Uma pequena seleção de críticas de Andrew Sarris, um dos melhores cr[iticos americanos que faleceu hoje.
DIALOGUE OF A SCHIZOCRITIC
A. Seen any movies lately?
B. Mostly odds and ends.
A. Like what?
B. Like Loss of Innocence, The Interns, Light in the Piazza, View from the Bridge, Tales of Paris, Safari, Panic in the Year Zero, Jessica, Boys’ Night Out, Woman They Almost Lynched,
Walk on the Wild Side.
A. Let’s stop right there. You’ve made your point.
B. These are all relatively unimportant films, most of them quite vile, and only one of them with the slightest auteur interest.
A. You mean Lumet’s View from the Bridge?
B. No. Dwan’s Woman They Almost Lynched.
A. You’re being perverse again.
B. I know, but there’s nothing to be done about it.
A. All right. Be a martyr. What’s the verdict on Woman They Almost Lynched?
B. The jury is still out. After all, this is Republic, 1953, with a lot of has-beens Joan Leslie, Audrey Totter, John Lund, Brian Donlevy. The action is set in a border town, half in the Union and half in the Confederacy. The James and Younger boys are still running around with Quantrill’s raiders. Joan Leslie, a refined lady from back East, inherits her brother’s gambling casino after said brother is shot by John Lund, who is really a Confederate intelligence officer working as foreman in some nearby lead mines. Lund kills with admirable reluctance, because Joan’s brother only wants to shoot hard-drinking, fast-living Audrey Totter, who has deserted
brother to be Quantrill’s woman. It would take too long to explain why Audrey Totter and Joan Leslie have a showdown on Main Street or why Miss Leslie is almost lynched when she tries to save Lund.
A. Or why you worry about the picture at all.
B. I know, but there is something refreshingly frank about Dwan’s treatment of this material. I can’t decide whether it’s a question of vitality or vulgarity, but either way, this is not the kind
of lazy or jaded film-making one usually expects in the lower depths. The trouble is it’s hard to find anyone comparable to Dwan working on this naive pulp level, and so I have to reserve judgment.
A. Some of the French critics treat Dwan as Griffith’s ghost.
B. But in a very marginal conception of his career. The French always seem to be most fascinated by those directors engulfed in the damnation of necessity. If Dwan is Griffith’s ghost, and Ulmer is Murnau’s ghost, what to do with the total Dwan-Ulmer output, which is more often ghastly than ghostly by any conventional stand ards? It is on this level that the auteur theory is most vulnerable to the charge of idiocy. The critic is placed in a delicate position. If he recommends Woman They Almost Lynched to the lay audience, he creates a false expectation of eyepopping art. To fully appreciate Dwan here, one must be able to perceive what a hundred other directors on Poverty Row would have done with this silly material, and this is difficult for the average moviegoer, who tries to see only the most essential films. Thus there is little point
in arguing Dwan’s case too strenuously, but somewhere, sometime, a reader may stumble on a minor Dwan film and remember vaguely that Dwan was worthy of a little attention despite his low estate, and the film might then burst into the pleasurable spectrum of tarnished creation. I have “pulled” Dwan on unsuspecting friends with gratifying results.
A. I think you have a weakness for old directors.
B. And dead ones too. Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Griffith, Stroheim, Vigo, Eisenstein, Lubitsch, Becker, Flaherty. Of the living, Renoir, Dreyer, Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Chaplin, Rossellini, Bunuel, Hawks and that just about makes up a twenty-name definition of the cinema; but there are others, and there will be more to come. Of the newcomers, I’d bet on Godard at this point, with reservations about a possible tendency toward self-destruction.
A. Let’s get back to the other movies you’ve seen recently.
B. As you wish. Lumet’s View from the Bridge indicates how much the cinema has changed in the past twenty-five years. It’s not just that studio exteriors, whether from Hollywood or UFA,
have just about had it, but that audiences have become optically sophisticated. Realism is now a commercial necessity even when the subject matter seems to dictate stylization.
A. Dwight Macdonald was bothered by the location quality of New York clashing with the conventions of musical comedy in West Side Story.
B. I know and some critics have defended DaCosta’s complete fakery in The Music Man. We are going through a painful period of adjustment, with every critic thrashing around for a personal aesthetic. The thin line between documentary and fiction is less visible than ever, and I don’t think this is all to the good.
A. Why not?
B. If critics and audiences develop a resistance to stylistic con ventions, the cinema may be shackled by the kind of pseudorealism that has virtually destroyed the theater as a creative arena.
A. This is all very abstract. How does it apply to View from the Bridge?
B. Well, Sidney Lumet has transformed Arthur Miller’s choppy stab at Greek tragedy into a chillingly photographed slice of life, on the whole an intelligent process of draining off most of the pretentiousness into the gutter. An international cast has worked for once as an instrument of abstraction. Raf Vallone, Jean Sorel, Raymond Pellegrin, Maureen Stapleton, Carol Lawrence are so detached from any social context that they become relatively universal. Vallone is particularly inspired casting.
A. His virile force and subtle comedy style reminded me of Magnani in The Rose Tattoo.
B. True, but the film doesn’t work, because Miller’s Freudian-Stalinist determinism defrauds the street tragedy of any meaning. The idea of rationalizing Vallone’s reactionary political act as the
product of unconscious sexual repression is an example of muddled thinking.
A. Now, wait a minute. Coriolanus operates on the separate levels of Freud, Marx, and Machiavelli; Chaplin’s anal ballet with a balloon in The Great Dictator is a Freudian interpretation of Hitler and let’s not forget Eisenstein’s Ivan kissing the chosen assassin of Ivan’s family.
B. For Coriolanus, The Great Dictator, and Ivan The Terrible I would invoke the richness of their ambiguities, their many views from the bridge. In Miller there is only one view. Anyway, there is a merit beyond meaning in the other works, to which Miller’s bad play has no serious relevance. However, what interests me is the way Lumet has handled this stylized material in 1962, as opposed to the way Santell approached Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset in 1936.
A. I remember that Anderson’s horribly effeminate blank verse called for someone like John Garfield to tear it to pieces. Instead, we had Burgess Meredith sensitively intoning it as if it were Holy Writ.
B. But Meredith was consistent with the poetic design of the production. Everything about the film was fake and unreal, because this was serious poetry as opposed to those other gangster movies, which were just supposed to make money. Lumet’s meaty, realistic treatment is superior to Santell’s fake artiness mainly because Lumet is trying to make a commercial success out of a flop play. Unfortunately, Lumet does not have a strong personality of his own, with the result that he is never quite as good as his best material and never quite as bad as his worst. Still,
it’s nice to have him around in this new age of package deals. At the very least, he doesn’t obstruct the work of good actors.
A. How was Carol Lawrence?
B. She’s properly cast here, but she seems a limited type for the movies, more on the order of Anne Bancroft and Ina Balin.
A. Was there any point in seeing Walk on the Wild Side, beside Saul Bass?
B. Not really, but Bass looks ready to direct a feature film. His cat titles are very ambitious in a new way. Otherwise, Walk on the Wild Side is one of the silliest movies in years, but not in the way you might expect. The script is a hodge-podge of compromise with a bawdy novel, but Dmytryk is such a dull director that the absurdity of the script becomes boring. Jane Fonda is the most interesting player, although most of her scenes are paralyzed by the intolerable presence of Laurence Harvey. Why the movie chose to add lesbianism to Algren’s material I have no idea.
A. Sidney Skolsky claims that the cat gave a better performance than Jane Fonda,
B. That’s unfair. The cat was directed by Bass while Miss Fonda was directed by Dmytryk. The auteur theory works with players too.
A. How about The Interns?
B. Well, it’s supposed to gross five million domestic, and that ain’t peanut brittle.
A. Is that your excuse for seeing it?
B. Pretty much. I also wanted to take a look at some of the younger players we have around.
A. How did they come out?
B. Michael Callan, Cliff Robertson, and James MacArthur are serviceable types. I was disappointed again in Suzy Parker. She looked so pretty on “Open End” recently that I thought some director might be able to get something out of her. She still can’t act, but that hasn’t been fatal in the past. Her hairdo was wrong, and for some reason she projected the sullen anguish of Tina Louise. I can see why The Interns is making money, aside from its tie-in with Television’s “Ben Casey” and the revamped “Dr. Kildare.” The plot has a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. David Swift is slick enough after his stint with Disney to package the corn with reasonable skill. The abortion plot line interested me particularly. Cliff Robertson steals some pills to help Suzy Parker out of her predicament. Robertson’s best friend, James
MacArthur, turns him in and gets him disbarred. MacArthur is the ail-American boy. He is nobly motivated by a desire to bring children into the world. He meets a nurse, who wants to travel while she is young. He forces her to choose between travel and marriage and makes her give up a lifelong dream in exchange for domestic bliss. The other characters, even Robertson, end up admiring MacArthur for this integrity, and the audience hates his guts. I find this interesting.
A. He sounds like the good woman described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters: “She is the sort of person who lives for others you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.” Let’s tick them off now. Jessica?
B. In two words, Angie Dickinson. The picture is vile, as is customary with Negulesco after Cinemascope. Before Cinema scope he was interesting, with Johnny Belinda, Road House,
Three Strangers, Deep Valley far superior to Delmer Daves, for example. After Cinemascope, I must admit that the bravura badness of Daves is more striking than the sagginess of Negulesco. The cast is an international mess, Maurice Chevalier and Noel Noel as Italians, Gabriele Ferzetti from Antonioni, Agnes Moorehead from Welles, Angie, of course, from Hawks, Kerima from Sir Carol Reed, and various nondescript French and Italian actresses. I’m sorry, but Angie made even this tasteless tripe worth seeing.
A, That sounds like a breach in the auteur theory.
B. I don’t care. I only wish Hawks had used Angie instead of Elsa Martinelli in Hatari. And if he is looking for another French actress, I would like to recommend Alexandra Stewart. Speaking
of Hatari, did you know that in the 1956 Safari, with Janet Leigh and Victor Mature, they are hunting for a lion named Hatari?
A. No, I didn’t know that.
B. You should go to the movies more.
A. I prefer reading books.
B. Cultural snobl
A. Movie junkie!
B. Enough. Here is another tidbit, more down the alley of Films in Review. Did you know that Bessie Love appears in Loss of Innocence as an American tourist, stupid, of course?
A. No, I didn’t know that either, but I remember some New York film critic voting for Loss as best picture of the year.
B. It’s vile. The awakening of a young girl to the duplicity of adult life. A muted Addinsell score and never-never-land pastel colors, a delicate novel by Rumer Godden, and all you need is
Lewis Gibert to direct. Adult themes. Danielle Darrieux and Claude Nollier have a lesbian relationship.
A. I’m shocked.
B. The children in the film are shocked too. That’s what makes the film so sensitive, tender, poignant, straining on the brink of anticipation. In short, it stinks. The critics who love this for its delicacy undoubtedly hate the genuine lyricism of Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass. Now, there is a film that plucks nature out by the roots and offers it to man as a token of his life. I must add that Susannah York gives a skillful performance and will probably be an interesting actress once she washes off the adolescent ruddiness from her cheeks. Interesting eyes for a fake character, and Danielle Darrieux looks much less used up than Kenneth More, although in the script it’s supposed to be the other way around. As for Light in the Piazza, Yvette Mimieux is very pretty in another false part. She may turn out to be a replacement for May Britt.Guy Green is a clever director who almost gets by until you start thinking about him. He plays a double game with the audience, drawing them into a problem, which is then painlessly resolved. The Mark and Light in the Piazza have nasty subjects that are glossed over by making apparent victims of mental disorder and retardation idyllically identifiable to the audience. There is no reason why Stuart Whitman cannot make a good husband and Yvette Mimieux a good wife, but if their characters were straight to begin with, the audience would get bored, because, like most minor directors, Green cannot sustain interest in a character with out the intrigue of a problem. A better director would have treated Light in the Piazza as a paradox, since what is often most endearing about adults is the remnants of their innocence.
A. Besides, you can’t have problem films about photogenic people. Beautiful people transcend society to illuminate the universe. They can express the highest aspirations of Everyman, but never the pressing needs of the anonymous mass and the afflicted minority.
B. But if I must choose between beautiful people and ugly problems, I will choose the beautiful people and leave the problems to the politicians. For some people, I suppose, the biggest
problem is the Bomb, and Panic in the Year Zero has enough anti-Bomb propaganda to choke a horse. Ray Milland directed it as a scabrous quickie, with five killings and a rape to jolly things along just the treatment this exalted subject deserves.
A. Anything else before we close up shop?
B. Yes, I liked Roger Vadim’s new discovery, Catherine Deneuve, in the last episode of Tales of Paris. She is an improvement on Annette and even Brigitte.
A. Til give you just three words to sum up your conception of the cinema as reflected in all these bad movies.
B. Girls! Girls! Girls!
A. The truth is out at last.
New York Film Bulletin, May 15, 1962
I want to say a few words about the job of a script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who – generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director writes the script or scenario, that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera are minutely indicated, one by one. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinematographic technique, mise-en-sc&ne, and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the script writer’s part in the film is of the first importance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema
has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression and one does not really see how else they can be judged the script-writer is an artist who, although he gives his best to the film, never has the comfort of knowing that he has expressed himself. And so, with all his creative work, he can be nothing more than a provider of suggestions and inventions, of technical, psychological and literary ideas; it is then the director’s task to make use of this material according to his own genius and, in fact, to express himself.
Alberto Moravia, Ghost at Noon
Contempt is not playing anywhere at the moment, and we can only hope that it will not disappear like Muriel, another casualty of the currently and locally fashionable anti-intellectualism where movies are concerned. Even in the most enlightened circles, how
ever, the mere notion of Jean-Luc Godard directing a million-dollar international coproduction of Alberto Moravia’s Ghost at Noon in Rome and Capri for Carlo Ponti and Joe Levine seemed the height of improbability from the very beginning. One might just as soon imagine Norman Mailer standing in for the late Robert Frost on the reviewing stand of JFK’s inauguration, or Allen Ginsberg sitting on the speaker’s dais at a benefit for the American Jewish Committee, or William Burroughs judging the Miss America Beauty Pageant at Atlantic City events not exactly impossible, not entirely inconceivable, but somewhat ironically incongruous in
the Godard-Levine manner. The casting for Contempt of Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Georgia Moll, and Fritz Lang (sic) seemed equally strange, both chemically and culturally. A more plausible production setup for this Moravia property would have starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and have been directed by Federico Fellini on the assumption that Vittorio De Sica had found the script deficient in folk flavor.
Once Contempt was completed, Levine was shocked to discover that he had a million-dollar art film on his hands with no publicity pegs on which to hang his carpetbag. Levine ordered Godard to add some nude scenes, then challenged the New York censors likethe great civil libertarian he is, and finally released the film with a publicity campaign worthy of The Orgy at Lil’s Place. The New York reviewers, ever sensitive to the nuances of press agentry, opened fire on Brigitte Bardot’s backside. It strikes me that this is attacking Contempt at its least vulnerable point, since even if Miss Bardot were to be photographed an naturel fore and aft for a hundred minutes of willfully Warholian impassivity, the result would be infinitely more edifying, even for children, than the sickening mediocrity of Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, the anal analyses of the reviewers left little space for the story line of either the Moravia original or the Godard adaptation. The striking differences in the two versions reveal the director’s intentions in a way few reviewers have even bothered to suggest.
As Moravia has written it, Ghost at Noon is a conjugal mystery story told from the point of view of Riccardo Molteni, an ex-film critic, practicing screenwriter, and aspiring playwright. Molteni begins his reflective narrative at the point at which he first felt the beginnings of an estrangement from his wife, Emilia. After two years of marriage, and immediately after beginning to work for a producer named Battista, Molteni is involved in a casually meaningful test of conjugal courage. After dining with Battista, Molteni and his wife accept the producer’s invitation to a nightcap at his home. There is room for only two in Battista’s red sports car, and
Molteni is persuaded, in retrospect too easily, to follow Battista and Emilia in a taxi. Emilia is obviously reluctant to go without her husband, but Molteni insists.
With this tiny miscalculation begins the emotional disintegration of a marriage. For all his context-weaving sensibility, Molteni is unable to fathom the causes of his wife’s contempt for him. Emilia is a comparatively primitive being, responding instinctively to ancientxodes of strength and honor, and the passionate spirit of Molteni’s marriage dies even as its literal obligations are fulfilled. For Moravia, who is more an essayist than a storyteller, sexuality and sensuality are the symbolic currencies of art, history, sociology, politics, and economics. Moltenfs membership in the Communist party, for example, can be traced back to a marital incident in volving Emilia’s longing for an apartment of her own, leading in turn to Molteni’s going deeply into debt to obtain the apartment, and causing him to plunge so deeply into self-pity that he identifies his personal plight with cosmic injustice.
Moravia amplifies the theme of marital discord by introducing The Odyssey as the subject of script conferences involving Molteni, Battista, and a German director named Rheingold, who according to Moravia, “was not in the same class as the Pabsts and Langs.” Battista wants to produce The Odyssey as a Levine-like Herculean spectacular. Rheingold prefers an interior Freudian interpretation through which Odysseus is motivated by conjugal repugnance to stay away from Penelope. Rheingold, it seems, had escaped Hitler and followed Freud from Vienna to Hollywood, where psychoanalysis is still taken seriously. Molteni-Moravia prefers the nobility of the Homeric original as filtered through Dante, but Molteni’s great discovery is that Emilia would probably understand the interpretations of Battista and Rheingold better than his own. This is Moravia’s one novelistic coup: Molteni comes to realize that he is an ignoble being with a noble vision, hence a divided man whom Emilia, with her primitive assumption of appearance as reality, could only misunderstand. The novel ends with two hallucinations, or dreams, in which Molteni imagines that he has effected a reconciliation with Emilia. He learns later that she was killed in an accident even more freakish and more gratuitous than the one Godard depicts on the screen. While sleeping in Battista’s car, she snaps her neck in a minor collision, after which Battista drives on without noticing that she is dead.
Molteni’s final elegy for Emilia is a striking piece of mise-en-scene: “Driven on by longing for her and for places where I had last seen her, I made my way one day to the beach below the villa, where I had once come upon her lying naked and had had the illusion that I had kissed her. The beach was deserted; and as I came out through the masses of fallen rock with my eyes raised toward the smiling, blue expanse of the sea, the thought of The Odyssey came back into my mind, and of Ulysses and Penelope, and I said to myself that Emilia was now, like Ulysses and Penelope, in those great sea spaces, and was fixed for eternity in the shape which she
had been clothed in life.”
The transition from Alberto Moravia’s Ghost at Noon to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt is largely the transition from a first-person novel to a third-person film. Moravia’s Riccardo Molteni is obviously close to Moravia himself, and Molteni’s wife, Emilia, merely an extension of Moravia’s sensibility, a sort of subjective correlative of what the novelist feels about sex in the life of an artist. However, Riccardo and Emilia are both Italian and, as such, are closer to earthy essentials than Godard’s transplanted French couple, Paul and Camille Javal, represented with Gallic perverseness by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot. Piccoli, grossly hirsute, to the point of parodying the virility many artists like to assume as the mark of their metier, is denied the nobly Homeric vision of Moravia’s Molteni, and the audience does not see the problem
through his eyes but, curiously enough, through Fritz Lang’s. Ultimately Piccoli is crushed between the myth of Brigitte Bardot and the legend of Fritz Lang. Godard pays a high price for destroying Piccoli’s character- nothing less, in fact, than the dramatic failure of the film. The fact that Jean-Luc Godard is a director less dramatic than dialectical that is to say, concerned with the oppositions less of individuals than of ideas can hardly appease the hunger of audiences for a hunk of the human condition.
Brigitte Bardot presents additional problems as a character, a star, and a myth. She and Piccoli together lack the explosive chemistry necessary for dramatic excitement even under the best conditions. Godard’s inventive bits of business with the unfinished apartment only intensify the couple’s alienation from their environment, and it is a strange environment indeed that Godard has postulated. Reality without realism seems to be his perennial paradox as he and his photographer, Raoul Coutard, take us on a tour of Rome and Capri, deliberately depopulated for purposes of abstraction. At times Miss Bardot seems to take her nude sun baths in an ancient world blissfully unconscious of the fears of furtive eroticism. Unfortunately, in her waking, walking moments BB is too aware of her feelings to evoke much sympathy in the audience.
Godard even supplies her with an anecdote about Martin and the Ass he was forbidden to think about if he wanted his magic carpet to fly the point being, naturally, that once the unthinkable be comes thinkable, it can never be unthinkable again. This is a good point for Godard to make, but not through Bardot. Her contempt becomes too calculated, her psychology too studied, her indifference too intransigent. Reconciliation is impossible almost by definition, and the audience shifts its sympathy to Piccoli, because he is at least trying to communicate.
Significantly, Godard has passed up the opportunities suggested by Moravia for an illusory reconciliation in the fabulously beautiful red and green grottoes/of Capri. That kind of Felliniesque fantasy has never appealed to Godard. The opening stunts of suffocation and levitation in 8 1/2 are clearly labeled: Fantasy please suspend disbelief. Audiences find it easier to adjust to the conventions of fantasy when they are clearly labeled than when these conventions are compromised by the intrusion of fact into fiction. For example, Fellini would never have the real Fritz Lang speak to a fictional character played by Brigitte Bardot about a real person Lang refers to as our own BB, Bertolt Brecht, invoking not only Brecht’s 1943 collaboration on the script of Lang’s Hangmen Also Die but also the ascendancy of the myth of Bardot over the character of Camille.
This is the domain of the so-called “inside jokes/’ for which Godard is so frequently criticized. Godard has provided the usual billboards of Howard Hawks’s Hatari, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage en Italic, to which latter film Godard (and Resnais) owe a great deal of their conceptual montage of moving, turning, pointing, commenting statuary. Piccoli keeps his hat on in homage to Dean Martin in Some Came Running, and someone calls out “Vanina Vanini” in reference to Rossellini’s film version of the Stendhal novel.
It is generally assumed by Godard’s severest critics that he is merely plugging his friends with his references to movies. Some of the inside jokes in Contempt, however, are turned against both Godard and his colleagues on Cahiers du Cindma. When Bardot and Piccoli tell Lang how much they admired his Rancho Notorious with Marlene Dietrich, he tells them he prefers M. This is an anti-Colliers position on Lang’s own career, and Lang’s description of Cinemascope as a process suitable for photographing snakes and funerals is aesthetically reactionary enough to make Andre Bazin roll over in his grave. Lang’s kind words for Sam Goldwyn are the final confirmation that Godard has allowed Lang to speak for himself rather than as a mouthpiece for Godard. The effect of Lang’s autonomy is to complete the degradation of Piccoli as a mere parrot of nouvelle vague attitudes, toward which Godard displays mixed emotions. When Piccoli announces that he is going to look at a movie to get some ideas for a script, Bardot asks him with rhetorical scorn why he doesn’t think up his own ideas. Piccoli is not even allowed to challenge the vulgar conceptions of Jack Palance’s ruthless American producer, Jeremy Prokosch, Lang lines up with Homer, Palance with commerce, and Piccoli becomes a feeble
echo of the producer who has set out to humiliate him. Palance is the one actor who got away from Godard, much as Steve Cochran got away from Antonioni in II Grido. The result is more interestingly ambiguous than either Godard or Antonioni had any idea of permitting. Godard wound up hating Palance as Antonioni wound up hating Cochran and yet I think these runaway characterizations may suggest that at times the director is well advised, like the jockey on a high-spirited mount, to keep a loose rein on the talent at his disposal and let nature take its course. Palance’s conception of Prokosch is closer to Rod Steiger’s producer in The
Big Knife than to Godard’s conception of Moravia’s Battista, Carlo Ponti, or Joe Levine. The main difference between Prokosch and Battista is that Prokosch sets out to debase Piccoli publicly, while Battista is concerned only with deceiving Molteni in the discreet Italian manner. If in Godard’s conception Lang is pure greatness, Palance exudes raw power. Piccoli stands before Lang and Palance as a suppliant before two demigods, and before Bardot as a mistake before a myth.
We are not moved by what happens to the marriage of Bardot and Piccoli. We are not even particularly concerned with what happens to the ridiculous epic Palance wants Fritz Lang to direct (because only a German can understand Homer) . The characters keep talking about Homer’s classical cosmos of appearance as reality as opposed to our atomic universe under constantly anxious analysis, but the consciously tawdry players in the film-within-a film indicate that the great Fritz is laboring on a potboiler. Then, what is so moving about Contempt? Simply the spectacle of Fritz Lang completing a mediocre film with a noble vision in his mind
and at the edge of his fingertips. Godard appears in the film as Lang’s assistant, and he repeats Lang’s instructions to the camera crew, as if in the bulky figure of this curious man who has always known how far to compromise in order to endure is hidden the real Homeric parable of Contempt. Mastroianni-Fellini in 8 1/2 is an artist who just happens to be a movie director, Lang in Contempt is a movie director who just happens to be an artist.
Village Voice, January 28 and February 4, 1965
I would like to call attention to one film that has been ineptly distributed in America by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and this is Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary, based on an autobiographical memoir by the Florentine novelist Vasco Pratolini. Family Diary is both very strange and very moving, and I recommend it to art theaters and film societies as a curiously modern example of the old-fashioned literary cinema, which deep in our hearts we all prefer to so-called “pure” cinema.
Valerio Zurlini was born in Bologna in 1926, and studied dramatic arts at the University of Rome during World War II. He turned out four shorts between 1948 and 1957, and in the latter
year collaborated with Alberto Lattuada on the script of Guendalina. His first feature-length film, Le Ragazze di San Fredino, opened in Italy in 1954, but was never released in America. EstataViolanta was released in Italy in 1959, and in New York in 1961 as Violent Summer. I caught The Girl with the Suitcase (La Ragazza con Vasigia) at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Family Diary is thus only his fourth feature in a decade, although I understand he has a new film coming out this year. Up until Family Diary I had tagged Zurlini as a lush romantic whose facile emotionalism was initially impressive but ultimately superficial. Violent Summer, a kind of Italian Devil in the Flesh, struck me as an adolescent fantasy of antisocial amour in the midst of a war that meant only the moving mise-en-scene of partings and reunions in railway stations.
Eleonora Rossi Drago stays in the mind as a woman whose dignity crumbles under the assault of passion.
The Girl with the Suitcase presented Claudia Cardinale as Aida, every adolescent’s dream of a first love, and Jacques Perrin’s adoring gaze invested Claudia with an allure she has never exuded since. Suitcase was particularly flamboyant in the lyrical sweep of its camera movements, and so when I heard that Family Diary was a tearjerker, I was wary. To my surprise, Family Diary is notable for the rigorousness and austerity of its direction, proving perhaps that directors don’t always run true to form.
There are really only three characters in Family Diary, the two brothers played by Marcello Mastroianni and the aforementioned Jacques Perrin, and their grandmother played by the eternal Sylvie. The film opens in a room we are told represents the Rome of 1945. It is some kind of a pressroom, with many telephones, one of which informs Mastroianni that his brother has died in Florence. We then flash back with the narration of Mastroianni-Pratolini to the beginnings of the brotherly relationship in 1918. We are back in Florence in the circumstances of death, illness, and poverty. Mastroianni’s mother has died in childbirth, bearing Perrin. Their father is permanently ill in a veterans’ hospital, and there is talk that the mother died insane. Mastroianni is five or six years older than Perrin and is brought up in relative poverty by his grandmother, Sylvie, while Perrin grows up in a baron’s villa as the adopted son of the butler. From the very beginning this color film establishes a black and orange sibling dichotomy. Mastroianni will always be in black from his hair to his shoes, and Perrin will always complement his brother in orange.
The narration blithely skips around great chunks of time without showing us anything of the world of the thirties and forties. A quick cut disposes of Mastroianni’s two years in a sanitarium, and the four years of the war take up a sentence of narration. On one occasion we do see Mastroianni listening dourly to a radio broadcasting Franco’s triumph in Spain, and in the same sequence Perrin and his girl friend encounter Mastroianni, but the girl disappears soon after without explanation, and we never see Perrin’s wife and daughter. Nor are we ever introduced into Mastroianni’s personal life away from his brother. The shots of Florence and Rome are scenically obscure, the underside, as it were, of these two extraordinary beautiful cities.
The streets are always empty in long shot, so that when two figures emerge from around a corner a hundred feet or more away from the camera, you can spot the blob of black as Mastroianni and the blob of orange as Perrin. On one level of expression Family Diary is a two-hour drama of chromatic convergence. Zurlini uses camera movement sparingly as he concentrates on compositions of his two protagonists, initially triangulated by the grandmother, but more often isolated from the rest of the world. The scenes are long, and the playing is slow, subtle, and intense.Despite the austerity of the ambience, the characters do not lack
literary complexity and social meaning. For one thing, emotions are enveloped in poverty. Mastroianni has to consign his grandmother to an institution for the elderly, a fate she accepts with the stoicism of the permanently poor. Her last words and thoughts are of her two “orphans/’ and of what will become of them, the eternal fear of the dying poor. Here we don’t see poverty in its usual picturesqueness, since it is a cardinal principle of realist aesthetics that poor pople do not inhabit color films, but rather the drably expressive world of black and white. Poverty, however, is not picturesque, and it is not the presence of ugly things. It is the absence of all sorts of intangibles like freedom, choice, time, and a sense of personal destiny. Above all, poverty is the pettiness of necessity, and it takes its toll in guilt for the love one has no time or means to express. Mastroianni fights the love he feels for his brother with all sorts of rationalizations. Perrin is too formal, beautiful without being charming. He smiles prettily, vulnerably, but
Some of Mastroianni’s personal hostility to Perrin is motivated by Pratolini’s Marxist beliefs. Whereas Mastroianni is the proletarian intellectual, Perrin is of the servant class, the stronghold of the most intransigent snobbery. It is the trauma of the Italian intellectual that to feel free he must abandon God, family, and country as barbarically bourgeois notions. Of what use are the blood rites and the liturgical vocabularies of the past? Yet, when all is said and done and felt, how far have we come from the cave? Kenneth Tynan once observed very sagely that men of the Right tend to love their fathers, while men of the Left tend to love their mothers. To love one’s brother, however, is to turn in on oneself and to question the justice of one’s own existence.
The ultimate triumph of Family Diary is due largely to Mastroianni’s performance and personality, among the most extraordinarily subtle and sensitive in film history. As Mastroianni gazes at Perrin, this creature who has come through the same womb only to depart into a different darkness, his eyes surrender to the atavistic, unreasoning impulse of love. It is like Goya’s splash of red when he paints the infanta of a royal family he despises. Goya’s red is his heart’s blood pouring out to express a feeling toward innocence his political convictions cannot suppress. Family Diary, with its appropriately faded pastel colors, reminds us that social history is but a footnote to family history in the life of mankind.
-Village Voice, July 22, 1965
John Ford’s Seven Women has caused a slight stir in the trade by opening on the bottom half of a double bill with Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap, by all odds the daily double of the decade. My critical colleagues were more pitying than scornful as they confronted this latest opus of a director who has been in the business for more than fifty years. Some of them knew how I loved and admired John Ford and tried to break the news to me gently. Ford, after all, was now past seventy, and perhaps it was time to put the old war horse out to pasture. Ford’s premature burial crew had the advantage of me, because Metro had neglected to invite me to its screenings several months before, and I had had to wait for the not-so-grand opening on good old Forty-second Street. Even so, I had braced myself for the worst. Cheyenne Autumn had been a
failure a noble failure, but a failure. Ford was never able to get inside his stone-faced Indians, and his best scene, the Wyatt Earp episode, had been truncated by the studio. Besides, what was one failure more or less in a career that has soared to so many new peaks? Ford has passed the point where he has to pay any install ments on his place in the Pantheon. His standing would not be jeopardized if he chose to direct the Three Stooges in a nudist movie, much less seven actresses in a Chinese adventure.
I could have saved my defensive rationalizations. Seven Women is a genuinely great film from the opening credit sequence of a Mongolian cavalry massing and surging in slashing diagonals across the screen to Anne Bancroft’s implacable farewell to Mike Mazurki’s Mongolian chieftain: “So long, you bastard.” No lingeringly bitter tea of General Yen for Ford.
Not that I blame Metro for releasing Seven Women as unobtrusively as it did. The movie is at once too profound for the art film circuit and too personal for the big, brassy Broadway houses.
Ford’s films are passing into history and legend, and the veteran director may have heard his last hurrah. No matter. The beauties of Seven Women are for the ages, or at least for a later time when the personal poetry of film directors is better understood between the lines of genre conventions. Ford’s gravest crime is taking his material seriously at a time when the seriousness of an entire medium is threatened by the tyranny of trivia. Seven Women is not being defended here because it is an old-fashioned kind of fun movie, outstanding solely for its outrageousness. Far from it. Ford represents pure classicism of expression in which an economy of means yields a profusion of effects. No one will ever catch John Ford at the Paris Cinematheque studying nouvelle vague techniques. There is not a single jump-cut or freeze-frame in Seven Women. Nor are there any coy asides to the audience. Nor any concessions to “modernity.” But, then, it would never occur to Ford, as it has to De Sica, to masquerade as a great director in search of the mass audience. Ford does not need to masquerade when any of his compositions selected at random will reveal an attention to nuanced detail and over-all design such as make a directorial monstrosity like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold look cinematically illiterate. Where Ritt ruins a trial scene with excessive cutting and unimaginative camera placement, Ford sustains psychological tensions with almost no interior literary support. Ford gets more drama out of a darkened hallway than Bitt can get out of a whole restaurant. There is one sequence in which Bancroft simultaneously surrenders her body and asserts her authority simply by striding toward the camera and forcing three people to react to her movement within the same frame. This movement triggers a series of abrupt actions with explosive force. When Ford finally
does cut back and forth between Bancroft and Mazurki, the Eisensteinian collision is supplemented by a more supple sensibility capable of transmitting a touch of tenderness between two deadly antagonists.
Some critics have ridiculed the casting of Mazurki as a Mongolian chieftain. Mazurki, like Ford’s Negro giant regular, Woody Strode, is cast less as a realistic Mongolian than as a fantasy male. Here we have seven women stranded in a Protestant mission in China in 1935. They have virtually excluded men from their sanctuary, and yet when the men swarm down on them, they are the worst kind of males the female psyche can envisage. These rampaging males wander around the countryside raping, killing, plundering, and worst of all, smashing all the windows, furniture, and bric-a-brac. They affront every canon of order imposed upon the male by the female since the beginning of time, and yet the seven women must somehow come to terms with this monstrous maleness to survive, and a sacrifice must be made a sordid sacrifice, it would seem, in the mere telling of the story, but a sublime sacrifice in Ford’s filming.
The actresses Anne Bancroft, Margaret Leighton, Betty Field, Sue Lyon, Flora Robson, Anna Lee, and Mildred Dunnock constitute a configuration of Ford’s vision of order. It is interesting to speculate what Patricia Neal would have been like in the part Bancroft took over for the stricken Neal, but Bancroft is admirably forceful and direct, perhaps closer to the Manchus than the Method, and perhaps all for the better. Ford’s vision is open to criticism. He obviously finds women incomplete without men, but he nevertheless admires their gallantry and generosity and courage. In the end, women, like men, must submit to some order. The merits of the order are irrelevant, and here Ford leans more to the right, in opposition to a Brecht, who distinguishes between good and bad orders.
If Ford is not as fashionable as Brecht, however, it is simply because not as much has been written in the right places about “distancing” in cinema as there has been about distancing in theater. The same fur-coated audiences at Lincoln Center that sit patiently before the extravagant adventures of The Caucasian Chalk Circle would hoot at Seven Women with its infinitely subtler distancing. The fake Metro set and sky, and the arbitrariness of the plot, are the materials of one of the cinema’s greatest poets, though he would be the last to say so himself.
Village Voice, May 26, 1966
THE CHELSEA GIRLS
The Chelsea Girls has made the move uptown from the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque to the Cinema Rendezvous, where, ironically enough, many family-type flicks have premiered or returned for the kiddies over the years. Needless to say, The Chelsea Girls is not for the kiddies, or for adults of kiddy-car coyness. Functional voyeurs will be bored to distraction. Warhol doesn’t exploit depravity as much as he certifies it. Most pornography is antierotic because of the crudity of its certification, but The Chelsea Girls isn’t even pornographic. The flashes of male Caucasian nudity depress the viewer with intimations of a pitiful passivity. Warhol has
refined the old Hollywood tease into a kind of tepid torture in which organisms talk away their orgasms.
I am not sure the version of The Chelsea Girls now on view at the Cinema Rendezvous is the same film that played at the Cinematheque. The running time was originally reported at four hours; it is now three and a half. The “ending” seems to have been changed somewhere between the Cinematheque and the Rendezvous. All the reviews I have read pro and con seem to be vague about details. Part of the problem is the studied unprofessionalism of the presentation. Neither Andy Warhol nor the Cinematheque provided press sheets, credits, synopses, and so forth. The reviewer is left to his own recollections. Many of his predecessors have proclaimed that they have been put upon, or worse still, “put on/’ Is The Chelsea Girls a “put-on”? I would say it’s probably no more a “put-on” than Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence may have an advantage around the edges, but The Chelsea Girls has more conviction at its core.
Andy Warhol presents his material on two screens simultaneously and uses the double screen to develop the most obvious contrasts. One screen is usually synchronized with a sound track while the other is silent. One screen may be in color while the other is in black and white. One screen may show “girls” while the other shows ‘”boys.” The quotes around ‘Tx>ys” and “girls” are applied advisedly. The only polarities Warhol projects are homosexual and sadomasochistic. No one in Warhol’s world is “straight” or “true/* and the percentage of deviation is a flagrant exaggeration even for the fetid locale. Fortunately The Chelsea Girls is not concerned with deviation as a clinical subject, or with homosexuality as a state of fallen grace. Some of the more sophisticated Establishment reviewers write as if everything that happens south of Fourteenth Street comes out of Dante’s Inferno. Warhol is not bosh, but neither is he Bosch. The Chelsea Hotel is not hell. It is an earthly, earthy place like any other, where even fags, dykes, and junkies have to go on living twenty-four hours a day. This is where Warhol has been heading through the somnambulism of Sleep and the egregiousness of Empire toward an existential realism beyond the dimensions of the cinema. Warhol disdains the conventional
view of film as a thing of bits and pieces. Perhaps “disdains” is too strong a term for an attitude that is at best instinctive, at worst indifferent. As his scene segments unreel, the footage is finally punctuated by telltale leaders and then kaplunk blankness on the screen. This indicates that each scene runs out of film before it runs out of talk. If there were more film, there would be more talk. If there were less film, there would be less talk. How much more gratuitous and imprecise can cinema be? Goodbye Sergei Eisenstein. Hello Eastman Kodak. Besides, what with the problems of projection and the personalities of projectionists, each showing of
The Chelsea Girls may qualify as a distinctly unique happening. Andy Warhol displays some disturbing flourishes of technique. His zooms are perhaps the first antizooms in film history. Unlike Stanley Kramer’s zooms (in Judgment at Nuremberg)? which go boi-ing to the heart of the theatrics, Andy Warhol’s zooms swoop on unessential details with unerring inaccuracy. With a double screen, the gratuitous zoom is a particularly menacing distraction to the darting eye. (Is that a girl’s bare thigh? No, it’s a close-up of the kitchen sink.)
A less conspicuous addition to Warhol’s abacadabra arsenal is the traveling typewriter shot, which consists of a slow horizontal camera movement from left to right culminating in a rapid return shot from right to left. What does it mean? Nothing that I can figure out. Warhol has been experimenting with jazzy effects ever since one of his camp parties on film. The most glaring weakness of The Chelsea Girls is its attempts at art through cinematic tech nique. The color LSD frames don’t work as hallucinations; the dose-ups and camera movements don’t work as comments. Nonetheless a meaningful form and sensibility emerge through all the
apparent arrogance and obfuscation.
Richard Goldstein’s excellent critique in the Sunday World Journd Tribune gives the impression that Warhol’s vision is as glossy and popeyed as Richard Lester’s. I don’t find Warhol au
courant in this way at all. The Chelsea Girls is actually closer to Nanook of the North than to The Knack. It is as documentary that The Chelsea Girls achieves its greatest distinction. What Warhol is documenting is a subspecies of the New York sensibility, a sensibility that Paddy Chayefsky only mimicked in the party scene in The Bachelor Party, a sensibility that Clifford Odets only hinted at in Sweet Smell of Success and let’s not even mention such contorted Village vileness as Two for the Seesaw, A Fine Madness, and Penelope.
When the “Pope” of Greenwich Vilkge talks about sin and idolatry, when a creature in drag “does” Ethel Merman in two of the funniest song numbers ever, when a balding fag simpers about the Johnson admenstruation, when a bull dyke complains about her mate getting hepatitis, it’s time to send the children home and scrap Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Warhol’s people are more real than real, because the camera encourages their exhibitionism. They are all “performing,” because their lives are one long performance, and their party is never over. The steady gaze of Warhol’s camera reveals considerable talent and beauty. The Pope character is the closest thing to the late Lenny Bruce to come along in some time, and his Figaro repartee with a girl called Ingrid is an extraordinarily sustained slice of improvisation. The film begins with the beautiful blonde Nico on the right screen, the Pope and Ingrid on the left. The film ends with Nico on the left, the Pope on the right, and I felt moved by the juxtaposition of wit and beauty. Warhol’s people are not all this effective Marie Menken, particularly, is a big borebut they are There, and though I wouldn’t want to live with them, they are certainly worth a visit if you’re interested in life on this planet.
Village Voice, December 15, 1966
FALSTAFF AND A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG
Orson Welles’s Falstaff and Charles Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong deserve the support of every serious moviegoer. Bosley Crowther has panned both films in no uncertain terms, but Mr. Crowther panned Citizen Kane and Monsieur Verdoux in their time. I don’t wish to single out Mr. Crowther as a critic, only as an awesome power on the New York film scene. He is certainly not alone in panning A Countess from Hong Kong. To my knowledge, only William Wolf of Cue has rallied to Chaplin’s defense. Happily Falstaff has found powerful defenders in Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek, Judith Crist of the^World-Journd Tribune, and Archer Winsten of the Post. Even so, Mr. Crowther is entitled to his opinion, and he is scarcely the least enlightened of American film critics. Henry Hart of Films in Review has earned that dubious distinction with ease. The problem with Crowther is power. Not only can he still make or break most “art” films in New York; he can dictate to distributors what films they may or may not import. Lately he has been credited even with determining what will or will not be produced. In a letter to the Times the producer of Dutchman whined that Crowther had seemed to encourage the project at a preproduction dinner. The producer in question is not the first person in the industry to learn that Crowther cannot be had for a free meal. Ill say that much for Bos. He is not corruptible in the vulgar way most of his detractors suspect. He is affable, urbane, polite, genial, and easy to misunderstand in personal relation ships. The industry is full of glad-handers and promoters who claim to have Crowther’s ear but who only get the back of his hand when the early editions of The Times hit the stands. This kind of unpredictability is all to Crowther’s credit. United Artists planned a Bond-like promotion of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and the sequels largely because Crowther seemed to have been impressed by the Italian western cycle on his European jaunt for The Times last year. When it turned out there was too much pasta in them thar oats, Crowther backtracked and UA had to dump the project.
Power must always be fought, however, because power itself tends to corrupt. The moviegoer should think for himself to the point that he would find it unthinkable to miss a Welles or Chaplin work simply because a critic, any critic, said it was not worth seeing. What I object to in Crowther’s review of Fdstaff is the implication that he is going to punish the distributors for bringing Falstaff to America against his express wishes announced in a dispatch from Cannes last year. We in America can thank Mr. Crowther for having waited almost a year to see Fdstaff. The distributors even changed the film’s title from Chimes at Midnight to Fdstaff in a naive attempt to confuse the readers of The Times. The distributors should have known better. While I was reading Crowther’s review of Falstaff, I suddenly understood what the real issue had become. The cyclical pattern of regular reviewers made more sense than even Truffaut had realized when he discovered it many years ago. The reason a Crowther will pan a Welles or Chaplin, the reason a Crist will complain about “cultists,” the reason the daily reviewers loathe the New York Film Festival, is simply power. Crowther and Crist and all the critics combined cannot keep a so-called “cultist” from seeing Falstaff or A Countess from Hong Kong. Consciously or unconsciously, the power-oriented critic tries to keep these cults under control by giving every director a certain quota of pans so that he doesn’t get too uppity. With Welles or Chaplin there are additional incentives. The critic can call them old-fashioned and dated and used up, as if critics stayed young forever and only directors became senile. I would expect old critics, particularly, to understand what Fdstaff and A Countess from Hong Kong are all about. But no, the older the critic, the more up to date he must pretend to be, even though anything genuinely modern from Citizen Kane to Masculine Feminine has always filled him with revulsion.
The great sin of Welles and Chaplin is their failure to abandon their own personal visions of the world to current fashions. Welles is still Humpty-Dumpty from Wisconsin, and all the king’s lenses and all the king’s screens can’t put Humpty together again. Citizen Kane was made by an old man of twenty-five. Welles seems to have been rehearsing for Falstaff and Lear all his life. Welles the actor now sounds like a muffled echo of everything he once wanted to be. Welles the mountainous man is a monument to compulsive self destructiveness. The important thing is that Welles feels Falstaff from the inside out, and that he is enough of an artist to look at himself with ironic detachment. He is enough of an intellectual to give Shakespeare a distinctive shape and size. The production is Gothic and pastoral at tie same time, towers above and mud below. Prince Hal, the Shakespearean hero who most resembles Dick Nixon, resembles in Keith Baxter’s interpretation Welles himself. Welles, like Hal, is cursed with the ability of seeing even the present as some future past. For Hal, Falstaff is life as it endures. Hal’s real father, John Gielgud’s death’s-head Henry IV, is life as preparation for death. Welles’s Falstaff dramatizes the conflict of two fathers, or two aspects of fatherhood. Falstaff is gross, warm, animal
affection, but also genuine love. Henry is pride and authority. FalstafFs world is horizontal, Henry’s vertical. The final renunciation scene is thus inevitably shaped by the geometry of the setting.
Welles displays here a sensibility from the thirties and forties when choices, however anguished, still seemed morally meaningful. Despite his ironic humor, Welles is not in tune with current mannerisms of cruelty and absurdity. His Falstaff is graced with dramatic grandeur of an intelligent sobriety we have almost forgotten in our search for new sensations. Welles’s battle scenes are especially noteworthy for not blinking at the brutal spectacle of war, and yet not winking at the audience for its satiric indulgence. Consequently the spectacle of the fat knight in glorious retreat becomes a beautiful piece of mise-en-scene.
Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong had me hooked from the precredit sequence when a sailor in Hong Kong struts into a dance hall where all the girls are “countesses/’ Chaplin’s sentimental music closes in on a succession of medium shots of not particularly attractive, not particularly unattractive girls, and Charlie loves them all, and everyone begins dancing awkwardly in silent-movie style, and we are back in a world Chaplin both inhabited and invented a long time ago. Few reviewers have bothered to observe that Chaplin’s role is being played by Sophia Loren, the tramp with over sized men’s pajamas and a heart of gold. Chaplin had problems with both Loren and Brando simply because neither is Chaplin, but the movie still generates a surprising amount of charm and wit.
Chaplin’s writing still strains for many of its ironic effects, and the plot is almost too sentimental to synopsize safely, but the lines are underplayed almost to a whisper, and one particularly sticky scene is brilliantly redeemed by the slapstick of seasickness. Attacks on Chaplin for his sentimentality and/or vulgarity date back almost to the beginning of his career. John Grierson wrote learnedly on why Chaplin should not have wound up with the girl in The Gold Rush. People who attack A Countess from Hong Kong in the name of the Chaplin they once allegedly loved have probably forgotten what Chaplin was like in the past. If you ever liked Chaplin, you will probably like A Countess from Hong Kong.
It is the quintessence of everything Chaplin has ever felt. One re viewer complained about the doubling up of sets, but Chaplin has never worried that much about sets. His is too much of a one-man sensibility for nuanced detail. Nor has Chaplin ever achieved his effects through camera movement, montage, or Rembrandt lighting. His basic axiom has been that comedy is long-shot and tragedy is close-up, and most of Countess is long-shot. Chaplin’s genius resides in that secret passageway from the physical to the emotional through which bodies and faces are transformed by grace and expressiveness into universal metaphors.
A Countess from Hong Kong is far from Chaplin’s past peaks, but one scene with a momentarily irrepressible butler (Patrick Cargill) in Sophia’s bedroom is as comically exhilarating as any thing Chaplin has ever done. Chaplin might have been more modern, of course. He might have read selections from Lady Chatterley’s Lover at five dollars a throw. Better still, he might have displayed the footage featuring Chaplin directing Loren and Brando in A Countess from Hong Kong and called the whole shebang 80Y2. Unfortunately, Chaplin will die as he has lived, an unregenerate classicist who believes in making movies he can feel in his frayed lace-valentine heart.
Village Voice, March, 30, 1967
Gunn brings Blake Edwards full circle as a creative force in Hollywood film-making. Adapted from his own long-running television series, Gunn is the private-eye movie of the decade. (So much for Harper, which was more a big slip than a Big Sleep.) Some critics have complained that devotees of the video version would find nothing new in Peter Gunn’s screen reincarnation. This devotee of the video version found everything from the decor to the denouement brand new on the screen. The only element regrettably lacking was Lola Albright’s low-key libido as a nightclub canary. Laura Devon still has a long way to go to capture the wan smile that ex
presses the disparity between what Lola wants and what Lola gets.
The plot cannot be discussed in any detail without calling too much attention to it. Edwards has not escaped the anticlimactic and anti-Aristotelian conventions of serial writing through which
the notion of beginning, middle, and end is scrapped for that of a self-contained circularity, neither tragedy nor comedy, but unruffled melodrama. The compensation Edwards provides is all incidental to the main thrust of the action, said compensation consisting of the vicious glossiness of the modern look, the casual pervasiveness of evil seeping even into the pores of the detective-hero, the harsh paradoxes of permissive heterosexuality, and the very, very con
temporary view of individual lives as being composed less of experiences than of auditions. Hence the incessant, almost compulsive wit of the dialogue, and the somewhat detached distancing of the performers.
Gunn is a movie of the sixties as Kiss Me Deadly was a movie of the fifties and The Big Sleep a movie of the forties and The Maltese Falcon a hangover from the thirties. Craig Stevens’ patented coolness looks a bit worn by now, but the feeling of fleshy corruption is more subtly expressed in Gunn than in the more socially concerned Spades and Hammers of yesteryear. Edward Asner and Albert Paulsen are two actors to keep in mind when anyone asks you what happened to all the good character actors from the good old days of movie-movies. All in all, Gunn makes the Bond series look like child’s play.
Village Voice, July 13, 1967
CHINA IS NEAR
Marco Bellocchio’s China Is Near may not be running much longer, and more’s the pity for an art-house scene that is usually starved for genuinely artistic attractions. Bellocchio’s direction is
brilliant to the point of brilliantine. Not a hair or shot is out of place, or a cut or camera movement. Everything counts and everything matters in this Stendhalian comedy of mores, but Bellocchio seems to have offended some of the reviewers by violating the sacred rules of exposition. The first shot of the film is a rigidly framed, discreetly distanced glance at two lovers dormant on an improvised bed in an unidentified room in the cold, gray light of
dawn. Bellocchio cuts briefly to the stirring couple simply to identify their faces and then retreats quickly to the discreet distance that will keep the sensations of the plot from ever seeming sordid. We shall never completely escape the chilling grayness of this opening sequence. Indeed, China Is Near explores all those frayed feelings of conformity that awaken in the five o’clock of the morning of the soul when the ancient alarm goes off like the dreaded church bells of Italian Catholicism.
We are barely accustoming our eyes to the dimly lit and drably furnished scene before this first stage of exposition is supplanted by the next and then the next and then the next, until three separate plots and five major characters merge into one comic canvas of Italian Leftism in complete disarray. Bellocchio’s young lovers, Carlo (Paolo Graziosi) and Giovanna (Daniela Surina), are first introduced as the beleaguered victims of a dass society, specifically the servants of a family of spoiled, self-indulgent aristocrats who dabble in the politics of the Old and New Left. Vittorio (Glauco Mauri) is a plump, pink plutocrat with acute guilt feelings about
his enormous wealth. After a fling with the Communist party he settles down with the staid Socialists when they present him with a place on the ticket as councilman. The candidate’s younger brother, Camillo (Pierluigi Apra), leads a three-man Maoist cell in the municipality and refuses to countenance the brother’s disgraceful desertion. The candidate’s sister, Elena (Elda Tattoli), confounds her brothers with her political conservatism and sexual radicalism. Even when the world is going to pieces, Vittorio reminds her, an Italian expects his sister to retain her honor.
However, Bellocchio is no mere satirist like Pietro Germi, and his characters never degenerate into Germi caricatures at whom we can laugh so complacently. Bellocchio’s five characters struggle vainly and grotesquely to escape their common destiny, but they are ultimately helpless against the fundamental lethargy of Italian history. Bellocchio very cleverly keeps the audience off-balance by never allowing any moral situation to linger on the screen long enough for facile audience identification. The fact that the impoverished Carlo is passed over for the Socialist nomination so that the wealthy Vittorio can attract bourgeois votes is soon forgotten when Carlo takes Vittorio’s sister as his mistress. Discarded by Carlo, Giovanna retaliates by allowing Vittorio to take her at long last from his typewriter to his bed.
The plot takes an ugly turn when Elena becomes pregnant and decides to escape her trap by obtaining an abortion. Carlo sets all the machinery of family, Church, and state into motion against her, and the only truly admirable character in the film is broken by all the bigotry arrayed against her. And yet she, too, is part of the system that entraps her. She is not as cowardly as her two brothers, or as calculating as the two proles who inveigle their way into her household, but in the moment of truth she is not quite courageous enough to sacrifice her reputation for her principles. The film ends with Elena and Giovanna practicing their maternal exercises together in the splendor of a room seen for the first time in its awesomely ornate verticality. Elena will marry Carlo. Giovanna will marry Vittorio. Unbeknownst to Vittorio, both women have been impregnated by Carlo. It doesn’t matter. The accommodations have been made. Life must go on. China must wait a bit longer, like any hope too long deferred.
On my first viewing of the film I somehow missed the posters advertising Sean Connery in a James Bond film and Michael Caine in Alfie. Also the reference to Bernardo Bertolucd’s Before the Revolution at a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth, through a lens dimly. On a second viewing everything in the film fell into place too neatly and concisely for comfort. Bellocchio’s economy of expression is more impressive on first viewing than second, and yet it takes two viewings to appreciate the initial brushstrokes of characterization. Truffaut maintains in his introduction to his Hitchcock interview that clarity is the supreme virtue of a director. Bellocchio’s opening is anything but dear. Not only does he confuse the audience with unexplained shifts of locale for the unheralded entrances and exits of unidentified characters on unmotivated mission; he also makes jokes about the characters before they have been properly introduced to us, and hence throws away his punchlines. For example, Glauco Mauri as Vittorio makes the most spectacularly farcical entrance of a character since Alberto Sordi, bedecked in Arab garb, sang on a swing in Fellini’s The White Sheik. Our first glimpse of Mauri’s Vittorio is a medium (i.e., waist-high) shot of a man in the throes of masturbation or constipation begging God’s forgiveness. Bellocchio then cuts discreetly but still devastingly to a long shot of Vittorio virtually lurching out of the water closet to confront the guilt of a new day.
It all happens so fast that even the most discerning spectator lades the buildup to give this gag the laugh its sheer audacity deserves. Indeed, there is barely time for a quiet chudde, but it all turns out for the best, because Glauco Mauri’s performance is one of the most beautiful characterizations in the history of the dnema. Mauri is the main reason I missed decorative trivia like the Connery-Caine posters. I couldn’t take my eyes off his face, the face of a gloriously helpless bungler and bumbler, a frustrated lover and humanitarian, an inept traitor to his dass who cannot persuade even his maiden aunts to vote for him, a born dupe and cuckold, in short, a poor little fat rich boy who never outgrew his childhood dreams of romance and adventure and who, in a useless sort of way, is infinitely more predous than all the realists who make sport of his illusions.
The most beautiful moments in the film are derived at least in part from the richness of Mauri’s characterization. The much admired off-key children’s serenade to an ailing priest forms both background and counterpoint to Mauri’s earnest plea for forgive ness from his unyieldingly fanatical younger brother. Later when the two brothers are confronted with the imminence of their sister’s abortion rather than world revolution, a crisis more practical than theoretical, they are embarrassed to encounter each other in a movie theater, that modern refuge from reality. The older brother flees in panic, the younger averts his eyes with a shame-driven snap
of his neck. Still later, Vittorio’s sister drags him from bed for animpromptu night inventory of the library. Vittorio bounces a ball; Elena takes it away from him. He calls out the titles of first editions, then pauses over a bound comic book containing his childhood memories. He smilingly yawns, and Elena follows with a yawn of resignation to her own private five o’clock in the morning of the soul. Elda Tattoli as Elena (and coscenarist with Bellocchio) gives a quite lovely performance, as do the other principals and supernumeraries, but Glauco Mauri is something special inmaking you smile when you really want to cry.
Bellocchio’s direction may be too controlled for some tastes; his vision of the world too naively neurotic for others. I found myself liking and admiring China Is Near almost in spite of myself.
There has always been a grotesque credibility gap between ethics and politics, between personal opportunism and social idealism, between the muddy trenches of man’s sexuality and the marble pillars of his intellect. Perhaps never more so than in this very fateful moment in world history. The fact remains that a politician’s truth can become an artist’s truism. Fortunately, Bellocchio
avoids the trap of schematization by implicating all his characters in his fluid frames, even in those most dreadful moments when an honest civil servant is forced into corruption and a priest rolls his eyes skyward as he breaks in on an abortion. China Is Near is perhaps a prophetic film in its total despair.
Vilage Voice, February 1, 1968
Madigan is a reminder of the often forgotten virtues of classical editing. Don Siegel’s most successful films express the doomed peculiarity of the antisocial outcast Neville Brand (Riot in Cell Block 11), Steve Cochran (Private Hell 36) Mickey Rooney (Baby Face Nelson), Eli Wallach (The Line-Up), Elvis Presley (Flaming Star), Steve McQueen (Hell Is for Heroes), and now Richard Widmark in Madigan. In addition, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the few authentic science-fiction classics by virtue of its matter-of-fact visualization of paranoia.
Madigan sports a lovely New York look from Graeme Ferguson’s title shots of the Big City to Russell Metty’s expert match-ups of location and studio footage. The screenplay by Henri Simoun and Abraham Polonsky is characterized by that note of urban romanticism we associate with Body and Soul and Force of Evil, and it is good to see Polonsky back from exile on a credit sheet.
The strength of Madigan is the seriousness of its genre and the morally grayish tint of its characterizations. Henry Fonda’s police commissioner walks around as if he has something else on his mind, and he usually has. Richard Widmark’s detective on the spot lives on the edge of his nerves. Between them Fonda and Widmark express the two aspects of life in New York Fonda the clouded view from the top, Widmark the desperate urgency around the next corner. New York is a city where the future is always colliding with the past, and the moral arithmetic never quite adds up.
The characterizations are finally wrapped up when the string runs out on a manhunt for a cop killer, and, to Siegel’s credit, the ending explodes with emotional force without a wasted move or extra shot. The characterizations would not have been sufficient in themselves, or the action sufficient in itself, but welded together by Siegel’s familiar style of editing, Madigan turns out to be the best American movie I have seen so far in 1968. It was particularly heartening to find adulterous situations stopping on the brink of the abyss because of the character’s feelings rather than the censor’s wrath. After all, it is as naive for Hollywood to assume that every
sexual fantasy is fulfilled in “real” life as that none are, or that the libidinous realm of Jeanne Moreau is any less fantastic than DorisDay’s filtered vale of virginity.
Village Voice, April 4, 1968
While we remain in this mood of apocalyptic anguish, I must report that I recently paid another visit to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano on a King Sano base. (For myself, I must confess that I soar infinitely higher on vermouth cassis, but enough of this generation gap.) Anyway, unprepared to watch 2001 under what I have always been assured were optimum conditions, and surprisingly (for me), I find myself reversing my original opinion. 2001 is indeed a major work by a major artist. For what it is—and I am still not exactly enchanted by what it is—2001 is beautifully modulated and controlled to express its director’s vision of a world to come seen through the sensibility of a world past. Even the dull, expressionless acting seems perfectly attuned to a setting in which human feelings are diffused by inhuman distances.
However, I don’t think that 2001 is exclusively or even especially a head movie (and now I speak with the halting voice of authority). For once, the cuts in the movie helped by making it seem less perversely boring for its own sake. The cuts also emphasized that the greatness of the movie is not in its joints and connections (the literary factor) but in the expressive slowness of its camera movements (the plastic factor) and the distended expansiveness of its environment (the visual factor). I am still dissatisfied by the open-ended abstractness of the allegory, not to mention the relatively conventional sojourn into psychedelia.
Nonetheless, 2001 now works for me as Kubrick’s parable of a future world toward which metaphysical dread and mordant amusement tiptoe side by side. Even on the first viewing, I admired all the stuff about HAL literally losing his mind. On second viewing, I was deeply moved by HAL as a metaphor of reason afflicted by the assaults of neurotic doubt. And when his rectangular brain cells were being pulled out one by one, I could almost feel the buzzing in my brain cells as they clung ever more precariously to that psychic cluster I call (quite automatically) me. I have never seen the death of a mind rendered more profoundly or poetically than it is rendered by Kubrick in 2001.
2001 is concerned ultimately not so much with the outer experiences of space as with the inner fears of Kubrick’s mind as it contemplates infinity and eternity. As the moon shots should have demonstrated by now, there is absolutely nowhere we can go to escape ourselves.
Village Voice, 5/7/70
THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons may be the most exquisite achievement in cinema to reach these shores from Germany since the Golden Age of Murnau, Lang, Pabst, et al. in the years Before Hitler.
Fassbinder deftly balances style with humanity in such a way that The Merchant of Four Seasons manages to break the heart without betraying the mind. Fassbinder’s achievement is aided in no small measure by the extraordinary presences and performances of Hans Hirschmüller as the hapless victim, Hanna Schygulla as his beautiful and dilettantishly compassionate sister, and Irm Hermann as his sensually ungainly wife.
We are not too far into The Merchant of Four Seasons before we feel the reverberations of Wozzeck and Mother Courage, but Fassbinder strikes a very distinctive tone of his own on the tin drum of despair. From a certain angle, the produce-peddling protagonist can be viewed as an especially mediocre specimen of Everyman. He has been rejected by the Great Love of His Life and settles for the second-best with a sullen woman who is embarrassingly taller than he is. His previous service with the Foreign Legion had been a disillusioning debacle, and his family has virtually disowned him as a social disgrace. He is a growlingly inarticulate clod of a creature with a constant buzzing in his brain from which he can never escape. He has been discharged from the police force for consorting with a prostitute in the station, and he has transformed this transgression into a tavern anecdote in a futile
attempt to understand its significance in his life. But everything in his life is out of synch and out of proportion. He lives by a different clock and on a different scale from everyone else. He earns and he yearns, but only drink can ease his suffering.
For once, the distancing devices of rack focus and artificial color schemes serve to express the chasm between what a character feels and what he is able to communicate to others. Fassbinder does not stop with Rosebud as a psychological spring; he presents the full flowering of the rose in all its tawdry triviality as an objective fact and in all its sublime stature as a subjective fantasy. The death and funeral of Hans is one of the great passages in modern cinema, and the intimation of his great and lost love one of the modern cinema’s most lyrical ironies.
Earlier, Hans approaches a state of spiritual communion with his sister, but a lapse of concentration on her part sends him scurrying back to the chilling sanctuary of his own introverted psyche, and he is thus doomed forever to emotional isolation. The spine-tingling irrevocability of this sequence constitutes a dramatic spectacle of the highest order and establishes Fassbinder as one of the most forceful filmmakers of the 1970s, a man for both the coterie and the crowd. And if one needed any additional motivation to see Merchant of Four Seasons, there is Hanna Schygulla, with the eyes and lips and womanly wiles to
lead one to hell itself.
Village Voice, 11/22/73
Robert Bresson’s L’Argent justifies all by itself the twenty-one-year existence of the New York Film Festival. It is not a particularly “easy” film for a general audience; in this, it is quintessentially Bressonian. Most hard-core Bressonians profess to prefer it to The Devil, Probably (1977). I see the two as very closely related. After one viewing, I am struck most strongly by its more despairing tone. The somewhat ironic hypothesis of the devil in The Devil, Probably has been developed in L’Argent into a logical and sociological certainty. Freed of the constraints of love and justice, evil emerges completely triumphant. Yet most viewers will respond to L’Argent more favorably than they might have toward the still unreleased The Devil, Probably. Why? Largely, I think, because of a fortunate misunderstanding. The plot of L’Argent, adapted very freely from a Tolstoy story on the consequences of counterfeiting, lends itself to a class-conscious righteousness about the corruption of a proletarianprotagonist by the irresponsible bourgeoisie.
Indeed, to hear the story synopsized is to visualize the late Henry Fonda in one of his surly, justice-seeking ex-con characterizations in such 1930s melodramas as You Only Live Once and Let Us Live on the way to his epochal Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. As Bresson’s working-class victim, Yvon Targe, Christian Patey is, if anything, the antithesis of Fonda’s facade of snarlingly outraged innocence. Patey suffers his injustices proudly, stoically, and inexpressively, to the point that his demeanor is virtually indistinguishable from those of the more privileged people responsible for his plight. “I will not grovel,” Yvon declares to his more practical wife when she suggests that he “explain” his predicament to a boss who has fired him after he has been falsely accused of passing counterfeit money. The calmness with which Patey reads this line invests it with a fearful gravity and portentousness.
The fires of hell quickly consume the flimsy social fabric that has kept everyone in an uneasy moral equilibrium until that very fateful moment in L’Argent: a schoolboy with inadequate pocket money is absentmindedly turned down by his preoccupied parents
when he requests an additional sum to pay a personal debt. A chum shows him how to pass a fake bank note, the storekeeper in turn passes the note on to our oil-supplying protagonist, and so on and so forth, to prison and, eventually, to mass murder, and, ultimately, if not entirely convincingly, to a cryptic ceremony of confessional redemption and grace.
Aside from the familiar gambit of having all the action rigorously repressed to form a monolithic bloc of what Bresson regards as “being,” the film disconcerts us also with its thoroughly incongruous sensuousness. The frequent recourse to metonymy and ellipsis (particularly in the gory murder scenes) is also characteristically Bressonian. Time and
again, he lingers on the inanimate fixtures within a frame long after its human figures have departed. Time and again, he breaks the smooth flow of images in order to emphasize the jarring autonomy of each individual image.
Why, then, was I more moved by The Devil, Probably? Possibly because I felt that in its suicidal ending was a more hopeful irony at work in Bresson’s art. Life was still something to cling to all the way to the last syllable of the most banal utterance. In L’Argent I sense an
unconditional surrender to despair and disgust. I would not say that the film is lacking even the slightest gesture of hope. Bresson has described his protagonist’s climatic expiration as “a routing of the forces of evil.” What I do question is Bresson’s continuing commitment to finding Grace in Other People. Yvon in L’Argent stands on the edge of the abyss, in that there is no other human being in whom he can see his own moral reflection. No other Bresson character, not even any of his suicides, has ever been left quite so abjectly alone. That a filmmaker can lift us to these levels of contemplation and speculation is proof enough of his greatness.
Village Voice, 10/4/83