Sunday, November 29, 2009

Films I Love to Hate

Some films seem too easy to hate - so easy that it feels unfair and takes all the fun out if it. They make righteous indignation seem self-righteous. But then one reads how some others - critics, historians, scholars - have found reasons to admire the films and to recommend them. Hating them then becomes a duty, and whipping the dead horse not so futile as it seems.

The Birth of a Nation

Slavery has been called one of America's "original sins," and it is one that is still being expiated. It is only fitting, then, that the very first feature-length film to be made in America should have been one that is not only about the Civil War that sought to end slavery (1), but that is on the side of the slave owners. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was made in a quiet, godforsaken locality called Hollywood in 1915, and its success helped make Hollywood into what Griffith later called "a Detroit of the mind."

Based on the trash novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (2), the film is replete with heroic white Southerners and villainous Northerners, noble and obedient slaves and lecherous, ape-like former slaves. And, of course, the Ku Klux Klan, which rides to the rescue in the film's climactic scene. If The Birth of a Nation were nothing more than an embarrassing relic of primitive filmmaking, it would have been mothballed long ago and put away in a nice dark vault.(3) Most of the so-called innovations attributed to Griffith have been systematically proven to be borrowings from Danish or French films either lost or forgotten. These reservations aside, The Birth of a Nation does possess a crude but undeniable power, a negative energy, that gives some scenes an emotional punch, regardless of the stupidity of their message.

When it was released it was a sensational hit, and made Griffith a fortune. This was due largely to the riots the film's screening provoked and the refusal of some major cities to show it simply in the interests of public order. It also inspired lynchings, an activity that usually needed no provocation in many places in America. It was attacked in the press and Griffith was labelled as a racist. In response, Griffith was inspired to make his next blockbuster, the extravagant and simple-minded Intolerance (1916). Lillian Gish continually defended "Mister Griffith," as she called him against the charge of racism.(4) But the film tells a very different story.

It is difficult to imagine the screening of The Birth of a Nation to an audience, particularly a black audience, that has not been given ample advance warning of its content. I have read tributes to Griffith, most notably by fellow Southerner James Agee, that practically have to stand on their own necks in his defense. But while some have argued that the film's outrageously stupid views on the Civil War and slavery are beside the point and that the film is justifiably ranked as one of the greatest American films, I would compare it with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which is itself a formidable cinematic achievement. On the occasion of Riefenstahl's death in 2003, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

When questioned about her work for the Nazis, she always responded that she had
never actually joined the Nazi Party and that she had changed her views in 1944
(as did other Nazi supporters when they saw that Hitler was going to lose). She
made her own subsequent attempts to separate art from politics. She would often
say, "I didn't do any harm to anyone. What have I ever done? What am I guilty
of?" I haven't yet read the response that could have been made: "Your work--in
fact, your best work--helped inspire millions to do enormous harm."

(1) Some historians deny that the Civil War was about the abolition of slavery. It was indeed about states' rights - but the most contentious right that the Southern states wanted to defend was the right to buy and sell black human beings. When the issue went unsettled at the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave-owner, admitted that "We have the wolf by the ears and we dare not let it go." The issue had to be shelved in 1776, but it was inevitable that it had to be settled in a nation that announced to the world that "all men are created equal."
(2) Griffith gave Dixon a percentage of the film's profits when he couldn't pay his original fee ($10,000) in full. The film's extraordinary success made Dixon a millionaire.
(3) Unlike Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted his life to unearthing and restoring ancient films - and written such beautiful books on the subject, like The Parade's Gone By - I have no great nostalgia for them. I am indebted to the people who restored Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to something close to its original glory. I am in no way indebted to those who restored Erich von Stroheim's Greed to four hours, less than half of its original 9-hour "director's cut." It is interminable at any length.
(4) Griffith was a perfect unthinking racist. Here is his response to the accusation that he was "anti-negro": "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."
(5) The New Republic, October 6, 2003.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Iraq Inquiry

The British government has begun an inquiry into its involvement in the Iraq war. Former Prime Minister Tony Brown will be questioned, among others. The general tenor of the inquiry is curiously accusatory, as if it is admitting the war was lost, or at least not worth the expense of men and money. It reminded me of Philip Larkin's poem, "Homage to a Government":

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

10 January 1969

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ecology of Man

Man has always believed that his fate and the planet's were somehow inextricably linked. Prophesies of the end of the world never suggest that, after mankind has been called to its maker, the planet will remain, uncontaminated by man. Even the "worst-case scenarios" of nuclear war or the recent prophesies of asteroid impacts with the earth pretend that the earth will enjoy no posterity when man becomes extinct. An old friend once expressed his view to me that the very idea that man could pose a threat to the life of the planet was ridiculous and that it was far more likely that one day the earth might decide that it had had enough of man and bring about his extinction. The evidence of escalating global temperatures, the very existence of which - true to form - some people are trying to deny or downplay, indicates that we may be witnessing the initial stages of the planet's wrath. This idea seems to me at least as likely as the one posited by the "disaster porn" flicks like 2012.

Whatever the end may be, the feeling that it is somehow unavoidable and that it is too late to stop it, even if it were in our power to do so, is widespread. This feeling, of course, inadvertently hastens the outcome. Whether man is the cause of his own extinction or not, it is commonly believed that he cannot save himself. In his book, The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton Paterson puts it succinctly (and beautifully):

Conservation is only ever a rearguard action, fought from a position of loss. It is ultimately unwinnable, and not least because there are no recorded victories over population increase, nor over the grander strategies of genetic behaviour such as the laws of demand, political expediency, sheer truancy and a refusal to relinquish a standard of living once it has been attained. There can only be stalemates, holding actions and truces uneasily policed. A few affecting species will be saved, a few million hectares of forest, a few tribes of Indians; but the world will never return to how it was when this sentence was written, still less to how it was when reader and writer were born. This has always been true and will continue to be so. The mistake is to extend this sequence backward in time and imagine it leads to a lost paradise. It is a safe bet that as soon as the earliest protohominid could think, it invented a legend to account for its sense of loss.

I have the feeling, however, that our quietus may not come as soon as, or quite in the manner that, we expect. The people who expected the world to end at midnight on December 31, 1999, or the ones who expect it on December 21, 2012, are just like the befuddled ancients in Cavafy's great poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" on the following day:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Desert Island Dregs

When I packed my bags two years ago at the start of this journey I am on, I went through my books and set aside around thirty of them to bring along with me. The rest I left with my sister to safekeep until I am done with this place, or it has done with me.

The books I gathered for thirty years are only the ones I thought that I needed to have with me as I moved around the country or across an ocean, picked up in book stores in places like Columbia, Denver, Reno, Virginia Beach, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Des Moines, and Anchorage. In every one of them I wrote down the date and the place. They were too many to bring with me on the plane. I had no other possessions but them for a long time - no furniture, no appliances. Some keepsakes, some photographs. The vinyl records I had, hundreds of them, were finally abandoned in 2005. I regret giving them up, but to save them would have cost me more money than I had at the time. A poor excuse, but a lack of money at crucial moments in my life would seem to be a kind of dominant theme.

The books I packed in my bags included a few novels: one by V.S. Naipaul called A Way in the World; one by Arthur Schnitzler called A Way Into the Open. Emblematic titles, I know. I brought the Primo Levi memoir called The Periodic Table. And the three-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. Two marvelous books on Japan by Alan Booth. Three books by Charles Nicholl, including Somebody Else, about Rimbaud's last years in Africa, and The Creature in the Map, a latter-day exploration of the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, where Walter Raleigh searched but never found El Dorado. There were three books by Norman Lewis, whom I regard as the greatest travel writer of the 20th century. But the majority of the books in my bag were written by three men: Albert Camus, Moritz Thomsen, and George Orwell.

Shortlly after my arrival in the Philippines, a run of bad luck, precipitated by the treachery of a fellow American, forced a change of plans on me at a moment when, once again, a lack of money narrowed my options down to only one. And that option made it necessary for me to abandon all but seven of those books, the seven I had casually singled out for what I believed would be a few days' outing. Those seven books are all that I have left of the thirty or so that came with me on the plane two years ago, and they have survived my exile with me thus far: the last volume of the Deutscher biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, which chronicles his banishment from Russia and his flight from one safe haven to another, until his assassination in Mexico in 1940; Moritz Thomsen's first splendid book, Living Poor, about his Peace Corps experience in Ecuador; James Hamilton Paterson's The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds; George Orwell's one thousand three hundred and sixty nine page Essays. Camus' novel The Plague, in which a group of people contend with their exile to the quarantined city of Oran, Algeria during an outbreak of bubonic plague; Drieu La Rochell's novel, The Fire Within, about the final hours of Alain, who has condemned himself to death; and the King James Bible.

Over the past several months, I have quoted from these texts extensively - so much so that I fear some readers may think I am fixated on them. It so happens that I have grown fixated to the extent that I am no longer certain if I chose those books or they chose me.

On the island where I now spend my days, there is no library. They very notion of a lending-library is outlandish in a country where newly recruited soldiers cannot be counted on not to sell their M16s, and where if you are going to mail a pair of shoes, you had better mail them one at a time.

So a few times a week, my Filipino neighbors watch with curiosity as I stand on the side of the highway with a thick blue notebook under my arm, waiting for a ride into the nearby town. They suspect that I am conducting mysterious business transactions that I record in my notebook. But the only transactions I have conducted have been without remuneration, translating into my own language the things that I have witnessed. I have learned the hard way that an unpleasantness can be rendered less unpleasant by writing about it. I am not so annoyed by the incessant brownouts, the heat, the crowing of roosters and the baying of hounds as I once was. And when I open any one of those seven books, I am transported to another realm, more familiar, more agreeable, and less outlandish. Something like what Wallace Stevens felt on his "Arrival at the Waldorf":

Home from Guatemala, back at the Waldorf.
This arrival in the wild country of the soul,
All approaches gone, being completely there,
Where the wild poem is a substitute
For the woman one loves or ought to love,
One wild rhapsody a fake for another.

You touch the hotel the way you touch moonlight
Or sunlight and you hum and the orchestra
Hums and you say
"The world in a verse,

A generation sealed, men remoter than mountains,
Women invisible in music and motion and color,"
After that alien, point-blank, green and actual Guatemala.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pandora's Box

Just when I was considering writing a piece on G.W. Pabst's 1928 film Pandora's Box, I remembered the piece I had written for Senses of Cinema five years ago. How time flies, and my memory with it! Silent films are receding so quickly into the past that I wonder how many impartial viewers could tolerate sitting through them today. A restored version of Pandora's Box is now in wide circulation, at 133 minutes.

Pandora's Box

"Lulu's story is as near as you'll get to mine." – Louise Brooks (1)

"There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" – Henri Langlois (2)

It is easy to see the great films of the short-lived Weimar Republic (1919–33) as haunted and spectral – the artistic expression of a society on its last legs. Their very brilliance seems inseparable from a brittle fragility, as if the extremes toward which they were reaching with an almost breathtaking speed would inevitably result in the backlash that followed, and the flight of their makers into exile or silence.

What makes G W Pabst's 1929 film Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) so astonishing is the candour of its ambiguous sexuality and the electrifying presence of a 22-year-old American actress named Louise Brooks. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (1864–1918),(3) the film is a completely modern creation, not the mélange of music hall and tragedy that Wedekind wrote (only later to be labelled “expressionist”); concentrating on the amorous exploits of Lulu, available to seemingly everyone but possessed by no-one, who manages to bring all of her suitors, male or female, to grief.

Pabst was an acutely intelligent director who, in 1928, was already famous for his handling of actors. He had cast a virtually unknown Greta Garbo in his 1925 film The Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse), which convinced Hollywood of her star potential. For the role of Lulu, he reportedly tested and turned down every available actress until he saw Louise Brooks in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port (1928) and asked to borrow her from Paramount Pictures (4). He clearly saw something in Brooks that matched his vision of Lulu, but her casting proved more apt that probably either of them could have anticipated. During filming in Berlin, Pabst gave her a chilling warning: “Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way.”(5)

Encapsulating the plot of the film makes it sound unbelievably lurid (which, of course, it is): when the wealthy Peter Schön attempts to break off his affair with a young dancer named Lulu so that he can wed a respectable socialite, his plan is foiled when he is caught by his fiancée in a compromising position with Lulu. Deciding to marry Lulu instead, Schön discovers on their wedding night that she has seduced his son, Alwa. He gives her a pistol and orders her to shoot herself. She refuses to take the gun from him but in an ensuing struggle Schön is shot dead. Lulu is tried and convicted of murder but escapes the courthouse during a riot when one of her friends activates the fire alarm. Together with Alwa, a lesbian countess and a circus strong man, Lulu escapes by ship and eventually lands in England's East End where she must resort to prostitution. It is there, on a foggy Christmas Eve, that Lulu meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

What prevents all of this from teetering over into burlesque is Louise Brooks, who delivers what is surely one of the greatest examples of naturalist acting on film. As Brooks explained to Kenneth Tynan: “I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do – if you know that it's hard. I didn't, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn.” (6) Brooks was also a trained dancer and her every movement in the film, from her swoon in the courtroom to her languid, tired last walk up the stairs to her London garret, is sensuously balletic.

The film was photographed by Günther Krampf, who had filmed Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922. Through his subtle use of filters and key lights, he gives Brooks' startling beauty an iridescence, her lacquered black hair starkly contrasted with the shimmering whiteness of her costumes, as if she were nothing more than a gem-like surface to reflect or refract the light around her.

The film wasn't received in Germany with much sympathy, which puzzled Brooks. In her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, published near the end of her life in 1985, she pondered:

"Berlin had rejected its reality when we made Pandora's Box and sex was the
business of the town. At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar
was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the streets
outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation.
Actors' agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian
Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of
sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals
dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie
lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theater. In the revue
Chocolate Kiddies, when Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of
bananas, it was precisely as Lulu's stage entrance was described by Wedekind:
“They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.” (7)

(1) Quoted in Kenneth Tynan, “The Girl in the Black Helmet”, Show People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979, p. 294.
(2) Tynan, 1979, p. 303.
(3) Wedekind's American mother actually named him Benjamin Franklin!
(4) Recounted by Paul Falkenberg, one of Pabst's assistants, to Brooks in 1955. Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 95.
(5) Brooks, 1982, p. 105.
(6) Tynan, 1979, p. 276.
(7) Brooks, 1982, p. 97.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Critical Cretinisms: Spoilers

In a conversation with my brother in 2000, he mentioned that he had just seen the Wolfgang Petersen film The Perfect Storm, adding that "it was pretty good. Too bad everybody dies." Realizing his mistake in disclosing the film's ending to me, which was no secret to anyone familiar with the actual incident that the film dramatizes, he quickly apologized for his "spoiler." I told him not to worry and that I was not planning to go see the film anyway. When I did manage to see it months later on DVD, my brother's divulging the ending had not "spoiled" it for me at all.

Though unhappy, the ending of The Perfect Storm was not particularly surprising. Films that utilize "twist" or surprise endings depend for their full impact on that ending not being leaked to the audience. Two fairly recent examples spring to mind: The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Game (1998). Both of those films would have been far less effective and, I will admit, enjoyable, if their endings were known to me before I watched them. The popular prohibition of the leaking of surprise endings is comparable to the suppression of so-called "exit polls" during national elections until the last polling stations are closed. The rationale behind this is that no one wants to bet on a losing horse, and that some people will not bother to cast their votes if the outcome of the election has already been determined.

Aside from the films for which a surprise ending is everything, many classic films make use of them, and they contribute to their overall effect. One of the most luminous examples is Renoir's The Rules of the Game, which ends with the shooting death of André Jurieux, who was mistaken for Octave as he was running into the arms of Christine, who was mistaken for Lisette. Though surprising, the ending is perfectly congruous with everything that had come before it. Another great use of a surprise ending is in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, in which Catherine and Jim plunge to their deaths from a disused bridge. This ending, too, is initially shocking, but it feels utterly right in the film's continuity because Truffaut's artistry made it so.

Some surprise endings actually backfire, and Truffaut's very next film, The Soft Skin illustrates this disturbingly. His tale of the marital infidelity of a scholarly writer with an air hostess ends with his wife's discovering his affair and then methodically murdering him in a crowded restaurant. This ending cast a melodramatic pall over the entire film, almost ruining it. I noted before that the ending is an excellent illustration of the meaning of "melodrama." In the course of our lives, most of us have had to deal with infidelity, but few of us, thankfully, choose to deal with it as violently as the wife in Truffaut's film.

Citizen Kane ends with the revelation of the meaning of "Rosebud," the word uttered by Kane with his dying breath. But if it explains the mystery of Charles Foster Kane's last word, it does not in any way explain the mystery of Kane himself, which is the film's point. The RKO publicists for Citizen Kane sought to maintain the secrecy of Rosebud's identity, and contemporary film critics were instructed to do the same in their reviews. But such instructions, whether or not they are obeyed, run counter to the efforts of art and of criticism, which are to inform and illuminate.

Often, the efforts of publicists to suppress information from the public distorts the filmmaker's message. For instance, when Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves was released in the U.S., a subtle alteration of the title to The Bicycle Thief not only misrepresented the original Italian, Ladri di Biciclette, it misrepresented De Sica's whole point. In the film, the hero has his bicycle stolen on his first day on the job. By the end of the film, with no hope of retrieving his bicycle and keeping his job, he resorts to stealing someone else's bicycle. De Sica was simply trying to tell us that, under the horrific conditions of postwar Italy, even an honest man can become a thief. But the idea, and the original title, was considered a "spoiler" by American distributors who feared that De Sica's title would give away the ending.

By now, when most filmgoers depend on films to provide them with the vicarious thrills of an amusement park ride or the mental challenge of a crossword puzzle, spoilers have become anathema. Whenever a critic makes the mistake of providing his readers with information that producers would rather they did not have, he is liable to come under fire. But requiring him to deliberately keep his readers in the dark and to stop short of a full evaluation is quite unacceptable editorializing, not to mention an infringement of free speech. It is also founded on the assumption that films are not to be taken seriously or handled at the same level of respect as any other creative media.

What if you were a critic discussing Moby Dick with strict instructions to avoid mentioning that, by the end of the book, the Pequod is sunk by the whale with the loss of all hands but one? Or even that you might be prohibited from recommending King Lear to a prospective reader or theatergoer by telling him "it's a great play. Too bad everybody dies"?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Soft Skin

This is an older piece that I wrote for Senses of Cinema in March 2004. François Truffaut's train left the tracks with this film, with his use of a completely preposterous melodramatic ending. In fact, the last scene of the film is a good illustration of what "melodrama" is - an intrusion of unreality, artificiality, into an otherwise subtle and illuminating tale of marital infidelity.

La Peau Douce

François Truffaut had been a brilliant – and often acerbic - critic of French cinema before he became a director. He went to great lengths demolishing the received wisdom of what constituted classic French cinema, as well as doing his best to end the careers of a number of people otherwise ensconced as its classicists.(1) Ironically, Truffaut often criticised French films for being bland remakes of Hollywood films.(2) Truffaut himself turned to American film and literature for many of his projects in the 1960s, including Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), The Bride Wore Black (1967) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969).

The subject of La Peau douce is adultery and its difficulties: for the husband who deceives his wife; for the wife who is, at first, unknowingly deceived; and for the other woman who is attracted to the married man but only as long as he remains married.(3) Pierre Lachenay is a celebrated man of letters, with a loving wife and daughter. On a trip to Portugal, he meets a young air hostess, Nicole, and begins an impromptu affair with her. His busy schedule of lectures on Balzac make it necessary for him to be away from home, creating convenient excuses for the two to be together. Gradually, however, Pierre's feelings for the girl develop beyond infatuation and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hide the affair from his wife. It is out of this 'difficulty' that the film derives its dramatic impetus. At the last, and in a final twist, Nicole decides that she doesn't belong in Pierre's world, but it is already too late for Pierre.

The setting is a world of timetables, schedules to be followed, and signs and signals regulating the frenetic ebb and flow of people who are no less part of the machine – as long as they observe the rules. Within the confines of this mechanism, they are still permitted some freedom of movement. But, as sure as Fate, once they attempt to circumvent the unwritten but universally accepted laws governing their lives, which could alter the grand design of which they are the minutest parts, invisible forces swiftly intervene to restore order – even if order can only be restored by violence.(4)

All of this could be construed as a genuine 'plot', were it not for Truffaut's obvious concern for his characters. Certainly, the film has some of the aspects of a suspense story, but it is far too subtle to be categorised as such. Without perhaps intending to, Truffaut's film exposes the hollowness of Hitchcock's formulae by concentrating not on the devices of suspense (ponderous music, an emphasis on 'clues') but on the characters' foibles and their subjection to the terrible randomness of chance.

Truffaut's film is so splendidly alive with observed details, translating the inner workings of Pierre's fumbling psyche into visual terms. To single out one memorable example: after his first encounter with Nicole in the elevator, Pierre walks down the hotel hallway, gazing down at the shoes placed outside every door – a man's here, a woman's there, or, tantalizingly, a man and a woman's side by side. On entering his room, Pierre automatically turns on the light in the foyer. Then he turns it off. Emboldened, he enters his bedroom and sits on the bed. He turns on the lamp beside it, phones Nicole's room and asks her to meet him for a drink. Nicole reminds him of the lateness of the hour and demurs. Pierre apologises and politely hangs up. Moments later, Nicole calls him back and agrees to meet him the following afternoon. Now that the staged ambience of his darkened room is superfluous, Pierre walks around his suite flipping on all the lights before lying down on his bed.

Jean Desailly is perfect as the fumbling husband.(5) Truffaut is gentle enough in his portrayal to show us Pierre's genuine enthusiasm for literature.(6) Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, is captivating as Nicole, exhibiting many of the qualities in her performance – sensuality, and a remarkable range of emotions – that were considered lacking in her sister.(7) And Nelly Benedetti is so convincing as the betrayed wife, and so tragically passionate by turns, that one wonders what could've driven Pierre to stray in the first place. The spareness and delicacy of Raoul Coutard's cinematography are matched by Georges Delerue's music, used by Truffaut with extreme care and precision – never blatant or over-emphatic.

La Peau douce was first shown at Cannes in 1964. Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg received all the attention, winning both the Prix Louis Delluc and the Palme d'Or. Truffaut's film is no less dazzling, but it represented a radical departure for the director. After the daring stylistic accomplishments of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim, La Peau douce at first seemed a step back for Truffaut, a step all the way back to the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot or Henri Cayatte. That Truffaut had been busy with his Hitchcock book at the time is considered to be one explanation for this change in style – perhaps also because of the film's concentration on the coolly functional details of the world which the characters inhabit rather complacently.(8) The difference is that Truffaut's concentration is never as emotionless or clinical as Hitchcock's. It is manifestly clear in frame after frame of this carefully wrought film that Truffaut cares about his characters, even as the mechanised world they inhabit conspires to destroy them. It makes watching Pierre's fall all the more fascinating and sad.

(1) Sometimes quite unfairly. Truffaut nearly ended the careers of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, until Bertrand Tavernier coaxed them out of retirement in the early 1970s.
(2) “Ironically” if only because Hollywood has made a practice of re-making popular French films since at least the 1930s.
(3) One of Truffaut's most brilliant insights in this film is to show how content the other woman is with her otherness – and how quickly she loses interest in the man who seeks to ruin the liberty of their arrangement by offering to desert his wife.
(4) Notice the beatific smile on the wife's face in the closing freeze-frame.
(5) Though it is hard to imagine that Desailly was cast as Chéri in Pierre Billon's 1950 film adaptation of Colette's novel.
(6) Truffaut himself was a voracious reader. Remember Antoine Doinel making a shrine to Balzac in The 400 Blows (1959).
(7) Dorléac's career was, of course, cut short by her death in a road accident in 1967.
(8) Truffaut's book was first published in 1967. See François Truffaut, Hitchcock, ed. Helen G. Scott, rev. ed. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Films I Love To Hate

Too often, some of the best critics are asked by their readers if there is anything they actually like, since their reviews are so often negative. Some of the greatest critics - like Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, George Jean Nathan, and John Simon - were notably negative most of the time. Their reasons were the same - called on to review whatever is available every week, month or quarter means being forced to write bad reviews, since the notion that everything - every book, play or film - is worth reviewing is simply ridiculous. The result is that, out of several volumes of criticism, the critics mentioned above end up with only a handful of truly positive opinions. But having to spend most of their time tearing something to shreds must have given them a genuine taste for it.

Hereafter are some of my favorite films "I love to hate." Often they are films that I single out to deplore because they have earned a great deal of praise from a lot of very misguided people. My only advice to them, or to anyone who may still have an unformed opinion of the films, is: Look again.

The Godfather(s)

If there is one thing that Italian-Americans are in desperate need of it is an organization like the Jewish B'nai B'rith - an anti-defamation league that safeguards them against racial discrimination and their stereotypical portrayal in popular media. At the very least, such an organization would have protected Italians from their almost invariable portrayal in American films and television as murderous mafiosi.

More than two hours into Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather (1972), whose complete title is actually Mario Puzo's The Godfather, there is a scene in which a group of Mafia bosses has gathered to discuss the terms of a truce, and the subject of narcotics trafficking comes up. One of the bosses stands up and says, "I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don't want it near schools. I don't want it sold to children . . . In my city we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway, so let them, lose their souls." That such an obviously despicable person as a Mafia don should make the distinction between human beings and animals, in a film in which every Italian, with a few exceptions (most of them women), is manifestly sub-human, is unintentionally funny.

The Godfather was not the first edition of the genre, but it is by far the most egregious. It is also not the first time that a gang of murderers had been portrayed as Just Plain Folks, but it is reponsible for an avalanche of mob movies and TV series, each of them more spurious than the last. Far from being an honest examination of the workings of a Mafia family, or an attempt to understand them, the film is an obscene love letter to them. Every act of brutality depicted in the film - every shooting, knifing, strangling, bombing - is lit, decorated, costumed and photographed with magisterial care, all the way down to the color of the blood and the contortions the victims make in their death throes.

Even Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather, who is initially innocent of murder and happily cut off from the uglier aspects of his family's business, soon descends to their level, and for reasons that are not satisfactorily revealed or explained. The attempted murder of his father, the murder of his brother and of his pretty Sicilian bride are supposed to be sufficient grounds for Michael taking his share in the slaughter of countless others and the assumption of his father's position as the head of his murderous clan. His transformation from a recognizable human being into a werewolf would have been more convincing.

And yet the American Film Institute, which has its work cut out for it, has ranked The Godfather as the second greatest American film ever made, and the number one "gangster film." Under the auspices (if you could call it that) of Sight & Sound magazine, the British Film Insitute ranked it, and its sequel The Godfather Part II, the fourth greatest film(s) "of all time." It is yet another example of how genre and mainstream films often get mixed up in some people's muddled minds, and how this shuttling back and forth between two sets of standards makes nonsense of criticism itself.

. . . more to come

Thursday, November 5, 2009

As He Pleased

George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia is one of the most valuable first-hand accounts of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) ever written. It is an impassioned, highly emotional work of reportage that relates the amazing social conditions of Republican Spain. "It was the first time," he wrote in the first chapter, "that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle." In 1944, for his weekly "As I Please" column in Tribune, he wrote nostalgically of that time, which had already seemed to recede into the distant past. He writes about the feeling of solidarity that he felt then with everyone around him on his journey from France to Spain. I believe that that feeling, which I have never felt and which Orwell perhaps only felt momentarily, is worth remembering.

About the end of 1936, as I was passing through Paris on the way to Spain. I had to visit somebody at an address I did not know, and I thought that the quickest way of getting there would probably be to take a taxi. The taxi-driver did not know the address either. However, we drove up the street and asked the nearest policeman, whereupon it turned out that the address I was looking for was only about a hundred yards away. So I had taken the taxi-driver off the rank for a fare which in English money was about threepence.

The taxi-driver was furiously angry. He began accusing me, in a roaring voice and with the maximum of offensiveness, of having "done it on purpose." I protested that I had not known where the place was, and that I obviously would not have taken a taxi if I had known. "You knew very well!" he yelled back at me. He was an old, grey, thick-set man, with ragged grey moustaches and a face of quite unusual malignity. In the end I lost my temper, and, my command of French coming back to me in my rage, I shouted at him, "You think you're too old for me to smash your face in. Don't be too sure!" He backed up against the taxi, snarling and full of fight, in spite of his sixty years.

Then the moment came to pay. I had taken out a ten-franc note. "I've no change!" he yelled as soon as he saw the money. "Go and change it yourself!"

"Where can I get change?"

"How should I know? That's your business."

So I had to cross the street, find a tobacconist's shop and get change. When I came back I gave the taxi-driver the exact fare, telling him that after his behaviour I saw no reason for giving him anything extra; and after exchanging a few more insults we parted.

This sordid squabble left me at the moment violently angry, and a little later saddened and disgusted. "Why do people have to behave like that?" I thought.

But that night I left for Spain. The train, a slow one, was packed with Czechs, Germans, Frenchmen, all bound on the same mission. Up and down the train you could hear one phrase repeated over and over again, in the accents of all the languages of Europe - là-bas (down there). My third-class carriage was full of very young, fair-haired, underfed Germans in suits of incredible shoddiness - the first ersatz cloth I had seen - who rushed out at every stopping place to buy bottles of cheap wine and later fell asleep in a sort of pyramid on the floor of the carriage. About halfway down France the ordinary passengers dropped off. There might still be a few nondescript journalists like myself, but the train was practically a troop train, and the countryside knew it. In the morning, as we crawled across southern France, every peasant working in the fields turned round, stood solemnly upright and gave the anti-fascist salute. They were like a guard of honour, greeting the train mile after mile.

As I watched this, the behaviour of the old taxi-driver gradually fell into perspective. I saw now what had made him so unnecessarily offensive. This was 1936, the years of the great strikes, and the Blum government was still in office. The wave of revolutionary feeling which had swept across France had affected people like taxi-drivers as well as factory workers. With my English accent I had appeared to him as a symbol of the idle, patronizing foreign tourists who had done their best to turn France into something midway between a museum and a brothel. In his eyes an English tourist meant a bourgeois. he was getting a bit of his own back on the parasites who were normally his employers. And it struck me that the motives of the polyglot army that filled the train, and of the peasants with raised fists out there in the fields, and my own motive in going to Spain, and the motive of the old taxi-driver in insulting me, were at bottom all the same.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Short Cuts

Over the past few months I had a chance to watch many not-so-new films that sometimes surprised me - the ones, that is, that I did not expect to be as good or as bad as I found them to be. I may get around to expanding on some of the following short shrifts when and if I find the space.

Righteous Kill (2008) A rare opportunity to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino onscreen together. Too bad they're both just marking time. Is "I did it for the money" the worst excuse or the best? You decide.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Compare this film with De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1951). Slumdog features the poverty and crime of Mumbai, exploited by Danny Boyle for our diversion. And this tripe swept the Oscars.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) From Eric Roth, who wrote the script for Forrest Gump, comes another fairy tale about how people who are short-changed by nature are really more alive and wiser than the rest of us. David Fincher, who did such a great job with Zodiac, Fight Club, and Seven, should have demurred.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) Stanley Kauffmann once remarked that Woody Allen creates his best work when he does not appear in his films. This film is an exception to that rule, since Woody is absent and the film is slight. Scarlett Johansson continues to fascinate Allen, despite being out-acted in every scene she is in. The Spanish locations are well-chosen and photographed (by Javier Aguirresarobe).

The Dark Knight (2008) Christopher Nolan, whose Memento and The Prestige were pretentious trash, continues to improve as a director of otherwise straightforward action films. Better than the first installment of the new Batman installment, Batman Begins, somebody made the comment at the Golden Globes that The Dark Knight is "more than just a comic book movie."

American Gangster (2007) Another American Nightmare. Strange how foreign directors enjoy rubbing salt in American wounds. Dino De Laurentiis did it with Mandingo, Alan Parker did it with Mississippi Burning, and here is Ridley Scott doing it with American Gangster. The difference is, Scott's film is superb.

In the Valley of Elah (2007) Everything about this film is utterly convincing, with one exception. I believed what the film says about soldiers in the U.S. Army, about how combat brutalizes them to the extent that they can turn to murder or suicide almost casually, and about how recruiting quotas are sometimes reached by drastic measures. I even believed in the father of a soldier hoisting the American flag upside down after learning the details of his son's murder. I did not, however, believe in Charlize Theron as a New Mexico cop. Despite her talent, she is simply too beautiful.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Like Chinese opera, visually fascinating but painful on the ear, this non-Western is a kind of oral history of the last days of the notorious American outlaw. But it is authentic to a fault - who wants to spend 2 hours and 40 minutes in the company of semi-literate rednecks? Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil (1999), which covers the same period and territory, made the dialogue elegant in its rusticity.

Valkyrie (2008) Some critics attacked this film for trying to rewrite history. Although courageous, the historical figures Von Stauffenberg, Von Tresckow, Olbricht, etc. were only good Germans who were simply trying to save Germany from destruction. They didn't care a jot for the Jews or for the rest of Europe. Bryan Singer blew his last chance to be taken seriously when he opened X-Men at Auschwitz just to introduce the character "Magneto."

...more to come