Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague)

cobbler, stick to your last

 Rainer Werner Fassbinder Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague) / 1970, USA 1977

 Often grouped in a loosely based trilogy with Love Is Colder Than Death (of 1969), and The American Soldier, of the same year, Gods of the Plague begins soon after the earlier film ended, with the small-time crook, Franz Walsch (this time played by the handsome Harry Baer rather than Fassbinder) being released from a Munich prison.

 His first call is to his former mistress, Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), now a singer in a local nightclub, Lola Montes (named in deference to Max Ophüls’ 1955 masterpiece, one of numerous film references sprinkled throughout this movie*). And for a short period the film focuses on his continued infatuation with her former lover before Franz moves on, partly in search of his old friend, Gorilla (Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder’s reluctant lover for several years), now in hiding and whom, he soon perceives has killed his brother.  A second woman, Magdalena (Ingrid Cravven) briefly takes Franz into her bed, and a third woman, Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) soon appears as another would-be suitor to Franz. Indeed throughout this highly theatrical and somewhat slow-moving early part of the film, women quite literally hang on Franz’s shoulders and arms, undressing him like he were a play toy. Yet throughout Franz seems almost to be dead, saying little, responding sexually even less, often simply laying still as he were a traumatized survivor. He is the kind of figure, as one critic has noted, to which all the other film’s figures assign whatever desires or possible relationships they imagine.
     The film finally quickens its pace when Franz suddenly encounters Gorilla on the street and seemingly snaps out of his trance, the two deeply hugging one another and quickly determining to take a trip into the country to visit a friend Joe (Micha Cochina). At this point the dark, dreary scenes of city life quickly disappear as they go “on the road,” so to speak, inviting Margarethe, at the last moment, to join them. Here, for the first time, a series of real conversations begin, where Gorilla admits he has killed Franz’s brother (“It was just business.”). After a series of pauses, Franz asks Gorilla, “Did you sleep with Joanna while I was gone?” Another long pause occurs, as if the question have been asked of Margarethe rather than Gorilla. When Gorilla replies “yes,” Franz responds, “I love you.” Obviously, he could be saying that to Margarethe, but it is clear that it is Gorilla to whom he is addressing his remark.
      At Joe’s country house, the three men once more spring into life, rough-housing with each other in a manner that is more about grabbing and holding on to one another than it is about a mock battle it pretends. Using the tropes of dozens of film noir and crime movies, such as White Heat, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Killing, Fassbinder reveals the misogynistic and homoerotic elements of the genre. When the three travelers return home, we find them all bed together, Franz dreaming aloud about a Greek paradise where the three might live, like the Jules and Jim trio, hunting, fishing, and drinking out their days together.
     Throughout Gods of the Plague women also form quick lesbian-like alliances, with Joanna embracing her rival Magdalena, and Margarethe briefly establishing a close bond with Joe’s wife. But these relationships, compared with the long term and far deeper homosexual bonds between Gorilla, Franz, and Joe, pale and are short-termed. And, in the end, it is the women who feel betrayed by Franz’s inability to fulfill them, and it is both Margarethe and Joanna, ultimately, with the help of the pornographer Carla Aulaulu (Carla Egerer)—a woman with whom Gorilla has been involved—who, in turn, betray their men.
      Johanna and Margarethe both have different reasons for the betrayal: the first, feeling shut out from Franz’s life takes on the unattractive policeman (Jan George), and clearly wants revenge, pleading with the policeman to shoot Franz; the second wants to prevent Franz and Gorilla from robbing a supermarket, fearing that her lover will be caught.

     Even the supermarket manager seems to be a former friend of Franz’s, suggesting by his open acceptance of the two men into the nearly empty store, that he may also be under the thrall of the handsome Franz. When Franz and Gorilla turn on the supermarket friend, the policeman, who has followed them into the store, takes Johanna’s plea to heart, shooting Franz dead and wounding the escaping “Gorilla.”

     Franz’s last words, “Cobbler, stick to your last,” is strangely enigmatic. The phrase suggests that one should do one what knows best instead of taking on a new role. But here, the idiom somewhat loses its significance since Franz has always been a small-time crook, and is, even now, a film’s end. Does he mean that he should have remained in the penny-ante world which has already resulted in his imprisonment? Surely not. Perhaps he speaks that line not regarding his vocation, but his sexuality. But even here it is unclear precisely what he means. Should he have stuck to Joanna instead of turning to other women or, realizing that the women have betrayed him (just as Joanna had in the previous film). Or does he mean he should have remained with his male friends such as Gorilla or Bruno from the first of this trilogy? Perhaps he is simply referring back to the cobbler of the earlier film, Love Is Colder Than Death, who sells Franz and Bruno the weapons which end in Bruno’s death and Franz’s imprisonment.    

     As if in answer to that question, the seriously wounded Gorilla seeks out Carla Aulaulu, forces her to confess and shoots her dead, hinting that now both sexes have wrought their revenge, transforming the dirty little criminal figures of Munich night-life into near Shakespearian figures.

Los Angeles, April 21, 2013

*Joanna, herself sings a song much in the manner of Marlene Dietrich. When seeking out the Gorilla, Franz discovers his dead brother in an apartment belonging to "Schlondorff.” Another figure of the New German Cinema, who directed The Tin Drum.

Michael Haneke | La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher)

dreaming of what they don’t have

Michael Haneke (screenplay, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek), Michael Haneke (director) La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) / 2001, USA 2002
When Michael Haneke’s powerful film The Piano Teacher first opened in 2002 in the US, numerous American critics described it as “depraved,” “unwatchable,” and “deeply disturbing,” even while saluting the director’s masterful approach and the wonderful acting of the film’s star, Isabelle Huppert (the film was awarded the top prizes for directing and its two major actors at Cannes). But even the mostly perceptive reviewer Roger Ebert could not quite put his finger on what was behind Huppert’s figure, Erika Kohut’s bizarre sexual behavior.

      Looking back on this film nearly 11 years to the date of its Los Angeles premiere—and having witnessed now four others of Haneke’s brilliant films—this work seems far less shocking and ambiguous than as it appeared  to its first US audiences. One might even describe this movie, filmed in Freud’s home city of Vienna, as a textbook study of Freudian study of sexual frustration and perversion.

      Having devoted her entire life to a musical career as a piano concert performer, Erika has had little experience, it is clear from the beginning of this work, with the opposite sex. She lives with a domineering woman (Annie Girardot), not so very different from the kind of stage mother portrayed in the American musical, Gypsy, a somewhat unrefined woman who, even though her daughter is now in her 40s, continues to control her life and rule over her career and teaching responsibilities. When her daughter does not arrive home on time, the mother enters her closet to destroy any new dresses she may have purchased. This tyrant even warns her insecure daughter not to let her students become better interpreters of music than she is. The husband of this monstrous mother has unsurprisingly gone mad. Erika painfully is forced to share her mother’s bed.

     We soon discover that Erika’s only experience with sex has been through late-night visits to a Vienna porn theater, where, after being ogled by the male denizens, she locks herself in a cabinet to watch violent porn tapes. At one point she takes the blade of a razor to her vagina, bleeding into the bathtub. Upon another occasion she stealthfully visits a drive-in theater on foot to observe the young couples engaging in automobile sex. With such a violent view of sexuality is hardly surprising that she steers clear of males, describing them as pigs, while simultaneously having all the sexual urges of a woman of her age.

     If her life is devoted to music, particularly to the mournful love songs of Schubert and Schumann—one song repeated throughout the film begins with dogs barking and people “dreaming of what they don’t have,” typifying the “love, death, transformation” themes of his famed leider, some of them written in the same year when Schubert began experiencing the symptoms of syphilis—Erika clearly gets little joy from the music she so elegantly performs. As a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory of Music, she tyrannizes her students as her mother does her, demanding they suffer in order to become great musicians. She is particularly mean to a rather plain looking girl, Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch), whose entire has been given over to piano-playing; her mother reveals to Erika that the girl practices eight hours a day. Even her lessons are, as Erika expresses it, a bore.

     At a recital in which Erika plays in a wealthy Vienna apartment, the musician meets handsome if slightly haughty young man, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) the nephew of the apartment’s owner. During a buffet discussion he speaks somewhat intelligently about her performance, but she remains wary. He is evidently studying engineering at the university, but a piano performance by him after the buffet demonstrates that he has true musical talent as well, and despite Erika’s dismissal of him, Huppert conveys Erika’s deeper and darker attraction. Soon after, Walter applies to study piano under Erika. At the audition he clearly wows the other faculty members, while Erika votes against him. When he permitted to enter the conservatory and shows up to his first lesson, he reveals his passion for her, that he is attracted to the older woman like—in a rather unfortunate metaphor—like a “nut to a bolt.”  His forthright approach clearly takes her aback, while, nonetheless, revealing her hidden desires. Their conversation represents the tensions between them:

 Erika Kohut: Schubert's dynamics range from scream to whisper not loud to soft. Anarchy hardly seems your forte. Why not stick to Clementi? Schubert was quite ugly. Did you know? With your looks, nothing can ever hurt you.

Walter Klemmer: Why destroy what could bring us together?

Erika Kohut: Mannerism is no...

Walter Klemmer: [interrupting her] Why can't I look at you? Because if I do, I won't resist the temptation to kiss you on the neck. May I kiss you on the neck?

 [she walks away]

     Soon after, at a rehearsal of the conservatory’s Jubilee performance, the young Anna Schober arrives late, having had diarrhea through her fear of Erika’s tyranny. The teacher calms her student, only to watch Walter, helping to set up the next set, speaking to Anna and even eliciting from her a small laugh. Watching Walter, serving as page-turner to Anna, Erika exits the auditorium, obviously jealous of even the clumsy friendship Walter has offered his fellow student. Suddenly, Erik breaks a wineglass, spilling the broken pieces into Anna’s coat pocket. The rehearsal closes, with the inevitable: Anna, thrusting her hands into the pocket, is severely cut, unable to perform at the Jubilee event—or perhaps ever again. While Erika has been jealous, we also comprehend that she may have unintentionally saved the young girl from an empty life like her own, a world in which she has given all to her musical avocation.    

     When Walter observes her escaping the scene, he follows her to a bathroom where Erika has tried to hide herself away. Leaping over the stall to bring her out, Walter forces her out, where she falls into a passionate embrace with young man, but refusing to allow him to touch her. She, in complete control, performs fellatio without allowing him to ejaculate, demanding he keep his erect penis in place while facing her. While he pleads with her, she terrorizes the student with threats that she will never let him touch her again, before finally jacking him off, demanding

that any further contact will be through her own methods, communications and letters.

      So begins a series of manipulative actions in which she requests that Walter, in her own apartment with the bedroom barricaded against her mother, tie her up, gag her, and force her into sexual acts much like the ones she has witnessed on the porn tapes and the magazines she has hidden under her bed. Reading her written requirements, the young Walter is disgusted with her S & M demands. He proclaims he loves her, but wants no involvement with such degradations, emphatically dismissing her vision of sexual life:

Erika Kohut: Do you like me calling you darling?
Walter Klemmer: It's absolutely marvelous.
Erika: You must be patient. I'll give you all the games, we'll play all the games you want.
Walter: You know you really stink? Sorry, you stink so much, no one will ever come close to you. You'd be better leave town until you don't stink so bad. Rinse your mouth more often, not just when my cock makes you puke.

 When Erika continues to make her demands, Walter leaves her, but utterly frustrated and mentally “snapping,” returns to her home, locking the mother into her room while he beats and rapes Erika, proving to her, obviously, that men are “pigs,” along with forcing to comprehend that the fantasy world she seeks, played out in reality, like everything else in her life, is without any pleasure.

     Walter leaves her permanently. As she and her mother attend the Conservatory event, where she will now accompany the Schubert song in her student Anna’s place, she witnesses Walter arriving with others, before secretly exciting the hall, pulling a long kitchen-knife from her bag and plunging it into her breast. It may be only a symbolic death, instead of the real death German myth so often requires of its lovers (I am listening even at the moment of writing this to a New York Metropolitan performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre), but even if she survives, we recognize it is the beginning of her complete undoing. She has, if nothing else, symbolically committed suicide, as if replying to Schubert’s next phrase in his song: “What is this foolish desire?”

Friday, April 19, 2013

Charles Chaplin | Modern Times

black sheep
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Chaplin (writer and director) Modern Times / 1936

So much has been written about Charles Chaplin’s great 1936 film, Modern Times, that I should perhaps just express my admiration for this movie, which I revisited again the other day on the occasion of his birthday, and close my mouth to let the record stand. Anyone who knows me well, however, will understand that such a response would be impossible, seeming to me like an abandonment of my somewhat autobiographical representation of the cultural events of my lifetime. So, please forgive me if I repeat long repeated observations about Chaplin’s comic masterpiece. I might, however, have one insight that can help further appreciate the little tramp’s encounter with modern life.

     Let me begin where Chaplin’s film does: immediately after his inter-title statement— somewhat ironically, it appears to me, declaring this film to represent a “story of individual enterprise, crusading in the pursuit of happiness”— before the director represents the factory workers on their way to work, through a rather obvious metaphor, as a group of sheep, in the center of which is a single “black” one. The tramp is, obviously, the “black sheep,” as the Belgium directors Luc and Jean Pierre Dardennes pointed out in their commentary screened after the TCM showing. Yet, the first few scenes of Chaplin’s movie portray the tramp as a hard worker, mechanically tightening the bolts—which move quickly along a conveyor belt—in a mad attempt to keep up with the demands of the factory owner, not dissimilar to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. Bravely, the tramp moves up and down the line, deflected, as usual, by his fellow workers and nature (in the forms of a bee, an itch) along with the intrusions of the foreman. Even during a few seconds of break, in which the tramp, completely caught up in his mechanistic task, literally spins off into space, he is rebuked by the factory owner, whose image is suddenly projected across a bathroom wall, to return to work. In Modern Times big brother has clearly made an early appearance, long before George Orwell’s 1949 book. There is no room for personal behavior. The tramp as “factory worker” must suffer not only the abuse of his endlessly repetitive tasks, but the testing of a new feeding machine for factory employees, where he is literally spoon fed—while entrapped with the machine’s embrace—soup, diced cuts of meat (and, by accident, actual bolts), and, most ridiculously, cobs of corn on a never-ending rotisserie of insistent grinding across his mouth! Soon after, the “factory worker” must suffer the gigantic roulettes of the clogs and links of the machine which conveys the meaningless tools up to him.

      Is it any wonder that this well-intentioned, but tortured worker has, what Chaplin’s inter-titles describe as a “nervous breakdown,” a ridiculously funny series of balletic events in which he faces off with his fellow workers, using the machine that has tortured him, in turn, to torture them as well, alternating, well in advance of Harpo Marx’s antics, with chasing after any woman with buttons upon her dress in an attempt to “screw” them into place. In a sense, the innocent tramp has suddenly become, through the repetitiousness of his conveyor-belt acts, a kind of sexual maniac. Since his fellow employers have allowed themselves to become mere functionaries in the factory machine, the tramp, oil can in hand, deservedly treats them just as he might mechanical elements of the whole. His arrest represents a breakdown of the whole inhuman enterprise, which during his imprisonment, is completely closed down due to the Depression and worker strikes.

     These early scenes are among the most famous of the film, and seem to indicate that Chaplin’s work is primarily a statement of the inhumanity of new industrial usage as humans are transformed from individual artisans into mere mechanical robots—much like the workers in the new Ford automobile plants. But Chaplin, one must always remember, is at heart a romantic, and despite his early statements about worker abuse—issues Chaplin had explored and written about in the year just before the making of this film, as he travelled about Europe and met with legendary figures such as Mahatma Gandhi—he presents the rest of his film very much in the context of the cultural romanticism of his earlier works.
      The Tramp may be an outsider, but he is, Chaplin reminds us, time and again, a citizen of the community who might, given a chance, be committed to the most bourgeois aspects of society—if only given a chance. Although incarcerated in prison, the Tramp, as we know, is a complete innocent, even though he consumes a large salt-shaker full of cocaine, he ultimately saves the prison guards and officers from a group of escaping fellow-prisoners. His award for his acts, a lovely decorated prison cell, along with a radio and regular visitors, represents perhaps the most normative world in which he has ever existed. In a time of complete unemployment and brutal attacks on poverty-stricken individuals—portrayed so vividly through the experiences of the homeless gamin, Paulette Godard—the Tramp is protected, given special privileges he might never find on the outside. Despite his constant outsider designation, Charlie is happiest on the insides of society. He would be a perfectly moral and upright member of society, as I previously argued, if he was only allowed.
      In the deepest sense, this is the problem, always, with Chaplin’s works. The hero, finally, is less a rebel than a conservative figure who is simply projected—often quite literally through accidental movements through space—into outsider positions. The moment he is given pardon and freed from jail, an accidental drop of a red flag from a rig, the Tramp’s attempt to return it, and a group of radical strikers—which, without even comprehending, he leads into action—results in another arrest, this time for his being a radical!
     Freed again, and after a disastrously short-lived job as a ship-builder’s assistant, the Tramp is literally felled by the young gamin, who has stolen a loaf of bread. As always, the Romantic Chaplin figure attempts to protect her by claiming he is the thief, but societal forces, brutally un-Romantic, foil him, as they re-arrest the nearly starved girl. It is finally at this point that the Tramp seems realize that his problem lies in his good intentions, as he determines to taste nearly every dish a nearby café offers, without paying. It is important, it seems to me, that so much of this film is centered simply upon the possibility of being unable to eat, as the Dardennes brothers clearly described it. If the Tramp is often impervious to the unpredictable events with which society throws at him, he is, almost always, hungry, desperate to fulfill a hunger that is not only of the stomach but involves his needs of love and societal fulfillment!    
      Hoping to be re-arrested for his unpaid gluttony, he is again foiled by the reappearance in the police van of the beautiful Gamin. Again, quite by accident, they van is overturned, with the couple escaping. He insists that she go on without him, that she run from the imprisonment which he has sought. But again, another first in the Tramp’s life, everything changes, as she motions him to escape with her. Suddenly, the loner, the black sheep, is no longer alone.
      The rest of the film, for the first time in Chaplin’s work, tells the tale of two outsider individuals, not merely one. Together, they even dream together about a bourgeoisie life: imagining themselves intertwined in what later might be described as The American Dream, in a small suburban house. If the Tramp’s vision is highly paradisiacal—a tree of knowledge at his doorstep, a cow hobbling alongside the house to provide fresh milk—it is also an absurdly preposterous world, realized in reality by a shantytown house, where floor boards break under broken-down chairs and tables, and where the roof is held up by a utensil the might have been used to help clean it. Whatever this couple might aspire to is represented through the Tramp’s and the Gamin’s night—in the apotheosis of any consumer’s delight—where they locked in a large metropolitan Department Store where the Tramp works briefly as a night watchman. There, once more, they can eat, play—another of Chaplin’s major tropes—in the toy department, and sleep wondrously in the bedroom display, if only temporarily. A group of unemployed workers, one having been a torturous partner of the Tramp’s factory working days, attempt to rob the store, admitting, finally, that they are not thieves but simply hungry men.
      Again arrested, Charlie is released once more to find that the Gamin has obtained a job as a dancer in a local café. She helps him get a job as a waiter and singer. We know in advance how it will end. The tramp is an absolutely resolute waiter, but given his needed entries in and out of the kitchen and the dancing activities of the joint, he can never deliver up anything that he has promised, including a much requested duck.

     So, once more, he fails. Except—here a kind of miracle happens. Completely unable to remember the lyrics to the song he is supposed to sing, the Tramp is helped out by his faithful friend, the Gamin, as she writes them out upon his cuffs. The comic figure is once more foiled as in his marvelously manic dance preceding his song. The cuffs go flying off his coat. But here, suddenly, a miracle happens: encouraged by his “lover” (Chaplin secretly married Godard the very same year) as he sings out, for the first time allowing his audience to hear his voice*—French composer Léo Daniderff’s comic song, Je cherche après Titine—performed, however, in complete gibberish, nonsensical words from Italian and French that, nonetheless, convey its sexual themes. Here Chaplin is absolutely brilliant, both in his mime-like performance, his absurd singing, and his absolutely brilliant dance-like movements! For the first time in this film, as the Dardennes stated, he is in control; he has found his true home: the theater—the world of the film that has previously defined the Tramp’s existence.
      As fate would have it, however, the police catch up with the vagabond Gamin, and the Tramp, finally committed to a new world, must suddenly attempt to protect her, sending the two on another run from societal order—away from the police who represent that order. In another on-the-road sequence, the two sit side by side, in dismay, the Gamin finally admitting—despite her previously energized resistance of all authority—complete despair. What’s the use of going on, she proclaims. But the “black sheep,” a member of the herd nonetheless, speaks out from the cultural refrains of the period: “Buck up, put on a smile,” as the two go trudging down the highway—the Tramp, for the first time engaged with another—into the sunset, a conformist unable to find a society to which he can conform!

       It is quite obviously the end of the Tramp, a man who has found conformity outside of the very society in which he seeking to be part of, an outsider who has, nevertheless, found an inner contentment with those who have kept him so isolated. Sadly, it is a bit like a heavily bullied man finding peace with those who have perversely attacked him again and again, somewhat like a beaten wife coming home to her husband’s drunken fists. I now think Chaplin meant the first words of his film seriously, even if I can never comprehend how his trek down the California highway represents anything near to “the pursuit of happiness.”
    Chaplin’s later paternity suits with actress Joan Barry, and the final attacks by US authorities for his supposed Communist involvement, forced him to leave the US, suggesting what his perceptive 1936 film had already predicted. Smile as you might, there was still a white line dividing that highway, which symbolized the strict divides of American society.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2013

*Modern Times, one of the last of silent films, was not completely silent. Originally, Chaplin had planned it as a “talkie,” but felt that the myth of his Tramp figure would disappear with the realization of a voice. Accordingly, throughout most of the film, only the “machines”—the food-eating machine, the large-screen images of the factory’s owner, radios, etc.—“speak.” The final performance, in gibberish” is Chaplin’s first on-screen voice premiere. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Orson Welles | The Trial (Le Procès)

a landscape of waiting

Orson Welles (screenplay, after Franz Kafka) and director The Trial (Le Procès) / 1962

Orson Welles’ 1962 film The Trial begins with a pinscreen scene recounting the story of the man waiting to be invited in before the doors of justice for an entire lifetime before discovering that the door in front of which he waited was only for him. That brief beginning parable (which is referred to in Kafka’s fiction) and the narrator’s following statement about the work possibly being a dream immediately takes this movie out of Kafka territory and into the world of a kind of academic essay that delimits the original book’s meaning. In Kafka, the arrest of Josef K is so very terrifying precisely because it is not a dream, but a kind of perverse reality that only a paranoid mind could imagine. Kafka’s is a world that cannot be, but is nonetheless, a world that is unimaginable but—with awful prediction—did come to pass, as we know, in the worlds of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin created in the decades after The Trial was written.
     Given that misleading introduction, it is no wonder that Welles’ The Trial is very different from Kakfa’s surreal work. Anthony Perkins’ K is far more clever and argumentative than Kafka’s hero as I remember him, and the world he inhabits, unlike Kafka’s almost claustrophobic city, consists of vast spaces, filmed mostly in the then-empty Gare d’Orsay of Paris, outside Zagreb, in Dubrovnik, Rome, and Milan, which instead of closing in the terrified K, opens up the world to him and the viewer. All women in Welles’ film seem absolutely ready to have sex with Perkins’ handsome K, and the story ends, not in his death by being stabbed in the heart, dying “like a dog,” but with K., as if he were the hero of a World War II action film, scooping up several sticks of dynamite and hurling them back, in a blast of smoke and a mushrooming cloud, at his assailants. While Kafka’s K, despite his pleas and attempts at placating the authorities, is doomed from the outset, Welles’ K, despite his nervous twitches of fear and guilt, seems to win out, perceiving that there is no meaning at all to the accusations against him.

      In short, we recognize from the beginning, Welles’ The Trial, unlike Haneke’s The Castle has, in many respects, little to do with the original. Perhaps we should just describe Welles’ work as “suggested” by or “in the manner of Kafka”—although even that would be a kind of exaggeration—and leave it at that. For, although Welles’ Trial is not nearly as absurdly effective as Kafka’s version, it is a certainly a moving piece of film-making—one of the very few in which Welles had complete artistic control—which does present us with many of issues of guilt and innocence, logic and illogic, sanity and paranoia that are dealt with in the great writers’ work.
     In some senses, moreover, Perkins seems to be the perfect Josef K, his lanky handsomeness with his large eyes and nervous demeanor, calling up a more presentable K than I imagined from my long-ago reading. What he seems to lack in terms of the characters’ timidity and  general apprehension, Perkins makes up for his obvious sexual discomfort (something Hitchcock immediately recognized in his Psycho of two years earlier) in the arms of Jeanne Moreau (as his neighbor Marika Burstner), Romy Schneider (as Leni), and Elsa Martinelli (as Hilda). If he stands up to his male colleagues far more than Kafka’s figure, his fascination with but complete befuddlement regarding the women he encounters reveal him also as a conflicted being, perpetually “sorry” for even being in their company and fearful of being “caught.” The wonderful scene in which he visits the artist Totorelli (William Chappell), where dozens of young girls luridly peak through the spaces in the wall like a gaggle of teenage-girls trying to get a view of their favorite rock-star, sets Perkins’ K into a horrifying frenzy, only to have him discover that the rickety construction in which the artist lives is attached to the court itself. It is almost as if K were being tried for deeds he has not yet committed. Certainly, the court is somehow behind everything.

      But even more than through his characters, Welles’ drama comes alive in its landscapes, the vast staircases and spaces of the various sets, particularly in the director’s strange mix of domestic and the official, as when K first visits the court, outside of which we see a woman doing her laundry before the camera, crossing the threshold of a door, reveals a vast room of laughing justices. K’s office, simulating the immense office spaces of King Vidor’s 1927 silent film The Crowd, hints also of the inhumane working spaces of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (also of 1960).

    One of the most spectacular scenes is in the apartment of the Advocate, Albert Hastler (played by Orson Welles himself), where in one room, K encounters the beautiful assistant to Hastler, Leni, among piles of paper seemingly as far-reaching as the possessions left behind by William Randolph Hearst at the time of his death in Welles’ Citizen Kane.
          Similarly, Welles’ eerie and often creepy use of shadows and pointless tranverses of space brings Beckett to mind, particularly in the long scene in which his neighbor’s crippled friend drags Fraulein Burstner’s luggage across a bleak urban landscape only to nearly repeat her steps, all the while arguing with the seemingly guiltless K, who realizes suddenly that, indirectly, he has been responsible for his neighbor’s displacement. As in a hall of mirrors—or perhaps we should say, as in the house of mirrors Welles used so spectacularly in his 1947 film, The Lady from Shanghai—tiny closets in which the men who originally arrested K are being beaten, lead into seemingly never-ending rooms, gothic cathedrals hover over tiny squares, small lean men like K are reflected as towering shadows. Welles’ world may not be precisely Kafka’s, but it is certainly a menacingly Baroque world able to terrorize everyone—both those with power and those without.
     And finally, Welles’ world is one of waiting, revealing long lines of patiently waiting figures (described as “Jews”) nearly everywhere K goes. It is a world where nearly everyone is forced to wait: even K admits that all who visit him must wait, sometimes for several days, including his innocent cousin Irmie who attempts to visit him at his office.
      If in Kafka, we have no real evidence whatsoever that K has done anything “wrong,” Welles’ K slowly reveals his “guilt.” In being so thoroughly a man of the system, Perkins’ K represents just what has turned against him as an individual. From the very beginning, the police involve not only his neighbor but his office mates, whom they invite in to see K’s “arrest” like leering voyeurs, perhaps to observe what may soon also happen to them. In short, while Kafka attenuates nearly all to confuse and confound us, Welles hits us over the head. It may hurt a little but it’s all quite powerful nevertheless.

Los Angeles, April 3, 2013

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Robert Bresson | Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent soufflé où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Blows Where It Likes)

if only my mother could see me now

Robert Bresson (writer and director, based on the memoirs of André Devigny) Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent soufflé où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Blows Where It Likes) / 1956, USA 1957

If there was ever evidence that Bresson’s films are unlike anyone else’s, one need only watch his A Man Escaped. On the surface this is one of hundreds of a genre of prison escape movies and part of a smaller genre of “escape from the Nazis” films. Generally these pictures center their interest not only in the methods of the escape but on the incredible adventures surrounding their heroes’ larger-than-life accomplishments, displaying loud scores and casts of dozens, while focusing on the startling exploits of those who achieve the impossible.
    Bresson’s black and white film certainly has some of these elements, but everything is played so absolutely straightforwardly that he almost (purposely) loses the elements of adventure; he uses music from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, and his central actors, instead of being known actors, are, as in most of Bresson’s works, unknowns, first-time actors chosen from the society around. In this case the protagonist, Lieutenant Fontaine, is played by a doe-eyed French student (François Leterrier). We know from the very first image of this film, wherein the director focuses—as he does in so many of his works—on a prisoner’s nervous hands as he is being taken away with other prisoners in a car. At each slowdown or possible street impediment, Fontaine’s left hand quietly reaches for the door handle (he has evidently been able to free himself from handcuffs), but after several reaches it appears he has lost his nerve—until the car nears a tram when the young Fontaine suddenly springs from the moving auto. A car following behind, quickly recaptures him and he is returned to the prisoner’s vehicle. Soon after, in retaliation, he is severely beaten, blood flowing from several facial wounds across his white shirt, an article of clothing he is forced to wear throughout the rest of the film, appearing as a kind Christ-like figure, flayed and whipped by his tormentors.
       Filmed in the original Fort Montluc prison in Lyon where Devigny, the real-life figure behind this film, was imprisoned, Bresson’s cinematic immersion in details is far more in evidence than any dramatic story-telling; but that very focus on Fontaine’s knocks against the walls, the heft of his lithe body to the high-ceilinged window, his intense attention to the cell door, and, later, the careful fashioning of metal and cloth ropes and hooks, in Bresson’s concentration on the utterly material manifestations, creates perhaps more tension and sense of adventure than were he to fully invoke, as in a film like Stalag 17, for example, the detailed stratagems of the actual escape. Here everything is done in secret even as we witness events, which blend in with the daily activities such as the morning ritual of bathing and emptying slop pails between whispers and slips of paper messages in and out of pockets. Despite the constantly prying eyes and the commands for silence of the Nazis, these men somehow manage to piece together information of each other’s plans and the conditions of their lives. Similarly, the audience must link up, at times, the smallest of gestures to be able to comprehend the actions of both the hero and others. Why are Terry and two other men permitted to walk alone in the open as they are in the early scenes? Why is the elderly man in the room next door so unresponsive? Why is Orsini so determined to achieve his early escape? Why are others so determined to stay where they are? Everything is inexplicable, and in a world where men are being murdered every day (an opening note tells us more than 7,000 were put to death in this prison) everyone is possibly a spy or, at least, someone determined to prevent the punishment all must endure if one of them were actually to “breach the wall.”
      Once Fontaine perceives that the cracks between the heavy wooden panels of his cell door are hitched together with a softer wood, we observe him, nearly endlessly, whittling away those connective pieces with the end of a spoon. But even then, we cannot begin to comprehend how he will, even if he might wander freely within the prison walls, escape. Orisini’s early attempt—which ends in his death—reveals moreover, that there are two walls to be scaled. And, in this sense, he has given his life to possibly save Fontaine’s.
      The more we observe Fontaine at work, however, the more we begin to perceive that he might never actually make his attempt to escape. Despite warnings from the others that time is short, Fontaine waits, fashioning yet new ropes and cables, replacing the door sections he has removed with dyed paper so that authorities will not notice his destruction of his determent.
      If Bresson might ever be said to have been influenced by Kierkegaard, it is in this work. Clearly, despite his determination, Fontaine does not yet have the faith to make Kierkegaard’s famous  leap into belief, is unwilling to give himself up entirely to the uncertainty of escape. And it is this “crisis of faith” that makes Bresson’s prisoner so very different from any other such figure portrayed. He is a tortured hero who may not live up to our attentions to him. Despite his intense belief in freedom and his great ability to manipulate the tools that will help him achieve that freedom, he waits and waits—almost until it is too late. Called to the German headquarters he is told that he has been found guilty and will soon be shot. 
     Upon return he is terrified that he will be transferred to another room or that, in his absence, his cell may have been searched. Fortunately neither has occurred, but an even worse crisis soon occurs when he given a young cell mate, a 16-year old boy, Jost (Charles Le Clainche) who has deserted from the German army. Has the boy been put there to spy on him, to find out his secrets, or even as a source of temptation? Fontaine has no choice but to consider the brutal possibility murdering his young roommate to carry out his self-defined mission. And facing that existential choice he wastes yet another day.
However, with yet another pillow available, he can braid together even a longer rope and, at the last moment, reveals his intentions to Jost, who, after some hesitation, agrees to join him. Together the two work more quickly than he might have alone, adding to their hooks and ropes yet new links that might help them in their hour of the escape.
     The escape itself is also like no other presented on film. Instead of adventurous and clock-driven swings over the walls, Bresson presents Fontaine’s and the boy’s escape as a game of cat a mouse, a thing of process that is made up by the two as they go along. Having breached one wall, they wait several hours before moving forward, in which time Fontaine almost seems to have lost his will once again, but during which he carefully observes the patterned movements of the guards, who march just a few steps in one direction before turning to march in an equal number of steps in the other direction, revealing, in their regulated militarism, a place just beyond their patrol where the two might alight.
      With careful and quiet maneuvers the duo slip down the final wall, no music to accompany them until, as they walk away, free men, into the fog, the Mozart music is repeated. The young Jost expresses the utter joy of their achievement: “If only my mother could see me now,” perhaps the most poignant and personal of all heroic actions.
      For Bresson, clearly, it is the truth of his story that matters, not its exceptionality. That someone did actually escape tells us everything we need to know about the human spirit and its possible survival.

Los Angeles, April 1, 2013