Friday, August 22, 2008

When Tomorrow Comes

John M. Stahl’s 1939 When Tomorrow Comes is handicapped by an undistinguished script and by the structural problems posed by the "other woman" genre. And yet something about the concentrated quality of Stahl’s camera style lifts and unifies the project.

The film divides into three sections of approximately equal length, and only the middle section is completely successful. The opening half-hour, showing the meeting and courtship of concert pianist Charles Boyer and waitress Irene Dunne, looks great – Stahl’s slightly standoffish compositions and fluid reverse tracks have a visual authority that few Hollywood directors can match – but plays a little cute. (Interestingly, the script’s pro-union agitation - Dunne and her coworkers go on strike against a callous employer as Boyer circles her – manages to make the film seem more rather than less frivolous, thanks to the total irrelevance of the politics to the plot.). And the last section is impaired by the movie’s weirdly fictitious conception of insanity, as embodied in Boyer’s invalid yet threatening wife Barbara O’Neil, a black hole of the diegesis who not only sucks away a happy ending, but also reduces the putative leads to second-banana status.

The middle section takes Boyer and Dunne from uneasy courtship to full-blown love, as an unexpected storm first isolates them in Boyer’s Long Island house, then becomes violent enough to endanger their lives. I’ve put up a short clip from the beginning of this section (hopefully a "fair use" of the movie – God knows where the rights reside, or why it has been unavailable for so many years), showing the couple in separate rooms of the mansion as they take a breather from the eventful narrative that has thrown them together. There are two things going on here:

1. The "other woman" genre mandates a certain amount of complexity in the male figure. This complexity is difficult to manage from the point of view of characterization: the film’s pleasure mechanism requires that the man be appealing enough to inspire romantic feelings in the audience, but the genre’s plot structure makes him a bit of a cad. When Tomorrow Comes doesn’t avoid all the confusing side effects of this dramaturgical dilemma, but in this clip we see Stahl and the writers (credit goes to Dwight Taylor; the IMDb lists a host of others) open up a pocket of silence in mid-film, in which both characters confront the narrative problem (by looking at photographs of the absent wife) and hint at a psychological ambiguity that begins to make sense of the tangled subject matter. The entire sequence is shot and edited with a simplicity verging on minimalism, and when the couple come together at the end of the clip, Stahl’s axial tracking shots and the point-of-view decoupage are so precise as to evoke Resnais.

2. One of the first things you notice about Stahl is that there’s a lot of weather in his films. Though his career is heavy on melodramas, and though adverse weather is one of the prime motifs of melodrama, Stahl invariably deploys weather against melodrama: he uses it to create a steady, conspicuous signal that remains more or less constant across dramatic vicissitudes. In the scenes before this clip, a storm whips up as the couple are boating, and the wind and rain drive them to an unexpected pit stop at Boyer’s house. The storm having served the narrative purpose of forcing a sexually charged situation, we might expect the filmmakers to let it lapse – but in this clip we see Stahl beginning to create a secondary focus on the weather, turning its sounds and sights into a continuous background texture. In the impressive thirty minutes that follow this clip, the storm will begin to drive the narrative, all the while serving as a sensory drone that is deployed in counterpoint to the ups and downs of the lovers’ adventure.

Okay, here’s the clip. Apologies for its poor condition: the source material began life as a Garden City, NY television broadcast and was repeatedly dubbed into its current ghostly state before becoming a pirate DVD.

Stahl is an extraordinary director who could use a little more attention. I threw out a few ideas about his style on a_film_by in posts #23893 and #32852.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Of Time and the City: Village East, August 8 through 14, 2008

DocuWeek, at the Village East and IFC Center from Friday, August 8 through Thursday, August 14, qualifies a selection of the year’s documentaries for Academy Award consideration. Without meaning to slight the rest of this year’s roster, I can’t help but note that Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, which premiered at Cannes to great acclaim, is making a surprise, low-profile appearance at DocuWeek. It screens frequently at the Village East during the festival – check the schedule for details.