For some reason, I thought that it might be fun over the Christmas holiday to give myself more work. With little to nothing going on in terms of “real” work during this period, I figured I’d go on a sort of cinema vacation: revisit a group of films just for the hell of it. Actually, only partially for the hell of it; I thought, the better to revive the enthusiasms that led me to write about motion pictures in the first place, I’d revisit pictures that were essential to the formation of my sensibility. A rather mordant sensibility, it turns out. What’s up with that? I was crazy about movies for a very long time before I even began to conceive of forming a critical apparatus with which to deal with them, but I knew from almost right off the bat (the first movie I remember watching in its entirety was The Haunting) what I wanted from movies. I did not go to cinema in search of beings akin to me (God forbid that, in fact), but I was not looking for a non-mindful form of “escape;” rather, I wanted intoxicants, narcotics. This is one reason why, whenever I am compiling some kind of “greatest ever” movies list in private, I sometimes have to remind myself about, say, Rules of the Game. A great work of art but not one that affected me in the same way as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, if you get what I’m saying.
This was not a hard rule regarding my selection, though. As you’ll see, there was a Current Events Pretext for picking one film, and the World War II movie popped into my head via a stray social media remark from my friend Tom Carson. As for the others, though, they were/are each in some way parts of my personal pantheon, other people’s work that nevertheless hangs in The Museum Of Me. Would spending time with them invigorate my enthusiasm for The Work? Interesting question. Below are the observations I made on each of them.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack [and Willis O’Brien], 1933)
The movie seems a lot less innocent the older it, and I, get. Not that this is a source of great concern to me; in a sense I find its relentless malevolent lurid sensationalism kind of admirable, and I understand why some of the Surrealists did too. It’s also funny in the way the diegesis begins with a heap of delightful idiomatic sassy Pre-Code dialogue (“I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture,” etc.) and then a long central section of the movie leading up to Kong’s rout of Skull Island seems to have literally nothing on the soundtrack but harsh screams and animal noises and the crackle of Kong breaking that dead dinosaur’s jaw. And yes, of course the movie is a complete mess of racialism. I wondered, idly, as I watched, the extent to which the completely African-American-free depiction of Manhattan was actually calculated. Also noteworthy was how the giant animatronic Kong head used in close-ups is an entirely different character from Willis O’Brien’s clearly more beloved full-body model Kong.
The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
I picked this because why not, given all the chatter about The Interview and the comparisons (specious, it can confidently be said even if one hasn’t seen The Interview, which I haven’t) and all that. Ron Rosenbaum hates this movie, considering it both arrogant and a squandered opportunity. By the same token, as much of a genius as Chaplin was, I imagine he’d have to be even more of a genius and something of a saint in order, by 1938, to perceive Hitler in a position of utter detachment from his own (Chaplin’s, that is) ego. (Note this observation from around the same year, in the Spectator, cited in David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin: “In Herr Hitler the angel [i.e. Chaplin] has become a devil. The soleless boots have become Reitstiefel; the shapeless trousers, riding breeches; the cane, a riding crop; the bowler, a forage cap. The Tramp has become a storm trooper; only the moustache is the same.”)
It is almost impossible for anyone alive today to imagine a pre-Holocaust Hitler, but that is, for better or worse, the Hitler Chaplin was addressing with his film, and that combined with Chaplin’s ego-driven indignation at the effrontery of this character are large parts of what make the film fall flat, seen today. Another problem is that while Chaplin was great at parables he’s not that good with satire (“kill off the Jews…wipe out the brunettes,” ugh) and, as smart as he was, he wasn’t quite what you call an intellectual. His ambition, which in this film includes the desire (slight, admittedly) to be seen as one, wreak havoc with his better artistic instincts here; a sinking feeling intrudes as one endures the painfully unfunny Great War prologue. Interestingly enough, the movie only begins to find its footing when Paulette Goddard shows up. There is no other film about which this can be said, I think. (Not to disrespect Miss Goddard, mind you.) Roberto Rossellini called Chaplin’s much-maligned 1957 A King In New York “the film of a free man,” this, too, is the film of a free man, albeit a free man flailing. Certain of its infelicities are kind of fascination: Chaplin’s Mack Sennett-derived conception of storm troopers has some interesting side effects, one of them being that Billy Gilbert makes more sense here than he does in His Girl Friday. For all that…I do find the movie’s closing speech strangely stirring, and I felt (that is, registered) Chaplin’s desire to be sincere in an almost awkward way as I took these notes from it: “The power they took from the people will return to the people…you are not machines…you have the love of humanity in your hearts…don’t fight for slavery…the power to create happiness…”
Battleground (William Wellman, 1949)
This sketch of the siege of Bastogne is a great stealth Christmas film, and also a marvelous kind of “hang out film” despite the context being one that you’d never want to hang out in. Atmospheric, quiet, almost no “plot.” Equal measures of lyricism (Montalban’s character, Rodrigues, has never seen snow before), warmth, and dread. Even the seemingly manufactured-for-uplift coda (sounding what Paul Fussell called the “one optimistic and morale-sustaining voice” of the Hollywood WWII film) is handled in a downbeat, matter-of-fact fashion. There are remarkable performances from all the members of what Jeanine Basinger dubbed “the universal platoon.”
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
In its levels of detail and immersion, possibly the most convincingly novelistic movie ever made. How did they do all that action stuff in that rain (real or manufactured as it might have been)?
Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
All things considered, maybe I shoulda watched The Murderer Lives At Number 21, a much earlier Clouzot picture I haven’t seen before. Not that this was bad, not at all, but it didn’t hit me in the way I was hoping. And anyway, the whole point of this exercise was to watch stuff I HAD seen before. Despite it coming after Wages of Fear, Diabolique has stretches in which if feels way less assured. A good deal of the French Provincial stuff is really kind of cringe inducing, e.g. the innkeeper’s histrionics when the clanging of the pipes is making it impossible for him to hear his radio show. Jesus. The point’s supposed to be one of suspense: is he going to get so mad that he’s gonna go upstairs and see S. Signoret and V. Clouzot with a dead guy in the filled tub? Instead Clouzot lets Nöel Roquevert make a full-fledged “comedy” routine out of it. Hitchcock would have never allowed such a thing, which is one reason Hitchcock’s a consistently/demonstrably better director than Clouzot. Still. There’s some pretty strong stuff here. What are you gonna do.
Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
I believe J. Hoberman has called this “a perfect film” and he is indeed correct. Not only is there nothing wrong with it, there’s everything right with it. So much is going on, and yet all of it seems effortless, comfortable in mastery and drollery. The choppiness of the cuts in the opening “dream” sequence is bracing (and reminiscent of the dedication ceremony scene in L’age d’or somehow) but also weirdly sets the film’s fluidity of tone. Also noteworthy: the way Buñuel both sends up and respects the prerogatives of the “women’s picture” and/or melodrama. It’s kind of staggering, too, especially given Buñuel’s admitted delight in indulging his own kinks/fetishes here, how non-“masculine” or macho the film is. In a sense the auteur is like Flaubert, and not just in a “Madame Bovary, ç’est moi” way. Part of it is his refusal to be heavy-handed, as in the way he cuts from a client of Severine’s discovering “you like the rough stuff” to a shot of Mme Anais and her girls playing gin rummy. (I don’t imagine you will find anything even vaguely equivalent to this transition in the film of Fifty Shades of Derp.) I love how the buzzing box brandished by the nonsense-speaking Asian client is treated as a throwaway, as is the robbery committed by Francisco Rabal and Pierre Clementi that introduces those two knucklehead characters. The picture is also full of weirdly numinous dialogue: brothel maid Pallas saying “I even dream about you sometimes” or Rabal’s “I’d slit my father’s throat for less.” Also: the elaborate dolly-then-zoom in the duel dream sequence. Clementi’s steel teeth. God, this movie.
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
If Dr. Strangelove is Stanley Kubrick on Mad Magazine, Clockwork is Stanley Kubrick on Zap! Comix, or something like that. Almost all of Kubrick’s films have a cartoonish element, but I think there’s three of them that qualify as full-on comic books of a sort: Strangelove, Clockwork, and Lolita. Right, I know what you’re thinking: my putting Lolita on that list is as quirky and brilliant and provocative as Robin Wood saying, “But Scarface belongs with the comedies.” Wait, you’re not thinking that? Anyway. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are just one in-your-face violation of taste and propriety and morality after another, and there’s no point in denying the extent to which Kubrick enjoys the spectacle. In John Baxter’s bio of the director, actor Adrienne Corri, who was a social friend of Kubrick’s, recalled lobbying for the part of the victim of the brutal rape in the movie’s first section (I don’t recall that either Corri or Baxter clarifies why on earth any sentient being would actively lobby for that part, but hey) and having Kubrick respond “But Corri, what if I don’t like the tits?” Do not hold it against me for noticing that the, um, tits displayed throughout the film are all highly likable. In point of fact maybe they’re the only outright attractive features in the film. There’s so much here that’s dispiriting, puzzling; there’s an amazing amount of bravura, too-bravura, filmmaking done in the service of a vision so narrow and monochromatic that it’s almost…hell, I don’t know what it is. Things I flashed on: The frost-breath of Alex as he invites Billy and his gang to fight. The pan as the would-be victim of Billy’s gang runs off stage. The Pythonesque stylings of the chief prison guard played by Michael Bates. The shot of the lightning, very Universal Pictures…and Alex’s voiceover reflection during a Ludovico session “it’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,” which may just be what the whole damn film is really only about anyway.
Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973)
I loved Bava’s images—a coach floating through a menacing forest in slow-motion, Barbara Steele’s haughty-cheekboned grinning/grimacing face bearing the punctures of a medieval torture device—before I knew who the man even was. So of course I became a rabid fan once I did know. This 1973 vision existed for years only in a risible, mutilated version that still had plenty of oneiric mojo. As with so many International Co-Production Genre Pictures there’s a realm of compromise in which even the undiluted vision dwells, one in which the viewer is obliged to accept a lollipop-snarfing Telly Savalas as the embodiment of death and/or evil. His interpretation of the responsibility is largely…interesting, but I can’t get past the nagging feeling that he’s just not taking his job very seriously. Such is the puzzlement faced by not just this Bava fan, I think. On the other hand: one cannot deny the treatment of space that’s as acute in its way as Antonioni’s, the way Bava shoots the lovely Elke Sommer as if she’s a mannequin throughout, the way the labyrinthine plotting recalls both The Old Dark House and Castle of Blood, the late revelation that between Alida Valli’s final moments here and the climax of Black Sabbath’s “A Drop Of Water” sequence, it had to be Bava who inspired Ernest Dickerson to concoct the rolling-walk show with Spike Lee…and so on. Always just a magnificent experience, Lisa is.
I did not, I have to admit, come away from all this consumption with a sense of the World Remade Anew. I mean, I suppose it’s nice for me that I have such “interesting” taste, or at least taste that satisfies certain aspects of Cinephile Conventional Wisdom on the one hand and deviates from that in “interesting” ways which are still, you know, acceptable, but so what. There are a lot of people out there with taste. I was reading a piece by David Ehrlich in Slate the other day about the irresistible rise of Jennifer Aniston’s Best Actress Academy Award nomination odds; in that piece he describes the process by which things came to this apparently sorry pass, and refers to Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond, who apparently got this ball rolling, as “a humanoid pull-quote machine whom the studios pass around like the office stapler.” A funny line, and possibly not an inaccurate characterization, but for some reason I flashed back to 2009, when Robin Wood died, and an Internet “columnist” wrote something vaguely disparaging about Wood’s affection for Rio Bravo, and who chimed in with a comment in defense of Wood, a comment that showed a pretty thorough conversance with the critic’s work? Well, Pete Hammond, whose current line of work doesn’t call for such appreciation, when you come right down to it. And yet, there it was. A few weeks ago I was in the midst of reading a pretty thick tome about a relatively esoteric branch of African-American music, which I had with me at a screening; the book was noticed by a guy who’s pretty well-known on the screening circuit and who’s something of a figure of fun to younger and/or more gainfully employed/socially adept writers, and God knows I’ve had occasion to have ungenerous jest at his expense. “I’d like to check that book out,” he said, after he had wrested its title from me, who displayed I suppose considerable awkward unease at having to conduct a conversation with him. “That music meant a lot to me when I was younger.”
I remember, in Money, Martin Amis’s John Self proclaiming “’Confidence’ I now regard as a psychopathic state. Confidence, it’s a cry for help. I mean, you look at all that out there, and what you feel is confidence?” And I also remember, not in Money, the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I.” All of this was buzzing in my head after I watched my eight films, and before the events in Paris. That’s where I ended up after going back to the well.