Originally published in Film Buffs’ Forecast: A Guide to One-off Screenings in Melbourne, Buff Publications, Melbourne, May 1981. This fanzine-style newsletter was compiled and published by Flaus in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It contained some extended notes on individual films but also an extensive listing of television and cinema screenings (normally in two-week blocks) featuring an elaborate evaluation system (a “code of notable elements”). Now very difficult to locate, we present this as brilliant sample of John’s characteristically ephemeral, in-the-moment critical work. Republished with the permission of the author.
In its short but crowded history, the cinema has had few major artists whose formed thought can withstand the tides of fashion in the marketplace and the academy. We are not likely to agree on a short list, but I put these to you: if Ozu is the most sublime, Godard the most exciting, Dreyer the most rigorous, Jennings the most succinct, Flaherty the most fanciful, Akerman the most abstract (yet also the most concrete!), then von Sternberg is the most profound.
That may seem a perverse claim to advance for a filmmaker who is frequently characterised by historians and reviewers as pretentious, a trader in “absurd plots and shallow dialogue”, “novelettish characters”, “studied artfulness”, “great trash”, etc. Actually, the film world has not yet reached the point von Sternberg was at half a century ago.
As a stylist von Sternberg was both innovator and consummator, a claim that can be made for few artists in any medium. His thematic preoccupations place him ahead of his time, and indeed ahead of many liberated thinkers in our time.
Morocco and Blonde Venus were the second and fifth of a cycle of seven films which von Sternberg made between 1929 and 1935 with Marlene Dietrich as star. This cycle examined successive platforms of feminine struggle in a masculine world, as part of a larger view of the struggle between self and social role
Many film buffs and students are still baffled by von Sternberg’s style, and only film lushes can take guiltless pleasure in it. What is difficult for all of them (=most of us?) to grasp is that von Sternberg’s stylisation is a self-defining, consistent code of argument, and absurdity is one of the weapons in his critique of society.
His humour contains preposterous elements which are intrinsically amusing, but also instrumental. They are the instruments he uses to synoptically view and judge the cultural enslavement of individuals by their social roles. His universally conceded mastery of lighting, composition and décor is not merely spellbinding, it is case-putting.
Von Sternberg saw that the besetting conflict of civilised existence is between Self and Role. All of us play roles, whether we believe in them or not. In our culture, sex roles are the most fundamental, hence the least accessible to critical consciousness. The measure of our liberation is the extent to which our sense of identity comes from ourselves, and not from our roles, and the extent to which our roles are self-made, not other-made. Personal style, such as Dietrich exemplifies in the von Sternberg films, can be a form of self-definition, of defiance.
Our culture confuses sex roles with sexuality, sexuality with sensuality, sensuality with guilt, morality with censure. Half a century ago, von Sternberg’s films had already dispensed with the trangression-guilt-retribution mechanism which is at the core of both tragedy and comedy in the Judeo-Christian heritage. His philosophical premise anticipates the existentialist position adopted by many of the nouvelle vague directors in the late ’50s and ’60s.
The Morocco of von Sternberg’s film is not to be located or defined by maps (some bridging sequences in the film play with this notion) for it is a country of the mind. To the Eurocentric fancy, Morocco is definitely exotic. Men come here, footloose adventurers who have ditched the past, like Foreign Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper). Women come here, suicide passengers who have no future, like cabaret chanteuse Amy Jolly (Dietrich). Only Bessiere (Adolph Menjou), “citizen of the world” who might have been a great artist if he hadn’t been wealthy, chooses to live here.
If there is a scene in Morocco which everyone remembers (you may have seen it as an excerpt in The Love Goddesses), it is the one where Amy first appears before the rowdy patrons of Lo Tinto’s cabaret, the crucible of Morocco. Insolently she confronts them in a man’s clothing and quells their uproar. She sings of love and tears, death and dreams. In a magical moment she takes a flower from a pretty young woman, kisses her full on the lips, then strolls mannishly away. She is simultaneously provocative, alluring and inviolable. This early scene, and others in which von Sternberg makes ironic play with society’s muddled distinctions between sexuality, sensuality and sex roles, are essential for a positive interpretation of the film’s conclusion.
I have heard present day audiences groan when Amy kicks off her high heels in the hot sand, and joins the “rear guard”, women who trudge the desert in the wake of their marching men.
Discussions with some of the groaners has brought out their disappointment with what they see as a cop-out, yielding to traditional sexist notions, perhaps even strengthening them, since Amy’s action defies traditional morality, and sexism goes deeper than Christianity.
This interpretation ignores the patterned play of ironies of earlier scenes, or dismisses them as mere “play”. The defence against this view acknowledges that even the radical individual might fall in love. Love, however unpredictable and advisable by the standards of security fetishism, is not to be gainsayed.
If Amy Jolly is still in bondage to sexist values, then kicking off her shoes in the hot sand is absurd, escapist, self-annihilating – and even our groans should be legion. However, if Amy Jolly is a self-defined person, free of sex roles – except in as much as she turns them against society – can not her action, with all its prospect of misery and disappointment, be seen as not selfish but radically self-serving, i.e., liberated?
Is this too radical a defence, to say that those who scoff at Amy’s march into the desert are still in bondage, not to sexism but to the subtler values of security fetishism, by which this culture inhibits true individuality in its members?
There isn’t the space here for a full-scale critique. Just to mention in passing that all three principal characters make their separate sacrifices (Amy’s is possibly the easiest of the three to make), that Brown and Bessiere have a strangely tension-free Oedipal relationship and that Bessiere is the only sympathetic male character, the only one not tainted by absurdity, in all seven films of the Dietrich cycle.
Blonde Venus may seem a minor work by comparison with Morocco. It is not as sublime or as beautiful, its parts not as seamlessly matched, and its ending is even more open to question. However, it has moments of piercing transcendence of the multilayered emotional racketeering which our culture enshrines in its institutions.
Few of von Sternberg’s films are likely to be accepted as pro-feminist by the standards of today’s protagonists, but all of them are anti-masculinist. Blonde Venus stands second only to Dishonored in its loathing of the social and personal mechanisms of oppression which males have erected (!) in our society.