Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films
Fritz Lang in America fall)
Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur, a Biography
The word “art” rattles through John Simon’s prose like an old sabre, often accompanied by condescension to the notion of entertainment—“adequate, simple-minded entertainment,” the “tastefully designed bauble,” the “solid bagatelle.” “On occasion everyone appreciates a well-made piece of fluff” (the unhappy italics are Simon’s). Art “leaves us with insights, epiphanies, a climate of elation in which it is easier to breathe in the perennial problems, more possible to live with them according to our individual lights.” Simon believes in “film as art, and in art as a form of humanism”; in a “spiritual aristocracy” dedicated to the “priorities of searching penetrancy and uncompromising effort to express the ineffable.”
This is horribly stuffy and lamentably written, but it doesn’t seem entirely wrong. Art can usually look after itself, but it does need to be defended from time to time. If critics cry greatness whenever they see something they mildly like, we shall not only have no words for the real thing when it shows up, we shall begin to lose our sense of what the real thing is. Perhaps we have begun. Certainly it is easy to fall into exaggerations. I once remarked casually to F. W. Dupee that Robert Rossen’s The Hustler was “a great movie.” Dupee grinned skeptically. “Jesus,” he said, “if The Hustler‘s a great movie, what’s Battleship Potemkin?” I can see too that Simon needs to be categoric: thumping the table a bit in order to be heard.
Reverse Angle brings together ten years’ worth of film reviews. Simon perceives the qualities of Robert Altman’s Nashville and Terrence Malick’s Badlands; he is lucid and honest in his backing away from Sam Peckinpah: “As one who touted and defended The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, I am particularly disheartened: Peckinpah clearly doesn’t lack talent; what he lacks is brains.”
But I am not finally persuaded that the stiffness of Simon’s mind is a fighting strategy, and I cannot see why every hapless work of entertainment needs to be beaten with the big stick of art. “Let’s face it: nothing so simple-minded as your basic western can be a work of art.” The issue is not so clear, and in any case does it matter if a western is not The Brothers Karamazov? Surely the main fact about entertainment is not that it is not art. Simon’s chief failing as a critic is his lack of curiosity about what amuses other people. “I have never been partial to the criminal genre in any medium,” he writes. He is not partial to any genres, has nothing resembling affection even for the pieces of fluff he patronizes. This is consistent enough. “There is no loving of movies,” he sternly says, “only loving of good movies.” “Can you imagine a serious literary critic being asked by lovers of literature whether he really likes books.” The thing is, I can imagine this. It strikes me as a good question, and a number of serious literary critics might well produce disappointing answers. A person who loves only good movies is like a person who loves virtues rather than people.
Simon’s sharpest question is implicit, and one he can’t stay to answer, because of his lack of interest in genre. The best European films aspire, as Simon says, to “the lost Paradise of realism”; the best American films belong to genres—westerns, weepies, thrillers, comedies. What does this mean?
Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride, in their respective introductions to interviews with Fritz Lang and Howard Hawks, wallow in contradictions. In Germany, Lang made Destiny, his Dr. Mabuse films, and M; in America he made (among many other movies) The Return of Frank James and Rancho Notorious. Was this a comedown? “It could be argued,” Bogdanovich says, “that Lang’s American films are better than his German ones.” But it turns out that Bogdanovich is not going to argue this, or indeed anything else. He informs us, rather surprisingly, that Lang takes as his hero “the American common man” but “has little interest in anything approaching normality.” His world is “shadows and night.” “The crippled…are Lang’s true metier.” “As a creator of nightmares, Lang has few peers.” This is grist to Simon’s mill. The very stuff of entertainment is being treated as if it were art—a line of thought which will not allow us to tell Kafka from Frankenstein, or Fritz Lang from either.
Joseph McBride, an experienced film critic who has written books on John Ford and Orson Welles, finds in Howard Hawks’s work a “narrowness of thematic range” which bars him from “the highest level of cinematic greatness,” but decides that Hawks has a greatness of his own anyway, along with an “underlying seriousness.” What sort of greatness can this be, and what if Hawks’s major merit is a refusal of underlying seriousness, a respect for the immediacy of genre? Hawks is well known for westerns like Rio Bravo and Red River, but he also directed Scarface, The Big Sleep, Bringing up Baby, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The interview recorded in Fritz Lang in America took place in 1965. The book was first published in 1967 and is presently to be reprinted without revision. Lang speaks as a craftsman, even as what Roland Barthes might have called a moralist of technique: “Every camera movement must have a motivation, a reason.” There are flashes of speculation:
It’s a funny thing, when I talk to people who are interested in motion pictures, very seldom do they remember dialogue from a film—all they remember are images. Why? Why does an audience, when they see Hamlet in the theatre, remember “To be or not to be…”? Why not in motion pictures? I mean, there is a very simple answer: we haven’t yet had a Shakespeare in the movies—but I doubt that is really the answer.
Lang obligingly sums up the continuing theme of his films—“this fight against destiny,” “hate, murder, and revenge”—but it all seems rather tame. His mind is not here, is perhaps to be found only on film, and this book doesn’t bring us closer to him.
“Hate, murder, and revenge” is a quotation from the song that runs through Rancho Notorious, but that film’s most striking moment insists on the arrival of those things rather than on their persistence. A singer brings a ballad to a close with the quoted words, the credit titles end, and the screen fills with a large close-up of a couple kissing. The woman will soon be raped and killed, and the man will spend the film hunting her murderer, so the song is apt enough. It’s just that the juxtaposition of the final words and the kiss is a shock, and suggests a sort of entailment. Love brings on hate, murder, and revenge, and this is Lang’s chief insight, not unconnected, no doubt, to his experience of Hitler’s Germany: the proximity of harm, the way it ambushes the relations we cherish. Happiness itself is a form of risk—a modern version of what used to be called the envy of the gods.
The cozy home life of Glenn Ford in Lang’s The Big Heat is something of an embarrassment, all simpering sweetness and oversignaled affection. But Lang is interested in the wreck of this life, not in its quality. Ford tells a story to his spoiled and unbearable little daughter, while his wife goes out to the car, intending to go and fetch their baby sitter. There is a colossal explosion: a bomb planted in the car by the local Mob, who are not taking kindly to Ford’s investigations. Just before the explosion Ford looks toward the camera, and the shot is held for what feels like a very long time. He is smiling slightly, contented: a married man. We are seeing the easy, hopeful look which the bomb will destroy, and it is this pleasant, undemanding face, rather than any moral abstraction, that carries a large part of the film’s meaning, indeed says everything the domestic dialogue has awkwardly failed to put across—how much he loves his wife, and the life they have. It is hard to speak of this in rude critical words, but it seems clear that the genre is working for the film here, so that expectations are used rather than merely met, and it seems trivial to wonder whether a happiness poised on the verge of its loss belongs to art or entertainment.
François Truffaut called Howard Hawks “one of the most intellectual filmmakers in America.” This is very nearly as silly as it sounds, and John Simon would say it is not much of a compliment anyway. But we should not be deceived by the casualness of Hawks’s language. He thinks more, and has more to say, than Lang. Hawks on Hawks is an edited version of nine talks Joseph McBride had with the director between 1970 and 1977, the year Hawks died.
Hawks recognizes a certain coldness as a feature of his style, and talks of underwriting and having actors underplay as lifelong tactics. “I like it when it’s so quick that you say, ‘My God, did it really happen?’ ” He would tell John Ford he was corny, and Ford would say, “Well, you’re so damned sarcastic.” “I learned right in the beginning from Jack Ford,” Hawks says, “and I learned what not to do by watching Cecil DeMille.” Faced with a perfectly adequate delivery of a line, Hawks would respond, “Pretty good. It’s a little usual,” and he and the actor would come up with something else. John Ford said that if he had a scene that wasn’t good enough he would do it in long shot. “If I’ve got a scene like that,” Hawks comments, “I just try to do it as quick as I can.”
Much of this is a matter of knowhow, but it is quite intricate, and more personal than Lang’s talk of images and camera. The notions of speed, sarcasm, and the avoidance of the usual add up to a small theory of Hawks’s practice. The point, of course, is that you see the theory only when you step back from the practice, and the practice, for Hawks, is the telling of stories. “A director’s a storyteller,” he says more than once, and he speaks at one moment of the ways in which European directors are “telling pictures.” McBride mentions Truffaut’s idea that Hawks’s Hatari!, like Truffaut’s Day for Night, is a film about filming—the hunting, the crew on location, the planning of the next day’s activities, all a metaphor. Hawks’s reply is instructive. “Probably had a lot to do with the thing, because there wasn’t much story.” Self-conscious art makes its appearance, not because the director takes a dive into modernism but because the story can’t fend off the metaphor creeping in from the material circumstances of the production. The real shooting of the film was more interesting than the imagined shooting of animals.
Hawks’s friendship and admiration for Faulkner are pertinent here. “He could write almost anything,” Hawks says. “I never had any luck in getting the writer of a thing do the scenario except Bill Faulkner.” Irving Thalberg thought Hawks knew “more about stories than anybody else,” and a story here means something like the promise of a plot or a situation. A genre was an opportunity for Hawks, a chance to let a story, whether about leopards in Connecticut or drunks in the old West, deliver its own fast-flowing goods.
Effectively Hawks responds to questions about art with answers about skill, and this is not the evasion it seems. The issue posed so often in Hawks’s films, most memorably in Dean Martin’s fumbling return to personal authority in Rio Bravo, is whether people are any good at whatever they happen to do, and in this light comparisons of sorts of excellence are apt to look a little empty. Does Joe Frazier hit better than John McEnroe serves? Other things being equal, is a tragedy greater than a sonnet? Which tragedy? Which sonnet? Other things are never equal. We may want to say that Hawks is not an artist, if this means we won’t gain much by treating him as we treat Buñuel, or Bresson, or Ozu. But this only tells us, vaguely, what he is not. The question of what he is remains open, and the concept of entertainment, although Hawks himself accepted it readily enough as a description of his work, seems meagre unless we are prepared to explore it more fully than we have done so far.
Roman Polanski is an interesting case here, because it is somehow easier to think of him as an artist, while feeling that his work is less serious than that of Lang or Hawks. This tells us something about the way we use the word “art”—more about that than about Polanski. Hollywood saw him, Barbara Leaming says, as “an arty filmmaker for the mass market,” but this is clumsy. He is a clever, shallow director caught somewhere between Hitchcock and Antonioni.
He was born in Paris in 1933. His family returned to Poland in 1936, his mother dying in Auschwitz in 1941. After the war he attended art school, acted on the stage and in films, and found a career at the Polish Film School in Lodz, where he made the funny and frightening short Two Men and a Wardrobe. His slick Knife in the Water was his “ticket to the West,” as he put it, and his next film was Repulsion, made in England, where he also shot Cul-de-Sac. Hollywood then wooed him with Rosemary’s Baby, and his life began to loom over his work. He married Sharon Tate, who was murdered by creatures of Charles Manson while Polanski was working in London. His Macbeth and What? are bewildered gropings, and he returned to critical grace with the glossy Chinatown. He made The Tenant in Paris, then hit the scandal headlines again for his sexual activities with a thirteen-year-old girl. Hollywood, that virtuous town of health food, quiet snorting, and early rising, briefly looked like the old Babylon of Errol Flynn and Fatty Arbuckle. With deportation threatening, Polanski fled America. His most recent film, Tess, was made in France—according to Barbara Leaming the most expensive movie ever produced there.
“Polanski’s cinema can’t be separated from him,” Leaming writes. “His is a peculiarly modern tale…having set out to create an image for himself…he became a public effect, to which his art was now pressed to respond.” This is an interesting thought, suggests a vision of the director as star, and the star as shaky figment of our muddled imaginations. But Leaming only registers the thought, doesn’t explore it.
Her biography of Polanski is brisk and sensible, but slightly flat. Aspects of her subject’s life come into focus: his mischief, occasional cruelty, technical skills. She thinks the Polish waif is the key to the international director, and makes much of Polanski’s diminutive stature. Her epigraph comes from The Tin Drum, the dwarf Bebra’s advice to stunted Oskar: “Our kind has no place in the audience. We must perform, we must run the show….” This doesn’t take us far, since the Polish waif is himself a mystery, maybe an act. “My films are the expression of momentary desires,” Polanski once said, but at times they seem to be less than that: the erratic outbursts of a mind that cannot hold its own preoccupations steady. He isn’t really in his films, or in this book. He comes alive only at one moment here. A friend is trying to console him after Sharon Tate’s gruesome murder, and tells him he is tougher than most people. “Yeah,” Polanski says, “but who wants to be tougher?”
In fact, what Polanski seems to have grasped and sporadically made his own are certain generalized fears about damage and destruction, too programmatically orchestrated in Repulsion, luridly present in Rosemary’s Baby, and delicately suggested in Chinatown, despite the film’s stately pace and solemn pretensions. The genre hovers between horror and crime, and the implication in these films is not far from Lang’s, except that the damage does not lurk outside, like a bomb in a car, it waits within, a perpetual capacity of our fright. “Most people,” we hear in Chinatown, “don’t have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place they are capable of anything.” The line doesn’t have the force it ought to in the film, because John Huston, who says it, is too busy playing a vicious criminal as if he were Santa Claus. And perhaps Polanski’s sense of this Conradian thought is still theoretical, in spite of his attempts to put the spirit of it into practice. But even as a worry rather than a conviction, the thought has an edge, and it happens, since 1969, to have behind it the authority of Charles Manson, who really was capable of anything.
Leaming quotes Pauline Kael on this delicate subject:
Even though we knew that Roman Polanski had nothing whatever to do with causing the murder of his wife and unborn child and friends, the massacre seemed a vision realized from his nightmare movies.
The large question, leaving aside both simple causality and complicated magic, is the relation between nightmares dreamed and nightmares lived. Do the first exorcise or invite the second? Can we really believe there is no relation? What are the agencies that confine them, for the most part, to separate but alarmingly similar worlds? The Big Heat is a better film than Chinatown but it does not provoke these questions. Glenn Ford can’t bring his wife back to life, but he can bring the criminals to book, turn on the big heat. Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown, can only watch, horrorstruck, as accident and panic make even his worst fears seem modest.
There is an answer here, not to the question why the best American films belong to genres, but to the question why genre films can mean so much. They do not deepen into art, and they don’t need to. They reach out, or at least thrillers do, and parallel arguments could be developed for other genres, into the truths of feeling that hide in superstitions. It is not true that the gods are envious of our happiness, that the devil walks the world, or that we are all capable of anything. What is true is that our fears and reality often collude to make those propositions nearly irresistible.