JACQUES NOLOT NEVER FORGOT how Roland Barthes introduced him to André Téchiné: “Je vais te montrer une roulure” [“I’ll show you a slut”]. A young and come-hither mec on the make, Nolot would only later become known as a writer or a filmmaker, or even the suave figure in films by François Ozon, among others. He commented, decades later, on the not precisely meet-cute in a bar with Téchiné, the director he would end up working with more than any other, both as an actor and screenwriter, and on Barthes’s exactitude: “That was true in a mythological sense: he who has no stable place.” When Pierre, the aging hustler and writer played by Nolot in his own bracing, cinematic autofiction, Avant Que J’oublie [Before I Forget, 2007], tells a similar story to the dizzying number sitting across from him, he puts it this way: “He [Barthes] said I was a whore. In the semantic sense. With no attachments, no place, no roots. I was just that, a whore.” What’s attractive at twenty or twenty-five or twenty-nine is a bit trickier when one is sixty, and yet, in his film, Nolot, almost actuarially, accounts for it all.
While someone could map a lineage for Nolot’s spare, enthralling work—starting with Proust’s Sodom et Gomorrhe (1921–22), cruising along to Renaud Camus’s Tricks (1981) and then to Guillaume Dustan’s Dans Ma Chambre (1996), at some point reconfiguring Genet’s 1948 Pompes funčbres with, to put it somewhat bluntly, AIDS taking on the role of the Nazis—to do so would miss entirely the images of solitariness, contemplation, and their silence of which Nolot is a master: Pierre’s insomniac tossing and turning; quietly making early morning coffee; concentrating, with a cigarette, at his desk, or padding barefoot around it, not quite at the point of writing; matter-of-factly considering suicide by leaning out his apartment window; having dinner by himself in front of the television, news of Gaza exploding on TV the only noise. Two sounds dominate the action: talk among lovers, former lovers, friends, former rivals—almost all of them in the same line of work—and the soft rustle of cash. We observe Pierre paying his regular trick, Marc, after a particularly rough fuck at home; paying the new grocery delivery boy, both for groceries and for the blow job Pierre delivers to him; paying his analyst. Life insurance policies have never been itemized with so many riders of erotic drift. Everything and everyone has a price, which isn’t to state that there aren’t also pleasures, memories, encounters that escape the grind of monetization. The films ends with Pierre dolled up in convincing drag, at Marc’s request or dare, to go out to porn theater and then maybe a club.
No film, no filmmaker, has shown so directly the tolls of “managing” life with HIV for twenty-four years, which is to say: There’s plenty of sex, but we also witness Pierre head off on his way to cruise, only to be stopped in his quest by shitting himself. Watching debonair Nolot strip away any deflective devices and bare all is thrilling as it is moving; such a calm, difficult poetics of self-exposure proves the often vying selfieness on Scruff or Instagram feeble and concealing. Only George Kuchar, usually in a droll or bittersweet mode (e.g. Weather Diary #3), has equaled what Nolot presents, a single man, middle-aged and aging, point-blank, naked, actually and existentially. Mature themes, kids, not simply comic or tragic, but coming soon, right atcha. And for those who assume, now that Truvada’s arrived, there won’t be any more bumpy nights or some, um, really super special surprises, well, have fun with that.
To close the magisterial survey at Lincoln Center, “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?”, our filth elder, the important trouble born of an unforgettable, midnight ménage among P.T. Barnum, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Robert Bresson, has chosen to spotlight Before I Forget, a film he’s “jealous [he] didn’t make.” When I asked Waters, the greatest cross-platform multitasker (director-writer-artist-showman–style icon–public intellectual–OG) this country has ever produced, if he would provide some fresh details of his love of all things Nolot, he responded:
When I first got to meet Jacques Nolot at a film festival in Switzerland a few years back, I was as giddy as a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber. Here was one of my idols. Mr. Nolot was exactly as I expected: wearily handsome, funny, smart, and a fan of many of the same types of movies as I am. He didn’t feel that comfortable speaking in English and I couldn’t say a word in French but that didn’t stop us from asking the translator to do his best at deciphering different dirty terms for obscure sex acts we wanted to trade culturally. Jacques and I got on like a house on fire that others have unsuccessfully tried to extinguish. I can take more of Jacques Nolot than I can of myself!
The third of a trilogy that begins with the too rarely seen L’Arričre Pays [Hinterland, 1998] and La chatte ŕ deux tętes [billed as Porn Theater in English, 2002], Nolot’s subtle masterpiece (the only word that will suffice, despite the fact that Before I Forget’s gracefulness thwarts such categorical baggage) shrugs off any belabored truisms about film and identity while testing how “fiction” arrives at “truth” or “relevance.” Nolot once described his process this way: “My writing is a bit schizophrenic. You tell me a story, I appropriate it, I make it my own, I don’t know anymore who is who, who is I, what’s true and what isn’t. I no longer know where reality lies.” There could be no finer cultural attaché than Waters, who knows about probing supposed limits and boundaries, to accomplish détente with whatever has kept Nolot’s work from being better known.
We first see Pierre from the back, standing in front of a double gravestone, close to a much older man, Bruno. Toutoune, who was once a whore as well as Pierre’s mentor-lover-father-brother-friend, and, yes, “bank,” is returned to youth by a letter written long ago that Pierre reads aloud at his desk. An aubade of autumnal, even ominous visions, Before I Forget reckons with the costs of living, desperate and otherwise, but it’s alive with rakish daring, reminding anyone who ever thought otherwise to never underestimate the tricks a trick has up his sleeve. No queen worth the name is about to go gently into that Cineplex night.
Before I Forget screens on Sunday, September 14 at 1:45 PM as part of the John Waters retrospective at Film Society of Lincoln Center, in a Waters-curated sidebar titled “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make.”
Gregory J. Markopoulos, Sorrows, 1969, 16 mm, color, 6 minutes.
“LITTLE DID I KNOW when I made my first film at the age of twelve, [A] Christmas Carol, three minutes long…that the language of film was in constant birth within me, myself as a filmmaker.” Thus wrote the American filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos (1928–1992) in his 1971 essay “A Supreme Art in a Dark Age.” From September 8 through 13, on the occasion of the publication of Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos (The Visible Press, 2014), Anthology Film Archives will present ten of the filmmaker’s rarely seen works. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to witness the unfurling of this singular language and a chance to respond to the rhetorical query Markopoulos posed in his 1973 essay “The Intuition Space”: “Who can dare to imagine what a single frame might contain? What future process could activate a single frame?”
Markopoulos’s preoccupation with the single frame reached its apotheosis in his final film Eniaios (1947–91): Most of its images are between just one and a few frames long. He created the silent, eighty-hour magnum opus for exclusive viewing at the Temenos, the remote site in the Peloponnese that he selected as the ideal home for his work. Composed of re-edited footage from twenty of his earlier films, as well as unprinted work, it was meant to supersede them all.
Even without the enveloping presence of the Arcadian sky, however, Anthology viewers will be ushered into a unique spectatorial position in the face of Genius (1970/1990), the breathtaking, eighty-six-minute triple portrait of artists David Hockney and Leonor Fini and art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler that anchors the third of Eniaios’s twenty-two cycles. Image legibility is at once stymied by short duration and position (film frames are reversed and flipped upside down) and clarified via repetition. The separations between the portrait-fragments (no two images in Eniaios touch; each is separated from the next by lengths of black and clear leader) dilate perception itself: Afterimages and halos of light follow the rhythmically disappearing pictures of the three art-world figures. Markopoulos is an exquisite colorist and a master of composition, and the experience of acclimating to the details of his vision in such small doses can be alternately thrilling and quieting.
The filmmaker’s exploitation of the single frame preceded his turn toward a universal separation of images and the removal of all sound, dissolves, and superimpositions in Eniaios. He had a remarkable talent for combining precision with spontaneity, enabling him to produce deeply layered in-camera portrait films (where film is advanced and rewound on the spot with no subsequent editing) like Bliss (1967) and Sorrows (1969). A study of the frescoed and windowed interior of a Byzantine church on the Greek island of Hydra, Bliss is a stunning ode to the transfiguring powers of Aegean light. Made a year after Markopoulos permanently left the US for Europe with his partner, the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Sorrows is shot at the villa King Ludwig of Bavaria built for Wagner and his family in Lucerne and features a motif from Beethoven’s Eroica. Markopoulos was fascinated by the fact that Wagner’s house received natural light on all four sides and on every floor; overlapping dissolves build in clusters with increasing layers and blinking force around the lengths of vertical windows. “Each [film] phrase is composed of certain frames that are similar to the harmonic units found in musical composition,” Markopoulos wrote. One might also read a projection of Markopoulos’s desire for a new chapter of his life and work with Beavers in Europe in his choice of Wagner's villa as subject. Here is a domestic space provided by generous patronage, one that nurtured a period of Wagner’s most productive and visionary creation and bears marks of the sustaining force of love: Interior shots feature the signed music sheets of Siegfried Idyll, written for Wagner’s wife Cosima and first performed in that very house, as well as a painted portrait of her.
In The Mysteries (1968), Markopoulos employs the single frame in a narrative context—albeit a fragmented one; long shots of slow locomotion are interrupted by sections of extremely rapid montage. Shot in Munich, the mesmerizing film follows a young male protagonist on a homoerotic psychic-mythical quest, moving through a repeating pattern of distinct contexts: woods, Art Nouveau interior, city street, museum. The much earlier Pysche (1947) (made only seven years after Markopoulos’s 8-mm, black-and-white A Christmas Carol) was inspired by Pierre Lou˙s’s unfinished novella. His first 16-mm film, it likewise tracks the searching journeys of a lost soul and forms one part of the trilogy Du Sang, de la volupté et de la mort (1947–48) along with Lysis and Charmides (named for Platonic dialogues). Together they reveal the filmmaker already in full command of his evolving “language of film.”
Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos is now available from The Visible Press. To celebrate its publication, Light Industry will present a screening of Markopoulos’s Galaxie (1966) on Tuesday, September 16, and the Kitchen in New York will host a discussion with filmmaker Robert Beavers, scholar Daniel Heller-Roazen, the volume’s editor Mark Webber, Matthew Lyons, Rutkoff, and more on Monday, September 29.
John Waters, Polyester, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.
THE LAST NEW MOVIE to be directed by John Waters, A Dirty Shame, came out in US theaters almost exactly ten years ago. Despite being an infectious sex farce with a chewy, eager-beaver central performance from Tracy Ullman, it failed to turn a profit. Today, Waters’s film catalogue is only one of this one-man industry’s holdings, and “John Waters” the brand has never been so ubiquitous—but the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s comprehensive “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” is a chance to reconsider the works on which the legend was built.
Like another auteur specializing in odd Americana, David Lynch, Waters has seemingly left the motion picture business behind—or been left behind by it. And like Lynch, whose 2009 online Interview Project had him criss-crossing the States to speak with people from all walks of life, the thin man from Charm City has lately entered his Travels with Charley phase, resulting in a new book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. Both sprung from the avant-garde/underground, Lynch and Waters are American right down to the entrepreneurial spirit of their projects. Two films from Waters’s crossover period, Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), have been made into Broadway musicals. He continues to tour with his one-man show “This Filthy World,” a lecture circuit star like Mark Twain—or, as he says in his monologue: “As I get older, I realize more and more my career is becoming that of Paul Lynde.” He has hosted a program about matrimonial murder on Court TV, and handpicked two albums’ worth of novelty songs. Before the word curator had been abused to the point of meaninglessness, Waters was a curatorial genius, and a young person reading his autobiography Shock Value (1981) or his essay collection Crackpot (1987) could walk away with a whole shopping list of esoteric figures for further research.
Now considered a go-to all-purpose enthusiast and expert, Waters is generally the high point of any of the innumerable documentaries on counterculture subjects that he appears in. He has always been forthright in promoting his influences: Among these are William Castle, king of B-movie ballyhoo, and, perhaps most crucially, the Kuchar brothers, whose films he pilgrimaged to New York to see in the mid-’60s. “Here were directors I could idolize,” Waters wrote in the introduction to George and Mike Kuchar’s Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool, “complete crackpots without an ounce of pretension, outsiders to even ‘underground’ sensibilities who made exactly the films they wanted to make without any money, starring their friends.…The Kuchar brothers gave me the self-confidence to believe in my own tawdry vision.”
Waters realized his vision with the help of Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, a chum from suburban Lutherville, and a repertory cast of skid row–chic Baltimoreans collectively known as the Dreamlanders. Waters’s early, Kuchar-inspired shorts will play Film Society, along with his twelve feature films and a hand-picked sidebar of “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make,” whose number includes works by Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget), David Cronenberg (Crash), and the inaugural film in the Final Destination franchise.
Unlike the Cronenberg of later years, Waters has never pitched himself as a serious thinker, though a few have seen into the depths of his fatuity. One such figure was Tom Allen, a lay Catholic monk who wrote film reviews for the Village Voice. “Beneath the sleaze and the uniformly hysterical pitch of the acting,” Allen wrote, “Waters is an austerely economical director who is figuratively comparable to Bresson. He is a driven, integral stylist. His troupe are beautiful ogres because they collaborate in absolute harmony with his ends, and are, therefore, not exploited.” The film that prompted this tribute was Desperate Living (1977), which features Mink Stole and Jean Hill, a four-hundred-pound special-education teacher, as Peggy Gravel and Grizelda. Peggy is one of those brittle WASPs who are figures of endless fun for Waters, and Grizelda is her black maid; the two women go on the lam to escape a murder rap and wind up in Mortville, a shantytown and a pied jumble of clashing, artificial colors against a backdrop of scrubby brown Maryland woodland, ruled over by despotic Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey, who Waters had “discovered” serving drinks at Pete’s Hotel bar in Fells Point). The flattened perspectives recall R. W. Fassbinder, as does the idea of suburban normalcy as a disfiguring affliction which invariably ends in madness. (Mink Stole here is in the Margit Carstensen role.)
Desperate Living is a sort of apotheosis for Waters, the world-building statement film that everything previous—Midnight Movie tent poles like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974)—had been working toward. Then, rather than cultivating and sustaining his amateurism, as the Kuchars did, Waters crossed over. This was at least in part due to the ongoing decimation of his “Dreamlanders” repertory crew by drugs, AIDS, and, to use a phrase that has never sounded so quaint and insufficient as when applied to the likes of Massey, best remembered as Baby Huey–esque egg lady Edie in Pink Flamingos, “natural causes.”
Waters’s transitional film, Polyester (1981), has Divine’s Jeep-size housewife seduced and abandoned by 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter, a cad who runs a drive-in theater that plays Marguerite Duras films. If Polyester is Waters’s stab at the weepie, Hairspray and Cry-Baby approximate the rhythms of the teen movie—the beach party romp and Elvis musical, transposed to a provincial Baltimore setting. Rewatching these films, what is most striking and even touching is their vision of the years of Waters’s youth—the late ’50s and early ’60s—as an act of role-playing on a mass scale, of America as a nation of stilted line readers, over-emphatically emoting in history’s spotlight. (“Integration is no laughing matter,” goes one line in Hairspray, though the film makes it exactly that.)
John Waters, Cecil B. DeMented, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes.
Waters continued to look backward with Pecker (1998) and Cecil B. DeMented (2000), which found the filmmaker revisiting his rough-and-ready early years through the stories of, respectively, Eddie Furlong as a naif Baltimore street photographer with an Arbusesque eye for the grotesque, and Stephen Dorff as a renegade filmmaker whose Mansonesque crew/family kidnaps Melanie Griffith’s starlet Honey Whitlock. (Her conversion to the convictions of her captors mirrors the experience of Patty Hearst, a Waters regular.) Cecil carries the torch of Underground against the Mainstream, one of the parodied dichotomies that recur throughout Waters’s work: Plebe/Royal (Desperate Living), Black/White (Hairspray), Drape/Square (Cry-Baby), Baltimore/New York (Pecker), Neuter/Sex Addicts (A Dirty Shame), Queer/Straight (all and sundry).
By the late 1990s, the mainstream had already been polluted by Waters, and something funny happened. In 2003, Manohla Dargis opined that “Poor John Waters…our king of kitsch and sultan of scatology—has outlived his outrageousness.” This was in the LA Weekly, in a review of the third American Pie film, in which Sean William Scott’s Stifler eats dog poo on-screen, an act that sealed Waters’s and Divine’s infamy in Pink Flamingoes. (That neither the feces nor Divine were a sham remains Waters’s distinction.)
“Alas, it’s all been done,” sighs Johnny Knoxville’s Libertine mechanic Ray Ray in A Dirty Shame. This could be the film’s writer-director razzing the perceived limitations of a lifelong dedication to bad taste, one of Waters’s several acknowledgments that the culture has shifted around him. There is a glimpse of the television talk show hosted by former Waters star Ricki Lake, one of the post–Jerry Springer Show programs that allowed Americans to gawp at the sort of people who might’ve once found a place as Dreamlanders, while yuppies from D.C. are gentrifying his beloved Baltimore. (“Texture, that’s what I call it” they cheerily say of what Waters calls sleaze.) At the same time, Waters’s attitude is plus ça change: A sound track of vintage records both intentionally and unintentionally perverse (“Tony’s Got Hot Nuts,” “Goo-Goo Dada,” “Hump-A-Baby”) aligns Waters with a classical tradition of American indecency going back to party records and vaudeville bump-and-grind. Some things never change with regard to Waters’s filmmaking, too. He was never good with third acts, but he knows how to stage a grand finale, and his trashcan Teorema ends with a curtain of CGI splooge oozing across the screen. If it turns out to be the last image in a John Waters film, it would be an apt one.
Billy Wilder, Fedora, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes.
RARELY SCREENED, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, Fedora (1978), may be a wan companion to one of his most celebrated, Sunset Boulevard (1950). But several of its tawdry observations about stardom and vanity give it a kicky kind of sordidness, suggesting a squarer version of Hollywood Babylon, republished just three years before Fedora’s release.
Cowriting with his longtime collaborator I. A. L. Diamond, Wilder adapted Fedora from onetime actor Thomas Tryon’s 1976 novella of the same name. Just as in Sunset Boulevard, Fedora begins with a death: The mononymous screen legend of the title (played by Marthe Keller) has committed suicide at the age of sixty-seven, throwing herself in front of a train in a suburb of Paris. Among the throngs paying their respects at Fedora’s lavish open-casket ceremony is Barry “Dutch” Detweiler (William Holden, who played opposite Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and also starred in two other Wilder films from the 1950s, Stalag 17 and Sabrina). A cash-strapped independent producer who had a one-night stand with the diva back in 1947 (when she was the leading lady and he the second assistant director of Leda and the Swan), Dutch recounts how he had sought out, a mere two weeks before her death, the long-reclusive actress at a villa in Corfu. During this extended flashback (a narrative strategy that also shapes much of Sunset Boulevard), Fedora is revealed to be the virtual prisoner of a bizarre team of handlers that includes the wheelchair-bound Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the hypo-wielding plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer).
Dutch had come to the Greek isle to offer Fedora a comeback vehicle modeled on Anna Karenina—a proposition that is unfortunately accompanied by the producer’s geezerish whinging: “It’s a whole other business now. The kids with beards have taken over.” (By sheer coincidence, one of the many films-within-a-film featured in Fedora is called The Last Waltz, which shares a title with the Band concert documentary directed by Martin Scorsese—perhaps New Hollywood’s most impressively bearded auteur at the time—that was released the same year as Wilder’s movie.) The carping isn’t confined solely to Dutch; even the Countess laments, “People are tired of what passes for entertainment these days—cinema vérité, the naked truth, the uglier the better.” Yet, unlike the grandiose pronouncements of Sunset Boulevard’s deranged silent-movie queen Norma Desmond (“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”), these grumblings are proffered as dolefully accurate assessments of the film industry, in perpetual decline ever since the collapse of the studio system.
This wearying nostalgia for golden-age moviemaking aside, Fedora exposes, through a major plot twist I won’t give away, the offscreen pathologies that constitute the nightmares of the dream factory. These include Fedora’s antiaging regimen—an elixir consisting of “sheep embryos and baboon semen”—and even more extreme efforts to remain young. Fedora’s most outrageous feint reminded me of an especially ignominious incident in Joan Crawford’s career that occurred in October 1968, when the actress, then in her early sixties, subbed for her ailing daughter Christina, who was playing a twentysomething character in the CBS soap opera The Secret Storm, without her knowledge. This unhinged event is dramatized in the ghoulish Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest (1981), a film that, with its similar focus on monstrous celebrity dissembling and disguising, would make an excellent double bill with Fedora.
Fedora plays in a new DCP restoration at Film Forum in New York September 5–11.
Steve Binder, The T.A.M.I. Show, 1964, Electronovision, black-and-white, sound, 123 minutes.
CONSIDERED THE FIRST ROCK-’N’-ROLL-CONCERT FILM, The T.A.M.I. Show turns fifty this year, though its unsurpassed exuberance, not just onstage but also off it, assures that it will remain forever young. The acronym in the title stands for the unwieldy “Teenage Awards Music International,” a tag that’s partially misleading. No competition was staged (which isn’t to say that there’s no one-upping) and no prizes handed out, though of the twelve acts assembled, three were indeed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. These British-invasion bands (Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Rolling Stones) shared the stage with Motown stars (the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes), surf-pop groups (the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, the latter also serving as the concert’s doofusy hosts), and four other luminaries in as many different genres—none more thrilling than Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown.
Filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 29, 1964, in front of a screaming, jacked-up crowd of three thousand (primarily students from a nearby high school), The T.A.M.I. Show was directed by Steve Binder, who later in the decade would helm the music-variety TV show Hullabaloo and Elvis Presley’s ’68 comeback special, broadcast on NBC. (Jack Nitzsche, one of Phil Spector’s most prominent lieutenants, was the musical director.) Binder shot the concert on television cameras in Electronovision—an early hi-def video system—then transferred it to 35 mm via kinescope. I don’t know whether there’s a proper term for the Vaseline-smeared lens (Lube-o-Vision?) used for the close-ups of Lesley Gore and her Aqua-Netted flips as she performs her emancipation proclamation “You Don’t Own Me.” But the effect, rather than being irredeemably corny, gives a touching tawdry gravitas to Gore’s soaring vocals as she demands her independence. The singer, only eighteen at the time and soon bound for Sarah Lawrence, is the most eager of the concert’s acts to connect with the audience members, who are roughly the same age she is; she smiles, waves, says “Hi there!” softly into the microphone. Two lines in “You Don’t Own Me” could serve as a tagline for The T.A.M.I. Show: “I’m young, and I love to be young / I’m free, and I love to be free.”
James Brown's 18-minute performance in The T.A.M.I. Show (1964).
Yet some of those shrieking teens were freer than others. The T.A.M.I. Show was recorded three months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Significantly, the concert—even if attended mostly by white kids (and specifically white girls)—was integrated, extending to the corps of wildly frugging backup dancers, who include Teri Garr and Toni Basil. Yet not even their speed-of-light hip gyrations could match the electrifying moves of Brown, the show’s penultimate entertainer. (Much to JB’s displeasure, the Stones concluded the concert; Mick Jagger, dazed by what he’s just seen from the wings, appears slightly terrified as he takes to the stage.) Brown’s four-song, eighteen-minute set—consisting of “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please, Please, Please,” and “Night Train”—essentially marked the first time he performed his raw R&B for a predominantly white audience. He shimmies across the stage on one foot, does splits, and, during “Please, Please, Please,” enacts his legendary cycle of collapsing, being comforted and bedraped, and restorming the mic. (Some of the Godfather of Soul’s T.A.M.I. set—and its effect on the five pasty, skinny newcomers who followed it—is re-created in the recently released JB biopic, Get On Up.) Part Pentecostal preacher, part sex machine, Brown initiated every one of the adolescents at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, regardless of race or gender, into adulthood.
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 mind-set—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 plotline. 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 mind-set 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 overfamiliar 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 29.