[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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[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

[The following is a translation I did with Andy Rector of the 14-page interview with Jean-Luc Godard that appears in the October issue of Cahiers du Cinéma]

That is what is beautiful about The Image Book. The whole life piles up. You keep everything with you.

I debuted in the second Revue de cinéma when it was with Gallimard and it was with the help of Doniol-Valcroze that I entered Cahiers little by little. Doniol-Valcroze was the son of a friend of my mother’s at the Victor-Duruy high school. I thought he received me because of that. I learnt later that he was demobilized and took refuge in Switzerland. It was my mother who got him to France, to Thonon, on a little speedboat called “the hyphen” and with which we often went vacationing in my grandfather’s property. I discovered that after Doniol-Valcroze’s death. I wasn’t against the Cahiers management at that time. He was the editor-in-chief along with Bazin. He was a “gentle man” in the literal sense of the term. I didn’t know Bazin like Truffaut did at all. I knew Bazin as the head of a communist organization, Work and Culture, just opposite the Beaux-Arts. There was a small library opposite run by a friend of Rivette’s from Rouen. It’s a story that I attached myself to little by little, not from the beginning, but there are all these stories I want to keep to myself. I was prudent like the Delacroix character. I stole some money from one of my uncles to finance Rivette’s first short film, Le Quadrille.

Whom did you feel closest to?

Rivette. Then Truffaut, but before he made Les Mistons. I don’t know if he was already married to Madeleine Morgenstern, whom I liked a lot. He’d become rich by this point. Madeleine Morgenstern’s father was the head of a distribution company called Cocinor in the Nord region and in Paris. But when he wrote “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”, I hung out with him a lot. I wasn’t so much with Rivette. We could go see films at 2pm and leave at midnight because it was a single-admission cinema. I’d give up after an hour or two. Rivette stayed until the end. Rohmer had a different life. He was a professor and lived in a small hotel opposite the Sorbonne. His name was Schérer and he started signing “Rohmer” so that his mother didn’t know he led a dissolute life in cinema. These were three different friends. It was real camaraderie with Schérer—I still call him Schérer—Rivette and Truffaut. Schérer was one of the few who knew which woman I was in love with, and I was the only one to know that he was in love with the wife of an old head—a communist—of the CNC. Rohmer was ten years older and he was the counterbalance to Bazin and Pierre Kast. In The Image Book, I have a shot of the Liberation of Paris. We see an FFI member from behind, with a gun on his back, speaking to a woman on her knees. To my mind, this man was always Pierre Kast. I hope it’s true.

We get the feeling that you didn’t have political discussions at Cahiers at that time.

Very little. It was the cinema. Even girls were a secret. I remember a moment during the Algeria war. I was at the Place de l’Alma with Rivette. A car sped by with the “nee-naw” of the OAS siren. I saw that as a shot by Douglas Sirk. And Rivette chided me. I couldn’t see things politically at that time. The one who could easily do that was Straub, because he was there from the beginning.

 

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]

Tit for Tarn

Cahiers du cinéma no. 553; January 2001.

There is a break in Alain Guiraudie’s body of work, a radical change of direction, between his first short films, Les héros sont immortels (1990), Tout droit jusqu’au matin (1994), and his later films, the short La Force des choses (1997) and the medium-length Du soleil pour les gueux (1999).

In the first period, it’s a static art centred around a single location in a town, a large doorway (Héros) or a street (Tout droit), and based on a perpetual volubility that analysed provincial ennui, the limitations of the horizons of life in Blagnac or Rignac and the paltry efforts to (not) get out of the place. The abundance of text, off-putting at first, intrigues and stuns us with its permanence, its rapidity and its complete, frontally-exposed account of existence: Guiraudie’s characters answer each other without a second’s respite, giving tit for tat, tit for Tarn rather, since all of it takes place in the Tarn department of France or its surroundings—Guiraudie always films within a hundred kilometres of Gaillac, where he currently lives after having left his native Rouergue and taken up all kinds of jobs, including that of a location manager. It’s this speed of response—more than the rapidity, the permanence and the acuity of speech—that produces the emotion.

Today, it’s the contrary. Guiraudie has forgotten the city and headed to the countryside: forests (La Force des choses), Causses (Du soleil pour les gueux). These are films where we see hardly see a house, whereas we saw nothing but houses before. And Guiraudie substitutes for the painstaking description of everyday life in the province an imaginary world where characters have unpronounceable names: Djemagalone, Chaouchmaline—sorry, “mister Chaouchmaline”—Poulixanosasdai, Astanojovira, Erixolovodon, where the city-bred heroine sets out to the Causse du Larzac in search of men she doesn’t know but is a fervent groupie of: the ounaye shepherds. The ounaye is an animal we’ll never see, and which we’ll hear only in the last shot of the film. It’s something like the dahu or the unicorn of Larzac. From the world of Eustache, of Guédiguian and even of Flaubert, we go straight into that of Swift, of Butler or of Jarry. The turn towards pure fantasy is all the more provocative given that we are in Larzac, a place charged with socio-political implications. We jump from José Bové to Lewis Carroll.

An evident rupture, indeed, but there are also underground links. Firstly, the films are still set in a single location, outdoors instead of indoors, a forest or a Causse instead of a doorway or a street, and shortly a factory in Ce vieux rêve qui bouge (2000), which is convenient when you don’t have a lot of money, but which is also an aesthetic choice: you can shoot in multiple locations when broke too, it doesn’t take too much money. And it’s a good idea to harness one setting in depth over one hour if needed rather than jump from one setting to another.

Other links: Guiraudie’s volubility carries on even further. And the natural setting particularly embodies the elsewhere, the other side for those marked by provincial ennui1. Nathalie Sanchez, the ounaye fan, tells us that she works at a hairstyling salon where she makes 5,500 francs a month. The characters discuss ounayes, only to get back to the thirty-nine-hour workweek.

This sudden burst of realism into unrealism, naturalism into the artificial, is perhaps what makes for the essential power of Du soleil pour les gueux, which was THE big moment of the Pantin Festival and in which Guiraudie, at thirty-five, finally attains complete mastery of his art: the surge of dream-like, absurd, fantastical, hyper-fictive elements is constantly contradicted, revived and reinforced—a marvellous and enjoyable dialectic—by peaks where the naturalness, spontaneity and cheekiness—in the very speech, in the tone and in the manner—of Isabelle Girardet, who plays Nathalie Sanchez, shows through, alternating the familiar, “come on, hurry up”, “Oh là là”, “So that’s what an ounaye is!” (she’s then rather disappointed), and the straitlaced, “so be it”, or “the issue will be heard shortly”. There are even rhymes: “tenu, inaperçu, prévenu”. She’s brilliantly complemented by the extravagant and incompetent bounty hunter, who introduces himself as a “chase warrior” and who claims that he’s worn out by the jet lag on his return from Siberia.

This perpetual back and forth was already seen in La Force des choses, when the young heiress, who wanders the woods in a bright-red, very nineteenth century evening dress, rebels against her kidnappers: “Are you nuts?!”, and complains about the ordeals she was put through: “Especially with my scoliosis…”, but La Force des choses, a rough draft and prelude to Du Soleil pour les gueux, doesn’t have the power of the latter. Firstly because the female character that Guiraudie’s dialectic is based on and who grounds the viewer faced with a spate of the irrational only appears halfway into the film, while she is present right from the start in Du soleil. And finally and especially because the forest is an infinitely more banal and more familiar setting than the Causse, which is rather ignored by French cinema (with the exception of Pollet’s Sang).

The Causse, a flat and vast place that evokes the puszta so dear to Mikos Jancso, brings an emotion-producing aesthetic value, in conjunction with the sky and the clouds that necessarily complement it, the camera often capturing more sky than earth in the frame. The theatrical discourse—of a rare quality, à la Blier—is magnified, intensified and authenticated by the presence of nature and the evident formal splendour: it’s a theatre of vast spaces, a theatre without limits (the Causse is the place in France where we can see the farthest), a theatre of immensity, an infinite stage. Cinema, like in the latest Godard, is first and foremost a choice of sky and of clouds (cf. also the sea of clouds over the valley in La Force des choses).

There is, among other things, a magnificent shot where the head and the torso of a character in motion appear alone, deep in the frame, over the line of tall grass in the Causse.

But the Causse doesn’t just have an aesthetic value: within the Larzac, even when we move around—and the hero doesn’t stop moving in the film—we get the impression of being at the same spot. In addition to the formal value and the intense recreational value, we have a realist value obtained through a metaphor. Even when we go Elsewhere, we go around ourselves, exactly like we do Here, in the everyday world we flee. The criminal on the run wants to leave the Causse for the city, but he’ll never get the courage to do it. Immensity becomes inseparable from the Speck. It’s reduced to Void.

It’s in this that Guiraudie finds himself in the avant-garde of Aquitanian cinema, which (after Eustache, Breillat, Téchiné, Kané, Nolot…) is increasingly turning out to be the driving force of our cinema. The Garonne, and not the Seine, is the true lifeblood of French cinematic art. The tragic melancholy of Aquitanian petty bourgeoisie is at once erased and reinforced by the landscape. An integral regionalism—as opposed to the more limited, solely script-driven regionalism of a Denis, a Vautier or a Guédiguian—far from the usual agro-metallurgic grumblings.

Faced with this haunting locale, seen continuously for almost an hour, a shot of four seconds of the valley below produces an intense emotion. The Causse is defined as an “elsewhere”, but it has its own “elsewhere”, whose brief glimpse seems to betray its illusory character.

The film must not be reduced to a fixed aesthetic pattern: it’s constantly renewed—and made more discreet—by movements that are as incessant and contradictory as they are paltry and apparently useless.

This is how Guiraudie unwittingly arrives at the principle behind the “Indian chase” (forgotten by the Hollywood Western), which, among the Sioux or the Navajos, consisted of tracking the enemy over many days without approaching him or seeking to capture him: this obsessive and apparently perpetual pursuit always ended with the pursued man voluntarily surrendering without a combat. Du Soleil pour les gueux (what a terrible title for such a beautiful film!) reverses the principle: it’s the pursued man who lets the bounty hunter come close to him, but not too close. He even taunts his pursuer by going back near him and compels him to give up, since the hunter knows well that he’ll never get his hands on his prey. New version of Achilles and the tortoise.

A play of directions—all paths criss-crossing—but also of steps, now slow, now lively or opposed in the same shot: the shepherd walks normally on the tall grass, but behind him, Nathalie Sanchez keeps jumping over each group of plants, losing a lot of time in the process. She is then forced to systematically alter her tempo to keep up with him.

Speaking of systematism, we must make note of the film’s audacious cladding principle (principe de placage), made of long and wide shots (like Ce vieux rêve qui bouge), constructed around the unexpected arrival of inappropriate and unusual music. There are also, in a long shot with two characters, these annoying blades of grass in the foreground (that another filmmaker would have cut out: aesthetic provocation, or ecological concern, or both?). There are especially these long texts, off-screen but nonetheless synchronized with the image, where we hear the characters speak from up close and on the same sound level while walking at a hundred meters from the camera. This cladding principle, so repulsive in television and elsewhere, is fruitful here because its excess (perhaps deriving from a modesty of means) stylizes the film in a way that’s provocative, clearly desired by the filmmaker and ultimately very impressive.

Here’s a work which is like nothing else in French cinema today. We could establish links to Beckett or Pasolini (Ninetto Davoli’s movements in wide shots, the landscapes of Oedipus Rex or of Pigsty). But the difference of place and characters ensures that these are only distant parallels. More relevant seems to be the influence of Godard: the period costume and the familiar tone of Sandra Casellini in the forest of La Force des choses recalls the Emily Bronte of Weekend played by Anne Wiazemsky. And more generally, the constant juxtaposition of the unreal and the spontaneous brings to mind the work of Juliet Berto and that of Laurence Côte in The Power of Speech. But here too, we are dealing with a principle (too) rare in cinema: we’d be better of speaking of homage rather than plagiarism.

The most unquestionable aspect of Guiraudie’s work resides in the way he continuously jumps from one shot to the next, and even within a shot from one register, one point of interest to another: formal splendour, spontaneous acting, total fun, down-to-earth naturalism, avant-garde cladding, ennui, play of costumes, private jokes (the script seen in front of the camera, the oral credits of Héros). Guiraudie avoids redundancy with all this. A superior grace comes out of the whole, a twirling suppleness. What we witness is a very elaborate, almost Mozartian musical structure.

 

1Homosexuality in a working-class milieu—Ce vieux rêve qui bouge—is a utopia comparable to that of the ounayes.

 

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

Real Winner of the Tours Festival, Isn’t Among the Awardees

Arts no. 754; 23 December 1959.

Baldi told me later that I’d described his films exactly like the way he conceived them. He offered to produce a short film for me. It was Capito? (1962).

My first three films were produced at the initiative of filmmakers I had lauded. Do not see any craftiness on my part there.

Three films dominated the fifth international short film festival of Tours: Il Pianto delle zitelle (1958), La Vigilia di mezza estate (1958) and Via dei Cessati Spiriti (1959) are all the works of Gian Vittorio Baldi. A pilgrimage to Abruzzo at an altitude of thousand and eight hundred meters, the celebration of St. John’s Eve in a small village, prostitution in a specialized street in Rome—this diversity clearly shows that Baldi isn’t involved any more in religious propaganda than communist propaganda. He is a documentarian first and foremost, doesn’t exactly belong to any neorealist group and has more affinities with the Rossellini of India than with Zavattini-De Sica.

Critics at Tours sneered before the processions filmed by Baldi, who had a bone to pick with the censors for his film on prostitution. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people understand what a really documentary, objective and impartial cinema is. Baldi films reality and Il Pianto is a pitiless report on mystic madness as well as a hymn to God. […] Baldi shows what he sees: some sequences in his films are shot on the spot, with almost no preparation, as though they were news items. One can’t help but improvise while filming a real procession. But if we French are sensitive to the documentary value of Baldi’s work, the Italian Rouch, we are nevertheless less sensitive to its remarkable formal beauty, perhaps because some typically-Italian details go over our head.

 

Rediscovered simplicity

Baldi’s crew must’ve done an extraordinary work on colour—Baldi only shoots in colour. Normally so mediocre, Ferraniacolor produces stunning effects thanks to an expert colour matching. Even when there’s improvisation, it almost always gives the impression of an extremely rigorous and concerted composition. It’s Visconti, say some. But Baldi denies all influence. The blacks and the reds of Pianto are as beautiful as those of Minnelli’s Some Came Running; the yellows and the greens of La Vigilia, whose admirable final shot evokes Mizoguchi and Anthony Mann at once, are nearly as beautiful as those of Chabrol’s À double tour.

In the first shot of Via, we think we are dealing with black and white. Some seconds later, we think it’s a sepia or colour print. At the end of a minute, we realize, as we do during the river sequence of La Vigilia, that these are colours of the night, which slowly converge to an admirable pale green when a candle is lit. After the ceremony of the procession, we have the ceremony of the whore, who calmly takes out the tools of her trade one by one. Upon reflection, these gestures of an artisanal intelligence seem unbelievable in a prostitute, but the composition is remarkably balanced by the simplicity of improvisation. No matter, since the gestures, the gait of the girl have a beauty we will find only among the whores of Mizoguchi.

Comparing it to the great mediocrity of other films, I’m perhaps overestimating Baldi’s work. It’s nevertheless a cinema that I’m personally inclined to hate, a cinema based—regardless of Baldi’s intentions—on the notion of perfection foreign to the purest of arts, that of a Griffith, Fuller, Renoir. But perhaps the search for perfection is justified in the documentary, which shouldn’t rely on the vagaries of actors’ performance and should only strive to overcome technical difficulties of colour.

 

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