János Szász, The Notebook, 2013, HD video, color, sound 104 minutes. László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt (Egyik Iker and Masik Iker). Photo: Christian Berger.
HUNGARIAN DIRECTOR János Szász’s new film is based on Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook (1986), the first and eeriest novel of a trilogy that follows the grim fortunes of identical twins, Claus and Lucas (each name an anagram for the other) during and after World War II. Allegedly for their own safety during foreign occupation (no country is identified), the twins are sent to live with their grandmother—a “witch” suspected of having poisoned her husband. They purchase a notebook to record their experiences, which, in keeping with their uncanny mindset—one begins a sentence that the other completes—are written in the first-person plural in a prose as affectless as it is artless. Facts and actions, however brutal, are stated bluntly, without apology or embellishment. Determined to harden themselves against wartime conditions, the boys whip, cut, and curse each other to immunize themselves to attacks from local freaks, beginning with grandma. So hardened do they become that when their mother returns to reclaim them, they refuse to leave. They help their grandmother die at her request and promise to look after her farm. When their father returns, he too is rebuffed. In an attempt to escape across the border, he steps on a mine and is killed, which, it is implied, the boys both anticipated and counted on. To try living apart, Claus uses his father’s body to step safely across the border, while Lucas remains behind.
The film, cowritten by Kristóf, is generally faithful to this plot line. But like many films about the horrors of war, the story’s brutality and violence are more in-your-face—as opposed to the novel’s spare, understated style—and images of sadistic behavior are amplified by sound effects, registering every blow. Szász sets the tone with his opening shot: a close-up of the sleeping boys—their faces spooned together as the camera encircles them across the widescreen. It is both touching and unsettling. This is followed by a joyous homecoming scene as the boys embrace their father, returned from the front. Contrary to the novel, the film has the father give them the notebook as a parting gift, which renders both more ironic and more disturbing the final scene, indicating how far apart they have all grown.
The young actors who play the boys—László and András Gyémánt—are visually arresting to be sure, but their shared mindset is often conveyed via rote gestures that border on the comic. For example, when roused to anger, they assume a creepy stance and look telepathically at each other before walking menacingly toward an object of threat. Apparently, Szász wanted to evoke the kind of demonic behavior reminiscent of such classic sci-fi as Children of the Damned. Or perhaps he intended to simply throw us off, so that even when the boys show a capacity for kindness—as when they bring food and blankets to a dying soldier, or sympathize with a kindly Jewish cobbler—we are still uneasy about just how to read their behavior.
The novel’s hellish vision of humanity is powerful because it is concise and understated, and because readers can supply the historical context. Szász was faced with the task of trying to invest over-familiar events with a fresh perspective, with understandably mixed results. We can attribute the exaggerated, often grotesque aspects of the grandmother’s behavior and language to the natural distortion of a child’s viewpoint. But other images—e.g., Jewish families being marched off to the camps to the malicious sneers of the townsfolk—don’t entirely escape cliché. Films often show what novels only imply, so when we see the boys planting a grenade in a stove to punish the priest’s housekeeper for an act of cruelty, it’s no surprise that we also see it blow up in her face.
No story of this kind would be complete without sexual predation: The housekeeper, after telling the boys she’s old enough to be their mother, then slips into a tub with them, and masturbates under their very noses; nor are we surprised when an officer of the occupying army expresses undisguised erotic interest in the twins. Here, as elsewhere, the film’s strategy to find an equivalent for the novel’s sober perspective is to contrast coarse depictions of human behavior with the blank expressions of our twin protagonists.
Whatever else it may reflect, the film’s hyped up, quasi-surreal style seems, intentionally or not, to set us up for something the director may or may not have had in the back of his mind, and that no viewer could possibly suspect without having read the two succeeding parts of the trilogy. Without divulging too much, suffice it to say that everything we see in the film, as well as the very premise of the narrative, are upended in the final novel, aptly titled The Third Lie. Whether Szász is planning a sequel (or two), I don’t know, but if so, it would place an entirely different perspective on how one reads this film.
The Notebook opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 29th.
THE COVER IMAGE of the Criterion booklet for John Cassavetes’s Love Streams (1984) Blu-ray is a doozy. Who is that motherfucker in the goofy hat? (And what’s love got to do with it?) It’s Cassavetes, naturally, but that chintzy gardener’s chapeau makes him look like he’s auditioning for the role of Torgo in a John Huston remake of Manos: the Hands of Fate. It is an awesomely unflattering look—the face moist and sickly (it’s supposed to be rain-soaked, but here it looks like fever sweat on a wax effigy), eyes darting and ever-wary, the full-frontal effect ludicrous, scary, guardedly self-aware, and desperately, inscrutably sincere. If ever a shot screamed “warts and all,” this is it.
Love Streams is, in part, Cassavetes’s version of a slapstick comedy: The central, repeated gag is the epic amount of baggage Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) lugs from train station to train station to, eventually, her brother Robert Harmon’s (Cassavetes) house in the hills. Harmon is supposed to be a hotshot writer working on a book about “nightlife,” but this seems like the flimsiest of pretexts for Cassavetes to interact with an assortment of mostly younger women. He’s a nebulous artist-playboy figure who acts like a Private Eye of the heart. Almost as an aged, adrift/bereft version of his early Johnny Staccato character, he stalks the mysteries of romantic, familial, filial, and artistic love; also, like any P.I. worth the salt in his wounds, he even gets beaten up in the process. (In more ways than one.)
It’s tempting to see the movie as Cassavetes’s Long Goodbye: Besides the flaky, bittersweet affinities with Altman’s classic, this was his literal last hurrah. He received a diagnosis of terminal cirrhosis of the liver shortly after shooting began and reconceived/rewrote the picture on the fly. A sense of summing-up comes with the territory, yet it’s his most open-ended film, sometimes feeling as much like starting-again-from-scratch as a summation. Examining the pieces of his life’s work, he reevaluates his motives and methods, poking at them, kidding them and kicking them like the tires on a used car.
Joined in mid-blur-of-consciousness, in Love Streams continuity constantly gives way to dream logic and dream logic takes up residence in the most humdrum everyday objects and objectives. Separate plot motifs are streams that crisscross the movie and intersect for a moment, then go on as if headed for different movies. The film is more an anthology of stories that bleed into each other than a linear narrative: The subject is the Inner Life, but with its breathtakingly cavalier shock cuts and elisions, the dominant sensation is of zigzag movement where the viewer is being tugged forward, sideways, and backwards at more or less the same time. Dream sequences are shot with a mundane, real-time excruciation (when Rowlands assumes the guise of a poolside prop comic and tries in vain to make her husband and daughter laugh) or affectless theatricality (an operetta of reconciliation). A hair-raising one-minute chase down a steep hill isn’t a dream but has a sense of surrealism erupting in the midst of a quiet California neighborhood: Cassavetes is at the wheel and there’s a sense of real danger, working without a net or stunt doubles.
Slapstick though is as much an organizing principle as anything: Sarah’s mountains of trunks and cases, the menagerie of animals that she later brings back to the house, miniature horses disgorging from a taxi like clowns at a flea-bitten circus; Robert tending the animals inside his home/ark as though he were Noah under a Southern California flood. A frisky set-piece where Sarah goes to a bowling alley to pick up some spares and/or a man foreshadows elements of The Big Lebowski, packing as much smudgy weirdness into a few minutes without making a whole ostentatious federal case about it.
Playing brother and sister (though the movie is very coy about that for the first hour or so), Cassavetes and Rowland encompass a whole fierce spectrum of family relations: absent father/smother-mother, siblings in love with their own reflections in each other, most of all a couple of recalcitrant children seemingly incapable of ever outgrowing their neediness or fear of “real” intimacy (whatever that is). In this ballet of disorientation and regression, Love Streams harks back to the most potent, poignant, impossible stream of all. Not love but Alcohol—as self-medication, as a means to self-expression in a culture that tamps emotions down, both a permission slip and an all-purpose excuse from responsibility for actions, inactions, failures, and calculated black-outs.
The supplemental material that comes with the Love Streams disc is terrific. It features the critic and novelist Michael Ventura’s making-of documentary, “I’m Almost Not Crazy,” and a Ventura commentary that encapsulates the Romantic-aesthetic-personal thrall Cassavetes had for his devotees. Each one captures the Cassavetes ethos of better-alchemy-through-chaos: means and ends, experience and experimentation, all pitched together into an extended family endeavor, where a sense of belonging, purpose, undivided loyalty, and Us (Team Cassavetes) vs. Them (the Phonies, the Cowards, the money-mad Entertainers) mentality played out in creative, confounding terms. It’s a more intensely private version of what the larger, convention-bound public took from the Godfather films and The Sopranos. On Cassavetes’s love-it-or-fuck-you terms, the blood and passion wasn’t gussied up and spoon-fed to you from a silver Hollywood punchbowl.
Love Streams pours out like a hemorrhage, but a comic, operating-theater-of-the-absurd one. Of this I know whereof I speak: While working on this little bauble, a surgically repaired (or so I believed) spot in my mouth suddenly burst, opening up a nasal-size passage into my sinus and dumping out big black gobs of congealed blood, pus, and tissue into the bathroom sink, sending me to the Emergency Room. I am positive Cassavetes’s first impulse when handed a metaphor like that would be to use it first and ask questions later. Disease as serendipity-do-dah, Method Criticism in Action, and perhaps too a gently gruesome reminder that his critics have holes in their heads just like his characters.
Love Streams is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
IN THE FIVE YEARS PRIOR TO 1900, average life expectancy in the US increased from thirty-nine to forty-seven years; cities were gradually wired for electricity, which replaced gas illumination; the X-Ray was invented and also the motion-picture projector. This transformative moment in all the sciences is the setting for The Knick, a ten-part hospital series currently on Cinemax.
What makes The Knick (short for a fictionalized version of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital) the latest instance of auteur TV is that it is directed, photographed, and edited in its entirety by Steven Soderbergh, a continuation of the hands-on practice that has distinguished his movie career. Not to labor the obvious, the director is as much a workaholic and control freak as is The Knick’s central character, the hospital’s audacious, driven, ruthlessly competitive chief surgeon, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen). Soderbergh is a chilly director—that’s a description, not a criticism—but his empathy with Thackery, whose mind is on fire even as the rest of him is a mess, turns The Knick into a hot show, or at least a constantly simmering one that boils over at least once or twice in every episode.
The writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, handed Soderbergh a B-picture melodrama with familiar network TV tropes—Grey’s Anatomy, House, and ER crossed with bits from every show David Milch created. The dialogue is mostly wooden, but there are snatches of insight and wit, as when the liberal head of the hospital’s board, August Robinson, gives a lesson to its louche, bumbling financial manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). In the nineteenth century, Robinson explains, men amassed wealth through material resources, but in the twentieth, people will get rich by controlling the immaterial, including the aforementioned electricity and X-ray technology, which he has generously provided to The Knick. Strings attached.
Thackery’s foil—first an adversary, later an uneasy ally—is a “negro” surgeon, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), son of the Robinson family’s housekeeper and childhood playmate of Cornelia Robinson (Juliet Rylance), who has assumed most of her father’s duties on the board. Edwards is as impeccably groomed and controlled in his demeanor as Thackery is disheveled, sweaty, and, by the way, drug-addicted—cocaine by day and opium by night. Thackery’s character is based on an actual surgeon, William Halsted, as famous for his cocaine and morphine habits as for the radical surgeries he performed. Having presided over the first season coked to the max, perhaps Thackery will spend the second (Soderbergh has already committed to another ten episodes for 2015) nodding out.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School who trained in Paris and London, where surgical procedures were in advance of those in the US, Edwards has a lot to offer the Knick, but Thackery, reflexively racist, resents being told who to hire and also doesn’t want to deal with losing patients and staff because the Robinsons want to create an integrated hospital. Edwards, however, not only digs in his heels, he creates a secret clinic and surgery in the basement where he treats the black patients the Knick turns away. It’s next to the room where they store cadavers and the pen where they keep the pigs that the surgeons practice on, when there’s no money to buy human remains. The Knick is an upstairs/downstairs series as well as an uptown/downtown one. Regardless of the hospital’s mission to treat immigrant poor of the lower eastside, the board wants the Knick to move uptown, where “Mount Sinai Jew Hospital” is, so it can serve a more moneyed class of patients.
The Knick doesn’t trade in nostalgia. The New York of 1900 was filthy, corrupt, and lawless; almost anyone could be bought, and money ruled. Racism, sexism, and classism were undisguised, and the gap between rich and poor was taken for granted. In a particularly telling, beautifully underplayed moment, Cornelia is at the bedside of an Eastern European woman, perhaps in her late twenties, who is dying of tuberculosis. Hearing the woman implore her twelve-year-old daughter to leave so she won’t be late for work, Cornelia arranges for her carriage to drive the girl to the sweatshop.
While Thackery and Edwards are the central characters, Cornelia and two other female characters grow in importance throughout the season, their presence having less to do with the scripts than the exceptionally strong and subtle actresses Soderbergh chose for the roles and his propensity for focusing his camera on characters when they are not speaking. (As usual, it’s the men who do most of the talking.) The great Cara Seymour plays Sister Harriet, a dark-humored, chain-smoking nun. The hospital’s resident midwife, she’s seen too many women suffer and die giving birth or from botched attempts at abortion to turn her back on desperation, even at the cost of her immortal soul. Newly come from Kentucky to the big city, the capable though inexperienced nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson, who recalls the young Andie MacDowell of sex, lies, and videotape ) gradually becomes our eyes and something of the series’ moral compass. Since this is a hospital show, she and Cornelia will do their part in fulfilling the genre by being drawn into unsuitable, torrid affairs. Bodices removed from glowingly lit breasts balance operating room butchery. The Knick is nothing if not a show about the body, and Soderbergh seems to have been liberated to make both the most sensuous and erotic and also the most nauseatingly visceral images of his career.
Television has always been more an aural than a visual medium. But as movie directors have turned to making series TV, the priorities have occasionally been reversed. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013) was thrilling for its images of primeval New Zealand. Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective (2014) and some episodes of Breaking Bad (depending on who was directing) were great rural landscape movies. There are gorgeous images in The Knick, but more exciting, they are composed and edited to keep the mind as well as the senses alive. Shot on multiple locations in New York, the period detail is not simply decorative but speaks to basic issues of power, money, science, the body and its mortality. Soderbergh shot almost the entire series hand-holding the RED Dragon, currently the most low-light sensitive high-end digital movie camera. (The military has cameras that can see in so-called total darkness.) The handheld camerawork is almost never obvious, but it keeps the image alive and contingent; darkness and shadows are everywhere—even in the bleached-out winter exteriors, the notable exception being on the stage of the operating theater where the whiteness is blinding until the blood pours.
Most TV dramas, even those that are photographed in so-called film style, light the actors’ faces so intensely that they seem to exist in a separate dimension from the background. Soderbergh favors natural light for exteriors and a minimum of practical lights for interiors, which allows him to play with focus as well as shadowing for expressive purposes. But what makes Soderbergh a great filmmaker (albeit one who seldom has had scripts commensurate with his talent, The Knick not excepted) is his juxtaposing of image and sound (words, effects, and music). There is a sequence late in the series where Thackery, in the throes of cocaine withdrawal, is forced to sit through a hospital board meeting. The camera holds tight on his face, as sweat drips from his forehead and the muscles around his eyes and mouth twitch and contort. Throughout the shot, we hear the voices of the board members but the sound—if one can say this about sound—is out of focus, the words hardly intelligible. It’s a common enough device (sweaty face, distorted sound), used to indicate that someone is about to pass out, but it’s the length of time that Soderbergh holds the shot—minutes rather than seconds—that causes us to experience it kinetically, as a sensory experience in our own body.
Or take the sensational ten-minute opening of the first episode: sex, drugs, and The Knick’s equivalent of rock ’n’ roll—graphically depicted high-risk surgery. In the red-gold haze of an opium den, a young Asian woman, naked except for a thin robe that floats behind her, gives a wakeup call to a client named Johnny. The client, Dr. John Thackery, now dressed for work, climbs into a carriage for hire, where he prepares for the morning by shooting up with liquid opium, readily available from the hospital dispensary. As the carriage drives through the muck-covered streets and Thackery readies his morning pick-me-up, we are introduced to The Knick’s signature musical score—repetitively looped, throbbing, skidding, minimalist electronica by Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator, Cliff Martinez. Here, the quickening pulse and screeching upward glissando is precisely synced to the seconds before the needle finds the vein, evoking the anticipation of the orgasmic rush of the drug itself. As a cocaine-saturated movie experience, The Knick has the edge on Goodfellas (1990).
The longest scene in this ten-minute introduction is a surgery so bloody that even this hardened viewer turned away the first time she saw it. Never mind, you can do what you want without embarrassment in your living room, and if you rewatch the episode, you probably won’t be as nauseated. A woman is being given a Cesarean section. From the first incision, made with the equivalent of a box cutter, it’s clear that her uterus has ruptured and she’s going to bleed out. Nevertheless, the surgeons and nurses give it their all, turning the handle of the primitive siphoning apparatus (it’s the only sound we hear), filling bottle after bottle with gushing blood, trying to get the baby out and the artery sewed shut. But to no avail. Soderbergh moves his camera in, its lens as close as the surgeons’ eyes and hands. The gory spectacle is not gratuitous; this is where the series lives and its reason for being—to depict the dark ages of medicine and what it took to bring it into modern times.
The remainder of the first episode is overly cluttered with the introduction of characters and setups for various plot strands. And the second episode suffers in the same way. Don’t give up. By the time you are midway through Episode 3, I suspect you’ll be addicted.
The Knick plays Fridays at 10 PM on Cinemax with repeats during the week. Episode One is currently available for free on YouTube.
Chris Marker, Level Five, 1996, Betacam SP, color, sound, 106 minutes.
CHRIS MARKER, the French multimedia artist who more than any other individual has been identified with creating the essay film, was always an outlier, an anomaly, and this exceptionalism continued even after his death in 2012 at age ninety-one. Marker was remarkable, if not unique among artists of his generation, in having designed a digital monument to his own body of work, an online footprint that would remain once he himself was gone. This was Le Musée de Marker, an archive and gallery located on the island of Ouvroir, in the online virtual world of Second Life, which since 2003 has provided a canvas on which users can create their own domains. In the weeks and months following Marker’s death, mourners pilgrimaged to this shrine in droves, there to find Marker’s nimble mind still freely at play.
That Marker clearly foresaw the age of Internet afterlife while most of the world was still learning to check e-mail is evident in his 1997 film Level Five, which begins a seven-day run at BAMcinématek on Friday, August 15. This, the film’s North American theatrical premiere, will run concurrent to the beginning of BAM’s two-week Marker retrospective, which spans from his early boots-on-the-ground travelogues like Sunday in Peking (1955) and A Letter from Siberia (1957) to the twenty-first century and an engagement with the new digital unrealities of the fin de millennium.
Level Five comprises two primary narrative strands which twine around each other. The first concerns a woman named Laura, who appears to direct-address the viewer from a cluttered, windowless office. (The part is played by artist-actress-director Catherine Belkhodja, a polymath like Marker.) As it comes out, Laura is in fact speaking to a lover who has logged off of this mortal coil under mysterious circumstances. She has been attempting to complete his final project, a virtual replay of the Battle of Okinawa, the last real engagement of World War II, which was accompanied by catastrophic civilian casualties when islanders instructed by Imperial Japan not to allow themselves to be captured alive committed suicide en masse. Laura hopes to “rectify malignant fate” by undoing the tragedy of the event, but she finds that the virtual world that her lover has left behind is not so pliable, stubbornly resisting her attempts to alter the physical facts of history. The film’s other strand consists of images from Japan and Okinawa, purportedly footage taken by Laura and her partner and given to Marker for editing. Included in this is archival footage and interviews with the likes of filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and, most affectingly, Shigeaki Kinjo, a proselytizing Christian who, as a teenager, helped to massacre his family according to the nihilistic, scorched-earth dictates of the Japanese army.
This is devastating stuff, but part of Marker’s brilliance lies in realizing that groaning solemnity alone does not properly denote meaning or understanding. He personally narrates much of the film, and his particular authorial voice is everywhere, its defining note combining the heft of authority with sheer lightness, the feeling of being borne along by a mind that skips across centuries and national boundaries without the slightest evidence of strain. Around every corner there are unexpected digressions—to Napoleon’s reported contempt on hearing of the gentleness of the Okinawans, to John Huston’s pioneering PTSD study Let There Be Light (1946), or to the history of the David Raksin–penned theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura, a work whose relationship to Level Five is as crucial that between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). In combining Laura’s story with that of the Okinawans, Marker examines the memory of tragedy on both the individual and historical scales. The unifying element is loss: Laura’s lost love, the Okinawan loss of identity…and a loss that is still to come, which Marker already sees clearly. Says Laura: “If some future ethnologist sees these images, he’ll ponder the funeral rites of the strange tribes of the late twentieth century. I’ll be pleased to give details. Yes, it was customary for such tribes to address a familiar and protective spirit known as a computer. They’d consult it on everything. It kept their memory. In fact it was their memory.”
This is more than prescient, and miraculously so when we consider what a tough time cinema has had with the Internet—think of the wave of Web-novelty movies roughly contemporary to Level Five, titles like The Net and Hackers (both 1995), which today are punch lines unto themselves, or of Michael Haneke’s recent announcement of a forthcoming film to be called Flashmob, which warrants a tidal wave of preemptive eye-rolls. Level Five manages to buck this trend, in large part because it puts no premium on trying to seem cutting-edge. Laura accesses a social network called O.W.L. (Optional World Link) using V.R. goggles that resemble nothing so much as the top of a popcorn popper, while the hypermedia effects are fuzzy and homemade, the results of Marker’s self-taught dabbling in HyperStudio. Level Five is lo-fi sci-fi, a mode that Marker’s time-trotting La Jetée (1962) might be said to have invented—while in using deliberate obsolescence as a tool to interrogate the new digital realm, the artist’s aesthetic is Tumblr-wave Web 1.0 retro avant la lettre.
Marker shunned the festival spotlight while puckishly cultivating an air of mystery about himself. In his separation of private individual and public avatar—in his case, a cartoon cat alter ego named Guillaume—as in his leapfrogging rhetoric, he was distinctly proto-Internet. We can say that Marker was almost certainly not born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, as he insisted he was, but the truth of his life is no less strange and improbable. He came into a world where the Russian Civil War and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial were making headlines, and exited in the era of military drones and social networking. In his passage through, he never ceased in his efforts to understand the whole mad world, to comprehensively synthesize the sum total of knowledge to date. Now gone from the earth but floating in “a Sargasso sea full of binary algae,” he is a sane, compassionate, and humorous guide, one to be returned to time and again.
THE HOLLYWOOD TEN: The sobriquet given to a group of “unfriendly witnesses” (eight screenwriters, one director, and one producer) still stands as shorthand for an ignominious era of red-baiting, stirring outrage nearly seventy years after they were jailed for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about alleged communist ties before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Less enshrined, however, are the films made by this notorious decad—not to mention those by the hundreds of other blacklistees who followed in their wake—prior to their banishment from the movie industry. An act of passionate, assiduous scholarship, Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s video essay Red Hollywood (1996, though reedited and remastered last year) argues for the politically progressive salience of this often neglected corpus.
An expansion of Andersen’s 1985 essay of the same name, Red Hollywood braids excerpts from fifty-three films from multiple genres, spanning the 1930s through the early ’50s; interviews with blacklistees Paul Jarrico, Ring Lardner Jr., Alfred Levitt, and Abraham Polonsky; and a shrewd, occasionally wry text coolly read by Billy Woodberry. (One of the LA Rebellion filmmakers, Woodberry and his neo-Neorealist Bless Their Little Hearts from 1984 feature prominently in Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, an equally astute, fervent work of cine-archaeology from 2003.) At issue in Red Hollywood is the claim, made at the time by both the supporters and detractors of the HUAC-branded pariahs, that the blacklistees’ influence on popular cinema was “insignificant at best.” Through a series of chapters—“War,” “Class,” “Sexes,” “Hate,” to name a few—Andersen and Burch’s treatise cogently advances the idea that these films, in fact, evince unmistakably leftist ideas.
Some of the titles highlighted in Red Hollywood will be familiar to those with only a cursory knowledge of the HUAC era, namely Body and Soul (1947; scripted by Polonsky) and Force of Evil (1948; directed and cowritten by Polonsky), both of which star John Garfield. The proto-Method actor—hailed in Woodberry’s narration as “an axiom of left-wing film of the ’30s and ’40s”—and his Body and Soul costar Canada Lee, a civil rights activist, are the most tragic cases in Red Hollywood’s necrology. Both men, who refused to name names or denounce colleagues, died of heart attacks—Lee at age forty-five, Garfield at thirty-nine—within twelve days of each other in 1952; for them, as for many others, the blacklist and its unfathomable pressures became a “literal death sentence.”
Yet several titles in Andersen and Burch’s seamless compilation are much more obscure. Exhumed and recontextualized by the filmmakers, two vehicles starring Ginger Rogers particularly stand out. Tom Dick and Harry (1941), written by Jarrico, includes a lengthy dream sequence that sends up the horrors of middle-class aspirations; Tender Comrade (1943), directed by Edward Dmytryk and scripted by Dalton Trumbo, two of the Tenners, champions communal living for four female airplane-factory workers whose husbands are overseas fighting in World War II. Though not mentioned in Red Hollywood, the political leanings of the lead actress heighten the subversiveness of both movies: Rogers was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a rabidly right-wing organization cofounded by her mother, Lela, in 1944. “We could run the joint like a democracy,” Rogers says to her three roommates-to-be in Tender Comrade—a lofty goal horribly corrupted by elected officials and studio executives offscreen.
Red Hollywood plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center August 15–21 in conjunction with “Red Hollywood and the Blacklist,” a series, selected by Thom Andersen, of nine movies directed or written by blacklistees.
SMACK IN THE MIDST of the usual summer glut of digital behemoths and bulging muscles, Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy—his latest, bittersweet semiautobiographical homage to the French New Wave—comes as a relief. With nary a special effect in sight, the film revels in ravishing black-and-white ’Scope, the stunning limpidity of which makes one wonder why it’s been used so infrequently since the heyday of Kurosawa and Imamura. Given the simplicity of the story and settings of Jealousy, the wide screen might seem a luxury, but the format is friendly to the film’s semi-improvisational style and allows the emotional distances between characters to echo throughout each frame. Even the uncluttered vistas of a park are overcast with a sense of melancholy.
Except for the presence of a cell phone in one scene, the film could easily be set in the mid-1960s, when Garrel had just begun his career and his declared mentors—Bresson, Godard, and Truffaut—were in vogue. There are even hints of Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in the befuddled look of the main character Louis (played by Garrel’s son Louis) when he is ditched by his new girlfriend Claudia (a wonderfully brooding Anna Mouglalis). Yet the film seems less an act of nostalgia than a jaundiced reaction to the current state of cinema. Its physical look alone can be read as a critique of the visual banality of so many French imports over the past few decades.
As always, Garrel is preoccupied with the labile nature of romantic love. But he’s the flip side of Éric Rohmer, whose amorous chronicles, however unresolved, are more ebullient than doleful. Rohmer’s characters talk incessantly about their feelings, while Garrel’s rarely elaborate beyond flat, invariably controverted declarations. Garrel’s father Maurice cautions his son in Emergency Kisses (1989) that “cinema is not just pictures,” yet the dialogue in Jealousy reveals little about the whys and wherefores of character behavior. No one talks about what bothers them; they just act out, a dynamic that makes their wide-screen interaction all the more pitiable. As Marianne, one of love’s casualties in Garrel’s I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), sums it up, we were happy, and then we were not.
Louis and Claudia are both stage actors, an ironic commentary on the paucity of meaningful speech in their lives, in which things just unfold and then come to a halt. When Claudia, depressed over the impasse in her career, picks up random men, we know that another sudden, unexplained split is imminent. Yet when she walks out, Louis seems completely perplexed. How deeply he feels the loss is mitigated by those sardonic Doinel-like touches. If these characters seem incapable of thinking deeply and learning from what happens to them, it may be because Garrel believes that psychological probing is futile, or out of fashion, or just too hard.
But if romantic attachments are notoriously fragile in Garrel’s work, blood relations endure, apparently on and off the screen. In Emergency Kisses, Garrel, Sr. plays himself as devoted father to his five-year-old son, Louis. But as he told an interviewer, he is represented in Jealousy not by the adult Louis but by Charlotte, the fictional daughter of Louis and Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), whose breakup is the catalyst for the narrative. This child, played by Olga Milshtein, a spunky ingénue with indelible presence and charm to spare, is, like the young girl in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, a pivotal figure who must navigate the fallout of her parents’ separation. Her role is established in the second shot, following one of Clothilde crying in the kitchen, her loneliness complemented by the expansive emptiness around her: Charlotte, hearing her mother pleading with Louis not to leave, gets up to peek into the other room. Like Maisie, Charlotte is instinctively inquisitive, although she belongs to a decidedly different class, and so is freer to sympathize with her mother while remaining devoted to her father and friendly with his new girlfriend.
In one scene, Louis and Charlotte snuggle and tussle so spontaneously that you would think, given the peculiar dynamics of this tribe, that they are actually father and daughter. But the truth is more affecting and ironic: The scene is a replay of one in Emergency Kisses in which director Philippe as a younger man wrestles lovingly with his real son, the same Louis whose playful reenactment with Charlotte feels like déjŕ vu, a ritual by which he gets to father his real father in the guise of this five-year-old surrogate.
In the final scene, recovered from a botched suicide attempt, Louis sits in the park with Charlotte and his sister Esther, two attachments presumably above the fray and miseries of male/female relationships. In the spirit of the cross-references and overlaps of Garrel’s work, we might recall that only at the last moment in Regular Lovers (2004) do we learn through a narrator that François (also played by Louis Garrel) has killed himself. But if the revelation comes as a shock, it is surely because the lonely interior of that character has been no more accessible to the viewer than it was to the woman he loved. The virtual inevitability of this tragic divide between lovers, in which neither can fully open to the other, may be the strongest and most heartbreaking theme of Garrel’s work.
Esther is played by the actor’s real sister, the director’s daughter, and so in the last scene of Jealousy, autobiographical tension persists. It would seem then, as one of the film’s intertitles suggests, that when most of our hopes and illusions collapse, we get to “keep the angels,” i.e., our children. However disillusioned its view of romance, Garrel’s new film manifests genuine love for these lost characters and for the wonderfully engaging people who impersonate them.
Jealousy opens Friday, August 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, and Friday, August 22 at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles. It will be available on iTunes beginning Tuesday, August 19, and on Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Google Play on Tuesday, August 26.