Love desires nothing but itself.
—Lycidas, in Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon
(The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007)
IN HIS LATTER YEARS, the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer—who died on January 11, at the age of eighty-nine—took on the terse, attenuated air of a Jansenist abbot. Lean, austere, his eyes a cool, penetrating blue, Rohmer embodied the rationalism and restraint for which his cinematic style had become famous. The elder statesman of the Nouvelle Vague, born a decade before Truffaut and Godard, Rohmer also served as the New Wave’s sage, resisting aesthetic and political fashion to maintain his chastely ironic vision of amorous folly. Whether Rohmer’s fidelité to a modest theme and manner, stated early and slightly refined throughout a half-century-long career that seemed oblivious to worldly tumult, was resolute or reactionary, the art of a miniaturist master or of a trivial philosophe cautiously tending his square centimeter of bourgeois insight, depended on whether one felt, as Rohmer once claimed, that the artist’s role was to organize pleasure. From the hot August streets of his first feature film, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), to the radiant arcadia of fifth-century Gaul in his last, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer’s sun-flooded settings signaled his congenial approach, which was often mistaken for inconsequence. Paradoxically, the very constriction of the director’s regard, the intent limitation of his style and purview, resulted in plenitude, a gracious bounty of social perception and, indeed, of highly organized pleasure.
Less aggressive, confessional, and iconoclastic than his New Wave confreres, Rohmer did, however, share their voracious cinephilia. He made his mark first as a superb critic and later (from 1957 to 1963) as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, championing such directors as Murnau, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Preminger. (One wonders whether the bare-breasted, swinging Swede in Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert [Summer, 1986] is an homage to her amoral, sunburned antecedent in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse .) Having come late to films—“Until I was sixteen I hadn’t seen a thing,” he confessed—Rohmer absorbed and exhibited his influences in a manner subtler than did Godard, Truffaut, or Rivette. Rohmer’s Sign of Leo and Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1960), both first features and both tales of accelerating misfortune centered on an American exile in Paris and set in a series of bohemian garrets, differ greatly in tone. Rohmer and Rivette were each influenced by Fritz Lang, but Rohmer’s Seine-side comedy of unexpected inheritance owes far more to Renoir, especially Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), while Rivette’s self-regarding yarn of intensifying paranoia showboats its determinants in Langian compositions of stairwells and rooftops and in a clip of the Tower of Babel sequence from Metropolis (1927).
Like lovesick Puritans, the Nouvelle Vague directors praised their Hollywood gods in Cahiers but maintained an antagonistic, admonitory relationship with American cinema, hewing more to the ascetic lessons of Cahiers founder André Bazin and of Roberto Rossellini, to the “moral attitude,” as the latter called it, of Neorealism. Rohmer imbibed those lessons both as a spiritual guide—he shared his teachers’ Catholic beliefs—and as aesthetic instruction. However stylized or artificial his cinema would occasionally become, particularly in his historical films and literary adaptations (e.g., Die Marquise von O . . . , Perceval le Gallois , L’Anglaise et le duc [The Lady and the Duke, 2001], and Astrea and Celadon), Rohmer maintained an almost religious adherence to realism, to a simple, unmannered rendering of the world whose clarity, plain arrangement, and quiet precision bespoke the rationality of his thought. (He shared with Robert Bresson not only an intense privateness and Catholic, conservative bent but also a formal propensity for the 50-mm focal length, “which [most] closely resembles human vision,” according to Rohmer’s longtime cinematographer, Néstor Almendros.) This lucid and unobtrusive realism employed natural light and the long takes idealized by Bazin, rarely ruptured by shot-countershot or analytic cutting, depending instead on slow, discreet zooms that pinion Rohmer’s characters within the frame, where they are prodded to disclose their inner beings, which they falteringly, sometimes fatuously do, often unable to discern their true selves in the verbiage they expend on the task.
The charm and horror of Rohmer’s films derive from closely observing that “task,” akin to Jesuitical self-scrutiny but given a solipsistic gloss. Transforming erotic possibility into moral quandary, Rohmer set out, in a semisystematic series of thematic cycles, including “Comedies and Proverbs” and “Tales of the Four Seasons,” a modern version of the quest narrative. (Despite his frequent reliance on antique or archaic forms—Marivauxian badinage, the Neoclassicism of Poussin, fêtes champêtres and French farce, Racinian drama and German Romanticism, eighteenth-century engravings—Rohmer’s films feel miraculously fresh, contemporary, lightly sprung.) His characters search for happiness, truth, self-knowledge, but mostly they seek love, and for all the cool classicism of Rohmer’s mise-en-scène, they frequently desire an all-consuming, engulfing love, or one that “burns,” as Marion muses in Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983). In the process, they fall prey to self-deception and disappointment. Unlike Jacques Demy’s ill-fated lovers, who smilingly settle for second best, Rohmer’s create their own unhappiness, following infatuations into folly until the surety of their world seems threatened, at which point they take refuge in what appears to be rectitude but is really self-preservation. Rohmer’s first and most famous cycle, the “Six Moral Tales,” established a narrative template—a formal manifestation of Jansenist predetermination?—in which a man who is betrothed, married, or otherwise committed finds himself tempted by another woman, usually more alluring or dangerous (and darker) than the first. After arduous equivocation, at the brink of misdemeanor, he scurries for safety to the stability of his first relationship. In the inaugural work of the series, La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963), a twenty-three-minute film shot in 16 mm in the streets of Paris—that is, pure Nouvelle Vague—a young law student has mentally devoted himself to the blond and artistic Sylvie but falls for Jacqueline, the shopgirl of the title, who is dark, fleshy, and sensual in contrast to the fair one’s ethereal delicacy. The cruelty with which he courts then unceremoniously dumps Jacqueline would become ritualized in later Rohmer, all the more vicious in its rigorous application.
Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) feels in its grace and maturity worlds away from Boulangère, much as it repeats that film’s motifs of dark and light, the unnamed hero also fastening on a barely glimpsed blond angel to be his wife before being tempted by a sexy brunette. Maud departs from most Rohmer films in its black-and-white cinematography and wintry, nocturnal setting; mountains are close, the sea distant—water is a central motif of Rohmer’s cinema—and night outlasts day. (Rohmer’s world is mostly effulgent. Though he called a film Les Nuits de la pleine lune [Full Moon in Paris, 1984], night portends less magic and infatuation in his cinema than confusion, disorder: “We need daylight to pick our way out of here,” sighs the exasperated guide of a band of pilgrims lost in the dark near the end of Astrea and Celadon.) That the director waited a year to shoot at the exact time indicated by Maud’s script (Christmas) and to be able to use his actor of choice (Jean-Louis Trintignant) signals the precision of his method, the fiercely won nature of his realism; Rohmer would similarly wait many months to capture the elusive solar ray for the final, transcendent moment of Summer. The leftist professor in My Night at Maud’s—gently mocked at the time Godard was heading into his Dziga Vertov period, Cahiers du Cinéma into Althusserian analysis—was played by an actual Marxist, Antoine Vitez, a theater director who collaborated with Rohmer on his “speech.” And speech, while not everything in Rohmer’s cinema, is its defining feature.
“A wagging tongue bites itself.” The Chrétien de Troyes apothegm that introduces Pauline at the Beach wittily suggests the logorrhea of Rohmer’s characters—their wagging tongues never tire—and their infinite capacity for linguistic snares. Captives in the realm of the senses, they attempt to reason their way out of it. In Rohmer, talk is a tonic and a turn-on, deferring desire while stoking it to distraction, as in My Night at Maud’s, where an early dialogue between the engineer (Trintignant) and the professor about the former’s Catholic faith and diffidence about Pascal’s wager serves as philosophical foreplay for the nightlong discussion between the engineer and the seductive divorcée Maud, a nonpracticing Protestant. She uses words to entice him, while he employs them for prevarication and postponement, as if caught in a horror film or an Arabian Nights tale where everything will be OK if only he can make it until daylight. In Rohmer, sex is more in the chat than in the sack, intercourse yielding to discourse, philosophical thrust and parry replacing the carnal kind, the tension between Maud’s determination and his wavering resistance—should he be good, just in case (Pascal)?—generating considerable suspense, as do the central dilemmas in Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) and L’Amour l’après-midi (Chloe in the Afternoon, 1972): Will Jérôme get to touch Claire’s knee? Will Frédéric give in to Chloé’s flirtation? Rohmer coauthored a book on Hitchcock, after all, and shared his theme of dangerous misrecognition.
The protagonist of Claire’s Knee is as resolute about temptation as Trintignant’s engineer is: “I don’t look at the ladies anymore,” Jérôme proclaims. “I’m getting married.” His scruples founder on fixation. After glimpsing the knee of a teenage girl, in a shot that portends Nabokovian obsession, the smug, self-deluded man conspires with an old friend, the novelist Aurora, so that he can touch the tantalizing joint before safely decamping to Sweden and imminent matrimony. Aurora, played by an author of the same name, indicates Rohmer’s literary roots—the “Moral Tales” first existed as short stories—and as she explores the possible outcomes of Jérôme’s dilemma, the film occasionally veers toward metanarrative. Rohmer’s epigrammatic dialogue has frequently been compared to that of such writers as Marivaux, Musset, and Proust, but it is Laclos who comes to mind in Claire’s Knee, as the corrupt elders manipulate the emotions (and bodies) of the young and unformed for their own pleasure and delectation, heedless of the damage done. “There are no innocents today,” Aurora blithely declares, so Jérôme, whose vocation, terrifyingly enough, is as an international diplomat, can feel guiltless about fondling his prize, won by means of surveillance, deceit, and affective devastation. What he characterizes as an act of will and consolation is, in fact, a deed of violation.
“What I call a conte moral is not a tale with a moral,” Rohmer cautioned, “but a story that deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it. A cinema of thoughts rather than actions.” To that Bressonian end—giving cinema an interior movement—Rohmer’s visual style, which many commentators treat as transparent well nigh to invisibility, relies on artless means and immense suggestiveness. The bracing plein air plan of Claire, for example, employs circumspect pans and mid-distance shots to establish a pristine landscape of lake, mountain, and trees, a bucolic backdrop for the courtly stratagems of the Laclosian older couple. The compositions, often in flat, Cézannesque planes, and in face-to-face rather than traditional over-the-shoulder shots, appear inconspicuous but divulge a great deal. With his simple semiotics, Rohmer emphasizes the vulnerable exposure of the youths in their bronze deshabillé—nascent star Fabrice Luchini turns up as a blond and boneless teenager—and the conniving natures of Aurora and Jérôme in literal cover-up, she in a succession of patterned dresses, shawls, and unseasonal long, dark coat, he in full beard, sweater, and straw hat, their physical insulation implying moral imperviousness.
“The color picture is ugly, I agree,” Rohmer wrote in an early essay, a comment as ironic as this most loquacious of directors’ persistent yearning for the silent era. (He considered Murnau the greatest director in the history of cinema.) For few directors equaled Rohmer’s expressive use of color, with Mondrian-style primaries deployed to hint at complexities of character. The color-coding of Claire’s Knee and Chloe in the Afternoon associates assertive women with red—the brash and mannish Chloé bursts into Frédéric’s life in scarlet sweater and coat—complacent, self-justifying men with conservative blue. (Frédéric’s navy turtleneck serves as both armor and talisman against Chloé’s seductive wiles.) Told that green is her lucky color, the dithery Delphine of Summer wears anything but—the closest she comes is a tealy beret—a subtle signifier of her determination to refuse good fortune. Intractable in her unhappiness, Delphine incarnates the director’s ars poetica, stated by Aurora in Claire’s Knee: “Insignificant characters can inspire good stories.” Rohmer, not only the great paysagiste of the New Wave but also its most incisive social portraitist, often fastened on “insignificant” characters, variously misconstrued by critics as idle, rich, or disengaged. Shopgirls, secretaries, artists, and students figure more frequently than roués in Rohmer’s world, and though often en vacances, they are hardly idle. Or rich: The grandfather in Summer never saw the sea until he was sixty because he was a hardworking cab driver.
The phrase toute seule—“all alone”—echoes throughout Summer, as Delphine, desperately searching for a companion to share her summer vacation, shuttles weepily between Paris and Cherbourg, its Demy-haunted harbor now inhabited by oil rigs and ghastly marinas; a mountain resort she immediately abandons; a crowded beach at Biarritz. Rohmer’s authorial omniscience, at once aloof and empathic, captures with stinging acuity the anguish of the unattached in a culture centered on le couple. Largely improvised and shot in grainy 16 mm, Summer features a classic Rohmer type: a bit of a pill, thin with a frizzy nimbus of hair, oblivious and self-defeating in her pursuit of love and awareness. When Delphine attempts to explain her vegetarianism at an alfresco table piled with roast pork—“I like to aerate myself,” she exclaims to her balking hosts—Rohmer’s intent camera yields her no leeway as she expounds on her kinship with lettuce. The tone could be merciless, but under Rohmer’s ironic, affectionate gaze, Delphine achieves a kind of neurotic splendor.
The radical rationalist of the Nouvelle Vague, Rohmer was always identified with the Age of Reason, but Summer, with its host of omens and superstitions and the numinous phenomenon that gives the film its name (translated literally, it would be The Green Ray), looks back to the gothic séance with the spirit of Don Juan in La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963) and reminds one that the subject of Rohmer’s dissertation was Murnau’s phantasmal Faust (1926). Rohmer’s supposedly apolitical nature also proved suspect. The left-baiting of L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque, 1993) and The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer’s revanchiste account of the French Revolution, which treats slavering Jacobins and lumpen revolutionaries with less delicacy than Christ’s tormentors in Bosch, made explicit the director’s profoundly conservative vision, as suspicious of the vagrant and changeable as was his beloved Hitchcock. The itinerant Chloé, who bounces from Spain to the United States to Paris, from job to job, man to man, apartment to apartment; the nomadic, deracinated ethnologist Henri in Pauline at the Beach, who wants life light and instantly “movable”; the youth-seducing Romanian novelist Aurora, with her heavy accent, hooded looks, and manipulative ways—all reflect Rohmer’s mistrust of unfettered freedom, which he equates with instability. In the emotional codas of Chloe in the Afternoon and My Night at Maud’s, the ceaselessly smiling wife of the former succumbs to tears, secretly grateful for her errant husband’s capitulation to security, while the dismayed épouse of the latter registers her man’s lingering regret about Maud after a chance encounter with her while on vacation. Maud has remarried, but she acknowledges that it won’t last long because of her unmoored nature, while the engineer and his wife head into the Rohmerian sea holding onto their child, an image of familial coherence and constancy. In both cases, the rootless seducers (Maud, Chloé), associated with night or drift, are left abandoned. For the uncommitted, love might desire nothing but itself, and thus end in desolation.
A version of this essay appeared in the March 2010 issue of Artforum. A retrospective of the films of Eric Rohmer runs August 18–September 3, 2010 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more details, click here.
Yael Hersonski, A Film Unfinished, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 89 minutes.
IN MAY 1942, a Third Reich film crew arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Nazis’ heavily guarded urban enclosures designed for the separation, containment, and inhuman deprivation of Jews before their ultimate transfer to extermination camps. It was there that this unit shot an unfinished propaganda film titled Ghetto, footage of which was first discovered in 1954 in an East German film vault. To this day, despite the Third Reich’s meticulous record keeping, little is known about the production.
Israeli director Yael Hersonski has now made this document the center of A Film Unfinished, a profound and disturbing investigation into the uses of cinema. Here the original footage is interwoven with transcripts from the official questioning of cameraman Willy Wist, the only Third Reich crew member ever identified from the production; entries about the filming from the diaries of Ghetto inhabitants, including Jewish Council director Adam Czerniaków; alternate takes and outtakes of the “final” product found separately in 1998; and reactions to the film from Ghetto and Holocaust survivors. “In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims?” Hersonski writes in a statement. “And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?” Ghetto is filled with images of the Nazis twisting the extreme plight of oppressed Jews toward perverse anthropological and racist ends: as documents of customs and religious practices of a soon-to-be-destroyed race (in the case of scenes featuring circumcisions and ritual bathing) and as proof of the Jews’ inherent barbarity (via scenes focusing on the few people able to live in some measure of comfort even as their fellow citizens were starving in the streets).
As proven by Wist’s admissions, Czerniaków’s diary entries, and the alternate takes, sequences were carefully fabricated by the film crew (some of whom were accidentally captured in the frame), who, with the aid of SS troops, forced Jews into demeaning performances at gunpoint. The Nazis also ended up documenting the atrocious results of the very conditions they created: emaciated citizens living in abject squalor, corpses lying in the middle of crowded markets, the dead unceremoniously shoveled into mass graves. Hersonski has stated that the anguished gaze of the Jews caught on camera attests to their resistance against oppressors who tried to strip them of dignity, even on celluloid. But the most moving moments of A Film Unfinished attest to the perseverance of that dignity after living through the evil so callously delivered by the Nazis. While watching the unbearable images from Ghetto, one elderly survivor admits to a time during which she was so traumatized by what happened she couldn’t even cry. “Today I am human,” she whispers. “Today I can cry.”
A Film Unfinished plays August 18–31 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Left: Giuliano Montaldo, Machine Gun McCain, 1969, color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. Production still. Right: Jonathan Kaplan, White Line Fever, 1975, color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Production still. Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent).
WITH THE ONGOING blockbuster season continuing to crowd out healthy B movies at the box office, the sequel to last year’s successful “William Lustig Presents” series at Anthology Film Archives provides desperately needed alternatives. Former exploitation filmmaker and current head of cult DVD label Blue Underground, Lustig once again revives forgotten genre treasures, largely made in the 1970s, a decade in which tough, action-oriented flicks were often economical and ingenious rather than bloated and uninspired. (For a quick compare-and-contrast, see Sylvester Stallone’s steroid-era The Expendables, also out this week.) A few selections reinforce the pre–video era B’s reputation as unknowing camp (Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sunset , which awkwardly combines true-crime serial killing reenactments with Southern hee-haw slapstick), but others shed light on the era’s no-nonsense visual punch and oft-overlooked moral righteousness. In famed and recently deceased cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun (1968), for instance, a torn Rod Taylor stars as a mercenary who develops a conscience amid the bloody chaos of the Congo civil war in the early 1960s. The violence is shocking but the tone remains titillation-free, right up to the protagonist’s devastatingly costly redemption.
Likewise, White Line Fever (1975) and Defiance (1980) cast affable Airwolf star Jan-Michael Vincent as a working-class hero, violently unionizing against the corrupt Southwest trucking industry in the former and standing up to a merciless Lower East Side gang in the latter. Local detail and life experience mean everything to these films: Fever’s post-Vietnam dream of settling down and raising a family pumps blood into Vincent’s blacktop-shredding, shotgun-wielding outrage, while Defiance deflates the romanticized myth of the early Koch years’ pre-gentrified “realness” by unblinkingly documenting a diverse community’s helplessness amid deteriorating streets and unchecked crime—before, of course, rallying behind disciplined sailor Vincent and local social club leader Danny Aiello.
Defiance was directed by the sadly unsung John Flynn, responsible for two major highlights of last year’s Lustig series, Rolling Thunder (1977) and The Outfit (1973). This year, Giuliano Montaldo’s brilliant spaghetti gangster film Machine Gun McCain (1969) acts as a brother of sorts to The Outfit: Both feature a macho, bullshit-averse professional criminal battling the Mafia almost single-handedly for revenge and profit. In McCain, the titular automatic-weapon specialist is played by none other than John Cassevetes, who brings along members of his own stock company, with Peter Falk as an ambitious mobster who goes over the head of his boss and Gena Rowlands as McCain’s hard-bitten ex-partner and wife. The rueful third-act reunion between Rowlands and Cassavetes isn’t as affecting as his interaction with screen son Pierluigi Aprà, an up-and-coming con who springs his legendary dad from jail to carry out the traitorous theft of a Vegas casino. Looking down in disgust on his son’s two-bit operation—“Small time—no dignity!”—Cassavetes enacts an Oedipal rejection that isn’t so much “badass” as reptilian in its pragmatism and ferocity.
For whatever reason—curatorial purposefulness or generic coincidence—several of Lustig’s picks focus on filial anxiety. Released the same year as McCain and also produced in Italy with an Ennio Morricone score (all mouth harp and twang guitar), The Sicilian Clan pits a retiring crime-family paterfamilias, played by Jean Gabin, against Alain Delon, as the cocky murderer he helps escape from prison. Temporarily and reluctantly adopted into the three-son clan, Delon double-crosses not out of greed but lust, seducing Gabin’s daughter-in-law (Irina Demick) after bludgeoning an eel on a rock in a subtle display of sexual frustration. Though the film’s daring jewel-heist centerpiece is now overdetermined (hijacked planes are flown onto a New York City highway), the dynamic between legends Gabin and Delon—and Lino Ventura as a stressed detective unsuccessfully weaning himself off cigarettes—remains tersely captivating.
Though the least taut, the most fascinating film of the series might be The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), pulp maestro Larry Cohen’s biopic-as-exposé of the FBI mastermind and Fourth Amendment adversary. Revelations about the personal life of Hoover—portrayed by Broderick Crawford as a prudish, mother-clinging closet case—are now well-known lore, but Cohen draws convincing connections between Hoover’s sexual repression and political obtrusiveness, between private denial and public paranoia. The film makes a case for the ’70s B as both psychological and social muckraker: Shot in Hoover’s real DC stomping grounds with production values that lower any realism to movie-of-the-week quality, Files still bristles with a late-counterculture antiauthoritarianism that trumps most of its Hollywood contemporaries’ attempts (All the President’s Men), and then some.
“William Lustig Presents” runs August 12–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 186 minutes.
AT THE START of Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 cinematic stay with peasants on a turn-of-the-century mezzadria, a farmer is up in arms about paying for his tiny son to attend school miles away. When the first day comes, and the boy walks through the courtyard shared by several families, Olmi tracks him via the father’s anxious point of view, all the way up to the gate. Money is one of his concerns—the estate landlord receives a percentage of all that is earned and produced—along with the loss of another pair of hands. But the felt worry is over the boy’s absence from the farm’s interdependent group, every day.
While “work” has long been the watchword for Olmi’s oeuvre, his three-hour-long Palme d’Or winner makes us aware of the families’ bonds of community and the space they share. Women work at looms singing together, men mobilize to slaughter a pig, and at night everyone gathers in one dim room to do piecework, chat, sing, and tell stories. A Lombardy native like his characters, Olmi doesn’t try to drive home their connectedness with showy solidarity or double-bind plots (though there’s a lot of ennobling, harmonizing Bach). When one family loses a father, the matriarch picks up and makes do, and the movie’s sweetest moment is when an eccentric oldster confides in his granddaughter the secret behind his early tomatoes.
Olmi took a year to edit the film, which he shot, to quote Kent Jones, “with the care that a Quattrocento master would have lavished on an episode in the life of Christ.” Not everyone has been as admiring: Dave Kehr sees Marxist sentimentalism in what’s “less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it.” But Olmi, who most recently made a documentary about the slow-food movement, doesn’t omit ruptures from the canvas: A newlywed couple, journeying to Milan, is almost run down by cavalry charges in the streets. And the convent orphan whom they adopt is pronounced, unequivocally, “a peasant’s son” now, not a gentleman’s—which at least is one way of encapsulating Bernardo Bertolucci’s rich-man-poor-man capital-e Epic 1900 from two years before.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs plays Wednesday, August 11 at 7 PM at the 92YTribeca at 200 Hudson in New York. For more details, click here.
AS EVIDENCED BY BAMcinématek’s thirty-three-film program “Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever,” blood-sucking fiends have long been ideal subjects for filmmakers experimenting in uncharted stylistic territory. F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) inaugurates Bram Stoker’s famous character on-screen by marrying a Romantic, somnambulant atmosphere with the eerie, startling camera techniques of German Expressionism, while Carl Theodor Dreyer’s sui generis Vampyr (1933) plumbs vampire mythology to find disorienting spatial configurations and oddly unstable perspectives (including, unforgettably, the point of view from a corpse being carried inside a coffin).
Indeed, the vampire was avant-garde from the get-go, and in comparison with, say, the zombie or the slasher, this creature has been relatively immune to the long-term stultifying effects of mainstream formula. Horror master Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) delineated the classic tropes of movie vampires by way of Bela Lugosi’s exaggerated, eastern European–accented line readings and Universal’s haunted-house sets of cobwebs and bats, but since then even the genre’s derivatives and redos have yielded unconventional rewards. The campy schlock of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), for instance, is a bizarre kaleidoscope of Pop art set and costume design, while Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) rivals its source for unsettling otherwordliness. (Along with original Nosferatu Max Schreck, Klaus Kinski’s grotesque lead performance is among the most convincingly embodied undead performances ever committed to the screen.) Hollywood efforts both unintentionally overwrought (Tony Scott’s The Hunger [1983[) and startlingly hallucinatory (Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula ) feature jarring montage sequences and sensual superimpositions, and though the vampire film seems to inevitably breed voluptuous, delirious aesthetic experiences (see also Michael Almereyda’s beautifully shot but structurally sloppy bohemian take in Nadja ), sometimes the strangest and most exotic entries are those that have chosen a quietly brooding tact, as with Claire Denis’s gruesome but intimate Trouble Every Day (2001).
The vampire’s dual nature—life-draining parasite or blood-bonding lover—has lent the myth to multivalent meditations on race (William Crain’s blaxploitation riff Blacula ); power (Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark ); infectious or contagious disease (Ubaldo Ragona’s economical The Last Man on Earth , based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend); the Other (Guy Maddin’s typically breakneck-speed Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary ); dependency (Abel Ferrera’s The Addiction ); and homosexuality (no fewer than three films in the series feature lesbianism, including no-budget soft porn The Velvet Vampire ; sadly, Neil Jordan’s flawed but fascinatingly homoerotic and AIDS-haunted Interview with the Vampire is not accounted for). Vampires have also been subject to some surprisingly witty and irreverent spoofs. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), an affectionate send-up of Hammer Film Productions’s Dracula series (three of which are also included here), throws into relief the underappreciated goofy side of “serious” Roman Polanski horror efforts like Rosemary’s Baby. James Woods’s grouchy, sneering turn as a Vatican-sanctioned stake driver makes John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) great unpretentious, Showtime-level stuff, while Robert Bierman’s Koch-era yuppie satire Vampire’s Kiss (1988) succeeds almost entirely by virtue of Nicolas Cage, in one of his first truly hysterical performances, as a lunatic, love-deprived boss from hell.
The timing of BAMcinématek’s program—less than a month and a half after the release of the latest Twilight film and right in the middle of the third season of True Blood—begs the question: Is there a future for big-screen vampires beyond glossy soap operas? With its arty, languorous pace and Scandinavian gloom, many will point to Swedish import Let the Right One In (2009) as a corrective, but that film’s vampire-as-best-buddy fable of adolescent angst isn’t much more challenging in its approach to vampire lore than its more soft-focus American counterparts. Now that vampires have become unmistakably teen-targeted, perhaps it makes sense to revisit Martin (1977), George Romero’s masterpiece about a “high-school age”—but actually much older—vampire whose saturnine loneliness stems from the knowledge that “there’s no real magic, ever.” No aversions to crosses, garlic, or sunlight; no transformative powers; no mysterious seductiveness; not even fangs—just a curse to crave blood and the longing to be normal. Suffused with Rust Belt economic hardship and Catholic guilt, concerned with the achingly brutal truths of sex and death, Martin provides solid evidence that vampires can be sensitive without being bloodless.
With her glamorous brunette co-star Jane Russell, there was the Blond Actress blowing kisses and waving into spotlights, her eyes animated now and her rouged cheeks glowing. [. . .] As the two lavishly dressed glamour girls stood on the platform beaming and waving at the crowd, both stitched into straitjacket low-cut gowns, both breathing in small measured gasps, the Blond Actress said out of the corner of her lipstick mouth, “Jane! Us two could cause a riot, guess how?” Jane giggled. “Strip?” The Blond Actress gave her a sidelong flirty look and jagged her, lightly, just below her enormous jutting breast. “No, baby. Kiss.” —Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde
“IT DIDN’T HAVE NORMAL SEX,” Howard Hawks once said of his great 1953 musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the only film that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell made together—and one of the few Hollywood musicals that feature women as the two leads. Molly Haskell, continuing the emphasis on aberrant behavior, praised the director for “creating a whole world which revolves on a principle of unnatural sexuality.”
Not normal, unnatural: code for lesbian? Whatever Hawks and Haskell meant, their cryptic, open-ended terms resonate profoundly for certain fans of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which will screen at Film Forum in New York in a new 35-mm restoration August 6 through 12. Perhaps unwittingly, their adjectives underscore the movie’s intense sapphic appeal, leading some same-sexing viewers, while watching Monroe and Russell, to drift off into erotic reveries like those found in Oates’s novel. Though the musical has long been considered the cultural bailiwick of gay men, daughters of darkness can claim GPB as one of cinema’s greatest celebrations of a brunette butch–blonde femme coupling.
GPB chronicles the adventures of two voluptuous showgirls, best friends Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell), first aboard an ocean liner en route to France and then in Paris. On the surface, GPB concerns itself with hetero pursuits. But in Hawks’s film—based on the 1949 Broadway musical co-written by Anita Loos, adapting her own 1925 novel—the men, frequently enfeebled, insignificant characters, are all but superfluous. Lorelei’s boyfriend, Gus (Tommy Noonan), is a nebbishy, bespectacled millionaire unable to stand up to his own father. Dorothy’s hot for Malone, a private detective partial to pipes and sweater-vests, and played by null presence Elliott Reid. (“If we could have got a great big strong hunk of manhood, we probably would have used him, but we couldn’t get one and we had to make the movie,” Hawks said of Reid’s casting.) A jowly, elderly diamond magnate, Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), who goes by “Piggy,” flirts with Lorelei until his domineering missus shows up. In Russell’s solo number, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?,” meant to show off Dorothy’s lust for the entire US Olympic team, she sings to a highly indifferent group of muscle queens more interested in wrestling each other than in doing anything with her. Perhaps the most libidinal male aboard the SS Île de France is seven-year-old Henry Spofford III (George Winslow), who responds to Lorelei’s “animal magnetism.”
The real couple of GPB is Dorothy and Lorelei, the only characters who sing, dance, and harmonize together. During the film’s opening number, “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” the duo are inextricably linked through sartorial excess (feathered hats, flaming orange-red sequined dresses), curves, wiggles, and shakes. During this song, Dorothy frequently touches Lorelei, who coyly gazes into her partner’s eyes and coos suggestively, “I learned an awful lot in Little Rock.” Surely Lorelei’s sentimental education in Arkansas included a tutorial in the love that dared not speak its name.
Every frame of Hawks’s musical focuses on the “creamy overflow” (to borrow a phrase from a celebrity columnist writing at the time of the film’s release) of Monroe’s and Russell’s bodies; in his 1973 biography Marilyn, Norman Mailer notes that his subject will never “appear so fucky again” as she does in GPB. The physiques of Jane/Dorothy and Marilyn/Lorelei are defined by ripened mouths, breasts, hips—ample pulchritude that sometimes exceeds the spectacle of the musical numbers they perform together. Uncontainable and unclassifiable, the sexual energy they exude dominates every scene the two women share—a fucky force constantly reciprocated between them. As Lorelei shimmies during the “When Love Goes Wrong” number in the film’s final third, Dorothy, her eyes transfixed on her friend, shouts, “Do it, honey, do it!” before letting out a mellifluous, orgasmic howl. Later, to protect her, Dorothy will stand trial in Paris night court as Lorelei, a highly charged episode of infatuation in which identities dissolve. Even in the final scene, during what is supposed to be a double wedding between Gus/Lorelei and Malone/Dorothy, the grooms are extraneous; the film ends on a two-shot of the women essentially marrying each other.
If the onscreen rapport between the two actresses invites blue fantasies by lavender ladies, what was it like when the cameras stopped rolling? “We were both Geminis and really complimented [sic] each other,” Russell remembers in her autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path & My Detours (1985). Monroe, not yet a major star, received second billing to Russell, and $500 a week to her colleague’s $200,000 total. And without Russell, Monroe might never have been able to complete the film that changed her career forever; wracked with insecurities on set, Monroe was finally assuaged by Russell’s tough love: “I’d stand in her doorway and say, ‘Come on, Blondl, let’s go . . .’ ” Russell recalls the rehearsals for the dance numbers as “hard, sweaty work.” Or, if you prefer, fucky.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes runs at Film Forum in New York August 6–12. For more details, click here.