08/30/10 4:35pm


Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940), which plays tonight at MoMA‘s Ida Lupino retro, is bifurcated hodgepodge that pits two fundamental Walsh movies, heroes, and American ideals, against each other. In the first half, from 30s Depression, two trucker brothers (Humphrey Bogart, George Raft) devote their sleeping hours to the road. They’re variations on Walsh’s wharfinger-frontier, good-for-anything lovers whose relationship exists not apart from the routine world but as a way to process it in a time and place with jokes and play; the section’s suffuse with Walsh’s great, democratic filmmaking, deep-space staging anticipating subsequent shots, cross-current kidding, lovers’ fondling, and the nightly routines of truck drivers. In the second half, from 40s noir, a vixen trophy wife (Lupino) makes a bid for the truck company and a trucker, and as in Nicholas Ray and Lupino’s On Dangerous Ground, the filmmaking strips from low-life pluralism, a forum of hoods shooting the shit, to closed-focus, with the swell of strings and jolt of melodrama: what’s mostly memorable is a garage sensor.

The turn from broad naturalism to the operatic, democratic to tyrannical, might as well have been because Warner Brothers ran out of one film and started another, but isn’t parsed so neatly. Dave Kehr’s connected the two halves—“the same obsessional intensity that makes Raft an admirable figure in the first half is seen in the second, applied to Lupino, as something psychotic”—and the shadings between getting by in a free market, getting ahead, and gaining control root Walsh’s 40s Greekish tragedies—in which the Raft and Lupino figures merge into one in Errol Flynn, embodying the dual American dream/nightmare of democracy’s self-made man, clawing for freedom from an economy he’ll incarnate, who comes from nothing, rises to the top, and despotically remakes the world. The hero and his doppelganger aren’t such easy binaries in Walsh’s living world; by The Tall Men, they’ll stand at opposite ends of the screen called “the small dreamer” and the big. When the buck’s the bottom line, the differences are gradations.

08/19/10 9:32am


Cold Water, from 1994, playing tonight at BAM as part of their selected-by-the-Safdie Brothers series, is Olivier Assayas’ last doomed love romance, structured as teen transcendence (the lead teen is Virginie Ledoyen), before his characters and films take on cosmic contemplation of stratigraphic problems. The first part is teen clichés, expulsions and shoplifting, done in usual harried, present-tense glimpses, though the time is post-’68. The last pastiches Mouchette. But the second seems more concrete and abstract, evolving Andrei Rublev and 47 Ronin into the ‘70s with fugue-like play between subject and camera: teens build a fire outside a ramshackle fortress, burn furniture, hook up, dance, and play, replay, and cut off CCR, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen off-screen. The camera slowly tracks the walls as if, like the teens, to buttress the place from history but vainly pin down a moment in time and structure in place that’s as evasive as fire or teen ideals of communism, nature, and a punk-rock treehouse. Assayas’ movies, like his characters, are so lost in a recognizable reality that it feels like a dream they can’t and won’t wake up from.

07/29/10 10:31am


Film Forum’s Charlie Chaplin series continues today with a double featuring pairing The Gold Rush with a “Chaplin Revue” featuring the shorts A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim. We look at the latter two.

The supposedly Victorian sentimentality of a Charlie Chaplin movie—maybe “sentimental” for pointing feeling where it doesn’t necessarily belong—usually turns out to be based on the Promethean idea that somehow not quite everything in the world is worth destroying, even though the comic heroes usually upended most of it by the end of the film. Even then, if a girl’s worth saving—Chaplin usually provides the concise image of the innocent waif like him entrenched in and alienated from capital, labor, ideology, and brimstone seriousness—it’s because she’s not really part of the world, and pathos, estranged from efficacy and institutions, doesn’t really have a motivating reason. The underwriting irony of Chaplin’s films is that if the rest of the world doesn’t deserve any feeling, it’s because it has no sense of it; if Chaplin merits affection, it’s because he doesn’t get any. Chaplin’s wish-fulfillment, the little nobody who asked for nothing and got it anyway, is revealed as a comic mistake.

It’s as much Dickens as Marx. “To yoke oneself to the world of the facts and to keep apace is of an altogether different order of decision than trying to swim in one’s poverty,” Louis Zukofsky wrote of Modern Times. “Finally and despite odds, Charlie and the girl decide to go off together in the film, and their arms bend up at the elbows, their fists are clenched, too powerfully fast for the spectator to speculate what Mr. Chaplin means. If the spectator is intent on the film and not on his own thought, what can the action of the shot mean but what it does—i.e. performs.”

The Little Tramp, with his benighted cuteness, his walrus hob-wobble and hand-me-down dinner suit, is designed as image of gentleman-clown, a traditional comic hero betraying at each pretentious step for class acceptance its belabored edicts, vainglorious rites, and his own rank instincts spurring the charade. The same could be said for Harold Lloyd’s blind, ingratiating optimist, Laurel and Hardy’s self-immolating bourgeoisie, Buster Keaton’s dutiful architect of his own world. Chaplin’s weird, endearing power is probably his kid-like mix of innocence and manipulation, his ease with exploiting the exploiters around him only because at the end of the day, unlike a Victorian striver and despite all probability, he doesn’t want to be anyone but himself with the people he loves—the theme runs through Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight.

Or: movies like The Pilgrim and Shoulder Arms pitch another theory of tragedy vs. comedy from Chaplin’s close-up (man the measure of his world) vs. wide shot (world the measure of man)—that where the tragic hero, avenging phoenix from fate’s crucible, will be himself like steel against the world, the comic hero, just as much a scourge to the world’s intentions, will inevitably be himself despite his own. Thus the inexpressible tragicomedy at the end of City Lights as Chaplin seeks recognition and is faced by it: the girl’s no longer an outcast, but he suddenly is.

That great American possibility of being an outcast that made Chaplin more iconic after the Depression than before—there beautifully in the final shot of The Pilgrim, as Chaplin, straddling the US-Mexican border, walks off into the flatlands on his own—runs neatly against American sanctity, pious rites and rituals, in The Pilgrim, as Chaplin’s con-man preacher treats the pulpit as a vaudeville stage and converts the interests of a single, unpretentious kid with good American entertainment, a pantomime of David and Goliath that roughly equates the preacher with a clown—Charlie Chaplin—and clown with preacher. Later, in the American home, sanctimonious fuss is made over a birthday cake that turns out to be a frosted hat.

Shoulder Arms likewise follows the Tramp movie prototype, mimicked in Rivette’s comedies, of a ritualistic station treated as a stage play, and the clown the guy who learns his role by flubbing it. In Chaplin’s rainy World War I, men sleep in underwater trenches, limburger cheese is used for grenades, and The Little Tramp’s masquerade starts as a soldier and climaxes as a tree—actual uniforms, seemingly the only way of distinguishing one side from the other, good from bad, become meaningless. The Pilgrim parodies civilization’s underlying anarchy and Shoulder Arms anarchy’s civil face. In its total pursuit of silliness, it’s a better critique of war than any words could say. War makes too much sense.

07/16/10 1:01pm


I Was a Male War Bride plays on Sunday at BAM’s ongoing Cary Grant series.

Hawks’ dramas effect an order of work and duty around a void; Hawks’ comedies plunge into it as all the civilized terms men have chosen to erect an identity become as slippery and tangled as a pun. The dramas latch onto single locales, but both fill the screen out with upper body shot-reverse shots, meted to human proportion, as the comedies move the characters through a spread of disposable locations that seem to turn around the stable, human coordinates of the film as the leads learn to be themselves. I Was a Male War Bride, a comedy filmed as a drama, portraying nonsense—about Cary Grant, in drag, being humiliated—as a series of forthright facts, is a good enough example of Hawks’ plain-speaking materialism: his perpetual motion going nowhere, his sense of love as a workable process like herding cattle, and his humiliating divide between old society good-old-boy theory (the terms) and practice, the black hole of a liberated world: “You see, you chase after anything in skirts, anything,” says the film’s love disinterest, Ann Sheridan. “They’re all the same to you. But lots of men can tell them apart. Believe me, sometimes they find one they like better than the others. That’s called love. You probably haven’t experienced but you must have read about it somewhere.”

06/10/10 10:26am


William Wellman’s 1931 Night Nurse plays 11am matinees this weekend at IFC Center as part of their “Good Meds, Bad Meds: American Health Care on Screen” series.

William Wellman was the Depression’s Balzac, sloppy, blunt, and virtuosic in bit assemblages of scene detail played for brass refrain—curfews; broken blinds; food lines; counting train cars; boys cross-dressing into 15 cent school dances; a line of desert-island hoodlums in smoking jackets, uncrossing legs in turn as a blonde descends a staircase into a horizon line of their crotches—in service of genre story-arcs, tales of ingenues hazed into corrupt big society, and the overriding idea that one’s relationship with others is a miniature of one’s relationship with society as a whole. Where Wellman’s fairy tales theoretically tell of doe-eyes romantics (often city girls marrying country boys via the personals ad, or a drunken night) confronted with the harsh realities of capitalist exploitation, Wellman, no more a realist or expressionist than Balzac or a vaudeville act, tends to re-tip the scales by emphasizing the lead’s terrier practicality, ready to cope with the scene detail, and the society-men’s one-track sadism and (often) devilish foppishness, like drunken abstractions of basest instincts. At his best, most gleeful, Wellman traces the descents of broke, gum-chewing, altogether relatable characters into closed circles of Hell: an isolated farmhouse, a soup kitchen pension-house, a tumbledown banana bar, and in Night Nurse, an art deco penthouse, bound from daylight, with rickety drunks scattered on the tiled floor and making out to stay standing, a Fats Waller-like stomp on perpetual loop in the background, and two kids in a backroom nursery slowly being murdered.

The genre, whatever it is, is a form to send-up America and detail the professional friendship of two nurses, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, who spent the decade off and on playing hardnosed girls who had seen it all until the plot of their new picture. Hawks would emerge as the most famous proponent of the WB ethos that collaborative, physical labor is the true conduit to and application of emotional bonds, friendships and affairs—two people working through the conflicts of the plot as proof of their attachment to each other. But Hawks’ emphasis on people despite the world is very different from Wellman’s (and Walsh’s) of people against the world—or of girls, complicit in the economy, glad to wring it for what it’s worth. Whatever Wellman’s appropriation of reality for the sake of a scene, his “realism” is of people so cartoonishly clear-eyed as to make of history whatever it will offer them, usually not much: “All a wife means to an intern is someone to sit in his front office when he starts practice, and play nursemaid the rest of her life without pay… the thing to do is to land an appendicitis case—they’ve all got dough.” “Yeah?”

06/04/10 2:26pm


Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy screens Saturday evening and Monday night at MoMA, as part of their Collaborations in the Collection series.

Rossellini, like Joyce, recovers the Odyssey in the modern world as an internal ascent to true love as mirrored and counterpointed by external meanderings, glimpses, diaristic fragments of real life that have only a echoic, alliterative relationship to each other. The echo, slanted, is of an American couple (Ingmar Bergman and George Sanders) in Italy on vacation and in exile: from each other, from old flames, from classic art and mythology petrified into tourist traps. “He gets to sit all day,” a bowed museum guide says about one Olympian statue, “while I have to stand.” Bergman, muttering, pretends to be asleep when her husband comes home drunk from a party: he thinks she’s asleep, she thinks she’s avoiding him, but it’s clear from his pause in the dark, her upturned eyes the moment before, that each waits for—and insists on—the other to make a move. At the climax, the most passive moment of all, an archaeological guide puts his cigarette into a steaming hole in the ground and in the background, in reaction, smoke—like a larger cigarette cloud from a larger hole—bellies from the ground. Until the final scene, nothing happens for 80 minutes except these two characters bickering pettily, tanning, and in moments alone, Bergman taking stock of hidden currents around her as if to find her place in a world moving on with or without them.

The film works as if by excavation. As in so much modernist lit, love, the past, and the natural world are the God-like sources to revitalize a daily life of habits that the protagonists struggle to reclaim amidst a routine existence. But what looks so fundamental to the French New Wave and however much current “contemplative cinema” is Rossellini’s own Hitchcockian—Joycean approach to the idea, his loving attention to routine and a distillation of characterization from overarching “character traits” (classic) into momentary consciousness and reaction (modern). In Rossellini, characters struggle for self-expression and deliverance from flesh but can only express themselves in the terms of their surroundings; they attempt to rebuff the world but only remain passive to it—until finally, gloriously so, they give themselves up to whatever unbidden impulses of their time and place. Threaded tenuously to the world by shot-reverse-shots of the things they see and hear and their reactions to them, Rossellini’s “characters,” no more nor less than the actors on travelogues, act in reaction. Leo McCarey had experimented progressively in the 30s and 40s with developing a movie’s emotional through-line by increasingly unmasked gestures of two people communicating physically what the form and language of the situation forbid—culminating in Bells of St. Mary’s, with Bergman. Rossellini then turns those reaction shots toward the entire world.


In other words, as Rossellini moves towards the conscious camera eye of his late films, his characters become camera surrogates, perspectives on the world, and Rossellini’s favorite method of exploration, like Hitchcock’s, is to put the characters in a car and match their refractive glimpses of the outside street—almost arbitrary at first, but building to a montage of mothers and children as Bergman recalls another regret in her life—with simple shots of their watching: passive to their own consciousness, led, like the audience, on an inexorable voyage to wherever, beyond control, watching a world they can’t belong to and that can’t see them, carried forward by the montage.

Filmed and famous as a home diary, the actors close enough and sidelong to the camera as to be nearly peripheral to the scenes and songs around them, Voyage has its own paratactic craft far from classical approximations of shot-reverse-shot perspective: axial cuts, pans against character movement, and the camera slowly revolving around classical-idealist statues (repeated in Godard’s Voyage adaptation, Contempt) in mimicry of Bergman’s movements but as if in a religious rite to bring them into the living, shifting dimensions of the modern world. The camera, a basic observer, suggests its own sense of responsiveness to a world seemingly a posteriori to its composition, as though it can blow up interesting details, turn to other sights, and explore objects of some curiosity by turning around them. Where in Hitchcock this “pure cinema” of perspectival camerawork is supposed to be wedded to characters’ consciousness—the way they move and the things they notice—Rossellini’s is its own form of tourist in a foreign world, his eyes and ears, and though pushed to full autonomy in later, zooming history films, his method—of not linking camera to subject—never aligns more appropriately with his subjects, also searching for an unknown destination.

As in Homer, as in Joyce, the only home the couple has is each other. Voyage ends with a self-declared miracle in the street—some man is Saved—that causes a traffic jam, the lovers’ separation in (and anonymous submission to) a crowd the sort they’d been avoiding the whole film in their cars, and finally, their reunion in a Borzage-like race to each other’s arms and forsaking of all the rest of the world. Rossellini doesn’t film likewise; he ends his film not on a moment of finality (the kiss) but in medias res as a traffic cop directs the crowd. Bergman and Sanders finally become incidental to the movie and the frame—this deflection to the background chorus, going about its business and ignorant of the heroes’ story, builds from last shots of Renoir’s Boudu, Toni, and La Marseillaise, as crowds sing and march on beyond the confines of the story while marking the processional habits of their class and time that the main characters generally attempted to transcend. The amazing thing is this final reconciliation between Borzage/classical idealism and Renoir/modernist relativity: a classic love in modern terms. Later, in Blaise Pascal, Rossellini shows Pascal, trying to contain himself, as he invents a calculator—a step toward glimpsing the face of God—and stumbles from his room to a farm courtyard, disperses a crowd of cackling geese on the way, and heads to the barn where a foal’s been born and the farmers couldn’t care less.

These things—Pascal thinking, geese waddling, foal born—coexist easily in Rossellini’s frame. In Voyage to Italy, as in Ordet from the same year, a series of small, routine miracles—natural phenomena like births and geysers, manmade ones like museum statues—precipitate a larger one—a lover’s reunion—that’s just as materially presented, endemic to a time and place, and elliptically fractioned into jump cuts, as though to endow the actual scene with a reality of its own now well beyond Rossellini’s hold. Nathaniel Dorsky writes lovingly about the moment: the couple is placed only as one detail among others, and come, like the traffic cop, to stand only for themselves. It is less a miracle than a recognition—as in McCarey’s closed-set terms—of a love that’s been present and demonstrative all along.

Rossellini’s films are like this, historically located passion plays, built on capturing evidence of cosmic conditions by testing its characters through everyday quandaries. Trouble’s afoot from the first scene in which Sanders asks Bergman if he can drive; her concern about a mosquito that hits the windshield and his posed apathy establish the chasm between them, but also, already, if only in their glances, their need to bridge it by expressions they don’t know. But the entire film is expressive in its recognition of true love as one clear-eyed fact among others, and clear-eyed facts as suggestive of love. As in Rossellini’s greatest films, its mysteriousness seems to come from its practicality, its dealing with an unknowable world as it’s known.

05/19/10 4:00am

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Directed by John Sturges

The plot of Bad Day at Block Rock, “an individual takes on several bad guys while the townspeople do nothing,” is American primal myth subject to the tincturing of zeitgeist proselytizing and personal politics; it’s basic Western meat from Huck Finn to The Sheepman. Bad Day‘s anonymous inflection on the theme is something of noir rehash, a 50s exorcism of repressed war-time trauma, reflected in the corroded ethics of the ghost town. Here everyone’s become victims of their own victimization of a Japanese American farmer/MacGuffin—a timely incidental to the hush-hushed stuntedness of the place where no one will say a thing except for Lee Marvin, growling in another man’s bed, and Ernest Borgnine, crackling like a hyena while tailgating Spencer Tracy off the road. The rest is homily: detective Tracy intoning the honor of the dead and guilt of the living to no avail as pressure and violence mount. But in Bad Rock, a “formalist Western,” the story just provides the rules to the game.

Sturges’ game, as if moving by inventory through a cultural wasteland of flaking facades, diner stools, Rosie the Riveter plaid button-downs, trucker hats, pinball machines, slate Ford Deluxes, and a double-barrel amaranth gas pump that looks like a town monument to itself, each of these dwarfed by an infinite horizon, is twilight western. Bad Rock’s a sunlit graveyard and microcosm of American materialism run dry. The film works beautifully as architectural survey: by the end of the film every public space has been laid out, one by one, just as every townsman’s been given a crucial moment in which to define himself on the side of good (freedom) or bad (repression).

The point, given form, is that if angelic Tracy hadn’t swept in, the town (America) would continue as a series of systematized functions on infinite loop going nowhere: the one character playing the pinball machine at 3, the other drinking the shot of whiskey at 4, another standing at the hotel all day waiting for nothing to happen. These are the implications of American suppression. Sturges’ images, of the slanting light over a town and people that never move, have the fragile durability of Rockwell processed by Hopper: mythic images of people in eternal pose because they have no place to go; images so flat that it looks like the scene, set, and setting could be peeled to grain.

Bad Rock‘s playset town, particularly its garage, ostensibly gets atomized further by Godard in Made in USA, Von Trier in Dogville, and (putting the pieces back into the landscape) Wim Wenders in his early films: the utility of Western stagepieces enervated to mere icons, taking the love of the directors instead of things they’re emblems of. The film’s pure Americana world, like Hopper’s, is of people and places as firm and secure to the landscape as they are peripheral to it. The effect is largely an achievement of the Cinemascope, which Sturges’ pushes and pulls to open and close an illusory space at one—Cinemascope’s scroll-like wallpaper flatness opened up by vista-deep polysynchronous staging then flattened to bas-relief by static, rock-like blocking and unmoving compositions.

In Sturges’ widescreen, actors can appear in close-up and still be subsidiary to 90% of the screen-space, while characters tend to fill out the frame on all sides like fixed cowboy mannequins. In its two best moments, a train pulls across the screen in close-up and a shadow passes by a window. Everyone seems to have been directed like a ghost, fixed and fleeting, and more than anything else, the locked-down vision of a desert island America, people and their hobbies in nowhere places doing nothing, seems to point to early Fassbinder, in which characters stand around like an audience waiting for a show that never comes. In its hard-nail way, even its lack of compelling content, Bad Rock, like Sirk’s films from the era, seems to mark this move to a flat iconography of goods and people, a strange intersection between existentialism, materialism, and Western myth, three favorite post-war ideologies in which people are defined only by their spaces and how they appear.

May 21-27 at Film Forum

04/30/10 10:25am


Magnificent Obsession plays 11am matinees at IFC Center today, Saturday and Sunday as part of their “Good Meds, Bad Meds: American Health Care on Film” series.

Sirk’s poker-faced take on widow wish-fulfillment, a grocery store fantasia—playboy Rock Hudson falls for wife of man he killed, studies, cures her uncurable blindness in bare-chested operation—starts in death, ends in salvation, and updates a medieval mythology of efficacious grace into the apostatic 50s of luxury condos and kultchah, with uneasy overtones of capitalist will-to-power: a full-grown stereotype of moonlit joy rides, canted California beachlight, Swiss oompahpah, the world’s best optometrists in labcoats, a hidden desert valley in Arizona that exists only for a hospital that exists only as the bedspring of recovery—emotional and physical—for our cut-out protagonists. Like Sirk’s great films to follow, it doesn’t really make sense, except emotionally.

The swings from love to hate, heaven to hell, light to dark, barroom to beach to Europe, are as much a commentary on the power of inner illumination to rewrite the world as a living illusion (Sirk’s favorite theme here literalized in the plot) as a means to maintain a continuum of infinite longing and sexual desperation for the world of matted paintings just outside the windows. Sirk’s secular theology matches Bunuel’s, but takes the side of the characters’ delusions: the belief, wholly, is in an old lady’s lust for Rock Hudson to coddle her, to both break her out of suburban doldrums and then incarnate their Puritan values. Only Sirk could film the trite daydreams of bored housewives as fact—the characters act with the conviction of dogma—to celebrate and despair an America pious in its vulgarity for which Charles Atlas was the new iconography; like parts of Ulysses, the parody’s a beautiful simulacra in its own right even as it mocks the gulf between a methodically dull scenario (hospital beds and kisses) and the artist’s—and characters’—transformation of it into the terms of fantasy, art, artifice. A Brechtian take-down of America’s prevailing lunacy in its own terms; a romance between two lost souls told in plays of light and shadow worthy of Murnau; Magnificent Obsession’s wish-fulfillment’s very funny and its parody pretty moving.

04/23/10 3:13pm


Jean Renoir’s French Cancan plays this Sunday at BAM as part of their ongoing Jean Renoir series.

“Man is a creature of habits,” said Jean Renoir, “and the job of the artist is to break these habits,” adding in another interview, “vive Sartre, and vive the idea that existence comes before essence!” Its reviewers disdained French Cancan for Renoir’s move from “neorealism”—location shooting, improv acting, and a fluid, democratic camera searching out the subject of the scene—to “artificiality”—painted sets, perfunctory plot points woven in and out of dialogue like musical refrains, and a stable camera defining scenes to the contours of the screen—as though the betrayal of realism weren’t the very topic of the film. Later, Rossellini and Oliveira would take similar steps from documentary “neorealism” to demonstrative “artifice,” “reality” to “art,” as if also signaling that all along their films had been less about basking in poverty than documenting the gestures, expressions, movements of people as they enact their daily habits and sometimes break free of them: a portraiture of how people live.

Not think, but live. Renoir the “humanist” and psychological sympathist deciphering everyone’s “reasons” seems a bourgeois curtailing of Renoir the filmmaker of rapists, murderers, conmen, thieves, drunkards, braggarts, knaves, the Renoir whose foot-deep psychological insights amount to boozing commedia dell’arte innocents and sinners, brutes and civil servants, each with a neatly articulated, dangling goal—love, money, fame, sex, party, dinner, sex—intercepting the others’; goals that they will attain at all costs through the habits of their race. Renoir’s own habits, means, changed, necessarily, but if there’s a difference in point between the earlier films and later it’s that in the early films the social habits break down (if at all) in democratic anarchy of animals uncaged while in the later films these eruptions are ordered and planned; the break-down itself becomes a demonstration of habit and style. The staid camera and tableau backdrops making a stage of every space not only pose and poise the actors into preconceived routine, as critics complained, but are the imaginal extensions of characters, in classic hierarchies of directors and kings, who conscientiously recreate their world.

But any distinctions between liberty and hierarchy are questioned and dissolved in Renoir’s simple ode to motion: epochs, love affairs, aging ballerinas, and kicking thighs each giving way to the next in the order of a constant revolution. If this reads as a victory of style over substance, existence over essence, the story of French Cancan, a man with three lovers, each with three lovers (leading not to choices of right and wrong characters but infinite possibilities of liaisons), who stages a cancan in the 1880s Moulin Rouge, is, as conceived, a basic demonstration of imagination made material, substance manifest entirely as style. “Le style c’est l’homme,” is Raymond Durgnat’s suggestion in his piece on the film.

French Cancan’s structure—two types of men, sardonic Gods (the crew) who realize their lives are performed, and exploited earnest humans (the cast) who don’t, the former playing with the latter as a model army—derives from Shakespeare, Mozart, and Marx, and gets adapted in Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, in Rivette and in Desplechin (whose characters suspiciously are all Gods). Innumerable plot points detailing the shifting alliances of the characters are effectuated cursorily in near opera recitatif, stand-ins for the living experience, as scenes bounce between characters betraying each other and apologizing in single lines to keep the storyline moving as a stand-in for actual plot. Supporting characters bemoan their fate as supporting characters, stuck as laundry girls or steady boyfriends to women who gallivant with princes. “What would a picture be if it were not a sign?” said Picasso. “A tableau vivant? Ah, of course, if one were an artist! But when one is only Cezanne or wretched Van Gogh, or Goya, then one paints signs.” These perfunctory signifiers of a quotidian realism Renoir has effectively abandoned serve mostly to raise the forgotten world of the cancan stage in relief as supposed fairy tale romance—that the cancan, the characters’ El Dorado, was in history a slight, passing trend seems precisely the point. The realism’s stagy and the art’s all too real.


References to tilting at windmills run through French Cancan, but Renoir’s own style is less a nostalgic, Dickens-Desplechin “dwelling on the romantic side of familiar things” than a hammy dwelling on the familiar side of romantic things. The Moulin Rouge is effectively a family circus of old friends, the basic plot trajectory is about raising capital to meet the budget, and the emphasis undulates between group scenes of characters hanging out in the background, practicing their steps or watering plants, and intimate dialogues between characters pondering how they’ll sacrifice material realities for artistic vanities and eternal fame—while Renoir’s camera emphasizes their material present-ness (the very point of the dance they’ll supposedly sacrifice their lives to), the stroking of hair and exchanging of glances of two people simply existing in a perfectly framed space epoch, whose dreams of eternity are historical contingencies.

The final dance is built from these thematic paradoxes—a Paterian seizing of time in a purely transient mode; a movement expressed by an unmoving camera; a renewal of a historic dance only as a contemporary (but now historical) trend; a democracy of stars and audience conjoined in dance as, in dress, they follow the historical orders and hierarchies they’ll return to, and in movement, the formations of the dance itself; a release from one routine into another; a collapse of roles in renewed role-play (as in Rules of the Game)—and is built from a collapsing series of dialectical montage between shot-reverse-shots of the room, wide-angles and close-ups, diagonal and head-on perspectives. Background becomes foreground no longer in camera movement (as in earlier Renoir) but in the 180-degree cutting and in the still framing emphasizing the characters’ own moves in dynamic, stage—like openings into deep space as the dancers rush forward and back, dissolving spatial distinctions.

To build to the moment Renoir starts with establishing shots of the neat choreography below and slowly cuts into the action until the camera, no longer dictating a clear perception of the scene, is overtaken by whirls of color, in a move from classicism to the provisional frame of Impressionism’s “insistence on catching the present,” to finally an open stage of free expression as the dancers rush the camera: a pure movie. Meanwhile, Renoir cuts back and forth between groups that will conjoin: the dancers and the audience, the dancers and Danglard, the director, now superfluous to his own creation at the culmination of his career and sitting behind the stage on a throne lightly swinging his leg as he hears the music: content as he’s always been to just imagine the scene, as if it’s the conception and even rehearsals—that lived experience until now offered only in symbols and stand-ins—that have mattered more than the final show.

Effectively he’s like Arthur, having structured a democracy, now watching his private world pass him by as history. But these dialectics between what’s present and past, real and staged, cease to matter in the basic emotion of watching the thing, dance and movie, revived for audiences’ senses as a living experience, ushers bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in the background and corner of the frame, and soon Danglard joins the dance. French Cancan is a movie played musically, a series of contending refrains that expand, deepen, and finally harmonize—the final dance plays as a miniature of the entire film in the flurry of a montage that brings the characters into the unity of one time and one place, whether it’s the Moulin Rouge of the 1880s or Renoir’s studio of the 1950s.

Any profundities about art are simply that whatever its dubious worth as a lozenge for the exigencies of material life doing the dishes and the laundry—Renoir’s characters (and critics) balance the scale between life and art, but Renoir’s films past the 20s never show much of a difference—its real value is as a means of simply sounding one’s existence in a specific place and a specific moment in a vibrancy of color and movement. The last shot shows a drunkard stumbling—and bowing—far off and alone outside the Moulin Rouge’s windmill façade: no less than Danglard, a star only of his own private cabaret and, for this last moment, Renoir’s. This democratic generosity, this supposed “humanism”—the idea that everyone’s equally vain, drunk, base, and a creature of appetites to understand each other as such, to slough off the shackles of habit and exist simply as they are beyond essence or necktie—finally gets its Rosetta stone. There’s no movie I go back to as much, just for the pure pleasure of watching it.

04/16/10 4:45pm


As part of their centenary tribute to David Niven, MoMA will show two of the actor’s collaborations with Otto Preminger, including The Moon Is Blue, which screens on Sunday afternoon. Justin Stewart discusses the series here.

The Moon Is Blue is the litmus test for Preminger lovers; Jacques Rivette put it among “the most conclusive proof of his talent.” As in Rohmer, the characters banter about their characters—the “professional virgin” playing cute, two suave hands (William Holden and David Niven)—and the kinda witty, ultimately circuitous dialogue is both the film’s own self-undermining discourse, as set by Maggie McNamara’s elusive coquette, and itself counterpointed by Preminger’s studied triangulation and fluid tracking shots through the closed sets of an apartment building.

As always in Preminger, his patient style, letting the characters present themselves but fitting them to their place, seems to see them as knowing outgrowths of their space and circumstance; “an automatic trash compactor!” McNamara fawns, and the matter of whether she really thinks it or thinks she should say it—always a question in Preminger—is almost beside the point. Like a lot of Preminger, Moon is in theory a trite drawing room comedy about characters who can’t undo the characters they’ve become, but McNamara’s deflective effusiveness against Preminger’s calm, seductive watchfulness makes it, in its clear-eyed comprehension of emotional obfuscation, more biting and more understanding and more modern a study of crippling privilege than Baumbach, Apatow, Bujalski… A film maudit, essential Preminger.