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Alt Screen http://altscreen.com Movie Screenings in NYC. Film Festivals, Repertory Revivals, Advance Previews, Installations and In-Person Events. Tue, 06 Nov 2012 14:46:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.6.7 Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26) http://altscreen.com/07/13/2012/gene-kelly-at-film-society-thru-jul-26/ http://altscreen.com/07/13/2012/gene-kelly-at-film-society-thru-jul-26/#respond Fri, 13 Jul 2012 15:14:27 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=33000

 

GENE KELLY’S lifelong obsession was to make dancing seem masculine, athletic, sporty. In 1958, he directed a documentary for NBC called Dancing is a Man’s Game where he recruited sports legends like Sugar Ray Robinson and Mickey Mantle in order to illustrate how the conventionally masculine athleticism of a boxer or baseball player mirrored the physicality of dance. Kelly’s signature stance was very much like a baseball player’s: knees bent and feet wide apart, not because he wants to spring up into the air to catch a ball but because he likes to stay low to the ground. All of his life, Kelly repeated that he had wanted to be a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, but his mother had pushed him into dancing school at the age of eight and he eventually stuck to dance as a career. He got picked on as a kid because the boys his age thought that dancing was for sissies. Kelly was hellbent to prove them wrong.

 

Being a guy to him meant being down to earth, literally. Dancing with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate (1948), Kelly gets down with them and does a Russian kazaki dance and then glides across the floor on his calves, just like Irish dancer and showman George M. Cohan used to. “I have a lot of Cohan in me,” Kelly once told an interviewer. “It’s an Irish quality, a jaw-jutting, up-on-the-toes cockiness—which is a good quality for a male dancer to have,” he insisted, always scorning anything in dance that could possibly be construed as effeminate. He loved to pinwheel his arms round and round as if he was a man-made machine, not so much an airplane but a plow or a tractor or a watermill.

 

Kelly doesn’t do many jumps, but when he does, he always seems to pause in midair to get across how heavy his body is; he makes even lifting one of his tree trunk legs seem like a lot of effort. When he moves from side to side, he builds in pauses as if to say, “My body is so solid that it needs brief breaks to get through space.” He loved to do a series of push-ups across the dance floor or flip himself over so that his arms and legs could kick out and up from his torso, as if dance could be a kind of gymnastic event or acrobatic routine. On TV with Donald O’Connor in the 1960s, Kelly does some of their dances while seated in a chair, and this looks exactly right for him physically because he was always assuming that crouched baseball position when he was dancing. It’s all about his knees.

 

 

Whenever he wants to express horniness for a woman choreographically, Kelly will make his legs ramrod straight and stiff as erections, springing from his knees to express his lust. When he wants to be romantic, Kelly will hold himself upright and close his legs (and his free-floating sexuality) and gently walk with his female partner with her head on his shoulder, as in this dance with Leslie Caron in An American in Paris (1951) to George Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay”:

 

 

Kelly was often slightly shy of romantic partner dancing on screen. He would sometimes make embarrassed corny/cringy faces when asked to express love to a woman while he danced; he’s much more comfortable dancing with kids in the “I Got Rhythm” number from An American in Paris or with the cartoon Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Confronted with the legs-for-days Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Kelly stands back and very much lets her take the lead sexually. Intriguingly, when Kelly choreographed a dance for the Paris Opéra in 1960, “Pas de Dieux,” he created an uninhibitedly sexual legs-apart piece where a male dancer vanquishes a male rival and then spanks and brings his female love object into line. Kelly never danced it himself, but in this dance he cast aside all shyness and seemed to open up his own feelings about men, women and competition:

 

 

Constantly staring at themselves in a mirror, dancers have to be self-absorbed — and they have to like what they see. At the height of his stardom Kelly clearly liked himself and his body. His insecurities about his perceived masculinity were obvious enough; as late as his 1985 acceptance of an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, Kelly continued to insist that he had really wanted to be a shortstop and only took up dancing to meet girls. Yet in two films for Vincente Minnelli, The Pirate and An American in Paris, Kelly has absolutely no shame about blatantly exhibiting his body. His pants are so tight in “Nina,” his first number in The Pirate, that his movements become necessarily airborne; it’s almost as if he’s wearing tights, and the pants go so far up his torso that he seems to be all lower body. When Judy Garland’s character has a meltdown and imagines Kelly as a marauding pirate, Minnelli’s camera nearly melts down itself at the sight of Kelly in short shorts sporting the sexiest male thighs in show business:

 

 

KELLY HAD A LOT TO SAY about his relation to his nearest rival and arguable superior, Fred Astaire. Fred, he said, represented the dancing aristocracy while he stood in for the proletariat. If Fred was Cary Grant, then Gene was Marlon Brando. Astaire was classic, Kelly eclectic. They put Kelly in an Astaire-style tuxedo in some of his early movies but, as he said many times, a suit made him look like a truck driver. The two men are very different physically, of course. Astaire had an unshakeable center of gravity; his arms and legs would do all kinds of amazing things while his torso stayed anchored in space. Kelly moved his torso, and he slowly sawed at the air with his arms whereas Astaire usually sliced at it quickly. Kelly’s legs are huge and he emphasized their hugeness as a sexual lure, whereas Astaire’s legs are as spare as the rest of him and magically light. When Fred and Gene danced together in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), the choreographic ideas play to Kelly’s strengths, so that Astaire seems slightly stiff and doesn’t get up as high as Kelly does when they jump. There’s no reason to choose between them. We can have them both and enjoy one or the other for their drastically different qualities.

 

 

When being interviewed for the Kelly documentary Anatomy of a Dancer, Jeanine Basinger, the venerable head of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, was moved to remark, “You give your heart to Fred Astaire, but you save your body for Gene Kelly.” Many Kelly fans today are women and gay men who uninhibitedly ogle his body online. There is even a tumblr devoted exclusively to the worship of his ass. An outrageous Kelly-ogling opportunity is embedded in the seventeen-minute ballet that ends An American in Paris in which he appears dressed as the figure in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “Chocolat Dancing In Bar Darchille.” Sporting a white kind of body stocking, Kelly takes the ass-out Irish dancing of Cohan and James Cagney into the realm of the erotic sublime, punctuating his butt shaking with springing, stiff-legged arousal at the sight of Caron in a blond wig:

 

 

Kelly got away with displays like that without ever seeming foolishly narcissistic because his screen persona stayed anchored to his breakout Broadway role, Pal Joey, the tough-heel hero who might just be a pure heel, a resourceful tool who uses what he has to get what he wants. He had the shifty expression of a sharpie or con man, and a scar on his left cheek that lent an air of menace to his looks. “Devil,” says Deanna Durbin to Kelly, lovingly, in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1945), a trance-like noir in which Kelly allows himself to be tantalizingly weak and even helpless but also a nasty guy and all-around bad lot. “Romantic, ain’t I?” he asks Durbin at one point, flashing her a blindingly aggressive million-dollar grin with his shark-white teeth, drawing her in with his light, high, hollow speaking voice. Christmas Holiday reveals the dark side of Kelly as a screen presence, and what it shows us is not flattering or comfortable. He offered another glimpse behind his entertainer’s mask that same year in an Army training film called Combat Fatigue Irritability where he is ill tempered and foul-mouthed, unshaven and not wearing his hairpiece:

 

 

Kelly had lost most of his hair at the front of his head by 1950 and resorted to very effective toupees (from the late ‘60s onward, he wore much less convincing full wigs). I was startled when I saw a photo of Kelly sans toupee in his first wife Betsy Blair’s memoir The Memory of All That. This glimpse “behind the curtain” only emphasized how much Kelly and his home base studio MGM had built up an image on screen that was made up of music, lighting and that grin of his that looked like granite and said, “Don’t fuck with me.” When I interviewed Blair after her book came out, she was very candid and forthcoming about her life with Kelly as an eighteen-year old bride and eventually as a rebellious young woman. She was with him through his great years at MGM from 1941 to 1957, and she felt that he needed someone as young as she was to adore him unquestioningly. He stood by her when she was blacklisted for her left-wing politics, and she stressed that he was a staunch and nervy political progressive, always willing to help out with labor disputes in Hollywood. After they divorced, Kelly married his longtime assistant Jeanne Coyne and stayed with her until her death in 1973.

 

In his book Original Story, queen-of-mean screenwriter Arthur Laurents wrote, “Gene made faggot jokes constantly…he flirted with men as well as with women…due to his overblown narcissism.” Kelly is least tolerable on screen in his many numbers with male co-stars like Frank Sinatra, Phil Silvers and Georges Guétary where he contemptuously assumes the female role with them, putting a tablecloth on his head and simpering it up, as if to say, “What could be more disgusting or absurd than a man trying to be a woman?” He returned to this routine again and again, so obviously it was important to him, one of his more gruesome methods of showing that he was all man even though he was a dancer. “Competition was lifeblood to Gene,” wrote Laurents, and this quality is highlighted in maybe Kelly’s best musical, the Sondheim-esque It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), where he is upfront about his competitive relations with other males, especially in this drunken dance of aggression with Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey where they fall into each other and kick each other before dancing with garbage can lids on their feet:

 

 

KELLY HELPED CONCEIVE and co-direct the three films he made with Stanley Donen: On the Town (1949), with its innovative location footage of New York; Singin’ in the Rain, which has long been considered the quintessential classic Hollywood musical; and It’s Always Fair Weather, the duo’s most coherent and personal project, a melancholy and insightful portrait of soured friendships and what might be done about them. Blair felt that Donen idolized Kelly and wanted to be him. Kelly was surrounded by worshippers, but when the worship fell below a certain level, as it did when Blair got a bit older and Donen saw that his idol was human, he would have to sever ties and go on alone.

 

As he slowed down and got older, Kelly branched out into directing, but the films he made, like Gigot (1962), A Guide for the Married Man (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), were poor. His passion project Invitation to the Dance — a film told entirely through movement, color and music — was released after endless delays in 1956; it isn’t a bad movie, but it lacks the magical spark that animates his Donen and Minnelli collaborations. It was clear in that film Kelly was repeating himself; by the 1960s, he seemed like a throwback. The last time Kelly found a proper holding context was in Jacques Demy’s paradisal musical apocalypse The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), where his smile is gentler, his body much thinner and more fragile. I saw that Demy film three times when it played in a restoration at Film Forum, and each time the talismanic Kelly first appeared, the whole audience would cry out with pleasure, as if he were an emissary from another world. Demy lets Kelly recapitulate many of his favorite movements in his first scene, where he does an arm pinwheel, plays with some kids, dances with two sailors, does a brief Charleston with two girls, then jumps in his car and drives off singing. “I’m flattered, worshipped, dehumanized,” he croons later, once more revealing himself as an untouchable figure who needs our love and attention but who nurses private grudges, drives and demons that he cannot share with us.

 

In the early seventies, Kelly was offered the role of the Master of Ceremonies in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and he wanted to do it, but he decided that his two children with Coyne needed his attention more. The image of Kelly in that Fosse context is a mind-blowing thought; imagine that killer grin of his gleaming behind the Kit Kat Klub emcee’s seedy make-up. He could have done it. He could have been that sleazy, that sneering, that chilling; he had it in him. Instead, he wound up his film career with two of the worst movies ever made: Viva Knievel! (1977), a laughable vanity project for stunt rider Evel Knievel where Kelly played a drunken mechanic; and the unholy Xanadu (1980), where he gamely tried to dance with Olivia Newton-John. His last credit was a Joan Collins miniseries called Sins (1986), where he quickly marries Collins and even more quickly gets tossed off a balcony. At least he ended his career in motion.

 

 

WHEN HE TAP DANCED , Kelly favored simple time steps and maxi fords, and he was at his best when he was at his simplest, as in the newspaper dance in Summer Stock (1950). Kelly has a special rapport with Judy Garland in that film, but he is most at ease when he doesn’t have to look after her or anyone else, when he can just create something himself. It’s like when he looks out at us before and after the American in Paris ballet and before the ballet in Singin’ in the Rain, unsmiling, severe, essentially isolated. In this dance in Summer Stock, he isn’t weighed down by partners or sets or costumes or heavy concepts, as in the nearly absurd story ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in Words and Music (1948) or the “Alter Ego” number in Cover Girl (1944), where he dances with an image of himself. He slowly builds this number with just a creaky floorboard and a newspaper until he tears up the paper into tinier and tinier pieces with his feet. It’s a glimpse of what he must have been like in a rehearsal hall late at night, after everybody else had given up in exhaustion and he was still willing to toy around with this or that idea with his body.

 

Kelly is best known, of course, for being alone on a city street, proclaiming that the sun’s in his heart and he’s ready for love with that appealing crack in his singing voice. There is no more purely joyful image in American cinema than the sight of Kelly as the rain pours down on him and he slowly sings, “C’mon with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face.” Kelly had a 103-degree fever when he shot this number. His wool suit started to shrink as they filmed it, and it took a long time to get the puddles just right to splash in. The joy we see on screen was created through artifice and against the grain of reality, and it’s a kind of miracle. When I mentioned this number to Blair, she mock shivered and said, “Oh, yes, the famous one, the really great one.” Her voice sounded appealingly sardonic, but still slightly worshipful, too. “I knew it, I felt it, I felt what they had as they were shooting it, I knew it was the best, that it was special. Sometimes you know. I knew. I think we all knew. Stanley and I, we both loved him so much, and we knew that it would be remembered.”

 

 

 

Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.

 

“Gene Kelly: Changing the Look of Dance on Film” is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center, July 13th to 26th.

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Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30) http://altscreen.com/05/28/2012/erich-von-stroheim/ http://altscreen.com/05/28/2012/erich-von-stroheim/#comments Mon, 28 May 2012 18:37:23 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=31507

 

ERNST LUBITSCH once dubbed Erich von Stroheim the cinema’s only novelist, succinctly defending his fellow director’s ruinous passion for detail and duration. Stroheim wanted to push past the dramatic boundaries of feature filmmaking, but not by piling on more plot; his films are epic in their intimacy. In graphic detail they show us people getting up in the morning, dressing and grooming themselves, preparing and eating meals. Patiently observing his characters in their environment, he dissects them with a fine, unsparing eye.

 

An infinite capacity for taking pains was not a quality that Hollywood studio moguls looked for in a director. Stroheim’s perfectionism was his creative genius and his professional undoing. While many silent filmmakers did not use written screenplays, Stroheim produced shooting scripts that specified everything to the last eye-blink. His pace in filming seemed excruciatingly slow to producers and stars, though Fay Wray understood what he was up to, writing in her memoir: “Time was his, he owned it. He used it as it should be used by any artist. He ignored it.”

 

Over the first three decades of the 20th century, the art of silent cinema evolved towards a style of graceful elision and innuendo. Hollywood filmmakers cumulatively refined a propulsive narrative economy that capitalized on a viewer’s ability to fill in the missing pieces. The essence of Stroheim’s art lay somewhere quite different: he was driven by a desire to show everything, to reach some impossible level of verisimilitude and psychological truth. Producer Irving Thalberg was often Stroheim’s adversary, but he nailed the director with his legendary quip, “You, Von, are a footage fetishist.” Thalberg was referring to his exorbitant use of film, but the label also captures Stroheim’s fanatical attention to physical particulars, which gave his films a unique material veracity: as though you could put them under a microscope, and at any magnification they would reveal more authentic detail.

 


Stroheim, the “footage fetishist,” at work.

 

He made films for only ten years, but he always remained a director at heart. Perhaps his most enduring and uncompromised masterwork was himself. “He was his own creation, his own mother, his own father,” actor Marcel Dalio said of his Grand Illusion co-star. This self-creation went far beyond the adding of an aristocratic “von” to his name, or the embroidering of his Austrian military background. He wrought a screen persona that blended nastiness with nobility, depravity with refinement, and he transformed an unattractive physiognomy into a riveting image of grotesque chic. His shaved, bullet-shaped head, bulging neck, protruding ears, narrow eyes and scarred forehead summon a host of almost primal fears — yet you can’t take your eyes off him. He adorned this striking face with a monocle gripped in one eye-socket and a cigarette holder clenched between grimacing teeth. Enthralled from youth with the military, he relished uniforms tightly molded to his small, ramrod figure, and indulged his flamboyance with gold braid and epaulets, capes and plumed helmets, white satin knee-breeches and brocade robes. He pinned on his own chest the ribbons and medals that an unimaginative world neglected to give him.

 

From May 28th to July 30, Film Forum will be devoting Monday nights to an Erich von Stroheim retrospective, showcasing all eight surviving films that he directed, in part or in whole, alongside five of the many films in which he acted for other directors. (A sixth, a magnificent new restoration of Grand Illusion, has been extended past its original two-week run until May 27th.) The series offers a chance not only to survey Stroheim’s mutilated yet endlessly fascinating output as a filmmaker, but to savor his unique screen presence and observe the degree to which his qualities as a performer mirrored the defining characteristics of his films.

 


Stroheim as Lt. Erich von Steuben in Blind Husbands (1919)

 

ERICH STROHEIM was born in Vienna in 1885. Even in the years after his death in 1957, writers continued to print the legend he had invented: that he was born Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim; that he was the son of a baroness who had been lady-in-waiting to the Austrian Empress and a distinguished colonel in the dragoons (or, alternately, a count); that he was a high-ranking veteran of combat with three armies. After all the indignities he had suffered in his career, it seemed cruel to strip Stroheim of the identity he had crafted for himself, and Arthur Lennig in his definitive biography was almost apologetic when he revealed the facts he had uncovered. Stroheim was actually the son of a moderately prosperous Jewish hatter, he had a dismal scholastic record, and the extent of his military experience was four months as a cadet in the Austrian army (which ultimately rejected him as “unfit”) and two months in the New York national guard (from which he was also dismissed). Surprisingly, he never attributed his prominent scar to a duel or battle wound; he claimed he had been kicked by horse, which seems prosaic enough to be true.

 

He arrived in America in 1909, possibly fleeing debts and certainly seeking the grand destiny his homeland denied him. Here he endured years of humiliating poverty, bouncing from one odd job to another, first in New York and then in San Francisco, where he began writing stories and novels. It seems inevitable that he wound up in Hollywood, the one place where he could live out the fantasies that possessed him. Arriving some time in 1914 or 1915, he talked his way into bit parts and offered himself as an advisor on films with continental settings. His eye for detail made him useful as a set dresser; he worked as an assistant to director John Emerson and later for the D.W. Griffith on Intolerance. When America entered World War I he gained notice playing fiendish Huns in propaganda films like The Heart of Humanity, in which he tosses a small child out of a window while attempting to rape a nurse whose uniform he tears with his teeth. If it bothered Stroheim to participate in the demonizing of his own nationality, it certainly didn’t stop him from playing such roles with demonic gusto, or from retaining the mantle of sexual menace, albeit in far more nuanced form, when he acted in his own films. Many who knew Stroheim commented on his paradoxical nature: he enjoyed making himself hateful, yet as his friend the writer Anita Loos noted, “we knew him to be as sensitive as a kitten.”

 

This complicated personality produced films that merge wild extremes. The “realist” label traditionally assigned to him is far too simple. Stroheim’s obsession with the authenticity of environments created a stylized hyper-reality rather than a documentary naturalism. His down-beat scenarios far surpassed his stated intent to strip away Hollywood’s sugar coating; Stroheim’s determination to tell the unwelcome truth without regard for popularity led to bizarre accretions of ugly and sordid motifs. His visions of decadence ran riot, but were punctuated by glimpses of transcendent purity. He used overt symbolism and schematic plots to convey his themes. His aim was not realism but truth, a much more subjective standard.

 


An original lobby card for Stroheim’s first film.

 

There is no other major filmmaker whose works are so difficult to assess for the simple reason that almost none of them survive in the form he intended (even Orson Welles is a distant second). Stroheim’s brief career as a director in Hollywood was a roller coaster: audiences and critics alike alternately embraced and shunned his films; studios sought him out only to banish him. Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924), and The Wedding March (1928) were radically cut down from their original or projected lengths; The Merry-Go-Round (1923), Queen Kelly (1929), and Hello, Sister (1933) were completed by others after Stroheim was fired. His extravagance and intransigence made him the bane of producers, while his relentless focus on human vice and weakness, and the glee with which he dwelled on the grubbier realities of physical existence (from syphilis to morning breath) both titillated and disgusted viewers. American audiences enjoyed debauchery in exotic locations or past eras, but resented unflattering portraits of themselves. Foolish Wives was declared “an insult to every American” by Photoplay magazine. The newspaper mogul and moral crusader Martin Quigley called Greed “the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of motion pictures.” Stroheim retorted, “You Americans are living on baby-food.”

 

However truncated or fragmentary his movies may be, their fabric is indelibly dyed by his imagination. He was a creator of worlds, and his imperious vision spread itself across a canvas scaled to both the grandeur of European cities (Vienna, Monte Carlo) and the minutiae of flower petals, brass buttons, and women’s shoes. He filled these worlds with his peculiar fixations: crutches and crosses, animals and ambulances, wimples and uniforms, physical deformities—especially involving the feet—and recurring sexual motifs such as brothels, rapes, and sexually available housemaids. Like Cecil B. DeMille’s films, Stroheim’s luridly illustrate sin on the way to underlining moral lessons, but where DeMille comes off as a hypocrite — or, if you prefer, a crafty showman — Stroheim expresses a deeply pessimistic, at times even nihilistic view of human nature. He makes sin look ugly, all hangovers and venereal disease, and innocence look as frail as a will-o-the-wisp.

 

STROHEIM’S FIRST FILM, Blind Husbands (1919), was based on his original script, and the public fit that he threw when Universal changed the title from The Pinnacle was an omen of things to come. It’s a simple story about an American couple vacationing in the Alps, where the neglected wife is pursued by a lecherous young officer, “Erich Von Steuben.” It’s an assured debut and sophisticated for its time, though without any striking cinematic innovations. Stroheim’s editing and compositions would grow somewhat more fluid and expressive, but he basically adhered to the style of his first film: a series of static compositions that alternate between tight close-ups and distance long shots that fix characters in their broader surroundings. He was not interested in rhythmic editing to create suspense or the use of camera movement to generate kinetic energy. He captured extravagant images in a resolutely unshowy style.

 

There is one memorable flourish in Blind Husbands when the heroine has a nightmare and Stroheim’s disembodied head advances toward the camera, baring his teeth in an evil grin. Though his character here is despicable—he reveals himself as an incompetent coward in the end when he’s abandoned on a mountain peak by the husband he tried to cuckold—he has a lot of sly charm and panache. He was one of cinema’s greatest smokers, tilting his head back for every drag on his cigarette and blowing the smoke upward in a tight spiral. As a hand-kisser he ranked with Valentino. In his own films he didn’t play the ravening Hun, but variations on an unscrupulous sensualist whose meticulous military grooming and manners counterpoint his lazy amorality.

 


Stroheim gleefully menaces one of his female victims (Miss Dupont) in Foolish Wives (1922)

 

Apart from one scene gratuitously featuring a retarded boy, Blind Husbands gives no hint of Stroheim’s fixation on decay and degeneracy, both physical and moral, which would dominate his later films. These themes are front and center in his sophomore feature Foolish Wives (1922), which contains what might be the quintessential Stroheim scene: his depraved anti-hero and the woman he is trying to seduce spend the night in a hut in the marshes along with an ancient one-eyed hag and a goat. Goats are traditional symbols of lust, and for Stroheim it seems that lust always shares close quarters with debility and corruption.

 

Foolish Wives is a huge advance over Blind Husbands. His budget raised and ambition unbridled, Stroheim made “the first million-dollar movie,” re-creating the central plaza of Monte Carlo with massive and elegant sets. Here Stroheim plays a con man posing as a White Russian count, living on cash as counterfeit as his title (or for that matter, von Stroheim’s). With his two female “cousins” in tow, the phony Count Karamazin plots to bilk the wife of an American ambassador. This is von Stroheim’s vilest character; for breakfast, he washes down caviar with oxblood. Karamazin not only cheats a homely servant out of her life’s savings with false promises of marriage — he discreetly wipes his lips after kissing her — he also rapes a retarded young woman who is mentally a child. Yet his performance is irresistibly enjoyable: relaxed, sexy, with a subtle and wicked comic edge. It was his look in this film, lean and wolfish in a Russian officer’s uniform, that became the defining image of “The Man You Love to Hate.” (It was the outfit worn by cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin when he spoofed Stroheim, and by Buster Keaton for a hilarious moment in his surreal satire The Frozen North.)

 

The count spends his time manicuring his nails and target-shooting in his bathrobe. The idle, elegant denizens of Monte Carlo watch a shooting match in which the targets are live pigeons shunted out of boxes, then spend their evenings drifting on boats capped with canopies of flowers. These details convey an implicit theme of Stroheim’s films: the relationship between the baroquely over-civilized surface of pre-War European life and the moral void underneath. The American wife who is the count’s victim has a plump, bovine prettiness, and she is seen reading an instructive book: Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Through this in-joke he both presents himself as a sophisticated enlightener of naïve Americans and mocks his pretensions as such.

 


Prince Nicki (Stroheim) in a Viennese brothel in The Wedding March (1928)

 

DURING THE MAKING of Foolish Wives, Stroheim went vastly over budget and over schedule, but he countered the studio’s attempt to rein him in by threatening to quit, leaving the production without a star as well as without a director. Thanks to this maneuver, Stroheim was not allowed to appear in other films, like The Merry-Go-Round and The Merry Widow, which had central roles plainly written for him. After the enormous success of the latter film, however, Paramount allowed Stroheim to star in The Wedding March, which opens with a title card announcing “In its entirety an Erich von Stroheim production.” (In fact, the film is only a fraction of his original conception.) What survives, however, is perhaps his most complete and satisfying film, his only romantic tragedy, and his most nuanced and ambivalent performance under his own direction.

 

He plays Prince Nicki, the scion of a family of minor royalty in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Needing money, he submits to marriage with the crippled daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, despite his love for a poor girl, Mitzi (Fay Wray). The corrosive outcome of loveless marriage is amply illustrated by the prince’s parents, who wake in the morning and regard each other with mutual revulsion. Nicki is a dissipated womanizer, but likable in his raffish way. Stroheim’s simultaneous mastery of the monumental and the intimate is demonstrated in the long scene where Nicki and Mitzi wordlessly flirt during a grandiose military procession (filmed partly in two-strip Technicolor). Nicki is on horseback and Mitzi, standing in the crowd, takes in his outlandish magnificence: polished thigh-boots, cape, and towering horsehair-draped helmet. Poor Mitzi is trapped between her shrewish mother and vulgar fiancé—a continually expectorating butcher so repellant that you expect her to do a Fay Wray-King Kong scream whenever he gets near her.

 

The Wedding March contains Stroheim’s most extreme contrasts between the gross and the sublime, the savage and the tender. There is the wildest of wild parties at a brothel staffed by a global smorgasbord of women, attended by African servants clad in chains and armor-plated underwear. In the midst of the revelry two decrepit old men, drunkenly slumped on the floor, make a business arrangement for their children to marry. Nicki slips out of the brothel to woo Mitzi under the luminous halo of a blossoming apple tree with a crucifix nailed to its trunk. (There were no apple trees blooming when Stroheim shot the scenes, so he had thousands of blossoms crafted out of wax.) Nicki’s jaded, sardonic face softens into amazement, and the camera too is enraptured by Fay Wray’s beauty and her fresh, vulnerable openness. Their scenes together are filled with the magical rapport she described feeling with Stroheim, whom she loved and admired.

 

Everything in this film is excessive, from the sweetness of the love scenes to the bitterness of the finale, as Mitzi tearfully watches her love’s grand wedding, with buckets of rain pouring down on her hat. But the operatic heightening is sustained by emotional sincerity, by typically colorful details like Nicki’s cigar-smoking mother sitting on his lap, and by the subtlety of his own portrayal of a weak and only half-sympathetic anti-hero. Another paradox of Stroheim’s nature was that he yearned to be an aristocrat, yet portrayed the aristocracy as corrupt, decadent and heartless. He romanticized the imperial pomp and flowery wine-gardens of Vienna, and at the same time exposed the city’s orgies and its fetid underbelly. The nobility, the nouveau riche, and the working classes appear equally grasping, opportunistic and crude in his films.

 

Character actress Zasu Pitts plays Nicki’s lame bride as both pathetic and oblivious. Stroheim loved Pitts’s huge Lillian Gish eyes, her wraith-like body and squirming hands; he turned her from a mannered comedienne to a tragic embodiment of consuming neurosis. She was the foremost among the stock company of eccentric “types” who populated his films: homely Dale Fuller with her tiny eyes and jutting brow; Maude George with her smooth, Persian-cat smugness; gaunt, leering Tully Marshall. Like Hogarth in his caustic satires on high society, Stroheim used diseased or disfigured people to represent moral sickness, a habit that peaked in Greed, where virtually every shot contains someone who is obese, a dwarf, an amputee, or sporting a bandage to cover a facial boil.

 


McTeague (Gibson Gowland) in Death Valley at the end of Greed (1924)

 

ADAPTED FROM Frank Norris’s McTeague, a novel that pitilessly traces the descent of its simple protagonist into degradation and murder, Greed is both the fullest flowering of Stroheim’s art and his most uncharacteristic film. Its bleak and squalid environments invert the usual pomp and luxury of his settings, and Stroheim even seems to mock his own love of Prussian military parades with a ludicrous German immigrant father marching his scrawny bespectacled boys around. The tone of Greed is unique and almost indescribable, a fusion of comic, grotesque, somber, expressionistic, and tragic.

 

There are extraordinary panoramas of emptiness, from the flat grey marshes where the courting couple, Trina and Mac, sit on a sewer to the cracked white moonscape of Death Valley, with a dead horse in the foreground and endless barren glare beyond. There are magnified close-ups of birds, cats, hands, and coins, often framed by an iris opening or closing a scene. There are deep-focus compositions that give flashes of electrifying psychological insight. And throughout there is a singularly expressive physicality, a series of linked images that visually connect the mining of gold with the extraction of teeth, a revolting wedding feast with the bride’s horror at her wedding night, the filth and deprivation Trina chooses to live in and her sensual attachment to her hoard of gold coins, which she lovingly polishes and pours on her bed at night in miserly ecstasy. Some of the film’s visual metaphors are a bit heavy-handed—a funeral passing outside during a wedding, caged birds representing a married couple—but the process by which the film’s three main characters are infected and destroyed by their lust for money is traced with harrowing precision. All of this can be fully appreciated despite the notorious studio-enforced edit that hacked the film down by two-thirds, excising whole subplots and secondary characters, as well as destroying meticulously devised structures and thematic patterns. That Stroheim genuinely believed that he could talk the studio into releasing a drastically uncommercial six-hour film in two parts shows he was as naïve as he was stubborn, but the destruction of the excised footage remains one of the most infamous of Hollywood’s industrial atrocities.

 


Mae Murray and John Gilbert in The Merry Widow (1925)

 

The Merry Widow was Stroheim’s reparation for the disaster of Greed. Returning to continental splendor and putting a handsome central couple (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) in the midst of risqué spectacle, he proved he could give audiences what they wanted. The film was a huge hit, though Stroheim later dismissed it as a sacrifice to commercialism. He exaggerated: he wrote the script and was allowed broad latitude in adapting the Léhar operetta. He brought the “Ruritanian fluff” down to earth by contrasting magnificent, fairy-tale sets and costumes with mud, pigs, cockroaches, prostitutes, and a syphilitic foot-fetishist baron. John Gilbert is one of the more effective Stroheim stand-ins, his burning eyes and kinetic energy suggesting a man of insatiable appetites. The film is conventional compared with Greed, and Stroheim probably resented its success for that very reason, but it is richly atmospheric, with an overripe sumptuousness and underlying grime.

 

Stroheim returned again and again to the premise of thwarted love between a nobleman and a commoner, perhaps because none of the versions he produced lived up to his conception. (The Wedding March recycles much of his scenario for The Merry-Go-Round, which was heavily altered by replacement director Rupert Julian.) His last attempt was in his final grand fiasco, Queen Kelly, a star vehicle for Gloria Swanson financed by her lover Joseph Kennedy. It was less than half completed when she pulled the plug. A version of the incomplete film was released, but Stroheim had no hand in its editing. The first part resembles The Merry Widow: opulent sets, a lightly humorous tone with hints of perversity (the mad queen played by Seena Owen drinks champagne in bed, wearing nothing but a Persian cat), a rakishly handsome hero whose passionate love blossoms from a rather underhanded seduction ploy. In recently recovered footage, Swanson marries a slobbering cripple at her aunt’s deathbed in an African brothel. It’s unfair to judge the film as it stands, but it doesn’t suggest an advance in Stroheim’s art. A clip from the film is shown in Sunset Boulevard, in which Stroheim and Swanson both play version of themselves, and it may thus be the most widely-seen footage Stroheim shot; yet Queen Kelly remained Stroheim’s albatross, a career-ending debacle that branded him as unemployably incorrigible.

 

OFFICIALLY WASHED UP as a director in Hollywood, Stroheim took a job as an actor in James Cruze’s The Great Gabbo (1929), a film that is a contender for the weirdest product of the Hollywood studio system. It is a slight story given a bizarre twist and wrapped around a filmed stage revue that takes up close to half of the total running time. The story is that of an egotistical and abusive performer who drives away his devoted assistant, regrets his cruelty and tries to win her back, only to discover too late that she has married someone else. The twist is that Stroheim’s character Gabbo is a ventriloquist who carries on private conversations with his dummy, Otto, exhibiting a full-blown split personality. The revue goes on and on (Film Forum’s print will include original Technicolor sequences that are not included in the Kino DVD release), and its abysmal quality is only partially redeemed by its mind-boggling surrealism. The film reaches its pinnacle of strangeness, however, in a scene where Gabbo tucks into a gourmet restaurant meal while Otto, seated opposite with his own place setting, sings a song about how he always drops his lollipop and it gets “all over icky.” It’s when you stop to think that in theory it is Erich von Stroheim who is singing this icky-lollipop ditty, while munching on a squab, that incredulity takes over.

 


Ventriloquist Gabbo (Stroheim) with Otto in The Great Gabbo (1929)

 

The movie opens with Gabbo slumped over a table in a cheap hotel room, smoking, playing solitaire, and flinging insults at his doormat companion, Mary (Betty Compson.) One might think Stroheim is expressing his own frustration and bruised ego as the ventriloquist spits out his disgust at having to play a small-time theater in Paterson. Certainly this character, an impossible tyrant who demands that everything be done just so, yet who harbors a sensitive side as well as a streak of madness, was inspired by “Von’s” reputation. But Stroheim later declared that he enjoyed working for Cruze; he liked the premise of The Great Gabbo so much that he later tried to purchase the story for a re-make. He gives a performance of utter conviction and almost alarming intensity. From the moment that he lets out a startling howl of rage because Mary has put his hat on the bed (superstition is a theme in Stroheim’s own films), it’s obvious that he is not walking through the part. His creepy scenes with Otto, fraught as they are with the potential for embarrassment and unintended comedy, are emotionally potent, even if they make you feel all over icky.

 

Otto is a painted wooden doll with popping eyes and the disturbing look of wizened child. He speaks in a falsetto with a German accent much thicker than Stroheim’s. When Mary is finally driven to leave by Gabbo’s incessant scorn and verbal abuse, she offers the parting shot that Otto is the only human part of him. The dummy is a true alter ego, representing all that is sweet and vulnerable in the selfish Gabbo. The notion that the wooden homunculus is the living man’s soul becomes increasingly convincing as the film goes on, so that when Gabbo, shattered by Mary’s admission that she is married, punches Otto, knocking out one of his eyes, his anguish on realizing what he’s done is distressing.

 

The deranged revue becomes a vehicle for Gabbo’s insanity as he hallucinates Otto dancing, surrounded by chorus girls in chicken costumes. Carrying the battered dummy upside-down by one leg, he has an onstage breakdown and is promptly fired. The film ends with a depressing shot of Gabbo watching as his name is taken down from the theater’s marquee—immediately followed by a reprise of the upbeat music from the revue, a sign of either cruelty or obliviousness on the part of the filmmakers, whose aim in this weird production is impossible interpret. Sadly, it was the first but not the last film to cast Stroheim in the humiliating role of a rejected has-been.

 


Stroheim with Greta Garbo in As You Desire Me (1932)

 

BY 1932, Stroheim was in even worse straits, no longer in demand as an actor. Greta Garbo stuck up for him, asking for him as a co-star in her film As You Desire Me, and covering for him when ill-health made him miss days and risk dismissal. He allegedly had difficulty with his lines, and he does seem ill-at-ease in his performance, lacking the relaxed spontaneity that he displayed in his own silents. He does a lot of bad-guy laughing, ferocious shouting, and nervous cane-twirling. But Garbo always dimmed the luster of men in her films, and though she overacts throughout As You Desire Me, she is never less than intoxicating. She first appears looking like a sexy, androgynous Hamlet with bleached hair, slim black pants and a black tunic, slipping off-stage looking radiantly exhausted after singing a cabaret number. She’s a jaded, cynical “casualty of the war,” living the lush life amid a crowd of fawning men. Amnesia has made her “a woman without a soul,” and when she is recognized and brought back to her husband (Melvyn Douglas), neither she nor anyone else is sure that she’s really the woman who vanished after suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of invading soldiers. The Pirandello premise offers a plausible account of Garbo’s otherworldliness and the bafflement of the mortals around her.

 

Stroheim plays Carl Salter, a famous novelist with whom she is living at the outset, and who spends the rest of the film trying to disprove her new identity in order to get her back. We never know much about him, except that he embodies the soulless, dissolute life she has been leading in Paris. He and Garbo have some nice business casually flinging champagne and cigarettes all over the carpet, and in an iconic, sinisterly backlit shot, Garbo drapes her head back on the sofa and Stroheim stoops over her from behind to kiss her, summoning a bit of his old silent menace.

 

1932 was also the year that Stroheim directed his last film, a dismal coda to his aborted career. Walking Down Broadway was adapted from a delicate, keenly observed play by Dawn Powell (a writer as devoted as Stroheim to telling the unpleasant truth about human nature), in which an innocent young couple’s relationship is poisoned by the interference of older friends, who infect them with their cynical prejudices about the opposite sex. Stroheim’s version zoomed in on the darker themes of the work and its sexual frankness, dwelling especially on a neurotic secondary character played by Zasu Pitts, who loves accidents and funerals–and “big dill pickles.” At a preview, audiences laughed derisively, and the producers at Fox decided to remake the film almost entirely, releasing it without a director credit under the title Hello, Sister. Less cohesive and compelling than Stroheim’s script, the film is no less strange, thanks to the gratuitous addition of a demented drunk who hoards dynamite. A few of Stroheim’s scenes survive, but it is the most thoroughly effaced of his films.

 


De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Stroheim) in Grand Illusion (1937)

 

The early thirties were Stroheim’s darkest years; in 1933 his wife Valerie suffered horrific burns in a freakish explosion at a beauty parlor, and he made money any way he could while caring for her, acting in low-budget movies and taking a modest job as a staff writer at MGM. At one point he was so destitute that a collection was taken up for him at the studio, which humiliated him so deeply that he threatened suicide. Then, in 1936, he got an offer to act in a French film, Marthe Richard, and his presence in France led to his being cast in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1936), resulting in one of his finest performances and, with all respect to his own works, perhaps the greatest film he ever appeared in. Renoir cited Foolish Wives as one of the films that had inspired him to become a director, and he treated Stroheim with the utmost respect, allowing him to contribute extensively to the development of his character, the aristocratic German WWI pilot and later prison camp commander, von Rauffenstein. He first appears in a flight suit, courteously inviting to lunch the two French pilots he has just shot down—the farthest cry from the savage Huns he had played during the First World War.

 

When Rauffenstein reappears in the latter half of the film, he is introduced indirectly through a precise inventory of significant details. A pan around the room takes in a parade of luxurious objects, the trappings of a gentleman. A manservant prepares his master’s white kid gloves by blowing into them; gloved hands lift a porcelain coffee cup from a breakfast tray; the valet spritzes perfume on his master’s uniform. Suddenly it’s as though we have wandered into an Erich von Stroheim movie. In a sense we have—as to a greater or lesser degree we do whenever he is onscreen. Stroheim’s acting style is thrown into sharp relief in Grand Illusion by the presence of Jean Gabin in the central role of the working-class French prisoner Maréchal. Gabin is so natural and un-stylized that it seems wrong to speak of his “performance.” You never notice exactly what he does, you only feel that he is. With Stroheim, by contrast, you constantly notice his specific gestures: his facial twitches, his handling of props, and the ornamental detail of his appearance. Rauffenstein’s neck brace was Stroheim’s idea, a clever way of instantly conveying the injuries that have sidelined him.

 

But this plot contrivance is insignificant compared with Stroheim’s brilliant incorporation of the brace into his performance: the way he throws his whole body backwards when he takes a shot of liquor, the awkward stiffness when he has to bend at the waist to water his geranium or approach the bedside of a dying friend. Stroheim’s mastery of gesture makes him riveting, but there’s nothing superficial about his performance. The rigidity imposed by the brace conveys the tragic rigidity of Rauffenstein’s character; he knows that he is an obsolete relic of a passing world, yet is incapable of abandoning his aristocratic devotion to honor and rank. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the contrast between Gabin’s and Stroheim’s acting styles works because it expresses the different personalities and backgrounds of their characters. Stroheim becomes a physical embodiment of a whole lost world, his tiniest mannerisms evoking a culture in all its refinements and flaws.

 

If Renoir learned from Stroheim, it comes out in the brilliant use of detail throughout the film to create characters and environments that feel incomparably true and alive. Each of the prisoners decorates his bunk in a telling manner; a German guard responds to Maréchal’s despairing outburst in solitary confinement by giving him a harmonica; French soldiers in drag sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in a stage show; Rauffenstein and his aristocratic French counterpart de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) share their private world by speaking in English about racehorses and girls at Maxim’s. These details also quietly carry the film’s message: that all barriers, boundaries and distinctions between men—class, nationality, and war—are “the great illusion.” Few works of art have ever more movingly depicted brotherly love. Escapees Maréchal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) sleep huddled together on the cold ground in their overcoats and hats; Rauffenstein and Boeldieu commiserate over the futility and imminent disappearance of their class. Here, at last, Stroheim got to embody a true aristocrat, a man of snobbish limitations (he calls Rosenthal and Maréchal “a charming legacy of the French revolution”), but also of honor and grace. After fatally shooting Boeldieu, he apologizes for his clumsiness in hitting his stomach when he aimed for his legs, and they agree that for men like them, dying in battle is “a good way out” of a useless existence. In a final detail that Stroheim may well have supplied, Rauffenstein cuts the blossom from his lovingly tended geranium, “the only flower in the fortress.”

 


Sharpshooter Flamarion (Stroheim) with Connie (Mary Beth Hughes) in The Great Flamarion (1945)

 

IN THE END, Stroheim was trapped by the persona he had worked so hard to create. After his fall from grace, he was forced to play caricatures of himself: relics, has-beens, crazed egotists undone by their own obsessions. In the 1940s, film noir—with its bitter perspective on sexual manipulation and romantic delusions—brought out a new aspect of Stroheim’s familiar character, making him the victim rather than the predator of women. Director Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarion (1945) follows the standard formula of a male dupe destroyed by a heartless femme fatale, but the peculiar embellishments of the tale, the crisp and forceful direction, and a few exceptional flourishes in Stroheim’s performance make the film a neglected delight. In typically fatalistic noir fashion, it starts at the end and proceeds through flashbacks as Stroheim narrates the whole story with his dying breaths—a feat akin to those arias sung by operatic heroines on the verge of expiring from tuberculosis.

 

Again Stroheim is a vaudeville star, this time a sharp-shooter whose polished act has him discovering his wife with another man and shooting up the stage, blasting a glass out of his assistant’s hand, lighting her cigarette with a bullet, and shooting off her garter and the shoulder strap of her dress. The assistant, Connie (Mary Beth Hughes), works relentlessly at seducing Flamarion, telling him how the act thrills her: “Every bullet is a caress!” An austere, repressed loner nursing the old wound of a woman’s betrayal, he resists her at first. Only his work matters: he spends hours firing at mechanical targets in his hotel room, clad in black satin pajamas. As in many of his later roles, Stroheim does a lot of his acting with the back of his head, the fat neck and shaved scalp expressing the sclerotic, unbending nature of his characters. But before too long he’s acting like a besotted schoolboy, and Connie has little trouble ensnaring him in her scheme: she wants him to kill her drunken husband Al (Dan Duryea) and make it look like a tragic accident.

 

Once the deed is done, she promises to meet him at a hotel after they separate for a few months to throw off suspicion. On the appointed day Flamarion fills the bridal suite with flowers. Anticipating the arrival of his love, he does a little Viennese waltz around the room, whistling a tune, light on his toes despite the grim sadness that had settled by this point over his stocky figure. The moment is so unexpected, so endearing and heartbreaking, that it elevates the film; it crystallizes that naïve idealism that was always an incongruous yet integral part of Stroheim’s nature. Like Chaplin’s dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush, this outburst of high spirits sharpens the long agony of being stood up. Flamarion never recovers, pawning his guns and becoming a homeless bum as he hunts for the woman who double-crossed him. A scruffy and unshaven Stroheim in a battered hat is a disturbing sight; a close-up of his dark, pain-filled eyes leaps from the screen, too real for this brisk B movie.

 


Stroheim as butler Max von Meyerling in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

 

Fatigue and resentment at having to play so many parts that unkindly alluded to his downfall fed Stroheim’s preference for acting in France, where, as he famously declared, an artist was still respected even if his masterpieces were far behind him.

 

He was understandably reluctant to take the role of Max von Meyerling in Sunset Boulevard (1950), forgotten genius of the silent era and butler to the delusional ex-star Norma Desmond, played by none other than the woman who hammered the last nail into the coffin of his career, Gloria Swanson. Billy Wilder was able to tempt him with a large salary, and Wilder had previously given him one of his best roles, as General Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (1943)–an intelligent, wryly witty, fastidious villain in an uncommonly nuanced and entertaining wartime movie. However he may have disdained playing a servant, he wore his butler and chauffeur uniforms with his usual military bearing. Wilder respectfully rejected many of his suggestions (he wanted Max to be seen tenderly washing out Norma Desmond’s lingerie), but Stroheim managed to inject some personal touches: the white gloves he wears while playing the pipe organ, the relish with which he describes the maharaja who strangled himself with one of Norma’s silk stockings, the recollection of his long-ago office lined with black patent leather. (When Norma subjects herself to a punishing beauty regimen, we see her wearing a strap under her chin and a triangle of adhesive on her forehead, exactly like Maude George in The Wedding March.) These details help to flesh out what is really a slight and underwritten part. Max has one strong scene when, his face half eaten away by dark shadows in the garage, he reveals to the young screenwriter Joe Gillis that he was Norma’s first husband; but the speech doesn’t do enough to explain the selfless devotion that led him to sacrifice his own career, and to stop at nothing in protecting her from the reality of how completely she’s been forgotten.

 

Sunset Boulevard has a layered ambivalence, because it is narrated by Joe (William Holden), who regards Norma, Max and the other “waxworks” as creepy old bores; yet they hold the strongest fascination for the viewer, while Joe’s own words reveal his shallow, opportunistic self-absorption. His scenes with the fresh-faced Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olsen) are smart and sexy, but who would want to watch the movie they’re writing (“it’s about teachers, their threadbare lives, their struggle”) when they could watch a pet chimp being buried in the garden of a moldering villa, or Gloria Swanson standing on a coffee table, grotesquely reenacting her days as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty?

 

Stroheim’s best scene comes at the end, when he resumes his role as director, creating for Norma the illusion that she is making a movie rather than being taken away by the police in front of a gawking news mob. He takes up his position by the cameras and barks orders to the newsreel men, momentarily reliving his own former glory as he watches with deep, restrained sorrow the spectacle of madness engulfing the woman he loves. Nancy Olsen described Stroheim on the set of Sunset Boulevard inching his chair closer and closer to the cameras where Wilder reigned as director: a heart-rending image of the exiled artist, tantalizingly close to the throne from which he was banished.

 

Imogen Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.

 

The films of Erich Von Stroheim are playing at Film Forum, Mondays from May 28th to July 30th.

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Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20) http://altscreen.com/05/11/2012/migrating-forms-fest-at-anthology-thru-may-20/ http://altscreen.com/05/11/2012/migrating-forms-fest-at-anthology-thru-may-20/#respond Fri, 11 May 2012 17:42:30 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=31146

 

STARTING TONIGHT the East Village intersection of 2nd and 2nd will become a meeting point for the eccentric, the willfully marginal, the obscure, the radical. The fourth-annual Migrating Forms festival, a reincarnation of the long-running New York Underground Film Festival (1994–2008), returns to Anthology Film Archives through May 20th.

 

Opening the fest is Eric Baudelaire’s epically titled The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images. This hour-long avant-doc overlays the respective biographies of Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the militant communist collective Japanese Red Army, Shigenobu’s daughter May, and Red Army comrade Masao Adachi, a filmmaker and theorist. Baudelaire sets audio interviews with his subjects to archival imagery from Japanese television and Adachi’s movies (which are tantalizingly fascinating, resembling a mash-up of George Kuchar, the Dziga Vertov Group, and fellow-travelling Japanese leftist Nagisa Oshima). The majority of Baudelaire’s visuals, however, are comprised of mobile landscape footage shot from passenger trains in Lebanon and Japan. Urban sprawl sculpted by multinational capital serves as counterpoint to the protagonists’ utopian dreams: a solid reality colliding with the incorporeal recollections of Adachi and the Shigenobus. The intertwining visualization of city and country become a kind of praxis for Adachi’s theoretical writings on film, which agitated for a cinema that would expose the ruling powers by unveiling the ways they shape our physical environment and control our perception of space.

 


Jesse McLean’s Remote (2011)

 

A concern with the politics of land, as well as with the sheer impressiveness of nature on consciousness, runs throughout this year’s lineup. Haunted by a horror-movie soundtrack, Jesse McLean’s Remote glances nervously from factory to forest and suburb to sky; cracks in the clouds, gaps in the fences, and the space between branches become abodes of spectral forces. In Fern Silva’s The Peril of Antilles, a hurricane approaches Haiti along with a cholera epidemic, the pathetic fallacy born out by history. Silva’s syncopated editing levies overbearing dread with moments of release. Celebratory music and hints of quotidian rural life punctuate the gathering storm. Journeying through calmer weather, Gina Telaroli’s Traveling Light concerns an Amtrak trip from NY to the Midwest. Trains have long served as a metonymy for cinema—a tradition that dates back to Lumiere’s famous short films—but Telaroli’s conceit underscores their phenomenological similarity: sitting still while observing motion. Telaroli restages the dissolving of space into light and texture. Her movie taps into a variety of natural and found rhythms, from the thoroughly rationalized timetable of arrivals and departures to the cosmic ebb and flow of seasonal and circadian cycles.

 

Laida Lerxtundi’s movies take place where Telaroli’s train is probably headed: Gold Rush territory. The dreamy California in An Lax Riddle is a mythical place, full of awe and disappointment. The numb serenity of Lerxtundi’s movies (which played this past March in the Whitney Biennial) recall a recognizable idiom of the Los Angeles art scene, a tradition that would include the rectilinear, planar surfaces of David Hockney’s Beverly Hills backyards and the savage, postcard simplicity of Ed Ruscha’s “Angelino Americana”. Like Hockney and Ruscha, Lerxtundi gives form to a kind of spiritual drift between boredom and fascination; her camera toggles in and out of focus; her human figures move from window to bed and back again. Pop songs float off the soundtrack through the crackle of old stereo systems, and there’s a calming glow to everything, the dense smog forcing the edges of the landscape to melt into the diffuse sunlight. A disturbed longing is conjured out of the languorous takes and old LPs. There’s something toxic in the quietude of these movies; it looks like paradise but it tastes like chemicals.

 


Shana Moulton’s Decorations of Mind II (2011)
 

Concerned, like Lerxtudni, with what lies hiding in leisure time, Shana Moulton returns to Forms with Decorations of Mind II, in which Moulton’s alter-ego Cynthia travels through the desert to understand a Magic Eye poster. Eventually, Cynthia gains requisite gnostic knowledge of the optical illusion and enters its fold, where she’s greeted by a gathering of friendly and awesome creatures. The delicately curated world of Moulton’s movies—with geometrically arranged thrift-shop curios in Lisa Frank colors—is at once an idealization of and cruel joke on New Age utopianism. Decorations also resembles a 3D MySpace page and fits with another trend at this year’s Forms, countervailing the focus on landscape: a concern with burrowing into the World Wide Web.

 

Guthrie Lonergan brings a wickedly obtuse sense of humor to his investigations of net culture. Lonergan’s movies are reminiscent of the can’t-be-bothered minimalism of avant-garde filmmaker Owen Land: wry commentary on popular forms rendered with idiotic-seeming insistence. Lonergan’s abiding concern is anatomizing the constituent elements of the most banal and overfamiliar cultural objects. Professional Berry Photos offers a cyclical origin myth for a family of stock photographs of strawberries. The careful arrangement of the berries; the angling of the camera; the calibrating of the lights: each becomes a tragic joke. There is a lot of work one must go through to make something that looks exactly like everything else. Birth of the Net is another creation story, comparing a silicon computer chip to a map of the world laid at the feet of construction workers. The movie is ironically set to suspense music, as if something marvelous might happen any minute now, just wait for it.

 

Jacob Ciocci’s Extreme Animals: Am I Evil? brings out the net’s darker side. Set to a nervy techno remix of the score from the Harry Potter movies, Ciocci’s montage stages an epic spiritual struggle against black magic, with Sarah Palin as the accusatory conscience and Harry Potter himself as the embattled pilgrim. As in Ciocci’s work with art collective Paper Rad, the palette and sense of rhythm in Am I Evil? are retrograde and rough. The work is suffused with a self-consciously bogus pop-culture nostalgia with one foot in the early 80s and one in Web 1.0.

 

Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953)
 

Animator Chuck Jones—obviously Ciocci’s spiritual ancestor—gets a centennial screening at this year’s Forms. Jones’s cartoons stand with the films of Jerry Lewis and the television work of Ernie Kovacs at the outer limits of self-reflexive Hollywood outrageousness. In Duck Amuck, Daffy does battle with his animator, getting repeatedly erased and redrawn in new locations, world and self constantly dissolving and reappearing. In addition to inspiring who-knows-how-many Saturday morning comedy bits, Amuck served as one source for John Ashbery’s poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” in which the duck is recast as Milton’s Satan, vainly struggling against an omnipotent, eraser-wielding God.

 

Jones represents early Hollywood at its most avant-garde. In a variation on the same theme, the special event Un filme de Diane Chambers will be a clip-show lecture by Ed Halter on “fake experimental films as seen in mainstream movies and television.” Named after a fictional short film from Cheers, Halter’s lecture promises a uniquely humorous view of how counterculture has entered and interacted with the mainstream.

 

Another way of thinking about issues of periphery and center will be offered when n+1’s Christopher Glazek presents Harun Farocki’s Prison Images. Earlier this year, Glazek’s article ‘Raise the Crime Rate’ argued for the immediate abolition of US prisons. Published around the same time as Adam Gopniks’ ‘The Caging of America’ in the New Yorker, and bookended by substantial essays on mass incarceration in The New York Review of Books and Jacobin, Glazek’s article seems to be part of a tidal shift in public debates about criminal punishment. Glazek’s stance was almost uncannily in direct opposition to Gopnik’s. Glazek argued the hopelessness of incremental reform, the ineffectiveness of which could only prolong the problem indefinitely. Gopnik argued the total impracticality of radical reimagining, the unlikeliness of which could only lead to a perpetual deferral that would prolong the problem indefinitely. But each article struck the same tone of moral outrage at the basic indecency of the American justice system as it now operates. Gopnik begins his essay pondering the brutalizing dilation of time experienced by prisoners; Glazek begins with accounts of prison violence.

 

Harun Farocki’s Prison Images (2001)
 

Time and violence both are subjects of Farocki’s Prison Images, which looks at the history of cinematic portrayals of life behind bars, both fictional and documentary. Narrative movies serve in aggregate as x-rays of their parent cultures; surveillance footage from within prisons, on the other hand, begins to seem staged. The architecture, the prisoners, the guards: all the elements have been carefully arranged, and the scenes that result are little more than a kind of live puppet show for the Panopticon. The revival of Farocki’s 12-year-old investigation at a time when his concerns seem to be gaining more widespread attention serves as a reminder of what all the eccentric, willfully marginal, obscure, and radical art is doing: loitering in the shadows; biding its time; readying itself to indict, prosecute, and bury us.

 

Tom McCormack is an Editor of Alt Screen and the film and electronic art Editor of Idiom. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment and Moving Image Source, amongst other publications.

 

Migrating Forms is playing at Anthology Film Archives through May 20th.

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Sunday Editor’s Pick: Mildred Pierce (1945) http://altscreen.com/05/06/2012/sunday-editors-pick-mildred-pierce-1945/ http://altscreen.com/05/06/2012/sunday-editors-pick-mildred-pierce-1945/#respond Mon, 07 May 2012 02:38:13 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=31028
Playing Sun May 13 at 1:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
 
The final day of “If Looks Could Kill” in this year’s annual Fashion in Film Festival at MoMI.

 
In the wake of Todd Haynes’ ultra-tasteful, fussy mini-series (playing at 4:00, see our blogroll here), we’ve been missing Joan.
 

Alt Screen contributor Imogen Smith, for The Chiseler:

Crawford’s career was guttering when she made her first noir entry, Mildred Pierce (1945), a triumphant comeback and a title role that perfectly summarized her strange blend of fiendish energy and quivering need, the hard face and big shoulders overlaid by strained refinement and undercut by rampant vulnerability. Mildred Pierce seamlessly fuses full-throttle melodrama and keen, unsparing social criticism. Mildred is an extraordinary everywoman: a housewife who turns her talent for baking into a successful chain of restaurants after splitting from her husband. A capable, hard-headed businesswoman, she’s also consumed by a neurotic obsession with her daughter, the snobbish and monstrously selfish Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred and Veda represent two poles of noir femininity: the nurturing martyr and the greedy glamour-puss. The mother spoils her daughter, and the daughter lives off the mother she despises. Men are marginal, at least for Mildred, who is only interested in how she can use them.
 

The film finds a gaping hollowness in both the avaricious minx and the no-nonsense professional. Mildred gets everything a woman can have: love, marriage, motherhood, a career, a fur coat, yet none of it brings her real happiness. This was the paradox at the heart of the “woman’s picture.” It offered women in the audience wish-fulfillment fantasies—glamorous wardrobes, passionate love-affairs, high-powered jobs—and at the same time made suffering the defining female experience. These films reassured women that it didn’t matter whether they chose domesticity or a career, because either way they would wind up unsatisfied.

 

 
Time Out (London):

James Cain’s novel of the treacherous life in Southern California that sets house-wife-turned waitress-turned-successful restauranteur (Crawford) against her own daughter (Blyth) in competition for the love of playboy Zachary Scott, is brought fastidiously and bleakly to life by Curtiz’ direction, Ernest Haller’s camerawork, and Anton Grot’s magnificent sets. Told in flashback from the moment of Scott’s murder, the film is a chilling demonstration of the fact that, in a patriarchal society, when a woman steps outside the home the end result may be disastrous.

 

Nick Schager for Lessons of Darkness:

Though Mildred Pierce is renowned for marking Joan Crawford’s return to the apex of Hollywood stardom, Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of hardboiled author James M. Cain’s novel is, first and foremost, a hearty genre pic fraught with tense social/sexual anxieties. Divorcing her unemployed husband, Mildred sets about supporting her two daughters – younger tomboyish Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), not long for this world, and spoiled, voraciously greedy Veda – by starting her own restaurant. The disdainful Veda finds her mother’s new blue-collar career unbecoming, but Mildred is so obsessed with trying to please her ungrateful older daughter that she willingly suffers the girl’s horrendous abuse, ultimately sacrificing her own happiness and success in a vain attempt to craft a life centered around her offspring and totally free of men (and, thus, any romantic/carnal satisfaction). It’s a vision of excessive maternal devotion with a decidedly unprogressive slant, as the film presents Mildred’s unhappiness as a byproduct of her desire for an independent career at the expense of fulfilling traditional feminine roles (wife, homemaker). Employing a familiar noir flashback structure in which his female protagonist desperately attempts to make sense of fate’s cruel machinations, Curtiz handles his melodramatic noir material with little flair but welcome efficiency. It’s Crawford, however – in a put-upon victim role lacking, until the finale, her trademark fierceness – who truly ignites Mildred Pierce, the actress portraying her character’s paradoxical impulses with an expressiveness and intensity that’s something to behold.

 

 

David Denby in the New Yorker:

In the early forties, Joan Crawford left the suffocating glamour of M-G-M and entered the noirish shadows of Warner Bros. Her second film there was the startling “Mildred Pierce,” from the James M. Cain novel, which is perhaps more candid about money and social status than any American movie of the period. Crawford’s performance is convincing and intelligent, and the bitterness feels genuine (Crawford herself was a wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who struggled for respect). Like other good forties movies, “Mildred Pierce” starts with a murder and then works back to the roots of the crime. The director, Michael Curtiz, keeps the palette dark and rich and the psychological undertones resonant.

 

Jeremiah Kipp says some of these things like it’s a bad thing, for Slant:

Mildred Pierce is melodramatic trash, constructed like a reliable Aristotelian warhorse where characters have planted the seeds of their own doom in the first act, only to have grief-stricken revelations at the climax. Directed by studio favorite Michael Curtiz in German Expressionistic mode, which doesn’t quite go with the California beaches and sunlight but sets the bleak tone of domestic film noir, and scored by Max Steiner with a sensational bombast that’s rousing even when it doesn’t match the quieter, pensive mood of individual scenes, Mildred Pierce is professionally executed and moves at a brisk clip. Crawford is well cast as a protective she-wolf, dominating the stock company male players that surround her and her face, showing the first signs of age from the meat grinder of show business, is well matched against the smug freshness of Ann Blyth.

 

 

While Alt Screen’s Managing Editor Brynn White admits a loyalty to the James M. Cain source novel, but the Haynes-Winslet mini-series sure made Joan look good:

But Mildred is, as Cain regularly reminds the reader, a voluptuous lady, rather indistinctly but acceptably handsome with knockout legs that she employs in an attention-garnering strut. Winslet’s Mildred has more of a graceless, bow-elbowed trot. Her accent-restraining voice is too dried out for Mildred’s overbrimming femininity. While saucer-eyed Crawford was physically incapable of conveying Cain’s Mildred’s “resolute squint,” she undoubtedly displayed the hard, feline quality it required even while brimming with tears.
 

One can’t help but wish Haynes and Winslet had embraced the pulpy breathlessness of Cain’s potboiler, taken more risks, had a little more fun. Even though the 1945 version lost much of the point in classing-up Mildred and her chicken joints (and denying Veda her divine talent), Crawford supplied the needed operatic force, the power of a star lost in her worship of an undeserving other.

 

Alt Screen contributor Dan Callahan, in his comparison, considers the Curtiz version “a model of adaptation,” for Slant:

Toward the end of his tale, Cain concocts a bizarre subplot where the nearly satanic Veda suddenly discovers that she has a once-in-a-century coloratura soprano voice; she goes on to success as a vocalist, leaving her terminally middle-class mother behind, and this reads like something of a private fantasy for the writer.
 

The Crawford movie smartly axed this operatic plot turn, and in many ways it remains a model of adaptation, doing away with Cain’s unnecessary plot detours and characters. The 1945 film begins with the murder of playboy Monty Beragon, and the rest of the movie functions as a “Who shot Monty?” mystery noir as well as a corking melodrama, but its main function is as a vehicle for Crawford, who revived her career and won an Oscar for her work. Cain’s small, ordinary Mildred got swallowed up by the insistent noble throb in Crawford’s voice and the Medea-like size of her resentment, which reaches a nearly psychotic height in the famous scene where she screams “Veda!” at the top of her voice, charges over to her blackmailing daughter, rips up a check, and receives a slap in the face from the girl. Crawford looks briefly surprised at this point, and then her saucer eyes start to fill with the kind of murderous anger that can only be described as animal-like.

 

 

David Thomson agrees, for The New Republic:

In the original movie, Joan Crawford—never exactly ordinary—was brilliant at being over-emotional, desperate, and her own wrong-headed drama queen (so Veda had competition). She was ideally suited to the pitch of Cain’s melodrama and to the unequivocal intention at Warner Brothers to make a knock-down, drag-out women’s picture in which Mildred and Veda shatter every Hollywood cliché about natural and requited mother-love. By contrast, Winslet is too placid, not fierce enough. She eats pies, where Crawford fed on raw flesh. The story needed “too much”—Max Steiner’s raging music and the gorgeous film noir look where the shadows dipped down into Mildred’s brow until you felt the pits of her rueful, ruined eyes. That’s why it’s the originally version is a camp classic movie now—and so hard to resurrect as a literary classic. Our movies once were fast, sensational, and reckless. Lifting them up to be something like modern novels only reveals the cunning intuitions that ruled at Warner Brothers and elsewhere in the 1940s. The great American movies were never meant to be literary or respectable.

 

Thomson again, in America in the Dark:

For the first time, despite Crawford’s brooding glamour, the woman on the screen is the woman in the movie house. Mildred Pierce is significant because of the straight-faced but patronizing view of this woman’s definition of a good life. In hindsight, it becomes a piece of social criticism – more subtle than Warners – or director Michael Curtiz recognized, I suspect.

 

 
Rob Nixon with some background, for TCM:

Mildred Pierce has become so closely identified with the persona and myth of Joan Crawford that the achievements of the film itself and the other artists involved are often overlooked. Not that its connection to Crawford should be trivialized. Her performance here represents one of the most famous comeback stories in Hollywood history. She had been in the business about 20 years when she was tapped for this role (which was first offered to Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ann Sheridan, respectively). She had left MGM in 1943 and landed at Warner Brothers, where she waited two years before making a significant film appearance. With Mildred Pierce, Crawford at 40 reinvented herself again, scoring a huge commercial and critical success and launching a new phase in her career as a tough-as-nails but nobly suffering woman “of a certain age” in cautionary melodramas of greed and possessiveness. Winning the Academy Award on her first nomination brought new respect for the actress who had clawed her way to the top, and it put her back in the category of major stars.

 
But Crawford isn’t the only reason the movie is essential viewing for cinema lovers. Warner Brothers and producer Jerry Wald, a great friend and champion of the star for many years, made sure that the studio’s most skilled technicians and crew were entrusted with bringing James M. Cain’s popular novel to the screen. The production was helmed by one of Warner’s most prolific directors, Michael Curtiz. Wald also brought in a seasoned cast of supporting players; the studio’s top composer, Max Steiner; Anton Grot to design the evocative sets; and, most notably, Ernest Haller, who had shared an Oscar with Ray Rennahan for the cinematography of Gone with the Wind (1939). Mucch of the look of the film can be credited to him and Grot, working together to create the stark daylight of Southern California and the expressive night shadows that underscore the characters’ darkest motives and desires. Director Michael Curtiz had not even wanted Crawford for the role of Mildred, making her consent to a screen test. It seems he didn’t like her trademark shoulder pads. After the success of Mildred Pierce, Curtiz and Crawford patched up their working relationship, and Joan gave her director a peace offering – a pair of custom made shoulder pads.

 

A great link to Ann Blyth, at the Castro Theater, discussing those shoulder pad battles.
 

 

Ed Howard on the mother-daughter dynamic, for Only the Cinema:

Veda is an infuriating character, and a despicable one, and the film handles her very cleverly: she initially just seems like a mildly bratty kid, a bit distant and pouty, a bit ungrateful, a bit spoiled, like a lot of teenagers. Over the course of the film, she reveals herself as something else entirely, a real outsized movie villain, hiding an almost sociopathic indifference to her mother’s feelings behind her cheery, charmingly girlish face. She becomes almost terrifying in the way she exploits and manipulates her mother, draining the strength from this strong, intelligent woman. Blyth’s performance, this sweet but emotionally empty aura she projects, is fascinating when juxtaposed against Crawford’s tough, expressive tour de force. As Crawford runs a gamut of feelings from steely determination to near despair, delivering a powerhouse performance, Blyth maintains her slightly creepy composure except when, with obvious forethought, she turns on a particular emotional reaction to get a desired effect. The girl’s disconcerting control over her emotions is captured most tellingly in a sequence where she announces her engagement to a rich young boy; when her fiance is looking at her, she’s all smiles and affectionate glances, but the moment he turns away from her she betrays a flash of a cold, cruel expression, her lips curled into an expression of distaste, her eyes dead and empty.
 

Coldness and warmth, the traditional dichotomy of womanly behavior, are embodied in these two characters, mother and daughter, but not in the usual ways. Mildred, for all her independence, for all her strength and ability to survive without a husband, isn’t a caricature of the cold, loveless career woman. She feels a great deal, maybe even too much — her compassion, her love and tolerance for people who don’t deserve it, is her ultimate weakness. It’s Veda who’s the cold one, Veda who isn’t strong at all, who only knows how to use and exploit people, how to take advantage. Veda is contrasted, in the early scenes of the film, against Mildred’s younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), another independent woman in the making, a girl who likes to play, who likes to join in on the boys’ games, not caring if she gets dirty, like her mother who digs in at work, and very unlike the prim Veda. Mildred takes Kay for granted, knowing that the girl isn’t demanding, that like her mother she can take care of herself — it’s Veda, who can’t, who gets all the attention. This situation symbolically comes to a head in a staggering tragedy, as Mildred loses Kay, loses the girl who might have otherwise grown up to be like her strong, spirited mother. Later in the film, when Veda returns to Mildred after a time apart, a photograph of Kay is tellingly placed in the foreground as Mildred runs to the window to see her inconstant daughter. The photo is a reminder of the very different daughter who’d suffered the fate of so many other cinematic independent women.

 

 

Donald Lyon in a career overview of Curtiz, for Film Comment:

The old city-country antitheses no longer apply in the world of Mildred Pierce, where all places-exurban Glendale, ritzy Pasadena, beachy/Bohemian Santa Monica-are soulless and corrupt. This time, even the Curtizian celebration, Veda’s birthday party, excludes the central character (Mildred is stuck in her office trying to stave off bankruptcy) and ends in illicit, quasi-incestuous sex and murder. Apart from Mildred’s gleaming eateries, there is, in the way of public space, only Carson’s seedy dive, where Veda is reduced to singing, in a sarong, “Oceana Roll”: Veda is enough to give a bad name to women who sing in bars.
 

Mildred Pierce is Curtiz’s darkest and saddest film; Crawford at its heart is grim, victimized, self-pitying, monumental. She seems to be in some dream of her own career. The performance, only half-aware of what it is revealing, is a triumph of the will, doubtless. The movie’s bleakness continues in the two final shots: Joan and hubby #1 embrace in the police station as three washerwomen scrub the floor; the pair walk through an arch (similar in look but not in significance to the grandiose railroad station at the end of Roughly Speaking) into a milky, hazy dawn. Those cleaning women epitomize the realities of life for women who don’t own restaurant chains; the togetherness of the somber couple is the togetherness of exhaustion and despair. With family in ruins, they go dispiritedly-and in longshot-into the morning, a Glendale Adam and Eve leaving Eden.

 

 

Stephen Farber, also for Film Cmment:

There is a furtively ambivalent attitude toward success even in this film. The most evil character in the film, aside from Veda, is slimy Monte, and his greatest sin is that he has never worked fora living. Languorous, arrogant, devious, he embodies all of the American prejudices against the man of leisure. Mildred’s robustness and energy are deliberately contrasted to his indolence. In the scene in which she belittles him for his dependence on her, the film’s attitude is unclear. Mildred may look peremptory and cruel to us, yet the filmmakers cannot help preferring her sturdy, homely aggressiveness to Monte’s ruffled-shirt decadence.
 

But in the characterization of Veda the filmmakers have considered the other side of the coin; she represents all their fears about success. Ambitious Americans often justify their avarice and their aggressiveness by saying that they are doing everything for their children; and they may well be trying to escape the humiliation of their own past by giving their children the luxuries that they had imagined for themselves while growing up in poverty. In the deepest sense, Mildred is selfish-living out her own dreams of material glory vicariously, through her pampered daughters. Mildred Pierce makes a shrill, melodramatic, but still pertinent criticism of this American compulsion by showing that the spoiled child is a moral monster, deadened by greed and unaffected by murder. What the film seems to say-with all its contrived plot machinations it’s difficult to be sure-is that the obsessions of materialistic, success-oriented parents lead to violence and corruption; the fruit of ambition is murder.

 

 

Callahan concludes by catching a piquant detail revisiting the film:

Haynes’s Mildred Pierce finally seems like the most elaborately produced critical close reading of a novel of all time; for all its many virtues, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to sit through it again, but I’m certain I’ll be looking at the 1945 version for the rest of my life. In fact, I did watch it for the umpteenth time the day after I watched the miniseries, and I was surprised by a small detail I hadn’t remembered: Curtiz ends his film with a shot of Mildred walking out of a courthouse past two women who are hard at work scrubbing floors. It’s a perfect little grace note, and it’s not in the book, and its meaning is excitingly ambiguous. A great movie is always a bit of a mystery, and that creative mystery is missing from the center of Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, which cannot be faulted for craft or intelligence, but cannot be felt on the gut level of Cain, Crawford, or Curtiz, who might not have had a thought in his head about the story, but directs the hell out of it in pure visual and visceral movie terms.

 

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Saturday Editor’s Pick: Leave Her to Heaven (1945) http://altscreen.com/05/06/2012/saturday-editors-pick-leave-her-to-heaven-1945/ http://altscreen.com/05/06/2012/saturday-editors-pick-leave-her-to-heaven-1945/#comments Sun, 06 May 2012 13:38:06 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=30981
Playing Sat May 12 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

 
The annual MOMI “Fashion in Film Festival” regularly dominates our slate of Editor’s Picks. This year’s installment, “If Looks Could Kill,” is no exception. Stahl’s singular and essential Technicolor noir melodrama, “the most frightening film that cinema has given us about the evils of jealousy,” (- Pedro Almodovar), is also part of “See It Big!“.
 

Guy Maddin for the Pacific Film Archive:

Veteran proto-Sirkian melodramatist extraordinaire Stahl (he had already made solid first versions of both Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life by 1935) creates this most propulsive tale of daddy-complex jealousy with the help of flawless snow queen pulchra Gene Tierney and Academy Award–winning Technicolor cinematography by lens god Leon Shamroy (available for gawking in a newly minted print). Has any woman ever looked more awfully gorgeous than when Tierney casts her father’s ashes across her chest in that luridly empurpled and incestuous consecration? A young Vincent Price is fantastic, as always, as the troubled girl’s jilted fiancé.

 
Matt Bailey sums up the film’s inclusion in the fest, for Not Coming to a Theater Near You :

Though the story is involving enough to make this film a classic, it is perhaps more rightly renowned for its incredible Technicolor cinematography and strikingly original set and costume design. The look of the film is difficult to describe other than to say that every blue in the film matches Gene Tierney’s eyes and every red matches her lipstick and to insist that this is not an exaggeration. This film features one of the most precisely engineered color schemes in the history of color movies and not a flower, book spine, or tchotchke in the frame clashes or distracts from the overall look. For this reason, even though it is firmly rooted in generic conventions, the film remains very much unlike any other ever made.

 

 
Melissa Anderson for the Village Voice:

Within the span of two years, the otherworldly beauty Gene Tierney starred in two films with the same celestial destination: Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy of marital happiness, Heaven Can Wait, and John Stahl’s 1945 lurid marital nightmare, Leave Her to Heaven. In Stahl’s film, Tierney’s Ellen Berent, one of cinema’s most chilling psychopaths, makes life hell for those close to her. “It’s just that she loves too much,” Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) offers as explanation to her daughter’s new husband, Richard (Cornel Wilde, no match for Tierney’s menace), whom Ellen wants to possess fully. Ruled by pathological jealousy, Ellen simply stares as Richard’s beloved kid brother drowns and throws herself down the stairs to get rid of the “little beast” growing inside her. Though monstrous, Ellen earns a tiny bit of our sympathy, thanks to the odd compassion of Stahl, a veteran of the “woman’s picture.” Lensed by Leon Shamroy, the gorgeously restored Leave Her to Heaven redefines mauve. Tierney lost the Best Actress Oscar to Joan Crawford, playing someone else who loves too much in Mildred Pierce. But Mildred is redeemed as a noble, sacrificing mother; there’s no saving Ellen, whose twisted scheming remains unparalleled.

 
Martin Scorsese introduces the restoration at the New York Film Festival:

 
Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

The American family melodrama at its most neurotic. Rich girl Gene Tierney decides that the only way she can corner the affections of her husband (Cornel Wilde) is to eliminate his beloved younger brother, so she drowns the boy in a lake on a beautiful Technicolor day. John Stahl’s 1945 film is so lurid that it seems to exist on another plane of reality: it may be absurd, and even risible, but its single-minded concentration has its own kind of fascination and power. The great cinematographer Leon Shamroy shot it, and the artificial brightness of the 40s color adds yet another level of abstraction—the actors seem enameled against the backgrounds.

 

Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

Catch it on TV and you will find yourself complaining, “Please. No one behaves like that.” But there’s the rub. Movies like Stahl’s were not made for TV. Their purpose unfolds only on the big screen, where the blue-velvet skies and the lethally smooth waters of “Leave Her to Heaven” acquire the unquestioned clarity of a fever dream. A scornful James Agee, reviewing it at the time, said that the story might have been “plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black-and-white picture”; but plausibility is not the issue, and color is the lifeblood of the film. When Harland, fresh off a train from the East, wanders out into the New Mexico night, still wearing a dark city suit, we find ourselves at the border where noir and Western meet. As for the brother’s death, with Ellen looking on coolly in white robe and shades, it remains one of the most perturbing in the history of Hollywood, far scarier than anything in “Watchmen”; where Snyder employs the latest tools of computer-generated imagery to jack up the foulness of his violence, and thereby renders it more absurd, Stahl takes the trouble to feel his way into the implications of three-strip Technicolor, and thus into the more vivid hues of the heart. First used for a full-length movie (Rouben Mamoulian’s “Becky Sharp”) a decade earlier, and brought to blooming fruition in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Wizard of Oz,” the new technology reached its astounding apogee in the lips of Gene Tierney, as red as a witch’s apple. Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, as if she had ordered it. Her soft voice dies to a low whisper at the close of every phrase. “I don’t want anybody else to do anything for you,” she tells her husband. And with that, the great conservative promise of postwar domesticity—the man, newly arrived or returned, waited upon by his woman—tightens into a threat.

 

 
Mark Asch for The L Magazine:

Gene Tierney, in glorious Technicolor, is Leave Her to Heaven’s self-justification, to the extent that it has one. The year after playing the obscure object of desire in the noirish Laura, Tierney is here the center of a genre- and gender-reversal, as this women’s picture funhouse-mirrors Laura’s themes of possession and obsession. Then, men saw their painting and knew they had to have her; here, leading with her avid overbite, she first meets cute with author Cornel Wilde on a train while reading one of his books, his author photo tiny in her hands.

 
That she hardly blinks once during that encounter should be taken a warning; so too later on, in the empurpled New Mexico night, as she scatters Daddy’s ashes from galloping horseback while Alfred Newman’s tom-tom score thumpa-thumps. Early on in their marriage, which she orchestrates almost by fiat, it becomes clear that her favorite line in the vows was the one about “forsaking all others”, which includes his crippled brother, and her kid sister (and, briefly, his writing: shades of “The Yellow Wallpaper”?). Playing less a character than a rabidly glamorous engine of movie melodrama, Tierney’s in Joan Crawford mannequin mode (Leave Her to Heaven would make a great double feature with Crawford’s black-and-white psych-ward flashback Possessed), most notably bystanding, cold-as-ice, in a drowning sequence that plays like a deliciously horrible Hitchcock set-up, except that director John M. Stahl doesn’t even bother to pretend you’re not squealing in anticipation of the worst. Throughout, Stahl poses his characters in front of lavishly appointed settings — Southwestern ranches and New England cabins — whose colors seem to bulge against their outlines.

 

 
Jim Ridley for the Nashville Scene:

Leave Her to Heaven, made in 1945, occupies its own sick ward in the annals of psycho-noir. Noir was typically the province of dark shadows, dim city streets and stark black-and-white. Heaven, by contrast, is horn-honking Technicolor and super high gloss, a two-page Vanity Fair spread of pounding doom. Yet its fussy artificiality evokes a sense of derangement and entrapment that’s somehow even clammier. The more the movie’s characters seek some kind of peace in domestic interiors and wide-open spaces — including, in a scene that traumatized ’40s audiences, an idyllic lake — the harder its unforgettable, insatiable femme fatale digs her nails into their throats.

 
The director, John M. Stahl, had worked in silents since the 1910s, and his command of this florid material is beyond fearless. With Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning camerawork dousing the screen with cobwebbed shadows and bold scarlet slashes of color, you could watch the movie without sound and still follow its every stairstep down into depravity. The melodrama dares you to laugh at every turn but its treatment of rigidly upheld monogamy and motherhood as invitations to the loony bin is just as startling as it was to ’40s viewers.

 
If you haven’t seen it — or if you stumbled upon it late on TCM one night and watched it all the way through with widening eyes — it’s likely a wonder to behold on the big screen. If nothing else, you won’t want to be alone when Ellen figures out a horrifically simple solution to that whole baby problem — and the theater is lit by the Medea-like gleam in Tierney’s shockingly eager eyes.

 

 

Alt Screen editor Dan Callahan for Slant:

A fevered yet clinical study of jealousy, Leave Her to Heaven is overpoweringly artificial and rococo, with intimations of neurotic fantasies churning away underneath its lacquered, rotogravure images. Immediately pulsing with the thumping drums of Alfred Newman’s stormy score, the film proceeds very slowly at first, as Stahl builds a dreamlike Technicolor atmosphere around his three leads, Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain. These actors are eerily one-dimensional, and Stahl uses their limitations as performers to his advantage, making them look like sleepwalkers in a sort of Life magazine nightmare.

 
There are visual motifs here that keep returning like bits of recapitulated music, especially the image of water surrounded by trees, people moving in and out of silhouette, and the cool Technicolor greens slashed by the red of Ellen’s fire-engine lips. Stahl uses dissolves for this dream work, of course, but he also takes a big chance by fading to black after an important episode and holding the black out for a beat or two, as if our eyes were involuntarily closing in sleep every once in a while. When we get the image back, everything seems unsettled, disoriented; the bric-a-brac and green cactuses cluttering the sets start to feel suffocating. These black outs last three or four beats as the film goes on, then cease for the last 15 minutes, a perfunctory climax where Vincent Price shatters the mood with his overacting as a prosecuting attorney. In the midst of this courtroom letdown, Stahl focuses our attention on an ostentatious window above the witnesses’ heads that is surely meant to be Ellen’s Cyclops-like eye watching over her own diabolical handiwork. This is a film that exists in some floating subconscious state where any behavior is allowed, where fear and helplessness are inevitable. If Stahl seems close to Carl Dreyer in his ’30s work, with Leave Her to Heaven he plunges headfirst into a sort of cruel, thin Daliesque landscape where an inscrutable beauty’s liberating vengeance has no limit whatsoever.

 

 

Glenn Kenny for MUBI:

John M. Stahl’s 1945 Leave Her To Heaven is a terrific film to spring on your less well-informed friends who think 1940s films, particularly 40s “women’s pictures,” as it were, are silly and trivial and kind of bland. Not just because it’s a staggeringly beautiful film, you know, physically; there’s neither a bland nor trivial frame in the whole thing. And it was perhaps never more gorgeous since its release than it is now, in the wonderful Film-Foundation-sponsored Technicolor restoration. Also because this movie has—sorry, there’s really no other way to put it—one of the greatest “Holy shit!” factors, not just in 40s films, 40’s melodramas, “women’s pictures,” you name it, but in all of film.

 
The picture’s world is art-directed within an inch of its life, not a single detail left to chance. The picture is largely confined to three settings: first there’s the Taos ranch owned by Ray Collins’ Glen Robie, Harland’s lawyer and an old family friend of the Berents. It’s here that Harland and Ellen fall in love. The house itself is rambling, expansive, like the big sky country surrounding it; there’s a romantic majesty to it. Back of the Moon is rustic, woodsy, not nearly as claustrophobic as Ellen complains it is; one’s almost able to smell the pine. The Berent home is Bay Harbor is more ramshackle in a particular Maine tradition. Each of the settings constitute a sub-genre of Real Estate Porn, to be sure. The designs of art directors Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford (not to mention the set decorations by Thomas Little and Ernest Lancing) give cinematographer Leon Shamroy wonderful material to work with, but the film’s look reaches an apotheosis of delirium in the courtroom scenes late in the picture, presided over by Vincent Price, as a vengeful district attorney who some time before was thrown over by Ellen for Harland. The aqua-and-white coor scheme of the courtroom make the action look as if its suspended in the daylight sky, something you’d see in a celestial courtroom imagined by Powell and Pressburger. This particular break from “realism” (something the film wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to in the first place) spins Leave Her To Heaven‘s take on amour fou into some cosmic realm. It provides a strangely heartening reminder of just how exhilaratingly bizarre Hollywood moviemaking could get.

 


 

Bloggers extrodinaire Kim Morgan and Farran Nehme Smith (The Self-Styled Siren) take a revisionist, sympathetic take on Ellen. Kim gets the simulcast rolling:

Oh Gene. Or rather, misunderstood Ellen. A woman trapped in her obsession, of course, in her obsession with her father, but then, also trapped within the un-permissiveness of the times. Permission for Ellen to do…what would Ellen do? Perhaps that’s the problem. This is a time when one is not allowed the strength of being… Ellen. I’m not sure when anyone is allowed to be Ellen, exactly, but she is certainly trapped by some force beyond mere psychopathology. Maybe born so impeccable, that unfaltering, that she even frightens herself? She’s not normal. Well, she wants to be normal. A woman who yearns for marriage (to Cornel Wilde, though we’re never sure why, maybe because he seems normal), a private honeymoon, some damn solace, a few less tedious family gatherings and…then… just maybe the desire to NOT procreate (albeit, she changes her mind a bit late in the game).

 
I know I’m giving Ellen a big break (maybe she should have remained single) but her superiority is a large part of the problem. You could call that pure narcissism, but that’s not what’s going on. She never boasts so much as arrives, right? All she needs to do is walk into a room with those startlingly beautiful blue eyes, flop on a couch and eat a sandwich with that perfect overbite. But it’s not that she appears a mere mortal trapped in some super-human, celestial cage, she’s both sensitive and smart. Maybe a tortured genius. I think this is a woman who suspects that her husband isn’t such a great writer after all (I bet you she’s got five better novels in her than he does). But again, Gene/Ellen is a modern type of woman, a poetic, ingenious woman, and I always get the sense that her inner struggle to express whatever power or talent she has, well beyond her beauty is pure torture. Many may look in her eyes and see cold orbs of hate, but I see… Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle, and beautiful, damnable Richard W. seems especially appropriate since, for some crazy reason, he also managed to write, in ‘Lohengrin,’ ‘Here Comes the Bride’ amidst his Götterdämmerung.

 

 

Farran responds:

You’re so right–Ellen is about sublimation. If she could focus that fierce intelligence on art or a career, she might be able to stay away from rowboats. Yet Ellen is memorialized as a monster–”leave her to heaven,” the line from Hamlet about Gertrude. That’s ironic to me in a way that probably wasn’t intentional, since I always thought Gertrude got a raw deal from her male creator. She’s another woman who’s ceaselessly nagged because she wants a man of her own and some peace and quiet.

 
I always wait for that staircase, for Gene hurling herself down it after carefully leaving one slipper on the top step, like a psychopathic Cinderella. It’s a wicked act, but she tells Ruth just before she does it, “sometimes the truth IS wicked.” Along with Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven dares to go down some dark maternal byways, into things some may feel, but no one wants to admit–in this case, pregnancy as a cage, one that’s about to slam shut for oh, about 21 years. Ellen’s on bedrest, its own kind of “Yellow Wallpaper” hell. (Those insipid posies on Ellen’s dressing-room wallpaper could drive a lot of women to the brink.) Look at what she’s doing beforehand. She’s talking to her own sister about the stroll the girl just took with her husband. Couldn’t Richard be upstairs talking to his wife? Making sure she isn’t bored and terrified, instead of taking it for granted for that she’s rubbing her belly and practicing lullabies? So she grabs her most beautiful robe, and re-applies her lipstick, and she even puts on perfume–because she’s about to go back to Ellen, the beauty, and leave behind Ellen, the terrarium.

 
For me, the poignant aspect to Ellen isn’t that she’s, well, crazy. It’s that she’s got a face for the ages, but if she isn’t willing to play along, if she insists on being the most important thing in her man’s life, that face avails her nothing. She still loses her husband to a girl who uses niceness the same way Ellen used those sunglasses in the rowboat: as a cover for the schemes churning inside. And nobody will be on her side, except James Agee, bless him, and Vincent Price, and you, and the Siren, and whoever else is crazy enough to say, “I kind of sympathize with her.”

 

 

Erich Kuersten also jumps on the Ellen bandwagon, for Bright Lights Film Journal:

As creepy a subtextual indictment of post-code Americana as I’ve ever seen. If we, living as relatively free as we do today, were suddenly stuck in a post-code Americana hell hole like this would we act any different than Tierney’s character?

 
Where I’m going with all this is to analyze the ultimately corrupting nature of post-1934 cinema’s phony morals; the “as long as you feel bad about it, it’s okay to kill” sort of compromise with the censors. You can see this in the bookends to Winona Ryder’s career thus far: HEATHERS and SEX AND DEATH 101 (which I decried in an earlier post, which each use the killing of dumb jock frat guys as a fake out). The fact is, our stale society needs more LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN-style sociopaths, by which I man girls with cajones enough kill those who would hobble and baby them with Disney-fied prefab beige rusticity. We had THELMA AND LOUISE but somehow the drippy third wave feminism of gourmet shopping swept over the fire, But they’re dupes, man. The whole stylish shoe fetish thing is a scam. These people need shocking; art as shock therapy to jolt them from their carbohydrated stupor. Ellen is an artist, in that sense, a frustrated panther godess trapped in the hell of some L.L. Bean adman’s pre-presentation nightmare. It’s just too bad she couldn’t take a few more of those little bastards out before the inevitable mauve ocean swallowed her.

 
And Dan Sallitt ponders the Code-enforced limitations on the movie.

 

 

“See It Big!” co-curator Michael Koresky for Reverse Shot:

The movie’s pretty damn close to unclassifiable, even as all of its memorable moments are couched in some sort of basic generic playbook. It takes almost an hour before we realize how deranged this tale truly is. As devious as its irredeemable central character, Stahl’s stately misogynist melodrama barrels ahead with increasing absurdity, moving from romantic meet-cute to suspicious manipulation to sheer horror, finally culminating in a courtroom melodrama of such histrionic preposterousness that one’s hands are thrown up in frustration. Even by all-innuendos-considered post-Code Hollywood standards, rarely had a studio unleashed something so seemingly proper, so delicately laced with frilly curtains and gingham, which was so defiantly trashy at heart. For all its bluster and self-pronounced gloss-over-grime, American Beauty could never dream up the sheer vulgarity that creeps into Leave Her to Heaven from the corners of nearly every frame.
 
Where Leave Her to Heaven stands alone is in its forthrightly alienating tactics—there’s nary an attempt to truly psychoanalyze this monster; we simply watch, as impotently as her husband, as she drags down everyone along with her. In a sense it’s even ballsier than Psycho: as ironic as Hitchcock’s closing diagnostic session was, that film still provided enough of a Freudian groundswell to contain its irrationality. Ellen’s vindictive and vile machinations seem to spring almost out of nowhere, and are frighteningly accepted with a casual, distrustful air by her comparatively well-adjusted family. “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much,” says her mother, prompting viewers’ foreheads to crease. That’s about as much backstory as we get—yet with Cornel Wilde’s cowardly resignation as off-putting as Tierney’s cunning debauchery, Ellen remains our amoral compass. And she’s unfathomable right to the end, even beyond the grave.
 
A noir without shadows? A women’s picture that posits its female protagonist as a ravenous, sociopathic schemer? A high body-count thriller in which not one drop of blood is spilled? Leave Her to Heaven doesn’t ultimately defy categorization so much as confound easy readings of classical Hollywood approach. Even in setting, Stahl’s film retreats from convention; its exquisite location shooting, spanning from New Mexico to Maine, provides glorious, sunlit counterpoint to the femme-fatale trickery: by unleashing its monster onto these open vistas as opposed to the shadowy urban backrooms and backlot alleyways usually trod by her ilk, the film provides an air of false reassurance; when the nefarious deeds kick into high gear, you can only suck in your breath in astonishment. Armed with nothing more than a pair of diabolical sunglasses and a smart blouse, Gene Tierney uses her narcissistic glower to perfection, creating a heart-stopping moment to compare with Carl Boehm’s ontological slaughter in Peeping Tom and Richard Widmark’s stairway-to-heaven shove in Kiss of Death. Silent and merciless, Ellen’s becalmed tyranny makes for some of American film’s most truly disquieting moments.

 

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Friday Editor’s Pick: Wild at Heart (1990) http://altscreen.com/05/05/2012/friday-editors-pick-wild-at-heart-1990/ http://altscreen.com/05/05/2012/friday-editors-pick-wild-at-heart-1990/#respond Sat, 05 May 2012 14:25:58 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=30944
Playing Fri May 11 and Fri May 12 at Midnight at Nitehawk Cinema [Program & Tix]

 
David Lynch’s wildly controversial pulp Wizard of Oz whatsit – winner of the Cannes Palme D’Or, but subsequently accused of simmering in its own weirdness and failing everyone’s Twin Peaks-fueled high expectations, is an Alt Screen fave.
 

Hal Hinson pretty much summarizes the critical steamrolling the movie suffered, for The Washington Post:

David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” is unlike anything that’s ever been made before. It’s swampy and destabilizing in that subversive, perversely original, signature Lynchian way. But “Wild at Heart” isn’t the David Lynch movie that anyone could have hoped for — not his new fans, who’ve discovered him through “Twin Peaks,” or his older ones.

 

But Geoff Andrew finds plenty to love in the face of quibbles, for Time Out (London):

So much is exhilaratingly unsettling. Even more than a virtuoso shoot-out, two scenes – Stanton tortured by a gang of grotesques, a truly nasty car crash – exemplify Lynch’s ability to disturb through carefully contrived atmosphere; while the performances lend a consistency of tone lacking in the narrative (but ever-present in Fred Elmes’ fine camerawork). The film, finally, is funny, scary and brilliantly cinematic.

 

We tried to find some more defenders, and our valiant efforts weren’t entirely in vain.
 

 

Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

It’s the old fun-house principle. Nightmares are made real. Without moving, one seems to plummet through pitch darkness. The response in a fun house is a pleasurably scary physical sensation. Lynch films go several steps further: nothing in life is fixed. All reality is relative.They suggest that though the universe is without end, it may exist within the tip of a blade of grass.
 

Mr. Lynch has taken Gifford’s slim, vivid work and pumped it up into a cockeyed epic that goes back to the early days of Pop art.

 

Howard Hampton for Film Comment (May/June 1993):

In Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, nostalgia is one more source of pervasive displacement. David Lynch reanimates the norms of “sweetness and health” by plunging them into the heart of noirness: MacLachlan’s Jeffrey and Laura Dern’s Sandy running up against Dennis Hopper’s gas-sniffing proto-crackhead Frank and Isabella Rossellini’s tragic mystery woman Dorothy, pop fairy tale elements (the Good Witch of Oz blessing a pseudo-Elvis) colliding with carnage and doom on an anything but open road. Lynch uses these stock figures, and configurations, as a mythic shorthand that we can read immediately. But where a Spielberg plays them straight, milking their glommy, gee-whiz conformism (going so far as to resurrect the B-picture Reagan of Hong Kong as free-world savior Indiana Jones), Lynch’s shorthand characters transform themselves into giddy, inscrutable runes.

 

Surprise! Edgar Wright screened the film recently in LA and kept Laura Dern’s attendance a secret from the audience. She in turn kept Lynch’s attendance a secret from Wright. Shakey camera, but a true event:

 

Keith Phipps thinks the film is a suitable companion piece to Twin Peaks, for The Onion AV Club:

Appearing in August a few weeks ahead of Peaks’ second season, Wild At Heart felt at the time a bit like an extension of the series, even if now they’re not usually spoken of together. Shot between the Peaks pilot and the first episode, it featured series regulars Grace Zabriskie, Sheryl Lee, Jack Nance, David Patrick Kelly, and Sherilyn Fenn. Mostly the roles bear only a passing similarity to their Peaks characters, but after watching a bunch of episodes it’s striking to see, say, Mrs. Palmer dressed up as a dominatrix. I suspect in real life Grace Zabriskie is a charming professional. To work as successfully as she has as a character actress, she’d almost have to be. But she does crazy so well it’s unsettling. Here she plays the part of Juana Durango, who seems almost like a Black Lodge version of Mrs. Palmer. The wild eyes are the same but where in the series reflect a perpetual, wounded fearfulness, here she’s the one doing the wounding. With maniacal glee.
 
Ultimately I think the two projects make nice companion pieces. Wild At Heart feels like Lynch unfiltered. Twin Peaks forces some discipline on him, but ultimately the vision is the same. Just look at the scene in which Sailor and Lula, cruising along to the strains of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” happen on a horrific accident by the side of the road. Only Sherilyn Fenn survives, and not for long. Looking and sounding every bit like Audrey Horne she lives only long enough to spout some frantic nonsense and complain about the spongy stuff in her hair. Then she collapses. Not everyone makes it to the end of the road. Peaks‘ Bob keeps talking about fire. In Wild At Heart Lynch returns again and again to the sound and image of a flame being struck. The suggestion is clear: Fire only lights up those it doesn’t first engulf.

 

 
Chris Anthony Diaz relays an anecdote for The House Next Door:

Speaking at a Saturday midnight screening (November 9, 2006), Wild at Heart screenwriter Barry Gifford could only recall one thing about the film before its release. It was the ratings board’s appeal hearing he and David Lynch attended for sex scenes that got Wild at Heart an initial X-Rating. (Which was the version ultimately released in Europe, by the way!) One of the older ratings board panelists was appalled that Sailor Ripley was doing Lula Fortune in the pooper.
 
Lynch fired backed at the panelist, arguing, “How do you know that? He’s behind her, so he’s fucking her from behind—he’s not fucking her IN the behind!!!” The panelist simply responded with an, “Oh.” And the scene remained in the American release, too!

 

You can read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s solid pan here. But Terrence Rafferty has one of the more amusing knee-jerk reactions, for The New Yorker:

Right from the start, just about everything is wrong with this David Lynch movie, and the wrongness has an escalating, vertiginous quality. Every false move seems to lead to another, more disastrous than the one before. It’s a buzzing, hyperkinetic picture, but its wildness is all on the surface: the images are elaborately conceived, arrresting, and meaningless, like tattoos. The novel by Barry Gifford on which Lynch based his screenplay is a languorous, arty trifle about a pair of lovers named Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), who drive from North Carolina to Texas and stop at ratty hotels and motels along the way; they’re hard-lovin’ losers who smoke a lot and don’t get to the place they set out for (California). Their happiness is threatened by a variety of kinky villains, mostly of Lynch’s invention: Gifford’s poky Deep South odyssey is now an orgy of evil, full of graphic violence and grotesque craziness. The shocks don’t have much resonance, though; the weirdness here is inexpressive and trivial, even silly. And the lurid villainy always seems diversionary, a baroque disguise for a bland, lifeless, and overfamiliar story. The movie is one startling lapse of taste after another; it’s a sorry spectacle.

 

 

Georgia Brown, however, thinks “it’s just grand” for The Village Voice:

“Lordy, what was that all about?” This is what normal people walking out of David Lynch movies mutter. It´s also an exclamation drawled by Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) in Lynch´s spellbinding, spectaculary decadent, Southern gothic movie Wild at Heart. Winner of this year´s Palme d`Or at Cannes, Wild at Heart is flamboyantly violent and erotic; it´s also very funny. Some Lynch fans hate the movie, and others resist it more genially, feeling it goes too far. Sure, he goes too far, and then, a practiced onanist, he pulls it off.
 
Wild at Heart may be wispy and amorphous (making it hard to hold in mind afterward), but it´s also formally beguiling and, in places, brilliant. I have in mind how the spastic plot jerks and scrambles along by means of flashbacks, tangents, non sequiturs, stories the characters tell, and scenes they come across. While they´re on the road, Sailor and Lula share memories, and Lynch illustrates these strange little interior dramas as if furnishing rooms in a capacious dollhouse.
 
Lula tells about how her cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), the boy who put cockroaches down his underpants, stayed up all night making sandwiches, and threw tantrums when he found out Christmas wasn´t coming soon. Sailor recalls a hooker he once went with – a story that serves as foreplay: “You got me hotter ´n Georgia asphalt,” says Lul. Then there´s the car radio that only gets atrocity reports and an eerie accident scene along the highway – a gory car wreck serving up a Freudian nightmare. Wandering dazed among dead bodies, a young woman (Sherilyn Fenn from Twin Peaks) hallucinates that her mama´s going to kill her for losing her pocketbook; she begins scratching her head as if she´s about to lift her scalp: “There´s this sticky stuff in my hair,” she moans. From scene to scene, in that candid, childlike way of his, Lynch amazes with how far he´s willing to go.

 

 
Cynthia Fuchs, for PopMatters:

Consider the blazing first scene in Wild at Heart. Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), caught offguard on a stairway in Cape Fear, “Somewhere near the border between North and South Carolina,” is goaded into a horrific act of violence, literally slamming a black man’s head into pulp against a marble floor. Accompanied by a metal-ish guitar riff and his girlfriend Lula Fortune’s (Laura Dern) shrieks, Sailor doesn’t even hesitate, but pays pack her blood-red-finger-nailed mother Marietta (Diane Ladd), the ultimate source of the goading, by pointing his bloody finger over the corpse at her. It’s an incredible, ugly, unforgettable scene. And bold so as to ignite visceral responses: my own first experience with Wild at Heart was at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, when it inspired a loud mix of cheers and a few walk-outs at its premiere screening. Vital, complicated, gorgeous, and ferocious, it won that Palme d’Or winner.
 
The sheer brutality of Wild at Heart is, on occasion, breathtaking (and, as Roger Ebert, among others, has noted, it rehearses the misogyny of which Lynch is frequently accused—you might judge whether he’s exposing or perpetuating this particular cultural malady/norm). And yet its vulgarity has a flipside, revealing the devotion and naïve purity shared by the lovers, soon enough on the run to “sunny California,” as Wicked Witch of the East Marietta sends her trusting boyfriend Johnnie (Harry Dean Stanton), as well as some especially dreadful professionals to murder Sailor and recover her darling Lula. As inscrutable and contrary as any of Lynch’s films, this one is also unusually raw. In that, it exposes the dreamy-nightmarish underpinnings of Lynch’s logics. As Dern, who also worked with Lynch on Blue Velvet (1986), puts it, the director is “not interested in defining them for himself, so I think it’s very amusing to him that people are trying to define him, because I don’t think he has an explanation for himself for his work or his creative process.” Lynch, in turn, calls her “the best actress I’ve ever worked with.” She is remarkable.

 


 
Dawn Taylor for The DVD Journal:

It’s perhaps the most flat-out Lynchian of all the director’s films, both brilliant and deeply self-indulgent, and it certainly wasn’t embraced by every critic at the time of its release — Roger Ebert (who also famously disliked Blue Velvet) said he felt repulsed and manipulated by the film, and wrote that Lynch “exercises the consistent streak of misogynism” in his work. Indeed, Wild at Heart isn’t an easy film to digest, populated by broadly drawn eccentrics with an almost anecdotal plot and occasionally loathsome imagery. But for those with a taste for Lynch’s perverse humor, iconoclastic visual sense, and goofy, twisted characters, it stands as one of the two or three most striking pictures in the director’s filmography.
 
The oddities are fiercely memorable, and they threaten to draw too much attention away from the artfulness of Lynch’s story, which weaves bits of lore from The Wizard of Oz (Marietta’s likeness to the Wicked Witch, Lula’s clicking together of her red high heels, Sailor’s redemption by the Good Witch [Sheryl Lee] at film’s end) with a wealth of subtle references to filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jacques Tati, and Akira Kurosawa, all the while allowing Cage to play Sailor as an Elvis-obsessed romantic and Dern to give full reign to depraved innocence and wild-eyed carnality. Lynch’s visual sense in Wild At Heart equals that of his two most celebrated films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, with an attention to detail and an iconic use of color that’s awe-inspiring, as he revisits his own favorite motifs (highway asphalt at night, body parts and grotesque decay) while continually reinforcing images specific to the story — blazing fire, lit cigarettes, and car accidents. Wild At Heart is melodramatic, giddily self-aware, painfully stylized, and challenging at every turn — filmmaking as provocation, by a director who seemed to know that the fifteen minutes of fame during which he’d be allowed to do whatever he pleased were fleeting, and therefore chose to throw everything he had at the screen without fear, or compromise.

 

 

A CBC interview with the director:

How would you describe Wild At Heart?

Its a love story in the middle of a violent, twisted, modern world.
 
What attracted you to the story?

I read Barry Gifford’s book and fell in love with the title, with Sailor and Lula, and the world that seemed so real in the book. I loved Giffords way of seeing things, and it started triggering lots of things within me. Pretty soon, I was hooked and on the way.
 
Was the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz an important part of the script you wrote?

No. I wrote two scripts. The first one was pretty much devoid of any happiness. And many of the people who read it were in a position to make it said they wouldn’t. They really wanted to work with me, but they rejected that particular script. I ended up in Samuel Goldwyn Jr.’s office, and he said, “David, I hate this ending. Why do you want to do this?” and my only answer was that it was true to the book. I told him I also hated the ending because, as well as being so depressing, it didn’t ring true to the characters. I found myself in the position where if I gave it a happy ending, it would look like I had completely sold out and taken the commercial route. And I hope that I did it because honestly and truly the material was screaming to be that way.
 
What does the author, Barry Gifford, think of your film?

The author really digs the movie. He told me way up front I could do anything I wanted. Because I told him that I love the book and wanted to be true to the essence of it, which is Sailor and Lula and their characters, and the title, which conjures up a wild world.

 

Travis Mackenzie Hoover for Film Freak Central:

Wild at Heart chucks Velveeta America entirely and imagines a world run by Frank Booth and his ilk. Indeed, Wild at Heart wallows in the kinds of kinky horrors that are viewed in Lynch’s other films from a distance, and it’s not a pretty sight. Here is the fallen Eden, Lynch-style, where everyone has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been cast out of paradise to fuck, shoot, and act unnaturally before meeting untimely, gory ends.
 
And it’s this wallow in deviant horror that defines the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Granted, nobody but Lynch could’ve put together this parade of freaks and have it all hang together: Wild at Heart is an insanely well-wrought collection of not just diegetic madness but also stylistic grotesqueries like lens distortions and flash musical cues that coalesce into a seamless stylistic barrage.

 

 

Kristi Mitsuda recommends multiple viewings, for Reverse Shot:

First impressions are fierce; only upon a replay could I begin to grasp Wild at Heart separate from my sensorial responses to Lynch’s visual and aural atmospheres (amplified, of course, by the theatrical setting of my initial viewing). Exhilarated by its strange blend of the beautiful and lurid, innocent and corrupt, and overwhelmed by the intricacies of seemingly self-consciously convoluted storytelling I realized I’d almost missed the lovely simplicity of it beneath Lynch’s surrealist-poetic embroidery.
 

A single viewing is hardly enough to afford the spectator adequate mental headroom to grapple with this director’s evocatively embellished concerns anyway and, though a positive, isolated experience with a movie takes on a magical aspect. Wild at Heart is, for all its confounding detours, simply this: a gorgeous love story set in a hyperbolically fucked-up world. As I was watching it again, one scene struck me: Lula, driving, switches radio stations, increasingly appalled as each one reports news more horrific than the last (a woman shoots and kills her three children, a man has sex with a corpse . . .), as Lynch alternates quick cuts of her hand on the dial with reaction shots. She finally pulls over to the side of the road, hops out of the car, screams, “I can’t take no more of this radio. I’ve never heard of so much shit in all my life. Sailor Ripley, you get me some music on that radio this instant!” Sailor flips through the channels and finds one with the hard rock they’d danced to earlier in a club. He jumps out of the car and joins Lula, and they dance in strange rhythms with aggressive movements, unleashing their disgust. As the camera pulls back, the music blends with and then gives way to Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot, which crescendos over a long shot of the lovers as they stop dancing and embrace, literally singled out by the film’s twilight lighting. The camera tilts slightly upwards to edge the car out of the frame, rendering Lula and Sailor alone in the universe, two tiny figures in a grassy field. Lynch conveys in rapturous cinematic shorthand that love is all in a world that’s “wild at heart and weird on top.” Repeated viewings let you break the whole down into its parts, as you’re able to delve more deeply into it and yet keep an analytical distance, a forced consideration of its artistry.

 

 

John Semley analyzes Nicholas Cages’s performance, also for The AV Club:

More than any of David Lynch’s films, 1990’s Wild At Heart is an exercise in tropes. It’s a brightly woven tapestry of signs and symbols, irony and metaphor. Its synthetic-noir Wizard Of Oz riffing is defined by its very trope-iness. In Wild At Heart, a character won’t just wear an ostentatious snakeskin jacket as an obvious symbol of individuality and belief in personal freedom. No. Rather, that same character will outright tell you that that’s what it is. It’s disarmingly obvious.
 
Unlike Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., or Twin Peaks—which are all patterned as stories of wide-eyed innocents tainted by evil forces bubbling just beneath the surface of daily life—Wild At Heart proceeds from inequity and charts a course back into redemption. In Blue Velvet, we wait to see what MacLachlan’s pervert/detective is capable of. In Wild At Heart, Cage’s unchecked savagery is laid bare in the opening scene. Then we watch as he works to effectively contain it—with the occasional purifying outburst, of course.
 
Unlike Lynchian roles played by Harry Dean Stanton or Grace Zabriskie, Cage’s Ripley seems singular. As flat and overly ironic the film is, Cage stands out in his own super flat and overly ironic way. And when, after two hours of teasing, Cage finally sings “Love Me Tender” to Dern, it’s legitimately sweet and affecting in the movie’s own wax-museum way.
 
And that jacket.

 

 

Kathleen Murphy is most piqued by Willem Dafoe’s role, in Film Comment (Nov 1990):

The best thing in Wild at Heart, the film’s second dark angel. Every time Bobby Peru skins his lips back from those horrible brown stumps, he rubs our noses in mad monkey-life, the reeking, rutting animal who crouches somewhere in even the most evolved of skulls. Here is mortality at its ugliest, signaled by gross appetite and decay. Lula and Sailor are no match for him; he breaks their fragile faith in themselves and each other. His cold-blooded turn-on of Lula is shot like a dirty movie, graphic and up close in the adulterated light of day. No amount of clicking her red shoes together can get Lula back to “nice and simple” Kansas. She’s been made to acknowledge her own sexuality, the mindless autonomy of the flesh.

 

 

Trevor Link, in his thoughtful defense, is particularly affected by Diane Ladd, for his blog Journey by Frame:

At the core of this drama is the figure of the mother, specifically Lula’s mother Marietta. The film opens a man, hired by Marietta, trying to kill Sailor. Later, we find out that she attempted to seduce Sailor in the men’s bathroom shortly before this man attacked him. Marietta represents what Jean-Joseph Goux calls the “‘monstrous maternal,’ whose murder is essential for the rite of passage to take place” (Mulvey). And in fact, though Marietta is not killed by Sailor (or Lula), she does later vanish when Lula stands up to her; the “monstrous maternal” is purged from Sailor and Lula’s life. This strange character, is contrasted with Sheryl Lee’s Good Witch. Marietta is a witch-like character in general, but in one of the film’s most disturbing scene, she takes lipstick and covers her face in a bright, neon red mask, vaguely reminiscent of the green face of Oz’s Wicked Witch. What makes this scene so disturbing is the transgressive use of a mundane object such as lipstick. As I argued with regards to Hitchcock, it is the mundane that serves as the most effective jumping-off point for surrealist subversion. Both Hitchcock and the surrealists themselves are key influences on Lynch, and he delights in fetishistically, obsessively focusing in on certain mundane objects. In this case, lipstick is an interesting choice. It is an object which is used by women, not children, and girls learn to use it by observing and then imitating their mothers. But in this scene, its use highlights the fundamental rupture of Marietta from both her daughter Lula and her surrogate son Sailor. In many ways, the film’s narrative hinges on the latter characters triumphing over Marietta and purging her from their new family. Marietta functions as the site of family trauma: she had her husband killed and, it can be inferred, poorly protected Lula, who was raped by her “Uncle” Pooch. When she uses the lipstick to inscribe upon her own body the trauma and pain of American family life, she transgressively uses an object of beautification to mark her own inner ugliness. The scene’s agony, the way Marietta’s mouth shapes a unending cry for help, resonates above and beyond the film’s happy ending. It is a chilling image, one nearly impossible to erase from memory and a sign of what makes Lynch such a unique and powerful artist.

 

 
Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Among the many Bonnie and Clyde-style road movies in cinema history, David Lynch’s 1990 film, Wild at Heart, is unsurprisingly the weirdest. It is also almost certainly the most self-conscious entry in that cycle of films that comprises Gun Crazy, Badlands, and True Romance (and its bastard cousin, Natural Born Killers). Each of these films follows the crime spree of a pair of lovers for whom sex and violence become entangled in an imaginary world of pop culture referentiality: for Badlands’ Kit and Holly, this is the world of James Dean and teen magazines; for Wild at Heart’s Sailor and Lula, it is the world of Elvis Presley and The Wizard of Oz. Like their counterparts in Nick Ray’s They Live by Night, Sailor and Lula “were never properly introduced to the world we live in.”
 
But as with so many of Lynch’s films, the world we live in is not particularly relevant. Wild at Heart takes its protagonists’ twisted, perverse subconscious as its reality: a world of circus freak hitmen, trailer trash Wicked Witches, and, well, Crispin Glover. Sailor and Lula’s crime spree (actually a comparatively tame affair, consisting of a few parole violations, some assault and battery, and a botched armed robbery) is a retreat from a seductively wild and weird world of “S-H-I-tut” into the security of that place over the rainbow.
 
Wild at Heart constructs a bizarre nightmare landscape, not only through its notoriously violent imagery, but also through Lynch’s typically meticulous sound design, an aural collage of crackling fire, ’50’s hipster rock ’n’ roll, and Wicked Witch cackling. This is highlighted by Angelo Badalamenti’s absurdly operatic score, which adds a super-size portion of gravitas to the trashy value-meal that is the film’s plot. Like all of Lynch’s work, Wild at Heart combines these elements in pursuit of a fleeting glimpse of the twisted paths and dark interiors of the subconscious. As Sailor lovingly tells Lula, “What goes on in your mind is God’s own private mystery.”

 

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Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Front (1976) w/ Walter Bernstein http://altscreen.com/05/04/2012/thursday-editors-pick-the-front-1976-w-walter-bernstein/ http://altscreen.com/05/04/2012/thursday-editors-pick-the-front-1976-w-walter-bernstein/#comments Fri, 04 May 2012 12:01:02 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=30920
Playing Thurs May 10 at 7:15 at Jacob Burns Film Center [Program & Tix]

 
A very special evening, as legendary screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, Semi-Tough) joins Jacob Burns board member and director Jonathan Demme for an onstage conversation following the film, inspired by Bernstein’s own experience on the Hollywood blacklist.
 

Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

Using a conventional comedy form older than Bob Hope’s girdle and an actor whose scope has been defined mostly by the method of his one-liners, Martin Ritt, the director, and Walter Bernstein, the writer, have made a moving, haunted film, “The Front” makes no attempt to examine the ideological debris of those years. It doesn’t deal in ideas but in plights. It dramatizes the experiences of some of the victims of that time when, on charges that never had to be substantiated, successful writers, directors, actors, producers could be blacklisted and thus denied employment in television and motion pictures.
 
The film’s inspiration is the casting of Woody Allen in the pivotal role of Howard Prince, a quintessential Woody Allen rat, an unsuccessful, amateur bookmaker who works in a bar as a cashier and has absolutely nothing on his mind except small schemes doomed to fail. “The Front” looks at the McCarthy period through the eyes of this epically self-absorbed coward, who, as is the way of cowards in such comedies, slips upon his finest hour as if it were a banana peel and slides to unexpected nobility.
 
Even in its comic moments “The Front” works on the conscience. It recreates the awful noise of ignorance that can still be heard.

 

 
Andrew Sarris for The Village Voice:

Takes dead aim at the television blacklisters of the 1950s and shoots loads of buckshot at these baddies. Director Martin Ritt and scenarist Walter Bernstein know whereof they speak when they reenact the era of Joe McCarthy and his minions. Ritt and Bernstein were themselves blacklisted at the time, along with cast members Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Joshua Shelley and Lloyd Gough. Woody Allen, who clearly sympathizes with the sufferings of this period, plays the ‘front’ who peddles scripts by blacklisted writers to the unsuspecting networks…. The Front deserves a great deal of credit for having been done at all.

 

Eric Henderson for Slant:

There’s a moment very late in The Front where Howard Prince (Woody Allen, in an extraordinary dramatic performance), who’s been fronting for blacklisted writers in 1950s Hollywood by putting his name on their scripts, is testifying to a House of Un-American Activities subcommittee. Having ruffled their feathers by turning their baiting non-questions around with non-incriminating non-answers, one of the committee members asserts, “We are not concerned at this time with anything other than the communist conspiracy in the entertainment world.” When they request Prince to give them “just one name,” even if it happens to be the name of a dead man (you can see the gears turning in Prince’s head: “Why in the world would they even need the name of a dead man if not to make a public example?”), The Front‘s ultimate grasp of the truth of the nature of Hollywood McCarthyism is clear and devastating. The HUAC was nothing less insidious than a tool of the U.S. Government in an attempt to gain control of the rapidly pervasive entertainment industry and keep its messages in firm check, all the while maintaining plausible deniability and, thereby, superficially distancing themselves from Stalinesque state control. Perhaps because the film was written by, directed by, and included actors who were all blacklisted in the ’50s, The Front takes this contemptible hypocrisy to the mat, and the film teems with a palpable sense of terror and outrage. Though it would be understandable if it resembled more of a writer’s film than an auteur’s, director Martin Ritt manages to add a visual sense of encroachment (his claustrophobia is an inversion of the agoraphobia in Alan J. Pakula’s more celebrated All the President’s Men) that enhances scriptor Walter Bernstein’s layers of irony into a cinematic one-two knock-out. Bernstein smartly suggests how capitalism actually benefited from the oppression of suspected communists, and that the most bloodthirsty of prosecutors were actually capitalists in extremis, but doesn’t dwell on them, giving full attention to the effect of the witch hunt on the world of entertainment. In this respect, Zero Mostel, who plays the genial clown Hecky Brown, represents the era’s many crushed souls. Standing on a stage and belting out a showstopping number, all the while being hounded by a P.I. toady and witnessing his career crumbling around him, Mostel’s panic and heartbreak give tragic resonance to the film.

 

 
Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:

The Front is a tragicomic look at how the blacklist worked and how some people sank and swam in its wake. The film gains all the more energy and poignancy from being told by several blacklisted artists.
 
Writer Bernstein captures the collusion between the entertainment moguls and HUAC in a scene of nauseating obsequiousness. Network head Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) all but gives the committee members blow jobs for their selflessly patriot service to the country, and they gobble it up like greedy lapdogs. The exchange is a good reminder not only to Howard, but also to the audience that such egos demand tribute and obedience and that naming names pays them tribute and builds their appetite for power. When prompted to give up a name, for example, Hecky Brown, who can no longer be hurt by these sharks, Howard realizes that to do so would be to confirm the committee’s verdict on the harmless entertainer and give his employer and government an out for their shameful behavior. His parting words, shocking coming out of the mouth of Woody Allen, are “Fellas… I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.
 
The Front begins and ends with Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart,” a hit song in 1953-54, the time period during which the film takes place. The lyrics, “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/If you’re young at heart,” give way to the bitter irony of the second verse “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams/And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” Perhaps in shame for helping to take down Philip Loeb, Columbia Pictures coproduced this film. For blacklisted artists who had been living the fairy tale of the American Dream until their youthful activities brought down the wrath of a paranoid nation, The Front offers them public redemption—and the paycheck many of them were denied during this dark time.

 

 

John Greco has some background at his blog Twenty Four Frames:

Ritt and Bernstein, both of whom were blacklisted in the early fifties, knew each other since those early days of live TV and also worked together on two movies (Paris Blues and The Molly Maguires) prior to “The Front.” The director and writer had been discussing making a film about the blacklist for years but were nervous about a serious drama being too preachy and also finding it hard to get financing. The studios would demand a big name to help protect their investment. Bernstein felt a lighter approach with serious overtones could make the film more acceptable. Dustin Hoffman’s name was mentioned. Then Woody’s name came up. It would be his first straight role. Allen hesitantly agreed to be in the film (In a New York Times article by Guy Flatley, Allen pleaded with Ritt to replace him with Peter Falk), it was a stretch but it wasn’t “Hamlet” either. While Bernstein is given sole credit for the script the film contains lines that seem very Woody like. For example, when Florence discusses her upper class childhood life, she says, “the biggest sin was to raise one’s voice.” Howard responds, “In my family, the biggest sin was to buy retail.” Later when he admits to Florence he is not really a writer, he adds “I can barely write a grocery list.” However, some of the humor is a bit darker, at one point Howard is told to change a holocaust scene in a script because one of the advertisers is a gas company.
 
Woody was uncomfortable throughout the filming. He felt out of his element and he had no control over the making of the film, yet it is the ‘Woody’ persona that helped make the film more appealing to the general movie going audience, and the studio, who would not sit through an overbearing diatribe on the blacklist. Though both Ritt and Bernstein were passionate about wanting to make the film, the results are rather uneven, at times fiery and other times rather passionless and cool toward its subject matter, surprisingly so for this director whose films include “Norma Rae”, The Great White Hope,” and “Sounder.” Part of the reason may be due to some of the other cast members. Andrea Marcovicci is lifeless in a role that required anger, as is Michael Murphy’s dull blacklisted writer. It is actually Allen’s performance, and Zero Mostel’s, that hold the film together. They are the Yin and Yang of the film, polar opposites not only physically but in humor and the audiences they speak too. Woody’s character is one whose only interest is in making money and reaping his new found fame as a writer until he finally transforms into a man who takes a moral stand and responsibility at the end of the film. Howard’s inquisition before the committee reveals the absurdity of the proceedings when in order to avoid jail time he is offered the opportunity to name names even if it is the dead Hecky Brown. Mostel’s Hecky Brown is based partially on his own experience of being blacklisted and the indignities he faced. The Catskill scene of being chiseled down on salary is based on an incident Mostel came face to face with. Bernstein also blended into Hecky Brown the story of actor Philip Loeb whose career tanked after he was blacklisted. The pressure of the blacklist for Loeb, along with being the sole support for his mentally ill son was finally too much. Depressed, he overdosed on sleeping pills in a room at the Hotel Taft in New York. In his book, “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist,” Walter Bernstein discusses Loeb’s ordeal in detail. Other blacklisted cast members appearing in the film include, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough and Joshua Shelley.

 

 
Dan Georgakas talks to Bernstein for New Labor Forum:

How much of The Front was actuality and how much was invented?

Most of it was based on actual events. Of course, the character Woody Allen plays is a composite of several people who fronted for us, and the character Zero Mostel plays is a composite drawn on Philip Loeb, John Garfield,and other people I had known. The three writers who meet at the deli were based on me, Abe Polonsky,and Arnold Manoff. We were all blacklisted and worked as a group.
 
One of the writers tells Woody Allen that he really is a communist. I think that was a Hollywood first.

That’s a point I wanted to make. I wasn’t blacklisted for nothing. It wasn’t an accident.
 
How did Woody Allen respond to all this? He was still at an early stage in his career.
Woody really made the picture possible. Marty Ritt and I had always wanted to do a movie about the blacklist. We wanted to do a straight dramatic story, but we couldn’t get anyone interested. In desperation, we decided to try to do it sidewise with a comic approach. We got a studio to put up money for a script.The studio heads liked the script and said they’d be interested in doing it if we got a star. Their idea of a star was some- one like Robert Redford. Well, that wasn’t the kind of character we had done, and then we got the idea of approaching Woody. He wasn’t what they now call bankable, but he already had a certain amount of clout. We sent him the script, and he agreed to do the role. We went to Paris, where he was shooting Love and Death. At that time, he was not particularly interested in acting in someone else’s work, but he wanted to do the film, because he believed in what it was saying. He made it clear he was working as an actor. It was our script and our baby. I went to him for advice a couple of times, but he never interfered. He was great to work with.

 

 

Ferdinand elaborates on the poignancy of the Zero Mostel plot thread:

The plot line involving Hecky Brown (Mostel), the television star who suddenly doesn’t seem right for his hit show, is easily the most affecting. He and Howard become friendly during the short time their paths cross at the television studio, and it’s easy to see why. The flamboyantly funny Hecky isn’t so different from Howard—he’s basically apolitical and in need of money to support his family. His “Communist past” can be put down to trying to get laid and supporting the Soviet Union during World War II when they were allies of the United States. He’s willing to write letters, even spy for HUAC to keep working, but to no avail. He has to bum a ride with Howard to a Catskills resort to perform for many times less than his normal fee; the resort owner (Shelley) is only too happy to take advantage of Hecky’s misfortune by cutting the meager fee even further.
 
Hecky’s humiliation makes life unbearable for him, and one night, he makes a visit to Howard to apologize for his tantrum at the resort, checks into a hotel, and takes delivery on a bottle of champagne from room service. He toasts himself in a mirror, goes into the next room, and moves out of the frame. Moments later, a sheer curtain blows into the frame, and the camera moves to reveal the bottle of champagne sitting on the sill of an open window. The film craft in this scene is superb, with its understated image of Hecky seeing himself only in terms of how he is mirrored back to himself by his adoring audience, and an off-camera suicide that offers a beautiful, diaphanous image of horror waving angelically at the audience. Mostel, a personal friend of Philip Loeb, infuses his performance with all the love he had for the man whom he personifies as Hecky Brown; there wasn’t a dry eye in my house after this scene played.

 

 

Eric Kohn
on the power of the Mostel thread, for Reverse Shot:

Ritt and cinematographer Michael Chapman capture the final act, a lethal plunge from several stories above street level, in an eerily fluid long take that spares the gritty details without undermining its dreaded inevitability.
 
Allen’s panache is restrained enough to carry the 95 minutes, and occasionally even reaches an electrified dramatic range that none of his outings as director and star have reached. But most importantly, his starring role still leaves ample room for Hecky’s tragic downfall. Though technically a minor character (he acts in one of the scripts that Prince fronts), Hecky’s suicide becomes a major element in the crowd-pleasing finale, when Prince chooses to defy the House Un-American Activities Committee after being asked to name his late collegue to avoid being put out of the job.
 
At the time of its release, Gary Arnold criticized this ending in the Washington Post, complaining that the film “…seems to have confused Howard’s essentially furtive gesture, which probably reflects (screenwriter Walter Bernstein’s) desire to tell off the Committee, with the sort of compulsive clowning Zero Mostel demonstrated in 1955. While taking the Fifth, Mostel…would wiggle five fingers.” A reenactment of this scene would still play much better than Howard’s exit lines, even as a shameless grandstand appeal. But with Hecky’s monumental death sequence, Mostel’s quixotic tomfoolery in the face of unemployment was indeed restored to glory. While much of his theatrical energy in The Front is mercilessly chopped up in unflattering close-ups and scenes where various higher-ups berate his vague affiliation with the disparaged political party of yore, the long take leading across Hecky’s hotel room and following him to the window gave the actor proper spatial range to channel his character’s resigned psyche into a few brief moments of ironic girth.
 
During these eerily restrained moments, the character acquiesces to the pressures created by forces beyond his control as the invisible walls of the frame become the restrictive barriers of his frail reality. Hecky’s interaction with his reflection in the mirror represents a dying wish—to perpetually preserve an ethic of optimism, even in the most dour of circumstances. But the reflection is a lie, as Hecky knows too well. His conclusive decision signifies the inherent danger of restricting creative expression. Unable to make amends with his world, Hecky chooses to die locked up in a falsified flight of fancy.

 

 
RittMartin in an AFI interview:

To what extend does “The Front” reflect the blacklist era accurately and to what extent is it dramatized for a mass audience?

Everything in that film happened. I was there in that delicatessen when the front said to one of the writers I know, “This is not up to my usual standards. I’m not going to turn it in.”
 
What about the final scene? Is that based on fact?

It’s based on fact in the sense that several guys totally defied the committee. As a matter of fact, when Woody Allen and I decided to use that line, to tell the committee to go fuck themselves, Columbia said, “You can’t do that. This is a PG film.” Finally, we got an OK on it on the basis that a film had opened prior to ours which has gotten the proper rating because of its high intentions. And when the screening committee that rates films saw “The Front” they decided to go with that.
 
Do you think you could get a movie like that made today?
I doubt it. The atmosphere today in this country makes it even more difficult to do serious films. It is possible to survive making films that basically represent who you are and what you’re about. But it ain’t easy. Of course, nothing easy is really worthwhile.

 

And Ritt cantankerously offers his own “F you” to Kael and Sarris:

Andrw Sarris said in reviewing “The Front,” said I wonder what Mr. Ritt and Mr. Bernstein would do if they were writing a film about the Soviet Union. Period. He did not discuss the film. Pauline Kael said the same thing. She said Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Ritt were duped. Now I venture to say the political knowledge of both people is nil. They have suffered for their politics not one wit. There’s not a political gut between the two of them. I don’t know what they hell they’re talking about. I don’t know who the hell they are on that level to make such statements.

 
So there.

 

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Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) http://altscreen.com/05/03/2012/wednesday-editors-pick-celine-and-julie-go-boating-1974/ http://altscreen.com/05/03/2012/wednesday-editors-pick-celine-and-julie-go-boating-1974/#respond Thu, 03 May 2012 12:16:39 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=30810
Playing Fri May 4 thru Thurs May 10 at 1:00, 4:35, 8:10 daily at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

 
A new print of Rivette’s hard-to-see, undefinable masterpiece in a full-length run at Film Forum.; according to David Fear, “”There’s cinema, and then there’s Céline and Julie Go Boating. Jacques Rivette’s free-form dissertation on the interzone between performance and spectatorship is the ideal filmgoing experience, even as the ‘story’ transcends all long-standing rules of narrative engagement. It’s the Ulysses of moving pictures: You can feel Rivette exploring the art form’s modes of expression and then erasing their borders, one by one.”
 

Dennis Lim just this week for The New York Times:

Duration and immersion are Mr. Rivette’s principal tools, preconditions for the participatory trance state that often descends on viewers of his films. His signature special effect is the uncanny impression that the story is being generated by the characters as we watch; or, spookier and more thrilling still, by the very act of our watching. This perceptual sleight of hand is central to the appeal of Mr. Rivette’s best-known and best-loved film, “Céline and Julie Go Boating,” from 1974, which is being revived for a weeklong run in a new print at Film Forum starting on Friday. It’s not just that the film holds up to repeat viewings; its very point is its seemingly infinite repeatability, its mysterious capacity to surprise both first-time viewers and those who know it as well as a magician reciting an incantation.
 
Telepathic co-conspirators on a shared adventure that may be a hallucination, Céline and Julie are also surrogates for the viewer in what becomes a parable of movie watching. The mansion that they take turns visiting is akin to an old cinema with an unchanging daily matinee. Partisan and highly vocal viewers, Céline and Julie delight in the creaky melodrama forming in their mind’s eye, even while mocking it, and in a mutinous act of active spectatorship, take it upon themselves to enter the film within the film and rewrite its ending.

 

 

Alt Screen contributor Michael Atkinson for the Village Voice:

The Zeno’s paradox of late-to-video world masterpieces, Jacques Rivette’s 1974 hypnotic spellbinder Celine and Julie Co Boating is a universally worshiped post-nouvelle vague classic that giddily resists critical exegesis. No other great film may be as difficult to characterize. Break it down into summary and you risk sounding like a compulsive Aquarian geek lost in his own acid flashes.
 
It’s not a story, and never intends to be. Truly, you have to watch Rivette’s film to understand what it’s about, because what it’s about is the peculiarly, almost frighteningly delicious act of watching it. It’s about cinema, inventing as well as entering into unforeseen narratives. But it’s not self-acknowledging la Godard- it is self-knowing, the difference between Pound and Eliot. (It vibrates with early-70s intimacy as well.)
 
You are the ball being bounced through the film, and for that it comes off 23 years later as the film Peter Greenaway would dash all his charts and schemes to have the grace to make. In a very real and mysterious sense, and clocking in at over three hours, Celine and Julie is the endless, enveloping dream experience movies have promised us since their beginnings.

 

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

One of the great modern films, Jacques Rivette’s 193-minute comic extravaganza is as scary and as unsettling in its diverse narrative high jinks as it is hilarious and exhilarating in its uninhibited slapstick. Its slow, sensual beginning stages a mysterious, semiflirtatious meeting between a shy librarian (Dominique Labourier) and a nightclub magician (Juliet Berto). Eventually, an outlandish plot-within-a-plot magically takes shape between them–a Jamesian, Victorian, and somewhat sexist melodrama featuring Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder (the film’s producer), and a little girl–as each of them, on successive days, visits an old dark house where the exact same events take place. Oddly enough, both of the plots in this giddy comedy are equally outlandish, but the remarkable thing about this intricate balancing act is that each one holds the other in place; the elaborate, Hitchcockian doublings are so beautifully worked out that this movie steadily grows in resonance and power, and the final payoff is well worth waiting for. The four main actresses scripted their own dialogue in collaboration with Eduardo de Gregorio and Rivette, and the film derives many of its most euphoric effects from a wholesale ransacking of the cinema of pleasure (cartoons, musicals, thrillers, and serials). The use of locations (Paris’s Montmartre in the summertime) and direct sound is especially appealing, and cat lovers are in for a particular treat

 
Read Rosenbaum’s extensive essay on the film here.

 

 
Michelle Orange, also for the Village Voice:

Céline and Julie remains one of the most accessibly enigmatic jewels of the French New Wave—three-plus hours of delightfully maddening intricacy that reek not of musty masterwork, but rather of effortless, exhilarating play. Rivette muse Juliet Berto, who died in 1990 at age 43, is the titular flibbertigibbet Céline. She is youth, 24 frames per second; watching Berto reflexively command the attention (and hot pursuit) of Julie (Dominique Labourier) in the extended sequence that opens the film, it seems outrageous that cancer could even contemplate, much less befall, such a vibrant creature. The tentative stalking that ensues between Céline the alpha waif and Julie, a rosso librarian with a weakness for all things occult, culminates in Céline’s fib about a beating and subsequent installment in Julie’s flat. The women mind-meld over dolls and Bloody Marys, but when Julie attempts to investigate Céline’s assault, both are gradually engulfed by a fifth-dimension odyssey of men, murder, and copious lozenge ingestion.
 
Rivette’s narrative is as antic and resistant to boundaries as his heroines; he weaves cinematic and self-reference with sublime—and ultimately substantiated—assurance and wit. The girls begin to revel in their urban safari, hunting big psychic game in one of storytelling’s most reliable constructs: the haunted house. Eventually they conspire, in the grand New Wave tradition, to insert themselves in history as it unfolds, and change the game.

 

 
Keith Uhlich for Slant:

Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece—quite possibly his greatest film—is a deceptively light-hearted confection that begins and ends (or, rather, begins again) at the entrance to a Parisian wonderland. Bespectacled librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) pursues amateur magician Céline (Juliet Berto) across a city of dreams (hence the film’s homage-to-Feuillade subtitle, “Phantom Ladies Over Paris”), though Rivette doesn’t distinguish between the real and the imagined. Theirs is a world of limitless, initially aimless possibilities (reflecting the film’s own improvisational genesis) that are slowly honed to a sharp precision point. Those bracing themselves for (or already baffled by) David Lynch’s Inland Empire will find the seeds of that film’s madness in Céline and Julie Go Boating, what with its pervasive Lewis Carroll referents and seamless doubling effects. Céline and Julie’s friendship adheres to an emotional dream logic, so we never question the developmental gaps. These women clearly belong together and it’s thrilling to watch them sever all real-world ties (in situations where they’re each surreptitiously disguised as the other) so that they may focus on the main drama: the rescue of a young girl (Nathalie Asnar) from a haunted house that continually replays the same murderous melodrama. This story-within—which also features Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, and Barbet Schroeder going through a series of hilariously deadpan motions—has been described as everything from an RKO programmer to a Henry James pastiche: like a fourth-wall smashing Kuleshov experiment, it is what you make of it. More important is that Céline and Julie, after several false starts and with the Proustian aid of a magical memory candy, eventually realize they can be more than spectators to the unfolding drama. The duo’s final assault on this intertextual Mobius strip is liberating and brilliantly sustained, though it nonetheless resonates with a variety of discomforting implications (read between the lines for a despondent post-May ’68 commentary) that belie the overall jocularity of Rivette’s presentation.

 
Ed Gonzalez chimes in as well for Slant:

Jacques Rivette’s spry and intoxicating 1974 comedy Céline and Julie Go Boating observes the way women look at each other, themselves, and the world around them. This through-the-looking-glass comedy begins inside a lovely Parisian garden, with the titular Julie playing Alice to her friend Céline’s white rabbit. The transfixing allure of the film is all over its divine introduction and the way the wind moves sensually through the trees. It’s a perfectly ordinary day, but there’s a hint of mischief in the air. Rivette’s once-upon-a-time title card is the first clue: “Most of the time it started like this.” A seemingly frenzied and oblivious Céline (Juliet Berto) runs past Julie (Dominique Labourier), dropping a string of items. Julie subsequently chases Celine though the park and a local market in order to return her personal belongings. It quickly becomes obvious that the two women are playing a game, and as such the sexy, prosaic tonality of the film’s famous intro reveals itself as a fascinating act of subversion (the “but, the next morning” title cards are Rivette’s theoretical contractions). Simultaneously literate, stagy, and organic, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a free-wheeling study of the narrative-making process and the way we watch movies, but at three-hours-plus, the film’s improvisational tone sometimes betrays Rivette’s meta momentum. Celine and Julie’s spontaneous misadventures actively reject memory and are intercut with scenes from a murder mystery set inside a possibly haunted house (comparisons to Mulholland Drive are impossible to ignore). The film’s dialectic isn’t so much an interplay between the past and the present as it is an elaborate confrontation between two very active spectators and a dodgy narrative text. Rivette fabulously engages silent film idiom (watch for the romantic imbroglio between a disguised Céline and Julie’s childhood crush and, later, the sweet homage to Les Vampires, a favorite of Rivette’s) as a means of rejecting the past (represented by the house). Julie looks back, Celine looks forward. When they do neither, they’re as free as the wind. Indeed, the world is very much a stage for Rivette’s actresses, and they believe only in living in the moment.

 

 
Joseph Jon Lanthier, meanwhile, has three different takes on the film also for Slant.
 
Julia Lesage introduces an insightful feminist reading of the film, for Jump Cut:

Celine and Julie has its coterie of fans, including myself and some of my friends who interpret it fondly as a “lesbian” work. The film invites you to its protagonists’ apartment to play. Just as Julie (Dominique Labourier) unpacks Celine’s things the first time Celine (Juliet Berto) enters her apartment, intending this stranger to stay with her indefinitely, so too this film asks viewers to spend a long time (3 and 1/4 hours) enjoying it. The delight of the film resides in its whacky comedy, fantasy, improvisation, puzzle-like interior fiction, and stylistic inventiveness (especially a heightened use of color and sound).
 
For a feminist audience, Celine and Julie offers a comic dream about how two women can relate to each other intimately. Celine and Julie enter each other’s fantasy with little ego boundary between them, and they solve each other’s problems either by adolescent hi-jinks or by outright magic, and a pretty tacky magic at that. Play is their means of discovery, tactic for action, and mode of existence. The film uses play as a way of subversion. As in a child’s “fooling around,” the film exaggerates the expansiveness of some acts, repeats others to the point of irritation, and mixes up ordinary social dominance orders. For feminist viewers, one effect such playfulness can have is to reorganize their perception and understanding of the possibilities of women’s lives.

 

 
Rosenbaum and Gilbert Adair sit down with Rivette for Film Comment:

ROSENBAUM: Were cartoons an influence?

Oh, yes. Definitely. But it was important as an idea only at the beginning. If we’d had more time and money we would have pursued it more systematically. Although it might not have changed anything. And the actresses had this in mind all the time, especially Juliet. Everything she does is always very visual, physical. Her movements are very staccato-the way she walks, the way she eats the candy.
 

ROSENBAUM: When was script writing introduced into the project?

There never really was a written script. What is a scenario, after all? If it’s a project for a film, or, on the contrary, something written and then shot, I don’t do that any longer-not since L’AMOUR FOU-and I have no desire to do it again.
 
We began by elimination: we didn’t want to make a serious film; we didn’t want to make a film about the theater because we’d done that too often; we didn’t want to make a film about current events or politics. But we did have the desire from the very beginning to do something close to comedy, and even frankly commedia dell’arte. And the first thing we did after two hours of conversation was to look for the characters’ names. And we stopped there that evening. So finding the names Céline and Julie was our starring point . . .
 
The first stage consisted of conversations with Juliet and Dominique, when quite quickly the two girls organized their own characters. Then came the idea of their meeting, how the two connected. But then there was a stage-after the first half-hour of the film as it now stands-where we didn’t have a clear idea, where there were all kinds of possibilities. We hesitated for about two weeks with Eduardo [de Gregorio], who had joined us by that time. We already felt that a second story was necessary within the first, for which I wanted Bulle [Ogier] and Marie-France [Pisier], in order to have another feminine pair, both in opposition and in relation to the first. But we didn’t know at all either u’lint the second story would be or the mechanism between the two-that’s what took the longest to organize. It was by approximation, groping. It was Eduardo who suggested the Henry James novel [The Other House] which we started from, which he hadn’t read himself but had heard about. In fact, none of us has read it because we couldn’t find it. Eduardo read only the dramatization, which is apparently very boring; and I don’t read English well enough.
 
We didn’t want this to be a realistic investigation-we sought a less realistic principle. We thought of lots of things, like Bioy Casares-Morel’s Invention. The day when we were really happy, when I felt we’d found the trigger, was the day we had the idea of the candy. Because that was what permitted us to bring everything together.

 

 
They continue:

ROSENBAUM: When did you shoot the scenes in the house?

In the middle of the shooting. At first we thought of doing it later, and then for all sorts of practical reasons-because both girls had to talk about the house in their scenes together-we had to shoot it earlier. On the whole, the shooting was in three parts: first we shot more or less everything corresponding to the first part of the film-all the exteriors (the chase, etc.) and the “annexes” (like the cabaret); then the scenes in the house; then everything taking place in Julie’s apartment
 
The scenes in the house had to be written; those between the two girls were largely written by the actresses themselves. Their dialogue wasn’t definitive, but a sort of canvas on which we improvised afterward. After all, there were many precise things that had to be said; it couldn’t be totally improvised. And there was a whole system of repetition in the house, so that had to be completely written. Marie-France, Bulle, Eduardo, and I wrote out the principal scenes. But Bulle’s monologue when she’s bleeding and the scene just after, between Marie-France and Barbet [Schroeder], were done only by Eduardo.
 
ADAIR: In OUT there are explicit references to “The Hunting of the Snark,” and the whole of CELINE ET JULIE is saturated with the spirit of Lewis Carroll. What role did Alice in Wonderland play in the conception of the latter film?

We thought of it in the first scene. We wanted Juliet’s dash in front of Dominique on the park bench to remind one a bit of the White Rabbit. The idea was that Dominique would chase her and they would both fall, not into the rabbit hole, but into fiction.

 

 
David Phelps for MUBI:

L’amour fou and even Out 1 are the realistic ones (comparatively) because the worlds the characters create and destroy—and ultimately outgrow—are short-lived balms in face of a messy, mutable reality. Plot as they might, the real world can’t be demarcated; as in Renoir, relationships continue only as long as they continue to change and, eventually, fade away. But the fantasy life becomes plausible (in all sorts of ways) in Céline and Julie, because the fantasies here, infinitely more petty, are not for order, but for subversion, not for stability, but for constant mutation and metamorphosis. Both girls are magicians, and so, as if by invocation, little works of art become real; characters are brought to life.
 
Ultimately, Céline and Julie are, as Rivette has insisted, two sides of the same person, each really just an excuse for the other’s antics. The ultimate metamorphoses are when they nearly become each other–though not quite, since they each just take the other’s role that was a role to start with (as superficial as those assigned roles Renoir characters are always gleefully taking on as true). Julie plays the magician act, and Céline plays the role of girlfriend to Julie’s dandy boyfriend, who entails a completely ritualized relationship. And thus, I think, they provide bohemian metamorphoses of two other rascals exploiting their sex and objectifying men: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell of Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. That any movie could successfully wield and weld the dual primary influences of Hawks’ facetious ode to capitalism (but ode nonetheless) and the anti-capitalist Situationists’ double principles of the dérive and détournement (and just look at the inside of Céline’s house to see how they’ve recreated the world as collage) is an achievement. Céline and Julie Go Boating manages to show how Hawks and the situationists are nearly one and the same. Money-diggers are explorers, after all, and money is to be used for exploration, and as a spur to co-opt spectacles. But that’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As in a spoiled child’s world, money’s no issue one way or another in Céline and Julie; the one thing it doesn’t subvert, of course (how could it?), is a subversive situationist ethos. A do it yourself guide to rediscovering the delights of the street outside, and of the idiots all around you, here’s where we see Rivette first moving toward Shakespeare, and the world as all fools’ paradise.

 

 
James Crawford for Reverse Shot:

Céline and Julie’s subtitle (“Phantom Ladies Over Paris”) and opening intertitle (“Usually, it began like this”) recall the wafting fairy-tale ephemera of René Clair circa Paris qui dort, and the ludicrous exchange between Céline and Julie’s long-distant childhood beau, Guilou (Philippe Clévenot), has the distinct perfume of silent cinema. Already in his mid-forties by the time Céline and Julie was released, Rivette is here somewhat softened. He’s mature and generous enough to allow that the church of movie love is big enough to accommodate those propitiating Jacques Prévert, Réné Clément, and Jacques Feyder (whose contributions Truffaut summarily drowned in his bathtub), as well as those worshipping at the altar of Godard, Hawks, Hitchcock, Tati, Ford, Ray, Lang, etc. Though Rivette doesn’t celebrate the melodrama of the play within he gives it space to breathe, at least momentarily.
 
But not for long: during the justly celebrated penultimate sequence, when Julie and Céline subvert the laws of the fiction house by entering it simultaneously, Rivette quite literally strips the veneer off cinema. He abandons the flattering three-point lighting system in favor of a single source of illumination, placed somewhere behind the camera, which casts ugly, misshapen, unstylized shadows across the screen. Not that there’s anything beautiful left to behold. His quartet of rather attractive actors now have their faces smeared with a sickly greenish-beige cream that’s a hyperbolic approximation of silent-film pancake makeup, and they go about their business with glazed, unattended stares. The drama proceeds as it had previously, using identical camera placement, editing, etc., but with Céline and Julie taking scene-by-scene turns at playing the role of nurse, the fiction house becomes a Hawksian screwball comedy. They forget their lines, miss their cues, gesture wildly to each other behind the characters’ backs, stand in mute horror at their gaffes, and generally make a hilarious mockery of their serious task: trying, as the ultimate invested spectators, to find out who killed Madlyn.

 

 

Michael Ned Holte for Artforum:

IN HIS AMOROUS 1975 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes intimates that “we go to the movies through sloth, out of an inclination for idleness, inactivity. It is as though, before even entering the theater, the traditional prerequisites for hypnosis were met: a feeling of emptiness, idleness, inactivity: we dream, not by viewing the film or by the effect of its content, rather, we dream, unwittingly, before becoming its spectator. There exists a ‘cinematic condition’ and this condition is prehypnotic.” In the essay, Barthes avoids referring to any film in particular, but his hallucinatory description of a disembodied spectator—hypnotized, doubled, “twice fascinated”—certainly reminds me of the eponymous protagonists who occupy both sides of the looking glass in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating. Ingesting magic candy, amateur magician Céline (Juliet Berto) and librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) slip into the rabbit hole of narrative; in return, they stare at us through a trippy two-way mirror with wide-eyed attention, sometimes horrified by what they see, sometimes amused, giggling. Their screen is our screen, too.
 
Arriving at the tail end of the New Wave—it should be noted that Rivette, like auteurs Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and replaced Eric Rohmer as editor in 1963—Céline and Julie seemingly predicts, among other things, the Lacanian cinema theory of Christian Metz’s Imaginary Signifier (1977) and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (written in 1973, published in 1975). If the latter essay dissected the male’s gaze and the female’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” encoded in cinema, then Rivette’s film is remarkable in its positioning of its female leads as both characters and spectators (mostly) in control of the film’s subjectivity and outcome. (Despite Rivette’s position as director, Berto and Labourier are credited as writers, and indeed, much of the film was improvised, which surely informs its playful, unrushed sensibility.) It is never clear whether Céline and Julie are lovers or just friends—or perhaps each other’s imaginary friend; the film’s allusive subtitle is Phantom Ladies over Paris. But the pair clearly reflect complex aspects of each other in their game of cat and mouse.
 
Céline and Julie invents its own sense of time, meandering in and around Montmarte with a dreamy summertime rhythm that is occasionally prone to repetitions, stutters, and blackouts. Its structure is a Möbius strip: The film literally begins and ends in the same location, with Céline and Julie swapping places. Rivette bends genres while nodding to cinema’s variegated history by inserting a suspenseful horror story—and what seems to be a haunted house—inside an endearing, slow-motion slapstick comedy, efficiently connecting the dots between vaudeville and genuine movie magic along the way. Viewing Rivette’s hypnotic film is perhaps the perfect fulfillment of summer’s “inclination for idleness,” because when Céline and Julie go boating, we go boating, too.

 

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Tuesday Editor’s Pick: My Own Private Idaho (1991) http://altscreen.com/05/01/2012/tuesday-editors-pick-my-own-private-idaho-1991/ http://altscreen.com/05/01/2012/tuesday-editors-pick-my-own-private-idaho-1991/#respond Wed, 02 May 2012 03:11:37 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=30803
Playing Tue May 8 at 6:15 at at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

 

FSLC continues their cumulative journey through “50 Years of the New York Film Festival” highlights. If you haven’t already, you need to read Dan Callahan’s deeply considered, semi-confessional feature on Idaho, followed by Matt Connolly’s meta-auteurist career profile of the stylistically protean director.

 

Gus Van Sant’s third feature film (technically, his fourth) is a landmark of both American independent filmmaking and art-fag aestheticism. It’s also the ultimate fetish object in the cult of River Phonenix, the youthful blonde actor whose tragically early death (drugs) came shortly after the release of Idaho.

 

Here’s a late interview with Phoenix, who’s a lot less charming here than he normally was on-screen, but it gives you an idea of what his attitude towards his art and career was like at the end. Asked to sum up the vagaries of movie stardom, Phoneix responds: “I found myself being blown by America’s film corporations.” Not coincidentally, that’s the first scene in Idaho.

 

 

The money shot, if you will, from from Idaho:

 

Dave Kehr writes one for the history books in the Chicago Tribune:

Beautifully wrought, darkly funny and finally devastating, “My Own Private Idaho“ almost single-handedly revives the notion of personal filmmaking in the United States. As the title suggests, this new film by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy“) is an intensely subjective one, mixing fantasy and autobiography, public texts (including great hunks of William Shakespeare`s “Henry IV“plays) and private speculations. There are corners of the film that will remain impossible to illuminate, and yet this sprinkling of enigma, of the unknowable and unreadable, is what gives the movie its force and staying power.

 

There is not much more to the plot than that, but this is a film of breathtakingly free and constant movement. The device of Mike`s narcolepsy allows Van Sant to make wildly impulsive, radical transitions (Mike falls asleep and awakes in another scene, another state or even in another country). And more than that, it allows Van Sant to create complex, poetic montage sequences that, in mingling dream and reality through poetically related images, pick up where Sergei Eisenstein`s most extreme experiments in associational editing left off back in the 1920s. So graceful is Van Sant`s work here, so elegant and expressive its juxtaposition of open and closed spaces, of warm and cool colors and rough and smooth textures, that it immediately surpasses much of the experimental filmmaking of the last 20 years. And yet the sequence, as formally inventive as it is, is perfectly comprehensible in narrative terms, setting up Mike`s character with a clarity and precision that would require reams of conventional dialogue.

 

There is no more heartbreaking image in recent cinema than that of an exhausted Phoenix curling up to sleep on a sidewalk, oblivious to the shards of broken glass that lie next to his cheek. This is a very rich, very sympathetic piece of work.

 

 

Michael Atkinson for The Village Voice:

Gus Van Sant searched for and found a new vocabulary in this utterly seminal, decade-defining punk of a movie, as restless, densely inhabited, and full of half-cocked brilliance as a tweak house in springtime. The ostensible subject at hand is Seattle street hustlers, but what results is a magical mystery tour of deadpan élan, Shakespearean pastiche and post-teen ardor for living below the radar. Fourteen years later, there is much to consider: the Henry Vquasi-re-creations, the suddenly mysterious sine qua non of Keanu Reeves, the Falstaffian wonder of screenwriter William Richert (brought on board, it is said, by River Phoenix after A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon was birthed from Richert’s novel), Van Sant’s magnificent rediscovery of the Northwestern landscape, and most of all, River Phoenix. As a comically weary, narcoleptic nowhere guy constantly awakening in strange places, Phoenix was his generation’s great short-lived cultural axiom, wary and spontaneous and so submerged in his movie life there’s no sense he even knew we were watching.

 

 

Amy Taubin for the Criterion Collection:

What is striking about Idaho today in light of Van Sant’s later films is its extraordinary hybridity. Where Elephant (2003), Gerry (2002), and Psycho (2000) are structured by a single daring formal device—the extended tracking shots in Elephant and Gerry; the shot-by-shot mimicry of Hitchcock’s original in PsychoIdaho is a collage that includes even a kitchen sink and some Little Dutch Boy cleanser to scrub it down. Van Sant mixes and matches scenes of documentary-style realism with campy musical set pieces, improvised dialogue with bowdlerized Shakespeare, dream sequences shot in grainy Super-8mm with 35mm vistas of the Pacific Northwest, and, on the soundtrack, Rudy Vallee with The Pogues. The main source materials for Idaho’s screenplay were two completely separate scripts and a short story, all written by Van Sant. One of the scripts was a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

 

Van Sant ties these various elements together by filtering the entire narrative through Mike’s snoozing consciousness. The irony is that the narcoleptic Mike is among the most unconscious characters to ever hit the screen. Abandoned by his mother early in life, he was raised by his brutish brother/father (with echoes of Chinatown, although, since Mike’s origins are below the poverty line, his incestuous parentage is no Greek tragedy, just an extra oedipal wrinkle in an already disenfranchised existence). Mike’s narcolepsy is his defense against his childhood agony of abandonment. Anything that reminds him of his lost mother triggers a violent psychosomatic reaction. He shakes so violently he looks like he’s going to explode and then keels over in a stupor. Idaho’s fragmented editing style—its heterogeneous visual associations and dense layering of words, sounds, and music—and its split-second shifts between the burlesqued and the heartfelt, evoke Mike’s confusion of inside and outside, past and present, dreams and waking life.

 

 
Taubin also interviewed Van Sant for Sight & Sound. Van Sant:

It’s my favorite. I’ve seen it probably ten times and it’s much better if you see it more than once. There are all sorts of things that become apparent on multiple viewings – I still see stuff that I didn’t know was there; serendipitous things that are there for a purpose, that are put in, ultimately, by my subconscious. Because when we’re making the film, we’re not doing intellectually, or at least, I’m not.

 

Read Taubin’s complete Sight & Sound feature by clicking on the images to enlarge:

 

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy were both certainly good, but this third feature from Gus Van Sant–who’s working for the first time with his own original material–is even better: a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. The first is a narcoleptic from a broken home, while the second is the son of the mayor of Portland; the one without a family is essentially looking for one while the one with a family is mainly in flight from it. The stylistic eclecticism is so far-ranging that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant’s poetic imagination and feeling for his characters are so lyrically focused that almost everything works, and even the parts that show some strain–such as an extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight that’s stitched into the plot like crazy-quilt patchwork–may excite you nonetheless for their audacity. Phoenix has certainly never been better, and Reeves does his best with a part that suffers from consisting largely of Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. One of the movie’s smallest accomplishments is providing the best metaphor for sexual orgasm to come along in years; one of its biggest is justifying an arsenal of road-movie conceits that until now seemed exhausted.

 

Dan Callahan’s feature deals extensively with the campfire scene and Phoenix’s reinterpretation of it. Compare the final scene with its conception in the original screenplay (below):
 

 
And the version of that scene in the original screenplay (click to enlarge):
 

Donald Lyons in Film Comment (Sept 1991):

“I am a connossieur of roads,” Phoenix’s Mike muses at the very end of the movie. “I have been tasting roads all my life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.” Van Sant has reanimated the tired tropes of the road movie by giving them a wholly new meaning – the road as Whitmanesque/Twainesque ribbon leading to a never-perhaps-attainably unity with the author of being. Mike, looking back at Portland, could say with Huck Finn, ‘I been there before.” Idaho is the “territory” he lights out for, but Mike’s Idaho is really at least as much an interior as a literal terrain. His compulsion to hug, to impose upon the bosom of the road, echoes Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” But Mike knows the landscape’s darker colors, too.

 

Portland cinematographers Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell have risen to Van Sant’s concept with images luminous and numinous; the very clouds and sky and land seem to glow from within. And Van Sant’s alertness to comic possibility deflects any looming heaviness. It is all richly American ‘ “America the Beautiful” (one mere element in the complex score) begins to sound when Mike looks out a suburban john’s window and murmurs “Backyard!” just before swooning (the john, a woman, reminded him of his mother); we hear it finally over the last road images.

 

[…] In his tender watchfulness for holiness in odd places, in his steady gaze at the awful absences of love, in his unjudging attention to obsession, Van Sant is the American Bresson.

 

To read Donald Lyons’ complete Film Comment feature, click on the images below:
 


 

Another Van Sant interview, from Vogue of all places:

 

 

 

Click here to read about James Franco’s installation art piece culled from 100 minutes of the film’s outtakes, at The Guardian. Says Franco of the film (which he elected to his Top 10 Criterion releases):

Gus is the best. Idaho was one of the first movies with which I fell in love. I would watch it repeatedly when I was a teenager. River Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime, original and inspiring. As a young actor, I needed nothing more than this performance for inspiration. The film is a collage of techniques, plots, and themes, expertly wound together as only Van Sant is able to do.

 

Michael Nordine for Hammer to Nail:

My Own Private Idaho is first and foremost a road movie. It’s also a loose adaptation of parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V in which a homeless kingpin replaces a portly knight and a gay street hustler stands in for to the heir to the throne. If this all sounds exceptionally strange, even for Van Sant, it is. But it’s also one of his most visually sophisticated outings to date, as well as an exceedingly interesting take on (and departure from) its source material. The actors are frequently posed in static sexual positions, with Van Sant jumping between several shots per second in strangely affecting, still-life montages; the sky moves sideways and backwards over unmoving landscapes; and, as an effect of all this, we’re made to feel not unlike the narcoleptic Mike as he drifts in and out of consciousness. This is all in service of Van Sant’s portrayal of physical and spiritual homelessness, of constant movement masking inertia within. My Own Private Idaho is populated by orphans, prodigal sons, and other lost souls for whom dancing around a trashcan fire or painting other peoples’ families while living in an RV is an adequate substitute for maintaining bonds with one’s own family.

 

Nearly everyone in the film does whatever he (and, more rarely, she) can do to distract himself from this fundamental loneliness, and often these diversions are sexual. So unlike, say, Elephant and Last Days, whose homosexual acts seem out of place and perhaps even just thrown in for the hell of it, the tendency among the men of this film to turn to each other for affection feels like a natural outgrowth of their fraternal bonds—they’ve no one else. This is especially true of Mike and Scott, but even here there’s a rejection: Mike makes himself as vulnerable as can be—at a campfire no less; as with an allusion to a man getting shot while watching Rio Bravo, this seems an intentional subversion of the cowboy myth which may be seen as a sort of thematic forerunner to Brokeback Mountain—and is again left out in the cold. It’s one of the few times we see him truly reach out, but far from his only disappointment.

 

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Romy Schneider retro at FIAF (thru Jun 26) http://altscreen.com/05/01/2012/romy-schneider-series-at-fiaf-may-01-jun-26/ http://altscreen.com/05/01/2012/romy-schneider-series-at-fiaf-may-01-jun-26/#comments Tue, 01 May 2012 18:34:27 +0000 http://altscreen.com/?p=30682
Test footage from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished L’Enfer (1964)

 

ACCORDING TO IMDB, there are no less than twenty print biographies of the actress Romy Schneider, sixteen of which are in German, four in French, and zero in English. At this point Schneider is barely known in America, though her beauty used to be world-renowned. Alain Delon, one of French cinema’s greatest male beauties, had a long running on- and off-screen affair with Schneider, and in 2009 he told the French newspaper Le Provence that Romy was the love of his life. Schneider’s movie stardom arced across three distinct periods: teenaged German ingenue turned overnight national icon; all-purpose Euro superstar on jet-setting international co-productions; and, finally, worldly grand dame of French cinema, her hair pulled severely back from her face. Yet even or especially at the end of her career, Schneider remained a kind of living toy, a fetish doll that directors, costume designers and makeup artists delighted in dressing up and re-painting. And thus it seems apropos that Schneider is perhaps most recognizable today not for a particular role or performance but for posing in test footage for a film that was never actually finished.

 

L’Enfer is a story of deranged jealousy that became a kind of obsession for its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, a project he could not or would not complete; after years of protracted development and glacial, budget-busting production, the shoot was definitively halted following the director’s heart attack. In the reels and reels of color tests that have emerged from that aborted project, Schneider seems game for anything asked of her. Her tiny kitty face is lathered in olive oil and dusted with glitter as a whirling succession of colored lights psychedelically rotate across her skin. She lasciviously sticks her tongue out so that it spreads against a clear glass frame, as if she were licking the movie screen itself. She throws her head back and smokes in a highly sexual manner. She even plays naughty with a slinky, letting it slither across her pulsating body.

 

Schneider looks almost embarrassingly pliable on camera here, but off-screen, she was demanding and self-protective. When the irascible Clouzot yelled at her, she yelled right back; power fluctuated between actress and director. At one point in the test footage, Clouzot comes up behind Schneider, who is dressed as a bride, and “playfully” strangles her. Yet in these potent fragments, it is Schneider, with her offhand sexual glamour, who seems to be in control.

 


Left Karlheinz Böhm and Schneider in Sissi (1955)
Right Alain Delon and Schneider in the Luchino Visconti stage production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1960)

 

SCHNEIDER’S MOTHER MAGDA was an accomplished actress in German films, having played the lead in director Max Ophuls’s early masterpiece Liebelei (1932). Vienna-born Romy made her debut, at age fifteen, in one of Magda’s films, Wenn der weibe Flieder wieder blüht (1953), in which the young actress is a picture of fresh-faced, natural charisma. This quality would be capitalized on in Sissi (1955), a well-made, candy-colored comedy where Schneider played a romanticized Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Sissi was such an enormous hit that it led to two sequels, and this popular trilogy would define Schneider’s image for some time, and in many ways, for all time. The Sissi films are still shown on TV every year during Christmas in Germany and several other European countries, and she remains an icon in Germany due to their continuing exposure. Though very light, the Sissi films aren’t to be scoffed at; as pure escapism, they can hardly be bettered, and Schneider plays them with happy, impulsive sincerity and glowing high spirits.

 

Yet almost immediately, Schneider started to work against her wholesome image, playing the part of a student in love with her female teacher in a 1958 remake of the lesbian love classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931). It was a highly subversive piece of casting that pays off, for Schneider limns her character’s forbidden love with all the warmth and eagerness she gave to Sissi. That same year, she headlined a remake of Liebelei called Christine, playing opposite the studly and taciturn Delon, with whom she fell in love off-camera and began a major affair. Christine is not anywhere near the quality of the Ophuls original; it’s a fatally reticent film, but that’s easy to overlook when Schneider and Delon are together on screen. They’re both catlike, but she’s a cat that will crawl into your lap right away, whereas he’s clearly un-pettable.

 


Romy does sex-kitten in the Luchino Visconti episode of Boccaccio ’70 (1961)

 

Schneider left Germany behind to live with Delon in France, where she visited him on the set of Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960). The Italian maestro Visconti was so taken with her beauty that he decided to play mentor, directing her first on stage in a production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and then in a short film, Il lavoro (The Job), for the omnibus movie Boccaccio ’70 (1961). This is a crucial pivot in Schneider’s career, the first time that a major director really showcases her. We initially discover her character spread out on the floor of her bedroom in a Chanel suit, a small grey cat by her side, the pastel décor of the room perfectly setting off her light pink clothing. Schneider’s young wife postures and dramatizes herself, so that she’s like a little girl playacting the part of a sophisticated woman (she was still only 24 at the time).

 

Visconti seems to indulge himself visually by framing a close-up of her feline face next to two actual kittens, one grey one and one white. But the director is setting a narrative trap here. He films Schneider as many of her directors did, with pleasure at her beauty and the many ways it can be presented, but as this rich young wife undresses and then dresses again, and speaks of wanting to get a job, Visconti slowly makes you realize how clueless and powerless she is. A sense of entitlement and privilege animates every move she makes, yet we come to feel how trapped this girl is, both in her luxurious apartment and the film itself. Even as she orders her servants around, she gradually comes to realize her status as a useless bauble, and ultimately she suggests that her husband pay her for sex; he agrees, and the film ends on a close-up of her tear-stained face as she waits for him in bed. This is a very angry movie about class and sexual power, and it is also a movie partly about Schneider’s ambiguous position as a woman who lets herself be looked at.

 


Orson Welles, Romy Schneider and Anthony Perkins inhabit the netherworld of Kafka’s The Trial (1962)

 

The following year, Schneider was sensitively directed by Orson Welles in an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. As Leni, a perverted assistant to a law advocate played by Welles himself, Schneider is slightly Sissi-esque in her impishness, but there’s something diamond-hard and Dietrich-like about her here, too, in manner and intonation. “Has she got any…physical defect?” Leni asks Joseph K (Anthony Perkins), when he speaks of Frau Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), the hooker who lives next door to him. “I’ve got a physical defect!” Leni cries, “I’ll show you, come on!” She runs into another room and throws herself onto some abandoned books, and Welles frames her hand in close-up as Joseph stares at it. “Look! Skin between my two middle fingers, like a web!” she boasts, girlishly. The way Schneider lingers over the words “physical defect” and shows off her webbed hand here is more mysteriously and truly erotic than any of her many nude scenes on film. After they hesitantly kiss, Leni says, “It bothers me that you don’t like me more than you do,” then sensually bites his chin. Schneider flowers under Welles’s sympathetic attention; he frames her face in stark black and white compositions so that it looks beautiful but also forbidding.

 

She next worked wonders for Otto Preminger, whose The Cardinal (1963) is either stupefying or masterfully neutral, depending on your auteurist leanings, but it’s unquestionable that Schneider is at her best in it as a girl in love with a priest (Tom Tryon). Sharp and good-humored, Schneider’s avid Annemarie brings the movie to life periodically, and in her last scene, behind bars in jail, her face is alive with bright, lacerating self-knowledge.

 


As an embittered adult Sissi in Visconti’s Ludwig (1972)

 

AT THIS POINT, Delon broke up with her, and this made her very unhappy. What followed was her least distinguished period. She tried comedy, first in Good Neighbor Sam (1964) with Jack Lemmon and then What’s New Pussycat? (1965), the first film appearance of Woody Allen. Those movies made clear that Schneider’s impulsive mannerisms, which had been so charming in German, looked strenuous and even ungainly when she spoke English. She lent thankless support to a Melina Mercouri vehicle, 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966), and idled in undistinguished films before Delon had her play opposite him in a sexy drama, The Swimming Pool (1969), where the one-time exquisite young lovers of Christine looked tanned and jaded and spent most of the movie in bathing suits while eying each other warily.

 

Schneider’s career was revived in 1970 when she made the first of five films with Claude Sautet, Les choses de la vie, playing Michel Piccoli’s sumptuously beautiful mistress. Her work rate accelerated: she completed 27 films from 1970 to 1982, many of which are little known in the US. Among the more seeable movies, she re-teamed with Delon in a poor Joseph Losey film, The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), and then Visconti came to her rescue again and offered her the chance to be a grown-up Sissi for his stately, mournful royal epic Ludwig (1972). In that film, Schneider plays the Empress as the unhappy, spoiled, narcissistic woman she was in real life, and her performance is held together by a quiet anger that feels very personal. She showed off her increasingly weathered sexiness in The Train (1974), then stuck her sharpest knife into her 1950s Sissi image in Le Trio infernal (1974), where she helps Piccoli dispose of a corpse by dissolving it in sulfuric acid.

 


Schneider gives everything she has to give to The Important Thing is to Love (1975)

 

Nothing that came before was adequate preparation, though, for what she accomplished in Andrzej Zulawski’s The Important Thing is to Love (1975). As Nadine Chevalier, an actress who has been reduced to softcore porn films, Schneider plays most of her scenes with little make-up and she opens herself to the camera so that we can sense just how exhausted she is; you can see her pores in most of her scenes, as her face gets covered in sweat, or tears, or rain. In some of her ‘70s films, Schneider just shows up in her glamorous clothes and says her lines, and it seems like her mind is elsewhere. As Nadine, Schneider can be opaque, but she also lets us enter into her vulnerabilities; her face is often candid, expectant, but all too often it is so weary that she seems capable of murder or suicide. Burnt-out, ill-tempered, Nadine knows that she has missed her chance to be a real actress, and she’s mired in the belief that it was just bad luck that did her in. “No one tried harder,” she tells an actor (Klaus Kinski) during rehearsal for a disastrous production of Richard III. “No one tried to give more.”

 

When Nadine has a huge freak-out in a café and screams at her ineffectual husband (Jacques Dutronc), Schneider arrives at the emotion organically, so that it doesn’t seem worked-up or controlled or pushed for us; it’s the real thing, and it commands respect. When Nadine lurches at an admirer (Fabio Testi) and starts to smack him as hard as she can, Schneider is frightening because she’s really hitting him, really feeling all of Nadine’s anger and her own, which is informing and creating it. Schneider doesn’t really give “a performance” in the accepted sense in this movie. She has been in front of the camera for so long that she has decided not to notice it’s even there, and she doesn’t give a damn how she looks. In this film, Schneider is one of the few performers who puts the calm of severe depression on the screen in an unvarnished state, without surface histrionics. This is magnificent work, pure as the sunlight that hits her face in the last moment of the film, when she says, “I love you” and tries to mean it.

 


Schneider and long-time lover Alain Delon in The Swimming Pool (1969)

 

AFTER THAT SUMMIT, which won Schneider a Cesar award, she fronted a rather nasty thriller for Claude Chabrol, Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975), and was one of the all-star cast in Bloodline (1979), a blot on the resume of everyone involved. The poster for Bertrand Tavernier’s sci-fi Death Watch (1980) featured Schneider’s face at the top of an hourglass, with a tagline above that reads, “She’s the target of every eye…including eyes only science can create,” and that summed up her position as a woman who had been looked at by cameras until it seemed like parts of her soul had started to disappear. Her personal life at this point was not a happy one. Two marriages failed, and in 1981, her young son David was impaled and killed trying to climb a fence. After his death, Schneider retreated into herself and drank heavily. Her friend Simone Signoret suggested that she return to work to get her mind off her loss, and so she made one more film, La passante du Sans-Souci (1982).

 

There are bits of that last Schneider film on YouTube. In one scene, she stares at a young boy with tears in her eyes. In another scene, she rescues a young boy who has been beaten by thugs. In both of those scenes, and an interview done shortly after shooting was completed, Schneider is so sad-eyed and confused that it’s difficult to watch her, but watch her I did, because she was someone who offered to be watched, and at her best she made us ask tough questions about what that entailed, both for her and for us. She died of a heart attack, and so of course you will find lots of writing on the internet that says she died of a “broken heart,” and that’s not necessarily wrong, but she spent the best part of her working life resisting such clichés.

 

In Germany, her image as Sissi is as durable as ever and shows no sign of flagging, no matter that she made so many other disturbing and adult films, including one where she offered a more truthful depiction of the Austrian empress. Delon took charge of her funeral and made sure that her son was buried with her. Speaking to Le Provence in 2009, Delon said, “I would not have wanted to see her at age 70.” At 43, in her last film, Schneider’s eyes seemed older than 70. As Dietrich says of Welles in Touch of Evil (1958), she was all used up, and almost done being looked at. Delon told Le Provence, “I took three pictures of her on her deathbed that I always carry with me. I have not shown the pictures to anyone else.”

 

Dan Callahan is an Editor for Alt Screen.

 

“Romy Schneider: Empress of the Screen” is playing at French Institute Alliance Française, May 1st to June 26th.

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