Monday, April 26, 2010

Should the Tradition of Quality Be Rehabilitated?

It's been years since American film buffs backlashed against Andrew Sarris's quarantine of a number of celebrated English-language filmmakers in the"Less Than Meets the Eye" category in his book The American Cinema. Now I sense a growing rebellion in the blogosphere against the Cahiers critics' earlier but similar dismissal of the French "Tradition of Quality." That Sarris and Truffaut both publicly retracted many of their excommunications in later years (as alluded to in my last blog entry) gives ammunition to the rehabilitation movement.

(For those playing without a scorecard: the phrase "Tradition of Quality" originally referred to the post-World War II "psychological realism" associated with the screenwriters Aurenche & Bost and directors like Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, René Clément, Yves Allégret, and Marcel Pagliero. Popularly, it is often used today to refer to all prestige French filmmaking that the Cahiers critics did not uphold, including prewar filmmakers like Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, and Jacques Feyder who had little in common with the Aurenche & Bost crowd.)

I am basically an antirehabilitationist, and would even like to roll back the rehabilitation of the "Less Than Meets the Eye" directors. But I want to step carefully around the issue, to avoid slipping into conformism or reaction. In fact, I am required to step carefully, because I have a few revisionist causes of my own. Even I would like to reclaim two directors from "Less Than Meets the Eye": Lewis Milestone (who I don't think ever fit there) and Elia Kazan (who had a "Less Than Meets the Eye" half of his personality, definitely). On the French side, I'd defend Jean Grémillon and Henri-Georges Clouzot, at least, among the filmmakers who were not in favor at Cahiers.

So I really have only one small point to make about canon revision, which is that revision means taking a side, not correcting an injustice. Auteurism is, more than anything, a historically established set of preferences. The Cahiers critics, and Sarris after them, set out to trash an existing canon and raise another in its place. The various auteurist movements have had good luck imposing their old canons on the cinephile culture at large, but that's all they imposed. They certainly were unable to promulgate the philosophical and aesthetic and political assumptions that underlay those canons - if for no other reason than that those assumptions were quickly lost or customized as auteurism went large. So auteurism has made no substantial change in the movie-watching world, except that most filmgoers now take Sirk and Fuller seriously instead of dismissing them. There is no reason to believe that undiscovered Sirks and Fullers, past or present, would fare as well, unless they landed in a category that we've already learned how to deal with.

Auteurist choices were controversial: most people didn't agree with them then, and everyone shouldn't be expected to agree with them now. In his 1968 essay "Toward a Theory of Film History," Sarris observed the unbridgeable gap that had opened up in the 50s and 60s between different camps of film lovers: "Again, these propositions cannot be seriously debated. One kind of critic refuses to cope with a world in which a movie called Baby Face Nelson could possibly be superior to The Bridge on the River Kwai. The other kind of critic refuses to believe that a movie called Baby Face Nelson could possibly be less interesting than The Bridge on the River Kwai." The mere fact that Baby Face Nelson is now an easier sell cannot have eliminated all those old differences in what filmgoers choose to value in films.

Of course it's a good thing for every filmmaker to be reevaluated. But when I decide that Milestone or Clouzot is a good director, I shouldn't necessarily assume that the old-time auteurist canon makers got it wrong. I should at least assess the possibility that I have aesthetic preferences that are different than those of the canon makers. And, if I decide that lots of filmmakers in "Less Than Meets the Eye" and the Tradition of Quality are good, then I should really assess that possibility.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Auteurist backsliding

Those of us who wear our auteurism on our sleeves are occasionally informed, sometimes in a unkind tone, that many of the folk who formulated auteurism renounced their folly as they became older and wiser. This is not an argument that auteurists have to deal with - it's not an argument at all - but there's some truth to the charge, and I do occasionally wonder whether the auteurist stance is intrinsically unstable.

Here's a thought on the subject. There are as many variations on the auteurist aesthetic as there are auteurists, but they all cluster around the idea that the value of movies derives largely from the quality of their direction. Of course, one can engage in director analysis without any valuation; but auteurism as a movement has always been an array of likes and dislikes on the directorial level.

As such, the auteurist stance implies a critique of a prevailing industrial system of filmmaking. If the industrial system were functioning well for auteurists, if it were an effective generator of the value that we look for in movies, then the director's importance would be greatly minimized. A strong auteurist position is necessarily based on the conviction that the system, though it has money to buy craft and talent and the freedom to deploy them to best effect, is highly likely to produce a mediocre product unless a good director intervenes.

So, in theory, auteurism is at odds with a general, all-purpose love of movies. The auteurist, mild-mannered though he or she may be, walks around with a reserve of negative energy directed at the system. Without this negative energy, the auteurist will be absorbed back into the fascination of the silver screen, which inhibits revolution if we receive enough pleasure from it.

And therein lies a procedural problem. Because all areas of film studies draft their soldiers from among the ranks of congenitally compulsive filmgoers. People who are turned off by routine cinema product usually take up a different profession. Furthermore, auteurism has traditionally placed a special emphasis on mass consumption, on sifting through piles of neglected films of the past in search of glimmers of personal directorial expression. Where does the auteurist find the drive to undertake this sort of cultural research project if he or she doesn't get a contact high off of the dream factory?

In practice, the auteurist often has a split personality. Part of that personality simply loves watching moving images in a dark room, gets low-level indiscriminate pleasure from industrial film forms; another part judges more harshly and constructs aesthetic criteria that exclude some of the pleasure that he or she is capable of receiving.

A split personality can, with proper care and maintenance, remain in working order for a lifetime; but it's also not uncommon for the auteurist to wake up one middle-aged morning, overcome with guilt that he or she has been writing horrible things for years about films that he or she secretly loves.

But that doesn't mean that those films are actually good...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Assorted Screenings in NYC: April 2010

Just a few quick recommendations for end-of-the-month action on the NYC film circuit:
  • South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-ok made her debut in 2002 with Jiltuneun naui him (Jealousy is My Middle Name), a droll, intelligent movie with fascinating characterizations, which struck me at the time as the best Korean film not made by Hong Sang-soo. Paju, Park's second feature, premiered earlier this year at Rotterdam, and advance word has been good. It will screen four times at the Tribeca Film Festival: Thursday, April 23 at 6:30 pm; Saturday, April 25 at 1:30 pm; Sunday, April 26 at 6:45 pm; and Thursday, April 30 at 1 pm. The first three screenings are at the Village East; the last is at the Clearview Chelsea.
  • My very favorite Swedish films were made, not by Bergman, Stiller or Sjöström (though those guys did some pretty fair work too), but by Alf Sjöberg, a once-celebrated director whose reputation waned after his disciple Bergman ascended to art-film superstardom. One of Sjöberg's greatest works, 1949's Bara en mor (Only a Mother), screens in the Walter Reade's valuable Northern Exposures series on Saturday, April 24 at 9:15 pm and Monday, April 26 at 1 pm. Built around a powerful lead performance by Eva Dahlbeck (Smiles of a Summer Night), Bara en mor strikes an exciting balance between pictorial and social realism (the story is set in the world of migrant farm peasants) and a theatricality that spotlights the emotional struggles of its beset but formidable protagonist.
  • In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote that "nothing much happens" in Phil Karlson's career until 1953's 99 River St.. But research reveals several distinctive works in Karlson's early filmography, with at least one - 1952's Scandal Sheet - that ranks for me with Karlson's best. The film is based on Samuel Fuller's novel The Dark Page, but Fuller's personality is somewhat diluted in the adaptation, whereas Karlson's abrasive but humanist brand of urgency is in full flower. Scandal Sheet plays in Film Forum's series "The Newspaper Picture" on Friday, April 30 at 1, 4:35 and 8:10 pm.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard): IFC Center, until Thursday, April 15, 2010

Catherine Breillat now has a solid international reputation, but I wish she was regarded less as a sexual provocatrice and more as an artist whose powerful personality filters and interprets all aspects of experience. Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard), her most recent work, helps the cause, in that it is based on a Perrault fairy tale, and shows Breillat imposing her world view through a story written for children.

Here is a checklist of moments I noted in Barbe Bleue that are strongly inflected by Breillat's sensibility, that other filmmakers would be unlikely to write or direct the same way. My impulse here is analytic rather than synthetic, but patterns will no doubt emerge: identifying them is left as an exercise for the reader.

There will be plot spoilers below.

1. The heartless Mother Superior (Farida Khelfa) who dominates the film's first scenes is cast against type as a young, beautiful woman.

2. The sisters in the fairy tale, Anne (Daphné Baiwir) and Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), shed tears upon being given unceremonious notice of their father's death. They are then expelled from their convent school and sent home in a carriage. Showing the process of departure would for many filmmakers provide an excuse to ramp down the film's level of sadness, so that the sisters' grief will be nearly as moderate as the audience's when we next encounter them. But Breillat prefers to resume the story in the carriage with the sisters weeping, showing the audience the mourning that it has already gotten over. Only then does Breillat ramp down the grief, by letting the sisters veer into a discussion of marriage and the future. By placing the transition from mourning to the mundane in mid-conversation, Breillat makes the sisters own the mood change, which now seems slightly unfeeling. Acknowledging the dissonance that she has created, Breillat lets the sisters name it: "We shouldn't laugh. Papa just died." "It's nerves."

3. At home, the differing reactions of Anne and Marie-Catherine to their father's death are emphasized by Breillat and given equal weight, even though Anne is not a structurally important character. It is unusual for a supporting character not to have a supporting opinion. Breillat is making a small break with narrativity, digressing into a mode she likes, in which sisterly conflict resembles warring aspects of the same mind.

4. And both these opinions are uncomfortable, expressing forbidden aspects of the parent-child relationship. Anne violates the spirit of mourning with her fury at her father, who died saving a stranger's life. Whereas Marie-Catherine fetishizes her dead father, clearly enjoying the power she now has over him: "You aren't intimidating now. I love you." Breillat maintains sympathy for both characters; neither emotion seems to alienate her.

5. Even while she reproaches Anne, Marie-Catherine understands her, and explains to both her mother (Isabelle Lapouge) and her dead father that Anne's insults are the result of her pain.

6. Barbe Bleue's emissary (Adrien Ledoux), who informs the family that the rich noble wishes to choose a wife from among the young women of the area, is a handsome, arrogant young man, an attractive predator who will have no occasion to cross swords with any woman in this story. As in the case of the Mother Superior, Breillat invests with sexuality even the most functional representatives of power.

7. The sisters in the modern story, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), while quarreling over the fairy tale that they are reading, have a brief but digressive discussion of free will versus determinism, in which Marie-Anne blames her squeamishness on her head ("cerveau"). "Your head is you," says the younger Catherine. "No, I was born with it," protests Marie-Anne. As usual, Breillat does not seem to want us to take sides, or to characterize the sisters via their opinions: the dispute merely shows that the sisters encompass both sides of the issue.

8. Slipping away from Barbe Bleue's reception, Marie-Catherine whiles away the time in the fields surrounding the castle, playing with a praying mantis, then watching the beheading of a chicken. The camera lingers upon the death agony of the unfortunate chicken: the gaze of the camera is presumably Marie-Catherine's gaze. Breillat, and by extension Marie-Catherine, seem interested in and accepting of the horror.

9. Meanwhile the youth of the area take part in a group dance outside the castle. I can't vouch for the authenticity of the music and the dancing, but the film at least suggests that the instruments and the choreography are of the period. Breillat focuses on the saucy dance moves of the young women, who smile and wag their fingers ceremonially at their male partners. She seems to enjoy emphasizing that the old ways look modern, that these people acknowledge and play with sexuality much as we do today.

10. The massive and scary-looking Barbe Bleue first talks to Marie-Catherine while resting under a tree. He is surprisingly unthreatening in his demeanor, suggesting a tame bear. His voice is soft and gentle.

11. Discussing the fairy tale in the modern story, precocious Catherine insists that, in the old days, women could get married even at age 5. "It's not like adult marriage," she says in qualification. Pressed for details by Marie-Anne, Catherine demonstrates that she's vague on the whole subject. Like much of the modern story, this scene exists only to show the children's imagination reaching out boldly into the world of sex.

12. Marie-Catherine's engagement to Barbe Bleue is simultaneously a weapon against her older sister Anne and the sad occasion of their separation. Breillat likes to compress the two feelings. After a harsh outburst against Anne, Marie-Catherine suddenly hugs her tenderly.

13. Similarly, as Marie-Catherine is leaving her home with her new husband, Anne says to her, "Now we needn't fight anymore." Marie-Catherine replies, "But I liked that." Hatred and love between the sisters are repeatedly depicted as compatible emotions, not requiring resolution.

14. At the sisters' post-wedding goodbye, Barbe Bleue sits silently on his horse in the background, waiting for his new bride like a liveryman. In the spirit of counterpoint, Breillat will depict the fairy-tale monster as gentle and domesticated throughout the film.

15. In the modern story, Catherine shows off her incorrect understanding of the word "homosexuality." Her exasperated older sister gives her the correct meaning, but Catherine is obstinate. Again, the subject connects to the narrative only in that it shows the young girls' interest in sex.

16. As she is installed in Barbe Bleue's castle, Marie-Catherine suddenly becomes imperious and demanding about her living arrangement, trying to assert her power over her husband. Marie-Catherine is not generally characterized as imperious, and does not test her power in this fashion again. Breillat seems to assume that a war for power lies just under the surface of love relationships. The filmmaker shows no sign of disapproval, and our identification with Marie-Catherine is not affected.

17. Sneaking around the castle at night, Marie-Catherine peeks in her husband's room and spies on him removing his tunic and sitting on his bed bare-chested. The gigantic Barbe Bleue does not provide the sort of nudity that movie audiences are likely to welcome. Both Marie-Catherine (who is not yet sleeping with her husband) and Breillat have no reaction to the naked man other than fascination with the spectacle; Marie-Catherine's feelings toward him do not seem to be altered.

18. In the modern story, young Catherine insists that she is more intelligent than her older sister Marie-Anne, and mercilessly exploits Marie-Anne's having stayed back a grade because of illness. Marie-Anne has no good defense, and seems beaten. The conflict will have no obvious repercussions.

19. Marie-Catherine confides to her husband, "I miss my sister, but I'm glad to be rid of her." The contradiction does not require resolution.

20. Breillat repeatedly puts visual emphasis on the absurd difference in size between the gigantic Barbe Bleue and his tiny wife Marie-Catherine: for instance, by framing them side by side at the dinner table. Though the couple will have no sexual contact in the film, that outrageous, unspoken fantasy is the motor of the story. Never one to avert her gaze, Breillat forces us to imagine such an act.

21. After a time in the castle, Marie-Catherine tells Barbe Bleue that she is now accustomed to luxury. The statement does not signal a problem with Marie-Catherine's values; Breillat seems accepting, as she so often is.

22. After a solar eclipse gives Barbe Bleue the opportunity to display his knowledge of history and science, an impressed Marie-Catherine says to him avidly, "Teach me everything you know." Marie-Catherine shows no other interest in learning: she seems to regard knowledge as a form of male power that she wishes to acquire for herself.

23. After Marie-Catherine discovers the bodies of Barbe Bleue's other wives, she must hide the discovery from him and eat dinner with him upon his return from a trip. The tone of this scene is difficult to fix. Barbe Bleue has become threatening to us; and Marie-Catherine begins to lie to him in self-protection. However, Breillat declines to give us images of Marie-Catherine's presumed fear and repulsion. Further, Marie-Catherine participates willingly in the communal aspect of dinner, taking bites out of the huge leg of lamb that her husband shares with her. Though the story mandates that Marie-Catherine now fear Barbe Bleue and regard him as an enemy, Breillat manages through Marie-Catherine's behavior to create the interesting impression that the horrible murders have not destroyed the marital bond.

24. Breillat gives us a bare indication that the accidental death of Marie-Anne at the end of the modern story is the fantasy of the traumatized Catherine: surely Catherine's mother would have spotted Marie-Anne's body on the floor below if the fall had actually occurred? False alarm, all is well, except that Catherine's desire to kill her older sister has been made manifest.

25. Breillat ends the film with an image of Marie-Catherine caressing the severed head of her husband. She is victorious, and simultaneously she is sad.

26. The sad music accompanying this gruesome ending yields, as in other Breillat films, to happy dance music under the end credits. Like her characters, Breillat will not pretend that contemplating her atavistic impulses is gloomy business.

Barbe Bleue is scheduled at the IFC Center only until tomorrow, Thursday, April 15.