Some Golden Oldies

Happiness is Aleksandr Medvedkin’s silent 1934 symbolist-surrealist fable about a luckless peasant in Czarist Russia. That might sound like work, except that this is the cinema of Vigo and Vertov and Bunuel, along with the cinema of Gogol and Kafka and Lewis Carroll, the kind of intelligent but playful and uninhibited filmmaking that makes you want to put on widow’s weeds and go into mourning for all the directions commercial movies were never allowed to explore. A rich man doesn’t even need to use his hands when he eats—the food simply flies up from the plate and straight into his mouth without his moving a muscle. The hero’s horse, a swaybacked nag with conspicuously artificial spots painted on it, is given to crossing its front legs and dozing off whenever the peasant’s attention strays. (Lee Marvin’s horse stole the gag for Cat Ballou.) The film’s universe is a menagerie of venal priests, landowners, tax-collectors, politicians, and outright thieves, several of whom steal the community’s granary by lifting the building off its foundation from the inside and then running away with it like a giant Fred Flintstone car. Some of the sets have the discomfiting off-kilter angles of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the backdrops are straight out of A Trip to the Moon, but this thing moves in a way neither of those pictures ever dreamed of. It’s a blast.

*

The big difference between United 93 and The Battle of Algiers is that Pontecorvo inflected his movie with an outlook while Greengrass deliberately chose not to. Algiers has that brilliant bit where the woman planting the bomb in a crowded bar lets her gaze drift round the room, and seeing all the customers from her point of view, with both her and ourselves knowing that most of them will soon be dead in mayhem conjured by her hand, creates the very best kind of ambivalence in us, and the fact that the patrons reflect such life and specificity makes the moment that much more agonizing. It is a scene created with a maximum amount of awareness, and the closest thing to it in United 93 doesn’t come very close at all. It occurs early on, when the leader of the hijackers sits down among his soon-to-be fellow passengers (and victims) at the airport gate, but Greengrass mutes, defuses, the situation within the anonymity of the public space. Not even the hijacker’s face is allowed to serve as a Rorschach test—there is none of Pontecorvo’s interplay between his too-blank gaze and the people around him, even though we will see him and his co-conspirators studying the passengers and crew aplenty once all are aboard the plane. His expression at the gate is a cipher, no shallower and no deeper than anyone carrying a secret, forget about a guilty one. I don’t know what kind of aesthetic breakthrough Greengrass hoped to achieve by sticking so closely to a chain of events. United 93 is easiest to understand as a tribute to its subject—something monolithic and pure, whether or not anyone can relate to it. It’s something akin to the Washington Monument, which is something totally different than a biography of Washington. Aside from all that, there’s one line of dialogue in it that I can’t get out of my head. It comes when the second plane hits the WTC and the major in the military command post, seeing it happen live on the big screen, blurts out “Jesus! Shit!” At one point of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree the hero, made furious by one of his barfly pals, sputters a less than serene “I don’t want a cupping fuck of coffee!”, the only time I remember seeing this kind of not-quite-a-Spoonerism used to convey a character’s outrage. For sheer natural ear, that “Jesus! Shit!” comes as close as anything I know to Suttree’s line; it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what the real-life major remembered blurting out at that moment.

*

Le trou is Jacques Becker’s 1960 film about four convicts, crammed together in one cell, who are planning their breakout from Santé, a maximum security prison (and infamous hellhole) in the heart of Paris. We aren’t even sure what their crimes were, but their desperation (and the magnificently carved lines in their faces) hints that it wasn’t spitting on the sidewalk. It resembles A Condemned Man Escapes in plot—at the last moment a youngster is thrown in amongst them, and like the hero in Bresson’s film the cons are so far along in their plan that they have to gamble on the newcomer’s discretion—and somewhat in style. I say “somewhat” because though scene after scene exposes the mechanics of the convicts’ plan, in close-up and with minimal cutting (one shot, focused on a pair of hands and a homemade pickaxe, is held for the length of time it takes to break through a concrete floor), they’re such magnificent physical specimens, and they put such gusto into their chipping and hammering and tunneling, that Becker rightly turns the soundtrack up when they’re at work, until you too feel exhausted when they crawl out of their hole each night for a few hours’ sleep.

*

Works like They Were Expendable, Guernica and Catch-22 are the only things that leaven my feelings about World War II; if the damn thing had never happened, 50 or 100 of my favorite pieces of art would never have been created. Now I can add Army of Shadows to the list. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dry-ice epic shows us the French Resistance through the eyes of an aloof professorial type who isn’t above shivving a German guard in the neck if that’s what the moment demands. That doesn’t mean he likes it. To Melville everything is, as Johnny Caspar would put it, “a question of ethics”. If nothing much happens for stretches of time, a single close-up can reveal the fundamental banality of the pharmacists and bookkeepers as they were before the Germans came. Garroting a traitor doesn’t come any more naturally to them than it would to you or me, and every situation they encounter requires a recalibration of their understanding of the world. There are plenty of scenes showing the mechanics of how the Resistance worked, but Melville is really concerned with the worms wiggling round inside his protagonists’ souls. They’re mired in the misery of their time, with nary a spark of the ahistorical hoodwinking that plagues most period pieces, and which magically aligns the heroes’ feelings about their actions with our own. Appearing the same year that The Sorrow and the Pity blew the doors off the subject, it’s easy to see why Army of Shadows, with its creeping moral unease and offhanded depictions of collaborators, gave so many Frenchmen the yips.

*

In Francesco Maselli’s 1971 Open Letter to the Evening News a band of amiable Communists in Rome, all pushing past 40, have been marginalized by their beliefs for so long that they’ve accidentally succeeded as capitalists. They’ve turned into novelists, executives, filmmakers and professors, drive vintage autos and own spacious lofts, and with their vibrant intelligence and money they’ve attracted a coterie of girlfriends and wives much younger than themselves. At a party one night they write a private manifesto announcing their (nonexistent) intention to join the North Vietnamese Army—but then the manifesto is published, with their names attached to it. It’s bad enough when the Italian Communist Party gives them the green light and Hanoi welcomes them to the fold, but they’re totally screwed when they start receiving support from Europe’s leading intellectuals—including Sartre—and their own students start demonstrating in their favor.

These post-Godardian leftists apply Marxist analyses to every scrap of their lives, but their dialog is enlivening and funny even at its most theoretical. Maselli shoots them with an antsy handheld camera that’s always looking for the hottest discussion in the room, and between the men’s various ruses to find a way out of their jam without appearing pathetic (their biggest fear) and their women’s alternating chidings and encouragements, it has a lot to choose from. Even though the men remain dedicated radicals, they never lose their daily human drives, so that even at the deepest point of their crisis they don’t lose interest in hanging out or having sex with their supermodel-looking mates. (There’s a lot of sex in this movie.) It drags a bit towards the end, but it was so grand to find an unabashedly Marxist film that has an actual funny-bone and sense of proportion that I can’t help but take it to heart, partly because it mirrors the exercise in futility of being a leftist in America today.

*

The art-house anthology film L’Amore in città only sounds light-hearted; for much of the way it’s a harsh motherfucker, with tightly focused documentary-like looks at the lives of prostitutes and failed suicides (Antonioni). The harshest of all: Zavattini and Francesco Maselli’s retelling of the true story of a young mother who’s forced by circumstances into abandoning her toddler in a city park, with the actual woman playing herself—brutal. Fellini’s contribution follows an investigative reporter who tells a marriage agency that he wants a girl who’s willing to date a werewolf, which sounds pretty funny until the agency lays off a desperately lonely wallflower on the guy. All this grimness is balanced by two great light episodes, Dino Risi’s look at the coltish, lust-driven behavior of the habitues of a twenty-something nightclub and Alberto Lattuada’s short that’s like a lewd-minded episode of Candid Camera: the camera trails (and in some cases practically slobbers on) about 20 drop-dead gorgeous women as they go about their business in Rome, and the comically devastating effect they have on the men they leave broken and bobbing in their wake.

*

In Julien Duvivier’s Panique Michel Simon plays a stand-offish eccentric who, already hated by his neighbors, is framed for murder by a pair of lovers. The rumor of his deed spreads through the village while he’s away, and there’s a stunning moment when he disembarks from a cab in the town square only to notice the stores all shuttered and the townspeople peering at him with unalloyed hatred; when they begin yelling “Kill him!” and charge him en masse, it’s a nightmare come to life. There aren’t any last second miracles either—Duvivier lets the nightmare play itself out. It really makes you wonder just what in the hell was going on in the French provinces in the ’30s and ’40s that caused virtually all of their great filmmakers to paint their countrymen, from the aristocrat down to the most humble butcher, as gullible, hateful, hypocritical, or sadistic.

*

Forget about the title of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men and just remember that the movie itself is intelligent, funny, observant, real. (It was co-written by Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and David Dortort, who created Bonanza.) Robert Mitchum’s an aging, broken-down rodeo star who returns home as he nears the end of his road, and if that sounds familiar, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner also quotes a line or two from The Lusty Men and stays in touch with Ray’s movie in other ways. Mitchum falls in with dissatisfied ranch-hand Arthur Kennedy and his wife, Susan Hayward; Kennedy yens for money and adventure, and seeing the rodeo as his ticket, takes Mitchum on as his partner-mentor and begins riding the circuit. Like Junior Bonner this thing seamlessly blends footage from real rodeos (in San Angelo and Tucson) into the narrative, and like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid it’s full of backwards-looking anecdotes and tall-tales, all of them winners—Arthur Hunnicutt’s story about how he learned to ride a horse as a baby is especially appealing. The other movie it reminded me of is The Right Stuff —a major subplot is given over to the wives, each of them clearly individualized, who sit and wait as their men scratch their itches in a way that could maim or kill them (leaving the women destitute), and like the astronauts’ wives, they have to sweat out the sweet-looking groupies who came squirreling around for a good time. The direction, the writing, the acting are all aces. Things keep coming back to me, like the way a post-rodeo party looks like a less obviously gaudy Hollywood bash, but Ray doesn’t push any of that stuff—it’s just there if you want to notice it.

*

Goin’ Down the Road is a brilliant little Canadian indie from 1970 by Don Shebib. Two young dreamers jump in a crumbling ‘60 Chevy Impala and head for the city lights of Toronto to chase women and get rich; they don’t have an easy time of it. This is Canada’s answer to Last Night at the Alamo, except that Pete and Joey make Claude and Cowboy look like winners of the Irish Sweepstakes. Shebib catches the ongoing-ness of poverty as well as anyone I’ve ever seen; he also does shitty jobs and the hard death of dreams very well. It was shot on the fly, with Shebib calling out his three-man crew (Carroll Ballard among them) as the money and inspiration came to him. As Kael pointed out in her review it virtually erases the barrier between set and setting: Shebib’s young actors, especially when seen from a distance, melt right into the material. The movie made a lot of U.S. critics’ top ten lists before falling into the rabbit hole. It’s out of print now but it did get issued—in a beautiful release—on DVD, so it may be available on Netflix.

*

Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 La 317ème section (or The 317th Platoon) is set in Vietnam in May of ’54, amidst radio chatter of the debacle at Diên Biên Phú. A platoon of Frenchmen and their Cambodian recruits are picking their way to safety through a raging Vietminh offensive; not surprisingly, things grow more and more fucked up for them. Filmed entirely in the Cambodian jungle, Schoendoerffer melds action with setting the way Anthony Mann did: real tropical rains rise up in the middle of scenes, drenching the actors without their taking notice of it. It also features a fascinating variation on that old standard, the seasoned platoon sergeant who, to his charges, fills important roles as both a father-figure and a totem of the working-class. The twist here is to make Bruno Cremer’s Alsatian sergeant a veteran of the Wehrmacht whose experiences in Russia make him more capable than his reasonably competent lieutenant. Raoul Coutard captured a parade of images—stretcher-bearers crossing a hilltop in silhouette, a herd of elephants approaching the camera through grass as high as their eyelids—so basic that they feel pagan, while elsewhere deep-focus B&W shots so crisp you can make out details hundreds of yards away are used to view entire battles from the perspective of God’s favorite armchair. Schoendoerffer navigated the Scylla and Charybdis of war movies—forced sentiment and forced cynicism. In fact, a pleasing absence of bull all the way around.

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