From the July-August 1978 Film Comment, only slightly tweaked in March 2014. In retrospect, it must have been an act of sheer defiance and perversity for me to have structured the order of the films discussed here in alphabetical order, perhaps as a way of further brandishing all my globetrotting at the time. Thirty-six years later, I regret some of the swagger here, including the facile wisecrack-putdown of Jean-Pierre Gorin. I was still under the excessive influence of Manny Farber at the time -– a great writer whose style one imitates, consciously or unconsciously, at one’s peril –- combined with some of the early stirrings that led to my 1980 memoir Moving Places. — J.R.
Back And Forth (London, 1/10/78), in Pam Cook and Simon Field’s avant-garde film course. Each time I encounter Michael Snow’s crisscrossed classroom, I learn a little bit more about how to watch it. Following those relentless, oscillating pans with the eyes — equating one’s head and ego with the camera or vice versa in some sort of anthropomorphic/illusionist perversion conditioned by Hollywood — turns out to be about as useful as climbing into a Mix Master and throwing the switch. Sitting still, in your head as well as in your seat, affords a smoother, subtler, and more contemplative experience. After all, it’s only the movie that’s moving, not the spectator, and learning to play (not work) with this fact here and in La RégionCentrale is like discovering how to fly.
[Being flown by a 747 like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (L.A., 12/7/77) is a different trip entirely; you see a lot less through the window, even though it’s blown-up to look bigger — in the benign spirit of Bradbury, or Albert Speer. The glorious movie-palace chandelier of the landing alien ship seems to impose Consensus like a Royal Dictum, rather like the way that certain semiological and and psychoanalytical film theorists impose their vocabularies. After so much narrative coercion and good-natured cattle-prodding, the possibilities of relaxing in a Snow film are deeply refreshing: a Jacuzzi of the mind that allows the non-narrative parts of the brain to dip and dive freely through the available spaces.]
Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life (UCSD, La Jolla, 12/1/77), in the last session of my lecture course in Paranoia, has always been inextricably linked in my mind to CinemaScope. But after booking the largest auditorium and screen on campus, the unexpected arrival of a TV scanned print forces me to acknowledge that I now have to deal with a different film: an intimate family closet-drama without a community or a society framing its edges. The horizontal/social implications of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture, linking inside and outside, are beginning to seem as archaic as Fifties Scope films, perhaps for related reasons. After lavishing time and money on restoring the façade of an Arkansas movie house for September 30, 1955 (L.A.,12/12/77), James Bridges cuts to a champ/contrechamp between the hero and the last scene of East Of Eden in a TV-scanned version, complete with a different end title. Is this the way to lovingly recreate a period? The isolated box, necessitating different jokes for different folks, is replacing the utopian notion of Consensus suggested by the broad image. Reduced to a fortress, Bigger Than Life becomes melodrama without a front or back yard — an aberration that stays in the house, refusing to mix with the neighbors.
“What the film shows so well, to the shame of psychiatrists,” note Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, “is that every delirium is first of all the investment of a field that is social, economic, political, cultural, racial and racist, pedagogical, and religious: the delirious person applies a delirium to his family and his son that overreaches them on all sides.” It is the literal expanse of this overreach that the TV cookie-cutter tends to eliminate, turning sociology into psychopathology. One more reason why American movies no longer exist.
Latest riposte to the author theory: In the Marilyn Monroe chapter of James Bacon’s Hollywood is a Four Letter Town (Florence, Alabama, 3/5/78), one learns (or is told) that MM spoiled twenty-seven takes of one shot in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night(to continue this alphabetical list), explaining to Bacon that she only delivered her line correctly when she liked the way the rest of the scene was going. Who then is the auteur of that scene, complete with final edit?
On a thematic level, The Downfall [Orizuru Osen] (London, 1/3/78), a late silent film of Mizoguchi from 1934, is scarcely different from his countless other sagas of female victimization. What makes it special, as a transitional movie between silence and sound, is the presence of a benshi on the soundtrack – a male voice reciting not only all the intertitles, including dialogue for male and female characters alike, but also occasional narration supplementing them, in past tense and third person. And thanks to the music on the soundtrack (ranging from a Vivaldi concerto to A Night on Bald Mountain) and the earphone English commentary supplied at the National Film Theatre — effectively adding another benshi layer — the lovely silent expressionist visuals, gravitating around flashbacks away from a Sternbergian train station where a locomotive is stalled, are literally only half the story of this haunted melodrama.
Shown piecemeal in J-P Gorin’s lecture course/nightclub act on Munich movies, my first look at Werner Schroeter’s Eika Katappa (UCSD, La Jolla, 2/14-15/78, thanx to Tom Luddy) endlessly baffles and enthralls me in a way that Schroeter’s more commercial compatriots seldom do. The magnetic soundtrack consists of opera (don’t ask me what) heard continuously at the same volume level. And the shaky pans and zooms, like the attitudes and expressions of semi-in-drag cast and the monumental color compositions, are all pitched at precisely the same point of excruciation. This is chamber music, not opera: the jazz piano equivalents could be either the bubbling brooks of George Shearing or the scalding shower-baths of McCoy Tyner — each of which maintains the same temperature throughout.
What is it that keeps this lack of dynamics interesting, working only from fragments of untold tales — a montage of emotional climaxes reeking of Dreyer’s Jeanne D’ Arc, with all the connective narrative tissue stripped away? Maybe it’s the dedicated intensity behind every image, the overall lack of cattle-prodding, and the discovery of a fixed, flat surface that links its experience to Tati, Ozu, late Lang, Jeanne Dielman, and earlier Bresson (before his Sam Fullerish shocker, The Devil Probably), bequeathing the spectator some freedom to roam around and linger a little in various discrete pockets.
L’ Innocente (Paris, l2/25/77), Visconti’s last film, is nothing but narrative, but all of it means something more than cattle-prodding. Is this why it still hasn’t crossed the Atlantic? Seeing it the night after Chaplin’s death only stresses the profoundly confessional tone of this elegiac hatchet job on a “freethinking” narcissist — the last sort of thing I’d have expected from Visconti after The Damned and Death in Venice. (Seeing the director’s infirm hand emerge from the bottom of the screen behind the credits, to leaf through an equally old copy of the D’Annunzio novel the film is based on, is more than a “personal touch”; it’s part of the diegesis.)
One can even read the climactic shot of Giancarlo Giannini catching his own gaze in a mirror, on the door of a closet opened by a servant — defining the moment that he decides to murder his wife’s illegitimate infant out of “love” for her — as the ultimate indictment of the director’s own drawing-room Marxism, and the film festival Marxism that usually contained it. As with Proust and Chaplin, the degree of candor in the self-scrutiny makes this political in a way that Bertolucci’s 1900 (L. A., 1/16/78) — coming on like a Giant that’s pretending to be a Potemkin — doesn’t even hint at.
The extraordinary thing about Saturday Night Fever (New Orleans, 2/28/78) is the dance numbers — not only as dance but as the kind of dancing in films that leads straight into fantasy, even when the movie half-convinces you that it’s a “real” extension of the rest. What gets released in, by, and through the gorgeous rush of these dream-bubble numbers is precisely what gets repressed in, by, and through the characters elsewhere — a bit like what you find in Gilda. An eleven year-old girl in the commune where I’m staying listens every day to the soundtrack record and would love to see the movie, but her mother says no – it sounds too raunchy — and I feel some of the pain in her frustration. She needs the songs as much as Tony and Stephanie and I do, but has to make her own private movie in order to get inside them.
The audience at Loew’s seems tired at the last show — not at all like the one I saw it with in Hollywood eight days ago, mainly black, who fed on the movie as if it were honey. In Milwaukee four nights ago, Sandy Flitterman and I agreed that the film theory conference we’d just attended should have shown it. Seriously. Speaking for myself, whatever the diverse and discernible interests of Comolli’s La Cecilia, Gidal’s Condition of lllusion and Mulvey and Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx, it is the musical numbers here that teach me the most about the symbolic, the imaginary, and even the signifier — not to mention ideology and the libido. Maybe, on second thought, American movies have at least one lung left.
But most of this particular column is concerned with disintegration (have you noticed?) of one kind or another, and the sorts of clarity that it can make possible. Which leads me ineluctably to the subtitled 35mm prints I saw of Lang’s The Tigerof Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb (London, 1/3/78), his penultimate films, thanx to Ian Christie and David Meeker.
What are the signs of disintegration? (1) A conscious naiveté that is sought and achieved, aimed at a child’s sensibility and easily read as camp. (2) A naked artifice of props, actor-props, color schemes and schematic plots laid bare, so that even the wires holding up the fake snake in Debra Paget’s religious dance inside a cave temple are visible. (3) A displacement (or misplacement) of narrative interest shortly after the beginning of The Indian Tomb, Part II of the story, when Berger (Paul Hubschmid) is placed in chains at the bottom of a pit a lot like the “dark” well in Moonfleet, while Seeta (Paget) is confined to her chambers in the same palace.
The hero and heroine are then replaced by another couple, more klutzy and ineffectual, who implicitly parody the roles of Hubschmid and Paget, meanwhile consuming acres of screen time. The effect of this is such that when at the conclusion Berger and Seeta are finally freed and united — and the villain Chandra (Walter Reyer) suddenly renounces his palace and villainy, without prior motivation or warning, to study with a holy man — the characters are still present on the screen, but they no longer exist .(4) A series of structural arrows drawn by one of the disintegrating couples (I forget which) on the wall of an underground labyrinth before they separate, to find their way back to each other, but which wind up confounding all sense of continuity, like the décors in Moonfleet, losing characters and spectators alike.
What are the signs of clarity? All of the above, and more. London probably hasn’t seen so much “baring the device” since copies of Viktor Shklovsky’s Third Factory turned up at Compendium Books. Straub’s point that Lang offered his producer a film instead of a golden calf is well taken. But it is, of course, a film about a golden calf that we call cinema — made by someone who knows more about the subject than most — and a game that is played honestly. Critics hung up on “craft” and intentionality will probably never be able to see it as a dazzling achievement (as they would have if Lang had raped them in their sleep), but there is nothing else in cinema like it. I’ll go even further: it has the only cave in movies that’s worthy of Plato’s.