By the way, when we visited Robbe-Grillet, his petite, pretty wife, a young actress, had dressed herself a la gamine in my honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day, when we met again at a publisher’s luncheon in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, “Voulez-vous un Coca-Cola, Mademoiselle?” It was very funny, and Robbe-Grillet, who looks so solemn in photographs, roared with laughter.
—Vladimir Nabokov; in an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., conducted August 1970, collected in Strong Opinions, 1973, McGraw-Hill
Brian Boyd’s biography of Nabokov places this meeting in 1959. By this time, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, née Rastakian, has already published her first novel, The Image, published by Editions du Minuet under the pen name Jean De Berg in 1956, when she is 26. She married Robbe-Grillet in 1957. The Image is a detailed account of a sado-masochistic relationship; it was made into a film, shot on location in Paris, by Radley Metzger in 1975. Robbe-Grillet appeared in two of her husband’s films, both among his best, 1963’s L’Immortelle and 1966’s Trans-Europe Express. In the years since her husband’s death (he passed away in 2008) she has gained a second reputation; for a very rare speaking appearance in New York, held by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) on Tuesday evening, she was referred to more than once as “France’s most famous dominatrix.” The evening, which was prefaced by an edited version of La ceremonie, Lina Mannheimer’s documentary about Madame Robbe-Grillet, which also features extensive interviews with Robbe-Grillet’s companion and, …well,… it’s hard to put a name to it, and “slave” will not do…in any event, a good deal of the post-film discussion focused on how Beverly Charpentier, who spoke quite a bit herself while serving as Madame’s translator, could, as an extremely accomplished heterosexual woman with two grown children, have given her whole life over to the care and obedience of Catherine.
The panel was moderated by Toni Bentley, the one-time ballet dancer whose writings have come to chronicle her own explorations of sado-masochism. Wearing a near-crimson dress, Bentley, who authored the recent Vanity Fair article which introduced Madame Robbe-Grillet and her life work/style to an American audience, asked a series of questions, told the audience that she expected their own questions to be “bold,” and related a tale of her own participation in a bondage ritual with Robbe-Grillet and Charpentier.
So, you know, it was not an entirely literary evening. (It’s part of the French Alliance’s “Art of Sex And Seduction” series.) I myself am not terribly interested in S&M as a practice (despite my having penned, pseudonymously, an account of an evening at The Vault for a Guccione publication back in the ‘80s; like they say, once a philosopher, twice a…never mind…), but like all closed or semi-closed social systems, it is certainly interesting, and Madame Robbe-Grillet, a woman of fierce and formidable intelligence, brings her perceptual acuity to bear on the phenomenon in a dispassionate way when necessary. Looking very proper in her black dress suit and white headband, Madame, now 85 years of age, reflected on the fact that, from what statistics she could glean, 90 percent of all the individuals with an interest in sadomasochism are males, and that the disproportion creates, among other things, a certain kind of complicity among women who participate in the lifestyle. Also discussed were the differences between professional dominatrices and those who practice discipline as a lifestyle; Madame Robbe-Grillet, who does the latter, does not disdain sex workers—indeed, she has heartfelt praise for them—but does not take money herself; it redefines the nature of the whole exchange, she says, and of course she is correct. As for Charpentier, answering why a woman as accomplished as herself should be in the position she’s chosen, wondered aloud why it would be considered so unusual, and cited the motto of the American college fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, “joy in service.” A not dissimilar concept animates some practices within twelve step programs, but I wasn’t gonna bring that up necessarily.
There was much laughter in the talk. “Obviously, if you’ve read or seen 50 Shades of Gray, you know that a predilection for sadomasochism is the result of something terrible that happened to you as a child,” Madame Robbe-Grillet said, luxuriating in mild, rancor-free irony. “It’s reassuring for people to tie it in to some childhood trauma, but I can’t say that there’s any that I myself remember.” She went on to say that sexuality was still a place of mystery, and while “çe me derange pas” that psychoanalysts, both amateur and professional, have tried to figure out “why” she spent decades as a submissive before turning dominant, or any of the other features of her erotic life, she herself had/has “no need to find out where my desires come from.” I was delighted when, at the question of how long she intended to keep up her practice of rituals now that she’s in her ninth decade of life, Madame cited the example of Portuguese filmmaker Manoel De Oliviera, who continued making films even past the age of 100.
It is a tricky business, sado-masochism, and particularly in these times. At one point, Madame made mention of the fact that a genuine sadist derives no pleasure from inflicting pain on a person who enjoys receiving pain, as that goes against the whole ethos of sadism; the implications of this statement were left to hang as Madame continued by speaking of ideas of consent. Consent, I infer, is one of the rationales that inform the ritualistic practices in Robbe-Grillet’s mode of living. But these practices are not all she lives for. Again without irritation, she noted, “I know I’m billed as France’s most famous dominatrix, and I am, but I’m also a nice little old lady who’s interested in the theatre, music, and literature, and who makes jam!”
There was not much time for audience questions. The house, Florence Gould Hall, was packed, and the male-to-female ratio was something like 60:40, and of course I thought more than once of old Woody Allen jokes about the personal ads in the New York Review Of Books. The questions were not terribly “bold,” and I didn’t get to ask either of mine, the first of which was to solicit her own recollection of the meeting with Nabokov so very long ago (in the year of my own birth, as it happens), the second would have been about the extent to which she’d been involved in the making of the film version of The Image, and her impression of the picture. There was a book-signing afterwards, though, and I got to be third on line.
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s final published fiction, A Sentimental Novel, is so replete with elaborate erotic fantasies of such atrocities as child murder and such that it’s easy to ignore its ingenious structure, a variant of that of Raymond Roussel’s long poem “La Vue”—a structure that in some way inoculates the work from genuine moral condemnation, or should, or, oh, I don’t know. Although Robbe-Grillet doesn’t get into it in his wonderful memoir, published in English translation in 1988 as Ghosts In The Mirror, his marriage to Catherine was, among other things, a long-held S&M relationship. (His depiction of the marriage in the book is in fact, especially for this author, downright romantic. The book contains an account of how the couple survived the first crash of an Air France Boeing 707 in 1961, and how his main regret from that event was that in his incinerated luggage was a bracelet he had brought for Catherine in commemoration of their meeting exactly ten years before, while he was stuck on his novel Les Gommes and took a trip to Istanbul on impulse—the couple met on the Orient Express!) The cover of the paperback edition of Madame’s memoir of her husband, Alain, is a picture of the two locked in an impossibly tender embrace that has an emotional echo of Annie Leibovitz’s famed 1980 Lennon/Ono shot. The book is a series of alphabetically arranged vignettes/observations, some several pages, others only a paragraph or two. I certainly hope an English translation is in the offing; here is my own probably very not-good and certainly completely unauthorized translation of the entry called “Fax.”
My man has a happy relationship with tools, but with technology…?
Apart from the fax, he never puts aside his obstinate refusal of technical innovations (digital photo, computer, mobile phone). Only the fax finds grace with Alain; he has it in constant use after I buy him a simple model. He will not even hear of a credit card, even after being tricked up in a Canadian hotel, or it becomes a requirement for accessing an international phone line. He will never change; he’d rather suffer than bend.
Fortunately, without being infatuated with them, I have no issue with electronics, domestic or otherwise, and everything works out.
Tools, that’s him; electronics, me.
It was Alain that I chose for Madame to sign. Charpentier was by her side to translate, and I mentioned right off that I was an admirer of hers and a longtime admirer of her husband’s. Madame said something to Charpentier, and Charpentier said to me “You are a good person;” by way of amplifying this, Madame—who despite her tiny frame gives the impression of being a formidably strong person, and is unfailingly alert, with vivacious eyes—continued, “Tous les amateurs de Robbe-Grillet sont bonnes.”
Perhaps, or perhaps not, you have heard of Blue, a 2014 album by the antic and virtuosic jazz combo Mostly Other People Do The Killing. It is a note-for-note re-creation, or "cover version" of Miles Davis' seminal 1959 LP Kind of Blue. MOPDTK is known for, among other things, an antic sense of humor that manifests itself in cheeky album cover artwork, as in the piss-take of Keith Jarrett's seminal The Koln Concert on its own 2011 disc The Caimbra Concert. That record also featured this provocative liner note: “In fact, every note and sound on this recording is a reference to some other recording or performance, real or imaginary. Enjoy!”
Blue is a record that raises all sorts of questions beyond the initial "Why?" It is useful to remember that, its one-time reputation as an ultra-suave makeout disc notwithstanding, the recording by the Davis quintet was a significant building block for free jazz: in putting into action some particular ideas provoked in him by the work of George Russell, and hooking improvisation to modes rather than chord changes, Davis was taking down a particular net, and one of the things Blue is asking is for the listener to experience the music of Kind of Blue in the explicit context of fifty years of the net being down. So it is apt that, for the liner notes to Blue, that disc's booklet reproduces in full the translated text of Jorge Luis Borges' droll and dizzying short story Pierre Menard, Author Of The Quixote.
Trying to do in music what Borges' Menard—a fictional character, we have to keep reminding ourselves—accomplished in writing is, practically speaking, a whole different enterprise. Here are three key paragraphs from Borges' story that illustrate pertinent problems (the translation, here as in the Blue liner notes, is Andrew Hurley's):
Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one have to say that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
“My purpose is merely astonishing,” he wrote me on September 30, 1934, from Bayonne. “The final term of a theological or metaphysical proof—the world around us, or God, or chance, or universal Forms—is no more final, no more uncommon, than my revealed novel. The sole difference is that philosophers publish pleasant volumes containing the intermediate stages of their work, while I am resolved to suppress those stages of my own.” And indeed there is not a single draft to bear witness to that years-long labor.
Initially, Menard’s method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to CatholIcism, fight against the Moor of Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard weighed that course (I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian) but he discarded it as too east. Too impossible,!, rather, the reader will say. Quite so, but the undertaking was impossible from the outset, and of all the impossible ways of bringing it about, this was the least interesting. To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminuation. Being, somehow, Cervantes, and arriving thereby at the Quixote—that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.
The members of Mostly Other People Do The Killing, augmented by a pianist, obviously came to Kind of Blue via their own experiences as human beings, white men, musicians, jazz musicians, readers of music, readers of music theory and criticism, and so on. But unlike Menard they were practically obliged to come to their Quixote, Kind of Blue, via all manner of mediating technology, beginning with their musical instruments.
As with music, so, even more so perhaps, with film. I thought of Borges' story, and of Blue, while watching again, for the first time in some time, and with a concentration suggested by my thoughts about Borges and Menard and Blue, Fritz Lang's two 1959 films The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, a two-feature quasi-serial. (I viewed them via the excellent UK import set from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, a Region B issue, alas.) The movie is a remake of a 1921 picture that, I must admit, I have not seen: Das indische Grabmal erster Teil, another two-parter, silent, directed by Joe May, then a cinematic colleague and rival of Lang's. The scenario of the film was a creation of Thea von Harbou and, as it happens, Lang. If I read David Kalat's account (in his invaluable 2001 book The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse) correctly, the scenario was the first collaboration between what was to become the husband-and-wife team, an adaptation of von Harbou's own novel. Said novel, like the popular "Westerns" of Karl May, trucked in German pop culture's fascination with "the exotic." (It is crucial, of course, that we continually locate this fascination in the first three decades of the 20th Century.) German film industry machinations led to May, and not Lang, handling the direction of the film, which starred Conrad Veidt.
At the end of the 1950s Lang's Hollywood career was winding down as his eyesight degenerated. His final American-produced film was the severely pessimistic 1957 Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, its death-penalty centered plot making it, among other things, a mordant answer-film/companion piece to Lang's U.S. debut, the galvanic Fury, an anti-lynch mob parable. Both Doubt and Lang's prior While The City Sleeps took film noir fatalism into the realm of the police procedural and depicted modes of modern life corrupted in ways that Lang's romantic Metropolis had never foreseen. According to Kalat, when German producer Artur Brauner offered Lang a deal to remake the May film, he had no idea that Lang had been so intimately involved in the original: “Ironically, Brauner did not recognize what it meant to Lang: Brauner was unaware that Lang had been involved with the original and was ignorant of the entire story of Lang’s history with Joe May. As far as Brauner was concerned, he was simply pairing a remake of a golden oldie with one of the leading lights of the old school.” To Peter Bogdanovich, discussing the remake in 1965, Lang said simply "You should make a picture you started." He elaborated, reflecting that doing this at the end of his career was "like a circle that was beginning to close—a kind of fate."
I don't know that Lang read Borges, or even that he saw Performance for that matter; I cannot extrapolate from Lang's admiration of certain Jess Franco films the extent to which Lang had any kind of great enthusiasms for meta-narratives. What is certain is that the tropes which support the entire scenario of what I'll now refer to as a whole as The Indian Tomb had undergone a cataclysmic contextual shift between 1921 and 1959, and Lang's choice to ignore that shift in a sense represents a sort of triumph of Menardian thinking. Remember the way, in his story, Borges marvels at the two different representations of the notion of history being the mother of truth. In Cervantes, writes Borges, the phrase is "mere rhetorical praise of history." In Menard, "the idea is staggering." So in Tomb, observations concerning "Western" ideas, and dialogue like "I'm a European; we count in hours" carries a charge that simply could not have been present in the original version.
The casting of the Oklahoma-born Debra Paget as Seetha alone has implications that could fill a doctoral dissertation. Reputed love object of both Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes, not infrequent player of "Indian" girls in Hollywood Westerns, her skills as a seductively undulating dancer were first (as far as I know) and most convincingly displayed in believe it or not, the 1952 John Philip Sousa biopic Stars And Stripes Forever. In Tomb she is also a dancer, Seetha, and her moves, witnessed surreptitiously by German architect Harold Berger, bring about a change in the sculpted goddess to whom she dedicates her dance. Soon the couple are on the run pursued by a vengeful maharaja. Paget, as it happens, is the only truly vivid performer in the whole movie; the rest of the cast, and Hubschmid in particular, emit a generic anonymity that's actually rather in keeping with their functions in what is on a surface level an anachronistic exercise.
But as Tom Gunning points out in his invaluable study, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the German critics who savaged this work on those grounds on its initial release could not have been more wrong: "Lang's control of colour photography [...] represents a truly modern aspect of film-making. The non-realistic, semi-abstract plot and characters would inspire the most advanced filmmakers of the 60s, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Marie Straub." (As we all know, Godard would also hire Lang to act, as himself, in Le Mepris, and offer therein an implicit explanation as to why he shot Tomb in color but not in widescreen.) Reflecting on the enterprise as a whole, Gunning writes that Lang's “return to Germany from exile […] yields a profound sense of the untimeliness of history, the knowledge that nothing can ever truly be repeated, and that in repetition lies not so much the promise of rebirth as the harbinger of death. Repetition involves a profound mourning for the passage of time.” Seeing the lepers of Tomb and recalling the underground dwellers of Metropolis certainly supports this idea. But the exercise was not without its drollery. Paget's dance, while in the context of the plot is meant to be part of a sacred rite, cannot help but recall the dance with which the Robot Maria seduces the scions of the ruling class in Metropolis, and it's kind of funny that Paget's moves in the film wound up running afoul of Hollywood prudery: they were cut from an American release of the film. Lang is not a director one customarily thinks of as playful, but we can see his pleasure principle at work in this, and in several other sequences of the film. In spite of the constraints of the source material, or maybe because of them, this movie feels like another example of Rossellini's "film of a free man."
Menard’s Quixote, which, I will once again point out, never really existed, was conceived and only partially executed in the circumscribed sphere of Borges’ story, in order to answer certain questions—some of which had not been in evidence at all until the "second" Quixote was manifested. MOPDTK’s Blue was conceived and executed with a large number of questions already in mind; and the work is an explicit posing of those questions. Just having them out there in that form fulfills the purpose of the enterprise. Lang’s work, I think, falls somewhere in between those of Borges/Menard and the jazz group. In a sense, this least sentimental of filmmakers was going on a kind of sentimental journey, sure. But there is also at work in every frame of Tomb a conscious and diligent testing of the elasticity of form. In returning to the narrative mode that helped make him one of the primary architects of dramatic cinema as we still know it today, Lang conducts an inquiry as to both its durability and whether its innocence can be recaptured. Except the second is a trick question; the movie lays bare the naivete of the scenario von Harbou and Lang and Joe May concocted in the first place, and reveals that what so many viewers process as innocence was in fact a contrivance. It’s for that reason that Lang's next and final film, The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, so seemingly inapposite a followup to this ostensibly romantic saga, is really its inevitable next move. Its anti-televisual paranoia and vision of a surveillance state further pulls the rug out from under Tomb's attempted romance. And to explicitly locate Tomb between the brackets of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt and Thousand Eyes evokes a frisson that's both undeniable and undeniably unpleasant. But very Lang.
Well thank you for sending me a nice slow Vertigo pitch across the plate. Your point is interesting and, I think, valid. But, given the structure of the extant film—it rather is a shame we’ll never be able to see the longer cuts—one has to look at Paradine sideways to get to that conclusion. But I like, anyway. It’s interesting too, that, during this particular period, the mid-to-late 40s (and for me, Hitchcock at the ABSOLUTE “height of his powers” is the stretch starting with ‘43’s Shadow of a Doubt and ending with ‘60’s Psycho), we find Hitchcock’s viewer-identification/sympathy strategies tilted to the female characters, e.g. Ingrid Bergman in both Notorious and Under Capricorn, Ann Todd to a somewhat lesser extent (strictly in terms of screen time, at least) here.
While it’s absolutely a stretch to call Hitchcock a feminist filmmaker, I think there’s still a lot of room to do some critical digging on his depictions of women. (Robin Wood’s chapter on Hitchcock and Bergman in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited is a good start.) Someone, it occurs to me, could get a nice paper out of the way Hitchcock used his own daughter, Patricia, in his films. As you’ve pointed out elsewhere, in The Paradine Case, the not-well-known-enough Joan Tetzel plays a sarcastic young woman affecting to be jaded beyond her years, an anticipation of Patricia’s snarky senator’s-younger-daughter in 1951’s Strangers on a Train.
In any event, your alternative reading of the movie underscores an almost entirely irrefutable truth about what makes Hitchcock a great filmmaker. He conceived Paradine Case as a way to tell a story that related to his own fears/neuroses: that is, the tale of a good man’s sexual humiliation at the hands of a (Hitchcock’s words) “nymphomaniac” and a “clod.” He did not get that, largely due to Selznick’s hand. But, as you demonstrate, he didn’t get nothing, either. Even when Hitchcock’s explicit plans fail, his instinct does not, nor does his artistry.
One thing I’m increasingly fascinated by is what I hesitate to call the movie’s Pirandellian dimension. Hitchcock famously insisted that the production design recreated the actual interior of the Old Bailey to a very precise degree. This is very much the theatre in which a “real” drama is played. The main actors, or course, are in costume, as they are during a formal dinner party at the movie’s beginning. It’s at this latter scene that Hitchcock meant to establish a particular character dynamic. At this affair, the sight of Ann Todd’s bare shoulder electrifies Charles Laughton’s Judge Horfield. Hitchcock establishes this in a bravura feat of both shooting and editing. He begins with a medium close-up of Laughton entering the party, and then speedily dollies in on the actor/character as something catches his attention. He then cuts on motion to a medium shot of Todd, and this shot itself is already dollying in fast (this was all done before the zoom lens as we know it was developed) to Todd’s shoulder, and once the camera rests on a close-up of the shoulder, the scene cuts back to Laughton’s reaction. We get the picture as surely as getting hit by a lightning bolt. Then Laughton makes his intentions known and brazenly comes on to Todd’s Mrs. Keane. Her refusal to play along is ostensibly what leads to Horfield’s dismissive, contemptuous treatment of Gregory Peck’s Keane in court, but this isn’t followed through with the strength of this initial impetus. I suspect this theme was diluted in the film’s trimming.
In any event, my point is that all of the main characters of the movie, save Laughton’s, are severely circumscribed by the formalities of their environment. Formalities that are so exacting that one can mistake this movie for a period piece. But it is not: its London features electricity and double-decker buses, and an establishing shot of the Old Bailey exterior shows it undergoing post-Blitz reconstruction. In any event, the only reason Laughton’s character is not similarly circumscribed is because of his power. He literally IS the law here. Everyone else is toiling under what the kids nowadays call “the dominant ideology,” and playing their roles within its hierarchy. There’s a definite sadness about this state of affairs expressed in the film. It’s not as if Hitchcock is going full Ford Madox Ford in bemoaning sexual repression (“Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?”, as we remember from The Good Soldier), but there’s more than an implication of a similar sentiment. It comes across most definitely in the exchanges between Joan Tetzel’s Judy and Charles Coburn’s Simon, father-and-daughter sideline observers of the whole sorry business.
The ornate settings in which Laughton/Horfield plays with unabashed free range (it must be said though that Hitchcock gets a far more controlled performance out of Laughton here than he did in Jamaica Inn, in which Laughton’s super-glazed hamming is delightful nonetheless) are a stark contrast to the dingy confines of the prison where Valli’s Maddalena Paradine dwells through most of the film. If you’ll forgive me, in more sweeping philosophical terms, the difference is to me reminiscent of the red pill/blue pill worlds of The Matrix. No, really. Hitchcock’s intention was different, but not, ultimately, in political terms, THAT different: “What interested me in this picture was to take a person like Mrs. Paradine, to put her in the hands of the police, to have her submit to all their formalities, and to say to her maid, as she was leaving her home between the two inspectors, ‘I don’t think I shall be back for dinner.’ And then to show her spending the night in a cell, from which, in fact, she will never emerge. […]It may be an expression of my own fear, but I’ve always felt the drama of a situation in which a normal person is suddenly deprived of freedom and incarcerated […]”
As Leff relates, this mode of contrast did not please the movie’s producer: “At least three scenes between Valli and Peck occurred in a spare five by six conference room at Halloway Prison. […] Hitchcock often put his actors in confined places to make them (and the audience) sweat. The stark scenes in this virtually unfurnished room—the antithesis of the mahogany-and-marble home of Maddalena Paradine—adumbrate the documentary style of The Wrong Man. Valli and Peck worked on the set for nine days, producing footage remarkable for its severity. Selznick meanwhile badgered Hitchcock to leave the gangster-in-a-cell style to other, lesser studios […]” As astute as Selznick could be, he did not have much of an appreciation for mise-en-scène at times.
I feel bad for self-proclaimed Hitchcock nuts who pooh-pooh this picture, or any other non-thriller Hitchcock. (It’s true that I lean more to Robin Wood’s side than Rohmer and Chabrol’s on Mr. and Mrs. Smith; while Rohmer and Chabrol are correct in identifying that film’s most Hitchcockian scene, said scene is also borderline grotesque, and Wood is right in nailing down the film’s defining weakness, which is that Norman Krasna’s script is a borderline crass rehash of The Awful Truth.) Because no matter what the material, Hitchcock’s always inventing, stretching, testing, film language itself, which is never not interesting. As Rohmer and Chabrol state at the conclusion of their book, “In Hitchcock’s work form does not embellish content, it creates it.” And it’s almost always a kick to watch that miracle take place before one’s eyes. Don't you think?
This is the third of a four-part series. See part one below; part two here; and I'll update when part four appears at the Siren's blog tomorrow, and maybe I'll put up a kind of post-game show when we're done...
UPDATE: The Siren's thrilling (it really is!) conclusion to this exchange is now posted, here.
This is the first of a four-part dialogue. The next installment will appear at Self Styled Siren on Friday, May 1.
I'm taking you seriously as to the idea we discussed the other morning, at a delightful-as-usual breakfast at Court Street Grocers. The idea being to rejuvenate our respective blogs with an epistolary exchange about Alfred Hitchcock's 1947 picture The Paradine Case.
(By the way, you see what I did there, with the totes adorbes allusion to our social relationship and our exemplary taste in local food emporiums? I was going for a Korean-tacos-while-watching-Schindler's List effect, which seems to be the thing in arts writing these days. OK, I'll stop now.)
As I mentioned, to you and in a blog post elsewhere, since my mom died I've gone on an enormous Hitchcock jag, for sentimental reasons and maybe other reasons as well. The supplement on the Criterion Collection disc of Truffaut's Le peau douce, a video essay by our friend Kent Jones on the book Hitchcock/Truffaut and its effect on Hitchcock's reputation, a preface of sorts I believe to Kent's feature-length documentary on the subject, certainly stirred up something in my critical consciousness prior to the personal catastrophe that set me on a cinematic sentimental journey of sorts. In any event, my companion in this latest round of Hitchcock studies was a used paperback of a translation of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's 1957 book Hitchcock, subtitled The First Forty-Four Films.
The book has a lot to recommend it, not just because Rohmer and Chabrol were astute critics. It’s really fascinating to read a Hitchcock study that ends with The Wrong Man: that is, before at least three Really Significant Canonical works (Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho) and two Significant Pieces of Expressive Esoterica (The Birds and Marnie) (and these are my own categories of course). So the argument that Rohmer and Chabrol make to establish Hitchcock as a major film artist seems peculiarly circumscribed to readers who have the entirety of Hitch’s career to take into account. There’s also the matter of the Catholic conservative perspective of the writers, which leads to them privileging I Confess and The Wrong Man in ways a lot of contemporary critics won’t or wouldn’t.
In terms of formal analysis, they treat The Paradine Case, Rope, and Under Capricorn as pretty much a trilogy, and not just because they’re, you know, subsequent films. Each of the pictures represent a variation on a singular formal perspective, that is, each of the films is a sort of long-take laboratory. The first one, the one we’re most occupied with, The Paradine Case, ran into some trouble in this respect because its producer, David O. Selznick, who also adapted the film’s scenario, was not very big on the long take at all. Here’s Leonard Leff in his book Hitchcock & Selznick, about a day on The Paradine Case shoot: “One day, looking ahead to the fluidity of his Transatlantic pictures, Hitchcock prepared an elaborate tracking shot of [Gregory] Peck and [Ann] Todd. While grips frantically pulled away furniture to make a path, the probing camera followed the actors through a long and arduous take. Todd called the shot ‘frightening,’ but Selznick had the last word: ‘Theatrical.’ Appearing on the set, he ordered the sequence filmed conventionally. Hitchcock unwillingly obliged.”
And so it went, apparently. Still, Hitchcock was able to pull off at least two memorable shots in this vein: the final God’s-eye view of the courtroom, with Gregory Peck’s shattered character, the barrister Keane, nearly staggering out, which shot inspired rapturous praise from Rohmer and Chabrol; and the famous-but-not-famous-enough shot of murder defendant Madame Paradine (Alida Valli) sitting in her courtroom box as witness and lover Latour (Louis Jourdan) enters the courtroom, and the camera tracks his long walk behind and then in front of her. “We had to do that in two takes. The camera is on Alida Valli’s face, and in the background you see Louis Jourdan coming down to the witness box,” Hitchcock recalled to François Truffaut. “First, I photographed the scene without her; the camera panned him all around, at a two-hundred degree turn, from the door to the witness box. Then, I photographed her in the foreground; we sat her in front of the screen, on a twisting stool, so that we might have the revolving effect, and when the camera went off her to go back to Louis Jourdan, she was pulled off the screen. It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.”
The shot is magnificent both from a technical point of view—I wonder it you’d actually need to do it as a composite now, given certain advances in technology that we can maybe talk about later—and a pictorial design point of view, and, most important, it registers emotionally. As Hitchcock noted, “We wanted to give the impression that she senses his presence […] that she can actually feel him behind her, as if she could smell him.” Yes, we do get that. The Paradine Case gets pooh-poohed by a lot of self-proclaimed Hitchcock fans because, the murder element aside, it’s more of a melodrama than a thriller. Ostensibly what they used to call “a woman’s picture.” Boiled down, it’s the story of a good man (Peck’s Keane) who falls in love with his client (Valli), which wreaks havoc on his marriage to a good woman (Todd). Complicating factors include Charles Laughton’s judge, who has a weird sick thing for Keane’s wife, and of course Jourdan as Madame Paradine’s paramour. But hell—I think it’s pretty top-flight melodrama, in the Hitchcock mode (which is quite different but equally as cinematically and emotionally astute as the Sirk mode): swift, sharply written, involving, emotionally potent. I think another reason the movie gets short shrift is that there’s a tendency to take Hitchcock himself too much at his word. Rohmer and Chabrol note that Selznick chose the film’s actors (and indeed he did!) and “insisted on Louis Jourdan for the groom, whereas the director would have preferred a ‘clod’.” Sounds as if the fellas agree. Hitchcock amplified this to Truffaut, after grousing that Peck couldn’t “properly represent an English lawyer.” Hitchcock calls the casting of Jourdan the film’s worst flaw. “After all,” he says, “the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess, but also a nymphomaniac. And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom. But the groom should have been a manure-smelling stable hand, a man who really reeked of manure.”
Whoa! There’s a lot to unpack there. It’s like he wanted to make the long-form version of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Hitchcock’s own sexual idiosyncrasies/insecurities as expressed/implied here aren’t HUGELY unusual, particularly when you take into account the nearly inherent sexism of men of his generation and nationality. But for a director who did so many amazing things with his actresses and his female characters, he definitely had, in this case, a huge blind spot. I think Jourdan is fine here and I know you do too; I think Hitchcock, in his desire to indulge his own paranoia about pretty women walking around with gorillas on his street, underestimates the erotic appeal of the smooth, which Jourdan most definitely represents. Maybe this is where I should get off and let you do some talking…
UPDATE: Here's a link to the Self Styled Siren reply. Stay tuned for Part Three, at this site, on the morning of Monday, May 4. Thanks, as ever, for reading.
I think both Alexei German's Hard To Be A God (above) and Abderrahamane Sisako's Timbuktu are masterpieces, but they're also films that demonstrate the necessary elasticity of the possibly overused term. German's film, decades in the making, insistently unpleasant if not harrowing, replete with narrative difficulty and sleeve-tugging if not wedgie-pulling subtext, a meticulous immersion into an awful created world that's a mirror of our own, feels very much like a magnum opus. Sisako's film, gorgeous, quietly virtuosic, telling a tragic and at times harrowing story but also graced with moments of quiet beauty and suffused with an abiding wisdom that it shares with a subdued but entirely righteous anger seems "merely" like a story Sisako wants to tell. How much these apprehensions/intuitions have to do with the fact that German's is a posthumous film and Sisako, at age 53, has many more movies to make, is of course an open question In the meantime, I review both films for RogerEbert.com at the links attached to the titles.
The German film's run at NYC's Anthology Film Archives is part of a substantial retrospective of the great director's work, including such wonders as 1971's Trial On The Road (further proof of my maxim that the Russians made the absolute best World War II films) and the harrowing, phantasmagoric 1998 Khrustalyov, My Car!, both of which I wrote a bit about here. I hope to write more on German (or Guerman) soon.
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Hunter S. Thompson used that Samuel Johnson observation as the epigraph for his 1971 Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and one of the many things Thompson achieved in that ruthless work was in revealing the pain that even good men are capable of inflicting once they’ve made beasts of themselves. It’s not for nothing that Terry Gilliam, adapting that book into a film in 1998, made Chapter Eight of Part Two of that book, in which Thompson and his “attorney” terrorize a diner waitress, into the most nakedly exposed raw nerve of the story (Ellen Barkin is exceptionally jarring in the waitress role). In his extremely appropriate adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson makes some very distinct shifts of stress to, among other things, bring an almost Gravity’s Rainbow level of despair and pessimism to bear on what is, I reckon, the coziest finale of a Pynchon book to date. And, as in Gilliam’s adaptation of Thompson, the shift into a darker tone finds its footing in a scene of unpleasant interaction between man and woman.
Or at least that’s how I see it. Funny how reasonable people can differ, and as we move forward be warned, I’ll be getting into a little detail about the plotting and scenes of Anderson’s movie. Here’s my friend Manohla Dargis’ description of the scene I have in mind, from her New York Times review of the movie: “a strip scene that’s straight from the book and is at once bleak—the woman disrobing confesses to selling herself out—and a fantasy of female erotic power. It’s a beautifully staged and played interlude, but also the one time when Mr. Anderson is himself seduced by an illusion. It harshed my mellow.” I see the bleakness of the scene to be sure; indeed, I think the bleakness is entirely the point. As for whether or not it’s a fantasy of female erotic power, while I don’t want to overshare, I don’t find the exchange as it’s depicted under the circumstances to be entirely far-fetched. (Although I’ve seen even more affronted reactions to it in social media, including one person who comes close to suggesting that Anderson’s treatment of actress Katherine Waterson in the scene skirts sexual assault.) As for Manohla’s observation with respect to her mellow, I think the whole point of the scene is to harsh, if not entirely deprive you, of your mellow. It’s the emotional fulcrum of the whole movie, and in a way an apologia (in the classical sense) for Joaquin Pheonix’s Phoenix's completely uningratiating performance in a role that one might have assumed was MEANT to be a likable one (like Jeff Lebowski, “Doc” Sportello is intended in certain respects as a cannabis-infused spiritual heir to Philip Marlowe). Especially after the film’s rainy-day flashback that gorgeously sentimentalizes the Doc-Shasta romance, the curdled eroticism of the strip scene shows the two characters in a thoroughly broken context, communicating through various languages of power that they never wanted to learn or maybe even acknowledge in the first place. Not only does it shockingly put the movie on a new track, it also recontextualizes a lot of the seemingly aimless goofiness that went on previously. What ruined these former flower children? Late capitalism, lack of faith, the Golden Fang? Whatever the root cause (and the movie doesn’t put a finger on it) the rot has set in, and that’s why Anderson rejigger’s Pynchon’s ending. The book’s final note is one of warm affection between Doc and Coy Harlingen, and Anderson stages their exchange in person rather than over the phone, showing Doc at a remove from the family life Harlingen is now getting a second chance at; the movie then continues with a grotesquely comic but also shudderingly poignant scene cementing Doc’s relationship as not-so-secret-sharer with fascist cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). This hearkens back, in a way, to the Freddie Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in The Master, which is a topic for another time, perhaps. I'm suggesting a rich web of emotional and cultural association, and it's this web that makes Inherent Vice so outstanding and haunting, and one reason why (spoiler alert) it’s my top film of the year.
Last month the Film Society of Lincoln Center showed, as part of its "Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi" series, Karel Zeman's 1958 Vynálaz zkázy, an unusual live-action/animation hybrid derived from several Jules Verne tales. Well, actually, the Society showed The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne, the English-dubbed and presumably re-edited version of the film that Joseph E. Levine prepared for U.S. release in 1961. That's the only version of the film I've seen—I recall it as a kind of mind-blowing staple of afternoon and late-night television as a kid, as was Zeman's Baron Munchausen picture—and I presume it was the only version of the film available. Cheesy intro—hosted by Hugh Downs, game-show host and network television's answer to amiable pedagogy—and oddly cobbled narrative notwithstanding, World is still a trip, its peculiarly proportioned and designed backdrops/sets and swatches of animated action giving the whole film a feel of fantastic engravings come to life. Zeman's work clearly influenced Terry Gilliam, whose clip-art animated collages made more irreverent use of 19th-century graphic styles. But both filmmakers share an irreverent wit. More recently, the depictions of the title edifice in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the action sequences of that film, show a distinctly Zeman-esque elan.
For all that I was a little surprised at how well-attended the screening of the Zeman film was, and plenty gratified. Subsequent inquiries yielded exciting information; my colleague Jordan Hoffman told me, after the screening, of a Zeman museum in Prague. A restoration of Vynálaz zkázy is in the works; someday soon, we'll be able to see the picture with a Czech soundtrack, a possibly more coherent storyline, and, pace the Downs family, no Hugh Downs. Most exciting: the release by the great U.K. DVD label Second Run of Zeman's Bláznova kronica, A Jester's Tale, Zeman's 1964 30 Years War fantasia. I was terrifically excited to watch this picture—one of the rare instances in this critic's life in which I can have a completely new and largely unanticipated film experience based on an impression that's still somewhat mysterious. Unknown factors included the plot. And to tell you the truth, after watching the movie, a recounting of the plot is hardly the thing I want to impart to the reader. What I want to impart is that if you live in the U.S. and have a foreign-region DVD player, this disc is, I think, the reason you have that player. Jester's Tale is a miraculous watch. Zeman's work here combines the rollicking exuberance of the Czech New Wave (the female lead is the delightful Emília Vásárová; the future "first lady of Slovak theatre" was only in her ealry 20s here) with the magical mechanics of Meliés; every frame is an intoxicant. There's the optically-printed lightning (seen in the screen capture above).
The amusing, brief bits of "pure" animation, such as what we see above, put modernist caricatures in the foreground of antique engravings to sardonic effect without breaking the film's peculiar spell.
My favorite scene is at the movie's midpoint, when Vásáryová's character, who's been disguising herself as a male Fool, is unmasked by the film's villain and wanders the halls of the castle where the movie's hero is half-heartedly masquerading as a nobleman. She takes a short, hallucinogenic journey around the artworks, which come to various forms of life and seem to concoct a montage encapsulating an allegory of war and the fall of man. It's both visually ravishing and emotionally bracing, a head-spinning jolt that, again, doesn't mess with but in fact enhances the movie's overall character. I hope this release, which showcases a beautiful version of the film, conscientiously transfered (exactly what one expects from Second Run) is a portent and that further Zeman magic will soon be more easily accessible to Western audiences.
While I mull over whether to compose and post an essay titled "The Woody Allen Plank" (it's not likely, I gotta say), I ask you to check out the movie website To Be (Cont'd), wherein I am engaged in a simulated prose conversation with Matthew Zurcher, a smart young critic, about the use of music in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Matt's first volley is here, my response is here, and two more installments are in the pipeline. Enjoy, I hope.