Long Read

Laughter (Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast, USA, 1930)

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laughter-movie-poster-1930-1010689919

Laughter is a sophisticated comedy that is also a serious work dramatising the conflict between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a vehicle for Nancy Carroll, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, now somewhat forgotten.

It’s a film that offers many pleasures: the gruff and scatty teddy-bearishness of Frank Morgan; gorgeous Art Deco settings; magnificent Cartier jewels; the kewpie-doll loveliness of Nancy Carrol herself, most beautifully dressed in late ’20s/early ’30s chic; a young and handsome Fredric March ably conveying the weightier aspects of the drama; a soundtrack by the great Vernon Duke that features jazz and classical music, placing both on an equal footing; and even a brief appearance by that film buff’s delight, Eric Blore, here bubbly and lovely, wearing an angel costume and exuding all kinds of gayness. If it weren’t for an undertow of sadness that seeps right through all levels of the film, Laughter could almost be a screwball. Certainly it’s of historical interest as at least an early precursor to the genre.

Penthouse gardens in New York
Penthouse gardens in New York

The received wisdom regarding early talkies is that sound recording was then so cumbersome and primitive that it restricted camera movement and diminished cinema, rendering films static and stagey. This is patently untrue of Laughter.

The first shot (see below) is a long take that begins with a fade-in on a man inside a phone booth filmed from the outside so that he’s framed by the window, saying bitterly, ‘so I can call back tomorrow, eh?’, then the camera tracks to the right following his movements but from outside a corner-shop – he’s inside, the camera is outside, the shop window is the barrier that allows us to see in. The camera then goes past a lamppost to create a sense of perspective on the New York street, keeps the character in the centre of the frame as passersby walk around him and tracks in almost imperceptibly as the character goes into the door of a building door.

In the meantime, St. James Infirmary one of the great jazz songs of the period starts playing extra-diegetically and the camera tilts up to a window as the shot dissolves into the next one and we see the same man entering his apartment and unwrapping a gun. It’s a great shot and a great opening to the film: dramatic, visually arresting, dynamic in movement, exciting to hear. The first shot was enough to make me sit up, pay attention and ask ‘who directed this?’

The answer is Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast. I’d come across the name before and remembered it for its effrontery but I knew nothing of the man or the artist. A little research reveals that he was a French aristocrat born in Argentina – thus the name — who served in WWI, was introduced to the movies by George Fitzmaurice (director of Lilac Time and Son of the Sheik), went to work for Chaplin, first as a researcher (Women of Paris) then as assistant director (Gold Rush), before directing his own highly acclaimed films, of which Laughter is the best remembered. James Harvey calls his early comedie like Dry Martini and A Gentleman of Paris ‘Lubitsch-like’ (p. 78). D’Abbadie d’Arrast married Silent Film Star Eleanor Bordman, stopped directing films in Hollywood in 1933 (Topaze, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, is the last Hollywood film credited to him) and died in Monte Carlo where he’d been working as a croupier. There’s an interesting biography to be written about him and I hope someday someone does.
Like with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, Laughter is structured around five central characters: ex Ziegfield chorus girl Peggy gave up pennyless musician Paul Lockridge (Fredric March) for rich industrialist C. Mortimer Gibson (Frank Morgan) but is finding the marriage so unsatisfying she’s having an affair with a sculptor, Ralph Le Sainte (Glenn Anders), who’s so crazy for Peggy he first threatens suicide over her and later tries to emulate her by also marrying for money with Mortimer Gibson’s daughter, Marjorie (Diane Ellis). Five characters, six potential couples, one dilemma: to choose laughter and love or to go for the cash and all that goes with it?

Le Sante sets the scene
Le Sante sets the scene

I was surprised to see how much Pauline Kael loved Laughter, calling  it ‘an ode to impracticality.’ She didn’t usually have much patience for the type of movie that starts with a poor artist in a garrett speaking poetically to a statue of his beloved about the depth of his love for her and the hopelessness of life whilst feeding us all the background we need to follow the story that unfolds, even if it is as beautifully shot as it is here. Glen Anders is almost as expressive as the piece of marble he’s speaking to and luckily for us the picture doesn’t stay on him for very long.

C. Mortimer Gibson ( Frank Morgan) walks in Art Deco splendour but does not find his wife
C. Mortimer Gibson ( Frank Morgan) walks in Art Deco splendour but does not find his wife

From the beginning we know Peggy and the poor sap of a Saint are having an affair. Clearly the Cartier jewelery her husband is giving her is not enough to keep her happy. C. Mortimer Gibson can’t give Peggy what she wants; and Peggy can’t give Ralph La Sainte what he wants either — everyone’s unhappy. It’s at that moment that Paul Lockridge arrives from Paris to turn everything upside down; he’s the catalyst for change and he’s given an entrance worthy of the conflict he’ll cause.

Two jazz babies smoking and being modern; the older-looking one on the left is the step-daughter.
Two jazz babies smoking and being modern; the older-looking one on the left is the step-daughter.

Paul is Peggy’s ex, a musician, and only recently returned from Paris. The pace at which March makes his first appearance, walking briskly through the New York penthouse, is a pace then much admired by Europeans who found its energy unusual and energizing. Noel Coward returned to England from New York in the early 20s insisting that his plays be spoken faster and that the actors move more briskly, at a New York pace, at the pace of the jazz era if not of jazz itself. Speed, energy, New York as a metonym for America, modernity, democracy, potentiality: there’s something in March’s walk, the sunny transparency of his face and the intensity with which he speaks in his first entrance in that early scene that evokes all of that.

An unconventional calling card
An unconventional calling card

When Peggy’s butler insists on a calling card, Paul writes his name on the Butler’s starched shirtfront. When the butler presents this greeting to Peggy, she writes that she’s out on the same same shirtfront, letting Paul know that she’s in but doesn’t want to see him. Whilst she goes for her assignation with Le Sap, I mean Le Sainte, Fredric March shows he’s a democrat and oblivious to her wealth by going into the kitchen, speaking on familiar terms with Pearl, Peggy’s maid, who he clearly knows from before, grabbing a chicken leg and going to play classical music duets with the butler whilst having a beer, which is where Peggy’s husband finds him.

Paul’s breezyness is visualised for us by the nonchalant yet well-aimed throw of his hat onto a deco sculpture of frolicking nymphs, an image that recurs often in the Laughter. Much is made too of C. Mortimer Gibson trying to remove the hat from such placements, of his awareness of appearances, surfaces, place and position and his sensitivity to the restrictions imposed by correct adherence to convention.

The film rather exhibits a rich person’s idealization of the pleasures of third class travel and all that it connotes. Laughter is a film for the ‘common man’ but is not against the rich. And perhaps the latter has something to do with the film’s conceptualisation of average people as ‘poor’ artists who can afford to live in Paris working at their love, art and drinking without having to be stuck washing dishes at the Ritz like Orwell’s down and outers.

playing piano with the butler, beer on the left, fried chicken on the right.
playing piano with the butler, beer on the left, fried chicken on the right.

There are two scenes that are meant to evoke the price Peggy is paying for the penthouse and the Cartier bracelets. The famous one is the scene where Peggy and Paul break into someone’s house, frolic under bearskins and get arrested for breaking and entering.

Before that, however, there’s the marvelous scene after Peggy’s picked up her step-daughter Marjorie from the Ocean liner after returning from her Paris sojourn and we see the customs people confiscating all the liquor Marjorie’s tried to smuggle in. Marjorie and Peggy are both the same age, two jazz babies with cropped hair who like to smoke, drink and dance. One of them still can.

When they return to the penthouse, they find Paul at the piano and Marjorie asks him, ‘do you know “Raring to Go”’? He sure does. As the stuffy millionaire looks on bewildered, the three young ones let themselves go to the beat and the rhythm of the jazz, Paul playing, Peggy and Marjorie dancing with abandon, letting go of place and position in a moment that Pauline Kael has called ‘one of the loveliest, happiest moments in the movies of this period (see clip below).’ It’s a moment of joy, a moment of sensuality and of youth, the likes of which Peggy doesn’t get to experience much anymore.

These two moments of escape can be interestingly considered alongside the two speeches that put across the film’s meaning. In the first of those, after the bear-skin frolic, as they are taken home via police escort, sirens blaring, March says, ‘You can’t go on with this, with everything that it stands for, that noise, that, money that power….I want to tell you that you’re dying…You’re having a ghastly time, you’re whole life is false. Nothing you do is really you. God didn’t want you to live like this. You’re dying from want of nourishment, from want of laughter. You were born for laughter. Nothing in your life is as important as that. Laughter could take that whole life of yours — that house, those jewels — and blow them to pieces. You’re rich. You’re dirty rich. Nothing but laughter can make you clean.’

A moment of escape under a bear rug but within the social bounds permitted by tea
A moment of escape under a bear rug but within the social bounds permitted by tea

Fredric March is magnificent saying this. He doesn’t make a meal of it. In fact he underplays it. It’s a long soliloquy but filmed as a two-shot with Nancy Carroll as Peggy listening in so we’re permitted to see her reaction to what he’s saying. But March is the one who has to deliver, sustain and holds the quite long shot, and stay in character whilst giving meaning to the lines and putting across all the metaphors and symbolism whilst conveying the sense of a person speaking rather than an author dramatising the play’s central theme (and I use the word ‘play’ advisedly) in a speech rather weighted down by poetry, .

March is rather brilliant with it. As he’s had to be in the film as a whole because what he represents, and what he’s convincingly conveyed, is a combined alternative to both a man who can make $8,450,000 in one afternoon AND another artist at least as talented as he who, on top of that, is willing to top himself for love of Peggy. But this moment, this speech on how the lack of laughter is causing Peggy to die inside, is also the moment the film loses its audience. Can you imagine audiences in 1930, a year after the crash, pre-New Deal, no social security to speak of, Hoovervilles sprouting everywhere, apple-sellers appearing out of the wood-work, trains full of vagrants criss-crossing the country in search of work…and here are these rich people living in Art Deco penthouses above the clouds and wearing Cartier jewels moaning about how terrible their life is because they don’t have laughter?

A Cartier watch, a Deco set and lovely clothes.
Frank Morgan offers Cartier jewels at the beginning but no laughter

Later, when Carroll is given a similar speech to say to her husband as reasons for leaving him, ‘laughter’ has been replaced with ‘love’. The film treats them as two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. By then love has become a matter of life and death. St. Sculptor who speaks to statures and can’t quite bring himself to marry for money, has killed himself for love of Peggy, removing him from the picture, removing the threat to the Gibson name his marriage to Mortimer’s daughter would have represented, and removing the only other obstacle, aside from her husband, to Peggy’s getting together with Paul.

The price of laughter
The price of laughter

It’s worth mentioning that the film was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, an East Coast Main Liner, a liberal later to be blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his politics, a writer famous for the breezy elegance he brought to Philip Barry film adaptations such as Holiday, The Philadephia Story, andWithout Love but also famous in his own right as a writer of sophisticated comedy prized by collaborators such as Lubitsch (That Uncertain Feeling), Leo McCarey (Love Affair) and especially Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Keeper of the Flame plus all the Barry adaptations). It’s worth mentioning because some of themes seen here rhyme with those of Holiday especially but also those in Without Love and one even finds an echo of March’s ‘Laughter’ speech in the ‘Fires Banked Down’ speech that James Stewart speaks to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. The writers involved may be one reason why Kael saw a connection to later screwballs.

There’s a wonderful coda at the end of Laughter: Paul and Peggy are snuggling in a sidewalk café in Paris and basking in the glow of being called ‘les amoreux’ . In fact they’re now married, blissfully planning on making love and music together, when Nancy’s eyes suddenly alight on a woman’s wrist. We see what she sees in a close-up: row upon row of glistening diamond bracelets. She can’t keep her eyes off of them until she notices Paul looking at her, ‘I didn’t say anything’ she says giggles before they laugh and kiss. But love and laughter aside, the audience senses that Paul better find a way of getting her a penthouse and some bracelets pronto. It’s no surprise that Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane and producer of this one, late in his life remembered Laughter as his favourite film. It’s a pretty dazzling one.

The film got good reviews but was not a popular success. According to James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, ‘Six years later, during the heyday of screwball comedy, Herman Maniewicz recalled Laughter to an interviewer – ruefully. Reflecting on the success of such later films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, Maniewicz told the press: “we” did it firs, Laughter was “the original of this madcap type of screen story (pp.78-79).”‘

José Arroyo

The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1917)

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Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 13.00.22A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.

Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?

fig a
fig A

 

from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig. B: from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig Ca: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
Fig C-a: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
fig 3.B: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
fig C-b: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
Outside doors
Fig D. Outside doors
Fig E. Experimenting with frames within frames and reflections
Fig E: xxperimenting with frames within frames and reflections

The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.

A farce on marriage
A farce on marriage

 

Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.

At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.

 

When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.

In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

 

In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.

Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You

Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).

 

Mizi
Mizi

There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five

 

 

Pierrots at the ball
Pierrots at the ball

 

The scene at the ball  is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is  continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.

 

low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail
low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail

In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.

More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.

Punishment
Punishment

 

At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.

 

Final clinch
Final clinch

The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein A Comedy in Three Acts by Ernst Lubitsch (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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I don't want to be a man I Don’t Want to be  a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein is a delightful sex comedy, a movie about teenage rebellion from a hundred years ago, funny and amiable but not without edge. Ossie (Ossie Oswalda) is a young woman who enjoys eating, drinking, smoking, playing poker and flirting with the boys. What’s not to like? Well, for one, her governess (Margarete Kupfer) doesn’t think it ‘proper’ for a young girl to do these things. She prevents her from smoking but then can’t stop herself from getting giddy on a few drags herself. Likewise, Ossie’s uncle, Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla) is shocked to catch her drinking a thimbleful of wine from an itsy-bitsy wine glass but then gulps away on a huge goblet himself. The older generation has not only forgotten what it is to be young, they’ve become hypocrites in the process. The boys love Ossie and gangs of them gather on the street as she sits by her window. But when she flirts with them, the governess is appalled: ‘And you want to be a refined young girl!’ ‘I don’t want that at all!’ says Ossi.

Ossie's governess doesn't practice what she preaches
Ossie’s governess doesn’t practice what she preaches

It seems like all the adults are preventing Ossie from having fun, from doing what they do as a matter of course, from being a person, from being herself. All their urges to be ‘proper’ are experienced as restrictions on personal freedom and individual desires. When her uncle goes away on a trip she gets a new guardian, Dr. Kersten (Curt Götz), a handsome but stuffy disciplinarian who asks that she stand in his presence and bow to his wishes. ‘I’ll break you down yet!’ he tells her. ‘ Why didn’t I come into the world as a boy?’ she in turn moans at us in the final inter-title of the 1st act, soliciting our agreement as to the unfairness of gender roles and the injustice of their social enforcement.   These early scenes, showing as they do social constraints on individual freedom and identity; and more specifically, patriarchal constraints on women’s desires and behaviour, are an eye-opener to anyone interested in the representation of women or the on-screen treatment of gender. I had never seen Ossie Oswalda before. She’s as alive, witty and transgressive a presence as I remember on-screen and I found her a revelation: irrepressible, joyous, transparent, energetic, social; a utopian flower in the worldly garden of weeds, a light that everyone’s out to extinguish.   One would expect the Second Act to ‘correct’ some of Ossie’s transgressions, to claw back and reclaim for men some of the injustices towards women exposed in the first act. But this is Lubitsch. We do get to see some of the difficulties men have in dressing: those bow ties can be such a problem; and poor men have to give up their seats in the U-bahn when ladies are standing up; and they musn’t whine; and they’re so aggressive at the coat-check!; and the way women chase them is so ruthless! Boo-hoo. All of this ‘poor men’ malarkey is clearly undermined by Ossie being OUT, without a chaperone, on the street, in the U-bahn and in the hustle and bustle of a glamorous nightclub, doing what she wants and being free.

Ossie dragged up to go out.
Ossie dragged up to go out.

At the beginning of the second act, we see the sly pleasures Ossie takes in having all the taylors fight to take her measurements for her men’s suit. In the latter part, we see her being chased by women and not getting a lot of joy out of it: Ossie’s clearly heterosexual. We’ll find out her guardian’s sexuality is much more questionable. We already know that sex is the very air Lubitschland breathes. When Ossie sees her uncle at the nightclub flirting with a girl, she sets out to steal her away from him but before she can do so, the girl has already found someone else and Ossie, masquerading as a young roué, becomes friends with her guardian.   On the evidence of this second act, Lubitsch is already a master of the medium. When we’re shown the nightclub (fig. 1), we get a wonderful composition with waiters entering from the left bottom corner of the frame on a diagonal and towards the band leader, set up as the frame’s horizon, to which waiter, after waiter, after waiter, is heading. The composition is brilliant, the staging sublime , and the rhythm of the scene, already that of the ‘Lubitsch’ we know.

fig 1
fig 1

Lubitsch handles compositions in depth with ease and they recur frequently here. For examples, see the scene where Ossie and her guardian are in opposite balconies whilst the dancing happens between them (Fig. 2), the frame split vertically into three areas of action, with Ossie in the upper, receding third. The upper two thirds of the vertical frame is also split three ways horizontally, with Ossie, out of focus in the middle of the top third; her guardian and the woman Ossie sets out to steal from him are in focus and occupying all of the bottom third of the frame. See also the marvelous use of the mirror, when Ossie momentarily forgets she’s a man and is laughed at for powdering her nose, and how this enables us to see space that would normally be off-screen, distinguish between foreground and background, and create a dynamism in the composition through Ossie looking down, the women laughing and looking directly at the mirror, and the men looking in the opposite direction, towards the coat-check. Note too how this composition is not only dynamic and aesthetically pleasing but also coheres narratively: Ossie is shown twice, herself and her reflection, at the moment that she forgets that she is a woman passing as a man. Terrific.

fig. 2
fig. 2
fig.3
fig.3

I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein well illustrates one of the things Lubitsch learned from Reinhardt and that Lubitsch would be an acknowledged master of from this period until he departed for Hollywood in 1922 and beyond (see, for example 1929’s Eternal Love) : his handling of the crowd scenes. And this not only in the nightclub scenes with their dozens of extras but in other story-telling moments where an abundance of extras does not on the face of it seem absolutely necessary: our introduction of the guardian in the nightclub for example, where he’s framed by a bevy of people dynamically arranged in the staircase behind him; and the rhyming shot with Ossie in front of a similar grouping, before both of them coming together (see fig. 4)

fig. 4
fig. 4
fig. 4
fig. 5

Lubitsch likes actors so that he always gives each a bit of business. One can look at any part of the crowd and find something interesting going on, something thematically linked to the story. See for example the still from the coat-check scene below (fig. 5): Ossie is in the centre, the woman on the bottom right already checking ‘him’ out, the two women chatting on the right hand corner that will also soon be flirting with ‘him’, the man talking to the two women in the background in front of a curtain they will soon move through, thus creating a feeling of depth; see also the man at the coat-check looking towards the crowd of men who are all headed towards him jostling to get their hats checked-in. It’s not only beautiful to look at, but lively; one gets a sense of a whole world, a complex one, one in which Ossie’s story can take place. For if Lubitsch demonstrates he’s a master of the medium, it’s because of the stories he tells and how he tells them.   In the last act, Ossie and her guardian get tipsy. They smoke, drink champagne, and offer a toast to ‘brotherhood’; and then…. their lips lightly brush. ‘What’s your name,’ asks the guardian. ‘It’s better not to ask’, says Ossie. Then the lip-brushing becomes a more conscious, if still very light kiss. It’s not a deep French as they used to say in my home-town. They’ll then kiss some more and will continue to do so in the cab on the way home. The scenes are undeniably erotic, very subtly handled, with a frisson of the transgressive that is yet so light as to be mistaken for accidental whilst going slightly over the edge. In this way, even the more staid members of the audience can feel daring without having their hair stand on end. Nicola Lubitsch, Lubitsch’s daughter, has called this film Victor/Victoria fifty years before Victor/Victoria but it is so much better than the Blake Edwards film (I’m aware of the 1930s German version but have not yet seen it). I Don’t Want to be a Man is less coy, more complex, more human than Blake’s film. For one, Ossie likes being kissed, is clearly heterosexual, but is enjoying her transgressions which to her simply amount to kissing and which give her a kind of power, in that she gets the upper hand over her guardian. Equally interestingly, the guardian knows he’s kissing a man and in the cab it becomes clear that he is not at all embarrassed by it, likes it, and does it again. One can so easily detect how this film was an influence on Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Morocco, not only sartorially, in that Dietrich is wearing a sleeker version of the top hat, white tie and tails that Ossie wears here, but in the labile view of sexuality, one with a ‘twist’ in that Ossie doesn’t like the girls as much as Dietrich does whereas the guardian likes the boys a lot more than Gary Cooper.

The guardian, femmed-up.
The guardian, femmed-up.

At the end, they wake up in each others’ beds, he with a feminine lace cap on. She has to trudge home through the streets of Berlin (and these are clearly shot on location). When he discovers that it was his guardian he had been kissing and asks her if this was so, Ossie retorts in the intertitle, ‘That’s right. The one and only!’ ‘And you let yourself be kissed by me’, ‘Well, didn’t you like how it tasted?’. The film ends with her turning the tables on him ‘I’ll bring you down yet…Down to here’, she says pointing to the floor just as he had done at the beginning.   As the end, they kiss, and she tells us ‘I wouldn’t like to be a man’. But we’re left with the impression that she actually had a really good time impersonating one. She got to do the drinking, smoking and carousing that she’d been forbidden in the beginning of the film. She sure seemed to enjoy having a man’s freedom and his agency, even if it was exhausting stuff. Plus she got her man in the end and put him in his place whilst doing so. Extraordinary stuff.

In a men's suit...but with very feminine heels.
In a men’s suit…but with very feminine heels.

Watching the last third, I wondered what audiences who saw it might have made of it; how exciting it must have been to women and to the lgtb members of the audience, however such identities might have been constructed then, lucky enough to see this; and what it might have meant to them. I’d like to learn more about that. What I do know now, almost a hundred years later, is that the film enchants and dazzles with its technique, its joy, its appreciation of freedom and its expansive notion of humanity and its foibles. And on top of that there’s the brilliant exuberance of Ossie. ossie oswaldaAlice A. Kuzniar, writing in The Queer German Cinema on I Don’t Want to be a Man and on Der Geiger von Florenz writes that ‘the “gender trouble” of these films does not reside solely in their depiction of independent, strong-willed women and their rejection of patriarchal authority. Both films deeply unsettle sexual as well as gender divisions in a way inconceivable for even independent gay cinema as well as mainstream straight cinema today’. i I’ve not yet seen Der Geiger von Florenz but that is definitely the case in relation to I Don’t Want to be a Man and but one of very many reasons to see it.     i. Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema, Stanford: Standford University Press, 2000, p. 33.         José Arroyo

Shoe Salon Pinkus/ Schuhpalast Pinkus (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1916)

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Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 19.35.00Ernst Lubitsch plays Sally Pinkus, a middle-class schoolboy, fun-loving, mischievous, disrespectful of his teachers, smoking behind his father’s back and already ogling the opposite sex — even if it means climbing a slippery pole in the schoolyard to do it. His father berates him for flirting with the maid but then does exactly the same once Sally’s out of sight. Sally is expelled from school, buys a treat for a girl he fancies and as a result has all her girlfriends chasing him for ice-cream too, all of which he very much likes but can’t afford. Very Lubitsch. Indeed according to Karsten Witte, ‘Sally Pinkus: that’s Lubitsch in the years 1915, 16, 17’.[i]

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 19.36.11Sally fails High School and doesn’t receive a diploma. That his only good grade was for singing is narrated into a lovely punch-line in the film. Luckily for him and to the relief of his family, there are some jobs where qualifications are poo-poohed: he finds a work  in a down-market shoe-shop. But he can’t bring himself to put shoes on customers with holes in their socks. On the bright side, he does fancy the boss’s daughter. The combination of weariness towards work and over-eagerness to flirt gets Sally fired. Again, he doesn’t remain unemployed long; he’s got the smarts to get another job, this time at an even posher shoe shop.

Sally doesn’t know where to draw the line, always slightly exceeding the limits of the appropriate. He loses his job when he can’t stop himself from tickling the foot of a pretty woman in spite of her obvious annoyance, thus losing the wage and getting nowhere with the girl. However, he wins it back by having the smarts to sell a woman shoes when no one else can: he simply changes the larger size the woman’s feet require to the smaller one her vanity desires. Again very Lubitsch.

TheApprenticeshipOfDuddyKravitz

If the milieu of the story had been set a little lower in the social scale, the story might have seemed archetypally picaresque. Except that Sally not only has wit and smarts, he also has drive. It’s perhaps this that leads Scott Eyman to compare him to Sammy Glick, after the heartless, ruthless and cruel hero of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? and call Sally Pinkus a German Duddy Kravitz[ii], after the eponymous hero of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

The first comparison is simply inappropriate as, aside from a drive to succeed, Sally and Sammy share few traits: Sally is fundamentally kind and good. Moreover, though Sally does undergo an apprenticeship –and Lubitsch played many types of apprentices at this point of his career; apprenticeship was almost a characteristic of his star persona during this period — for Sally, power and money are not ends in themselves like they are for Duddy. What makes Sally run is a desire for the opposite sex, a desire that women exploit. There are a lovely couple of scenes where Sally’s shown making all the female employees laugh at his jokes. He clearly loves being surrounded by women and they in turn like him, at lest up to a point. Then, one of the girls who he’s been courting and who he sees holding hands with another man, is shown mocking his desire for her to the rest of the girls as he looks on, distraught. Sally has a vulnerability lacking in Sammy Glick and one that Duddy only acquires near the end of his story, after he’s served his own moral apprenticeship. For Sally money’s just a means. He wants a girl; and he wants more than sex from her.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 20.35.09One of the pleasures of watching this film, now almost a hundred years old, is that it offers an insight into a way of life and conditions of living now no longer ours. Who can now imagine a shoe shop with all those employees, each with their own gigantic locker in the basement? I suppose all old films tell us something about the time in which they were set, in a way, to a degree, up to a point; all of which require a set of knowledges and a method of decipherment. In Shoe Salon Pinkus we seem to see and understand with a greater degree of transparency and with an enormous amount of enjoyment.

 

The film also has elements that seem current and continue to resonate. For example, when Sally is loaned 30,000 marks to start his own shoe shop by the  dancer he fancies, he goes to his boss and blows smoke in his face, just like in If I Had a Million when Charles Laughton wins the lottery, and after crossing door, after door, after door to get to the puffed up person at the top of the heap,  he blows his boss a raspberry. Sally models his shoe shop on what were then the most fashionable and palatial temples of consumption, the Department Store, and calls it a ‘Shoe Palace’. He then gets the dancer to wear his shoes onstage so he can publicise where they can be bought. This mix of advertising, show business and consumption seem very contemporary. It’s the beginnings of an age of consumption in the society of the spectacle that we see in this film. Its energy is the propulsion of modernity itself.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 20.37.26The film ends with a long fashion show where Sally can show off his shoes and the audience can admire them. The clothes the various models wear down the runaway are also displayed as spectacle. When Sally’s shoes are singled out for praise in a review of the fashion show, the success of his shop is assured, just as if it had been the opening of a play. Shoe Salon Pinkus was probably shown in a movie palace. Both are settings for dreams and aspirations. This one is funny, sexy, infused with Jewish humour but driven by all that was then considered to be modern.

According to Kristin Thompson, ‘Jan-Christopher Horak has argued that from Schupalast Pinkus on, Lubitsch’s films move from slapstick to satire’.[iii] I’m not in a position to argue with him not having seen his earlier films. However, it is fair to say that there’s not a lot of slapstick in this film. The humour comes from situation and point-of-view. Certainly, Lubitsch himself, in what Scott Eyman has called ‘the archetypal Lubitsch performance’ performs[iv] broadly, excessively so to contemporary tastes. But there are no slaps, no sticks, no pratfalls. And there is certainly some satire, at least of what Lubitsch imagines women find attractive.

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 20.36.41In Sabine Hake’s marvellous book on Lubitsch, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch[v], she suggests that movie spectators, cinema’s ‘customers’, are positioned to respond like the women in Lubitsch’s fashion show in this film: ‘Both address themselves especially to women: as the quintessential modern consumers, the foremost experts in question of style, and as that group in society that is most open to, and most in need of, the play with other identities.’ I think that’s right. But I also think Sally Pinkus’ desire is worth noting. In the film, Sally’s desires are the subject of the film, women are what he desires, his desires might be those of most in the audience, the consumption of clothes and shoes is perhaps most directly addressed at women. However, when Lubitsch closes in on the shoes, he also gets the models to lift their dresses and show their ankles. Both men and women have a lot to look at, appreciate and desire in this film.

José Arroyo

 

Note: Shoe Salon Pinkus is an extra in  the Criterion blu-ray of To Be Or Not to Be and it would be worth getting just to be able to see  it in a wonderful clear transfer, unlike the image grabs from an inferior version that illustrate this review.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] ‘Sally Pinkus: c’est là Lubitsch dans les années 1915-1916-1917.’ Translation my own. Cited in Hans Helmut Prinzler in ‘Eléments pour une biographie’ ‘Erns Lubtisch’ Cahiers du cinema/ Cinémathèque Française, ed. By Bernard Eisenschitz and Jean Narboni, 1985.

 

 

[ii] Scott Eyman, Laughter in Paradise, Baltimore; John Hopkins Paperback Editions, 2000, p. 46.

[iii] Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film After World War 1 Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005, p. 21.

[iv] Eyman, op cit., p. 45.

 

[v] Sabine Hake’s, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992, p. 35.

Max Reinhardt and Lubitsch

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Was Max Reinhardt an influence on Lubitsh? Lotte Eisner thought so. In the The Haunted Screen she tells us that Lubitsch was ‘less sensitive to his influence than other German filmmakers’ (p.79) but also notes the Reinhardt influence in ‘the famous square market place around which Lubitsch was so fond of moving his crowds in Madame Dubarry, Sumurum and Anna Boleyn. In each of these instances, the imitation of Reinhardt effects is of an almost documentary fidelity’ (p. 76).

It is hard for us now to imagine the significance of Max Reinhardt: he was simply the most celebrated man of the theatre of his day, not only in Germany but internationally. Eisner writes that, ‘we should remember that Max Reindhart from 1907 to 1919 (when the revolution brought  Piscator and his Constructivist theatre to the fore), was a sort of ‘Kaiser’ of the Berlin theatre. He had become so important that in solid middle-class families everybody skipped the newspaper headlines to read Alfred Kerr’s article on the previous night’s performance. Berliners often went to the Reindhardt theatre several times a week, for the programme changed daily’ (p.47).

Morover, ‘the links between Max Reindhardt’s theatre and the German cinema were obvioius as early as 1913, when all the main actors — Wegener, Bassermann, Moissi, Theodor Loos, Winterstein, Veidt, Kraus, Jannings, to mention but a few — came from Reindhardt’s troupe (Eisner, p. 44). Though the second part of the title of Eisner’s book is often elided, it might be worth reminding ourselves  of it here: The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and The Influence of Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch was not an expressionist or at least not much of one (The Doll and other films do show traces). Indeed Tom Tykwer views his later move to Hollywood as a lucky escape from Expresssionism.  But Lubitsch did not avoid the influence of Reindhardt nor indeed did he want to. He had a lot to learn; and he learned quickly.

Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.
Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.

Reinhardt was born Max Goldmann on the 9th of September 1873, in Baden, near Vienna. He was the first of a family of six children. An actor since 1890, he directed his first production in 1900, Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy. He becomes director of the Deutsches Theatre and opened his school of acting there in 1905. In 1906 he bought the Deutsches Theater and opened the Kammerspiele next door. The first production there was Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The Theatre as Cathedral of Art
The Theatre as Cathedral of Art

According to J.L. Styan, from 1910-1912, Reinhardt became ‘known throughout Europe. It was Reindhardt’s privilege to put into practice some of the thinking of the “aesthetic drama’” movement which wanted to combine the art of space and light, of music, design and the spoken word, and of acting, mime and dance. His invention of the Regiebuch (on which more later) as a master promptbook was both a monument to his work – and a necessity if that work was to be carried out’. [i]From 1915-1918 he also becomes director of the Volksbühne in the Bülowplatz, Berlin, saving it from possible extinction during the war years. His first production there is Schiller’s The Robbers. Lubitsch became a Reinhardt actor in 1911, at the height of the director’s fame.

Lubitsch's contract with Reinhardt.
Lubitsch’s contract with Reinhardt.

Alfred G. Brooks tell us that Reinhardt’s ‘creative career had spanned the birth and demise, the rejection and acceptance, of the host of forms and movements which sought to provide new perspectives in the visual and performing arts during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Reindhardt influenced playwrights, critics, painters, designers, architects, composers, dancers, actors, directors, and managers. His basically eclectic nature led him to develop an enormous stylistic range which ranged from the studio to the circus, to palaces, vast outdoor arenas, garden theatres, opera houses, small baroque theatres, and cathedral square; all the world was for him a receptive home for theatre. During his lifetime, the vast range of his activities and his widespread influence made him a natural focal point for both admiration and vituperation. Critics and historians who sought neat descriptive labels either described him as a creator of spectacles or attacked him for lack of a clearly identifiable style’[ii].

Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911
Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911

Rudolf Kommer thought Reinhardt a magician of the stage: ‘To be called a magician and to be one are two very different things. If anyone in the realm of the stage deserves this title, however, it is Max Reindhardt of Baden, Vienna, Salzburg, Belin and the world at large’.[iii]Diana Cooper, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, a great beauty and a cornerstone in British cultural life from WW1 right to the 60s, performed in his production of The Miracle in England and the US and her biographer Phillip Ziegler tells us, ‘Diana knew little about Reinhardt, except that he was popularly reputed to be a genius and probably slightly mad… (he lived) in Salzburg (in the) baroque palace of Leopoldskron’.[iv] However, when The Miracle opened in New York , George Jean Nathan, arguably the most influential critic of the day, wrote in The American Mercury, ‘The theatre we have known becomes Lilliputian before such a phenomenon. The church itself becomes puny. No sermon has been sounded from any pulpit one-thousandth so eloquent as that which comes to life in this playhouse transformed into a vast cathedral, under the necromancy that is Reinhardt. For here are hope and pity, charity and compassion, humanity and radiance wrought into an immensely dramatic fibre hung dazzlingly for even a child to see. It is all as simple as the complex fashioned by genius is ever simple’.[v] A mad genius, living in a palace who directed epic theatre on a mass scale in huge theatres and with whom none could compare. That’s who Lubitsch got a contract with in 1911, when he was nineteen, to play small roles.

Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.
Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.

 

Lubitsch had always wanted to be an actor, he loved acting and as is everywhere evident in his films – see To Be Or Not to Be – he loved actors. But Lubitsch was not, as they used to say, exactly an oil painting, and his father tried to discourage him by grabbing his face and pointing it towards a mirror hoping that would bring him to his senses. His mother, who by all accounts ran the family business and the family, supported and encouraged her youngest child. With her help and that of Victor Arnold — a soulful comedian who worked for Reinhardt, gave Lubitsch free lessons and helped get him an audition — Lubitsch finally became a Reinhardt actor in 1911.

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Lubitsch was contracted to play small roles only. Bigger parts were given to stars such as Paul Wegener whom Lubitsch later gave leading roles to in his film. But his parents were delighted because, such was Reinhardt’s reputation, that a contract with Reinhardt, even in small roles, was a signal sign of success. In fact it was an honour so great that that many like Dietrich were late to claim it falsely. Reinhardt is a figure most great émigré directors to Hollywood from the German-speaking world (Preminger, Sirk, Siodmak) had some kind of connection to. With Reindhart, Lubitsch played a variety of roles, Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, the Innkeeper in The Lower Depths. He appeared in the legendary staging of The Robbers and in some of the iconic theatres of his day, The Deutsche Theatre, the Kommerspiele, and later when Reindhart took it over in 1915, the Volksbühne Theatre, barely 200 metres from where he lived.

 

Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.
Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.

Lubitsch was lucky to work with Reinhardt for many reasons but foremost is that Reinhardt, who had started as an actor himself and who, according to Otto Preminger, ‘knew more about actors and about the nature of acting talent, than anybody in the history of the theatre’[vi], also revered actors. In ‘Of Actors’, Reinhardt writes, ‘‘It is to the actor and to no one else that the theatre belongs. When I say this, I do not mean, of course, the professional alone. I mean, first and foremost, the actor as poet. All the great dramatists have been and are to-day born actors, whether or not they have formally adopted this calling, and whatever success they may have had in it. I mean likewise the actor as director, stage-manager, musician, scene-designer, painter, and, certainly not least of all, the actor as spectator. For the contribution of the spectators is almost as important as that o the cast. The audience must take its part in the play if we are ever to see arise a true art of the theatre – the oldest, most powerful, and most immediate of the arts, combining the many in one’[vii] An interesting way of looking at actors but one which would be influential to Lubitsch, particularly in the perception that the audience too was an actor and played a role in the drama.

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Reinhardt was interested in all forms of popular entertainment, not only theatre but vaudeville, musical comedy, mime, and film. Every Reinhardt actor was potentially a film actor and according to Tom Tykwer, the theatre experience with Reindhardt proved a decisive one in shaping Lubitsch. One must not underestimate the extent of this for Lubitsch has historically been credited with developing not only the concepts of kammertheatre and Massentheater but, importantly in relation to Lubitsch, the concept of ‘Regietheatre’ which gave a centrality to the director. Reinhardt was famous for directing spectacles and crowds, skills that would prove handy for Lubitsch’s historical dramas, he revered actors like Lubitsch did but often gave them precise line readings like Lubitsch was to do, but perhaps most importantly is Reindhardt’s precise attention to all elements of mise-en-scène.

From Reinhardt's production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen
From Reinhardt’s production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen

As noted earlier, Reindardt kept a Regiebuch. According to J.L.Styan, the Regiebuch, was ‘a copy of the play interleaved with blank pages. It was a workshop in itself. Prepared in extraordinary detail, and corrected and modified over and over again, it became the indispensable blue print from which many assistants could conduct rehearsals while the master watched over the results. In it he would write down every movement and gesture, every expression and every tone of voice. Diagrams of the stage plan and even three-dimensional sketches of the scene and of its characters would be squeezed into available spaces. Over the years a production lasted, he never finished adding notes in this book, often with pencils and links of different colours’[viii].

Reinhardt's promptbook for Hofmannsthal's Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940
Reinhardt’s promptbook for Hofmannsthal’s Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940

Lubitsch started making films in 1913. He never once performed in a starring role on stage for Reinhardt but continued working for the Reinhardt ensemble in small parts until May 1918. Could there be better training for a director in the making than to be working for ‘the first theatre man in the world’ who worked in a way so interestingly transferable to cinema? ix

compare Reinhardt's Regiebuch to Michael Mann's densely annotated script for Heat.
Compare Reinhardt’s Regiebuch to Michael Mann’s densely annotated script for Heat.

 

José Arroyo

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[i] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, Directors in Perspective Series, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982, p. xv

[ii]Alfred G. Brooks, ‘Foreword’, Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, Edited by George E. Wellwarth and Alfred G. Brooks, Archive/Binghampton, New York, 1973, p. i.

[iii] Rudolf Kommer, ‘The Magician of Leopoldskron’ in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’ ed. by Oliver M. Sayler, trans from the German by Mariele S. Dudernatsch and others, New York/London: Benjamin Blom, 1968. First published in 1924. P.1

 

[iv] Philip Ziegler, Diana Cooper: The Extraordinary Life of the Raffish Legend who Charmed and Inspired a Society Through Two World Wars London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981, pp. 128-130.

[v] Cited in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’, op cit., p. ix.

[vi] Otto Preminer, ‘Otto Preminger: An Interview’ Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit, p.11

[vii] Max Reindhar, ‘Of Actors’ in Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit., p.1.

[viii] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, op. cit., p. 120.

[ix] Sylvia Jukes Morris, Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce New York: Random House, 1997 p. 110

Additional Bibliography

 

Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Marx Reinhardt, London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

Jewish Culture as Context for Lubitsch

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In 1992 Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and  Gunter Romesch (owner of the Notausgang cinema, famous for showing To Be or Not to Be continuously for many years)  wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth and decided on a comprehensive retrospective of his films. At the time American Lubitsch was already much appreciated but German Lubitsch remained largely unknown even in Berlin. The retrospective would be an opportunity to gather, get to know and disseminate the German work. They needed, however, something that would propel media interest and help publicise the event. Their first thought was to have the street where Lubitsch was born, originally Lothringer Strasse but renamed Wilhelm Pieck Strasse by the GDR, rechristened once again as Ernst Lubitsch Strasse. But the city of Berlin turned them down in favour of Torstrasse (Gate Street). Tykwer still seems astounded by this refusal.

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François Truffaut famously entitled his appreciation of Lubitsch, ‘Lubitsch was a Prince’[i] but we know of more modest beginnings albeit not, as Nicola Lubitsch insistently reminds us, as modest as legend would have it. In Fischer’s Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood we’re told that Lubitsch’s father immigrated to Berlin in the 1870s from Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania but was then Russia, in order to escape the pogroms.

In a short biography of Lubitsch published by Cahier du cinéma in 1985, Hand Helmut Prinzler tells us instead that Lubitsch’s father Ssimcha (Simon) was born in 1852 in Grodno, Russia whilst his mother Anna Lindenstaedt was born in 1850 in Wriezen an der Oder, Germany[ii]. Scott Eyman in Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, concurs with Prinzler and adds that ‘Grodno was largely settled by Jews expelled from Lithuania between 1000 and 15000. It was, in turn, the site of several major pogroms in the seventeenth century. By the early nineteenth century, Grodno was part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the mandated residence of five million jews’.[iii]

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In Jonathan Sperber’s magisterial biography of Marx, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, Sperber recounts how ‘For Europeans of the eighteen century, Jews formed a nation whose members were spread all across Europe. This Jewish ‘nation’ should not be confused with its modern namesake, in a world of nation-states, since pre-1789 European states were the patrimony of their rulers, not the product of nations. Rather, it was one of may groups within the society of orders, whose place was guaranteed by its own charters, although these tended to contain more obligations and restrictions than right and privileges.’[iv] According to Sparber, Napoleon’s invasion of nations to the East of France and the imposition of the Napolenic Code on them had the effect of simultaneously freeing Jews from the concept of the Society of Orders and allowing them to become citizens. But according to Sperber, ‘The Jews’ identification with the new regime, which for all of its problematic features promised an improvement in their conditions, meant that opposition to the Napoleonic rule would be focused on the Jews’. [v] Thus in the broader context of European history, Lubitsch can be situated between a moment of emancipation and a moment of anninhilation that luckily for him and for us would come once he was safely ensconsced in the United States.

Lubitsch's siblings
Lubitsch’s siblings

 

This first section of Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood shows us how Lubitsch grew up as the fourth child, second son and youngest child of a well-to-do family of taylors. His siblings were Richard (born in 1882), Marga (1884) and Elsa (1885). There was thus a ten year difference between Ernst and his elder brother. They grew up in the Jewish ghetto around what was then Bülow Platz and is now Rosa Luxembourg Platz. For more than twenty years Lubitsch lived in this neighbourhood, he was formed by it and the culture of the milieu and its ‘structure of feeling’, is everywhere evident in his early films. This is the world of Pinkus and of Meyer. A world of apprentices trying to get a job and get the girl in the face of all kinds of barriers, a world where one has to learn about appearances that don’t come naturally, about manners not one’s own.

Lubitsch with his father Ssimcha (Simon)
Lubitsch with his father Ssimcha (Simon)

 

In 1900 Lubitch’s father has a tailoring business specializing in ladies’ coats with eight employees plus jobber. According to Prinzler in his Cahiers biography, he’s also got a business associate, Max Friedländer. They’ve got a phone, a considerable marker of status in the Berlin of the time. Berlin itself, according to the 1900 census, had 1.88 million inhabitants, 2.48 million if you include the 20 surrounding independent communities of Charlottengurg, Wilmesdorf, Schöneberg and others that would now be considered part of Berlin. By the1910 census Berlin has 3.4 million inhabitants with the ‘independent communities’ now incorporated into Berlin proper. There are now 30 permanent theatres and many seasonal ones. In Nollendorfplatz, a concert hall is transformed into a cinema, the biggest in Germany: the Mozartsaal-Lichtspiele seating 1200 spectators. The theatre belongs to one of the greatest film trusts, ‘Allgemeine Kinematographen Gesellschaft m.b. H, founded in 1906 by Paul Davidson, a figure that would become central to the history of German cinema in general and to Lubitsch’s career in particular.[vi]

 

Lubitsch's mother Anna who ran the business and the family
Lubitsch’s mother Anna who ran the business and the family

 

From 1899 to 1902 Lubitsch went to prep school, after which he was admitted to a very reputable high school; The Sophien-Gymnasium, Weinmeistertrasse, not far from Alexanderplatz. An old syllabus tells us that he was taught German, Latin, French (from the seventh year) Greek (from the eight year) history, geography, math, arithmetic[vii]. There’s a wonderful scene in Schuhpalast Pinkus, where Lubitsch playing Sally Pinkus is sweeping the floor and the intertitle tells us, ‘I learned Latin for this?’, a refrain that’s probably been echoed in different variants through the ages and up to now.

Walking in the 'kiez'.
Walking in the ‘kiez’.

 

In 1900 there were only 92,000 Jews in a total Berlin. According to Scott Eyman, ‘Like many of their Jewish brethren in Berlin, the Lubitsch family was assimilated and not at all religious. The synagogue was a place for an obligatory visit on the high Holidays and little more….Overall the family’s specific identity was as Berliners not as Jews.’[viii] According to Gottfried Reinhardt, Max’s son and later famous Hollywood producer (The Red Badge of Courage) and director (Town Without Pity), ‘‘Berlin ignored the anti-Semitism towards its indigenous ethnic groups. The Viennese knew their ‘Jews’; for the Berliners, the Jew was a Berliner, though as strange as any other’.[ix]

 

A culture that shaped Lubitsch, was central to Berlin in the Weimar era, and was destroyed by the Nazis.
A culture that shaped Lubitsch, was central to Berlin in the Weimar era, and was destroyed by the Nazis.

Lubitsch was born in Germany and he was a Berliner but he was also a Jew. This whole culture that we’re shown, the diasporic milieu of Lubitsch’s childhood, the culture of the kiez, the small community within the larger town that was the Jewish neighbourhood in Berlin; and of Schönhauser Allee; both so integral to Berlin culture and indeed to German culture as a whole, was completely destroyed by the Nazis. Thus it is right that the film and Tykwer attempt to reclaim at least part of Lubitsch. He was a Berliner and as the film will argue, central to the German cinema of that age. But one can also understand why the city of Berlin might want to refuse to name a street after a Berliner who also happened to be one of the great artists of the 20th century: Berlin would be reminding itself that it had just sat by or worse whilst an integral chunk of itself had been destroyed. But then again, perhaps it should. Well, no perhaps about it. It should. But as we can see from The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, in certain ways it does. Could it be that they didn’t think he was worthy of the honour? If so, the should definitely watch the ‘Lubitsch in Berlin’ boxed set available in the Masters of Cinema Series.

 

A young Lubitsch wearing a dark hat.
A young Lubitsch wearing a dark hat.

According to Sabine Hake, ‘categories like nationalism/internationalism and conformism/ marginality are crucial for understanding Lubitsch’s marginal position as a Jew in Germany and an immigrant in the United States’ [x].  Moreover, Jewish culture is central to Lubitsch’s early works with ‘Jewish humour providing a main source of inspiration'[xi]. The tension between diaspora and belongingness, the push and pull, the claiming and the kicking out, are all underlying tensions in Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood and are clearly critical contexts for what ‘Lubitsch’, the person and the work, grew out of and are key to understanding what helped shape him and it.

José Arroyo

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 12.16.39

 

 

[i] François Truffaut, ‘Lubitsch was a Prince’, The Films of My Life, trans by Leonard Mayhew, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978, pp.50-53.

[ii] Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘Première partie: Allemagne (1892-1922)’, eds. Bernard Eisenchigtz and Jean Narboni, Ernst Lubitsch, Cahiers du cinema, Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 1985

[iii] Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, John Hopkins Paperback Editions, 2000, p. 19.

[iv] Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013, p. 5.

[v] Sperber, ibid., p. 12.

[vi] Prinzler, op.cit, pp. 11-12.

[vii] Prinzler, ibid., p. 11.

[viii] Eyman, op. cit., p. 24.

[ix] Cited in Prinzler, op.cit., p. 14.

{x} Sabina Hake, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 7

[xi] ibid., p. 29

Lubitsch in Berlin Part I: Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (Robert Fischer, Germany, 2006) Masters of Cinema Series

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Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood is everything one could hope for in a documentary on a great film directors. First and foremost it shows us excerpts from films (Der Stolz der Firma, Schupalast Pinkus, Meyer aus Berlin) that one had a vague knowledge of but had never seen and makes one long to see them. Lubitsch’s Berlin films are prodigious in number – between 1913 and 1922 he acted in at least 30 films and directed over forty — amongst them extraordinary achievements in film art that deserve to be better know. Some can now be seen in the Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set currently distributed as part of the ‘Masters of Cinema’ series and which includes Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood as one of the discs. Fischer’s film on Lubitsch is succeeds in making us learn about Lubitsch’s early career as a whole as well as demonstrating the what, where, when and some of the how of some of his greatest films in this period. It leaves us eager to seek them out or to be once more charmed by their riches. If you have a Lubitsch addiction, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin will stoke it.

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The film’s objective is to restore Lubitsch’s German work to its rightful place in the Lubitsch oeuvre and to argue that that place is an important one. In order to do so, the film draws on the riches of film museums, the ones in Munich and Berlin are particularly well represented, not least through the expertise of their former directors, respectively Enno Patalas and Hans Helmut Prinzler. The use of a wide array of archival resources enable us to see Berlin at the beginning of the 20th Century, fabulous film posters, images taken on the sets of various production, what film studios were like at the time of the First World War, etc.; and we also get to hear the voices of legends like Henny Porten, Dietrich’s idol when a teenager and the great German star of the era, or Jörg Jannings reading the writings of his father Emil on Lubitsch. These words and voices — soft, romantic, hyper-emotional — evoke an era of filmmaking, an attitude to it, and even a whole tradition of German Romanticism that’s as rich as anything we get to see.

 

Tom Tykwer next to a statue of Lubitsch
Tom Tykwer next to a statue of Lubitsch

The film uses talking-head interviews to narrate Lubitsch’s story in Berlin but also to illustrate, contextualize and learn to appreciate that which we’ve seen. Thus, interspersed with clips from the films, archival footage and a whole array of images from a variety of sources, the film also deploys the knowledge and insights of some of the most celebrated writers on Lubitsch and his time in Berlin (Michael Hanisch, Jan-Christopher Horak); some of the most famous German filmmakers of the time in which the film was made (Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run, Wolfgang Becker of Goodbye, Lenin, Dani Levy, Go for Zucker!); and members of Lubitsch’s own family: his daughter Nicola, his granddaughter Amand Goodpaster, and the smart and trenchant voice of his niece, Evy Bettleheim-Bentley.

Did the Berlin Lubitsch suspect the Hollywood career that awaited him? Ali Hubert draws out the prospect.
Did the Berlin Lubitsch suspect the Hollywood career that awaited him? Ali Hubert draws out the prospect.

 

Nicola Lubitsch was invited back to Berlin to help celebrate her father’s centenary in 1992 and her discovery of the Berlin culture of her father’s era and of his very great and unique contributions to it becomes the film’s central narrative and the viewers’ jouney. It’s as is if in telling us of her experience, in finding out new things about her father, his world and his art, she also helps us to discover and begins to set a context in which to appreciate this particular world and these particular works, guiding the viewer familiar only with the American Lubitsch into these silent treasures and the social, cultural and political contexts that helped create them. One couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Lubitch’s  pre-Hollywood life, career and work.

 ****

Lubitsch's daughter Nicola kissing a statue of her father.
Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola kissing a statue of her father.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Un mauvais fils/ A Bad Son (Claude Sautet, France, 1980)

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mauvais_fils

In his lushly illustrated new book, Moments That Made The Movies (Thames and Hudson, 2013), David Thomson, referring to the  famous nightclub scene in Morocco where Dietrich sings ‘Quand l’amour meurt’ before kissing a woman and then throwing Gary Cooper the flower she takes from her, writes: ‘the moment is weightier than the film, and more enduring. But these days people like to take their films in bits and pieces – video allowed for that – so one day it may be that no one makes full movies any more, just arresting moment.’

Claude Sautet is responsible for more than his share of arresting moments in cinema: the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider when Michel Piccoli first sees her in Les Choses de la vie; the moment where Yves Montand, full of sea air and lust for life, says, ‘I feel like fighting someone!’ in César et Rosalie; the introduction of  Romy Schneider, ‘irised’ through a spyglass, in Max et les ferrailleurs; and many more.  His cinema has more than its share of moments that startle either with beauty, meaning or emotion. But his films are always greater than, add up to more than, those moments. Un mauvais fils is no exception.

In Un mauvais fils/ A Bad Son, Paris is seething with strikes, demonstrations, protests but none of the characters in the film can think of anything but their own internal ache. They walk the same streets as people who are aware of and engaged with the surrounding world, drink with them in bars, pass by posters that interpellate involvement and participation from others but which they fail to see. Their thoughts are elsewhere: on what they could have done, should have done, should have been; or on their next fix — the latter being a sign of the failure to measure up to all of the former.

Patrick Dewaere as Bruno
Patrick Dewaere as Bruno

Patrick Dewaere, a singular star and iconic presence of 1970s French cinema, is beautifully cast as Bruno Calgagni, the ‘bad’ son who went to study in America only to be locked up for five years for dealing the heroin he was hooked on but could no longer afford to buy. The film begins as he returns to Paris, where the police greet him at the airport and tell us what got him to that moment. He returns home to find a father who’s loving but also impatient and increasingly reproachful, his very face a picture of disappointment. The son tries to please but always seems to put his foot in it. A scene where he’s drinking with his father at a bar and attempts to impress him by picking up two women, possibly professionals, one for each of them, only to be met by his father’s outrage and disgust is particularly poignant, squirm-inducing and, as we will learn later, hypocritical.

Father and son are loving, both trying their best but failing, albeit each in his own way. The awkwardness, misunderstandings and careless hurtings continue until the father accuses the son of being responsible for his mother’s death; that the shame and hurt he caused her incited a spiral of depression that lead to her taking her own life. This accusation, a breaching of silence that opens the floodgates of anger and blame, is a climactic moment and turning point in the narrative.

We are introduced to Dewaere at the beginning of the film already looking like a cock-eyed spaniel eager to please but bewildered at being wounded, finding himself unloved and drifting in the world through a haze of hurt — that aspect of Bruno doesn’t fundamentally change. He’ll be just as angelic, child-like, sensitive, honourable and manly throughout the rest of the film. But be it careless or cruel, his father’s accusation spurs Bruno to action: his response is to leave the apartment they’re sharing, find a job, make his own way in the world and find his own woman.

Bruno will echo, rhyme, repeat and return his father’s behaviour later in the film when the tables are turned: he will prove himself his father’s son and be just as accusatory and unforgiving when he finds that the affair his father is currently involved with had started way before and might have been just as responsible for his mother’s state of mind as his being in an American jail. It will take him the rest of the film to forgive and come to terms with the father he’s clearly always loved.

Bruno finds some peace when he finds work in an antiquarian bookshop, meets a lovely gay couple and falls in love with Catherine (Brigitte Fossey), herself a former junky. He’s been off the smack for five years; she’s not quite off it, not yet. The film shows the progression of their affair with great tenderness and humanity and without eschewing any of the complexities that such a relationship entails. One of the most touching and moving sequences is when Bruno, understanding of Catherine’s need, lovingly tweaks her with heroin. All this is shown with the arm injected off screen to reduce the most voyeuristic dimension of such a representation and to focus on feeling. The film is refreshingly non-judgmental regarding the drug-taking, really treating it as an illness that good people fall prey to and suffer from rather than, as is often the case,  attributing their drug-taking to a lack of character, morals and will.

A LANDMARK REPRESENTATION OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY

If the film’s representation of heroin addicts is sensitive and humane, its representation of gay men seems to me a landmark, one that deserves greater attention, and is one of many reasons to seek out this film.  Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, published a year after the release of Un mauvais fils details a long and damning list of derogatory stereotypes through which homosexuality had been glimpsed to that point, usually briefly; and often only to be feared, derided or extinguished: the evil lesbian, the pansy, the butt of humour, the subject of suicide etc;

In Un mauvais fils, the contours of the representation remain stereotypical; they’re a short-cut, a way of knowing, and with a root in the real. Thus Adrien (Jacques Fulfilho) is an antiquarian dealing in old books, bourgeois, mad about opera, and supporting a younger foreign lover, Carlos. But as with so much of Sautet’s work, the character is so complex, so human that actor and director endow those contours with shape and shading and thus exceed them.

Adrien loves Catherine, wants to help Bruno, is understanding of all, is the catalyst for the film’s conclusion and, more importantly, figures as as the film’s moral conscience. Un mauves fils even accords him his own little aria, which, whilst not up to the heights of Mimi’s in the La Boheme he loves so much, is such a great speech, such a landmark speech in a history of the representation of gay men in cinema that I attach a clip below and a rough transcript of what he tells Bruno below that. Dulfilho, won a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor, for his work here.

The Speech

Adrien: ‘You might as well jump, it will at least be faster!’

Bruno:‘You don’t know my life…I needed to escape, at least once’

Adrien: ‘There’s no escape bar jumping out the window! Escape! From what? From oneself? From others? From loneliness? From fear? We escape? We go for a walk? To go where? Here is how things are: it’s nine am, I’m 63, I look at myself and I’m cold and I’m homosexual and I’m covered in debts. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life, the bookstore, Carlos. I’d love to get drunk and then when the effects have worn off I’d be thirty, I’d own the bookstore, everyone would be homosexual, those that are not would be persecuted, Carlos would be left-wing and there’d be no more bullshit! Yes, it would be great! On condition of being able to return obviously.

GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS 

frames emptied of action
frames emptied of action

It is one of the great moments in the film but as I mentioned at the beginning, Sautet’s films, this one included, add up to more than its parts. Sautet’s a humanist in perspective, a classicist in style, and meticulous in all aspects of his filmmaking. See for example, the fluid long takes with scenes shot on a diagonal  that somehow creates a vertical space of action on the horizontal wide-screen; or the the subtle and significant shifts in focus as the father and his girlfriend are driving in to work (see clip below). Note too, how in keeping with the themes of the film, the camera often ends on nothingness (see example above), on empty space that is not without significance: the empty space created when characters leave a room to make love in another room so that what they do may be imagined. But also things like the shadow of a staircase bannister once characters have vacated it. This has an effect not unlike that we see in Ozu or on the films of Takeshi Kitano and in Sautet’s film comes across like an extinguished sigh, a place of action where the desired action did not in fact take place.

See also how carefully sound is used, sometimes so that it sets up one scene or continues from another – not unusual but so beautifully done; note too how often we are not permitted to hear what the characters themselves do as a way of creating tension and drama. I’m also very admiring of the colour design of the film (see image capture below), how each scene has its own dominant colour scheme that is carefully choreographed throughout the film’s narrative: the browns and beiges at the beginning,  the bright yellows or reds in the construction scenes, the patterning in blue when Brigitte Fossey gets her hankering for her fix in the seaside.

Note too the wonderful editing, sometimes as indicated earlier, lingering a bit too long on the space of action after the action has finished or moved elsewhere but note the beautiful use of dissolves too (see illustrations below); for example, after Bruno vomits in the metro, there’s that wonderful dissolve of the weeping flower over the rainbow and the sky onto the two men at the bookstore. And then, as is so characteristic in this film, the filming is from outside a window so that it reflects the life outside that the characters inside are oblivious too. Truly lovely.

SUBTLE SHIFTS IN FOCUS

SUBTLE USE OF COLOUR DESIGN

The beige, brown and black that predominate here are the colours associated with Bruno and re-deployed when evoking associations with childhood.
The beige, brown and black that predominate here are the colours associated with Bruno and re-deployed when evoking associations with childhood.
The blues take over when Catherine is in the seaside and needs her fix.
The blues take over when Catherine is in the seaside and needs her fix.
Bruno's father at work, he dressed in black at the centre, surrounding him the galvanising technicolor hues of his work, particularly the yellows and  reds, although the whites are worth consideration as well.
Bruno’s father at work, he dressed in black at the centre, surrounding him the galvanising technicolor hues of his work, particularly the yellows and reds, although the whites are worth consideration as well.

DISSOLVE INTO REFLECTIONS OF OUTSIDE

Bruno vomitino in the metro is the cue for the dissolve that begins on what seems a red flower weeping onto the bookstore where Carlos and Adrien are anxiously calling
Bruno vomiting in the metro is the cue for the dissolve that begins on what seems a red flower weeping onto the bookstore where Carlos and Adrien are anxiously calling
As we can see from the reflection on the window, the image dissolves into another filmed outside the bookshop so we can't hear the phone conversation and so that the outside world is reflected as happening outside the emotional turmoil happening inside
As we can see from the reflection on the window, the image dissolves into another filmed outside the bookshop so we can’t hear the phone conversation and so that the outside world is reflected as happening outside the emotional turmoil happening inside
before finally cutting into the inside of the shop when we can hear what is being said.
before finally cutting into the inside of the shop when we can hear what is being said.

By the time, the film gets to the end, you know, identify, feel for these characters. It’s a melancholy film but one that feels tender and true. The ending with the son just lighting a cigarette and looking lovingly at the father as he sleeps just brims over with unspoken feeling. The film offers no utopian resolution just an understanding, a forgetting, a moving on, a decision to continue and choose love. That feeling is not the result of one moment, it’s the building up of many scenes, many choices of mise-en-scène, many small miracles of acting. It’s very beautiful.

Last reconciling look onto the father
Last reconciling look onto the father

José Arroyo

César et Rosalie (Claude Sautet, France 1972)

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Cesar-et-Rosalie

César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.

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70’s fashions by Yves St. Laurent (with the 20s influence clearly in evidence)

César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is  head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.

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Vogue is pictured behind and Romy looks like she’s just stepped off its pages.

Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular,  there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980)  which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.

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Platform shoes, bell-bottomed trousers, long hanging necklaces. Very 70s and very chic.

But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames  into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.

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velvet choker, no jewellery, neckline plunging through sheer fabric that nonetheless covers the arms; hair piled up like an Edwardian Lady.

At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat  before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.

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Sporty, wintry, beachwear. The sophistication of the patterning on the jumper, the elegance of the hair pulled back, the white stripes on the wellies: casual ware? Only in a French movie.

These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.

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Romy returns. But for whom?

Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be;  big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see  that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.

Montand, laying on the charm but with his too big shirt collar betraying his class origins.
Montand, laying on the charm but with his too big shirt collar betraying his class origins.

The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of  clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.

Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie:  there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as  a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie  is exquisite.

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Sami Frey, intelligent, artistic and sensitive eye-candy for Romy and for us, for better and worse.

José Arroyo

Certified Copy, Notes On (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Begium 2010,)

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CERTIFIED COPY

This is a movie that seems to shift the ground under and over its own foundation as it progresses. The story begins with a French antiques dealer, never named in the film but played by Juliette Binoche and significantly listed in the credits as ‘Elle’, with all the connotations of the eternal, the archetypal, the ideal ‘She’ which every other woman simply performs, conforms to or deviates from, enacts, but might just be a bad copy of; one which nonetheless, in the act of copying, becomes, and becomes no less real, and potentially even more real, than the ideal.

‘Elle’ goes to listen to a British author, James Miller (William Shimell), give a talk on the relationship between the original and the copy in art with, we eventually find out, her eleven-year-old son. The son suggests she has the hots for the writer as she buys lots of copies of a book she’s already told him she has reservations about. She leaves her number with James who then picks her up at her antique store; they head off to the countryside, visit a museum, and then stop for a coffee. At the cafe, whilst he’s in the toilet, an elderly server ‘mistakes’ them for a couple, and she and ‘Elle’ have a long discussion on relationships, marriage, children and what makes for a good husband. ‘Elle’ talks emotionally about the failures of hers whilst the old lady offers a different, more generous interpretation. Ideals can ruin one’s life, the old lady warns her. When Miller returns, and in spite of the real emotion she’s shown for the husband we thought to be him, ‘Elle’ now tells Miller how funny it is that the old lady thought they were a couple.

James, surrounded by representations of 'She', including that of his possible wife reflected in the mirror.
James, surrounded by representations of ‘She’, including that of his possible wife reflected in the mirror.

As the film progresses, as they copy, enact, and re-enact their coupledom, we begin to first suspect that they really are a married couple, then become more firm in our conviction that they are, and, finally, it’s as if this couple stand in for all couples; even though we can’t quite shake off the doubt that, in spite of all we’ve seen, they might not really be one, or at least not the one we thought they were. Each slight shift in the narrative, in our understanding of the story, is accompanied by a shimmer of emotion, one that shines more truly and deeply as the film progresses.

Out of these shifts a possible story accumulates of a fifteen year-old marriage in which the wife loves her husband but is unsatisfied because he’s never there and she’s left alone to bring up her son. He admits that things weren’t as they had been when they first got married because things change but seems surprised to see her questioning the foundations of their relationship. At first, the divisions between them seem to be due to differences of language and culture as well as of character and feeling; but, as the story unfolds, these break down as well:. While we’re told he only speaks English whereas she speaks French to her son, English to her husband, and Italian to everyone else, over the course of the film we hear him also speak in these three languages, and this at least raises a doubt as to the reliability of her perspective and thus of ours.

As the first part of the film embroiders a narrative and a set of relationships, it also offers a rich, extended and variegated exploration on the nature of art. The film begins with a shot of a table, a microphone and a book, ‘Certified Copy’. The camera lingers on that ‘empty’ shot for a while until the author is introduced. He begins a speech on the relationship between the copy and the original in art and the film thus instigates an even more complex discussion on the nature of art that will be extensively developed throughout the first part of the film.

Certified Copy begins with a discussion of art, on the relationship between the original and the copy; is the original necessarily better? But it proceeds from there onto other topics such as the effects of age on value: can you only tell whether something is art if its value has been acknowledged for a long time? The film also dramatises an exploration of the natural versus the constructed or created in art, the question of form, the question of context to perception and art (does Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol putting a coke bottle in a museum, or a copy of an advertisement for a coke bottle in a museum, make it art?), the relationship of art to authorship (maybe if Jasper Johns puts the coke bottle there it can change our perception of it but would it do so if it was you or I that put the bottle there?) The film also brings up question of functionality, responsibility, affect, effect. What is the relationship of art to politics and ethics?

There’s also a wonderful interlude in a museum where our two protagonists are looking at a copy that was admired as an original for many years, is now acknowledged as a copy but is thought to be better than the original. And the film also offers interesting snippets, little asides that are nonetheless rich points of departure for thought on such issues as the look on the work: subjective, personal, creative, inventive; the place of technical skill or technique in value; and the issue of the reputation of the artist.

There’s another marvelous moment, this one  in a piazza, where they get into an argument on the interpretation of a statue of a couple and they rope in another couple , more elderly and perhaps wiser, to offer their views as proof of their own interpretation. I love it that that couple is played by Agathe Natanson and the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter not only of Buñuel’s late great works (Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty, Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire) but also of The Tin Drum, The Return of Martin Guèrre, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and clearly someone who has a thought or two on art worth listening to. Our listening, however, is qualified by the film bringing to our attention that our perception is not always reliable: when we first see this couple he seems to be angrily berating his wife and as if about to hit her; whereas, as they move on, we see that he’s been merely talking to someone on his phone. Things are not always as they seem. There’s a gaze that frames our perception. That gaze can shift.

Carrière’s presence is a reminder that the film is offering not only a discussion on art, on relationships, on the real and on their inter-relationship but that it’s doing so through a dialogue with film history in general (all those long takes beloved of Bazin, that staging in depth Bazin so praised in Welles and Wyler, the use of mirrors to frame, focus and re-compose so beloved of Sirk) but with Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in particular. The dramatization of a relationship in crisis through a journey within Italy is a theme they both share; the scene of Bergman in the museum being told about the cultural legacy of ancient times and trying to put it into her own context (see clip above) is extrapolated as a dominant theme in Certified Copy. There are more concrete echoes such as the reflections of the streets onto the windshield of the vehicle each couple is driving when they discourse on their own internal concerns whilst a whole world is visible in the background behind the rear window of the car (see frame grabs below).

Reflections on the windshield, a world outside the car, in Rossellini's Journey to Italy.
Reflections on the windshield, a world outside the car, in Rossellini’s Journey to Italy.
Talking about art and life in  Certified Copy
Talking about art and life in Certified Copy

The scene in Journey to Italy with the discovery of the lovers extinguished in a final embrace is a turning point in that film not unlike the couple in Certified Copy discussing the statue of that other couple in the piazza. Kiarostami’s film doesn’t place as much direct emphasis on faith, and certainly ‘She’/Binoche doesn’t get swept up by the faithful the way Bergman does in Rossellini’s film, and James/Shimell doesn’t seem to be one to rescue her if she were. But he might, just as his might be the shoulder ‘She’ needs to rest her head on. However, Kiarostami does offer a different kind of faith: that in the enactment, in the everyday copying of the ideal, one comes closer to fulfilling it; the daily enactment of duty, of performing what one promised to do, of conforming to a code, does not necessarily result in mere copy, it’s a copie conforme, a ‘Certified Copy’ so good that it might be mistaken for the real thing, certainly stand in for, and fulfil  the same function as the real thing. And who’s to say that it’s not?

The richness of theme, and the complexity with which the film dramatises and explores it, is one of the film’s great pleasures. Another, just as deserving of praise, and perhaps even more pleasurable, is Juliette Binoche’s performance of ‘She’: all the emotions of that ‘femme eternelle’ who is particularized as a frazzled working mom, emotions that sometimes seem in contradiction with each other, are visible in her face: she’s harried, seductive, worried, pleading, beautiful, middle-aged, all at once. It’s an extraordinary performance. He is the uninspiring unemotional blank; you can hear what he says but you don’t know what he thinks. It’s obviously in character and might be the very reason for Shimmell’s casting but it does detract from the movie, though not to the point were it prevents it from achieving greatness.

Surrounded by pleading and waiting wives.
Surrounded by pleading and waiting wives.
Surrounded by marriages James wants no part of.
Surrounded by marriages James wants no part of.
Some marriages start in tears as James reluctantly joins the marriage party in the background.
Some marriages start in tears as James reluctantly joins the marriage party in the background.

The other, and as regards this account, last of the film’s great pleasures, one which took me a while to awaken to, is the mise-en-scene. It initially seems so simple that one doesn’t notice anything, than gradually one sees ‘She’ reflected in mirrors alongside statues of naked women in Roman Art (see frame grab above) or James surrounded by brides he doesn’t want to talk to or be made to remember but once again in mirrors, in the background, as barely discernible reflections (see more frame grabs above), like a faint echo of a memory slowly rising to consciousness but, repressed by the protagonist, evoked by the staging, lighting and camerawork.

It’s a film that gets richer with each viewing.

José Arroyo

 

Días de Gracia/Days of Grace or a Note on the Process of Writing on Film (Everardo Gout, Mexico, 2011)

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I find the process of writing in itself an interesting guide as to how I value a film. In the last year, I’ve loved Mud, Candelabra, and The Bling Ring so much that I’ve seen them half a dozen times each but still haven’t managed to write anything on them but notes to myself: I’m paralysed with appreciation; I tell myself I need to wait for the DVD release to look at films more closely, verify my opinions, discover more of their mysteries, and find the language with which to begin to account for them. And so the process gets deferred.

Other times my need to write on a film over-rides almost everything else. In the last few days I’ve been going to lots of cultural events; Alain Bennet’s People at the Birmingham Rep, Shakespeare at Stratford, David Byrne in concert, other movies; and in spite of finding them all rewarding in their own ways, I found my mind returning, almost against my will, to focus on Satyajit Ray’s The Big City. I needed to write something.

Other films feel like a waste of time to see, encourage no reflection, and writing on them doesn’t even cross my mind. Others yet, like Days of Grace, I initially thought of just putting aside as a not-too-pleasant experience but then found myself returning to at odd moments as if my unconscious was telling me something my conscious reason didn’t quite grasp.

My first impression of Days of Grace was of an interesting, almost virtuoso, if rather bewildering and somewhat unpleasant example of types of camera movement, colour and editing now made possible by new technologies. Different parts of the film are shot in different formats: 8, 16 and 35 mm; and colour is used differently in different parts of the movie; but the oversaturation it does make use of throughout a great deal of the film has only been seen in cinema relatively recently and is probably due to computerized colour grading. The movement of the camera is relentless and dizzying; simultaneously exciting and irritating; it whizzes overhead in speedy helicopter shots over Mexico City, shakes wildly as it follows characters so you almost can’t see what’s going on. The editing must have been done digitally as objects appear and disappear from walls even as the camera pans across it and would have been a very expensive special effect in another era. And I thought there was something interesting and new about a steady but clearly mechanical (non-smooth) type of tracking shot that I don’t remember seeing before.

After I decided not to write on it (why write something negative on something struggling to find an audience as is?) my mind kept returning to the phrase of Gabriel García Marquez that acts as a pre-amble to the film: ‘La vida no es lo que uno vivío, sino lo que recuerda, y cómo lo recuerda para contarla/ Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers to tell it’.  So what is life according to Days of Grace, what does the film want us to remember, and how does it tell its story?

These questions were part of the problem I had with the Day of Grace because I wasn’t sure I followed it properly; and I was not alone. Phillip French writing in The Observer notes that the story ‘is difficult, at times almost impossible, to follow. At least first time around.’

The film is clearly a ‘state of the nation film’ with some similarities to Amores Perros and City of God. It is set during three World Cups, 2002, 2006 and 2010 because it’s been observed that, ‘every four years, for 30 days, crime rates go down by 30% because of the World Cup’. It tells three interconnected stories, that of a cop, a kidnap victim, and a family; there are even three versions of ‘Summertime’ so that the film becomes interconnected even on an aural level (Janis Joplin and Nina Simone I recognized: I had to search the credits to find the last which turns out to be by Scarlett Johansson). Each of these stories involves the other key phrase repeated throughout the film, something like ‘in Mexico, every single day is a fight for your life’. So what the film remembers and what it tells is this struggle; and it is significant that the only person who leaves the film’s carnage alive is a young boy who we see first as a child delinquent (Doroteo), then as an apprentice kidnapper (called Iguana and played by Kristyan Ferrer) and in the last scene of the film as a boxer, still fighting for his life, not yet knocked off like the others in the film. But for how long?

Everardo Gout, whose debut feature this is, has called Days of Grace, ‘A love letter to my country…the film comes out of my great love for the country, out of sadness and out of fear at the violence.’ In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw read this ‘love letter’ as a ‘confident well made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism’. I do understand where both are coming from. Part of the reason my mind kept returning to the film was because it jived with my experience of Mexico when I last visited: those who could afford to lived in gated communities with their own security firms; the city police, the District police and the national police fought with each other and also against the various gangs that were often more powerful than they; kidnapping was so rife they had a term for it ‘kindnap expres’, a short-cut to ready money to which everyone who had even a minimal paycheck and a family was vulnerable to. Mexico felt like a failed State and indeed the first time I venture unescorted, it was the police I fell victim to rather than a gangster: the police were the gangsters. The film too makes it clear that there is a thin divide between cops and gangsters in Mexico. As one of the characters says in an analogy with the World Cup, ‘we’re not arbiters, we’re players’.

What to Bradshaw is cynicism, a lack of faith and hope in people and institutions, is to Gout realism, sad and fearful but of what is not of what it once was or what the society could be again. It’s a love letter because there’s Lupe, the hero who is not only a cop, but one who is linked to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary saint and arguably a founding father of Twentieth Century Mexican ideals. In the face of Tenoch Huerta, and in his performance, in the gesture of kissing of the figure of Zapata and the bullet he once held, one sees a Utopian ideal of that daily fight not only to survive but to make things better, to make things good; and in that ideal lies Gout’s love letter.

What my mind kept turning to, what made me want to find out a little more about the film and to write something after my initial decision not to were three things a) that I couldn’t understand the story fully: was the film too fast or was I too slow? I haven’t figured out the answer to that one yet. B) The violence: brutal, relentless, stylish. This is bound to become a cult film. And c) Tenoch Huerta’s open and suffering face in his futile attempt to make things better. I also felt that the film was akin to the work of a brilliant writer who was so enraptured by his limitless ability with the medium that he ended up writing astonishing passages but forgot what he was writing about or whom he was writing to; or put another way, Days of Grace is the work of a virtuoso director. That is where my writing on the film led me to think contra my experience of watching it.

José Arroyo

The Big City (India, Satjayit Ray, 1963)

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The big City

After seeing Satyajit Ray’s The Big City, Roger Ebert remarked that he had trouble approaching Ray’s films as ‘foreign’: “they are not foreign. They are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but Ray’s characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood.” I agree. The film feels both of its time and very contemporary: probably most people living in cities in the non- or recently industrialised world are no more than a generation away from village life (and this includes European countries such as Spain, Romania and many more) and the problems around re-definitions of inside/outside, the family, work and gender roles are not too different than those Ray’s film so delicately and beautifully dramatises.

In The Big City, Subrat Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), an accountant who works in a new bank, and his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) live in a cramped apartment in Calcutta. They’re supporting his father (Haren Chatterjee), a former schoolteacher who needs glasses they can’t afford, his mother (Sefalika Devi) who’s got an expensive tobacco habit, his sister (Jaya Bhaduri), a teenager but still going to a fee-paying school, and their young son Pingu (Pressenjit Sarkar). They can’t make ends meet. The husband drops hints that maybe the wife can get a job. The wife takes the hint but then it is the husband who becomes reluctant to venture any further as a wife working away from home would shame him in front of his parents and friends. However, they see no other solution.

Ray works within the realm of the little hurts, slights, and barriers in life that must be overcome. There are no heroes or villains. The family benefits from Arita going to work but each is nonetheless and in different ways resentful that she’s taken a job. The father who loves his son prefers to bad mouth him in the course of begging for new glasses from former students rather than accept them lovingly from his working daughter-in-law. The older generation is shocked and unaccepting of this modern world in which women are allowed to work. Yet it might be shocking to us that they initially see begging, however delicately and elegantly voiced, preferable to work.

This illustration of middle-class poverty nonetheless focuses on a family who’s got a servant whom they have trouble paying; there are other people who are much worse off then they. You get a real sense of modernity arriving in the city, people who’ve just come from a village and who’ve still got a rural, almost tribal identity but in a changing world. Unusually, Anglo-Indians are depicted as the disenfranchised minority, on the face of it privileged, but de-facto structurally oppressed, their privilege being tied to the world order of a different generation and one that no longer exists. Chandak Sengoopta in ‘The Big City: A Woman’s Place’, an essay offered as part of The Criterion Collection website, offers a marvellous socio-historical context for the film’s drama.

Big City 2

The character of Arita is the film’s focal point; it is through her that we see Modernity structurally transforming the family and a whole way of life. Initially, the film’s focus is on the husband’s worries, and we see her encased inside the tiny apartment unable to meet the various demands the members of her family make on her. Then we see her fear of the city; how she needs her husband’s support to go outside and into the world. Then her awe and wonder at the richer homes, other ways of life. Soon she’s standing up for herself, walking purposefully through the streets, arranging contracts, wearing sunglasses and even putting on lipstick and meeting men.

The lipstick is crucial. And the lipstick is inextricably linked to her new ability to be with men who are not her husband. Arita is no flâneuse; she’s a career woman now with places to go and people to see; and all these wonderings around the city, all this career success, particularly in the light of her husband’s travails but of the culture as a whole, make her husband, and most likely the film’s initial audience, question her virtue. Part of the beauty of the film is that it makes us understand why her society and her husband might put her morality in question (what else is the husband to think when he finds a lipstick in her purse or sees her with other men?) whilst simultaneously leaving us with no doubt as to Arita’s goodness.

Madhabi Mukherjee who plays Arita seems simultaneously ordinary and a great beauty. Her features are just as delicate as her way of conveying the character’s emotions. She evokes a centered serenity even in her greatest moments of distress, even in her final confrontation with her boss. Her Arita has a calm humbleness, useful when she has to deal with each new difficulty and one which also comes across as tactful and polite: Arita does her best to prevent others from feeling threatened or ill at ease at the sense of empowerment she now clearly feels. Like so many women in the history of cinema, walking the streets offers Arita money and freedom, although Arita walks in daylight, to an office job, selling knitting machines instead of herself and is at all times respectable.

The Big City is also fascinating in relation to film form. There are some extraordinary shots: one of the husband shown through a sheet where the light makes his disembodied profile seem a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split figure; the other of the wife looking through a glass and trying on lipstick, a modern identity, and showing us being in the process of becoming (the mirror shot is later rhymed with one showing us looking at herself with the money she’s earned from her job, the lipstick and the money crucially interlinked). What we see and how we see it seems extraordinarily modern and imaginative. The film is shot in long-takes sometimes helped along by a rather stilted though no less efficient zoom lens. Each shot is composed sparsely, minimally, there is very little too distract the eye from within the frame, but these sparse compositions create maximum effect.

The pace is languid, audiences might feel a bit too much so. But it all builds into a marvellous, multi-layered, depiction of a society in transition, and the uncomfortable choices a loving family have to make to get by. The film reminds us that drama need not involve superheroes, or natural disasters or fatal afflictions; that good and loving people trying to get by in the world in the best way they can is, when shown with such skill and delicacy, sufficient to create something beautiful and moving. It’s a great film.

****

Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre but also available as a great Criterion DVD

Lovefilm has two other great Satyajit Ray films available to rent: The Coward and The Lonely Wife.

 

José Arroyo

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee/ David Siegel, USA, 2013)

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what-maisie-knew-film

I have not read Henry James’ novel from which the film is adapted so I’m in no position to evaluate how faithful or true it is to the original novel or how well it is updated. On its own terms, the film is well-intentioned, serious, worthy. If effort were all, it would be wonderful.

The structure is classically symmetrical: Four adults, two younger, two older; four couplings; one dissolves at the beginning, the other begins at the end. One child to be tossed around amongst them.

The structure is filled out by a straightforward story. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star. Her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The milieu is well-to-do but bohemian Manhattan. The film begins with the end of their relationship and the beginning of their brutal, acrimonious and selfish custody battle over their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny, is at all times concerned with Maisie’s feelings and need. She initially offers stability but then gets married to Maisie’s father and becomes caught in the crossfire of Susanna and Beale’s selfish hatred. Susanna also marries someone, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgärd), a tender-hearted hunk of a bartender and, like Margo, considerably younger. By the end of the film, it is Lincoln and Margo, now a couple, who are de facto doing the parenting the biological parents are too self-involved to provide.

How divorce affects a child is not a new theme in American Cinema: Mildred Pearce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961 and Mancy Meyer, 1998), Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998) and many others have in different ways touched on the theme. But cinema has rarely explored the theme as intricately as What Maisie Knew does. Susanna and Beale profess love for Maisie, and the film is complex enough to show us that they do indeed love their child. However, it also shows us how they see that child mainly in relation to themselves, as an extension, rather than as a separate consciousness and then only in the odd moments they do in fact happen to think of her. Neither acknowledges the child as having needs and indeed feelings outside their own presence or perception.

Susanna and Beale constantly declare their love for Maisie, indeed violently fight with each other for her possession, but the violence of their struggle with each other is itself a demonstration of their lack of duty and responsibility towards the child and of their own egocentrism.  Is love pure feeling or is it feeling made manifest in actions; do you still love your child if you neglect it? How much do you love your child if the fulfillment of your needs is at the expense of theirs? I’m sure Maisie’s father thinks he doesn’t love her less when he decides that his business will go better if he moves back to England and thus really can’t be part of her life, at least not on a regular basis any more. I’m sure Susanna’s career requires that she go on tour. Both parents ‘love’ their child but see themselves in difficult situations in which they think they’re doing the best they can. However, the film shows us they can indeed do much better. And little Maisie knows it.

The film depicts the situation from Maisie’s vantage point literally and figuratively: her point of view is privileged and the camera is often placed at her eye-level to show us the action. Maisie is a warm, open, trusting and intelligent child. She watches and she sees, and slowly we see that she understands much more than a child should, and finally, we realise that she might even know and understand more than her parents. Onata Abrile, big eyes on that baby face, brings to mind Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1963), and seeing her is one of the film’s pleasures; her little arms reaching out for whoever’s handy for a hug, the eyes watching and weighed-down by the burden of knowing, and her little hand encased in Skarsgärd massive paw are moments that stay and resonate.

The rest of the performances are variable. Julianne Moore is never for one moment believable as a rock star, and the bit where we see her singing at the studio with what sounds like her voice, is pretty terrible (though of course that hasn’t stopped rock stars from being rock stars in the past); however, that aside, she’s not afraid of playing unlikeable and she screeches at her husband, cheats on her lover, and goes on tour with an abandon that always seems true to the character whilst also enjoyable to watch. She’s also very gentle and affectionate when she’s alone with her girl, and has a truly great moment where she goes to pick up her child from her former nanny and Lincoln and realizes with horror that she now makes Maisie afraid.

Skarsgärd is a pleasure to watch as well. I’ve never seen him this boyish on screen. Graphically, his enormous height contrasts well with tiny Abrile, and both are at their most appealing and vulnerable when shown together. Tender, sweet, responsible; he’s the man Susanna really doesn’t deserve. Joanna Vanderham is technically proficient, very nurturing with Maisie and a good match for Lincoln (what is incomprehensible is why someone so responsible and sensible would take up with Beale). Steve Coogan has been getting good reviews for his playing of Beale but I find him opaque in the part; Coogan traffics, and succeeds in irony, detachment, distanciation. He does technically convey the emotions his character’s supposed to feel but always at a distance; he never lets you in and, perhaps because of that,  you never feel that that character is a person rather than Coogan acting out a set of character traits.

The film has many virtues. It does makes one think about love, relationships, parenting, responsibility and it treats those themes complexly. It has some good performances. Though not visually dazzling, it has some memorable images. The main problem I think is that it is too restrained. It’s dealing with material that borders on the melodramatic and doesn’t want to go there. But restraint in a film such as this should mean not to manipulate the audience falsely into emotion rather than simply abstaining from the attempt altogether. It is often through feeling that films get us to think. The main characters in What Maisie Knew deserve a tear. The film’s unwillingness to grant it feels overly detached and rather cold. A pity.

José Arroyo

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013)

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In Elysium, rich people have extracted everything they can from earth and made it so dirty, dangerous, ugly and poor in the process that they refuse to live in it. They’ve created a satellite colony, Elysium, where only they can live. It’s like Earth is East LA and Elysium is a super-rich gated community like Beverly Hills. We are introduced to our protagonist Max de Costa (Matt Damon) as a boy, an orphan brought up by nuns in a slum along with Frey (Alice Braga). He’s very intelligent but he’s always in trouble with the law.  His dream is to get to Elysium. As the film gets underway in 2154, he’s on probation, a sentence which gets extended because, in his time like in ours, a poor man can’t even get sarcastic with a law enforcer without paying for it, even if the officer is a machine.

Max has got a shit job, no guaranteed shifts, and he’s made to do hazardous work at the risk of getting fired. As a result, he gets radiation poisoning; but the machines that can cure everything are only available to the 1% living in Elysium. Frey, his childhood companion and not-quite-requited love, is now a nurse. She has a daughter with leukemia who also needs urgent access to those cure-all machines. Max has five days to live, five days to act and try and save himself and the child of his childhood love.

At the same time, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defense for Elysium is planning a re-boot of the whole system to stage a coup and accede to total power. Max allows himself to be turned into a cyborg so that a hard drive can be fitted into his brain and an exoskeleton grafted onto his body to give himself enough strength to fight for his life.  Can Max steal this programme, reboot the system so that everyone on earth gets re-enfranchised as citizens and get free healthcare for all, including himself and Frey’s daughter? That’s the film’s plot, a good one, and one in dialogue with key works in the genre: the novels of Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson; but also Lang’s Metropolis, the Robocop films, the Terminator Films, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic.

Although the plot is serviceable, it’s badly structured. We expect Max’s nemesis to be Delacourt but Damon barely gets to exchange a line with Foster. There are three villains in this film: Delacourt, who is motivated by fascist ideals of strength and security at any cost: John Carlyle, the super-rich industrialist who invented and designed Elysium’s security system and who owns the company that manufactures police robots that Max works for and whose main motivation is mere money; and Kruger, a covert mercenary who Delacourt has on tap to do her dirty work whenever it suits her. Delacourt signifies power though it is illusory in that she relies on others to carry out her commands. Carlyle is rampant capitalism, and his function is to first show his disdain for people and then to have the knowledge that is the basis of his wealth taken from him by Max (William Fichtner gives a superb, very still, dry and funny performance). Max’s true enemy, the one he has to fight throughout the film so that he can achieve his goals, is really Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert mercenary, who represents brute and destructive chaos in the service of power.

If Carlyle is a mere plot point, Delacourt is bare symbol. The film could have lost most of her story-line without losing much; and the film is further imbalanced by having Jodie Foster play the character. It’s not that she’s bad, indeed I find her excellent; she doesn’t have much of a character to play with, any in fact; but she makes the most out of the little she’s got with minimal gestures and the kind of accent one imagines in white supremacists. It’s just that she’s Jodie Foster! Everyone under fifty has grown up with her. We know her as the tomboy in the Disney films, the underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, her great Tallullah in Bugsy Malone, the woman for whose attention John Hinckley shot Reagan, and from The Silence of the Lambs until Julia Roberts career picked up again after My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, the only female star in Hollywood who could carry a film on her own. When one sees a great actress and a legendary star top-billed in a movie one expects to see more than a cliché making a few phone calls to her minions. Further, I suspect that the nastier aspects of what Delacourt symbolises are drawing on those elements of Foster’s star persona that intersect with the audience’s knowledge of her as a lesbian; and to me, the film’s misuse of Foster feels like a betrayal.

Elysium has a problem in maintaining tone as well. The early child-hood scenes are sappy, and as is illustrated by Sharlto Copley’s performance as Krugor, the film wavers uncomfortably wildly between realism and melodrama. This extends to the whole film. For example, the dystopian world the film depicts is gritty and ‘realistic’. It could be any third-world metropolis (I understand Mexico DF was used a location), or even parts of the US today. The technology is futuristic but the buildings, workplace, lifestyles are all too recognizable. However, the people are not, or not quite, and it should be the other way around.

If who the characters are, what they feel and what they hope for are something we know and can identify with then the external world can be as odd and different as imagination can make it. But here, though the structure of the story is melodramatic, and the tone in which its told also at least touches on the melodramatic, the film itself doesn’t allow for the identification or provide the release essential to melodrama. We know what is at stake in Max’s quest but we’re not able to feel it with him. It seems that Hollywood cinema has given up on trying to make audiences cry and simply retired one of its greatest pleasures and a central element of its art over to television, much to its detriment.

Elysium is a liberal sci-fi film. Let’s not overestimate what that means, sci-fi has been one of the few genres in which Hollywood cinema has allowed any kind of political critique (Oblivion is but the most recent example). It’s as if it’s ok to offer social critique on film so long as it applies to the future and not to the now. But let’s not underestimate what that means either. The less integral American cinema is to American culture, the greater the critique allowed. However, this is as potent a demonstration of de-facto disenfranchisement and as clear an argument for universal health-care as I remember seeing.

Elysium, like the recent 2 Guns, is another example of how race is being re-signified in American cinema. Why is Max’s surname De Costa? Why are most of the supporting characters Latin American (not only Alice Braga but also Walter Moura; and Diego Luna brings a burst of sparkle every time he appears)? Why is there so much dialogue in Spanish (it sometimes feels close to a bilingual film). Why does the film side with those poor people trying to enter Elysium just the same way Hispanics try to cross into the US border from Mexico? It’s like Elysium is Versailles, the Hispanics are the sans-culottes, and the film is showing why storming Versailles and brining on the revolution is a good and necessary thing. That’s quite something in a big-budget American film.

Visually, Elysium is a masterpiece. The first few panoramic shots showing us the contrast between earth and Elysium are extraordinary, you can even see people moving in their lush gardens as the camera circles and moves through the Elysium satellite. There are also some shots of Jodie Foster seated in her control console that are breathtaking achievements in shot composition. Matt Damon’s transformation into a cyborg (indeed the whole design of his look for the film), a shot of a robot exploding in slow motion and the villain’s face being re-composed after its been blown off are also indelible visual moments. However, there is also too much hand-held camera throughout the film. I saw it in IMAX and the camera bopping up and down constantly on such a huge screen and in such detail was unpleasant and dizzying. However, that didn’t put me off seeing it twice; it was even more beautiful the second time around; and I suspect it’s a value, a very considerable one, only truly visible on a big screen. Don’t be put off by the reviews (perhaps including mine); it’s very much worth seeing.

José Arroyo

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010)

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Winter's Bone 

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010) is a quest movie with a deadline: Ree Dolly’s father has put up the family home and the land they live off as bond for his bail. As the film begins, we’re told he’s due to go to court but the Sheriff can’t find him. After he misses his court date, the bail bondsman tells Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) she has a week to get her father to turn himself in or the family will be evicted from their property. Barely seventeen, Ree is presently taking care of her mother, who is clearly suffering from mental illness and a residue of drug addiction, and her two younger siblings, who are too young to feed themselves. They currently live off the land and without it they’re lost. There’s a discussion of separating the children and leaving them with various relatives but the film also intimates that this would make them vulnerable to abuse, though whether it’s sex or drugs or violence is menacingly hinted at without being fully articulated. Ree has no choice but to search for her father. This will put her in the path of danger and in turn offer the audience a prime view of a rural American culture ravaged by poverty and crystal meth.

The centrality of the necessity of the father to the very existence of the home and the family is one of the most powerful structuring elements of this film. Without the father, the family will lose land, house, each other. Ree lives in a patriarchal culture, clearly gendered in relation to tasks (‘don’t you have no menfolk who can do this for you?’ she’s asked). But men just fight, drink, strut, abuse their women and leave them helpless. We not only see them do this but the film underlines men’s absence (even when they are there), their uselessness or threatening presence by the way the film photographs them: in acts of aggression towards woman (fig.1.1-1.2), or far away and out of focus to show that they’re not there or simply won’t help(fig 2), or at a low-angle to make their threat a looming one (fig 3), next to weapons (fig 4), or constantly doing drugs.

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Example of Acts of Aggression Towards Women A
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fig. 1.b
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fig. 4.1
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fig. 4.2

A man is necessary but the family is better off by just bringing his bones in and proving he’s dead. The film shows us this over and over again in the conversation that she has with her best friend Gail(who has to ask her husband’s permission to have access to the family truck); in the names given to the men (most prominently Teardrop and Thump Jessop and the interesting dynamic created by the juxtaposition of those two names), in the gentle songs of suffering (mostly country and bluegrass in relation to women with the odd notes of honky-tonk or thrash metal woven in at low volume in relation to men). Men here are a problem; whether it’s the bail bondsmen, the sheriff, the father himself, or the other patriarchs in the film. They’re threatening either when they are the law (the bondsman, the sheriff) or outside the law (drunk, violent, or repressive), even the military recruiter, who is shown as kind, cannot help (and the help he has to offer is one most of us would refuse. Note how what stands between the patriotism signaled American flags on the right of Fig.8.1 and the recruiting poster which avows that the military’s mission is a better future is the reality of Ree’s conditions of existence and the military recruiter’s advice to heed them). Teardrop, as is indicated by his name, is a kind of bridge between a male figure that enables and a masculinity that destroys; he begins oppressively (‘I’ve already told you to shut up with my mouth. Don’t make me have to say it again’) but eventually helps because of bonds of blood (and guilt?).

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fig. 8.1

If men are a problem, women are the solution in this movie. Their faces might be ravaged by meth, they might also take a turn at ‘laying on the hurt’ but they’re also the ones that solve every problem all the patriarchal structures put in place of the family’s survival. And it is through women that Ree finds food (from her neighbor Sonya), emotional sustenance (from her friend Gail, but also that final adoring look her helpless mother gives her at the end) and finally even her father’s bones (through the woman who is attached to the gang leader who had her father killed –the film hints he’s head of a bike gang which is a front for a drug distribution business).

 

fig. 9.1
fig. 9.1

These gendered relationships are supported by labyrinthine set of  social mores with extremely codified rules of behavior (depending on gender, kinship, age, and bounded by the school, the military and the law) which we see Ree teaching her younger siblings (e.g. ‘don’t ask for what should be offered’). And they take place in a particular place, the Ozark mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country, here shown as the face of rural America, traditional moonshine land now cranked up and crippled by Crystal Meth. Often we are shown this wintery rural landscape with horses, hay, dead leaves on the floor; a landscape that reaches a peak of beauty in its autumnal dying; and in the midst of this natural setting we’ll see some clothes hanging and a waft of smoke that could be fog before we realize it is really smoke from an illegal lab; the pastoral and the domestic enshrouded and infected by the chemical and the synthetic(see fig 9.1). The culture of the market is seen as a culture of crime (what we see constantly on demand and constantly being supplied is drugs); manufacturing is here shown as only the making of poison and forgetting (there’s a haunting travelling shot following our heroine and another woman through a junkyard full of old cars, a cemetery of an America with no place to go which is very reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Depression photographs of car graveyards, (See Fig. 5.2); education is shown in relation to taking care of babies and marching with guns; American individualism at its most extreme is shown as an underage girl with no social safety net having to risk her life for basic food and shelter.

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fig. 5.2

In Winters Bone the American century is over. The most striking images in the film are those of decay and here they mourn what America has become. But instead of setting the action in a retro future as in Blade Runner or other futuristic dystopias of a previous era of American Cinema (The Running Man, Total Recall, the Robocop films, the Aliens films, etc.), Winters Bone’s dystopia is constructed from putting an idea of the past in the present rather than in the future. The film is set in the rural heartland and we are made to see it as a problem that not much has changed since the days when Elvis was a child and his mama could only cook squirrel on shortening. In fact the places and faces very much evoke Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs (see Figs 6.1-3)

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fig. 6.3

We see not a culture of consumption but the remains of one, its detritus is everywhere but the things themselves are no longer affordable. Children ride their old, dirty toy horses on trampolines. But this is a consumer culture where the evidence of an abundance of things is only a sign of the lack of essentials (almost industrial size trampolines but no food; gun rather than book displays at the High School, bars and all-night convenience shops but no churches or other places where people can socialize). We do see a gathering with Marideth Sisco singing but the song is Fair and Tender Maidens (‘To all the fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your man. They’re like a star on the Summer’s morning, they first appear and then they’re gone… I wish to the lord I’d never seen him. Or in his cradle he had died…’).

What hope the film offers is one centered on human will and character rather than institutions (‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going nowhere’, says Ree at the end). Children have to be taught to shoot, and gut animals in order to survive (‘There’s a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of real soon,’ Ree tells her brother). The film shows a regression into a social organization that offers no structures of support except kinship, which it simultaneously posits as the greatest danger to the individual and to the family.

Winters Bone is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rossellini. It’s a rare American film that places a woman at the centre of the action, this is rarer still in that the narrative takes us through a relay of female characters for the action to be completed and it does so through a woman’s point-of-view. But greater still is the film’s creation of a new archetype which Jessie Lawrence embodies with warmth and purpose. For whilst people like Ree might not be new in life, they are rare in mainstream representation: a woman that we first see in the home making breakfast; who takes care of her Mom and her sibling but is good with a gun; who’s ashamed of her father’s dealing and snitching but finds room to love him; who considers joining the army and embarks on her dangerous journey to save her home; this is a representation we’ve not seen much in cinema before: a young girl takes out a gun to nourish her siblings and risks her life to fulfill the obligations her parents cannot meet; her duty and her actions exceed her obligations; and importantly they centre on a domesticity that this film finds courageous.

That Ree is so earthily brought to life by Lawrence, and that this actress playing this character connected with audiences so vividly that the type  was almost instantly reprised in The Hunger Games, is something to celebrate. In it’s mourning for what America has become the film has also created a new idea of person who might yet transform that culture for the better. The film’s dystopia is the culture that now is; it’s utopia is that the type of person who can make it better is a woman, and one who doesn’t need men to keep the house going.

José Arroyo.

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)

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movies_place-beyond-the-pines

The Place Beyond the Pines
(Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)

When the movie finished, I overheard various people saying, ‘I read that it’s not one movie but three and it’s true’. It’s not. But when I first saw it, I did think The Place Beyond the Pines was a movie of three sections that didn’t quite cohere; with the first part being as great as contemporary cinema gets; and the other two, whilst very good indeed, not quite living up to the extraordinary beauty and depth of feeling of the first; the Ryan Gosling section seemed like poetry, the other two simply suffered in comparison.

A subsequent viewing convinced me that I was mistaken: the film now seems to need the last two sections. The themes of broken families, absent fathers, residual racial tensions, freedom vs. responsibility, they’re set up in the first part but unfold throughout the movie in a way that deepens the exploration of its themes and adds intersecting ones — the privileges and abuses of class, the corruption of social institutions, what the sins of the fathers do to the sons. And it does this in interesting ways: that photograph from the beginning reappears in newly meaningful ways that nonetheless do not fully disclose the occasion it was taken to memorialize; that ice-cream offered so as to instill an imprint of love reappears but gets displaced onto another father-son relationship; those shades a baby grasps at in a photograph will be his father’s only legacy to him. The Place Beyond the Pines seems to grow and deepen the more we watch and think about it.

We hear the movie before we see it: a sigh? A steadying out-take of breath? That sounds sets the tone for the movie. It turns out to emanate from Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny daredevil, just before he rides into a ball-cage with two other bikers so that the crowds can gawp and thrill as the trio race inside the ball itself. The audience does too, not only because it does seem to be Ryan Gosling performing that stunt but because the whole extraordinary sequence is done in one marvelous sustained long take, a showstopper of a start and a shot that will establish a tone and style for the rest of the film: a searching, hand-held camera following the protagonists from behind before settling on a context, an action, a scene; our view, at least at the start always behind that of the protagonists, who know what they’re doing but not what they’re heading into: they know what their immediate actions will be, but are not necessarily aware of the repercussions of those actions.

The first section contains filmmaking as beautiful and moving as any I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling looks like a tattooed choirboy, a kind of fallen angel, the tear already inked in his face for all that he has suffered and all that he will sacrifice; the shape of the tear both a warning and a prayer (is it a dagger dropping blood or a crucifix?); his tattooed body, our first view of him, a history of the life he’s led (the Holy Bible tattooed on his hand), the life he expects (the struggle and fight conveyed by the two boxers tattooed on his biceps), the kind of attention he has gotten (heartthrob tattooed around his neck, the witty ‘hand’ which coupled with the questioning ‘some’ makes for a cheekily self-aware proclamation on the fingers of each hand) and a demand for the attention and the respect he seeks (which includes that of being an ‘outsider’). When Luke says to Romina (Eva Mendes),’don’t talk down to me’, you get the feeling that he speaks from a lifelong experience of being talked down to in just that way; and that he speaks not only for himself but for a whole sector of society if not for a whole class.

There are aspects of the movie that remain indelible: Gosling’s tears at his child’s baptism, and how he conveys the complete sadness of somebody who is not even worth being told he’s a father; the extraordinary beauty of Mendes in some shots; the two of them foregrounded against an out-of-focus but dreamily lit Ferris Wheel, an ideal of sub-prole romance; the sound of The Crying Shames’ ‘Don’t Go, Please Stay’ over a low-angle shot of Gosling riding into the night; the charge the film elicits when the stepfather, the actual parent of the child Gosling is allowed to father only biologically, is shown to be black (the camera holds back outside the door so as to theatrically reveal it) — that still signifies in American culture today, a frisson the film plays with when it deploys it again; though this time it’s Bradley Cooper’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) who conveys all kinds of demeaning assumptions through his sneer: his reaction is what the film expects the audience’s to be earlier on and which it now condemns in AJ.

In the first part, sequences are often linked by dissolves, as if the situation presented melts into its inevitable and pre-destined fate. There are other scenes where Gosling is kept in focus but everything else around him races past in a way that can’t be digested or gripped, headlong into uncontainable frustration and unavoidable destiny. Luke wants to do the right thing, provide for his girl and his kid, it’s his job to do so, he says, and he thinks it’s everyman’s right to get his own girl and kid if he wants them. But in the America Luke inhabits you can’t do your moral or ethical job if you have a minimum wage job like he does. So when Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) points him towards bank robbery, he doesn’t resist for long. In this film’s America, one’s got to go outside the law to claim one’s basic right to a family. Everything about the film, the lights of the Ferris Wheel, the way Gosling and Mendes look, the movement of the camera, the type of editing, help to convey this contrast between what society promises, the purity, beauty and modesty of the protagonist’s wants, and society’s inability to meet them. America is no longer a place which creates wants, meets them and convinces people they live in the best of all possible worlds. Or at least Luke and Ro don’t think so in The Place Beyond the Pines

The other two sections of the film are not only good but necessary: Avery, who appears in all three sections, is the film’s conscience and the core of the narrative. The second section, the central section of The Place Beyond the Pines, shift the focus from Ryan Gosling’s Luke and onto Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross. It is not merely a continuation but a comparison, a juxtaposition that uses rhyming but different scenarios to accrue meaning. Avery Cross, like Luke, is a young man who wants to do the right thing but one who’s got his wife and kid and a job that can support them. However, Avery is not just on the other side of the law, he’s kind of slumming as a cop: his father, he’s got one, one he thinks of as a kind of superhero, is a judge. Avery’s got an expensive education, a law degree, and his wants and expectations are not as modest as Luke’s. But unlike Luke, by the time the film starts to focus on his story we’ve already been shown how this fundamentally decent man is also a liar and a killer; and unlike Luke, when he gets into trouble he’s got a very solid support system, institutional, therapeutic, medical, familiar to advise; and when they can’t help, Avery’s got a father.

In a way, the film is about how America treats these very nice men who want to do the right thing but end up making a few mistakes. One ends up dead; the other, after initially becoming a prisoner of a situation he’s caused and can’t find his way out of (when he ends up in the evidence stock room Avery is shot against a steel blue background only a little darker than his eyes, completely enmeshed in bars and fencing,), is freed from it, if not his own guilt from it, by his father. Luke cried because he wasn’t deemed worthy of being a father; guilt-ridden Avery can’t stand the sight of his own son, and feels even more guilt. But liberal guilt is no barrier to Avery’s ambition: he sells out his colleagues, loses his family but rises to the top. The contrast is rendered more vivid by the casting. In the latter parts of the film, Bradley Cooper’s open face wonderfully evokes a well-fed idealism. Later we see guilt and disappointment that follows the inevitable corruption of his fight against it; and later still the masked smile, so familiar to us from TV coverage of politicians, as he urges us to ‘Cross Over into the Future’ with Avery Cross on his election night.

The last part of the film features their sons, two stoners from two different classes: one rich, one poor; one part of a contemporary multi-cultural family, the other a child of divorce; one with a loving stepfather, the other with a father who feels guilt everytime he sees him. When Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, takes Avery to that place beyond the pines, forces him on his knees, and is about to pull the trigger to avenge his father’s death, it is only Avery’s first threatening, begging, pleading to find out what happened to his son and then saying ‘I’m sorry’ for what he did to Jason’s father that saves him then and might yet save them both later.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful and poetic sighing for America, one that yearns for its ideal whilst mourning for its reality, that gap between what everyone wants it to be and what it has really become. When the film ends, AJ is right next to his father on an election platform, crossing right to his future on his father’s coattails; but the last shot begins with Jason, riding into his future off to the side of the frame into the unknown; and the camera stays focused on a tiny American flag, slightly out of focus, but smack-dead in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the pastoral barns, silos and landscape so familiar and so potent a symbol of an idea of America, one dear to cinema and indeed to filmgoers, and both like and unlike what the film has shown us. And then the first notes of Bon Iver’s ‘The Wolves (Act I and II) start and we hear the lyric ‘someday my pain, will mark you’ and the eyes lightly well up just as they did with Ryan Gosling in church and one thinks ‘This is a truly great movie’.

José Arroyo