular filmmaker, said that, of the five thousand customers at Gaumont-Palace, only five really saw the film. By this measure, are the viewers of “hits” like Providence or Sauve qui peut really more in number than those of Duras or Hanoun?

That’s why the chief problem of French cinema will not be resolved by economic planning, but by the compulsory teaching of cinema at school, the analysis of films and the study of the evolution of cinema on television channels.

Teaching literature at school can be questioned. But it’s thanks to it that we don’t praise Ponson du Terrail to the detriment of Stendhal, Delly or Des Cars instead of Bernanos or Proust. On the other hand, they tell you: L’Arche perdue, les Baskets and the Disney factory over Duras, Garrel and Rivette.

The public must be changed.

Another major problem: earlier, the spectator used to make his choice based on the theatre, the genre and the star. Today, he also tends to choose according to the auteur of the film. To such a point that very few great filmmakers succeed in concealing themselves behind the genre or the actor. They are automatically assimilated into “auteur cinema”. In the olden days, before being a film by X or Y, Monsieur Lange passed for a crime movie by Jules Berry, La Petite Lise and La Vénus aveugle for serial melodramas. Les Dames du bois de Boulogne for a worldly drama by Paul Bernard. La Ronde for a bawdy film. These at least had their share of guaranteed earnings as genre films or star films – something which would be impossible today.

The tragedy is that the public which demands auteurs, unless it spends its entire life at the movies, can only “absorb” a limited number of these auteurs, those which constitute a must, in general one per country, Bergman, Saura, Wajda, Tarkovsky, S. Ray. In France, there are Truffaut and Resnais, and, in the standing room, Rohmer, Godard, and then Lelouch-Sautet-Tavernier-Blier (even if their status as auteurs is questioned). The others are in the anteroom.

Now, in France there are a hundred auteurs, another hundred pretending to be, and another thousand waiting for the chance to prove that they are auteurs. The “politique des auteurs” has thus created a gigantic garbage. Solution? Make double-billing compulsory to include an ‘arthouse’ film, encourage increase in production methods and video distribution. Create the idea of a regional auteur through a quota for regional films, eating a little into international auteurs. Promote a larger number of French auteurs at the expense of fake auteurs (Schlöndorff, Ken Russell, Scola).

 

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