November 11, 2010

Death House Comedy

This is another project I'll be developing further on The Moving Picture Writes and, I hope, eventually as a booklength study.
DEATH HOUSE COMEDY
FELLAS, IM DYING OUT THERE!: DEATH HOUSE COMEDY by Martin Heavisides
Fellas I'm Dying Out There!
http://www.ddwebsites.com/runit/?stn=96412&pageno=16&sdb

The Death of M. Hulot

In the latter part of his career Jacques Tati increasingly found his most famous creation a burden he’d prefer to be free of. He described how he might kill off the bemused pipe smoker with the gangly frame and the fore...-tilted walk, without violating the form and logic that animated his films. (I’d hoped to quote this directly from Tati in a critical biography I read some years ago, but I don’t own it any longer, can’t find it in Toronto’s excellent library system, and find no trace of the passage through the magic of Google, so I’m obliged to reproduce the gist from memory and leave its full elaboration to readers luckier or more patient than I: M. Hulot is in the back kitchen of a restaurant where an incident of gunfire occurs in the dining room. A bullet passes through into the back and strikes Hulot, instantly killing him. The first concern of the restaurauteurs is to make certain this death doesn’t cast a shadow on the reputation of the restaurant, so they arrange to have him transported in a box disguised as goods being shipped out. He passes by the guests of the establishment unnoticed, and the story continues on.)

The instrumental point of this would have been to remove the Hulot millstone from around Tati’s neck, but the significance of the scene should he ever have filmed it—even of that bare description of the scene as here given—would have been much the same as Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus (as Auden described it):

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W H Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

But even people watching the never-to-be-realized film in which, as it happens, this tragicomic death did not occur, would have had another and sharper reaction. Hulot might well be easily dispensable to the people who hustle his body out of view, and of no account to the people who don’t even notice, in either sense, his passing, but he’s been the fulcrum of the film to this point—assuming Tati has followed the strategy of Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime and Trafic—he has anchored the story in some sense and his sudden death must cast the narrative adrift. Therefore his death may impact little on the busy, personally preoccupied lives of the other characters, but it’s a powerful, deranging event for anyone who’s been taken up with the hilarious action to that point.

Astute reviewers—which is to say nobody—would have pointed out how this resembled Tolstoi’s The Death of Ivan Illich—equally profound, funnier of course, and with the added frisson that Tati hadn’t given away the shock of the ending in the title, and in fact hadn’t ended the film there—as in Breughel, death’s an episode, almost invisible—unless made prominently visible for an instant—in a movie whose tidal flow carries on for another full hour of hilarity, minutely observed, crowding every frame. What a moment, and what a film that would have been!

That film would certainly have had a place of honour in a festival of death house comedies. None of those Tati actually did make could—not because they never concerned themselves with death (what self-respecting comic artist could ignore it altogether?) but because they tend to concern themselves with everything, and death is never emphasized as it necessarily would be if Hulot died on camera.

This isn’t a criticism of Tati, merely an attempt to establish boundaries. Death house comedy is by no means the only style of film, or even of comedy, that is serious and engaged at the highest level—but if we’re going to talk about it as a viable category parameters (and other high sounding words) are going to be required. A film needn’t be exclusively about death, or funny all the time (neither of which is even possible) to be a death house comedy. But I think it can reasonably be required to be at least as much preoccupied with death as any subject, and at least as funny as it is anything else.

(I’ve discovered through online filmographies that this was intended as the opening scene of his last, unrealized project, Confusion. It would have taken place behind the scenes on a film set apparently—nice metacinematic touch. According to these commentators it would have been his first non-comedy, but I’m not so sure. I recall Tati’s description of it in an interview I read in the mid seventies—savage satire was what he envisioned, and that was certainly within his range—all his films have passages of that, never as the single dominating mood. And satire is a comic form, even if in the way described by Peter Barnes: “I’ve laughed a lot when I haven’t felt a lot like laughing.” Easy sell? I can imagine the typical response of the money men (les personnes d’argent):

“Let me get this straight Monsieur Hu—Monsieur Tati. You’ve made a number of highly successful comedies, one hugely expensive flop, and one film since that gave a modest return on a very modest budget. You want to reconnect with the huge international audience you once enjoyed how? By killing off one of the most beloved characters in the history of cinema while the virtual impression of the opening credits is still fading from your viewers’ eyeballs? With the promise that things can only get worse from there? I foresee rows and rows of bumless seats. Now a remake in colour of Les Vacances de M. Hulot—that I could slap together a finance package over half a lunch, everone says you’re a master of colour, a true impressionist. Maybe with a younger comic in the role of Hulot.”)


Oozing Life

I never got very far in my one shot at a career in standup. I don't project well and I'm not good at memorizing lines--too lazy really--or at improvising in high pressure situations. I do all right with a few friends in a bar--k...eep my end of the conversation up at least. Onstage I'd clam up, the pipes would shut tight as bivalves and even with the mike at maximum amp I couldn't always guarantee I'd be heard by the back tables--God help me if I'd ever played a hall. I've often wondered how my career might have progressed if I'd taken Idi Amin up on his friendly offer to lend me his bodyguards when I went out to do my five minutes. "I guarantee you'll soon be doing 15 minutes, 30 minutes, even whole nights to yourself."

"Myself and two burly men with loaded Uzis flanking me on either side. Wouldn't it be better to get ahead on my own natural talent?" I don't know why he laughed at that, but he laughed loud and long. Many others, not just me, have attested to how often he'd burst out laughing for no apparent reason at things nobody else could see the humour in.

It's not that none of my lines ever got laughs, and if you want to know the truth, to this very day I still resent that. Time and again I'd be sitting in the crowd watching a comic kill with lines I'd tossed off the night before in my cups. We were working for beer or beer money at best in those days so I could hardly ask 'em to pay for my material, but a word or two of acknowledgment would not have gone amiss. Some have gone on to greater success and throw me the odd buck out of shame, but regrettably the richest and most famous of them are completely shameless, my standard of living and position in the industry would be very different today if it were otherwise. What I wouldn't give for a second chance to take up Idi's offer of lead weighted muscle. I can't recall a single instance of any comic lifting one of his gags.

If you were unaware of Idi Amin's brief stab at making it in show biz, you're not alone. You could fill arenas with people who don't know that about the iconic figurehead who went on to become Uganda's strongman/funnyman/absolute leader. I couldn't tell you for certain when it was--around the time of the first village massacre? maybe as late as the expulsion of Uganda's entire Asian immigrant population?--but somewhere in there he quietly deleted those couple of years from his resume.

He didn't exactly fail as a standup, matter of fact he was steadily building a following before he abandoned it for greater, more terrible ambitions. The click of the safeties was easily as effective as a drum roll for punch line punctuation, particularly if you as an audience member knew or suspected these were not prop weapons clutched in those huge mitts. The laughs may have been nervous but they were plentiful and if by chance they weren't? "It's a sure fire thing with me," he'd chuckle. "One way or another, when I do a show, I kill."

November 7, 2010

Ceci n'est pas un livre du cinema

Ceci n’est pas un livre du cinema
At present ceci n’est pas un essai seulement—in ten sections, nine thousand three hundred fifty words, mostly taken up with analyses of films like F for Fake, Vanya on 42nd St, Fellini’s Clowns, which I characterize as ‘documentary fictions’. Also a couple of self-written examples:
One of the two children I’d invited to join me across the street was hanging out the back of a helicopter taxi giving grid coordinates to where they were meeting us—must have seemed strange to the driver, but t...he crosswalks are intricate up here by this last subway stop before open water and people lose their way easily. I was more nervous about the boy hanging out the back, but he scampered back in as the ‘copter began its sweep round a tower in the middle of the harbour to look back on the city beyond. What had surprised me was the country coordinate (which you always have to give a helicab driver, it’s a formal requirement even for intra-city travel: pilots have intricate guidelines and restrictions concerning flight to certain countries and better safe than sorry, also sometimes they can hook you up with a helicopter at another destination that is allowed into that country and perhaps has regulation armour and defensive weaponry as the situation might require, not that you’d need that in Wales but it did surprise me—knew the call I was taking was well outside my usual boundaries but Wales!? maybe unbeknownst to myself I was part of a courier exchange) now the helicopter rounds back on a slow circle to its near destination—first look I’ve had at the skyline though ‘I’ am not technically on board the helicopter—ever shifting multi-perspective view, don’t get a lot of that in real life. Distant skyline dominated by a row of smoke belching industrial behemoths, don’t see that in a lot of cities anymore, suspect it’s not at all typical of Wales. Shaped a little like a sooty, flame-shooting pipe organ. When the helicopter arcs toward the dockside where my friends and I are waiting it’s completely changed from my first view of it when I walked over from the subway just moments before. Then the complex of buildings behind it were square-edged and mainly of pink brick, now they’re round-edged—interwoven half globes ten storeys high—and mainly of white marble. Not every city can house two completely different building complexes in the same space depending on what? time of day, fall of light, angle of approach from which they’re viewed? At least the floating dock the helicab touches down on hasn’t changed, except I half remember it was a fixed dock before.

A woman who’s held on in the street vending trade long after the rest of us abandoned it is here, having packed up a little while ago. I asked her how business was and she said not too bad. She could use an easily portable tent for the rough weather days, a friend was improvising something light and flexible until she could afford a proper one, maybe at the next economic turnaround she wasn’t holding her breath. I know it’s not a sustainable life anymore, what with the harassing regulations and the drying up of business, even at Christmas, to virtually nothing. Still when I see one of us pioneers at it yet, I feel a twinge of nostalgia. Maybe the regulations are more vendor-friendly this corner of Wales. Wonder what the distance charge on the envelope I just delivered is going to be?

A writer friend I’ve never met personally, just know through an online workshop is among the dozen or so of us assembled now the two children have landed. She’s in a wheelchair which I think is only temporary, and is asking directions to a stop I already know—it’s where I started from on my trip to make this delivery. She’s prepared to wheel the ten blocks I walked from the last connecting bus, but now I know there’s a subway so near I can direct her there—even accompany her, it’s on my way and the 100 interconnecting subway and lrt lines are confusing for a newcomer. We’ll soon discover that seven of them interconnect with the stop she wants to go to.
Meanwhile the whole group of us has a lottery ticket we bought by assembling every nickel, dime and occasional quarter we had in our pockets, and are trying to check it in a newspaper whose format’s a little baffling. Strange to see so many visitors to our fair city gathered on one dock, says the kiosk vendor, especially as it’s not at all the high tourist season. What’s kiosk business like? I ask, still pining for the old days in micro-scale street level retail.

What’ll we do when we win the lottery? someone asks and I notice there’s a high level of confidence that we will. It won’t do us much good, I say, as this is all happening in a dream. Hey! everyone shouts back in unison, don’t rain on our parade! Last time we had serious flooding, says the kiosk vendor, it washed away the entire city which had to be hastily reassembled for an international conference. Terrible sudden deficit expense, but a boon for the construction trade. That’s neither here nor there but thinking it over I decide to go with group consensus and look on the positive side. Stranger things have happened than that a lottery ticket in a dream . . . but what I’m really wishing is that I could have gotten a movie camera in for the duration of this and gotten it out after.

The project began, and grew from, a study of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil where:

Tokyo is mostly a night or interior city in Sans Soleil, seen under a wide range of artificial lights that grow progressively more distorted. The simplest level i...s familiar to every city dweller: street lamps, neon (fixed and firm or lightly sputtering), the grey –white pallor cast by tube lighting in pachinko parlours, the dancing light show on pachinko boards (roughly analogous to pinball consoles) and video terminal screens. (There’s a brief passage on the historical significance of Pac-Man.) At another remove are passages drawn from television screens (one of many sorts of incorporated ‘found’ footage in the film): Marker makes no effort to soften the distortion that normally occurs when televised images are filmed direct from the screen. There’s even the suspicion he may be in some way enhancing it, but I think that’s more the effect of the images themselves, supersaturated with vivid colours that sometimes clash violently enough you might almost say they’re at war with each other. A degree of harmony is restored, paradoxically, by the thoroughly jiggered images of the computer programmer Hayao Yamenake (according to Wikipedia, another of Marker’s inventions—he created these manipulated images himself), deranging naturalistic images partly by pixilation, partly by altering their colour fields, into something whose pattern is still discernible—at least if you’re familiar before hand with the image being altered, and he largely transforms images previously seen in travelogue or documentary footage—but considerably abstracted, kaleidoscoped, taking on an other-worldly glow. He calls the region of virtual space these images occupy The Zone, after that region in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalker.

But there are sunlit exterior scenes in Tokyo as well, and daytime exteriors predominate in footage from other locations—Iceland, the Ile de France, Guinea Bissau. Odd in a film called Sans Soleil, but sunlight (bonsoir Magritte) is absent in its presence here, since it’s captured on film, not by the eye (ceci n’est pas la lumiere de la soleil). On the other hand the ultimate source of all light on earth (it would be different in another solar system) is our sun; in that sense, no matter how processed, distorted, artificially extruded, the source of all light in Sans Soleil remains the sun. (It’s curious incidentally how readily we think of sunlight and rain in the same language: I had to throw away earlier drafts in which I persisted in talking of light ‘streaming’ or scenes ‘drenched’ in light.)
Like the sun, the film’s two narrators are omnipresent yet absent. The author of the letters that describe its various scenes and actions, Sandor Krasna, is neither heard nor seen: the reader of them, played by Florence Delay in French, Alexandra Stewart in English, Riyoko Ikeda in Japanese, Charlotte Kerr in German, is heard almost constantly but never seen. The words she speaks are written in another’s voice but spoken in her own, which must be assumed to inflect and alter their significance in subtle ways—there’s a sense of constantly listening for the voice behind the voice, reinforced by ritual repetitions of “He wrote to me”. (Besides which she acts as editor, selecting from a presumably large body of letters the comments that will represent them over particular scenes.) More present in absence than either of these is the true author, not only of Krasna’s letters but of Krasna and the narrator, the film’s maker Chris Marker. (This being the pseudonym of a director whose given name is something completely different, Chris Marker too is one of the film maker’s inventions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a large section of the film is given over to a meditation on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)

Fiction or documentary? Yes, and a subtly powerful inquiry into the porous borderland between the two, frequently thought of as having no point of contact, let alone impermeation. The fascinating sequence on Vertigo—clearly a fictional film—plays off against passages sampled from purely documentary works like The Death of a Giraffe—one of the few passages left entirely without commentary—for a reason that’s self evident, watching: the horrific sequence as it unfolds is its own commentary, words of any kind would be superfluous. The commentary on Vertigo may be more nearly documentary than the samplings from other documentaries, since these are assimilated to the musings of the fictional Sandor Krasna. (This brings to mind other mixed form experiments: Fellini’s I Clowns, Herzog’s Fata Morgana, Moretti’s Caro Diario. This being a ‘genre’ unusually free of established rules—for purists even a genre that perhaps shouldn’t exist, though I think it’s only problematic if the elements of fictional contrivance are perfidiously concealed—it’s unsurprising that each has a peculiar signature of its own, unique as a fingerprint.

In keeping with its theme of presence-in absence, the fingerprint of Sans Soleil is perhaps invisible to some viewers altogether, and keeps appearing and vanishing once you become aware of it. Many viewers I’m sure glance over the final credits perfunctorily or make for the exits while they’re playing, and that’s the only place in the film where the fictional letter writer Sandor Krasna is mentioned: so it’s easy enough to assume these are simply Chris Marker’s own comments on materials from a video diary of his travels into several remote regions of the world. (In fact they wouldn’t be entirely mistaken in thinking so.) It’s even likely there fare fans of Chris Marker who are unaware that’s not his real name—I know because I’ve been a fan for decades, since I saw La Jetee (which makes a cameo appearance in Sans Soleil), and only discovered this myself a few years ago, reading it in the notes on a Chris Marker retrospective at Cinematheque.

The voice of Sandor Krasna is persuasively mundane yet conversational, with an eye for the telling image, an ear for the telling image, a natural bent for elaborate theorising—it requires a real effort of concentration to remember that this is a narrator, perhaps not at all times a reliable one. That concentration may open the mind to wider speculations: is sunlight natural or artificial? Is the image I see on the screen present? In a sense yes, for there it is; in a sense no, because with rare exceptions every image we see on film was recorded in the past. (Sandor Krasna speculates, or appears to, at one point that images might be sent back from the future as well—but this has little relevance at our present state of comparatively primitive technology: we don’t even know yet how to send a camera into the dream.) Ultimately we might be driven back to Heraclitus’s question: is the river I step in the river I stand in? the film I began watching the one I see through to its end. And then perhaps to wonder. . . )

October 3, 2010

The Moving Picture Writes

As soon as I've familiarized myself with the system enough so that I can set up new content steadily and reliably, I'll be inaugurating a movie/tv appreciation website. Under the above title I'll be offering, from time to time, memoirs of m...y encounters over the years with film and, increasingly, tv. Under other headings I'll be doing film reviews, background studies, film commentary reviews (the first of these for The Ruling Class, since I planned when I was writing the review to comment on the Criterion Edition Extras, but discovered that, besides making the piece of unwieldy length (particularly for an online essay), it combined two pieces that might best be considered in tandem (independently of each other). I took the same approach with Performance, discussing the principals' reactions to the film and its place in their careers under the heading 'Background', tackling the film in the mimetic, synergistic style I hope soon to be famous for in a second short essay, 'All the Way'.)

I won't be attempting to keep au courant with new movies, still less with the daily, hourly, minutely stream of movie gossip. I was advised by the woman who originally suggested developing this website that a number of others failed simply because of the need to keep up to date. There are two excellent reasons to take the desultory approach I have, filling in patches from the history of film here and there as it may be, not necessarily ignoring current releases but not trying to deal with them exhaustively. The first is that I'm at a disadvantage, compared to the days when I used to see four films in a slow week, having neither the time, energy nor money to keep up a comparable pace while working at a physically demanding full time job that pays broken bits of peanuts. I have to be selective even when it comes to seeing historically important films I've missed or would like to see again, when they play at Cinematheque or the new TIFF facility. If I were seeing films at the old pace--and I'm hopeful the website might prove a means of enabling me to--I still wouldn't want to chain myself to the routine of a daily, weekly or monthly reviewer making consumer reports instead of studies and evaluations, obliged to find something to say aout a slew of films the great majority of which (especially when they're hugely popular) would best be passed over in silence. Not long ago at the opening of TIFF's lightbox I looked over their list of the 100 essential films. Apart from violently disagreeing with some of their choices (goes without saying, de gustibus furio disputandam), I knew I could easily come up with a rival list of a hundred films as important as the (85 or so) choices they'd made that I didn't dispute, and that wouldn't begin to exhaust the number worth writing about. Why waste time, with no hint from the cosmos that I'll violate the norms of existence and prove imortal, writing about the inessentials?

Independently of its worth (I hope) as an artistic venture, there's a commercial motive to developing this website--to generate a steady stream of income that will (at least) replace what I can make as a courier, so that I can make this and other writing projects (of which more later) my fulltime occupation in future. That'll depend on income from advertising, revenue streaming, generating interest in a book project perhaps, essays and lectures? perhaps, but that'll depend on building a solid readership. For which reason once the site's up, I'd appreciate if any of you who like my weekly offerings not only visit regularly but spread the word to friends you think might be interested. With any luck it'll be awesome. We'll talk.
http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/MWH-Projects/156487567714135?ref=ts

September 1, 2010

Twelve Angry Men



"In 12 Angry Men (1957) [Henry Fonda] was the only voice of reason when an innocent boy is being railroaded on a murder case."
--Robert Fulford, Aug 31, 2010, National Post

It's pleasant to see how somethings don't change; Bob Fulford, for example, after all these years still rigorously eschewing nuance and subtlety in his analysis of film. About the only way he could improve on this travesty of a capsule review would be by remembering Henry Fonda pulling a Perry Mason with a last minute reveal of the guilty criminal.

I don't know how you'd find any evidence of railroading on the part of the prosecution; what they do is put together a neat tidy case based partly on circumstantial evidence, partly on an eyewitness identification nobody seems to know is suspect. (If the prosecution is aware the eyewitness is nearsighted and wasn't wearing her glasses when she made the ID, they can be accused of railroading even if they believe the circumstantial evidence and think the witness ties it up with a ribbon, but isn't crucial in itself. But I don't recall there being any suggestion of that. Surely the possibility of an apparently unbeatable case being made, in good faith, out of a succession of such imperfectly linked pieces of evidence is unsettling enough without any assumption of police or prosecutorial malice.)

If it's the jury who are railroading the accused, they don't do much of a job of it, slidng over one by one to a not guilty verdict over a single afternoon of deliberations--and if Fonda's character is the sole voice of reason how does that happen? Not only are they won over by his arguments, they are won over by their own--Fonda's character only starts the ball rolling. If he were the unique voice of reason the most he could have achieved would be a hung jury, eleven for conviction v. one for acquittal.

As for 'an innocent boy'--that's the plot pivot for a much more straightforward melodrama than Twelve Angry Men. When Fonda's character says "We may never know what happened that night," he means precisely that; they don't vote acquittal because they're certain he's innocent but because what looked like a rock solid case against him has revealed cracks and fissures which crumble it to bits. On the presumption of innocence he's innocent, and the odds are that he actually is--but high odds are not a certainty, and what's most interesting about Reginald Rose's play in all its incarnations--on television, film and the legitimate stage--is its creative integration of uncertainty, normally an element vigorously excised from courtroom/trial drama.

May 31, 2010

Death House Comedy



New essay up at The Linnet's Wings (www.thelinnetswings.net) Comes with its own screening room by way of informal footnotes.

January 30, 2010

January 17, 2010

Taste Test

Taste Test


They blindfolded our entire section for the in-flight meal. This was annoying because I had a window seat and we were flying toward the sun, but apparently it was in the fine print of something we'd signed on boarding. They were kidding I'm sure when they said the pressure door's that way, we have parachutes should you require them, but you don't want to take the chance. The carrots tasted like rutabaga which is really strange since I've never eaten rutabaga so how would I know? I'm not saying it tasted like good rutabaga anymore than the spinach tasted like good mashed potatoes or the beefsteak like good chocolate pudding. Now every time I see a chocolate pudding I think about mad cow disease. I suppose that makes sense since it's a milk-based product.

Other testees reported variable but equally subjective tastings. I don't think anybody correctly identified a single serving. Orange juice tasted like tequila, I don't know why that couldn't happen to me (especially since they were charging for drinks on the flight). On the plus side I didn't get the ravioli which tasted like earthworms still covered in gritty soil, though she didn't mind. Said it took her back to when she'd been a bird in happy transient flight once upon a time. Until she was caught and snapped dead by a hooded falcon but that's another story. She later married the falcon but that was another life.

When they removed my blindfold the clouds below our wing were awrithe with serpents and agallop with stallions. I had to wonder how even a billowing cumulus cloud could hold up so vivid and solid a tusked woolly mammoth. Remember thinking maybe that's where all the prehistoric creatures went instead of becoming extinct. It seems a more sensible choice. Through a gap in the cloud I could see the ocean below which was on fire. Green, orange, lavender and bright blue flames. In a subsequent letter I was informed the probable reason for these visions and the wildly subjective taste impressions both was the substantive dose of lysergic acid dialethamate in our lemon iced vanilla cake. (It tasted like hominy grits, which is not my idea of dessert.) They said it altered our perceptions backward as well as forward in time because it was a new, unusually proactive variety. But how did the acid know in advance who was going to ingest it? I think personally the reason was the time zones we were passing through.

I have no idea the purpose of this study, but I for one will study the fine print in airline contracts a great deal more watchfully in future.

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010
On Jan 11 one of the finest of the French New Wave directors (who began his career, as a number of them did, writing on film for Cahier du Cinema) died at the age of 89. His last film was completed two years before. Every film he made from 1981 (Le Beau Mariage) to 2007 (Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon) is one more argument against Quentin Tarantino's contention that filmmakers almost never produce first rate movies after the age of 60. So are the later films of Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette, in fact among genuinely distinguished directors who survived past 60 and remained active, there are easily as many exceptions to as confirmations of this very rough rule of thumb. (Mounting evidence suggests Tarantino's best-before year may have been his fortieth or even his thirty fifth.)

The obit I read in the Globe and Mail (taken off the wires from the Manchester Guardian) has this to say about his first film and its promise for his career:

"Le Signe du Lion, completed in 1959 after one false start and a handful of shorts, fitted comfortably into the New Wave formula of Parisian life, with its tale of a student musician, tempted nto debt by a promised inheritance, who lapses into abject destitution after the legacy turns out to be a hoax.
"In retrospect, one can clearly see in it the seeds of Rohmer's later work. Showing little interest in plot or action, Rohmer concentrates on showing how Paris itself becomes an objective correlative to the hero's state of mind, gradually metamorphosing from a welcoming city into a bleak stone desert as he realizes that the friends from whom he might hope to borrow are all away for the vacation."

I'm very grateful, given its shoddy character, that this was the only synopsis of a Rohmer film attempted. Key point in rebuttal: Pierre (Jess Hahn) doesn't discover the inheritance was a hoax; he learns his aged relative changed her will when she heard that he'd run into debt and a dissipated life and--I expect most crucially for her--began neglecting his music in anticipation of a huge legacy that would free him from any obligation to work, develop talent or follow a determinate course of any kind. Only on the quite unfounded assumption that the inheritance is a hoax can you get by with the preposterous notion that Rohmer, in this film or any of those that follow, shows little interest in plot or action. If you add inaction as action's dynamic counterpoint, with choice as the fulcrum that balances the two, you understand the importance of his seamlessly intricate plots as revelations of character. They're there in all his stories, and they aren't hard to find unless you begin with the persuasion that plot OR character must predominate in the telling of any story: but in the most satisfying ones they always collaborate as equal partners.)

Not long after seeing Le Signe du Lion I looked it up in one of those omnibus film studies under the letter 'L'. I discovered to my astonishment that the reviewer thought it a remarkable debut, marred by a too-pat happy ending. What film had the reviewer been seeing? What happens in the last scene of Le Signe du Lion is that, casually betraying the man who's kept him alive at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, Pierre rides happily and furiously off on a suddenly cresting wave toward almost certain catastrophe. These are not points made obscurely or oversubtly; they will occur spontaneously to any reviewer who simply pays attention, which I'll grant you a well firmed body of assumption and resultant theory makes it almost impossible to do.
The only other fable of despair that I know of in Rohmer is Les Nuit de la Pleine Lune (1984) (though a case could be made for La Collectioneuse, which certainly is engagingly grim). It’s perhaps characteristic of Rohmer’s work as it can be seen to develop over a long, rigorously planned-out career, that his lead this time is female. (The leads in Six Contes Moraux are all male; in Comedies et Proverbes all female with the interesting variation that Pauline a la Plage has two female leads of equal prominence, as does Quatre Aventure de Reinette et Mirabelle; I’ve seen only trois of the Quatre Saisons group, and the count is 2 females to 1 male; I’d have thought according to previously established pattern that the lead in the fourth, Conte d’Hivre, would be male, but the synopsis suggests this is another story centred on a woman. Odd shift of emphasis, but he had his reasons I suppose.)
Equally characteristic is the difference between Les Nuit. . .’s Louise (Pascale Ogier) and Pierre. Rohmer’s male leads all tend to be in a state of drift until a clear choice presents itself. (In one of the subtlest, Conte d’Ete ,Gaspard’s choice grows progressively clearer, but never quite clear to him, and so he misses it: which is bittersweet but not tragic because there’s no sense his character is firmed enough that he will always fail to recognize what life precariously offers.) His women most often have to deal with forced choices; ones they try to will into being or ones connived at for them by close female friends. (Women connive at choices for male friends also, which they go along with, insofar as they do, as part of their tendency to drift: leave choices to others.)
Beatrice Romand played Sabine in Le Beau Mariage (1981), who tries to break the cycle of drift in her life by breaking up with her married boyfriend (a wise move) and entering upon a campaign to meet and marry—not live with, never merely that again—an eligible man she can love through life, at the earliest possible opportunity. Nothing goes right with the man she fixes on because she’s driven by compulsion, not free choice. When the skein of her plans and expectations has thoroughly unravelled, a moment of warm eye contact with a stranger on a train suggests hmm. . . real possibilities if she can let feeling grow in its own natural soil.
In Conte d’Automne the same actress plays Magali, who meets a man at a party on her friend’s estate, for which she’s supplied the wine, a recent bottling she’s particularly proud of from her own vineyard. There’s a sudden, fierce mutual attraction—complicated and almost derailed when she senses her friend has connived at this chance meeting (and for devious intricacy this connivance was a beaut). She breaks off the evening with him rather than explode—likes him too much to be altogether angry, doesn’t trust herself to maintain a false calm. When they meet again—neither by contrivance nor entirely by chance—later that same evening, she’s had it out with her friend, regained composure—once again they get along famously. A forced choice for once takes on the aspect of a natural choice after all.
Delphine in Le Rayon Vert is perhaps the most perplexed of Rohmer’s heroes or heroines, simultaneously in a state of aimless drift and making forcible, abrupt choices that puzzle others and frustrate herself. The pain she experiences on this account, coupled with her ferocious sincerity, is tremendously affecting. Ultimately she decides to resolve her perplexities by a lightning test of her perceptiveness, and make her answer to a proposition that would change the course of her life depend on whether her eyes can detect a natural appearance that vanishes almost as it’s seen. (A similar test illuminates The Blue Minute, premier des quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle.)
If men tend to evade serious choices by drifting, women by trying to force choices that cut across the grain, which for that reason usually fail wholly or partially, it’s perhaps not surprising that the woman who comes nearest to duplicating Pierre’s appalling fate is the one who forces a choice and has it succeed, catastrophically—Louise in Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune.
It’s obvious why no one has taken the ending of Les Nuits . . . as happy, artificially or otherwise: Louise’s world has fallen apart, she’s at the lowest ebb of fortune’s wheel and, trying to retrieve herself, makes a choice more desperate dthan the one that began her descent. I suppose I can see how, on a superficial reading, the sudden restoration of a huge fortune to a man so careless that his first act on hearing of it is to desert and betray a man who saved his life is a happy ending, if the man he betrays reads to you (as he does to the reviewer I cited) as local colour, not a human being, and if the pervious inheritor of this fortune, a psychological match for Pierre, died in an auto smashup which is why Pierre has been reinstated as heir—all that might read as an artificially happy ending on the shallow consumerist principles that dominate the box office, hence the consciousness of reviewers, if dark portents for the future are declared strictly out of bounds. (The number of betrayals that slide by as inconsequential in a typical hero(ine)’s progress to a happy ending would be a study in themselves; as would the varied strategies for muffling and obscuring the time stamp for expiry of any happily ever after. Brecht didn’t call this style of storytelling illusionist for nothing.)
There are dimensions within and beyond dimensions in Rohmer’s films. To keep this within reasonable length I’ve limited myself to a few words on the characteristic pattern of his plots, what it suggests about his ideas of human character, limiting myself to skeletal outlines without, I hope, violating too much the complexity with which these are worked out in practice by his consistent method. Beyond that I’ll happily enough write elucidations at greater length on individual movies from time to time, as the mood strikes, giving myself room to touch on the intimate tangle of his subplots and secondary characters, any of which—almost any individual scene taken in isolation—would reward study at much greater length than this, but as a writer with my own work to get on with, I prefer to leave that study to the busy workings of my subconscious, to be dredged up impromptu perhaps, where appropriate, in conversation with fellow cineastes at tony parties should I ever arrive at a position where I’m invited.

January 9, 2010

I Live in the Real World

Can you recall an occasion when you’ve heard this said in good faith? without a superadded tone of belligerent outrage to boot? Whenever I hear that tone of aggressive don’t-you-tell-me! moral indignation, I know I’m hearing a vocal mask of bad conscience—hear it in my own voice I know it’s time to rethink seriously whatever I’ve just said.
A few years back I wrote to a National Post columnist about what I thought was a rather bizarre contention: that the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein was a triumph of natural justice. Her reply turned on that sentence: “I live in the real world”—a world, apparently, in which natural justice can embrace the assassination of three consecutive defence attorneys—no doubt to encourage the fourth—and, in general, trial proceedings that—I kid you not, look up the news reports of the time if you don’t believe me—resembled nothing so much as those of the Red Queen’s court in Alice in Wonderland. Apparently we’ve been wrong about Lewis Carroll all this time; he was actually a naturalist in the manner of Emile Zola.
Of course Lewis Carroll was writing about the real world—aspects of it I should say, that’s all any of us can claim—telling the truth but telling it slant as Emily Dickinson put it. Thought I don’t think the word totalitarian had been coined yet, the court of the Red Queen strikes me as a far more astute vision of totalitarianism than George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell imagines a middle level bureaucrat like O’Brien could be a philosopher prince—or is forced to pretend he does, since otherwise he can’t get out the reams and reams of argument he has to fall back on, lacking the skill to show the intricate apparatus of totalitarianism—instead he has to turn a character into his mouthpiece, improbably and at whew! length, so he can tell tell tell you what he thinks. It’s what happens when you send an impatient schoolmaster to do a novelist’s job (and his fervid misrepresentation of Gulliver’s Travels shows he was equally as capable a misreader of novels).
None of the attendants at the Red Queen’s court pauses in frenzied action to give a solemn exposition of its inner workings at a hundred pages’ length—the chop logic they speak very frequently conveys sense (hidden from themselves), but their words don’t explain the social order—they reveal it. So do their actions—principally variations of running around like chickens with their heads cut off, mainly in the devout hope that they can thereby prevent their actual heads from being, you know, actually cut off. Motions of that kind—paranoid, frenetic, scrabbling—are constant in Stalin’s Russia as well—from the lowest level at its outer to the highest level at its inner circle. A middle manager like O’Brien in such a maelstrom will have little time to concentrate his thoughts , what with the huge proportion of every working day and restless sleeping night that must be given over to metaphorically, and on some occasions perhaps literally (state occasions I’d be inclined to say, but that may be editorializing) pissing his pants with fear.
The curious thing about the columnist who argued the Red Queen’s court was an admirable model of natural justice is that she’s interesting and provocative—on the euthanasia movement, feminism and men’s rights, the rising tide of anti-semitism in polite society and (perhaps most worrying) public schools—whenever she engages with the world around her. Her occasional book reviews are a delight—where the subject isn’t overtly political—because she has far more practical aesthetic sense than most professional reviewers. It’s only when alarmist tendencies send her back to the entrenched redoubt of living in the real world that she ever talks solemn nonsense, as in a recent column commending realists (rightists) and savaging dreamers (leftists) in our society for their respective views on militant Islam. Apart from the fact that it was right-wing realists whose dream of miring the Soviet Union in Afghanistan precipitated the exponential leap forward in power and militancy of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, this is a classic example of an either /or question—“Are you a realist or a dreamer?”—that can only be coherently answered “Yes”. It’s possible to criticize a particular dream on any number of counts—it’s wishy-washy; too aggressively self-centred; so unfocussed it has no centre at all; seems high sounding and noble but would lead in practice to self-replicating (self-exploding) nightmares—but it’s pointless to criticize (or praise) anyone for being a dreamer if it’s impossible to discover a single example of a human being who isn’t.