We are not all movie lovers, those of us who as children in the war-time Forties spent our Saturday afternoons in movie houses. We went because there was nothing else to do, because everyone went, and because it was dark, dirty, and liberating inside. We were a wild audience, hardly spectators at all; our childhood moviegoing had more to do with the theater of participation than the cinema we know now. Reading the names of those New York West Side theaters which serve our literature as bridges to the common generational unconscious, I think not of the screen but of that great Elizabethan pit, the children’s section, where the fists and food and insults flying made the movie necessarily incidental; the aisles down which the matrons chased us as we escaped into forbidden sections to smoke, find perverts in every row, throw candy from the balcony, chant—even on occasion to run across the stage so that it was the shadows of our images which, flashing between the projector and the screen, blotted out the faces of the stars.
We are all movie lovers now. Or at least we are concerned; forming queues in any weather in order to be informed, involved, even enlightened. Although it sometimes seems that today it is the film critics who are liberated while we are more often stuck for hours before a clean well-lighted screen.
Movies, film, flicks, cinema—lately that most self-conscious of forms. One does not even know quite what to call it, there being in the choice of terms an implication of judgment on the value of the form itself. Moviegoing has become formal even as the form loosens. Once I would leave a bad movie as swiftly as I would shut a dull book. Now I stay through it all watching for what should not be missed. Movies are like an old pol become a statesman; what he says is not so much improved as the value given it.
The line between art and junk movies has always been blurred. Long ago, a pan from Bosley Crowther meant the movie was likely to be good, but there are no such dowsers any more. The critics know that art is everywhere, look high and low with the same kind and serious gaze. Flaws which in other forms might invalidate the work are passed over as minor. If you don’t like the content, look at the cutting. This aficionado attitude flourishes within a general absence of standards so that we all waste a good deal of time looking at junk. Perhaps this is because we still believe that film belongs to us in a way that the older, the more aristocratic arts do not, and so demand less from it. Movies today are good to look at; anything more is gravy.
One becomes grateful for bits and pieces: a night-long drive on an English highway in Charlie Bubbles; Godard’s quick flashes of intelligence; bright colors, speed, surprise; a sense of weather; a joke. In the case of Greetings, a little revue featuring last year’s young, I felt quite agreeable about it merely because it was unpretentious, mildly amusing, and good-natured. Still, if its basic material had been presented as theater it would have been instantly clear that it was derivative and shallow. If film is the essential art of our time, it is time to stop patronizing it with overpraise.
Take Faces, for example, John Cassavetes’ award-bearing film which has been knocking everyone out. Lauded as an event of brutal confrontation, an intense experience which one approaches in order to be instructed in life, it is rather more a conglomerate of clichés fused by heat. This demi-verité production is an attempt to distill the desperation and anomie of that same middle-aged affluent couple who have served generations of critics of our national life. Show us a businessman and his wife and we see the dead soul of America. During a long ruttish night, this husband and wife and some other empty people are faced with the vacancy of their lives and the knowledge that even sex will not fill the void.
The language is sufficiently awkward to appear unwritten—as if the film were indeed a session of theater as therapy with actors who could not quite remember how real people spoke. Consider this early exchange used to establish the character of quasi-cultured but hollow people:
Wife: There’s a Bergman film in the neighborhood.
Husband: You like getting depressed?
Wife: There’s nothing on television tonight.
And later, another businessman who tells a call girl about his hollow life by speaking of a son who “nances around in tennis shoes at Dartmouth,” which sounds less like a contemporary complaint than a recollection by Cassavetes of something he read years ago in a John O’Hara story.
The cinéastes tell me that it is film as a totality rather than the dialogue which is significant. Total cinema, of course, would be fine—but until electrodes bypass film and spark the desired responses inside our heads we must cope with the components of a movie. If actors are going to talk, one can’t avoid hearing what they say, which, in Faces, is as sappy as the dialogue of the golden age of television. Faces, in fact, has the moldering texture of that era; the same insular sense of life and obsession with getting at one’s real feelings—all that exorcism—which has come along into this decade as Esalen, the doctrine that nakedness is truth, and the notion that time devoted to a subject is equal to insight.
In Faces the sequences are extraordinarily long, the camera closes in on steaming faces and stays there. The actors are so intense—there is such a fuss being made—that it is possible to be momentarily seduced into thinking something important is happening. Cassavetes is not alone in believing that if you look at a face in closeup long enough, some special truth can be extracted from the view. This is debatable even in documentary cinema where at least the faces are real (I have wondered about the truth-in-faces theory ever since I confused some photographs of the German General Staff with a group of radical pacifists). In any case, to look at Gena Rowland pretending to be a dumb call girl or John Marley smiling like David Susskind tells me nothing at all.
“The trouble with people today,” Cassavetes said recently, “is that they’d rather talk about garbage strikes, teacher strikes, and the news rather than confront their own emotions.” It is hard to think of anything less the trouble with people today. People love to confront their own emotions—preferably the same ones over and over again. It keeps their minds off thinking.
What is finally most objectionable about Faces is that Cassavetes has taken a second-hand vision and, in the guise of empathy, transmuted it into a film which is so contemptuous that there is no one who cannot feel superior to what is happening on screen, no one who cannot comfort himself with the thought of the lousy lives of those people out there where neither money nor sex brings happiness because feeling is blocked—unlike Cassavetes and his cast who have their art, and the audience which, by its immersion in the movie, proves it can be redeemed.
Salesman is Albert and David Maysles’s latest documentary. The Maysles wisely prefer the term “direct cinema” to cinema verité, but there are questions about verité that are not entirely answered by changing the name. Is it ever really possible to “snatch life from time”? How much does the presence of the camera alter the reality it puts on film? Would the salesman on whom Salesman is most focused have lost his job if Maysles had not been trudging along behind him, his camera a witness to every pitch? Is there a betrayal of confidence, a moral problem, in letting people go on and on and then editing so that a point of view is expressed which the subjects did not know was there? Still, these problems exist in any form which uses recognizable life models. Why should we be harder on film-makers than on journalists? People react to cameras—but they also react to people.
Salesman is about a group of door-to-door Catholic bible salesmen and their customers, those recently recollected forgotten men who live in the depression landscape of working-class areas so far from the hot center of anything—that place where nothing swings and the family daughters still “work for the telephone” and keep the faith; about those who can almost afford five dollars down and a dollar a week for a garish illustrated bible which they don’t need and the rich wouldn’t have; about traveling from New England to Florida doing Caesar’s work for The Lord.
Fundamentally, though, this is a film about money. It makes us think of money in a context we have ignored in our disgust at abundance and concern for the poor. Here there is not the specious pain of money not being enough, but the anxiety provoked by not quite enough money to buy all the things that those in Faces have for ballast; not enough to make a salesman a success, to buy off a class sense of failure.
The Maysles’s view is, of course, that the salesmen are as much victims as pursuers—hooked by the illusions that it is not dirty work they do, but only their jobs; that an open-ended paycheck means limitless possibility; that free enterprise makes them free men. The Maysles show us the yankee peddler gone bad, the end of frontiers, and the rotten way in which the hunt for money forms the structures of days.
This is not all the truth, certainly. Who knows what the salesmen are like at home, or what the customers do when the Maysles go away, or who is happy and who is sad? But it is part of the truth, at least, and I expect we should be glad of any we can get.
About halfway through Ingmar Bergman’s new film Shame, I had the heartless thought that perhaps Yeats’s beast had slouched past once too often. A classic film, masterpiece stamped on every frame, this allegory of an island in a world at endless war begins with the war approaching the island, the beginning of the end of the world. Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow, apolitical, both in better days before the war symphonic musicians, have lived on the island for four years, escaping the holocaust. If they are cut off from the great life of the past, there are still those amenities which make it possible to live like men, not beasts: an ordered rustic house, fruit and berries to sell, some friends, even a car. A yeoman’s life is not so bad. Just as there is “before the war” there is “after the war.” It is a life between brackets until Bergman takes the final bracket away.
Until then, Shame is a very good film, reflecting exactly that incredible ability of Man to go on living, even liking it when, under the best of conditions, his end is in sight. But not now, he says. Whatever is terrible will end before I do. I suppose that is what saves us. For how many years has the clock on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists been close to midnight?
Midnight comes slowly in Shame. As bands of partisans and soldiers devastate the island, everything goes. And here, of course, we are back in the familiar territory of death and destruction. Yes, quite true, we say—the dehumanization of man—as Von Sydow kills a helpless soldier for his boots and a place on Charon’s ferry. Yes, there are no islands. Yes, life is hell. We have seen it and it is true. Why, then, am I not moved?
I do not want to be flippant about this because Bergman has an honorable body of work and most of us have been affected by it at one time or another. Yet the old controlled beauty, the old metaphors: ruined trees against the sky; a splintered musical instrument; the shattered windows of a greenhouse; the eucharist; even the shoal of dead bodies to which the ferry finally comes speak an idiom which once seemed glacial and dazzling but now appears soft in spots, often as romantic as Sibelius, and as heavy.
In Shame, there is such inexorable cause and effect, such archetypal weight placed on the central figures that, even when despairing of man, Bergman celebrates him by enlargement. This in a time when we want to be pierced, not honored; when the ambiguity, the small sharp irony penetrates while the grand themes rumble over our heads like thunder. Perhaps it is because we think so little of ourselves these days that Bergman’s enlargement of us is almost embarrassing—like a parent making too much of the splendors of a quite ordinary child.
March 27, 1969