Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Was a Male War Bride

Many have noted that Howard Hawks' comedies are often based on the disorientation and humiliation of the protagonist. It's less frequently noted that, having created this unhappy state of affairs, Hawks and his writers add to the films an equal and opposite character-based reaction: the stymied male protagonist becomes single-mindedly concerned with restoring his lost dignity, and at least intermittently attains a certain stature by his reactions to the disintegrating situation.

The earliest instance of this self-rectifying comic behavior is probably found in Twentieth Century: not in the matching solipsism of the protagonists, but in Oscar Jaffe's hapless sidekick Oliver (Walter Connolly), who rises from his submissive position and grabs Jaffe by the lapels (while stuttering in fear the whole time) in a last doomed attempt to restore the rule of sanity. David Huxley (Cary Grant) in Bringing Up Baby, and his close relative Roger Willoughby (Rock Hudson) in Man's Favorite Sport, are prime examples of this Hawksian comic paradigm: increasingly victimized and disempowered by the "screwball" genre and by solipsistic female forces of nature, they respond with an angry but self-aware appraisal of their plight that slips easily into sarcastic humor. The sex change of His Girl Friday modifies the formula - Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is not as humiliated as her male counterparts, and therefore does not have to reclaim as much lost dignity - but Hildy too feels the need to restore some of her power with a continual scathing commentary on the Walter Burns-inspired chaos that has overtaken her life. The key aspect of this paradigm is that the comic perspective attained by the disempowered characters results in them grabbing many of the funniest lines in the films, and the audience is invited to laugh with their perspective and not merely at their disempowerment.

Hawks seems to be gratifying different levels of his psyche at the same time with this model. Part of him obviously gravitates toward extremes of humiliation and disempowerment that are unusual even by the regressed standards of comedy; and yet he also gets considerable pleasure from allowing his beleaguered characters to battle back with all the dignity of one of his action heroes. On reflection, the unusual thing about this bifurcation is not that Hawks contains opposing internal psychological forces - which amounts to a basic observation about human nature in general - but that he can so easily express his psychology on multiple levels without departing from tested commercial filmmaking practice.

I Was a Male War Bride is the purest incarnation of this Hawksian dichotomy. Unlike all the films cited above, it largely eschews "screwball" comedy and familiar conventions of farce: most of its humor stems from the characters' distinctively Hawksian reactions to the most disempowering scenario that Hawks and his writers (Charles Lederer and Hagar Wilde, working from a script by Leonard Spigelgass that was based on the autobiographical magazine serial of Dr. Roger R. Charlier) could concoct. A hit at the time of its release (Todd McCarthy reports that it tied with The Snake Pit as the third biggest film of 1949, after Jolson Sings Again and Pinky), its dialogue often drowned out by audience laughter even today, War Bride is nonetheless as weirdly and sublimely personal a film as anything the art houses can offer.

Largely shot in postwar Germany ("No other comedy, surely, has looked so drab," wrote Robin Wood) and partaking slightly of the pseudo-documentary vibe in vogue at Fox at the time, War Bride divides into two sections: the first a vision of love fueled by conflict and hostility; the second about the individual at the mercy of wartime bureaucracy. Both struggles create terrible problems for French officer Henri Rochard (Cary Grant), but, despite the continuity that his reactions impose, the movie's two halves do not integrate seamlessly from a thematic point of view. Hawks, always smart about people, instinctively compensates by keeping the focus in the second half on the now-united but still volatile couple, who could be forgiven for collapsing under the strain imposed on them by Public Law 271. Sometimes Rochard and Lt. Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan, wonderful) exhibit a convincing enmity that transforms into love as smoothly as a gear change - as when Catherine learns that her Army pal Jack (William Neff) has intentionally held up her marriage paperwork, and slams him on the head with a metal tray without the slightest recollection that she had talking breakup five seconds earlier. Other times the couple take turns breaking down under the ordeal, with one able to provide comfort and humor for the other until the next crisis switches their roles. From a real-life perspective, one can legitimately wonder whether a love so deeply rooted in sex warfare can last for long without blowing up; but Hawks is no more interested in the sociology of a good marriage than he is in condemning the Army bureaucracy for the prolonged torture it inflicts on his heroes.

Rochard immediately projects a self-possession that is identifiably Hawksian, and that runs somewhat counter to comedy conventions. His early triumphs over confusion - such as his repeated demonstrations of perfect colloquial English in the face of American assumptions to the contrary ("See you in church," he replies to Jack's stilted French farewell) - are pulled off with a deadpan aplomb that doesn't desert Rochard in moments of embarrassment. Confronted by a curious WAC as he lingers mistakenly by the ladies' room door, he keeps a straight face and beats a leisurely retreat; later, when Catherine catches him eyeing a passing woman, he holds his ground without a beat of apology. Catherine's description of Rochard as a wolf is borne out by his behavior throughout the film's first half: no matter how hostile his relations with Catherine, he declines no opportunity for physical contact with her, feigning nonchalance effectively, yet advancing with grim resolve. (I can't think of many other comedies that have depicted sexual desire devoid of romance or the pretense thereof.) Hawks prefers not to disturb Rochard's poise by undermining his authority, even when loss of authority is the default comic reaction. Near the end of the first half, Hawks brokers an interesting power negotiation: Catherine's refusal to free Rochard from the clutches of the German police is the cruelest prank in the film; unwilling to let the offense vanish into the flow of comic incident, Hawks and the writers require an overt, unprecedented demonstration of submission from Catherine to balance the scales and allow the romantic sparring to continue.

But the most extraordinary depiction of the Hawksian instinct for self-rectification is saved for the film's second half. Each of Rochard's angry outbursts against the bureaucracy that neuters his marriage and leaves him homeless quickly yields to a controlled sarcasm that is a form of mastery. Left speechless by the marching orders that make specific provisions to destroy his wedding night ("This would never happen in the French army!"), Rochard recovers sufficiently to console his tearful bride before shuffling off to sleep in the bathtub, his automatic assurances gradually turning sarcastic as Catherine slips out of earshot: "It's all right…I'll be quite comfortable…I'll just turn on the cold water." Appalled to learn that Public Law 271 requires him to assume female status, he still manages a smooth exit at scene's end: "Brides first, please." After a while, he is no longer fazed by confused functionaries telling him that the paperwork he had filled out is intended for his wife - "According to the US Army I am my wife" - or even by being rousted from the only bed he has successfully negotiated for - "You will note that I have not taken off my clothes in anticipation of that." In the end his ritualized emasculation becomes a game to be played well: "It's a very natural mistake, you're not the first to have made it."

I Was a Male War Bride can be seen as Hawks' first solo flight, a move away from the genre formats that were always central to his art, and a venture into a looser realm where the projection of the filmmaker's personality takes center stage. Something in the air in the 1945-1950 period was encouraging established Hollywood filmmakers to step out in front of their films and assume the mantle of authorship; unlike some of them, Hawks did not sacrifice his grip on the box office with his self-assertion, at least not until the 50s. Still, the confident foregrounding of the Hawksian ethos in Male War Bride is in some ways closer to the ambient pleasures of late films like Hatari! and Man's Favorite Sport than to Hawks' earlier comedies and action films.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Audrey the Trainwreck: reRun Theater, through July 29, 2010

Wow, here's an interesting twist on the (admittedly loosely defined) mumblecore concept: lightly guided, improvisatory performances, encased in an almost transparent but carefully engineered formal structure. Frank V. Ross, whose four earlier features I haven't seen, tells a story that is dramatically charged but fragmented by elisions: a young man with a dead-end job (Anthony Baker), in some kind of intense relationship with his male roommate (Danny Rhodes), arranges meetings with a series of women, one of whom (Alexi Wasser) gradually emerges as a potential partner. Story connections are not underlined: it's possible that a second viewing would unearth more clues to the workings of this mysterious triangle. What is underlined is a system of stylistic coups that create emotional harmonics outside the story. Ross's formal ideas are almost direct address to the audience, asking us to reformulate our feelings or to assume a commentative position on events. Example: the protagonist opens the refrigerator door, and an egg rolls to the edge of the shelf and stops; much later in the film, his roommate opens the same door, and the egg breaks on the floor. Or: in one of a series of scenes in which the protagonist meets different women in restaurants, Ross surprisingly switches his attention to another couple in the room, who take over the movie with their conversation until the end of the scene, when they are never seen again. Or: on her rounds as a delivery person for a FedEx-like company, the woman is mysteriously menaced by a passing car whose close approach to her is heighted with editing and soundtrack manipulation, though the incident has no consequences. The suggestion of incipient violence in this last example is not isolated: unsettling incidents rend the fabric of mundane life from the first scene to the odd ending, which both makes urgent demands on our empathy and enforces a comic distance. I'm still not sure about how to respond to that ending, but, like so many other moods that the film engenders, the overtones of violence are largely perpendicular to story and character, existing in a philosophical fourth dimension that Ross creates purely through style. Audrey's mumbly surfaces conceal, at the least, a director of great ambition and unusual virtues. The film screens at the new reRun Theater in DUMBO through Thursday, July 29.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

She, a Chinese: Asian American International Film Festival, July 19, 2010

One of the best films on the 2009 festival circuit, Guo Xiaolu's She, a Chinese, will have its New York premiere at the Asian American International Film Festival. In my Senses of Cinema wrapup for Toronto 2009, I wrote:

"The Golden Leopard at Locarno went to She, a Chinese, the second feature from the expatriate Chinese novelist Guo Xiaolu. Advance word skewed toward the negative, and a flashy trailer increased my pessimism. But the film dazzled me. It becomes clear almost immediately that its organizing principle is not story or even style, but the force of Guo's personality, which whips together diverse materials into a fluent commentary that transcends form. As the sullen, deadpan young protagonist Mei (Huang Lu) rides over assorted trials in rural China with a combination of strength and obliviousness, and then bolts from a guided tour to try her survival skills in the UK, Guo narrates her passage with funny chapter-heading intertitles, bursts of loud rock music (John Parish's score is excellent), and comically rushed transitions. The emotional gap between the story upheavals and Mei's inner life reminded me of several major filmmakers: Godard for the playful exploitation of the audience's distance from the fiction; Sternberg for the loving fascination with surfaces that reveal nothing; and Renoir for the way that philosophical perspective is used to lighten a dark story's mood. I have no idea why Guo's considerable talent is lost on so many critics."

She, a Chinese screens on Monday, July 19 at 6 pm at the Clearview Chelsea Cinema.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tsuchi (Earth)

A piece I wrote on Tsuchi (Earth), a celebrated 1939 film by Japanese director Tomu Uchida, has been published at the Mubi Notebook.