The Ten Commandments (1956)

10CommEvery time I watch The Ten Commandments (this most recent screening was the first in several years), I have much the same reaction. While it is easy to patronize as camp, it is impossible to dismiss the film entirely. You can sneer and giggle, but there’s no denying that DeMille’s tasteless audacity creates visually extravagant, often quite entertaining results. Some of it is downright ludicrous, but it demonstrates Hollywood at its technocratic best.

The ridiculous moments are certainly preferable to the suffocating sanctimony that makes much of the film difficult to bear. Given that DeMille’s holier-than-thou attitudes are combined with a thoroughly hypocritical exploitation of the sins he condemns, it is difficult to take any of it as much better than the call of a carnival barker tempting passers-by inside for a glimpse of flesh. There isn’t an ounce of religious feeling in any of it—except, of course, dollar worship, which is present in abundance.

It is easy to blow raspberries at Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses, but embodying a legend under the best circumstances is difficult. When trapped in the exploitative conception of a master dissembler who expects the actor to show off his pecs one moment, then preach purity the next, it’s impressive that Heston keeps an even keel. He delivers what our society’s schizoid attitudes towards pleasure demand, that a religious figure like Moses be both sexy and chaste.

Yul Brynner, as Rameses, has always impressed me as the real star of the show. He’s helped by the fact that he’s playing the villain and is not burdened with demonstrating virtue. Rameses is a no-nonsense, out for himself egotist, and for that very reason he is the most attractive character. Put simply, Rameses knows what he wants—exactly what any honest viewer wants. Brynner fleshes out that shared desire with such a full-bodied performance that when the Pharaoh falls out of the story, the movie never quite recovers.

The rest of the cast varies. Some (like Judith Anderson and Sir Cedric Hardwicke) make DeMille and company’s florid dialog and rhetorical situations almost believable; some (John Derek stands out) are just awful, while others (such as Anne Baxter, Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson) present hyperbolic examples of themselves. Baxter, for example, acts as if Nefretiri is the hot stuff the script requires, and Moses and Rameses seem to go along with it, so we just accept their passion for her as the contrivance necessary to keep things moving.

Like a chef hiding bad meat under a flavorful sauce, DeMille lavishes the most expensive camerawork, design and special effects a major studio can provide on his trashy Victorian vision. The results are a good example of Hollywood’s shrewd habit of supporting parochial narrow-mindedness with unparalleled resources. At least it is clearly DeMille’s vision, however flawed. He was a charlatan, but for better or worse, no one else could have made The Ten Commandments.tashswatch

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L’immortelle

immortelle-smallWatching Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first effort as a filmmaker, L’immortelle, reminded me of the heady days of my early exposure to the European art film. It is not a great film, although for a first effort, it is a surprisingly fluid and assured one. It is, however, so clearly a product of that moment in film history when anything seemed possible that this movie made in 1963 feels tantalizingly new and exciting. Seeing it for the first time took me back to a moment when innovation was rewarded and sought, when a film was evaluated beyond its’ grosses, when one’s “inner child” sought to be an adult, not to remain an infant.

The situation (you can’t really call it a story) is simple. “N,” (Jacques Daniel Valcroze) is a Frenchman newly arrived in Istanbul to teach. He meets “L,” (Françoise Brion) a beautiful woman who speaks French, and with whom he has a brief affair. When she inexplicably disappears, N becomes obsessed with finding her again, but when he finally does, she is reluctant to tell him where she has been, eventually leading to an ending which, in hindsight, can be seen as implicit in the film’s beginning.

While never entirely lacking the fragmentation, irrationality, repetition and paradoxes of most of Robbe-Grillet’s work, L’immortelle is reasonably straightforward. It is more or less a mystery in which, however, there is little at stake beyond a state of mind heavy with desire and lingering dread. Fantasies mix with the everyday to produce an ambiguity heightened by questions of L’s identity or existence beyond N’s imagination. So while the situation is simple, its execution is not. And while the ending provides a resolution, it is one that falls apart as soon as you think about it in any detail.

Irksome as that lack of closure may be, it is as central to Robbe-Grillet’s method as the slow pace and sparkling evocation of the mildly foreign within the familiar, achieved through Istanbul’s intricate, lapidary decoration, crumbling ruins and everyday banality. It is a vaguely threatening, dangerous and decaying world, yet nothing really all that terrible occurs. The film turns the heightened awareness of a tourist into a barely contained expression of frustrated desire. Tuned to the unique, the slightly uncanny, to hints of unspeakable lusts, the world becomes febrile fantasy for both N and the viewer.

One can question this “Orientalist” perspective, but at least in filmmaking terms, the results are svelte and silken. Yes, Robbe-Grillet treats Turkey as backdrop to a Frenchman’s erotic projections, but at least those obsessions are in the service of the unconventional and the imaginative. For what is most refreshing about L’immortelle is watching an artist revel in the potential of a new medium and doing what he thinks is right, regardless of opinion. The film commits, in short, the cardinal sin for today’s predigested, sanitized, cookie-cutter culture: it is distinctive.

The video release of L’immortelle from Kino Lorber hits the streets April 1st.tashswatch

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Henry V (1944)

HenryVsmallShakespeare on film is always a trial. To film one of his plays is to invite the inevitable complaints that the results distort or otherwise fail to measure up to his greatness. Furthermore, while the plays demand an emphasis on his language and the performances, cinematic expectation favors the image and action. Filmmakers obsequious before the Bard’s reputation produce lifeless waxworks. Those (like Zeffirelli, for example) who throw caution to the wind and treat Shakespeare as just one more scenarist raise the ire of the literati, though sometimes with reasonably successful results. Perhaps the best “Shakespearean” films are those, like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Ran, that just treat him as a starting point.

Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V falls somewhere between these poles of fidelity. His treatment is respectful, but not slavish. The film is probably most famous for its three levels of Realistic articulation, starting with a recreation of an Elizabethan performance of the play, transitioning into a studio-bound, highly stylized production in 15th century garb, then going the full naturalistic route by staging the Battle of Agincourt on location. The conceit is certainly audacious. How successful it is as a production of the play I cannot say, but I have always found the filmmaking to be just a touch too self-consciously clever to be entirely successful.

Shot in glorious Technicolor and produced largely as a propaganda effort (for decadent French, read nasty Nazis), the film never entirely finds a balance between the competing demands of epic theatre and film. The speeches are well delivered, I suppose (Olivier’s pre-Agincourt exhortations are effective) but as with all Shakespeare on film, I find myself struggling to understand what is being said in simple expository terms. Furthermore, there seems to be an assumption that viewers have enough knowledge of Shakespeare to be able to understand much of the action, so that Falstaff, for example, is included (as a reference) only to die, as if we know his importance without further explanation. He may be essential to Shakespearean mythology, but in film terms, he serves no plot function at all and seems to be referenced just for the sake of it.

The early Elizabethan, Globe Theatre scenes have an earthy, surprisingly rough charm, the Battle of Agincourt is justly famous for its elegant staging and the studio-bound 15th century portions (which make up the bulk of the film) have a pleasant, candy-box sweetness. The movie offers a catalog of delights, and yet it is tough to claim that it coheres into an experience that makes us forget we’re watching a movie based on work by a great playwright. Perhaps Henry V is one of those films that needs the context of its original period to understand its acclaim. Its stylization guarantees that it never dates in the bad sense, but it also makes it even tougher than usual to overcome the “Shakespeare question.”tashswatch

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Chinatown

Chinatown2Every time I watch Chinatown, I think “This time I’m going to understand why people are crazy about this movie.” To be sure, I do see new things in it each time I view it. It’s beautifully crafted, and yet I do not understand why people view it as a transcendent achievement. I’m prepared to applaud style over substance, but the film is consistently praised less for its sleek surface than as a substantive critique of American life. Is this an example of people being seduced by the very surfaces that the film implicates as part of the story’s corrupt milieu? Is its reputation an example of the American unwillingness to see beneath appearances? If so, it is indeed an insidious bit of manipulation. I’m just not convinced it is that sophisticated.

Anyone with a passing interest in film history is probably familiar with the story. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) tries to identify the murderer of Hollis Mulwray, uncovering perfidious real estate manipulations, official corruption, vicious beatings, domestic violence, more murder, incest and other niceties along the way. The story certainly depicts an amoral, cutthroat world, but (and it’s a big “but”) whether that viewpoint translates into a general critique is a different matter. Do people come away thinking “This is a film about the venality of American life?” Or is the reaction rather “Wow, those are some pretty twisted characters?”

I suspect the latter is by far the more common reaction, for as each overturned stone reveals yet more worms, viewers can ignore them to bask in the Southern California sunshine, appreciate Faye Dunaway’s beauty, and enjoy the period props, costumes and accessories. Precisely because the story is so well crafted, the viewer is arguably too involved emotionally to make the leap from the specifics of the situation to an indictment of what the details imply. Put simply, the viewer wants the mystery solved too badly to attribute the decadence to anything greater than individual pathology.

If the seductive form is indeed meant as part of the message, Polanski’s approach would be similar to contemporaneous films like Visconti’s The Damned that attempted to recreate the superficial appeal of Nazism to demonstrate how that movement exploited style to horrendous ends. For such an argument to be valid, however, the social setting of Chinatown would have to be central, the mystery secondary to make it a plausible criticism of American life. (The Damned, after all, is explicitly about Nazism.) There are scattered attempts throughout Chinatown to convince the corruption is endemic, but because the murder mystery is our first concern, it is easy to assume all is well beyond a limited set of characters. In the end, Chinatown cannot express a broader, deeper critique because the trees of its compelling story obscure a vision of the surrounding, rotting forest. The film is, in other words, sensuous, eloquent testimony to the limitations of particularism and the seductions of unquestioned hedonism.tashswatch

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Alain Resnais–RIP

resnais

It may have been inevitable, but that doesn’t make the passing of a master any easier to accept. And I have to say, my master, one of a handful of filmmakers who have influenced me profoundly, at every level. All film lovers form strong, personal bonds with the work that has moved them. A few of us are lucky enough to be able to translate those feelings into words and images ourselves. As we do, we pay silent tribute to those who have shaped our views of the world, who have made a difference to us, and to the art we love beyond words.

Good-bye Alain Resnais, maitre du cinéma, and thank you. You will be sorely missed.

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Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir)

SSofPMade in 1974, Successive Slidings of Pleasure demonstrates novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet’s obsessive interest in sadomasochism, particularly enacted upon beautiful young women. It is tempting to suggest that obsession is all the film has to offer. There certainly is no effort to camouflage that orientation in this story about a young woman who brings out the deviant in nearly everyone she encounters, nor any hypocritical effort to moralize about it. (The one character who indulges in a bit of moralizing is in fact something of a villain.) Indeed, the main character (played by Anicée Alvine, in a role never named) implicates the spectator in the action more than once, even turning to the camera after asking a priest to rape her because she says she wants to entertain us, the audience.

Does that open, honest approach make the proceedings easier to accept? For most people, probably not, but then Slidings is not a movie for “most people,” and not just because of the violence and sex. (When it was new in the “porn chic” ’70s, it probably wouldn’t have seemed all that scandalous.) As with all of Robbe-Grillet’s work, action is fragmented, incomplete, repetitive, unmotivated and frequently unexplained. Anyone expecting the methodical forward movement, careful dissection and constructed revelations of standard crime fiction will be alternately bored or confused. The “characters” are little better than emblems of obsession and futility, whose every move only deepens the sense of stasis. It surely can be no coincidence that one of the few characters unaffected by the protagonist, the inspector played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, ends the film with the line “Then we have to start all over again.”

There is, of course, the sex to keep interest, but anyone eagerly anticipating pornography will be as disapponted as someone expecting a three act drama. A great deal is implied, several beautiful women are stripped naked, the color cinematography has a Kodachrome-like vividness, a broken bottle serving as a condensed point of fixation for libidinous violence is invested with crawling, suggestive dread, but the cumulative effect is cold, nearly clinical. As if to underline that lack of sex appeal, at one point the main character and her roommate, Nora (Olga Georges-Picot) “torture” a mannequin that is just as perfectly formed, just as carefully posed, just as lifeless as all of the women in the film.

If there is any point to this strangely asexual catalog of deviance, it is the interaction between the spectacle and ourselves. Alvine’s diabolical innocence seduces us as much as the other characters, but for all the depravity, Successive Slidings of Pleasure is emotionally flat. Alvine charms in a vacuum, because our final desire is simply to know what all of this is about. Predictably, that question is never answered, with results for neither the faint of heart, nor the easily irritated. Any reaction beyond indifference is possible; to understand, we “have to start all over again.”tashswatch

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3 Women

3women-03I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to see Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Released at the peak of his acclaim, and having the additional attraction (for me) of a fairly experimental approach, it seems like the kind of thing I would have made a point of seeing. Perhaps the prospect of Altman making something in the European art film mode inspired more ambivalence than confidence. Undeniably gifted and original, Altman was also at least as much poseur as poet, often tarnishing his finest qualities with a facile, idiotic irony.

Aside from some heavy-handed swipes at medical bureaucrats and cops, Altman the smart-aleck is blessedly absent from 3 Women, but that isn’t enough to make it a success. The title might well be 3 Films, because there are at least as many contradictory currents swirling around his creamy, Panavision frames. Purportedly based on a dream, 3 Women tells what at first seems a fairly naturalistic story about Millie Lamoureux (Shelley Duvall), an attendant at a geriatric rehab center and her new roommate, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek). Altman’s handling of their relationship and the salty, depressed, California desert milieu is deft, discreetly sensitive and original, perhaps some of his very best work.

The third woman, Willie (Janice Rule) is an artist who paints murals of violent, semi-erotic, stylized figures. With her introduction, the film shifts gears, from finely observed characters and environment to a mannered, rather perverse set of deliberately unanswered questions, posed largely, it seems, to provide an excuse for the increasingly stylized visuals. There is nothing, in fact, about Willie that is especially deep or mysterious, but she is treated as if she is both, saying very little and glowering at the camera a lot. In the film’s atmosphere of priapic idiocy, her frowns presumably express disgust or contempt at the infidelity, insensitivity and rank stupidity of every man in the movie, although things are never that forthright.

Which, given the “third movie,” seems even more ponderous and tendentious than it might otherwise. Mixed with the naturalism and iconic imagery is a series of shoddy melodramatic setups, like one character reading another’s diary, or the adultery between Millie and Willie’s husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), or Pinky’s attempted suicide. Worse, all of these contrivances build to an opaque ending in which the three women have bonded together into a warped parody of a family, while the camera does an Antonioni to end the film on a pile of used tires. What on earth is that supposed to mean, that Altman is tired?

Even in the best moments, there’s a discrepancy between the well observed surfaces and what they contain. Actors and locations are exploited for their realistic appearance, while the camerawork strains to emphasize the most unusual compositions. Ultimately 3 Women feels like an arty exercise pasted on to a quasi-documentary exploitation of an environment, jacked up by cheap melodrama. The result is neither redolent nor profound, but an unstable, rather hollow and muddled mix. tashswatch

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