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.
Godard in Eric Rohmer's Le Signe du Lion, 1959, when he was about 30.
"The public is neither stupid nor intelligent. No one knows what it is. Sometimes it surprises, usually it disappoints. One can't count on it. In one way this is a good thing. In any case it is changing. The old average cinema audience has become the television audience. The cinema audience has divided in two: those who go at the week-end, and those who seek film out. When producers talk to me about audiences, I tell them: 'I know what they're like because I go to all sorts of cinemas and I pay for my seat; you never go anywhere, you don't know what's happening.'"—Godard, in an interview with Cahiers du Cinema, December 1962.
One of the things I learned during the recent Film Society of Lincoln Center Godard retrospective is that condemnations of late Godard running run across lines of "we prefer your earlier cooler films" are, while perhaps tenable on the ultimately utterly banal grounds of individual taste, built on an essential fallacy. There is no divisible Godard. The idea that you can have A bout de souffle and shrug off Le vent d'est is convenient and comfortable but ultimately impossible. If you are talking about the fashion-industry approved version of Godard you're not really talking about Godard at all, but of an aspect of Godard that's been removed from the host organism, so to speak.
Here are a few things I've written about Godard that I don't find entirely embarrasing.
1) An off-the-cuff NYFF-screening based consideration of Film Socialisme.
2) A review of an excellent compilation of Godard/Mieville short films.
3) An official review of the aforementioned Film Socialisme.
4) A reconsideration of some Godard writing that I do find entirely embarassing.
5) A look at the "War on Christmas," Godard/Chandler style.
Ridley Scott's The Counselor, from an original script by Cormac McCarthy, inspired quite a bit of critical hyperbole on both sides of the assessment scale, the most ridiculous of which was Andrew O'Hehir's very silly "worst movie ever made" screed, which was in part based upon the extremely dubious proposition that Hollywood executives use the phrase "the devil's candy" with the regularity of a Porky Pig stammer. I don't want to be "meh" about the movie, which I greatly liked in part, but...I was kind of "meh" about the movie. The profound moral schema that a few of its admirers cite was kinda spoiled for me on account of the whole (speaking of spoilers, um, skip this part if you're still looking forward to seeing the movie) femme-fatale-comes-out-on-top finale, which is the sort of thing that tries to raise misogyny to a near-mystic level and never really comes off. (See Basic Instinct.) (I also found Cameron Diaz's performance as said femme fatale to be borderline disgraceful.)
There's also the fact that this is a genre movie with an almost self-consciously literary veneer on it. Now this doesn't bother me, except, in this case, for the self-conscious part. That's to say, Cormac McCarthy is in a sense both a literary writer and a genre author. I've never found the two to be mutually exclusive myself. In McCarthy's case, the genre could well be some kind of horror (see Child of God), crime (No Country For Old Men), or the Western, sort of (see of course, Blood Meridian, a novel very much beloved of David Foster Wallace, who knew quite a bit about fiction both literary and genre). My reservations about how this works in the context of an original script directed by a visual virtuoso such as Ridley Scott are...well, they're actually immaterial to what I want to talk about in this post, which is this whole decapitating-a-guy-on-a-motorcycle-with-a-wire -strung-across-the-highway thing.
You read that right. There's a lot of talk in The Counselor, but every now and again there's some grisly, vividly shot and edited action, and one of these sequences involves stopping a speeding motorcyclist—a criminal courier of sorts—in the most extreme way possible. By cutting off his head as he's speeding down the road.
In McCarthy's screenplay, the description of the setting up of the decapitating wire is done in sober, meticulous detail that would likely pass muster in Popular Mechanics. McCarthy introduces a man "carrying a roll of thin monel wire over one shoulder," crossing the road and going to where "a tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fenceposts."
"He loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and walks out and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him."
At the side of the road from whence this man walked, there's a "vertically mounted iron pipe at the right rear of the truckbed." The man "threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of visegrips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note." See, I wasn't kidding about that Popular Mechanics stuff.
"The wire hums." And so it goes, until McCarthy calls for a "shot of the green rider with his face turned back to the floodlight now behind him." And... "suddenly his head zips away and in the helmet it goes bouncing down the highway behind the bike."
Yikes! Ridley Scott being the visual virtuoso that he is, he pulls off the scene with great dispatch and to ostensibly impressive effect, so much so that you might forget for a moment that the whole thing is preposterous on several levels. Yet there's something about the whole Guignol aspect of the killing method that makes it arguably irresistable for a writer. As it happens, another literary writer who showed an oblique affinity for genre, Truman Capote, described just such a mode of murder, while simultaneously acknowledging its preposterousness, in his 1975 sort-of non-fiction novella Handcarved Coffins. Handcarved Coffins finds Capote trying to return to the form he claimed to have invented with In Cold Blood, but having dissipated a good deal of his genius, he here approaches it from an easier angle, making himself a character in the crime narrative and telling quite a bit of the story in the form of scripted dialogue. Capote's guide and docent in this "account of an American crime" is an investigator named Jake Pepper, and early in the narrative he tells Capote of the killing of his friend Clem Anderson, decapitated while driving what's described as his "homemade jeep" over a "narrow ranch road." Here's their exchange:
TC: The wire, yes. I have never understood about the wire. It’s so—
TC: More than clever. Preposterous.
JAKE: Nothing preposterous about it. Our friend had simple figured out a nice neat way to decapitate Clem Anderson. Kill him without any possibility of witnessed.
TC: I suppose it’s the mathematical element. I’m always bewildered by anything involving mathmatics.
JAKE: Well, the gentleman responsible for this certainly has a mathematical mind. At least he had a lot of very accurate measuring to do.
TC: He strung a wire between two trees?
JAKE: A tree and a telephone pole. A strong steel wire sharpened thin as a razor. Virtually invisible, even in broad daylight. But at duck, when Clem turned off the highway and was driving in that crazy little wagon along that narrow road, he couldn’t possibly have glimpsed it. It caught him exactly where it was supposed to: just under the chin. And, as you can see, sliced off his head as easily as a girl picking petals off a daisy.
TC: So many things could have gone wrong.
JAKE: What if they had? What’s one failure? He would have tried again. And continued till he succeeded.
TC: That’s what’s so preposterous. He always does succeed.
JAKE: Yes and no. But we’ll come back to that later.
Lifting, or borrowing, from Capote, is one thing. But given that the ostensibly factual content of Handcarved Coffins has, since publication, been cast into considerable doubt...well, there's a lot of stuff on the Internet featuring latter-day variations on this improbable decapitation scenario, but its actual origin in the arts may in fact go back to 1968, and to uber-schlock-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis' very hard to watch (I couldn't even bring myself to look at it again for the purposes of this piece) She-Devils On Wheels. In which the aforementioned She-Devils contrive to kill some guy in precisely the same way as it plays out in The Counselor, only on a cheap budget and with an anti-virtuoso directing the proceedings.
This infuriated description of the scene, from an equally infuriated long-form account of Lewis' movie, at the very dedicated website Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension, is a vivid an, to the best of my own recollection, accurate one: "The gang slowly trundle out to their bikes, and after a cut we see them wrap wire around a pair of telephone poles, so that it stretches across the road at neck-height. HGL doesn’t actually tell us what the wire’s for, but he sure takes his time letting us see the girls get it prepared. Then we see the biker poster girl spin around.
"Remember how the bartender didn’t know where Joe-Boy’s gang hides out? You’re smarter than HGL, because HE didn’t remember that event – we now see Whitey and another Man-Eater ride up to Joe-Boy’s hot-rodders. Seriously, HGL – it was like a minute ago you told us that Queenie didn’t know where Joe-Boy was.
"Anyway the Man-Eaters get off their bikes, and again it takes both of them to put one of the bikes on its kickstand. While Joe-Boy’s gang watches quietly, Whitey stabs a hole in a car’s tire. Joe-Boy runs up all aggressive and in-your-face but gets sprayed with a can of … deodorant? Hairspray? Something like that. Joe-Boy, horrified at the threat of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer, recoils, hands to his eyes, and the girls double up on Whitey’s bike and ride off, leaving one of their bikes behind.
"Joe-Boy, enraged, gets on the abandoned bike bait without a second thought, and his gang rush to their cars. Don’t worry about the gang though – we never see them again. Any of them.
"Off Joe-Boy rides in pursuit to the sound of the James Bond theme(!). We see him on the bike, then we see the wire with all the Man-Eaters watching. Then we see him. Then the wire. Then the Man-Eaters. Yes, HGL, I think we 'get it.' You’ve explained it enough. At least this time you only did it with repeated camera shots, not with dialog. That’s a slight improvement.
"Joe-Boy rides into the wire with what one of my viewing companions immediately dubbed, 'The worst decapitation I’ve ever seen.'"
So there you have it. A compelling backward line from Cormac McCarthy to Herschell Gordon Lewis. Who says that "blogs" don't do relevant work in cultural archeology?
UPDATE: Commentator Jason LaRiviere, below, cites "the greatest film to ever feature motorized decapitation by wire is Fellini's Toby Dammit." Indeed. The best segment in the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, and one that Lewis could not have ripped off (unless he'd just heard about it), because that film was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival just as She-Devils was making its non-illustrious U.S. theatrical run. Hmm.
And the movie didn't even occur to me as I was writing this, even though it's an old favorite of mine. The reason: In the Fellini movie, there's no attempt to make the event plausible in a materialist empirical sense. The wire that cuts off Toby's head is, for all intents and purposes, put in place by a supernatural agent who need not concern him or her self with, say, the chances that the wire will catch some other idiot in a sports car. I am reminded, I have to say, of the Patti Smith poem "robert bresson," and its treatment of a scene in Au hasard Balthasar, and the scene's larger implications. This is the last section of the poem:
there is oil on the road.
the oil is the cause of the car going out of control.
what we want to find out is who put the oil there
and what the motive was.
who put the oil there?
i had to recreate the death of Jackson Pollock
w/the same radical destiny that spun from the
hallowed designs of his own death.
image: no. 11, 14 and portrait of a dream
image: the woman, lee krasner, shading her eyes
with hands brown and spotted.
here we have no accident no crime but a lateral
translation of a man going out of control
the initiation of a girl
(the intimacy of model and clone)
who would teach
as her teacher
film of sorrow
who put this oil here?
who was your teacher?
For Richard Brody
To watch, and in some respects especially to listen to, a film by Jean-Luc Godard is to be drawn into a web of intertextuality that can be as nettlesome as it can be pleasurable. (And this is true even of, you know, the earlier, funnier films, the acknowledged influential "classics" Godard made prior to the chimerical decline cited in accounts published in various middlebrow accoutrements.) Either way, one is always stimulated, and sometimes moved. One may be particularly moved when the texts evoked, invoked, quoted from, and woven together stop forming a mask from behind which the artist speaks but melds somehow with the face, becomes the voice, of the artist himself.
In Godard's 1991 film Allemagne annee 90 neuf zero (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), the Los-Angeles-born actor Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution—the "authentic" hard-boiled protagonist he played seven times in "authentic" French B-thrillers before putting the character through Godardization in 1965's Alphaville—here, in just-post-Cold-War Germany, re-imagined by Godard as "the last spy," trying to find his way back to "the West." The dialogue and narration of the movie, which I saw on October 18 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's mammoth, and wholly admirable and incredible, Godard retrospective, alternate between French and German for the most part, but every now and then Constantine pronounces something in English, his tough-guy rasp accented with audible evidence of over four decades away from America, but the voice very American nevertheless. As his trench-coated self wanders a wintry German landscape, Eddie/Lemmy/Jean-Luc observes, in English, "Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again."
The phrase sounded familiar to me. At first I thought it might have been derived from a letter S.J. Perelman wrote to Paul Theroux in 1976, recounting a Christmas-shopping snafu that would elicit extreme disapprobation from the website Jezebel were anyone who wrote for the website Jezebel ever to read Perelman's letters. In any event, the phrase, I learned, did not originate there, although Perelman's letter does pack the same general world-weariness ("the increasing frenzy of the Saks and Gimbels newspaper ads as these fucking holidays draw near").
Then, on Tuesday October 22, I saw Godard's 1986 Grandeur and Decadence, a television project Godard made under the pretext of a commission to adapt a serie noire, in this case an adaptation of The Soft Centre, a late work by No Orchids For Miss Blandish author James Hadley Chase. What Godard produced instead was a tortured (albeit hardly humorless) work about a small film company (Albatross Films, naturally) that goes horrifically under while trying to initiate such an adaptation. As Richard Brody points out in his Everything Is Cinema, biography of Godard, the actual auteur is represented in the film both by the unhinged director Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and the desperate, financing-juggling producer Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky). (This does not preclude Godard from showing up as himself in the film's final third.) In a long sequence in a restaurant, Bazin makes, in French, the same Christmas observation as Constantine/Caution/Godard does in the later film, but this time in French, and the English subtitles of this rarely-screened picture garble the sentence/sentiment somewhat. Later Bazin brandishes Chase's book, and then waves a volume of Raymond Chandler, pronouncing the latter writer "better." There was the clue I was looking for...even as I went back to 1990's Nouvelle Vague (which I had seen at the Godard retro on October 17), and its own sticky web of Chandler-Hawks-Hemingway evocations (Delon's character's surname being Lennox, from The Long Goodbye, the frequent reiteration of the question about having been stung by a dead bee).
Sure enough, the sentence "Well, Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again" is from the volume of selected letters by Raymond Chandler edited by Frank McShane. The letter is dated December 21, 1951, and it's to the British publisher Hamish Hamilton, and as cited by blogger Tom Williams a few years back (I do not have McShane's book myself, and the letter is, alas, not included in the selection of Chandler letters in the Library of America's edition of the writer's work), goes on ever more dyspeptically: "People with strained, agonized expressions are poring over pieces of distorted glass and pottery, and being waited on, if that's the correct expression, by specifically recruited morons on temporary parole from mental institutions, some of who by determined effort can tell a teapot from a pickaxe."
Chandler was in his early sixties when he wrote the letter; Godard was in his mid-fifties when he made Grandeur and Decadence. Perelman was 72 when he had the shopping snafu he relates to Theroux. Christmas is no holiday for old men, sometimes. But the distaste in all their cases only reflects a deeper disillusionment. As Brody recounts in his book, Grandeur and Decadence accurately reflects the incredibly stressed and anguished circumstances under which it was made. The director that so many critics take as a somewhat imperious, hermetic, willfully esoteric trickster is here revealed as a man utterly unsure of where life and art are taking him, and very nearly succumbing to despair. The evocation of "ancient horrors" is an allusion, but it isn't a joke. It's anything but.
If you have not seen D.W. Griffith's Intolerance since film school, or film appreciation class, or years ago on public television, etc., or worse yet (or maybe better yet, as it happens) have never seen it at all, get yourself down to Manhattan's Film Forum starting tomorrow and catch it, in a stunning new restoration released by The Cohen Film Collection. It is nearly one hundred years old and I will put money down that it will be the most spectacularly vital film running theatrically in the five buroughs as of its first screening.
Why? Well, it's not just the structure: in making this ostensible "answer picture" to the (completely justified) protests pertaining to his 1915 The Birth of a Nation, Griffith conceived four tales of this movie's title theme, each set in a different age and place, and interwove them cinematically, with one of the key effects being, as Kevin Brownlow has so memorably described, a sweeping up of the viewer into four separate and equally engrossing climaxes in the film's final third. This was/is admitedly a daring storytelling gambit, and not a whole lot of conventional narrative filmmakers have tried to meet this challenge since (although in a mildly ironic coincidence, noted Griffith disapprover Quentin Tarantino has performed structural tricks that Intolerance certainly set a kind of precedent for, in both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown). That's the thing I absorbed pretty well on my first screening of Intolerance long ago, so it didn't knock me out this time around. Nor, for that matter, did the content, although it is quite fascinationg. The discursive "modern day" story finds Griffith wrestling with his inner Victorian to concoct a condemnation of priggish reformers. The conception of the fall of Babylon has an interesting proto-feminist component in the person of a character named "Mountain Girl." And so on. All good stuff. Pauline Kael has noted that the film contains the seeds of every kind of silent and then sound studio film that came immediately after it. And more than that: the movie has surprising scenes of nudity, quasi-nudity, and extreme violence and gore. There's a beheading or two; the effects for these are not particularly convincing, but hey, they were in there pitching. In this respect, and given the movie's still staggering scale of spectacle and set-construction (it's almost impossible to believe that Griffith conceived, produced, shot, edited, and released such an elaborate movie in a mere year after his prior one), what Kael says still goes.
So there's all that, and it's all incredible and impressive and really really beautiful in the new restored version, and the Carl Davis orchestral score accompanying it all is apt and effective. But what really killed me on seeing the movie was the elasticity and innovation of its cinematic language. Both the freedom and the concentration with which Griffith composes his images and orchestrates their effects is constantly dazzling. His master shots are often in the standard mode of his day. In the scenes in the contemporary story, for instance, the action in the apartment of the characters called The Dear One and The Boy is conveyed by means of a relatively tight medium shot, and briskly carried out by the actors, but the things Griffith does to underscore particular actions are extraordinary. When The Dear One (Mae Marsh) learns that her beloved is going to the gallows, after a seemingly final appeal has been exhausted, the film conveys her despair by having her walk directly toward the camera, until her face is in a close up that nearly fills the frame, and of course the lens has been losing focus the closer and closer the performer gets to it. Watching it, the viewer is almost moved to rear back a little, so overwhelming is the deceptively simple effect. Elsewhere, particularly in scenes of ancient Babylon, Griffith breaks up his frame using optical variants of the iris-in/iris-out effect. Not settling for mere circles, Griffith throws in diamond shapes, diagonally blocks off two corresponding corners, and so on. These are old, relatively "crude" effects but I found them startling in their expressiveness. Was it, I wondered, a case of the effects being so old that they seemed new? No, I don't think so. I think it's more the case that narrative cinema has become so much a slave to a certain idea of verisimilitude that certain varieties of visual expressiveness have been squelched. (Antonioni, of course, was an active and innovative proponent of the fragmented frame, but he acheived his effects via architecture and interior design.)
In Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer With The Danish Filmmaker, Jan Wahl's splendid, and just recently published, account, Wahl recalls that great director's thoughts on this Griffith film: "Dreyer first viewed [...] Intolerance as a young man in 1916. To this day, it remains a staggering display of massive architecture, tremendous crowds (all real —no digital fakery or Schüftan process), a huge creation crying out against Tyranny and Injustice—an experiment employing new devices of cutting, framing, angles, inventing techniques as needed. According to Dreyer's own words, 'I went home completely dazed, overwhelmed by a new rhythm and the number of close-ups. In particular those of Lillian Gish at the conclusion.' [...] On that night, Dreyer became aware of how far one might aim in the medium." I think that Intolerance still retains the power to instill that awareness.
I am grateful to the critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum for a good many reasons, and most recently I find that I owe him for steering me in the direction of this splendid book, a far less hyped correlative and corrective to the Henry Jaglom/Peter Biskind offering My Lunches With Orson, which I considered on this blog a couple of weeks ago.
The eleven-year-old Welles was enrolled at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois in 1926. Roger Hill, twenty years Welles' senior, was an instructor there; he later inherited the position of headmaster, which had been that of his father, Noble Hill. Roger Hill was one of Welles' earliest mentors and a lifelong friend and supporter, and, according to the introduction to this book by Tarbox, a grandson of Hill's, Hill and Welles began recording their phone and in-person conversations in the early '80s in the hopes that the tapes would aid in their respective memoirs. The first recording in the Tarbox book is from November 25, 1982; the final one is from October 9, 1985, the evening before Welles' death. This is the same period in which the conversations that make up My Lunches With Orson were recorded. But while there is a certain amount of crossover, there is absolutely no redundancy here. While I'm not going to address the controversy concerning whether or not Jaglom is entirely truthful when he says his conversations with Welles had been recorded with Welles' prior consent, the Welles in My Lunches, sometimes truculent, spiteful, perverse, given to venting resentments, etc., is a particular kind of private Welles who coexists with an Orson who is very aware of the fact that he is giving a performance for a younger admirer. Is the Welles in the Hill conversations on his best behavior because he clearly knows that these conversations are in some sense intended for posterity? I would say yes and no, and I would also say that the Welles that emerges in Tarbox's book is the truer Welles. And yes, it is a Welles that is more noble than the one constructed via Biskind and Jaglom.
That Welles lets his better angels speak through him via Hill has to do with, you'll see if you read the book, which you definitely should, his ease with Hill. The two go back a very long way, and we can infer that Hill knows Welles' quirks and foibles like almost no other, and that he forgives them all because he really loves Orson, and Orson really loves him back. There's not as much filmmaking talk in this book as there is in My Lunches; there's quite a bit of fond reminiscing about places and events and people that may not have a too-privileged place in the philosophy of those who are exclusively concerned with Welles the cineaste. But these topics are not brought up in the service of a facile nostalgia; everything touched upon in these conversations of course deeply informed Welles the artist, a deeply sophisticated man and a product of a very American culture that I sometimes fear vanished about thirty or forty years ago.
As the title implies, the book is structured as a play. Rather than lay out transcriptions of the conversation, Tarbox provides settings and stage directions and incorporates flashbacks in which the players, Welles and Hill, read from correspondance or other texts. This may strike some readers as an overly sentimental, even quaint device, and it does lead down some awkward alleys, particularly during one conversation in which Welles admits he's speaking from a phone extension in his loo. At other junctures, however, the conceit of a stage presentation works pretty beautifully, as in an exchange in which Welles and Hill discuss a small civil-rights crusade that Welles spearheaded via his radio show in 1946:
ROGER: Your finest hour, actually many hours, on your [radio show segment] Almanac was championing a black soldier who, returning to his hometown somewhere in the South, was beaten by a mob. What was his name?
ORSON: Isaac Woodard. He wasn’t beaten by a mob, but by a policeman. Woodard was on a bus, not too far from his home in South Carolina. As a stop, he took too much time in the “colored” men’s room to satisfy the bus driver. A heated exchange followed, prompting the bus driver to call a cop, who, without provocation, beat the nejesus out of Woodard with a billy club, which blinded him. I immediately inveighed against this mindless madness, and, over the next several months, as the case unfolded, I continued to seethe over the air.
ROGER: Didn’t the NAACP contact you?
ORSON: Yes, the NAACP brought Woodard’s plight to my attention.
ROGER: Now it comes back. Wasn’t he a decorated war hero?
ORSON: He served overseas for over a year and was decorated with a battle star.
[Scrim: Thirty-one-year-old Orson in an ABC radio studio reading his July 28 1946 commentary.]
Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash them well. Scrub and scour. We will blast out your name. We’ll give the world your given name, Officer X. Yes, and your so-called Christian name. Officer X—after I have found you out, I’ll never lose you. If they try you, I’m going to watch the trial. If they jail you, I’m going to wait for your first day of freedom. You won’t be free of me…You can’t get rid of me…Who am I? A masked avenger from the comic books? No, sir. Merely an inquisitive citizen of America.
ORSON: Week after week, I updated my audience on the progress of the case. I was threatened with lawsuits if I didn’t cease and desist. The threats only heightened my resolve to make America aware of the bitter fruits of this man’s service to his country. A lot of people from the South and North wrote and asked what business it was of mine to involve myself in this case.
[Scrim: Thirty-one-year-old Orson at the ABC microphone reading his Woodard script.]
God judge me if this isn’t the most pressing business I have. The blind soldier fought for me in this war. The least I can do now is fight for him. I have eyes. He hasn’t. I have a voice on the radio. He hasn’t. I was born a white man and until a colored man is a full citizen like me I haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that this colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I don’t own what I have until he owns an equal share of it. Until someone beats me, and blinds me, I am in his debt. And so I come to this microphone not as a radio dramatist (although it pays better), not as a commentator (although it’s safe to be simply that). I come, in that boy’s name, and in the name of all who in this land of ours have no voice of their own. I come with a call to action.
ROGER: What became of the case?
ORSON: The Department of Justice filed charges against the rogue cop.
ROGER: Didn’t the NAACP credit you as the prime mover in causing the government to act?
ORSON: There were a number of us on the side of the angels. I was just the one with a microphone and a weekly national audience. Our broadcasts led to a benefit in New York on Woodard’s behalf. Billie Holiday, Milton Berle, Cab Calloway, and many others joined me on stage and performed for an impassioned audience of over 30,000, demanding justice for one black man and for all of black America.
ROGER: Was justice served?
ORSON: Sadly, no. Though the Justice Department took the case to trial, an all-white jury acquitted the cop. I’ll never forget a line from the defense attorney’s closing argument to the jury, “If you rule against my client, then let South Carolina secede again.”
This is moving, still vital stuff, I'd reckon. And it speaks multitudes of both men, multitudes that are maybe willfully ignored in Biskind/Jaglom, whose book starts by taking too-giddy pleasure in Welles' deliberately impishly provocative pronouncement to Jaglom that "everybody should be bigoted." Peter and Henry should be ashamed of themselves.
The Tarbox book is also generously illustrated, not just with photos but with reproduced pages from Welles' scripts, including more than a few from the Shakespeare staging adaptations on which Hill and Welles collaborated. You can buy the book via Amazon here. And you should also read Jonathan R.'s thoughts on the book, here.