Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jean-Luc Godard | Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution)

don’t ask why

by Douglas Messerli

 Jean-Luc Godard (writer and director) Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) / 1965

 It has always seemed a bit strange to me that director Jean-Luc Godard chose perhaps the romantic city in the world in which to shoot his vision of a cold high-rise world devoid of street-life. Even if it makes sense financially, it is almost unthinkable that in the year I first began coming to that busy-night, gloriously lit city, 1965, that Alphaville could have anything to do with Paris! Yes, I had seen, years later, the office high rises of La Défense hovering in the distance, but it was never a part of the city, on my numerous trips to Paris, which I had any reason to visit. The Paris I know always has seen as busily bubbling with citizens and lovers as it is in Gershwin’s An American in Paris. It is practically a miracle, accordingly, that Godard was able to film his work on location, a film-noir-like futurist dystopia in which its creator Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon) and his computer Alpha 60 has taken over the minds of its people, destroying all individualist concepts of love, poetry, and emotion while replacing them with opposite concepts or simply eliminating them, much like those people who reveal signs of emotion—even crying over the death of someone—are eliminated en masse. Swedes, Germans, and Americans, we are told, best assimilate to Alphaville. The Southern Europeans, we can deduce, are just too emotional.

    Love has been replaced by casual sexual encounters with “seductresses,” who drop their dresses at the slightest provocation, giving visitors sexual release without any of enjoyment of true pleasure of love. Using a kind of stock tough-guy character from a series of Lemmy Caution novels and films (mostly performed by Eddie Constantine, the central actor here), Godard makes no attempt to continue the character type, as he transforms the secret agent into a journalist for the Figara-Pravda, sent to search for missing agent Henry Dickson and to bring von Braun into the outlands while simultaneously destroying the gigantic computer that has reeked such havoc.

       Evidently the citizens of Alphaville, in their sensually-deprived lives (their dictionaries are replaced regularly with fewer and fewer words) have also become inordinately stupid, as Caution is anything but “cautious,” stumbling around the darkly-lit city snapping inexplicable photographs with his cheap Instamatic camera (I had brought one just that year), asking straight-out questions, and demanding to meet von Braun—in all of this reminding one of an American tourist trying to take in an incomprehensible new country.

  Although agent Dickson dies early in the film, Caution’s craggy face seems to generate trust. Meeting von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina), he asks to be introduced to the evil professor, which, although she has never met her own father, agrees to arrange if she can. Van Braun, himself, offers Caution (pretending to Ivan Johnson) a chance to join the community, suggesting he might even rule a galaxy.

      Meanwhile, Caution conspicuously hangs around, mostly because he’s fallen in love with Natacha, and gradually attempts to teach her, through Paul Eluard’s poetry Capital of Pain, concepts that she does not comprehend. When he finally shoots up computer headquarters, destroying the computer itself (whose voice, performed by an actor who had lost his vocal box, dominates the last half of the film) through a poetic riddle, reminding one, in part, of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, the film suddenly comes alive. Indeed much of the eerie quality of this film bears the influence of Cocteau’s Orpheus, where evil-minded figures also speak in strange poetic gibberish, before art temporarily saves Eurydice. 
   The citizens of Alphaville, without their leader and big-brother thinker, suddenly reel and spin through the halls as if their very bodies had also been controlled by Alpha 60, while Caution scoops up Natacha to escape back into the outlands, she, just in time, learning how to speak a completely new concept: “Je vous aime.” Like any good secret agent movie, love wins the day!

        If this all sounds a bit silly, I wouldn’t argue. But Godard is never that simple, and his perfectly dressed characters, Natacha in a fur-lined dress-coat and Caution in predictable trenchcoat—often standing against a backdrop of florescent Einstein formulas—are memorable, speaking, at times, for far more than this work’s characters and plot.  

       And Godard’s ending, where poetry wins out over science, is something that could happen only in France. Kubrick’s 2001 computer, HAL, of only three years later, you’ll recall, almost succeeded in destroying the spacemen supposedly controlling him, and it was only rational science that allowed Dave Bowman to survive—if he did survive! Caution and his new girl-friend, fortunately, are not forced to enter a Louis Quatorze bedroom in order to die!

Los Angeles, March 28, 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stanley Kramer | Inherit the Wind

how long is a day?

by Douglas Messerli

Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith (screenplay, based on the stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee), Stanley Kramer (director) Inherit the Wind / 1960

Director Stanley Kramer, it is safe to say, was never known for his subtlety. Throughout his career he made pictures, most of them with underlying liberal themes, that out rightly depicted battles between good and evil concerning racism, holocaust (both the Nazi murder of Jews and nuclear holocaust), intellectual freedom, and moral antipathy. He may not have always explored the complexities of good and evil, but watching his films you certainly knew on which side he stood.     


     One of Kramer’s most respected films, Inherit the Wind was based on the highly acclaimed play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee that presented a fictionalized version of the true-life trial in which a small-town Tennessee teacher, John T. Scopes, was arrested for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in a state that had voted that it was illegal to teach anything but Creationism. The great lawyer, Clarence Darrow, procured by the Baltimore Sun journalist H. L. Mencken, argued for Scopes, while the famed three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, argued for the state. Using different names for each of these now-renowned figures (Scopes was renamed Bertram Kates [played by Dick York], Mencken was called E. K. Hornbeck [played against type by Gene Kelly], Darrow became Henry Drummond [Spencer Tracy], and Bryan was named Matthew Harrison Brady [Fredric March]) as a kind of fable to attack the “kind of mind control,” argued Lawrence in a later interview, of McCarthyism. “It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.”

     To reiterate their concerns, the original playwrights added a romantic interest in the form of Scopes’ girlfriend Rachel Brown (Donna Anderson), and her firebrand, bigot father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (played by Claude Akins). In order to further humanize the great liberal Darrow, Lawrence and Lee hinted at a deep friendship between the Darrow and Brady figures, particularly between Brady’s forebearing wife Sara (Florence Eldridge) and Darrow. And to counteract some of the gentility of Darrow, the writers allowed their Mencken figure to spout a series of witty and cynical one-liners that might almost remind one, at moments, of a Americanized Oscar Wilde. (Hillsboro is described by Hornbeck as “The buckle on the Bible belt, and his role is, as he puts it, “To afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted”) In short, the Lawrence and Lee work was an old-fashioned, slightly creaky well-made play that lasted for a long-running 806 performances after its 1955 Broadway opening.

Kramer, true to his directorial limits, makes little attempt to open up the play to the cinematic world of time and space. Although he certainly does bring to the screen a more realistic depiction of the circus atmosphere that the trial created for its small Hillsboro, Tennessee town, most of the festivities that surround the event might have been successfully staged—except perhaps for the long and emphatically enacted religious parade, where choruses of Christian women stridently march through streets singing what seems like ninety choruses of “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” many of them bearing banners denouncing Drummond. In truth the small southern town, according to many reports, although obviously supporting the religious values of Brady, were equally welcoming to Darrow and Mencken.

      Although he may have been a top-rate film cutter, Kramer’s major cinematic technique is to set up the camera facing the action head-on or at a slightly skewed angle that allows more actors into his frame. And generally the director seems to have nailed together scenes rather than sequencing them in the processor. Fortunately, once the characters enter the courtroom, overseen by the seemingly kindly but blinded justice of Judge Mel Coffey (Harry Morgan), things vastly improve, primarily because of the great acting abilities—supported by the gentle manipulations of the plot—of Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. If, in between, we must endure the pious hosannas and damnations of Claude Atkins and the gee-shucks, head down humilities of Dick York, the electric sparks fly the moment Tracy and March sweat out their intellectual match. While Brady may be the better orator, speaking always in a kind of biblical oratory that sounds right even if it doesn’t make sense, Drummond, by far, is the better tactician, summing up his opponent to his own wife: “He would not have made a great president, but he would have been a wonderful king.” Refused the right to bring in outside scholars who might support Darwin, refused to be able to quote from Darwin’s book, Drummond makes it clear that there is only one thinking man in town, the man under arrest. In real-life, Scopes was never even arrested, but the film, is in fact, is about arrestment, less the arrestment of the body than of the mind. When Brady, in a friendly moment, ponders “Funny hwow to people can start at the same place and move apart,” Drummond counters “Maybe it’s you who have moved away by standing still.” Although the judge insists that “the right to think is not what is on trial here,” Kramer makes it very clear that that is precisely at the very center of the issue, that a “grid of morality” has been placed upon behavior, something made even more evident in more recent times with the continued demand in schools throughout the country that if evolution is taught, so too must be Creationism, as if these two complete contradictory views of the universe were to be given equal credence.

      In a brilliant maneuver, which, in fact, Darrow actually used in the real trial, Drummond calls Brady to testify about the creation of the universe, wryly forcing him to insist that the earth was created, as Bishop Usher declared, “precisely at 9 a.m. on October 23, 4004 B.C.,” thus disavowing the existence of nearly all of our fossil history and scientific fact, which Drummond has already posited as “irrefutable as geometry.” If he does not win the case—Scopes losses and is fined $100—he has won the cause by showing everyone just what a fool Brady is. Simple questions such as “how long is a day?” as described in the Bible, become deep traps of intellectual uncertainty, of which the close-minded Brady reveals, even to the seemingly uneducated citizens of Hillsboro, he is ignorant. Outraged by the small fine and lack of punishment for Scopes (in truth, Scopes received no fine, and Bryan had agreed to pay any fine accessed from the beginning) Brady attempts another blustery speech; but this time there is no one left to hear him, and outraged he falls into babble, simply listing the books in the Bible in their order, a school-boy exercise of a religious upbringing.*
     In truth, Bryan died a few days later in his sleep; on stage and in Kramer’s stage-bound film, he dies in the courtroom of a ruptured stomach, a simple wrap-up of a more complex life, Drummond reaching for both the Bible and Darwin’s book, carries them out of the courtroom as if he can live equally comfortable with opposing philosophies. But it is Horbeck’s cynicism that, finally seems to win out, as he asks: “How do write an obituary for man who has been dead for 30 years?” By using the usually loveable, dance man Kelly in this role, Kramer has shown, perhaps, his real genius, forcing the audience into a kind of love-hate relationship with this enigmatic journalist. Yet Drummond, in his ability to see things through an historical lens, truly wins out: “A giant once lived in that body,” he proclaims, redeeming, perhaps the fanatical monster we have just witnessed, and, finally, adding a slightly more complex layering to this historical fable.

 *In my childhood we attended a Lutheran church in rural Iowa, and I recall the older Sunday School-going students reciting the books of the Bible in just such a manner, the one who could name them all most quickly winning the ridiculous contents. Even as a child, I simply could comprehend what madly naming the books of the Bible might mean about comprehending them or even having read them. My childish mind simply could not assimilate the value of this empty exercise.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

René Clair | Le Million

the coat makes the man

by Douglas Messerli

René Clair (screenplay, based on a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand, and director) Le Million / 1931

The major “figure” in René Clair’s delightful comedy, Le Million, is not a human but, as in the Gogol short story, a coat, this a threadbare suit coat. Within its pockets lies a winning lottery ticket owned by Michel Bouflette (René Lefèvre) who is busy with another woman, when his girlfriend, Beatrice (Annabella), takes it away to mend. When she discovers her lover with  another woman she gives she passes on the coat to a visiting criminal on the run from the police, a chase scene that includes nearly all the tenants of building, that ends with the thief, Granpere Tulip (Paul Ollivier) hiding out in her room. If my description seems to make little sense, so does the film, upon retelling, become more and more outlandish. For Clair’s work does not simply involve several Keystone Kop like chases, inexplicable characters such as Tulip and his “gang” of thieves, an artist-friend of Bouflette’s, Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert) who betrays his friend, a haughty opera tenor who later purchases the coat to wear in a production of The Bohemians, an opera-stage battle similar to that of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera of a few years later, but the work is musical that even sings of the moral conditions of its characters, particularly of Prosper.

In short, to make logical sense of the antic events of the plot would be senseless. Clair’s work demands that the viewer, as in the later Marx Brothers’ work, let go of all reason and sit back and laugh at the insanity portrayed. With nearly everyone on the chase for the coat and its lottery ticket, characters come and go, in and out of rooms, with the swiftness of subway turnstile. Women seduce men, men seduce women; ballet dancers prance into operas that contain no dances, gangsters join singers upon the stage (as in Porter’s Kiss Me Kate), and taxi cab drivers join up with butchers, grocers, bartenders, and renters to get their part of “le million” the lottery ticket offers its rightful owner. If Tulip is a criminal, he is also the philandering hero’s savior, producing the missing lottery ticket when it appears all is lost, an act that sends everyone into a long line of absurdly merry dancing. Whether, after paying off all those he owes, Bouflette will have any money left to live on is questionable. Does it matter? Everybody wins in this trifle of a film, which proves that the coat makes the man! 
For all of its light merriment, however, Clair’s frothy confection, in the end, seems fairly empty. Money is at the center of everything, and even though the picture’s end returns the central character to his “true” lover, shows up the self-inflated tenor and his gargantuan soprano as snobbish fools, and permits everyone to escape the clutches of the power-hungry police, variations of greed still seems to be at the heart of this phantasmagoric fable. And this Beatrice spends more time leading her Dante astray than into the sublime. As the two interlopers who begin this movie look down into the frenzied cast of characters twining through the rooms below, the audience also can only feel a bit like the outsiders observing the fun that will result, surely, in one grand hangover.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Peter Weir | Witness

an open book

By Douglas Messerli

Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley (screenplay, based on a story by Kelley, Wallace and Pamela Wallace), Peter Weir (director) Witness / 1985

Peter Weir’s first American film, Witness of 1985, is a kind of shapeshifter, a thriller that is also a love story with a study of cultural differences—almost a kind of beautifully filmed documentary about the Amish communities of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County—at its core. Several critics, Leonard Maltin among them, found these various elements to be a war with one another, which he felt were “jarring shifts” that destroyed the balance of the film.

My view is just opposite: for me the fact that Weir so brilliantly is able to blend a credible (even if unlikely) work of art that provided its audience so many different genres is what makes this movie so watchable; I’ve now seen this small gem of film a half dozen times, and will gladly watch it again. It also represents one of Harrison Ford’s (as the film’s hero cop, John Book) best performances. Harrison’s handsome, open, all-American face, indeed, has always seemed to be like an “open book,” which is why he so perfect for adventure roles. But here, in what his sister (Patti LuPone) suggests he is married to his work instead of to a woman, Ford is allowed to be internally “troubled,” torn between his belief in absolute good and his perception of the nefarious ways of the world. He is an idealist struggling to keep the faith, and his sudden immersion into a 19th century-based culture of absolute belief, reveals to both him and us that the violent world in which he has been entrenched is gradually destroying him.

      That immersion into a different time and space occurs quite by accident, as an 8 year old Amish boy, Samuel (the wide-eyed Lucas Haas), whose father has just died, travels with his mother, Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) to visit her sister. Stranded in the train station in Philadelphia, the young Samuel witnesses a murder of an undercover police officer in the bathroom. John Book, assigned to the case, tries to query the boy, showing him pictures of criminal possibilities and even brutally taking him to a lowlife area of town to have the boy encounter a noted trouble-maker. Back in the police station, the frightened boy is forced to look through books and books of criminal figures in the hopes that he may recognize the murderer. When Book is momentarily distracted by a phone call, the curious Samuel wanders off, only to look into a bookcase showcasing major events of the police department. There, observing an old photograph, the startled boy points to a figure, narcotics officer James McFee (Danny Glover). In Weir’s brilliant direction of this scene, nothing is said; Book simply catches the look on the boy’s face and the accusing finger and quietly leads him and his mother away, putting them up secretly in his sister’s apartment, realizing he has stumbled upon a deep corruption rotting away the very world in which works. A call to his superior, Sergeant Elton Carter (Brent Jennings) soon results in Book’s near-murder, forcing him suddenly to ask his partner to get rid of the files, while Book, borrowing his sister’s car, speeds away with Rachel and her son back into the anonymity of her secretive community. He arrives only to pass out, near death from the shots.

      The intrusion of an outsider into their world momentarily terrifies the Amish elders, who insist that Book should be taken to a hospital in order to survive. When he, in turn, makes it clear that hospitalization will only lead the evil men to him and, ultimately, to Rachel and the boy, they call in their own doctor. Through home remedies, prayer, and pure stubbornness on Book’s part, he survives. And so begins a new story, in which he becomes immersed in the unknown Amish world while falling illicitly in love with Rachel—and, one should add, her son—both of which cause enmity between him and a local neighbor, Daniel Hochleitner (played, surprising well, by dancer Alexander Godunov).

     If Weir’s Philadelphia reminds one a bit of Martin Scorsese’s gritty and garish New York, the Amish community is a near-paradisiacal American landscape of well-built and scrubbed farms set among waving grains, to which Maruice Jarre’s lush score adds almost a Copeland-like mythology. In truth, the Amish of Lancaster county refused to participate as actors and, in the end, resented the publicity along with the troupes of tourists the movie brought with it. Most of the Amish in this film, it has been noted, were performed by nearby Mennonites. Yet Weir convinces us that we are witnessing, particularly in the beautiful barn-raising scene, the real thing, and only a hardened cynic could dismiss this celebration of Americana, even if it is hard to believe—within the seemingly realist constructions of the film—that John Book was, before he began as a hard-headed cop, a loving carpenter, a kind of Joseph-like figure to young Samuel’s Christ-like innocence. Similarly, he nurtures the child in a way that Rachel, observing him and the boy, can only encourage through her own love. When her father catches them dancing, he warns her that, if the relationship continues, she will be shunned by the community, and even he will be unable to communicate with her.

     The tension, accordingly, mounts, as the love the two feel must be rejected at the same time we witness the villains trying their best find the family and close in. In the end, Book’s very nature, his violence, leads the corrupt policemen to him. When mocked by tourists on a trip to town, the Amish men patiently and pacifically put up with the taunts, while Book goes ballistic, striking the assailants. It is the difference between the so-called “civilized” response (that of the police force) and the rural, religious (“uncivilized”) lack of response, both going by the book of their own cultures, that makes it clear that John Book cannot remain in this place. He is a man of the law, not of the Lord.

     His act also leads the three villains, Schaeffer, McFee, and another corrupt officer, “Fergie” Ferguson (Angus MacInnes) to the Lapp farm. Seeing the three arrive, Book sends the boy off to run to the next farm, while Rachel and her father are taken from their house under gunpoint. Book rushing off the barn to distract them, Lures Fergie into the barn, Book kills him by loosing the corn in the silo and suffocating him. With Fergie’s shotgun he kills McFee. Schaeffer, however, forces Book to surrender, ready to kill them all. The “witness,” however, rushes to the bell, summoning the Amish neighbors, whose quick arrival forces Schaeffer to give up.

     Book realizes he must leave, waving to the beautiful Rachel and her son, and even to Hochleitner as he passes by, making it clear that Daniel may now court Rachel in the Amish way.

     Yes, parts of this film seem to pat, too well-written and unbelievable. At other moments, the work gives in to easy sentiments arguing for the local and simple world over the complexities of urban living. Like Book, I could never survive in the paradise that Weir has made of Lancaster County. For years, as a commuter between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia during the very year in which this film was shot, I saw all sorts of illegal and illicit behavior in the very bathroom where the innocent boy witnessed the brutal murder of the first scenes of this film. And I grew up in a land of “waving grains.” Like Book, I recognize I am a born-urbanite who longs, still at times, for the false ideal, for the peace of a rural idyll, for a quiet family life. Don’t we all, at moments, Weir’s film tantalizingly asks, want something in which we could never participate? But most of us also realize that the two worlds can never be resolved, which is why Weir’s lovely fable is so utterly fascinating.

     The Amish simply wanted to be left alone, to become, metaphorically speaking, a closed book, uninterpreted; while John Book, is just that, an ordinary open book, easily read by all whom he encounters, a man desperately on the search for justice and love.

Los Angeles, March, 14, 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Roberto Rossellini | Francesco, giullare di Dio (God's Jester/The Flowers of St. Francis)

perfect happiness
by Douglas Messerli
Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini (writers), Roberto Rossellini (director) Francesco, giullare di Dio (God’s Jester)/(The Flowers of St. Francis) / 1950, USA 1952

 Given many of the negative reviews when Rossellini’s Flowers of St. Francis after its 1950 premiere in Venice, it appears that many filmgoers cannot comprehend a religiously accurate text with humor. Marcel Oms, for example, described the film as “a monument of stupidity,” critic Guido Aristarco insisting it presented a formalist and, therefore, false reality. Even my beloved Time Out Film Guide, usually an embracing catalogue, describes St. Francis’s followers as a motley crew, suggesting that the film shares their qualities.

On the other hand, François Truffaut described it as “the most beautiful film in the world,” and, although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I’d certainly agree with Martin Scorsese’ 2005 assessment of it, as a film filled with humor and grace.  The problem with most films about saints, argues Scorsese, is the issue of “reverence”:

                                The aura of reverence is almost always at odds with the way
                               the saints must have felt about themselves. It’s as if they’d
                               already been declared saints in their own lifetime, as if every
                               word out of their mouths had been pre-sanctified.

       Rossellini’s study of St. Francis and his followers belongs to a far earlier tradition, expounded by Desiderius Erasmus and his friend Thomas More, in which described Christ as a saintly fool, a man who, despite the logic of daily needs and human conditions, gave himself completely over to his faith. Working with two St. Francis books, Fioretti Di San Francesco and Vita di Frate Ginepro, Rossellini and Fellini created a true believer, who, in the original Italian title, is also a kind of jester, “God’s Jester,” another kind of holy being.

      Using monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery to play the roles of St. Franciso and his followers, the director maneuvers his figures through the 9 marked tales in this lovely film, as if they were a herd of deer running through woods in an escape of bright lights. Indeed, the film begins with the Franciscans on the run through a rainstorm, racing to find cover only to discover that their small shelter has been overtaken by an interloper and his donkey, the old man insisting that his donkey remain. The monks, withdraw, only to take joy in their suffering.

     Many of the following episodes—and this film is deliberately episodic, as if it might have expanded exponentially to contain as many “tales” as the writers may have desired—are comic, others startlingly touching in their very simplicity. Most of the comic tales involve the near-idiot cook of the group, Brother Ginepro, who is so humble that he gives up his very robe twice, returning home naked. Even though Francis would give up nearly anything to the poor, he orders that Ginepro never again give up his tunic. At another point, left alone to his chores, Brother Ginepro tries to comfort an ailing Brother Amarsebello, who has fasted too often. The broth he tries to feed him is so disgusting that even Ginepro can hardly swallow it. And when he asks Brother Amarsebello what he might like to eat, the sickly man suggests a pig’s foot, which Ginepro gamely goes out on the hunt to find. Discovering a swine, he gently asks the pig for his foot, before chopping it off and returning with the treat to his fellow monk. The owner of the pig soon follows, demanding recompense. Francis orders Ginepro to apologize, which he does, but the farmer refuses and storms off. A few moments later, however, he returns with the dead pig, offering it up the hungry congregation, while warning them never to touch his pigs again.

      At another moment, Ginepro, tired of being left behind, cooks enough food to feed the group of two weeks. So touched is Francis that he allows the humble monk to go out and preach. That event proves near disastrous, as Ginepro crashes into the camp of the barbarian Nicolaio at Viterbo who, when his soldiers discover an awl and flint among the monk’s possessions, orders him to be hung. A priest, recognizing Ginepro as a Franciscan, begs for his release, which the tyrant is loath to do, facing the monk down with his tyrannical glare. Ginepro merely smiles, seemingly ready for whatever fate he must face. So amazed is Nicolaio by the man’s humility that he releases him, closes up his camp and retreats, a miracle of sorts.

       Three other episodes, among my favorite, may counter the hilarious mood of the Ginepro stories, but nonetheless reveal the whimsy of Francis’ doctrines. While praying a bird settles his shoulder, which he quickly picks up and sends away, declaring to the bird that he is busy trying to pray to God. At another moment, he meets a leper, most of whose face has been peeled away. He attempts to touch what he perceives as a soul in torture, but the leper pulls away. Again Francis puts his hands to the leper’s face, and again the diseased man shoves Francis from him. Finally, however, Francis succeeds in embracing the suffering being. Scorsese writes of this scene, noting the startling directness of his confrontational love:

                             I’ve never seen another film that deals with this basic question
                             of compassion so eloquently.

      Certainly the most joyous episode of this film occurs when St. Clare and two of her sisters come to lunch with Francis. The brothers scurry about, as usual, this time carefully gathering up masses of flowers in order create a kind of carpet of blossoms where she might step. With the few tools they have at their disposal, they brush their hair, cut their beards and groom their filthy faces. When Clare arrives, they pray, eat and quietly talk—a fire, reports the narrator, igniting the sky.

     The last episode, like so many others of this moving film, combines the comical, the whimsical, and the profound commitment of these all-too human men to their faith. The time has come, declares St. Francis, in which the group must break up, the friars going in different directions to preach their faith. But the men are unsure which way to go. In response, Francis orders them to spin about in circles until they are so dizzy that they can no longer stand. Together they do precisely that, twirling like comical whirling dervishes before they fall, one by one, to the ground, each of them gradually getting on their feet to move off in the direction in which they head was pointing at the time of their fall, singing a chant as they travel off away from one another. With astounding simplicity, Rossellini recounts actions of such profound separation that we do not know whether to cry or laugh. But, of course, there is no either/or choice in this view of Franciscan theology: life is both horrible and wondrous. As Francis preached, the moment of most “perfect happiness” is “to suffer and bear every evil deed out of love for Christ.”

Los Angeles, March 10, 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jacques Rivette | Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights)

wild child

by Douglas Messerli

Pascal Bonitzer, Suzanne Schiffman, and Jacques Rivette (screenplay, based on one chapter from the novel by Emily Brontë), Jacques Rivette (director) Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights) / 1985

There often seems to be two Jacques Rivettes, one a highly innovative film-maker, the second, a far more conservative cinematographer of classics such as The Duchess of Langeasis and the movie I watched yesterday, Wuthering Heights. I like both of the director’s sides, however, and from time to time, even in his more conservative fare, we recognize the postmodern sensibility behind it.

Shifting Emily Brontë’s 18th century tale of Yorkshire to the French Cévennes countryside of the 1930s, removes a great deal of the romanticism from the story. Yes, there are still crumbled stone walls throughout the neighborhood, but the skies are mostly sunny, as are the two blonde-haired heroes, Catherine (Febienne Bebe) and Roch (Lecas Belvaux). If Lawrence Olivier, in William Wyler’s familiar version of this tale, looked in his dark, frowning grimaces, like an older gypsy boy, the fair-haired beauty, Roch, appears to be right at home. Rather, it is Guillaume, the dark-haired drunkard, who seems out of place in this landscape. Indeed, Rivette begins his film with a dream sequence in which Guillaume appears to come out the rocks themselves, a voyeur angrily looking down upon Catherine and Roch as they kiss and play nearby. In the dream, he picks up a rock, seemingly about the hurl it upon the couple until, hearing a noise behind him, he conjures up his dead father, a figure apparently watching over the teenage boy whom he had long-ago adopted.

In fact, it is not only their coloration, but their size, beauty, and temperament that make Catherine and Roch appear to truly be brother and sister, while Guillaume seems like outsider. Both of the young lovers are, simply put, almost feral, wild children fighting against the confines of the hardworking and bourgeois farm life in which Guillaume would entrap them. And in these similarities, Rivette turns their love into an even more incestuous-like relationship than it is in other versions.
     Although the servant, even in the original novel, is an important figure, one who not only observes and judges those her around, but has a role in their behavior, in Rivette she becomes, perhaps the central figure, a kind of mother and father, and for Guillaume, a hostage-wife. Hélène (earthily portrayed by Sandra Montaigu) is the one person to whom all the others can turn for help, and it is because those needs are so varied that she sometimes appears to further harm those around rather than placate them. Yet, she is the only one who can calm them, and who, at times, holds them together. Whatever little civilized behavior exists on the farm is established by her tireless actions, cooking, cleaning, listening, loving. There is hardly a moment in the film when she is not busy, while the teenagers run into nature and Guillaume falls into a drunken stupor each night.
     Obviously, all who live in this ancient stone farmhouse are outsiders, a fact which the director makes obvious when the two wild children come upon a couple of wealthy children playing tennis. It is as if, suddenly, they have witnessed a “brave new world,” which is precisely what it is: a world of wealth, leisure, and class bigotry. It is a world of traps, of pretense and lies, symbolized, in Rivette’s telling, by Catherine’s foot being immediately caught in an animal trap. One of the first lines from Madame Lindon’s mouth, as they carry the girl onto the terrace, is to command them not to lay her on the lawn chair since she will get it dirty. Roch is not even permitted to stay on the patio, but forced to leave at once.
     That Catherine, in nearly all the versions of Brontë’s tale, should be seduced by the Lindon world, is not surprising. Even if she has lived a wild life, refusing even to eat at the table in Rivette’s movie, she recognizes in the three weeks while in their care that the elegant mansion and clothes of Isabelle (Alice de Poncheville) and Olivier (Olivier Torres) represent a better life. She returns to her rustic abode with a new dress, and for the first time peers at herself in the mirror, recognizing that she is now a woman rather than a tom-boy ruff housing with her adopted brother. They may still love one another, may even, as she claims, be one another, but she cannot resist the outward appearance and manners of the Lindons.
     By choosing actors who are near the actual ages of the novel’s characters, Rivette helps us to more clearly comprehend the mistakes made by all the young figures of the work. Catherine cannot see through the surfaces of the new world she has encountered, while Roch cannot comprehend the pubescent changes in her that have taken place; unlike Brontë’s Heathcliff, who runs, returns, hesitates, and leaves once more, Rivette’s Roch escapes both the imprisonment of Guillaume and the rejection by Catherine simultaneously, never to truly return. For when he does return, he is no longer simply a wild child—using the name of one of Trauffaut’s most notable films, L’Enfant sauvage, is intentional here; Rivette notes that his Hurlevent was difficult to make, in part, because they while shooting they were awaiting the news of Trauffaut’s death—but has been transformed himself into a kind of vengeful brute. He too is now well-groomed and dressed, enough so that he attracts the attention of the now lonely Isabelle. And Catherine may be still attracted to him, particularly since it is clear in Rivette’s version that Olivier and Catherine do not have a serious sexual relationship; but she too has been domesticated, and will not even think of leaving Olivier, forbidding Isabelle to see Roch.
      It may be, in part, jealousy that leads Catherine to insist that her sister-in-law stay away from Roch; but she is also perceptive in that Roch is now a cruel manipulator who does not only destroy his brother Guillaume, but will brutalize and rape Catherine’s sister-in-law out of revenge. In his new mien he has become like the Lindon’s, something beautiful on the outside, but rotten within.
      Between the extremes, once more, Catherine is trapped, caught up in a rivalry that does really concern itself with whom she truly is. Perhaps by setting his Hurlevent in the 1930s, Rivette is hinting at the dark whirling winds rising throughout Europe which would destroy nearly anything that truly was good. Rivette’s Roch has so changed, in fact, that he cannot actually return to Catherine’s bedside, the way Hearthcliff does. Rivette calls him in up in Catherine’s dying imagination in a dream, and at the sight of him, she dies. Roch is now part of the brewing storm, just as, in their class and social bigotries, is Olivier, the two women in their lives having been destroyed.
     In an interview with Rivette, film writer Valérie Hazette decried the fact that the director did not continue with the later sections of the novel. To do, however, would have robbed him of his theme. Roch is already dead when Catherine dies in Rivette’s telling. No longer a “wild child,” he is now an uncontrollable beast for whom not even her memory can bring redemption.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2014

Monday, March 3, 2014

Raúl Ruiz | Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained)

bending time

by Douglas Messerli

Raúl Ruiz and Gilles Taurand (screenplay, based on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past), Raúl Ruiz (director) Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained) / 1999, USA 2000

Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained, is not, as its title suggests, a film based on the last volume of Marcel Proust’s great Remembrance of Things Past, but rather a kind Proustian-like cut-up of the entire series of books, seen through the eyes of the character Proust (Marcello Mazzarella) in the last days of his life. Through photographs and the associations of the great writer’s mind, Ruiz brilliantly deconstructs Proust’s fiction, telling a grand story not through chronological events or even through a consistent narrative logic, but presenting us with a series of haunting and beautiful images of a world gone by, a world of floating women dressed in beautiful gowns and well-groomed handsome men haunting and taunting them with their affairs with other women and men. This gossipy, chattering, vengeful and often politically blind Parisian society creates a kind of dark symphony—what Proust describes as “a music that keeps coming back”—throughout the film which, with the poignant music of Jorge Arriagada, suggests themes which are embedded, repeated, and forgotten.    

      At moments the director creates overlapping images which suggest multiple realities overlaying each other. At other times the film repeats itself, slightly altering the flow of occurrences. Surrealist images—including a room filled with black top hats each holding a pair of white gloves, a scene in which the partygoers are turned to stone for the child Proust’s cinematic entertainment, and a scene in a male bordello that features a sadomasochistic beating of the Baron Charlus (a beating which dissatisfies him in its timidity) by a young street-boy with Proust voyeuristically peering in on the action from a ceiling window. But mostly Ruiz’s camera focuses on the lavish parties and funerals of these wealthy Frenchman, in which people, along with hundreds of canapés and glasses of champagne, are swallowed up and spit out with sarcastic spite. Behind it all, we perceive, are the trenches filled with the dead men of World War I, a reality which will soon completely bring this close-minded society to its end. But as in Proust’s long work, the figures of his belle-epoch do not have clue about what lies ahead, and in fact are clueless about anything including the significance of their actions or lack of. Any coherent “meaning” we might glean from Ruiz’s stunningly gorgeous piece of cinema can come only from how we ourselves interpret these images, what we make of them. And as the critic J. Hoberman has pointed out, the film almost seems to be a film about a man who through his words created a kind of cinema himself.

    In short, this film is less about “events” than it is about the process of film-making or creating a fiction, focusing on how the mind perceives what the body’s eyes see, how it edits/processes those images, and how it puts them together or recalls them. All of Proust’s central characters—Odette de Créy (Catherine Deneuve), Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart), Le Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich), Robert Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory), Albertine (Chiara Mastrioianni), Morel (Vincent Perez), Madame Verdurin (Marie-France Pisier), and Madame Cottard (Dominique Labourier), even, for an instant, Swann (Bernard Pautrat)—are here, but Ruiz centers little on the continuity of their interactions, and even when it is quite apparent what they doing behind the scenes—for example Saint-Loup’s affair with the actress Rachel (Elsa Zylberstein) or his later sexual infatuation with working-class infantrymen—events never truly coalesce into a “plot.” Indeed, Ruiz purposely, at times, mystifies the interrelationships of his figures, merely suggesting the lesbian bondings of some of his women or hinting at the Baron’s vicious political views and his pedophile tendencies with regard to the young Marcel. Accordingly, even those who have never set their eyes upon a page of Remembrance of Things Past can enjoy this film. Indeed, if one has read the book, although it might help to enlighten certain scenes, it will more likely frustrate the moviegoer, since nothing comes of it.

So removed from action is Ruiz’s Proust, as he shyly if debonairly winds his way through these wealthy charlatans, that he seems—as is more concretely revealed in the scene at the gay bordello—more like of voyeur than an actor. Of course, that is precisely the director’s role in filmmaking, to catch his actors “in the act” and mold them into a more coherent reality. But the “reality” here is not as coherent or orderly as a thing in process, as—much like Penelope of the Odysseus myth—Ruiz weaves and unweaves his tapestry again and again, as the various Proustian figures dance around one another as in a grand ball.   

     The point to all this, quite obviously, is that there can be no one truth, one way of seeing things, no day, as the voice of Proust asserts at the beginning, when things truly “change.” There is no true past: it gets reconstructed through memory and forgetfulness, through perception and distortion. Proust’s grand effort to “regain time” is “the frivolity of the dying.” Time is something that is meant to be lost, just as the figures of Proust’s Paris—of Woolf’s England, of O’Neill’s seaside Connecticut—would one day suddenly disappear.

     In the very last scene of Ruiz’s remarkable film, we see the teenage Proust being watched by Proust the elder, while between them the seated figure of the Baron de Charlus looks out at the boy, a demon about to descend upon his victim. We know the result. We see it in through sufferings of the elder Proust in his cork-lined room being cared for by his faithful Céleste. But there is no going back, no fixing of the clock. No matter how much one desires it, time cannot be recaptured nor held back.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2014