Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Man in Alley and Woman in Alley (Joe Dietl and Melissa Brown). Right: Young Jack Bolton (Andrew Harpending).
IN HONOR OF THE TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), Zeitgeist Films has released a new DVD edition, using as its source the original 35-mm internegative. The digitized film looks and sounds just fine on my home screen, although there’s no substitute for seeing it in a theater, with an entire audience suddenly still as the strands of the triple narrative twist together in the assault and transcendence of the final minutes. Poison is an outrageous work born of outrage—over the AIDS crisis and the demonization of the dying and the dead by a homophobic society. Haynes has often remarked that he would not have been able to make Poison today. While that may be true—certainly the fury that drives it is veiled in his subsequent films—what’s more important is that Poison is just as powerful and necessary a work as it was in 1991. To exploit its most notorious image, the film is a gob of spittle in the face of what today passes for adversarial art and politics. As I watched it, I wondered when someone would make a movie about the current political, economic, and cultural assault on women’s autonomy or about the accelerating destruction of the environment that is as passionate, cogent, visceral, and aesthetically sophisticated as Poison.
Titled respectively “Hero,” Horror,” and “Homo,” the three narratives comprising Poison are each couched in a different style. “Hero” uses the conventions of 1980s tabloid TV to tell the story of seven-year-old Richie, who kills his father to save his mom and then, according to her account of the event, flies out the bedroom window and disappears into the blue heavens. The family’s suburban neighbors agree that there was always something not quite right about Richie. “Horror,” which is shot in black-and-white and edited like a ’50s monster B-movie, is the most pointed of the three sections in its AIDS metaphor. A scientist bottles the sex drive, drinks the potion by accident, and is transformed into an oozing, crud-covered wreck that fearmongering newspapers label the Leper Sex Killer after he infects the women who come on to him. “Homo” is a prison love story based on the ’40s writings of Jean Genet, particularly The Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal. A mixture of brutish melodrama and lyrical S&M fantasies, “Homo” is the only section devoted to men desiring men and thus became the story with which Poison is identified.
In his Director’s Statement (printed in the DVD liner notes along with J. Hoberman’s 1991 Village Voice review and some fascinating production information), Haynes explains that on learning in 1986 of Genet’s death, he wondered what the writer, in his last years, might have thought about the AIDS crisis. He conceived of Poison as taking the side of the “deviant”—just as Genet did in his life and work. “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness,” wrote Genet. Haynes uses the quote as an epigram. But even before we read it, we have understood that Poison is both a dream and a call to action.
Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991. (Excerpt from “Homo” segment.)
“Homo” reflects Genet’s only film, Un Chant d’amour (A Song of Love, 1950), with its fetid stone dungeons and pastoral fantasies of freedom. Unlike the convicts in Genet’s film, who lived in solitary confinement, Poison’s prisoners mingle freely in dark winding corridors and stairways. There, Broom (Scott Renderer) encounters Bolton (James Lyons, who also coedited the film with Haynes), the episode’s tall, dark, lush-lipped object of desire. Broom remembers Bolton as the victim of a reform school hazing. Half-hidden behind wildflowers growing between rocks that form a grotto-like enclosure, the young Broom watched as a gang of teenagers, dressed in gardening clothes as if they were refugees from Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, pry open Bolton’s mouth and use it as the target for a long-range spitting competition. As the humiliated Bolton sinks to his knees, he casts his eyes heavenward to see a storm of rose petals falling from a cloud-feathered sky. Poison’s signature set piece was appropriately shot on a soundstage, the mix of artifice and visceral reality reflecting the construction of the voyeur’s fantasy. Broom has nursed this erotic image of submission and transcendence for decades. His rape of the adult Bolton, after a long, yearning mutual seduction, is more straightforward and physically brutal.
Despite the acting, which is notably wooden throughout, the jittery camera work (by Maryse Alberti and Barry Ellsworth), the evocative score by James Bennett, and the ingeniously fluid editing combine to make the experience of the film at once poignant and harrowing. The three sections are woven together through rhyming images and sounds and shared words and verbal metaphors. Awash in every kind of bodily fluid, Poison is also an extremely tactile film. Close-ups of hands abound—grasping, gripping, caressing, exploring. The tactility is echoed in the filmmaking—handmade out of economic necessity.
While Broom is the Genet figure, Richie is the alter ego of the filmmaker as a young boy. The titular “Hero” is barely present on the screen, but his point of view defines both the title sequence and the enigmatic conclusion of the entire film. Throughout the former, we see Richie’s hand as it investigates the personal objects in his parents’ darkened bedroom, caressing his mother’s toilette articles, jewelry, lingerie, digging into forbidden dresser drawers until he finds the deadly object for which he is searching—later clearly revealed as his father’s gun. At the end of the film, as Richie’s mother describes how her son saved her and then flew out the window, we see, through what could only be Richie’s eyes as he hovers just above the house, his mother’s face as she leans over the ledge searching for him in the infinite blue sky into which he ascends. The final image of Poison is the cloudless, unbroken blue ether; the final words, spoken by his mother in a voice trembling with pride and wonder, are “My little boy.”
Indeed, what had Haynes wrought? Poison won best feature at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and opened some two months later at the Angelika Film Center in New York where it broke house box-office records. Its success owed a little something to the free publicity it received when it was attacked by Reverend Donald Wildmon, then chairman of the ultra-right wing American Family Association, and denounced on the floor of the US Senate by Jesse Helms as an example of the kind of “homosexual pornography” that the National Endowment for the Arts was using taxpayer money to fund. Clips from Poison showed up on network news shows. Haynes went one-on-one in televised debates with Dick Armey, former House majority leader and current “godfather” of the Tea Party movement, and with the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed. It was a heady moment: Poison’s director; its producer, Christine Vachon; its distributor, Zeitgeist Films, which released both the 1999 DVD and this restored twentieth-anniversary edition; and its publicist, Jeff Hill, who understood how to turn free negative attention into box-office gold, not only won their indie film cred with Poison, but they also carried—for a brief moment—the American independent film movement into outlaw, queer territories and twisty definitions of “positive” role models.
In a work between Poison and his next feature, Safe (1995), Haynes elaborated the character of Richie into a portrait of the queer artist at an impressionable age. Dottie Gets Spanked (1994) is a thirty-minute, made-for-television narrative about a young boy obsessed with a female sitcom star and with spankings—given and received. If Poison’s literary source is Genet, Dottie explicitly references Freud’s essay “A Child Is Being Beaten.” (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish figures in both movies.) Dottie, which is currently available through Zeitgeist on DVD and on Amazon Digital’s pay-for-view, would have been a great extra on the new Poison DVD. Which is not to make less of the DVD’s inclusion of Ira Sachs’s restrained but nevertheless heartbreaking short film Last Address (2009), a series of moving-picture images of the exteriors of buildings where artists who died of AIDS lived in the final years, months, or weeks of their lives. Among those artists is Lyons, whose HIV-positive status, in part, personalized Poison’s rage. Lyons continued to edit all of Haynes’s films through Far from Heaven (2002). He died in 2007, at age forty-six. Although Poison’s credits include many now illustrious names, Lyons’s creative contribution cannot be overestimated.
The twentieth-anniversary edition of Poison is now available from Zeitgeist Films.
FOR ALL ITS SURFACE CALM AND CHARM, Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, a tale of woebegone adolescents, is a small but deadly missile aimed at more than a few of the stereotypes endemic to the coming-of-age genre. From the first shot of its forlorn, overweight protagonist (beautifully played by Jacob Wysocki) lying listlessly in a bathtub, to its final scene when Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald, the all-too-human assistant principal of his high school (a terrific John C. Reilly), bond over burgers and the errant ways of humanity, the film upends expectations—both for the path it pursues and for the ones it smartly avoids. Skirting the supercilious and the sentimental, as well as neatly pigeonholed images of “losers,” Jacobs strikes a tone both gentle and unnerving, rubbing our noses in enough unpleasant aspects of his characters to make us cringe with unwelcome familiarity rather than sympathize with smug detachment. Terri comes closer than the average film of its kind to capturing the borderline pathology that plagues adolescence, but it also has its share of dysfunctional adults. Ideal role models are nowhere in sight, and in the (unexplained) absence of his mother and father, Terri himself virtually parents the pre-dementia uncle with whom he lives. That he longs for affection and affirmation is clear when he feels betrayed that Mr. Fitzgerald treats him as he does other problem kids.
Chronically late and still in his pajamas, Terri drags himself to school. The effort is nicely symbolized by the divide between the hilly, wooded area he walks through every day and the school grounds below and beyond it. While the wood seems a haven of comfort before his descent to the daily taunts and humiliations of his homeroom peers, it is also where Terri lays out the mice he has caught in the attic for predatory birds, shrieking in delight when a hawk tears into rodent flesh. But neither Jacobs’s settings nor his characters fall into schematic contrasts. Terri’s genuine sensitivity coexists with a moderately sadistic pleasure typical of teenagers. Though the usual rituals and bullying abound, Terri is no pushover. He defends Heather, a pretty coed (Olivia Crocicchia) who is reprimanded for allowing a boy to touch her inappropriately in class, and pals around with the unbearably pathetic Chad (Bridger Zadina). No small part of the film’s queasy effect is the uncanny aptness of its casting.
Jacobs’s approach and themes coalesce most effectively in a scene near the end in which Terri, Heather, and Chad play out an adolescent long day’s journey into night that is as touching as it is repellent, its very duration reaching a level of discomfort that is the most truthful thing about it. Buzzed on alcohol, Chad pees on his pants; Heather ridicules his penis while offering herself to Terri; and he bares the fleshy breasts his classmates mock. Neither hip nor poignantly transcendent, the scene defies us to look away from its excruciating bluntness, offering neither an erotic nor a comic payoff. No dramatic aftermath or reductive message displaces the feeling that we’ve seen the underside of many a pathetic foray into adulthood. While Terri is unlikely to attract the audience that revels in more Dionysian treatments of adolescent angst, it has an integrity that warrants respect and attention.
Terri opens Friday, July 1, in New York and Los Angeles.
THE NICOLAS PROVOST PROGRAM shown on the second evening of this year’s ten-day Migrating Forms proved a suitable foil to any unified accounts of the festival. Stardust, an uncanny film perpetually verging on narrative intrigue, features a nocturnal Las Vegas haunted by hidden-camera shots of half-caught glances, suggestively linked gestures, and the ready-to-read faces of actual off-duty stars (Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson). Much like Provost’s Long Live the New Flesh, which beads together a bottomless visual continuum from madly artifacting digital images of gore, it’s a recipe for paranoid recognition: Is there something there? Are things coming together?
In the characteristically diverse, experimental lineup—drawn from festivals, archives, and galleries (some of the films in the festival related to concurrent exhibitions elsewhere, e.g., Cao Fei and Olga Chernysheva)—a number of works took for granted a self-consciousness about vision and cognition, in a stance sometimes liberating, sometimes unsettling, and often both. Working at a fundamental level was Madison Brookshire’s Color Series: Expanses of blue and red, achieved sans camera, were held for cone-numbing durations. The viewer’s initially attentive gaze turns passive, capitulating to ocular laws that conjure beauty through shifts in hue and edge definition. Jackie Goss’s The Observers, a chronicle of two successive women in residence in a blustery mountaintop weather observatory, brings out the ritual quality and inscrutability of their scientific pursuits; our critical gaze is twinned with the (slightly dazed) pair’s weather readings and obsessive fumblings with a locked box. And the glitches in a screening of Kevin Jerome Everson’s BZV initially added another, serendipitous layer to its staged scenes of Congo River waterskiing: Blown-out black-and-white contrast seemed to align with the film’s wind-whipped audio.
The revivals at this year’s edition of Migrating Forms spanned the 1970s, closed-circuit-video blackout sketches/performative objets of Cynthia Maughan (who was paired with vintage William Wegman in an Electronic Arts Intermix program), Glauber Rocha’s syllabus-staple Cinema Novo provocations, and artifacts from two eras of Detroit-born phenomenon Destroy All Monsters. But a personal favorite was a night devoted to features worked on by French experimental wordsmith Georges Perec. First up was Série noire, the funny-bleak 1979 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, named after the cult French crime imprint. Director Alain Corneau recruited Perec to write dialogue that put only clichés in the mouth of scheming door-to-door salesman Frank, a helpless whirlwind played with exhilarating idiosyncrasy by Patrick Dewaere.
It’s fascinating to think of Perec at the time also finalizing his greatest work, Life: A User’s Manual (1978). And, extraordinarily, the evening’s other selection, Un Homme qui dort (1974), was introduced by Perec’s faithful fellow Oulipian Harry Mathews. Codirected with Bernard Queysanne, who worked on the film mostly on weekends and late at night, this disarming adaptation of Perec’s novel depicts a young man’s withdrawal from society into an itinerant hermitism, ignoring knocks at the door at home, or walking through gorgeously and kinetically photographed Paris locations (including, in a climactic sequence, a shot from Franju’s Sang des bêtes). But the guiding force is the second-person voice-over (by Shelley Duvall in the English version) that seemingly speaks to viewer, subject, the work itself—everything. With pronouncements such as “Something has gone wrong / You don’t know how to live” continually outflanking the viewer (and, ironically, echoing the direct address typical of advertising copy), it marked the festival’s halfway point but truly felt like The End.
Migrating Forms ran May 20–29, 2011, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Nicolas Roeg, Insignificance, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes.
PAST IS PRESENT in the cinema of Nicolas Roeg. To simply call those extratemporal sequences that punctuate his work “flashbacks” is to downplay the role that images of what came before play in his films. Such “digressive” framing devices are, in many ways, the emotional and visual keystones of Roeg’s work.
In his heyday, from the 1970s until the mid-’80s, Roeg was known as an envelope pusher. He employed nonlinear editing as part of an ambitious attempt to bridge space and time, cutting frames together with an eye toward enriching the interplay of associations in the viewer’s mind. Thus a gesture at the center of one scene is overtly replicated in the next one, or one character seemingly responds to another, even if the two actions or people are decades or time zones apart. One rarely engages fully with the sloppy top layers of a Roeg film (the characters, the story). The real action takes place on a slightly creepy subliminal level.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the humanoid, hyperevolved creature played by David Bowie says he’s interested in the “transference of energy.” Bowie’s Newton has come from a faraway place to build something that no one around him really understands. The parallels between Newton and Roeg, an Englishman making his first film in the US at the time, are obvious, especially when you consider that the film’s unhappy distributors went so far as to hand out leaflets at cinemas outlining the plot.
In a way, you can’t blame them. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a simple story, willfully scrambled into something much more complicated. In a nutshell: Newton migrates to our world to build a spaceship that will allow him to return to his home planet, which has run out of water, so that he can presumably bring his wife and children back to Earth. But he’s undone by alcohol, television, and the machinations of a suspicious government agency.
It’s not clear what Newton’s powers are, but he does at one point seem to peer through time. As he’s being chauffeured through the American West, a roadside meadow suddenly becomes populated with nineteenth-century settlers. They’re just as surprised to see Newton, speeding by in his limousine, as he is to see them. Where are we? In the present, looking into the past? Or in the past, experiencing a vision of the future, albeit one less terrifying than the bloody prefigurations of Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now? Forward, backward: The individual and collective unconscious stretches miles and miles in both directions.
Newton’s brief encounter with pioneers correlates to a scene in Roeg’s Insignificance (1985) in which an elevator operator of Cherokee descent hears his ancestors chanting as he contemplates the Manhattan skyline. The bellman is not a major character, but his minority, in multiple senses of the word, adds a layer of meaning to the film’s title, and his moment at the top of the city helps Insignificance (recently rereleased by Criterion on Blu-Ray and DVD) breathe.
The basic setup is the same as in the original play by Terry Johnson: Individuals resembling Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and (least likable of all) Senator Joe McCarthy rotate in and out of the same hotel room. It’s an exploration of celebrity based on the principle, as Roeg put it around the time of its making, that “nobody knows a damn thing about anyone.” (It’s worth noting that the film was released in a time when America was being led by a former movie star.)
Insignificance reanimates four icons of a ’50s cold-war American pop culture racked by nuclear fears, and then examines them as individuals: most vividly, “The Actress” (Theresa Russell), who inspires and feeds on the public’s desire, and “The Professor” (Michael Emil), plagued by guilt for his role in creating the atomic bomb. The film ends on Roeg’s graphic vision, which unfolds in slow motion, of America’s sweetheart being blown to bits the way the people of Hiroshima were. (More associations: Her charred corpse recalls that of Gene Hackman’s seemingly impervious treasure hunter in Eureka .) Regardless of her symbolic power, Marilyn the person can be extinguished in a heartbeat. The Wild West, Hiroshima, the ’50s, the apocalypse—they’re not as far apart as you might think.
Left: Andrew Haigh, Weekend, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 96 minutes. Russell and Glen (Tom Cullen and Chris New). Right: Asif Kapadia, Senna, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes.
THE BAMCINEMAFEST gets off to a smashing start with the New York premiere of Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s smart, sexy, gay two-hander. (Opening night is Thursday, June 16, at 7:30 PM, and ticket holders are invited to the afterparty with cast and crew. You’ll be able to say that you saw—across a crowded room—the movie’s brilliant stars, Chris New and Tom Cullen, before they became famous.) Cullen plays the semicloseted Russell (out to his close friends but not to his neighbors or coworkers at the gym where he’s a lifeguard). One night in the loo of a crowded Nottingham gay bar, he connects with Glen (New, who’s as sleepy-eyed and acid-tongued as the young Tim Roth), and, much to his surprise, they wind up in bed together. Over the course of three days, they quickly discover their mutual capacity for an intimacy that’s emotional as well as sexual, their relationship intensified by the fact that Glen, an artist who audiotapes postcoital conversations to use in his work, is already scheduled to leave for grad school in Portland (where else?). Just when it seemed that it would be unbearable to sit through another movie about identity-as-sex and vice versa, one comes along that’s more precise and more moving than almost all the others. Weekend is something like a Rohmer talkathon punctuated by R-rated sex and set in working-class England. I was as amazed by it as the characters—and the actors who play them—were by each other.
Like Weekend, some of the best movies in the BAMcinemaFest—Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Azazel Jacobs’s Terri—are scheduled to open later this summer. The latter is a beautifully observed, radiantly photographed, occasionally hilarious depiction of a misfit teenage boy coming of age with the help of a clumsy but hopeful guidance counselor (John C. Reilly, subtle at last). Senna is a documentary portrait of the Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula One world champion who became a martyr for the sport that consumed him when, at the age of thirty-four, he was killed behind the wheel of a car about which he had grave misgivings. An international celebrity from the time he burst onto the racing scene in 1984 until his death ten years later, Senna was surrounded by cameras wherever he went and, despite their presence, he was remarkably open in conversation and in manner. Kapadia weaves the movie from existing video footage of this handsome, seductive, intelligent, utterly focused young man. From time to time, we also see the course of a race nearly through his eyes. (In Formula One cars, video cameras are anchored next to the drivers’ heads.) One doesn’t need to know or care about racing to be thoroughly moved and shaken by Senna, or to realize that the miracle of the movies has allowed us to see a genius at work.
Among other must-sees: Chris Munch’s Letters from the Big Man, a fairy tale for adults about a young woman who encounters a bigfoot in the deep forests of southwestern Oregon and forms a mutually protective relationship with him (I believed every minute of it), and Charlie Ahearn’s Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, a documentary follow-up to Ahearn’s epoch-defining Wild Style. The film begins in the 1980s, just after Shabazz graduated from Brooklyn’s Tilden High. Shabazz photographed his peers on the streets where they hung out and where many of them died. He went on to hold a day job as a corrections officer, which seemed to change not a jot the freedom that his subjects—many of them living outside the law—felt before his camera. They shine; they give meaning to “cool” as tragedy and comedy. “Back in the Days: REMIX,” an exhibition of Shabazz’s photographs, runs June 16–26 in BAM’s Natman Room. He will be signing copies of his book of the same title on the last afternoon of the show.
BAMcinemaFest includes twenty-six feature-length movies and three programs of shorts. Among the American Independent movies that I cannot recommend, I did spot something like a trend. Michael Tully’s Septien, Sophia Takal’s Green, and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel are all, in one way or another, ambitious—that is, they strain to be out of the ordinary. They are also all built around characters that one would find unbearable to be around for five minutes, let alone the duration of a feature film. (If, that is, one could believe in their existence at all.) Of the three, Septien shows the most talent. Tully and his excellent DP, Jeremy Saulnier, know how to tell a story with the camera. And that’s nothing to be taken lightly.
BAMcinemaFest runs June 16–26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Uruphong Raksasad, Agrarian Utopia, 2009, still from a color film in HDV, 122 minutes.
THE HISTORY of labor-conscious cinema abounds with landmarks in cinematographic beauty, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Days of Heaven (1978) among the most notable. This is far from coincidental. Any film dealing with agricultural work will likely capture the relationship between man and landscape, a relationship that is often shot through with cruel irony: How can splendiferous settings be home to poverty and exploitation?
Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s quasi documentary Agrarian Utopia stretches this irony to the breaking point. For here is an undeniably stunning work of visual art, a premiere example of the equal footing hi-def digital video now holds with celluloid filmmaking. Acting as his own cinematographer, Uruphong finds intimate wonder in lush, verdant hills; in twilights afire with dark orange skies; in children frolicking amid drenched fields, their playful dives splattering mud in almost painterly strokes across the camera lens.
But the primary effect of these images is not simply to inspire rapture. It is to heighten the vulnerability and demonstrate the perseverance of a class of people held in servitude to the environment they must work to ever-slimmer prospects of upward mobility or even daily sustenance. The narrative of Agrarian Utopia concerns the day-to-day survival of rice paddy peasants played by nonprofessional actors living lives much like those they portray on-screen. Two families band together to work an owner’s land—rented by Uruphong himself for the purposes of the shoot—using antiquated agricultural methods: A harnessed yet cantankerous buffalo provides the most advanced technological tool.
The film opens with workers complaining about drowning in unpaid loans, and things only get harder from there. The families must forage for insects and honey during especially hard times; a father tells his family not to spend money on his funeral shrine so that they can save it for the children’s studies; the land owner pays out less than expected at the end of the year’s harvest in order to pay the money he owes on a car.
Toward the beginning and end of Agrarian Utopia, Uruphong uses clips of impassioned and heated populist protests against the Thai government on the streets of Bangkok. But the main characters—especially paterfamilias Duen—only watch these political battles from the sidelines. (“It’s like a movie,” he earlier says about scenes of the “good” opposition pitted against the “bad” officials.) Even religion seems futile, what with a Buddhist temple atop a nearby hill mocking the workers’ grinding labor with promises of immaterial respite.
What’s left to hope for? Agrarian Utopia implies that Duen will be forced to move to the city to seek low-paying work he doesn’t desire—a fate shared by multitudes in a globalized agricultural system almost entirely given over to industrialization. Uruphong also uncovers small moments of domestic strength and happiness: an outdoor wedding ceremony, children honking horns created out of thatched grass. Whether these constitute visions of harmony that can drive Duen’s determination to do better for his family or mere moments of joy snatched from a lifetime of adversity remains the film’s wrenching open question.
Agrarian Utopia runs June 10–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Éric Rohmer, Le Rayon vert (Summer), 1986, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes.
DELPHINE, the fretful and fussy antiheroine of Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, 1986; originally released in North America as Summer), may be at a loss for those all-important July-August vacation plans, but she doesn’t lack for friends and strangers telling her where to go or how to live. Still brittle two years after a broken engagement, which is echoed by a friend’s last-minute change in travel itinerary at the film’s opening, the pale Parisian will find herself, for example, airily defending vegetarianism to a table full of people she barely knows, or watching a Swedish girl she meets on a topless beach trade interminable flirtations with a doofus pickup.
Delphine’s melancholia and loneliness attract the attention of others, but amid these interventions by concerned extroverts, her breakdowns and sudden flights accrue into a portrayal of a not-so-poetic doldrums, even depression. Rohmer makes her mood recognizable from inside and outside through her tetchy clinging to sadness and the frustration of friends trying to help. The bracing, craggy seasides she explores alone, the sandy stretches of anonymous crowds, and the alfresco chats provide little escape. “For Éric Rohmer, leisure is the supreme spiritual test faced by modern men and women,” wrote Phillip Lopate, mostly not kidding.
Shooting on 16 mm, Rohmer catches partly improvised conversations, allowing overlapping dialogue and casual gestures (as when one of Delphine’s friends turns her attention to a magazine on a side table). Played by Marie Rivière, Delphine speaks in a fluttering self-revising rush, vacillating between assertion and confession; whenever she gives up and her tears flow, which happens more than once, it feels unexpected and real, a break in the etiquette of smooth surfaces. And yet her romanticism is just as palpable: When she finally takes steps to dig herself out of a hole, she seems to believe in her success only upon seeing the titular rayon vert, glimpsed for a mere moment at day’s end.
Le Rayon vert (Summer) will screen at BAMcinématek in New York from June 9–15.
Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator, 1940, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 125 minutes.
“LEAVE ME, I WANT TO BE ALONE.” Thus growls a sullen Hitler to one of his attendants in an original trailer for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Slithering down from an unlikely perch high up on a curtain, Der Führer proceeds to stalk an outsize globe, eyeing it greedily and portentously, in lone contemplation of his imminent world dominion. The globe turns out to be a balloon, affording Chaplin some highly amusing pantomime. He bounces and spins it in a comical allegory of arrogant control, until the object pops in his face. The prelude to Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin underscores the mood and the message—and attests to Chaplin’s affinity, shared with Hitler himself, for Wagner’s operas.
Chaplin’s first sound film, The Great Dictator also constituted his most successful commercial venture. He not only wrote, produced, and directed the movie, but also starred in double roles: as both an anonymous Jewish barber and the eponymous tyrant—Adenoid Hynkel—for whom the former is mistaken. The film is perhaps best recalled for the barber’s final speech—an elegy both personal and existential, a mournful dirge and a cautionary homily (“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed . . . ”). Yet if any other scene stands out as strikingly, it is Hynkel’s nonsensical harangue before his minions. Real German words and names—“sauerkraut” and “schnitzel” among them—punctuate a stream of gibberish to no grammatical end. By further inflating Hitler’s over-the-top oratory, Chaplin aimed to deflate his still-exotic menace. A Mussolini-like character, the voluble “Benzino Napaloni”—along with the satirized pageantry of Fascist propaganda—rounds out the film’s send-up of totalitarianism.
Such menace would soon form anything but the stuff of slapstick. Chaplin is said to have later regretted the film’s release, in light of the atrocities to which it only alludes. Still, the rather hackneyed association of freakish eccentricity and megalomaniacal despotism finds, in Chaplin’s work, an incisive parody—one that originated, in part, from the actor’s own physical similarity to the great dictator. The US was still officially at peace with Germany at the time of the film’s debut. Humorous or not, it represented a political intervention, for which Chaplin was criticized by German sympathizers at home. To be sure, the film ventures a broad-strokes diagnosis of the world’s ills, unabashedly humanist in its bright-eyed defiance. Yet given the continued proliferation of dictators on the world stage, and the courage of those still daring to topple them, Chaplin’s film may teach us something yet.
The Great Dictator is now available on DVD and Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection.