Archive for the ‘Directing & Directors’ Category
Glenn Kenny’s reprinted an old interview he did with Scorsese when home video was a new thing, and the ensuing comments made me realize that sometimes I still get flashes where home video feels like a miracle. When I was a kid I understood that TV would show Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein about once a year, but that was a model of reliability compared to the days when missing, say, The Conformist during its theatrical run might mean having to wait 25 years to get another crack at it. One reason I appreciate old-timey critics like Sarris, beyond anything they ever wrote, is the dedication it would’ve taken to hunt down the most obscure Allan Dwan movie and then create whatever mnemonic devices they had to in order to remember its details because—very probably—they were never going to see it again. That rarity lent a lot of magic to scanning repertory house calendars when they came out because you never knew when some movie you’d been hammering your friends with for years would be on it.
I have to say, though, I’m having a time getting my head around streaming. I like collecting stuff and I also like just staring at shelves of things, be they movies or books or what-have-you. Yeah, I probably don’t need that copy of Wellman’s The Call of the Wild in my closet, but I like knowing it’s there. And when I think of the scores of movies I do feel like I need to own physical copies of, there’s so many of them I may as well go the semi-whole hog, even if physical discs look like a losing technology.
Clotheslines. Smokestacks. Sake bars. Alleyways. Parked bicycles. Movie posters. Embankments. Teakettles. Gas storage tanks. Coca-Cola signs. Folded legs. Farting. The color red. “Peace” cigarettes. Children marching off to school. Parents marching off to work. Clocks. Hallways. Drinking to excess. Western skirts. Bare lightbulbs.
But, most of all, trains. Lots and lots of trains.
On January 20, 1952, Vittorio De Sica released his masterpiece Umberto D., and God saw that it was good. It still is. Something more than just another “great film”, it’s one of the loftiest peaks in Italian neorealism, the postwar film movement that tried to draw the shortest possible line between movies and everyday life. To this day, watching Umberto D. remains a full-body experience: what’s at stake for its unlikely protagonist is communicated in such clear and concrete terms that we come to register the minutest adjustments in his emotional coloring. But it’s the film’s conclusion, which manages to be both definitively devastating and hypnotically sphinx-like, that concerns me here.
For those who never saw the film, it’s about the retired civil servant Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a rented room in Rome not long after World War II—a terrible time and place to be alone in the world. Umberto’s station in life has been drifting downwards for some time, we are made to understand. When we meet him, his only friend is a naïve young housemaid who’s saddled with her own problems; he lags so far behind on his rent that his landlady allows hookers to turn tricks in his bed; and the one thing standing between him and a self-administered mercy killing is his constant companion, a personable but utterly dependent terrier named Flike, who’d be doomed without his master.
The film takes place over the handful of days in which Umberto loses his last toehold on life, and his final descent from have-not to have-nothing takes us into situations that we normally see only in nightmares. De Sica spells out in exacting detail just how much work it takes to be poor: whether he’s trying to sell an old watch that nobody wants to buy or scamming a bowlful of food from a soup kitchen for Flike, Umberto is constantly fighting just to reach the next moment in his existence. When at last he’s reduced to pauper status, he has to force himself to extend his hand for alms, making Umberto D. perhaps the only movie to notice how unnatural the act of begging is.
For the most part De Sica and the great Marxist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini successfully avoid sentimentalizing their baggage-laden hero. For starters, they present Umberto as something of an asshole: it’s implied that he’s partly responsible for his predicament, and he’s much better at asking for favors than he is at performing them. (Carlo Battisti, the linguistics professor whom De Sica chose for the part, projects the dour and hissy personality of an unlovable grandparent.) Likewise, De Sica doesn’t overplay the Flike card, mainly by refusing to acknowledge the canine point of view. In the one instance that he slips up—Flike flinches as a human would at the sight of another mutt being abused—we get a glimpse of the different, more ordinary movie that Umberto D. might have been.
Umberto D. observes the daily life of its characters with the intensity of a jeweler’s loupe. A famous scene, played out in something close to real time, merely watches the housemaid go through her morning routine; in one fragrant shot, still in bed and only half-awake, she watches a cat picking its way across the skylight above her head, in one of those mysterious, ineffably right moments of cinema. De Sica pulls so many of these details together that by the end we seem to be inside Umberto’s world; the critic André Bazin put it best when he said that Umberto D. “makes us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)”
Near the end of the film Umberto, now out of options, leaves his house for the last time, intent on finding a home for Flike—in effect, clearing the decks for his own suicide—but the world thwarts both this humble effort and, even more appallingly, his subsequent attempt to kill himself.
Now, anyone who’s sat through the film has to concede that man and dog will soon be dead—in a week perhaps, or perhaps in an hour—and yet if you didn’t know better, you’d think that master and pet don’t have a care in the world as they frolic along that pathway. Even the impact of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the most celebrated downers in the history of art, is cushioned by our knowledge that at the movie’s end Antonio Ricci still has a home, a wife, and his son’s undying love. Umberto, though, is left facing the abyss, and yet in that final shot he displays a vitality, even a joy, that’s visible in no other part of the movie. How can this be? Acceptance is a virtue, God knows, but when you’re on the bricks like Umberto is, acceptance and two-bits won’t even buy you bubble-gum. Umberto and Flike disappear from view, some rowdy schoolboys sail past the camera, and suddenly it’s time to get on with our lives again. But what exactly did we just see? I’ve discussed the subject with friends and read what wise men have to say on the matter, but the most satisfactory answer came from an entirely different movie.
Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man appeared in 1957, and to this day it remains my favorite ’50s sci-fi flick, largely because of its graceful, enlightened ending. Richard Matheson’s story stars another abrasive hero, Scott Carey, who is enveloped in a radioactive mist that causes his body to begin shrinking—first to laughably childish, and finally atomic, proportions. A lot of Shrinking Man’s entertainment value springs from its parade of Brobdingnagian props: straight-pins that double as spears, a mousetrap the size of a minivan, kitchen matches that look like saguaro cactuses. (One of the movie’s biggest jolts comes in a shot of Carey unexpectedly sitting in a chair that fits him, topped by our realization that he’s moved into a dollhouse.)
The earliest threats to Carey come from such common domestic sources—a sour-faced tabby cat, a burst water heater—that it’s like being terrorized by a ficus tree. The scenes in which he’s reduced to the size of a Ken doll and juxtaposed against his strapping, buxom wife discreetly pick at the male dread of impotence, but like Umberto D. it’s ultimately about what happens to a person when lonesomeness becomes a way of life, and Carey’s description of his existence as “a gray friendless area of space and time” could serve as a tagline for De Sica’s movie. It’s only after he’s vanquished a towering tarantula (it straddles the camera in repulsive close-up) that Carey recognizes a deeper enemy, and realizes that he’s already licked it.
“The infinitesimal and the infinite…this vast majesty of creation…to God there is no zero….” As Jack Benny would put it: Well. But while that language may be a little bit gamey, the typical 1950s sci-fi flick was so intent on easing the age’s anxieties that it felt it had done its job once it dropped an A-bomb on its mole men or leech women and blown them back to kingdom come. For Richard Matheson to actually think through the implications of his original idea was an act of artistic largesse, and the image of Carey stepping off into the cosmos with this micro/macro Möbius strip swirling around inside his head only made it that much more generous. Under a title bad enough to make us wither from sight, Matheson would later concoct a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man. In it Scott Carey’s wife begins to shrink, too, and joins him in his tiny adventures until, thanks to exactly the type of miracle which the first movie so forcibly rejected, both Careys return to their normal height and retake their place in the world. It’s as if Matheson had set out to prove that the best endings are the ones which open themselves outward to the largest possibilities.
The Incredible Shrinking Man came into the world five years after Umberto D., and in the decades since the two movies’ fortunes have done a dosey-do. Shrinking Man, an instant hit in ’57, was still playing in crowded theaters when I saw it three or four years later, whereas De Sica’s movie, coming at the tail-end of the neorealist cycle, was a notorious flop in Italy. The Minister of Culture, with one eye glued firmly to the wrong end of the telescope, accused it of national slander while the Italian Communist party rejected its pessimism. Today, of course, Umberto D. is one of cinema’s most hallowed titles while Shrinking Man barely rates as a cult movie.
Say what you will about The Incredible Shrinking Man, it helped me to appreciate Umberto D. on a level beyond trite miracles or easy despair. Once he’s regained Flike’s trust with that pinecone, Umberto has done everything that he needs to do in this world. His bags are packed. And like Scott Carey, he recedes into “the infinitesimal”, an invisible world in which the ties that bind man and beast can never be erased—a place where dogs and men bear the same sized souls, and there are no zeroes.
The problem is actually state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking itself, which while in pursuit of relentless video-game-style cool and nonstop action no longer has room or time for ideas or story or character or even other kinds of tasteless sensationalistic impact—the kind that Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier, for example, have trafficked in without always resorting to chases and punching, chases and punching, and then some shooting.
That’s from Michael Atkinson’s takedown of the Total Recall remake, which I was ready to sign onto without even reading it because of the whole Jesus!-Hollywood-get-some-imagination-already thing, but also because I’m a fair to middling fan of the old Schwarzenegger number. Indeed, I’ve bitched so much—here, there and everywhere—about the lack of “ideas or story or character” in mainstream fare that I don’t really need someone haranguing me on the subject.
The slam-bang relentlessness Atkinson is describing refers to the sensation-centered cinema of Roland Emmerich’s mega-disaster flicks, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies—the exact kind of cinema that Pauline Kael once feared would eventually cause audiences to see nothing but “a big hole in the screen” during movies that don’t come with over-the-top action scenes. These movies take as their basic building block the loud, splashy and improbable sequence, as opposed to the old-fashioned story that organically grows out of a single idea, which is roughly the difference between a string of sausages and a living pig. Fans of the style like it because it’s exciting and at its most extreme it provides what they think is a one-on-one correlation between the perils on the screen and their own experience—“It’s like you’re really at war” they’ll tell you, although why anyone would want to experience such a thing is never explained, any more than the difference between sitting in a comfy theater chair and someone firing a machine-gun into your face is ever reconciled.
The style was recently christened with a name—“chaos cinema”—which successfully conveys the idea of a perspective that’s missing a unifying consciousness, and when Tony Scott, a past master of fragmented editing, committed suicide last week, his work was hailed as “a smearing of the senses”, which gets at the same thing. Well, as for me, I don’t get—not even remotely—where the pleasure is to be had in this stuff. The final battle of Seven Samurai also employs a lot of cutting, but only after Kurosawa has so thoroughly grounded us in both the characters of the combatants and the layout of the battleground that not only can we make instant sense of what we’re seeing, we can derive meaning from the action even as it’s happening—meaning that goes far beyond “Oh, he got him right in the head!” I believe the people oohing and aahing over Bourne’s car chases are being sincere when they say they’re having a good time; I just don’t think they’re demanding enough. If the biggest high you get from movies comes from a fireball seen from half a dozen angles, then a stripper humping a silver pole must make you feel like you’ve just gotten laid.
For my money, good action scenes—whether it’s the train robbery in White Heat, the encircling nightmare of Nada’s arrest in Carlos, or a shootout on the velvety streets of a night-darkened town in No Country for Old Men—do a hell of a lot more than throw me into a passive trance. Craving disorientation isn’t just infantile—it’s self-defeating. The touches and details that go into a successful action scene create levels of involvement and satisfaction that go far beyond who’s whacking who. The car chases in Siegel’s The Lineup and Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds are thrilling in part because, even amidst the mayhem, we can appreciate their geographical correctness as they zoom across San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The ironic thing is that “chaos cinema” ultimately hails from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which in 1969 contained an unprecedented amount of multi-angle editing, to the point of setting a record for shot-to-shot edits in a single feature film. (Some 3,200, if memory serves.) But Peckinpah was a classical filmmaker to the bone, and every shot of his massive gunfights was both intensely motivated and carefully fixed within the physical arenas of his action, while his famous intercutting of film shot at different speeds was done with Hitchcockian precision to achieve very particular effects.
And so I’m fundamentally sympathetic to Atkinson’s complaint here. However, he makes a mistake that’s common as dirt when critics lament The Death of Cinema, and it’s all based on some strange misunderstanding people have about videogames. It may be simple prejudice. Once, when I told a pair of friends that I was playing Grand Theft Auto IV, they literally gasped “No!” as if I’d told them that I like strangling kittens in my spare time. It’s no dark or dirty secret, though: I own a PlayStation 3, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the half-dozen games I own. And I’m here to tell you, my brothers and sisters, those games—all among the most popular ones on the market—provide an experience which is completely and utterly at odds with the slash-and-stab attack on the senses that Atkinson is talking about. In fact, he has it exactly bass-ackwards. Movies haven’t come to resemble awful videogames; instead, the games—these games, anyway—have done their best to look like good movies.
The games’ cinematic roots can be seen dangling from them in various ways. In GTA IV a bank heist gone awry leads to a reproduction of the (classically staged) street shootout in Heat. Red Dead Redemption owes some of its story and many of its tonal elements—the music, most noticeably—to Unforgiven and Leone’s spaghetti westerns. And as its title indicates, L.A. Noire is the most movie-conscious of them all, with in-game references to a million old crime pictures and a wild foot-chase through the Babylon set from Intolerance.
There’s none of Tony Scott’s whiplash editing style in any of these games, not even for a second. Indeed, that would be impossible, for apart from the cut-scenes—that is, those autonomous little scenes in which the storyline is advanced without the player’s participation or guidance—there’s no real editing at all. Typically you’re viewing the scene through a proscenium-like frame, just as in a movie. Even during the gunfights the action remains framed, continuous and seen from a constant perspective—your own.
Atkinson also complains about the breathless pacing of the modern action movie:
Total Recall is structured in one-second bricks—that’s exactly as long as you get, and not one microinstant more, to let your eye rest on an image, contemplate a character’s feelings, or piece together a narrative sequence’s logic. What movies traditionally basked in now comes at us in strobe-rate splotches…You watch the blip-blip-blip of Total Recall‘s trite ingredients speeding by, and your abandoned craving for context and contemplation and substance—any substance—quickly turns into irritation and then disgusted rage.
In GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, the player’s surrogate is normally found on foot, and has to be put on horseback or in a car to travel with any velocity at all. If you’d wish to have him walk across the entire “sandbox”—meaning the territory as a whole on which the game is played—from one end to the other, you better be ready for a lot of context and contemplation, because it’s going to take you hours. These game-worlds are each infused with an uncountable number of details that serve as constant enticements to slow down and examine one’s surroundings. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, recreates the topology of the American west—from the plains to the deserts to the snow-capped mountains—while carefully including all the wildlife, weather conditions, and changes in light one would expect to find there.
This encouragement to explore to your heart’s content is the opposite of “chaos cinema”, which holds your attention in a death-grip and never stops directing your gaze. The appropriate cinematic equivalent for videogames, in which “the camera” is perched slightly above and behind the character, isn’t Gladiator at all. It’s the Dardenne brothers’ subjective camera peeking over Rosetta’s shoulder.
In truth, the impersonal, purposeless cutting that’s killing so many action movies today is derived from an art-form that was the whipping boy for everything that was shallow and fast in the ’70s and ’80s: the music video. If you want to blame someone, blame Adrian Lyne and his goddamned Flashdance video. (It’s only fitting: chaos cinema has shredded the musical, too.) That’s the model that has six edits whenever someone tosses a cigarette away, that zooms in and out willy-nilly, and that rejects anything resembling a governing consciousness. The distinction is hardly a milestone in the history of aesthetics, but it’s worth getting right if it’s worth going into at all. Far from corrupting movies, videogames have done their best to replicate the older medium. They’re practically a tribute to it.
The other night I was watching a chunk of Paths of Glory and savoring the performance by the guy on the left here.
His name is Richard Anderson—yes, he’s with us still—and he was in a lot of schlocky TV shows in the ’60s and ’70s. He never impressed me then but in Paths he held his own amidst a host of big-name stars, and showed what he could do as Major Saint-Auban, aide to the almost metaphysically evil General Mireau. In his scenes with the general he’s in a state of perpetual alert, like a pointer hound on a hunting trip, and when Mireau explodes into a tirade because the regiment hasn’t left the trenches, Saint-Auban simply trains his snout on his master and holds that pose, knowing the right answer is to simply agree with anything the general says, even if it’s an order to shell their own troops.
Leeches like Saint-Auban—the sycophant who enables soulless bureaucracies to flourish—are peppered throughout Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Paths of Glory is infested with these termites—Lieutenant Roget and General Mireau himself belong to their ranks—and the military is such a natural magnet for them that Kubrick would return to that milieu through the rest of his career. But they exist everywhere, and they’re also reflected (or parodied) in the repulsive social worker, prison guard and hospital staff of A Clockwork Orange, the gangsters kowtowing to their ringleader in The Killing, and Clare Quilty’s impersonations of a cop and a school psychologist in Lolita. Thanks to his obsession with food-chains and pecking orders, picking out the biggest prick in Kubrick’s pictures would make a good day’s work for anybody. Any short list, though, really ought to include the government’s point-man on the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just look at this smug bastard.
Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (played to a turn by William Sylvester) is dripping with a sense of entitlement from the second he steps onto the space-station. He absently talks down to a helpful receptionist without ever seeing her; he calls his daughter back on Earth so he can rush through a list of bullet-points, one of which is her birthday; he coldly stiff-arms some Russian scientists who are concerned about (gulp) a lunar epidemic; and he quashes his staff’s discontent by telling everyone to keep their pie-holes shut if they know what’s good for them. He can’t even do a voice ID check without giving the machine a condescending smile.
Dr. Floyd needs a scant few minutes for all of these breaches in civility, but it’s during the moon-bus flight that we see what a putz he really is. Along with a pair of gray-souled subordinates he engages in some frosty bonhomie that’s the verbal equivalent of white noise.
Floyd Minion #1 (opening a cooler of synthetic sandwiches): Anybody hungry?
Dr. Floyd: Great. What do we got?
FM #1: You name it.
Dr. Floyd: What is that—chicken?
FM #1: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway.
The men chuckle.
FM #2: You know, that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
FM #1: It certainly was.
FM #2: I’m sure it beefed up morale a hell of a lot.
Dr. Floyd: Thanks, Ralph. By the way, I want to say to both of you I think you’ve done a wonderful job. I appreciate the way you’ve handled this thing.
FM #2: Oh, the way we look at it, it’s our job to do this thing the way you want it done. We’re only too happy to be able to oblige.
On paper this reads like nothing at all; one must hear the faintly snotty inflections, deadpan deliveries, and lifeless chuckles to appreciate the exchange. The ending of it recalls the moment in Paths of Glory when General Mireau offers Saint-Auban a shot from his flask and the canny major insists that the general take the first drink, causing a thin smile to crease Mireau’s face; here, too, a subordinate being thrown a bone immediately turns it into a boomerang flying back to his master. The rules of the game aren’t merely adhered to in Kubrick’s world. They’re enjoyed.
And a moment later there is this exchange:
Dr. Floyd: I don’t suppose you have any idea what the damn thing is.
FM #2: I wish to hell we did.
The casual condescension in Floyd’s voice, the forced nursery-room profanities, and the hollow collegial laugh that follows them—these are not the sort of things that Kubrick is noted for. He’s normally remembered for grand set-pieces and camera-moves that cry out for attention, but these moments of overgrown boys jockeying for position employ a quieter action that goes on just beneath the surface of our gaze. The constant in all of them is the way they sound, a kind of sub-bureaucratic murmur delivered with only a shadow of human personality. Everybody is oh so nice on the surface, but in truth they’re all busy repressing, repressing, repressing. Listen closely and you can hear the throb of blood under each exchange; it’s no surprise when these people sometimes react like the apes of 2001 and panic over a noise in the night.
In the (increasingly rare) examinations of machismo and power-worship in our cinema, we’re more used to seeing the gristly, often lethal likes of criminals or renegade spies, but Kubrick understood the dangers posed by the Saint-Aubans and Dr. Floyds—the bland, un-extraordinary men who we must deal with every day. The Shining opens with a long job interview in which a rageaholic puts on his best face for an overworked hotel manager and his eagle-eyed security chief, and for perhaps ten minutes the three men sit and exchange banalities while looking like they want to tear each other’s throats out. The next time you’re on an elevator with two coworkers talking over a deadline, just listen to the sound of it and see if it doesn’t ring a bell.
Tonight it was Agony, Elem Klimov’s picture about Rasputin and the Romanovs in the last year before the Revolution. Klimov made it in ’75, and even though it pulls the curtain back on plenty of Tsarist excesses, those Commie blockheads shelved it until Gorbachev came into power—presumably because he treats the Tsar and his family as people rather than as history’s garbage. The movie suffers from some of the antic stylistic excesses of the ’60s and ’70s, and sadly most of the scenes focused on Rasputin have a dated absurdist bent that grows old quickly. But when the focus is on Nicholas it’s a quieter, more naturalistic work, and a fascinating one. Anatoli Romashin, who plays Nicholas, was like Anthony Hopkins at his best: I could actually read the waves of thought washing across his face as if they were words. A great moment occurs just before we get our first good look at Rasputin, when Nicholas walks into a room where the monk is treating the hemophiliac kid (who’s otherwise not a player in the movie), and Klimov gives us individual closeups of the royal couple, showing by their responses to Rasputin’s therapy what they hold in their hearts: where Aleksandra appears relieved and a touch defensive about it, Nicholas simply looks consumed—90% weakness and 10% doubt. To keep his audience up with the historical context—1916 being a rather hectic year for the Romanov clan—Klimov relies on extensive montages made up of vintage newsreels. The battle scenes from the front have been endlessly recycled, but the 15 or 20 minutes of footage showing daily street-life and the massive demonstrations in St. Petersburg were wholly new to me. In one, taken as the Tsar’s troopers opened fire on a mob as it neared the Winter Palace, the crowd breaks into flight across a huge square. As they scramble hither and yon, so many people are in the frame that they fill every inch of the screen, and with the snow under their feet forming a natural backdrop, they look like a vast flock of birds pinwheeling across the sky. It’s astonishing.
I guess it was about three weeks ago that I watched Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent. Shepitko was Klimov’s wife—I think they met in film school—and she was killed in a car wreck while scouting locations in ’79. Both films are awfully, awfully good, but they were made 10 years apart, and in that time she moved from being a very talented student to something close to a master. Wings, which came out in ’66, carries a heavy debt to the neorealist films, particularly Umberto D.: it bears down like a magnifying glass on a middle-aged woman who was a pilot and national hero during WW II, but who in the film’s present tense has lapsed into the drab, anonymous life of an outmoded headmistress. It’s a wonderful picture, and when I say it’s gorgeously shot, I don’t just mean that it’s pretty, though it’s that, too—I mean that it’s expressive and original. But good as it is, The Ascent is a whole other deal. A metaphysical epic set on the Eastern Front, it follows the moral-cum-spiritual choices made by two Russian partisans after they’re captured by the Nazis. It has the same religious urgency that gripped Dostoevsky’s characters—you feel as if these men, when they each do what they do, understand that they’re sealing their souls for eternity, and everything comes home to roost in a long, emotionally wracking scene that’s ballsier, and more haunting, than anything in Come and See. Which, of course, is saying something.
A weird thing happened tonight, too. I took a break during Agony to get a burrito, and since I didn’t want to eat and take a doctorate course in Russian history at the same time, I threw in Plan 9 from Outer Space to tide me over. It’s a movie I actually like on its own terms, at least in places—its opening puts me in a mood not so far removed from its more reputable cousins Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls—but of course you soon start hitting those mismatched day-and-night cuts and the Lugosi impersonator and, well, it’s still fun, just in a different, more jaw-dropping way. But anyway…it took me half an hour to eat and digest my food a little, and when I turned Plan 9 off and went back to Agony, damn if it didn’t look like another Ed Wood movie. Some of that I’m sure was due to the ’70s shenanigans I mentioned above, but I’ve noticed the same thing happen other times: bad flicks bringing out what might even be nonexistent flaws in even great movies when the proximity between them gets too narrow. That’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I had some training on editing software. It’s an idea I’d love to play around with.
About three weeks ago, while looking for a new direction to stomp around in, I picked up Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours on a roll of the dice—and was flattened by it. Since then I’ve seen six more of his features—he made ten in all, plus a handful of shorts—and I can only feel a little sick for discovering him at such a late date. The truth is he’s never gotten much notice here: he isn’t mentioned at all, for instance, in Kael’s 5,001 Nights at the Movies. But Pialat’s work is so good, and crystallizes so many ideas which I’ve entertained over the years, that I feel like I’ve just heard that a fellow named William Faulkner once existed.
Before I go on, here’s a quick recap of what I’ve seen so far:
L’enfance nue (1968) – A ten-year old orphan wreaks havoc on two foster households. Decidedly not cute or adorable, François makes the kid in The 400 Blows look like Opie Taylor, and one misdeed in particular will have a lot of viewers running to the closest rerun of Friends just as fast as they can get there. Get past that, though, and you’ll find a lot to treasure in both the kid and his story.
Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together) (1972) – Jean Yanne is a married filmmaker who’s winding up a six-year long love affair with younger woman Marlène Jobert. It’s turned into a hideously painful relationship, physically abusive at times but mostly “just” emotionally so, with Yanne downloading some monstrously cruel tirades in Jobert’s direction. When the film begins the relationship is already over, but the news hasn’t caught up to the couple yet—they go right on fucking, swimming, eating, dancing, talking. It’s autobiographical, apparently rigorously so—Jobert says in one of the bonus interviews that Pialat was upset that the costumer couldn’t find a bikini like the one his old girlfriend wore—and Pialat’s trademark elliptical style leads to some intentional laughs about the eternal recurrence that goes on within troubled and even not so troubled relationships. About an hour into it Jobert finally starts landing some punches of her own, spelling out for Yanne all the ways he’s made her life a misery, and in a raging cri de coeur vows to never see him again. A-a-nd cut…to Yanne getting out of his car, where a beaming Jobert is waiting for him. (True to the nature of affairs, much of the film takes place in the front seat of Yanne’s car.)
Passe ton bac d’abord (Graduate First… a/k/a Pass the Bac First…) (1979) – You’ve heard it before: a group of bored high-school seniors hang out in cafés, get high, have sex, and fret about their unpromising futures. Somewhat slight compared to his other movies, it’s still a happily mussed work, and in 81 short minutes you come to care an awful lot about these kids. (Most of them were amateurs recruited from a nearby high school.)
Loulou (1980) – Isabelle Huppert is married to an advertising exec who gives her the good life; Gerard Depardieu is an ex-con whose sex drive is always in high gear. The two meet by chance and fall into an affair that’s like shooting whitewater rapids. With a storyline that’s impossible to predict and both stars giving performances to be cherished, it may be my favorite of them all. Just thinking about its final shot—a picture of pure ruined beauty—gives me the chills.
À nos amours (1983) – A young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her debut) begins running on a treadmill of shallow sexual affairs; her sex life is, to some never exactly defined extent, the fallout from a tug-of-war with her family for control of her life. Her mother is a fading rose who resents the young beauty sharing her household; her brother is a baby-faced bully with distinctly unbrotherly feelings for his sister; and her father—significantly, played by Pialat himself—is an underachiever whose tangled feelings for his daughter are pushing her into the arms of strangers. I describe the movie sounding quite certain of what I’m saying; in reality it’s a much more mysterious, and touching, affair. It’s also a stone-cold masterpiece.
Police (1985) – A genre flick, but delivered with the Pialat touch. Depardieu is a hard-ass Paris detective chasing a gang of Arab drug dealers; when Sophie Marceau is caught up in one of his raids, the two find themselves falling into a relationship.
Van Gogh (1991) – The last few months of the painter’s life, notable for its treatment of Vincent as a human being rather than a one-eared dingbat genius. It’s long and occasionally taxing, but parts of it could’ve gone on forever for all I cared. In particular, a scene in a Parisian whorehouse lasts a good 20 minutes, in which time Pialat’s camera moves freely from room to room, dropping in first on Vincent, then on Theo, then on the anonymous customers and hookers taking part in a riotous cancan. Pialat’s at his best in these rambling sequences; the backyard luncheon in Loulou is even better.
Pialat is sometimes called “the French Cassavetes”, but the comparison is a slippery one, and perhaps even unfair to Pialat: his formidable dramatic ability and absolute impatience with filler led him to snip shots off the second they stopped communicating, while Cassavetes, whose respect for the Aristotelian unities often ran amok on him, held onto his shots from A to Z even when the meat of them was located only at D, L, and W. Pialat’s epiphanies come more often, with greater resonance and clarity, and capture a richer, wider spectrum of life than Cassavetes’ over-focused eye.
Pialat originally trained to be an artist, and you can see it in his work, but not in the usual painterly way. It influenced him structurally more than visually: his films communicate through isolated elements which carefully balance each other out, while his compositions, though exact and often striking, are rarely “pretty”. He belongs to the humanist tradition running from Renoir through the Dardenne brothers, and even more than the Italian neorealists his characters’ identities amount to a kind of existential soup in which all the normal signifiers of class, religion, and relationships are subordinated to physical behavior.
Pialat had as unerring a sense of what a makes a scene as anyone who’s ever yelled “Action!” Of the seven films, I found my attention wandering only in parts of the 159-minute Van Gogh. Generally, though, it’s impossible to lose interest in his stories because they’ve been ruthlessly gutted of anything that doesn’t provide illumination. That includes meaningless establishing or transitional shots (people getting out of cars, for instance), inter-scene dissolves which destroy the air of verisimilitude, prefabricated declamatory speeches, extraneous actor business, as well as the artificial and coy dialog most movies use as the building blocks of conflict.
The first time we see Depardieu and Huppert as a couple in Loulou—a movie which is about their adulterous liaison—they’re already dancing together in a smoky nightclub, and that normally mandatory stop in relationship movies, the meet-cute, which would have occurred a mere blink in time earlier, has been entirely dispensed with. Again and again Pialat’s characters are seen lashing out in one shot and fully reconciled in the next, in narrative jumps which force the viewer to forget about the story and remain focused on the people at hand; in this sense the memory of one’s own traumas provides a more reliable guide through the films than anything in their screenplays. It’s a style perfectly suited to characters with conflicting emotional drives, such as the elderly foster parents in L’enfance nue who both love and are terrorized by the little boy whose monstrous side no amount of tenderness can reach. Pialat’s uncondescending attitude towards teenagers—born perhaps from his own untamed personality—allowed him to depict them as people in their own right, with the significance of their problems undiminished by their lack of legal standing. In his eyes, adolescence requires no special treatment, not even in relationship to sex. It’s simply another stop on the continuum of the human experience.
Pialat’s first short, L’amour existe (available on the Criterion release of L’enfance nue) is a masterful look at life in the French suburbs; its wistful, doleful tone evokes both Night and Fog and Blood of the Beasts, and it’s more beautifully shot than either of those great films. It appeared in 1960, but it was only through François Truffaut’s intervention almost 10 years later that Pialat came to direct his first feature, when he was already past 40. An infamously temperamental man, he frightened, angered and intimidated his co-workers as a regular part of his method. In scenes calling for physical violence, his actors rained blows upon each other with a ferocity that takes your breath away. He discovered Sandrine Bonnaire when she accompanied her sister to an audition for À nos amours; after casting the young chaperone in the starring role (leading to what must’ve been an interesting night in the Bonnaire household), he extracted an astonishingly complex performance from young Sandrine while falling in love with her on the side. (He was 58 at the time; she, 16.) Gerard Depardieu wouldn’t speak to him for a year after finishing Loulou, then returned to the fold with a vengeance, becoming one of the director’s closest friends and shooting three more films for him. The climactic moment of À nos amours was nothing less than a great trick the director played on his own cast (you can read the shock on their faces), and when the audience whistled at him—that is, booed him—at Cannes one year, he raised his fist and hurled insults back at the room.
Add to all this his often dour social commentary and his generous helpings of extremely casual nudity, and it’s safe to say Pialat isn’t for everyone. You can probably add elitism to the list of charges, too. Work of this quality absolutely spoils me for au courant exercises like The Social Network, the anthropological fantasias of Winter’s Bone, or the trendy sitcom taxidermy of The Kids Are Alright; with their tailored quips, predictable rhythms, and compartmentalized chunks of action, each unlockable by a simpleton’s code of scrutable meaning, they look like toddlers taking baby-steps by comparison. In the end Pialat’s films represent what a cinema unfettered by the censors and low expectations might look like—a brave new world that looks exactly like our own.