Film criticism from literary writers is a tricky business. I am of course using literary as a discursive term rather than a hard and fast category; one indeed can make the argument that all film criticism should be “literary.” Nevertheless, the results can be extreme.
Consider a recent book-length publication on Tarkovsky’s Stalker1 by a prominent British writer, in which the author, after upgrading his home-viewing to digital projection, discovers that Godard’s Breathless (1960) is “unwatchable”, and that Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and Belle de Jour (1967) “sucked”. An objectionable statement; not because of its bold assertion that a canonised film is not worthy of its place, but because of the ease with which it dismisses. In fact, such rethinking of the canon is welcomed, provided that the rigour of the argument is commensurate with its ambitions. Instead, such facile hand-waving unwittingly reveals certain underlying assumptions, including a general disregard for cinema’s history and the discourse surrounding it, and an obdurate unwillingness to accept its seriousness. It is not that the author found that Buñuel’s masterpieces “sucked”, but that there was no defence of this position, that in the absence of a defence there was no impulse towards self-censorship, that upgrading one’s home viewing to digital projection sufficiently informs one to dismiss – in a single, declarative sentence – what are widely regarded as modernist masterpieces. I doubt the author would feel just as comfortable, after reading an annotated version of a Faulkner or Joyce novel for example, to declare that after this more advanced reading experience – “It sucked.”
On the other hand, one can find James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976), a book-length take-down of middle-brow, faux-liberal Hollywood movies that reveals the underlying assumptions of such cinema is often times more racist than its ostensibly anti-racist messages. In his singular combination of rage and tenderness, it is some of the best film criticism by a “literary” writer you can find. Writing on In the Heat of the Night (1967):
The history which produces such a film cannot, after all, be swiftly understood, nor can the effects of this history be easily resolved. Nor can this history be blamed on any single individual; but, at the same time, no one can be left off the hook. It is a terrible thing, simply to be trapped in one’s history, and attempt, in the same motion (and in this, our life!) to accept, deny, reject, and redeem it – and, also, on whatever level, to profit from it. And: with one’s head in the fetid jaws of this lion’s mouth, attempt to love and be loved, and raise one’s children, and pay the rent, and wrestle with one’s mortality.2
This review is not about Baldwin or his book. All I can say is – the fetid jaws of this lion’s mouth! – read him!
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I have found that the film writing that is most dear to me are those works that blur the distinction between literature/art and scholarship, successfully wearing both badges on their sleeves. I was naturally drawn, therefore, to Marina Warner’s BFI modern classics monograph on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (2nd edition, 2015). Warner, both a renowned novelist and scholar of myth, fables, and fairy tales, sets her eyes and mind to Vigo’s 1934 masterpiece, first championed only by a few (it was a resounding commercial failure) including by John Grierson, and later by James Agee and the yellow Cahiers, but which by 1962 had reached the top ten in Sight and Sound’s decennial survey. L’Atalante has assuredly, more than his two other films, immortalised Vigo in the filmic pantheon, despite his death from tuberculosis at the age of 29. 3
Warner handles her subject well, using her expertise in myth and folklore. She explores such modes of analysis when appropriate, comparing, for example, Juliette’s isolation in Paris to the mythic trope of the heroine breaking a prohibition, causing the fairy castle to vanish and leading her to struggle with hardship in order to regain her love. As Warner writes, “It would be silly to suggest that any of the contributors to L’Atalante had the allegorical myth consciously in mind, but it would be also ignorant to dismiss the parallels for this reason.” (p. 62) Warner doesn’t, however, overuse or limit herself to her specific scholarly background, and in fact demonstrates a wide range of interesting filmic comparisons, including Jean Dasté’s character in Zéro de conduite (1933) to Max Linder.
When Vigo was first given the script, he protested, “What the fuck do you want me to do with this – it’s Sunday school stuff.” (p. 15) As Warner affirms, romance is a genre characteristically prone to sentimentality and mawkishness: “Nothing could be more commonplace than a romance; nothing could be more resistant, it would appear at first glance, to deep examination or lasting statement, to magical transformation.” (p. 16) And, in fact, the book is at its best when positing how this is avoided. Among other virtues, Warner cites “effervescent invention”, although it is not clear what she exactly means by this; and a “quality of sincere innocence which the principals succeed in portraying”, although how exactly they succeed in this is not explained either. More convincingly, she cites “a wayward storyline, the ironical counterpoint of giddy music and painful experience, and […] by rebuffing morality.” (p. 17-19). This last point is particularly compelling, as there are various moments throughout the film where Vigo could have waved a disapproving finger toward Juliette, warning the audience against the consequences of female disobedience, something the script apparently called for. Even when she is alone and abandoned in Paris, her despair, Warner points out, is rooted in her love for Jean, not in some regret for transgressing bourgeois conventions.
But what is most compelling and insightful is the astute formal explanation – an objective camera. Warner explains that Vigo’s camera remains resolutely objective, giving us subjective shots only rarely: when Jean and Juliette first arrive at the dance hall, window-gazing with Juliette in Paris. Indeed, on the barge the camera seems to be an invisible inhabitant of the vessel, shifting its gaze objectively as the playful actions unfold. We consequently have an objective distance from the unfoldings; we are not aligned with the desires of the characters. Warner writes:
In its independence, the camera […] maintains a formal difference, which reduces affect. In the act of restraining sympathy and displays of emotional sympathy, this cool kind of narrator who unfolds the story without declaring partnership manages to pull at the audience’s feelings more powerfully. L’Atalante’s camera does not need to stick with Jean, or Juliette or le peré Jules’s ways of feeling — he can vary the mood independently of the characters’ involvement, he can observe Jean’s despair, Juliette’s curiosity, with a kind of precision that isn’t fogged by sentiments of disapproval or loyalty. The camera’s autonomy creates a stylistic richness, aesthetically and emotionally […] L’Atalante contains many mysterious images, non-sequiturs and peculiar moments. (p. 18)
The camera’s objectivity is most steadfast, if I can contribute to Warner’s argument, when the barge arrives in Paris. There are no wondrous gazing shots of Paris, which the scene seems to call for: Juliette has been anxiously and eagerly awaiting the “City of Light”. But such shots would be from Juliette’s point of view, and even here the camera remains resolutely objective, the city being a mere backdrop to the work of parking the vessel – just some negative space. Juliette’s eyes pop, but the camera yawns.
Formal objectivity as a stylistic device against sentimentality has its practitioners in the cinema, the most supreme of which is Mizoguchi. Sansho the Bailiff (1954), The Life of Oharu (1952), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) all achieve their greatness in part due to this same stylistic quality of Mizoguchi, who perhaps yields the most objective camera in all of cinema. But less obviously, and somewhat more obliquely, I am reminded of Ernst Lubitsch, in the romantic comedy genre. In his The Shop Around the Corner (1940) for example, I find myself wanting the protagonists to come together because of a feeling of existential loneliness I want assuaged, not because I have identified or aligned myself with a character – it is not a trickery of wish-fulfillment, characteristic of so many contemporary romantic comedies. Lubitsch of course uses other tools against sentimentality, namely his characteristic subtle undertones of irony: the couple’s romantic consummation is not going to cure all their existential ills, an irony that is one of the main components of the ineffable “Lubitsch touch.” Nevertheless, I think the distance Warner describes in Vigo, and which is so supremely seen in Mizoguchi, has subtle, unexpected parallels with Lubitsch.
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Missed opportunities: Dita Parlo’s face. The close-ups of Parlo remain one of the most powerful elements of the film, carrying the emotional tone of the movie from one sequence to the next; indeed, almost all single frame representations of the movie (the cover of this monograph, the criterion DVD) consist of a Parlo close-up. Warner has lovely nuanced descriptions of Parlo’s face in these close-ups – where the real might of her prose shines – describing her, seemingly paradoxical, cherubic and erotic combination. But the weight of the movie is so dependent on these shots that a longer meditation seems warranted. In several instances, for example, Parlo’s face begins to contort in astonishment (the cabinet of curiosities scene) or terror (the purse-snatching scene) in a way redolent of silent acting, where the face is hyper-expressive. But she always stops just short of the hyper-expressiveness of silent acting. This liminal hovering of her face between the silent and sound screens contributes to, and is characteristic of, the overall feel of the movie.
Le pére Jules. What Siegfried Kracauer wrote nearly 70 years ago, “Michel Simon’s pére Jules ranks among the greatest characters ever created on the screen by any actor or director,” still holds true today. 4 Indeed, the movie seems just as much about him as it does the romance. Warner handles him with fondness and insight, revealing how much of the character is his body: stooped, prognathic; its motions: ape-like, primitive; and its intimate relationship with the barge. As Kracauer pointed out in the same essay, “carved out of its planks.”
But even more than this, le pére Jules, seems to me, the prime example of what is universally used to describe Vigo: poetic. There’s hardly any writing on Vigo that does not compare his cinema to poetry, and inversely almost all discussions of “poetry” in the cinema include discussions of Vigo. Although the term “poetic” is an overused one in film criticism, and a term whose actuality on the screen is nebulous enough that it can be used to mean almost anything, it certainly seems appropriate when describing how Vigo handles le pére Jules. He is hardly an indispensable part of the film’s narrative, and yet he inhabits the screen with the same intensity and duration as the two protagonists. Our sympathies for him and his life grow as the film progresses, reaching its apogee in one of the final, may I say poetic, shots of him.
When le pére Jules decides the situation created by the lovers’ separation is untenable, he goes searching for Juliette in Paris, determined to return her to Jean. Vigo shows, in long shot, le pére Jules walking across a Parisian bridge. It is one of the few long shots le pére Jules is granted; he has predominantly been shown in close quarters on the barge, hunched over with his simian gate. The shot has no vital importance in the film’s narrative or its major themes; it just shows le pére Jules at a loss to find Juliette as he wanders in a city seemingly uncaring to his plight.
There is a Chaplinesque tenderness in the image – le pére Jules exists in the world like the rest of us do and he has to find his way – like all of us. But because almost all poetry in the cinema has at least a hint of melancholy or a sense of loss, the shot is more appropriately described in the past tense – le pére Jules existed in the world like the rest of us do and he had to find his way. There was a man – yes, a man, for he seems to be, for the first time, walking upright across the bridge, his gait slow and forlorn and human – and he walked across this bridge feeling defeated. A short poem – a descriptive image that transcends its ostensible narrative signification — to le pére Jules, the character we have come to feel the strongest fondness for. Vigo’s camera puts its arms around le pére Jules’ shoulders, reassuring him he deserves the same humanity demanded by Jean and Juliette. And ultimately, perhaps this is the real connection between Vigo and the other enshrined dinosaurs of poetic cinema – Chaplin, Clair, (Satyajit) Ray, Tati – not just a cinema of poetry, but of humanity.
Marina Warner, L’Atalante, 2nd edition (London: BFI Film Classics, 2015)
- Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2012). ↩
- James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Dial Press, 1976), p. 58-59 ↩
- A small – pedantic, I know – editorial quibble that the physician in me cannot ignore: Warner writes Vigo “died of septicaemia of the lungs.” Septicaemia is a systemic infection in the bloodstream; by definition, it cannot be “of the lungs”. More likely what is meant is that he developed sepsis, or “septicaemia”, as a result of his pulmonary tuberculosis. More importantly, such an early death – especially from tuberculosis, a disease whose myths at one time included that its sufferers were susceptible to its ravages because of their particularly sensitive artistic sensibilities (see Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor) – lays a minefield before the critic: sentimental and contrived comparisons to Rimbaud and Radiguet, but Warner gracefully slips through these, keeping the comparisons solely to genius cut short by death. ↩
- Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture, ed. Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 49. ↩