Thanksgiving Hiatus

November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hey folks. We’re going to be taking this week off from writing so we can relax for Thanksgiving and recharge our batteries. We’ll be back next Sunday with another playlist feature.


Crosstalk: THE SON (2002) Pt. 2

November 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

Stuart and Brendan here conclude the conversation begun yesterday about Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s 2002 film The Son.

Stuart: It was hard for me to watch The Son without thinking about Catholicism. My introduction to the Dardennes was the film they made immediately after The Son, L’Enfant (2005), and it struck me as unmistakably Catholic in its thematic handling of sin, penance, and, in its heartrending final shot, absolution. But there is nothing explicitly religious about any of their movies, and quite a few critics go so far as to call their films secular, or even atheistic, morality tales. I continue to hold the belief that there is something essentially Catholic about their movies—the brothers were raised Catholic, and their humanism seems filtered through that lens. The Dardennes as an authorial presence within their films tend to withhold judgment of their characters while still treating sin and the process by which it is ameliorated with the utmost gravity. And to varying degrees, each of their films ends on a note that suggests, in some form or fashion, the bestowal of grace.

The ending of The Son strikes me as a kind of miracle, and your analysis of the spatial power of the final shot goes part of the way toward explaining why. The world that the Dardennes have depicted up to this point is so violent, entropic, hardly prone to anything suggesting order or moral clarity. There is nothing within the movie’s diegesis that indicates, at least to me, that this unity is anything more than a temporary lapse. As Olivier and Francis silently fold the tarp over the beams, I feel that their momentary peace is in danger of slipping away, of falling back into the convulsive violence of the earlier confrontation. It is here that the Dardennes cut to credits, and it is exactly this that I believe to be miraculous. In ending the film here, they consecrate this interstitial and in many respects unremarkable moment as a finality—Olivier’s and Francis’s bond as adoptive father and son, manifesting itself in a minute of screen-time so fragile, so haunted by hostilities only freshly subsided, has been deemed, in this cut to black, an everlasting permanence.

All of the Dardennes’ movies begin in medias res, as if the camera has dropped in at an arbitrary juncture of a story that has long been set in motion, and they end likewise—the camera, having finally witnessed a rare moment of grace, feels free to take immediate leave. It is only when the credits to The Son finally roll that I feel like I can catch my breath, and it remains one of the most powerfully affecting movies I have ever seen. What are your thoughts on the film’s Catholicism, and do you have similar feelings about the film’s ending?

Brendan: You have the advantage on me; this was my first Dardennes film, so I can’t say whether their filmmaking seems particularly religious across a wider body of work. I think that your articulation of the ending as “miraculous”, and your description of their tendency to end with a “bestowal of grace” does seem accidental rather than incidental, that is, not an attribute that exists explicitly within the text, though it’s of a piece with the gravity of their worldview.

This is something that has to recur throughout discussions of religious cinema. We’re familiar with so-called “faith-based” films in America, movies produced by independent studios for evangelical purposes and with the goal of proselytizing. Pictures like these deal explicitly with religion by having characters discuss how God can help them through a conflict. They include scenes of prayer and invoke Scripture at dramatic junctures. Absent these references to religion, though, how can we call one film “Catholic” or “Christian” as opposed to another? Don’t we, as religious critics, automatically bring our worldviews into our analyses of a film?

There’s much more to say on that subject, but let me switch gears for a moment and say why I consider The Son to be a Christian film. I said before that it contains the outline of a parable, so aptly (if flippantly) put by Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine as “How Joseph Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Judas Iscariot”. Now, the viewer knows absolutely nothing of Olivier’s late son except that at one point, he was in a car that Francis tried to steal. But identifying a martyred son as Christ, particularly when the father is identified as a carpenter, seems a reasonable comparison. I think that your analysis of the Dardennes’ universe as one in which all action pivots on sin and penance further lends weight to these allegorical elements.

But what makes The Son not simply Christian allegory but an incisive and effective work of cinema is its very investigation into religious types and images vis-a-vis the moving image. We have all seen images of Joseph and the young Christ as carpenters, but outside of the fairly risible “I made a chair!” scene in The Passion of the Christ, the weight of this symbol has rarely been investigated fully on film. We see carpentry here as a trade which boys like Francis can learn as they recover from the crises of their past. It’s not necessary to give us information about the other apprentices in Olivier’s shop, but could we extrapolate that they, like Francis, have run afoul of the law or some moral order and are in need of honest work? Consider the pressures on Olivier as a mentor to these young men, and his curt teaching style.

Most of all, I’m moved by the final scenes in that warehouse, as the bereaved Olivier quizzes Francis on the different types of wood in the shop. Here we see carpentry as a form of grieving, a way of compartmentalizing and understanding the natural world in a universe that has cruelly and unfairly taken a child from his father. That’s the density of this picture, one that contains myriad philosophies and sciences within the same scenes. Of course, that’s how we, as Catholics, see our own religion: one that contains within it all knowledge of the universe and all its mysteries, with a name that means simply “universal”.

Can you think of other instances in which the Dardennes deal with religious symbolism? How do you think we can approach classifying films as Catholic or spiritual, or is there a different way to approach the issue?

Stuart: First let me say that if I believe there to be a miraculous element to the ending, it is less as a miracle of God than as a miracle of art, and probably has more than a little something to do with Paul Schrader’s rather vague conception of the ‘transcendental moment’ in cinema. The Son, for the vast majority of its running time, strikes me as a film frighteningly devoid of a spiritual order that only comes into being the moment it ends. The cut to black constitutes an imposition of explicit rather than implicit meaning on the text and tells us with clarity and concision that Francis has assumed the role of Olivier’s adoptive son.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, discussing the Dardennes’ first two features, has said, “The moments at which La promesse and Rosetta end appear to be precisely the moments at which the filmmakers choose to stop imagining what comes next.” There is an arbitrariness to their endings, which often feel like premature severances of violent narratives still in visceral motion. And yet in most of their films, including The Son, the Dardennes choose to end immediately after their protagonists have undergone their most grueling ordeals—in the case of L’Enfant and The Kid with a Bike, suffering for wrongdoing they have committed earlier in the film—in quiet moments that suggest some form of atonement for past sins.

I love what you have to say about carpentry. When I watched the film, I had Christ the carpenter on the mind and yet felt unsure of how to form an allegorical connection. Carpentry in the film, insofar as it is governed by measured physical actions and the aspiration to geometrical accuracy, serves as a kind of orderly and disciplined respite from an unstable moral universe. I even feel that the camera is at its most graceful and relaxed as it observes Olivier and his apprentices (whom I assumed to be wayward youths, similarly assigned to the trade center as a part of some social justice initiative) at work, as if this workshop is a world apart. I’m at a loss for other images or scenarios from their filmography that are likewise religiously, or even figuratively, charged, though their consistently reverent treatment of reformed youths, pregnant mothers, and the act of forgiveness all carry, to me, a specifically Christian import.

As to what makes a movie Catholic or Christian, I have always used an auteurist rubric, by which I mean the identification of some kind of religious influence on the filmmaker that consistently manifests itself in his or her work. With the Dardennes, I suspected something Catholic about the moral worldview of L’Enfant when I first saw it, but was hesitant to say so with any certainty until watching more of their films and reading up on their biographies. The reasoning usually follows, deductively, that such-and-such is a Catholic movie because it was directed by an evidently Catholic filmmaker. I wonder, though, if there is a less doctrinaire method of identifying Catholicism, or any religious influence, in cinema. What alternatives, if any, have you considered?

Brendan: Developing a coherent theory for evaluating the religious content of a film might be beyond the boundaries of this piece, but I think we can see the kernels of a systematic approach in your initial, auteurist gestures. Such an interrogation could follow the many accepted theories of film analysis. Might we, for example, find something of the hierarchy of the Church represented in the integrated production system of the major studio pictures in the 1920s through the ‘40s? We can also take an historical angle, looking at films through the major spiritual and religious movements of the day. I think Kent Jones argued rather persuasively for such an approach in his review of The Master for Film Comment last year.

But I think it’s clear that any such theory has to move beyond extratextual factors like the faith of its creators, because spiritual cinema doesn’t do us much good if it simply reinforces what we know – which is why the current strain of Christian, proselytizing cinema is disdained not just among the press but among cinephiles in general. The film I consider to be the most important representation of spirituality and religion onscreen, Au hasard Balthazar, is engaged intellectually to an almost blasphemous level with the precepts of Catholicism. Through confrontational editing and a conflicted narrative, Bresson shows us what cinema can actually do with religion, which goes far beyond merely carrying over symbolism from literature and other visual arts.

Plus, then we wouldn’t get to claim for our own films like Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which presents a vision of Britain both tailored to the specific life story of its protagonist and cosmic in its implications that it seems to me essentially Catholic. And there are so many angles to explore even with that one film: the vision of the afterlife the filmmakers would later present in A Matter of Life and Death, Britain’s contentious history with the Church, and Blimp’s depiction of Deborah Kerr’s character as a type of Eternal Feminine. We have to do more than indulge these limited impulses, though, and seriously investigate how our favored medium carries over something intangible from the physical reality it photographs or simulates. It’s work that needs doing.

Crosstalk: THE SON (2002)

November 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

In Crosstalk, Stuart and Brendan tackle a particular subject in a long-form conversation over the course of two days. For our first outing, we discuss Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s 2002 film The Son, its experimental and Catholic elements and the concept of religious cinema.

Brendan: I felt sick the first time I watched The Son. To be honest, I didn’t watch it all the way through, and ended up turning it off after only about twenty minutes. No matter your familiarity with French cinema, arthouse storytelling, or independent filmmaking, the approach that directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne take in this picture can seriously throw viewers for a loop. We begin almost breathing down the neck of the main character, Olivier, separated seemingly by inches from his cheek as he instructs his carpentry apprentices. This claustrophobic headspace is where we spend most of the film, the immediacy of the handheld image taken to an extreme.

The narrative of The Son is, ostensibly, a simple one. The direction of the Dardennes allows scenes to play out for maximum suspense, turning a concise morality play into a vivid thriller. Olivier seems unsettled by the arrival of a young teenager wanting to learn a trade in his shop, and develops an obsession with the boy that seems to harden his attitude toward the other apprentices. About halfway through, we learn that the boy killed Olivier’s own son three years earlier.

The context in which the Dardennes deliver this information is crucial: Olivier confesses his new apprentice’s identity to his estranged wife, who reacts with all the violent bewilderment viewers feel as their perceptions of the characters’ relationships radically shift in the course of a single scene. The scene also begins to define what I consider the experimental tone of The Son, which, while narrating a story with a clear three-act structure, central conflict, and resolution, gradually and confrontationally picks apart our notions of character identification.

Despite our spatial closeness to Olivier for the entire picture, the information delivered in this second-act scene still comes as a shock. Moreover, his wife’s question of his motivation meets with a blank stare, and the viewer here realizes that they, too, have little insight into what Olivier intends to do or why he has taken on the boy. Did this scene have a similar impact on you, Stuart? What do you think of the idea of The Son as essentially avant-garde?

Stuart: Yes, that scene is one that shocks us into an awareness of the rift between the physical actions we have been observing so closely for the past half-hour and the narrative context in which they have transpired. The reveal at once clarifies and obscures the situation: Olivier’s relationship to the boy is explained but now his motives seem even less clear, and it is from this moment that the suspense and dramatic irony that are central to its thriller structure take hold.

My experience of watching the film was a full immersion in a story that left me no comfortable intervals of time or space in which to contemplate what I was watching. It is a film that complicates the expectations we bring to it as a morality play or social-realist parable through its formal qualities. In hindsight, the structure of the film and the arc of its drama are geometrically precise (a man with vengeful intentions takes on the murderer of his child as an apprentice and, at the last minute, comes to forgive him), but the experience of watching the film, the full-throttle immediacy with which the Dardennes plunge the viewer into a world in constant motion, is anything but. They fashion a universe of what I will call compassionate materialism, a hyper-physical world in which the camera’s dogged proximity to its subject becomes an implicit mode of sympathy, and it is all the viewer has to cling to.

The Dardennes’ handheld camera is something unique in cinema. It is itself tense, almost unsure of the next move it should make, darting in pursuit of already half-completed actions and often struggling to keep up. It wants nothing more than to follow Olivier, to look at what he looks at (there are many over-the-shoulder shots in which the camera belatedly racks focus, straining to adopt his visual perspective). It is an almost human presence in the way it imperfectly stalks its subject, and in its persistence it is totally impartial, non-judgmental. We are privy to the fullest physical expression of Olivier’s stress, his anger, his breathless anxiety, without ever quite knowing—for most of the film’s runtime—from where they originate or what exactly we should be feeling about them. All we know is that the camera has singled out this man and thus we are inextricably attached to his predicament—whatever it may be.

The strict physicality of this world, the closed off feelings of its characters, the spasmodic kineticism which characterizes it as something fundamentally unstable—all of these features seem at odds with the narrative intentions of a classically constructed film set on linear course to an edifying conclusion. And yet the film is, miraculously, exactly that, at least in my opinion. Its experimental qualities work in favor of its more conventional moral agenda.

Is there anything else that struck you about The Son’s stylistic aspects? What do you think of its effectiveness as a work of fundamentally moral, or even spiritual, cinema?

Brendan: Formally, I’m struck by the spatial progression that’s at play in this film. The Son actually does get easier to watch as it goes on (if it’s at all possible to ignore, for the sake of argument, the suspense factor), not simply because we become accustomed to its claustrophobia but because Olivier’s world actually opens itself up as we’re clued in to his dilemma and to the people around him. The shots become more open, the camera steps back, and we’re able to watch scenes play out with a bit more distance. There’s a simple narrative motivation for that: now that we know something of the histories of Olivier’s wife and of the boy, Francis, their interactions with Olivier become essential to the story’s advancement and therefore to the camera setups.

In particular, the final scenes, which take place in a vast warehouse of lumber to which Olivier drives Francis (perhaps to murder him, we’re wondering all the while), invoke the broadening of space within the frame as an echo of the fluctuating and solidifying relationship between the two main characters. Again, there’s a very simple explanation for these longer shots: the lumber they handle, each character on one end as Olivier hands a beam down to Francis from atop the pile, is so long that in order to shoot both characters at once the camera must move back.

This dynamic lets the climax echo, quite clearly, an earlier scene that takes place before we’ve learned the truth of Francis’ identity. Francis feels the pressure in this late scene to take on the weight of the beam, which could easily crush him. In its earlier counterpart, Olivier instructs Francis to carry a heavy load on his back up the ladder, urging him up with shouted commands that communicate the potential danger of the situation but also Olivier’s unsentimental mentoring approach; whether this approach is motivated by personal feelings about Francis is impossible to determine even in hindsight. The Dardennes shoot the scene very tightly, moving from Olivier’s face to the back of Francis’ neck as he struggles and finally joining the two as Olivier senses the imminent fall and rushes to alleviate some of the load, the two eventually crashing down together.

But the ultimate instance of the Dardennes’ compositional geometry as a representation of Olivier’s arc of anger, sympathy, and forgiveness comes in the very last shot, a wordless moment between the two characters after their violent climactic confrontation. Loading a beam into the truck, Olivier sees Francis approach and stops. After a few seconds, Francis takes the end of the beam and helps him load it, the camera moving to keep the shot matched to the length of the beam and, therefore, keeping the two on the respective extreme edges of the frame. Yet it’s closeness that in The Son has for so long represented confusion and anxiety, and the beam that keeps Olivier and Francis isolated on separate poles actually manifests for us the film’s most recognizable moment of feeling and of spiritual power.

There’s much more to say about the idea of The Son as a parable, which it contains the broad outlines of but delves deeper than many “spiritual” films I can think of. I have my own thoughts on this, but I’m interested in hearing yours first. Is it enough to call it a spiritual film, or can we argue convincingly that the Dardennes’ allegory is specifically Christian, or even Catholic?

Check back tomorrow for the second half of the conversation.

Stuart’s Log: ANGEL FACE (1952)

November 21, 2013 § 1 Comment

When we think of the great directors who wielded a mobile camera, we often call to mind Max Ophüls’ elegant, elaborate tracking shots, Jean Renoir’s all-seeing utopian eye, or Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical dollies and cranes.

Otto Preminger was a different animal entirely, a filmmaker whose camera would often affix itself to one place and pan alongside his actors, eyeing them from a placid remove. His law background is often credited as fueling this proclivity for disinterested observation, devoid of sentiment or sensation, which has the effect of placing his characters on trial. In his noirs, his more elaborate camera movements allow him to fully scrutinize his doom-ridden protagonists, to keep them under unbroken observation as they make the seemingly insignificant decisions that prove to be their downfall.

Angel Face (1952) stars Robert Mitchum as an ambulance driver named Frank Jessup, who has little money to his name but is hoping to one day save enough to open a garage. On dispatch to the Tremayne family estate, where the wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne is being treated for asphyxiation after an ‘accident,’ he happens upon the spoiled Diane (Jean Simmons, icy and enigmatic), who has a fixation on her burnt-out novelist father and a seething hatred for her stepmother (Angel Face, in many ways, lays the groundwork for Bonjour Tristesse [1958]). Almost immediately she lures him in, convincing him to leave his girlfriend and take on a job as the family chauffeur, and the two soon become locked into a murder plot against Catherine.

The stuff of typical noir, perhaps, but Preminger goes to great lengths to complicate the material. Frank is no mere hapless victim of sexual temptation, but a street-smart type who plays his cards carefully, leaving Diane to outmaneuver his defenses through a finely calibrated process of seduction that is largely rhetorical. She ensnares him by methodically laying out her case and appraising the pros and cons of Frank’s available choices;  it is only when she finds her logician’s authority slipping that she overturns the love card (Frank, flustered, “Well, I suppose it’s a kind of love. But with a girl like you, how can a man be sure?”).

What’s more, the murder occurs only halfway through the film and, in an unforeseen turn of events, takes Mr. Tremayne along with his wife. The fallout is even more intricate than the buildup, the moral consequences of the act every bit as important to Preminger as the twisted psychopathological motives behind it. The couple stands trial in a superb courtroom sequence that anticipates Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and when the acquitted Diane, who grows progressively more tormented, later seeks to confess to her crime there is no longer an available outlet—the moral turbulence of Preminger’s characters can never be accounted for in a legal verdict.

Angel Face ends on a grisly note that, while inevitable, is far from cheap in its fatalism. Otto Preminger is no grim determinist, but, rather, a shrewd rationalist who treats his characters’ tragic demise as the only logical outcome of his fastidious moral procedural. Coldly realistic and practically psychological, Preminger’s chilling noirs suggest that no one is a victim of circumstance—fate is simply a function of imperfectly exercised judgment. – Stuart


November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Witness the range of a cinematic polyglot in As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, a compendium of four restored short films directed by the actor and filmmaker Pierre Etaix. Etaix’s films, lost for so many years to a tangled distribution arrangement, resurfaced in 2010 with several features and shorts now available through the Criterion Collection. As Long… is the odd duck, running a little more than an hour and covering several different styles and targets in its humor.

The very first, “Insomnies”, signals that this filmmaker possesses rather different visual gifts than his most obvious comedic influences, Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton (whom Etaix, perpetually beleaguered and resigned to the hostility of the modern world, resembles more than he does Tati). Its very concept sets up Etaix to flex his muscles as a director, designed to invoke laughs more through juxtapositions of editing than through physical comedy. Etaix’s character, unable to rest his eyes, switches the light on in bed and reads a vampire novel, which gives him the heebie-jeebies but eventually allows him to nod off once the villain meets his end. Instead of simply having the Etaix character muck about in a horror world, though, he uses this opportunity to depict a vividly dreamlike fantasy with some truly memorable shots.

Etaix never made anything approaching a picture like those of F.W. Murnau or Carl Dreyer, whose famous vampire films receive explicit reference here, but he does produce images to match, like the foreboding emergence of the warlock’s coffin from a field of deep black in a crane shot that evokes the dreamer’s weightlessness.

One could extrapolate only from “Insomnies” and the sketch which follows it, “Le cinematographe”, that the comedian was a voracious cinephile. “Le cinematographe” boats an acrid depiction of the movie theater as a frustrating intersection of the failures of modern culture, a place in which filmgoers are corralled so they can nap, embrace, buy snacks, move about, wave flashlights, and do just about anything but enjoy a movie. The well-lit cinema in which Etaix finds himself contains numerous seats from which it seems impossible to even comprehend the screen, blocked by support beams, railings, or seated too close to view the image except at a distorting angle.

Via another of Etaix’s moments of pure cinema, though, he’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from the world of commercials that intercut the Western shorts he’s there to see. The film makes its jump from the physical, near-silent scenario of Etaix trying to find a good seat in the theater to the surrealist parody of advertising by an ellipsis of editing, yet another instance of the director showing his uncommon dexterity between not merely genres but accepted forms and movements of filmmaking.

Eraix is, however, not one to pass up a good bit of pantomime when the opportunity presents itself, and so the land of commercialism becomes yet another scenario for his character to embarrass himself and try to smooth over the error. Here he accomplishes the bit, again, through editing: by synchronizing the sounds of breaking glass to create the pair of “invisible glasses” presented to him by the man of the future, which Etaix promptly sits on.

The very next short, which shares its name with the collection’s title, demonstrates that the filmmaker isn’t just concerned with his work as star vehicles for himself. His depiction of a toxic Paris in which medications are swapped and routine construction work constitutes a total disruption of the modern world (pneumatic drills on the concrete outside cause Etaix’s delicately arranged home to collapse on itself and loosens the hands on an enormous clocktower) has a freer structure to it than his other shorts, which clearly follow one character and one line of motivation. Here the film branches out to pursue the troubles of numerous tertiary characters, in a sort of acid jazz take on the broad canvas and deep focus of Tati’s Playtime.

Having showed his range considerably, the closing chapter of the anthology quiets down for a simple sketch that shows Etaix’s bumbling modern man attempting to get back to his roots for a day of hunting in the countryside. The gags mostly revolve around a barbed-wire fence which Etaix, a couple on a picnic, and an old farmer attempt alternately to dismantle, slip through, and reconstruct, to the mutual frustration of all. Here the Etaix character disappears for long stretches to focus on the other characters, in a nearly silent exploration of their inability to simply sit and relax in nature. I find the final shot rather telling, with the characters breaking the fourth wall to line up on a wooden bridge over a stream and take a bow, as the curtains from the opening descend before them to signal the end of the picture. It’s yet another of the great comedian’s external devices, placed for maximum effect: the intrusion of artifice on the natural world, and as the film ends, something seems to have been lost for good. – Brendan

Playlist: 3 Beach Vacation Movies

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY (Jacques Tati, 1953)

Jean-Luc Godard once pinpointed the emergence of French neo-realism in the early films of Jacques Tati, whose Mr. Hulot’s Holiday he claimed “invited us to savor in secret the bitterness and the pleasures of life.” When Godard refers to Tati as a neo-realist, he speaks not of any social or political agenda on Tati’s part, but of his willingness to capture the unremarkable goings on of everyday life from an endlessly inquisitive vantage point that sees no need to rush forward in any one direction. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is about a group of ordinary strangers on a weeklong beach vacation, and instead of imposing something so cumbersome as plot on this paper-thin premise, Tati allows it to get swept up in the capricious breeze of his own boundless curiosity. Often pegged with the responsibility to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, the film is more like a relaxation pill. To watch it is to enlarge the aperture of one’s perception, as the mundane idiosyncrasies of the resort and the incidental behaviors of its guests take on a melodic grace just by virtue of Tati’s probing camera and all-encompassing montage. If vacations are a matter of slowing the pace of one’s life and soaking up the sights and sounds of one’s surroundings, then there is no better cinematic simulation than Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

Available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.

2. PAULINE AT THE BEACH (Eric Rohmer, 1983)

Many of the films of Eric Rohmer are, among many other wonderful things, philosophical extrapolations of the Catholic maxim that to sin in the heart is to sin in the flesh, usually in the guise of airy romantic comedies and talkative character studies. His Six Moral Tales are about the ardent undercurrents that run beneath everyday, seemingly inconsequential flings and infatuations, starring male characters torn between their life-long partners and the alluring alternatives that present themselves daily. The men never quite consummate their would-be affairs, but the mere intent or desire to do so is enough for the guilt to seep in as they hash out their dilemmas through running voice-over narration. Two of the films in this series, The Collector (1967) and Claire’s Knee (1970), take place on holiday, the implication being that it is on leave from life’s usual responsibilities that temptation is most likely to cast its spell. What happens in one’s beachside villa or rustic lake house is wont to stay there. Pauline at the Beach, part of his excellent Comedies and Proverbs series, is a variation on the same idea, this time multiplying the moral entanglement by at least six characters all equally afflicted by fatuous romantic attractions. The result is a breezy sex farce that nonetheless takes its moral underpinnings seriously. Capturing superbly the languid pace and lilting rhythms of beach life, it also reminds us, as do all of Rohmer’s films, that morality is the one responsibility from which there is no respite.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant and on DVD from MGM.

3. WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)

South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is often billed as a spiritual successor to Eric Rohmer, who likewise makes talkative, deeply analytical movies about the mechanics of sexual relationships. There are key differences, of course. Rohmer’s characters are introspective and self-aware; Hong’s are vain and foolish, usually writers and filmmakers who have a knack for depicting life but no sense in living it. Where Rohmer’s films are methodically philosophical and prone to austerity, Hong’s are colorful, funny, and structurally neat—he often bisects his narratives into mirroring diptychs and sprinkles little piano or xylophone melodies throughout for palate-cleansing effect. Woman on the Beach is Hong at his finest, and it shares with Pauline at the Beach the observation that vacations often heighten interpersonal stress instead of relieving it. In the first half of the film, a man, his girlfriend, and his filmmaker friend all go away to a resort town for a few days, only for a love triangle to develop as the director and the girl grow sexually attracted to one another. After this story exhausts itself, Hong provocatively re-inscribes the triangular shape onto a second half that sees the director return to the resort a few days later and attempt to seduce two women who remind him of his earlier fling. There is no such a thing as a frivolous sexual encounter in Hong’s cinema, every one-night stand a window into his characters’ unhealthy romantic obsessions and self-pitying neuroses. In Woman on the Beach, Hong balances a microscopic examination of his characters’ inner pain with a lovely panoramic view of the overcast beach, its subdued beauty a recurrent counterpoint to the foregrounded drama.

Available on DVD from New Yorker. – Stuart

From Caldwell to Ford: The Curious Case of TOBACCO ROAD (1941)

November 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Erskine Caldwell’s controversial 1932 novel about poverty-stricken sharecroppers in rural Georgia is the kind of lurid, febrile Southern fiction that one might imagine being adapted by the Elia Kazan who filmed Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll (1956) or the Anthony Mann who filmed Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre (1958). These are movies that treat their impoverished Southern characters with just the right mixture of lunatic hysteria and abject pity, milking the moral, spiritual, and sexual baseness of poor rural life for all of its crazed tragi-comic potential.

The John Ford of 1941 seems like a good fit for the material on the surface. The 1930s had proven Ford’s interest in the mythological South in such films as Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and in 1940 he had attended to the plight of Midwestern farmers incontrovertibly damaged by the Great Depression in his much-lauded adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And surely Ford, more than any filmmaker, was qualified to capture the inborn love of the earth and the headstrong insistence on continuing a family tradition that mark Jeeter Lester, Tobacco Road’s weathered, used-up patriarch protagonist.

But Caldwell, contrary to Steinbeck and certainly contrary to Ford, was no romantic purveyor of the noble poor, and the ‘heroes’ of his novel are nothing of the sort. Rather, they are degenerate, delusional creatures ruled by their most primitive instincts, callous toward the evil they inflict on one another and completely oblivious to the fact that they are perpetuating their own sad misfortune through the stupidity of their actions. Caldwell reportedly intended his novel to be a starkly serious account of the harsh realities of poverty in the rural South, though the failings he piles atop his halfwit characters—everything from physical deformities to unchecked animalistic lust—come to feel excessive, and many readers frequently mistake the novel for a derisive black comedy. Likely, Caldwell’s total detachment from his characters was a function of his realist agenda, but in denying them the most basic sympathy, he wrote a story that comes across as grotesquely surreal, as if the Lester family exists in a vacuum of amorality—anything goes, nobody cares, and the reader is left agape. Intentional or not, the novel is funny, albeit appallingly so.

Tobacco Road, then, is not a novel tailored to John Ford’s warm and affectionate sensibilities, and to say that his 1941 adaptation, scripted by Nunally Johnson for 20th Century Fox, is a sanitized version of the story would be a rank understatement. Not only is every lecherous detail in the original papered over and the characters transformed into lovable hillbilly stereotypes, but the gravity of the novel’s basic dilemma—that Jeeter and his family will starve to death if they can’t figure out a way to reap the benefits of their now barren farmland—is severely diminished. Ford spins from the original story a kind of whimsical fable about kooky old farm-folk who, through enough prayer and stubborn persistence, manage to find poverty’s great escape clause before they are banished to the county poor farm. It is worth noting here that a highly successful Broadway play bridged the gap between novel and film, and while online synopses read as a tamer version of the novel, they still retain plenty of the more vile aspects that the Ford interpretation jettisons entirely.

The novel opens by introducing us to Lov Bensey, who stops by the Lester house on his way home after scoring a sack of turnips several miles down the road. Standing at a cautious distance from the porch, Lov complains to his father-in-law Jeeter that Pearl—Jeeter’s 12-year-old daughter and youngest offspring, to whom Lov is married—refuses to sleep with him. Jeeter, who is out of money, food, and credit on which to purchase seed cotton and fertilizer, tries to negotiate a deal whereby Lov will give him his turnips in exchange for his help in hog-tying Pearl to the bed—a deal that Lov obstinately refuses. Ellie May, the only one of Jeeter’s daughters who has yet to marry because of an unseemly harelip, proceeds to seduce the sex-starved Lov—which Jeeter permits as an opportunity to lunge for the turnips while he is distracted. Jeeter’s pellagra-afflicted wife Ada and his elderly, nameless, and routinely abused mother then emerge with sticks, which they use to violently jab Lov into submission. The Lesters have won the day—and the turnips—and Love is left empty-handed on his return home. It’s a chilling scene that sets the savage tone for the rest of the novel, which only compounds the sexual transgressions, physical ailments, and inter-familial brutalities.

In the film, Charlie Grapewin plays Jeeter as a cackling old coot, and his designs on his son-in-law’s turnips are played for easy cartoon laughs. Ward Bond plays Lov as dopey and easily flustered, and Gene Tierney is beautiful harelip-less Ellie May, here undesirable only because she is deemed too old to marry. The scene plays out not as a bleak illustration of the lengths these people will go for a bite to eat or a shred of sexual contact, but as a slapstick introduction to the family’s endearingly backwards peckerwood ways. Ford takes what Caldwell depicts as defects and turns them into foibles.

The question inevitably becomes whether Ford’s appropriation of Caldwell’s material is, as we say, Fordian. Is his whitewash of Caldwell’s unflinching catalogue of barbarities an improvement on the material, a gateway into the scenic richness, visual poetry, and emotional complexity that is typical of Ford’s greatest work?

Well, no. Ford and Johnson alter the story’s tone but fail to sufficiently alter the plot so that it meshes with their more humanistic reworking. In the novel, the characters’ absence of depth is at the very heart of Caldwell’s diatribe against Depression-era poverty and the morally debased human beings it produces. Ford and Johnson, however, employ simplistic characterizations to coddling, affectionate ends, and the result is a patronizing storybook portrait of idiot innocents. Narrative threads that spool to tragic completion in the novel have no satisfying comedic counterpart in the film. In Caldwell’s story, the marriage of Jeeter’s empty-headed son Dude to a widowed female preacher named Bessie occasions fierce religious satire (which in Ford, of course, becomes religious sincerity), prickly social commentary (while driving, the two accidentally kill the black driver of a parked wagon and speed on indifferently), and countless testaments to the characters’ self-destructive stupidity (which includes, climactically, the pathetic disassembly of the remaining dregs of the Lester clan over a petty “I wanna ride in the automobile” dispute). For Ford, Dude (William Tracy) and Bessie (Marjorie Rambeau) are just comic relief, and their automobile subplot occasions little more than opportunities for Jeeter to perk up optimistically (he can use the car to wheel his lumber into Augusta and try to make some money) and then slink back down into melancholic despair (nobody’s buying).

Indeed, Ford’s Tobacco Road is little more than a series of alternations between broad comedy and wistful reflection. By day, Jeeter is a bundle of harebrained energy scheming for the money he needs to keep his property from being repossessed by the bank; by night, he’s a lonely old failure who muses forlornly about the land he loves (these latter scenes are almost invariably set to an organ rendition of ‘Shall We Gather at the River,’ an unmistakably Fordian touch that nonetheless fails to rings true). The cycle repeats itself multiple times, but it doesn’t actually intensify until the third act, when Jeeter finally comes to terms with moving to the poor farm.

While the novel ends in Jeeter’s accidental self-immolation—every year, the farmers set fire to their land as an inherited ritual that serves no actual purpose—and finds just the right note of arbitrary, self-inflicted tragedy, the film ends with a deus ex machina in the form of Dana Andrews’ benevolent Captain Tim (a character who does not exist in the novel and is imported from the play). The son of the landowner who originally gave Jeeter permission to live on the property, Tim intercepts Jeeter en route to the poor farm and explains that he has paid the bank out of his own pocket so that Jeeter and his family can stay on for another six months and hopefully succeed in getting a cotton crop going.

Though the movie, for the most part, strikes me as only nominally Fordian—the gorgeous low-angled shots of sun-bathed hills and pastures arched by overhanging foliage are filmed in the spirit of his best films of the 1940s but devoid of the usual lyrical heft—I believe he alights on something truly personal in the film’s ambivalent final shot. Soon after Jeeter has gained his Capraesque salvation from Captain Tim and appears more energized than ever to finally put his soil to good use, he finds himself slumped down on the front steps of his porch, mumbling a few words about putting it off till next week and then drifting off to sleep. The suggestion is that Jeeter may truly be burnt out, no matter how much help from above he receives. It’s the same sort of double-edged conclusion—a formal triumph beset by private sadness and defeat—that Ford would return to in his masterpiece The Sun Shines Bright (1953), another bittersweet film about an aging Southern patriarch.

Tobacco Road is ultimately something akin to The Grapes of Wrath or the film he made immediately after, the immeasurably beautiful How Green Was My Valley (1941). All are films marked by a regional poeticism and identification with the working poor. But Tobacco Road is the odd man out here, a film that never quite finds the pivot point between serene sentimentality and crude provincial humor. In explaining that the novel had been cleaned up for his screen adaptation, Ford told an interviewer, “We have no dirt in the picture. We’ve eliminated the horrible details and what we’ve got left is a nice dramatic story.” In light of Caldwell’s original novel and the other movies Ford was making at the time, it becomes resoundingly clear that the dirt is precisely what’s missing. The Grapes of Wrath is a ‘nice dramatic story.’ Tobacco Road is a disposable folktale. – Stuart

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