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The Moviegoer: Scorecard

I suppose more nonsense, engaging and otherwise, has been written about films than about any other medium. And I mean written by the serious critic. Here’s Seymour Stern thundering somewhere in the Thirties: “Twenty years after Birth of a Nation, nineteen years after Intolerance, and ten after Potemkin, the cinema as a fine art, in every country of the world, presents a picture of absolute bankruptcy.” In passing, Stern pulverized Murnan’s Sunrise, Lubitsch’s “bits of persiflage,” the “absurdly overrated” René Clair, and such sports as Mervyn LeRoy, George Cukor, and King Vidor, whose “style” Stern considered about as profound as that of Mary Roberts Rinchart.

What’s interesting is not to smirk over any supposed lapse in taste, nor to suggest that Stern put money on the wrong horse (after all everyone still pays homage to the films of Griffith or Eisenstein, even if, as is usually the case, they’ve never seen them), but simply to wonder, from the vantage point of today, why he didn’t pick the whole stable. For with many a cinéaste, a galloping nostalgia is the thing, and just about any trotter, especially if it’s trotting in from the Thirties or the Forties, can be assured some laurel at the finish. In the past, from John Grierson to Dwight Macdonald, it was beneath contempt to have anything but contempt for the ostrich-feathered hocus-pocus Dietrich wandered through under Josef von Sternberg’s direction. Yet these very films (which the unfailing Stern called “pretentious vacuities”) are now the objects of a transatlantic cult. Over the summer both Cahiers du Cinéma and Movie offered devotional spreads, and it’s rumored that parts of Last Year at Marienbad owe something to Blonde Venus, or perhaps to The Devil is a Woman. Well, Dietrich is Dietrich, class is class.

Still, there are other spectacles. The revival, for example, of Maria Montez, that sleepy charmer of Universal’s back-lot Sahara. In the catacombs of the underground enthusiast, the late star’s immortality rites solemnly proceed, with Film Culture, no less, assisting at the organ. Then there are the grind-house directors (Phil Karlson, Anthony Mann), whom Manny Farber, writing in Commentary in the late Fifties, rated a little below Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, those “true masters” of the male action pic. To pump them, Farber not only deflated the “liberal schmaltz” of The Best Years of Our Lives (well worth doing), but also the “water buffalo” sloshings of De Sica or Zinnemann. Even amongst the chosen, Farber made distinctions. For such “overweighted mistakes” as G. I. Joe, William Wellman was slapped; for some trinket—say, Roxie Hart, a Ginger Rogers number he tossed off in the Forties—Wellman was applauded.

Or take another category: the varying fortunes of the art house idol. L’Avventura (surely one of the great films) caused consternation at Cannes and, until the “word” spread, a general apathy elsewhere. Yet as Antonioni’s magic progressively dimmed (first with La Notte, then with Eclipse) his reputation rampageously mounted, till finally we had Red Desert (surely one of the worst films), which was automatically acknowledged as a landmark, and won the sweepstakes at Venice. Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais’ first feature, was even more vehemently acclaimed, one critic predicting that in fifty years its revolutionary style wouldn’t be spent. Today, less than six years after the event, Hiroshima is pretty much vieux jeu. On the other hand, Resnais’ third film, Muriel, while obviously no gem, seems, in contrast, a good deal more interesting. However, Muriel, conversely, died overnight.

I offer these curious, perhaps confusing comments, partly to demonstrate certain see-sawing changes, past and present, and partly as an introduction to last month’s proceedings at Lincoln Center. But mostly, I confess, to prepare the reader for the following passage, which should, if anything can, add the necessary fourth dimension to everything already noted. The passage comes from Amos Vogel, the New York Film Festival impresario, and is part of his essay on why films are

nothing less than the modern worldview in philosophy (existentialism), physics (relativity, indeterminacy, quantum theory), psychology (the subconscious, myth, the dream world as a place). And so film finally breaks with its sordid provincialism and inevitably becomes affected by modern theatre (Beckett, Ionesco, Artaud, Brecht), new literature (Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman) and the contemporary plastic arts Rauschenberg, Rivers, Johns)…

Vogel characteristically concludes with elephantine restraint: “It is on this exalted and adventurous plane that the Festival, each year, perpetrates both its errors and, hopefully, its triumphs.” Unfortunately, the errors perpetrated by the Third New York Film Festival were as excessive as ever, and hope, that thing with feathers, rarely flew near Lincoln Center.

I did not see Raven’s End (Sweden), Black Peter (Czechoslovakia), Unreconciled (West Germany), nor, regrettably, the Chris Marker documentary, La Mystère Kouniko. Of the “retrospective” items I had viewed elsewhere Antonioni’s La Signora Senza Camelie and Clement’s Knave of Hearts; I have previously reported on Godard’s Le Petit Soldat; I missed (or avoided) Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage and Buster Keaton in Seven Chances. I did see, alas, Erich von Stroheim’s silent film lulu, The Wedding March, which Herman Weinberg, an early drum-beater, once described as the director’s attempt “to become the Goya of the films. Necromancer of the spirit, he liberated the instincts…chaotic visions mixed with orgies and cemeteries…the pathetic little cripple in a wedding gown, with horror stricken eyes, prostrating herself in a deserted chapel before the Madonna…” The little cripple was ZaSu Pitts. I saw (or sat through) a number of shorts; they ranged from the normally bad to the abnormally awful. Les Vampires and Mickey One (USA) were not screened for the press.

Both Bosley Crowther and Judith Crist found Shakespeare Wallah a delight. I found it a pretentiously unpretentious East meets West romance much too endearing to be endured. It was, to use the terms loosely, directed by the American James Ivory and written by the Indian Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Poland’s young writer-director, Jerzy Skolimowski, was apparently a favorite of no one except the program director and myself. At the press showing of Walkover, when the hero, a failed engineer turned boxer, was told off (“You’re nothing but a thirty-year-old flop”), the audience cheered. Skolimowski’s style is distracting (a crisscross of neo-realism and the cinepoem) and the interior monologues are hapless; but there’s a genuine energy throughout; the anti-hero’s temperament—halfnervy, half-sunk—is right, and various fleeting interludes—with the priest, the policeman, at the gym—are honest. Skolimowski is someone to watch. There’s nothing at all to watch in Lawrence Kent’s Caressed, a crude how-a-teenager-gets-laid charade, sent to us by the Giant of the North, unless you’re Edmund Wilson and interested in Canadian culture. Adolescent dolor (of a pathological sort), figured prominently in I Pugni in Tasca, which marked the directorial debut of the talented Marco Bellocchio, with Zola and Buñuel nodding in the background. A study in inverted self-destruction (a son knocking off members of his provincial family, physical misfits like himself), the film was alternately powerful, sensitive, silly: creepy looking-in-the-mirror shots, feet propped on mother’s calket etc. Paris vu par, an omnibus olor film, toured the quartiers; it offered six sketches, like six midgets stuffed with delusions of grandeur. The worst came from Claude Chabrol, huffing and puffing through an Ionescotype piffle; the best from Jean Rouch, of cinéma vérité fame, who almost rescued a domestic tiff with a dénouement Breton might like.

Thomas l’lmposteur, though faithful to the novel and scripted in part by Cocteau, never succeeded. A horse with a bridle of flame charging through a shattered town, a hospital room with the narrator’s comment: “They let gangrene grow over him as ivy grows over a statue”—these moments, while suggesting Cocteau’s presence, lasted about as long as a snowflake in water. The director, Georges Franju, did not seem to know what he was doing: whether a piquant period-piece, a fable of World War I, or a reprise of his own Les Yeux sans Visage. Too many menacing mists above dug-outs intermingled with home-front frou-frou. The plot was slim, the characterizations muted: a glory-hungry youth attaches himself to a Red Cross convoy and to its commandant, a Parisian grande dame. The lad goes to his doom; the lady never recovers. Auric’s score—now the waltz theme, now the trumpets—fell flat.

In Red Beard, Japan’s justly celebrated Akira Kurosawa was the professional having a ball. Out of the old doc/young doc wrestle (Crosby and Fitzgerald in Welcome Stranger), Kurosawa shamelessly lathered a three hour rodomontade: plots and counterplots, heart-tuggings and hugger-mugger, sacred and profane love, and, showman to the last, an all-purpose “message” which did not go unheard. After applause at Moscow, Red Beard went on to garner the Catholic Award at Venice. Technically speaking, it is easy to see here the hand of the director who gave us Rashomon and Ikiru. But technique alone, as someone remarked, is a corpse. In that sense, Red Beard was a corpse with bells on.

Satyajit Ray’s Charulata proved a beautifully performed tale of frustrated infidelity, probably the finest of those films Ray has made from the works of Tagore. The garden scene where the wife, indolently looking through her opera glass, watching a visiting cousin writing in his notebook, then slowly discovering that she is infatuated with the man, is stunningly conceived, and sets the tone, pictorially and psychologically, for all that follows. The genial husband is one of those unintuitive intellectuals who cannot “see things.” Only in overhearing his wife’s involuntary confession, does he learn the truth. The cousin, who sees only too well, leaves. Domesticity resumes and Ray catches the couple in a concluding camera-freeze, like a photograph, a memento.

Jan Kadar’s and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on High Street hung out four pennants. It condemned anti-semitism, it was socially conscious, it had “recognizable types,” it came from Eastern Europe—Czeschslovakia, to be exact. Who could resist? The Times: “Not since The Diary of Anne Frank…a memorable motion picture about a disgraceful phase of human history.” The first half was very good: a local dead-beat becomes the “Aryan manager” of an old lady’s button shop; living completely in the past, she knows nothing of the war; a wry, Renoiresque relationship develops between the two. Then come the deportations. As the press release put it: the man must decide “what he must render to Hitler and what he must render to humanity.” Inflation mounts, generally in the manner of Bernhard Wicki’s mauling of The Visit, with Joseph Kroner sweating like Anthony Quinn, and Ida Kaminska, as gentle a soul as Minee Dupree, continually baffled by it all. Tragedy ensues. The Post: “It is both funny and sad…” True.

In Visconti’s Sandra, the Electra-Orestes situation surfaces again as alta moda melodrama: Franck on the keyboard, a town “dying like a disease,” mysterious shifts à la the Morse code—now the dots, now the dashes. On er honeymoon, Sandra returns to the old memory-strewn palazzo in Volterra. She keeps hinting that mother and mother’s lover had sent her father away to Auschwitz. The lover, now Sandra’s step-father, keeps hinting that Sandra and her brother haven’t exactly been playing tiddlywinks together. Meandering about, especially while the brother and sister exchange shocking looks, is Sandra’s husband, a wooden American portrayed by a wooden Englishman (Michael Craig), so it takes in inordinate length for anything to penetrate. When at long last the stepfather shouts amore incestuoso, hell breaks loose. Nothing that anti-climactic has happened since Gary Cooper in Souls at Sea recited the whole of “To be or not to be,” and then “explained” it to his shipmate. Sandra raises two questions, only the first of which is naive. How did it win the Grand Prize at Venice? What has happened to Visconti’s technique? The man who worked miracles with Clara Calamai, Valli, and Magnani, drew nothing but a dull, dizzy performance from Claudia Cardinale.

Finally, Dreyer’s Gertrud—without doubt the best film shown, but just how good or great is hard to say. At Philharmonic Hall the audience kept thinning, there were snickers. Set in the late nineteenth century, with an epilogue in the Thirties, Gertrud presents a woman who lives only for love and ends up loveless. There is the poet of her youth, who falsely celebrated Eros over Art; there is the husband who masked ambition as devotion; there is the bohemian with whom she has an affair and who betrays her. The poet returns, famous and empty, begging forgiveness; she rejects him. The husband, knowing all, even his faults, asks her to remain; she leaves him. Years later she chats with the friend with whom she had gone to study the new science, psychiatry. She tells him there is only Love and Death: she has known moments of the former, and now awaits the latter. In his presence she burns his letters. They say goodbye. Is Gertrud an ironic comment on the evolution of the emancipated woman? Is it the reductio ad absurdum of romanticism? Or is the heroine the personification of Truth, of some sort of existential authenticity?

Dreyer’s style allows many interpretations. Although fanatically austere, yet in framing and lighting there’s an ashy lyricism, even elegance. The subject is human relatedness, yet rarely do the characters look at one another. No one mentions God, but some sort of religosity is implied. Cinematically, Gertrud is not “advanced.” The movement is slow, not in the atmospheric Antonioni sense, but rather like the old Lichtspiel, or chamber drama; the lines bleak or curiously poetic (“I am a mouth searching for another mouth”). It is odd, and oddest of all when compared with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. Then the anguish was overpowering, the close-ups alone almost indecently intimate. In Gertrud the camera seems cemented at a respectful distance, and the anguish, of which there is plenty, is rigorously (albeit masterfully) suppressed. Perhaps, for the seventy-five-year-old Dreyer, that makes it all the more “real.”

Before closing, some swift, thoroughly unsolicited, suggestions. 1. The Festival, if possible, should commence when the concert season ends, sometime in May, thereby avoiding competition with, or being reduced to the leavings of, the other Festivals, especially the ones at Venice and Berlin. 2. Kurosawa can make it on his own. The Festival should therefore devote itself, primarily or wholly, to the neglected artist (young or old, traditional or experimental). 3 A critics’ poll within each participating nation should determine the entries, from which the Festival directors then make the final selections. 4. After three years, Amos Vogel and Richard Roud may be said to have had it. I recommend as replacements Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael, though it’s unlikely they’d be interested in so thankless an undertaking. 5. That goo palmed off annually in the program notes (“The divine Lucia Bose…” “Its sound of terror is the sound of now”), must go. Lastly, a cautionary note. New York art houses, contrary to claims, do not offer international film fare comparable to that found in Paris or London. Before L’Avventura, nothing by Antonioni arrived. Before Rocco, only Visconti’s Bellissima was shown, and that simply because Magnani was the star. The situation still holds: directors like Ozu, Passolini, Rivette, being cases in point. Given the commercial set-up, the Festival is, I think, a necessity and could, if properly managed, be of considerable value, rather than merely, as now, an increasingly chi-chi pastime.

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