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No Popcorn

The Second New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

There is a scene in Luis Bunuel’s early surrealist movie, L’Age d’Or—a violent spoof of society and religion that was recently shown at the Second New York Film Festival as a breather between the art films—that seems to me to capture admirably the tone of the Festival itself. It shows a group of officials gathering together along a desolate beach for the purpose of laying the foundations of a great city. The ceremony is interrupted for a few moments by a man intent on raping a woman in the mud—but when the culprit is apprehended and led away, the solemnities continue. A Mayor makes a longwinded commemorative speech. A cornerstone is laid. And upon it is placed a substance which could be mortar, but which, on closer inspection, turns out to be manure.

The implications of this scene seem to have been lost on the Festival officials who, after having prepared their own foundations with solemn speeches and cultural fanfare, laid on a bit of manure themselves. Out of twenty-six full-length films that were shown in the course of two weeks, perhaps eight were worth a second thought, and only two or three of these commanded any serious attention. Now this is a pretty depressing average, but it is probably unfair to conclude that the Festival was solely responsible for the low quality of the fare—that is, if you accept its principle of selection. Given the type of “important” film considered, I suppose these were the best obtainable: and I am even willing to admit that, under other circumstances, I might have enjoyed the bad ones more than I actually did. What I am really complaining about, I suppose, is the whole concept of Festival high seriousness, which turns moviegoing into an official reflex, and raises expectations that can only very rarely be satisfied. Whatever these affairs may be like in Europe, the Lincoln Center Film Festival in New York is just another brand of our instant culture. And it threatens to make the movies as boring, as pretentious, and as uncomfortable as the New York theater.

Let me admit my prejudices at the outset. I am a passionate moviegoer, and I am willing to concede that films can be the “high art” that the Festival directors claim. But I have to confess that one of the great attractions that the movies offer me is the opportunity for pure relaxation. Think how pleasing it is to be able to stretch your length over three or four seats without putting a shoe in someone’s back, how satisfying to talk back to a movie without arousing the spleen of some pious spectator and without insulting the actors. At Philharmonic Hall, on the other hand, hundreds of fantical patrons of the art of film, some of them in evening dress, huddle together in a hushed silence, holding a program heavier than the Playbill, and turning in rage on anyone who dares to cough before the picture ends. With nothing to contemplate but the screen itself, one tends to stop responding to movies as sources of pleasure or stimulation, and to begin regarding them as hieratic gesture in an cultural ritual.

Certainly, more than a few of the Festival entries were chosen less for their intrinsic merits than for diplomatic reasons: to stimulate feelings of brotherhood among the various nations of the world. This, I assume, was the reason for inaugurating the program with that ponderous Russian Hamlet, an old-fashioned horse opera unfolding amidst parapets, racing cavalry, and mobs of peasants and nobility; but it accomplished the opposite effect, seriously straining Anglo-Russian relations by the way in which it mangled Shakespeare. Similarly, at the risk of exacerbating the Cold War, I think both the Polish entries should have been excluded: It would probably have been kinder, furthermore, to have left Britain and Sweden without representation than to have offered up Joseph Losey’s King and Country and Jorn Donner’s To Love. Both movies were inexorably dull, the first managing the amazing feat of making war boring, the second doing the same for sex. Then, there were the Hollywood entries, led by Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe—or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Dr. Strangelove & Release My Bomb—a movie that had been on the shelf so long that, as one wit put it, it came in a square can. Square, I am afraid, is the most accurate word to describe this gloss on pop politics.

What disturbed me most about the more experimental films shown at the Festival was their empty expertise: in many cases, considerable technical dexterity was put at the service of essentially shallow content. Only Hiroshi Teshigahara, among the consciously anti-realistic film-makers, seemed to be experimenting primarily for the sake of his artwork; and, as a result, his Woman in the Dunes, an adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel, emerged as an exquisite photographic metaphor, in which sand dunes became the source both of beautiful pictorial images and profound philosophical reflections. (This film is now running in New York.) Experimentation by European directors, however, was more often a form of personality projection. The Festival film camera can be a very playful instrument, but the more fun the director seemed to be having, the less I found myself able to share it. To see a jump cut or an aside to the audience or a tableau effect used in five or six consecutive pictures is to witness the freshness drain out of an innovation even as it is introduced.

Even less acceptable is that note of self-consciousness that has begun to infiltrate European movies: it signifies that the world of the nouvelle vague is fast becoming very self-enclosed. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (Prima della Rivoluzione), for example started out as a subtle modern adaptation of Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme, feelingly performed by the handsome Italian stage actress, Adriana Asti, but the director could not resist muddying his narrative line with inchoate effects or introducing an irrelevant scene satirizing the jargon and tastes of cinéastes. Jean-Luc Goddard is even more inclined to use his films for self-conscious extracinematic comment, especially A Woman is a Woman, a crude camp of technicolor Hollywood musicals which had its characters referring continually to French films, French directors, French actors, and even to Godard’s earlier movie, Breathless. In Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), he does a lower-class parody of Truffaut movies, using the same toneless narrator and erotic triangle as in Jules and Jim, and the same shoot-‘em-up finale as in Shoot the Piano Player.

Band of Outsiders, however, was a film of some substance, similar to Breathless in the way it regarded the amoral style of cool, rather retarded nihilists who treat crime as an adolescent game. Godard knows as well as anyone how deeply this style has been influenced by American popular culture, and his real contribution is the way he juxtaposes his characters against the degenerate environment that shaped them. When Godard is not engaging in bored practical jokes, he can be a cogent social commentator, though a wholly unengaged one. Social comment, as a matter of fact, seemed to be the impluse behind many films in the Festival, usually the more simple and conventional ones. Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, for example, illustrated the ruinous effect of Western customs on Indian family life by tracing the career of a modest and retiring Bengali matron who grows estranged from her husband when she takes a job; but although this film was sweet, affectionate, and wholesome, it barely escaped sentimentality. A more interesting failure was Bunuel new version of Diary of a Chambermaid (Journal d’une Femme de Chambre) in which the director’s customary obsession with festishism, anti-clericalism, and anarchism was combined with a more conventional political theme—the development of French fascism entre deux guerres—but the combination failed to cohere, despite some funny sequences, and a good suspenseful narrative. The least interesting of all the social-minded directors, Francesco Rosi, was for some odd reason represented by two movies, both of them awful: Hands Across the City (Le Mani sulla Citta), a study of urban corruption which consisted of endless shots of Rod Steiger walking around an Italian city with his hands in his overcoat, and Salvatore Giuliano, a journalistic version of the life of the famous Sicilian bandit, where the director was so intent on showing us the political forces molding Giuliano’s development that he neglected to show us Giuliano. Both movies ended in long and incoherent trial scenes, which suggests that this director, a Marxist, is unable to understand an event until he has translated it into its bureaucratic equivalent.

The best social movie in the Festival was Nothing But a Man, created by a couple of youthful Americans named Michael Roemer and Robert Young. This movie is, in my opinion, the most sensitive exploration to date of the American Negro “problem,” largely because it ignored the “problem” entirely, and concentrated on telling a truthful story. Photographed in a clean documentary style, directed in a tight, understated manner, Nothing But a Man examined the spiritual emasculation of a dignified young Negro who refuses to submit himself to white authority, exploring along the way the various roots of Negro fear, Negro grievance, and Negro degradation. Generically, a straightforward domestic drama—technically, a conventionally empathetic movie—this film nevertheless contributes more to the understanding between Negroes and whites than all the accusing fingers of such injustice collectors as James Baldwin, Leroi Jones, and James Oliver Killens. And it does so because its intention is not to divide but rather to unify—through an act of theatrical identification. In Nothing But a Man, the Negro is neither explained nor defended nor exalted; he is simply there, a complicated, unassailable fact.

The sleeper of the Festival was Alain Jessua’s Inside Out (La Via à l’Envers)—a film which combined the best attributes of both social and experimental films for the sake of a telling judgment on modern urban life. Working in a hard, precise style, Jessua explored the internal machinery of his dissociated hero—a doleful, ironic, alienated individual played with grace by Charles Denner—as he gradually withdraws into a kind of Buddhist Nirvana where everything breathes and everything is possible. Beginning as a rather detached narcissist, trying to cut himself off from the demands of his work and life, he soon learns to concentrate on inanimate objects—trees, chairs, pinball machines—with the intensity of a fakir and the power of a god; and it is not long befor he is “disappearing” from friends and family, and finding his way to that inner privacy which the modern world has made impossible. The camera work is beautiful, for Jessua has the capacity to see the same fascinating qualities in simple objects as his hero; and he is one of the few directors represented at the Festival who knows how to build a unified scene where music is an integrated part of the meaning. The flaw in the film is its clinical conclusion—the hero ends up cross-legged on the floor of an asylum, apparently in a catatonic state—for the suggestion that the man is simply mad betrays the philosophical implications of the work. But Inside Out is just ambiguous enough throughout most of its length to be the source of rapt attention.

Despite occasional rewards, therefore, the Festival as a whole was very disappointing: enough failures like these and we shall soon start talking about the “crisis in the film” as we now discuss such crises in the theater. But it is the Festival format that stimulates such premature pessimism, along with the inflated claims that are now being advanced for the film as art. The Second New York Film Festival simply demonstrates that the movies are only very rarely a high art, and that most of its serious efforts are as full of fudge and fakery as those in any other form. On the other hand, what the films can do consistently and superlatively is entertain. This is a modest fact which film festivals are still disinclined to accept.

Letters

Letters December 31, 1964

Letters December 31, 1964

Letters December 31, 1964

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