Translated from the Argentinian Spanish by César Albarrán-Torres
During these past few months, the times of lockdown, the apparatus in charge of feeding cinephilia just crumbled. This space, which we can understand as a horizontal transnational community, was an abstraction for evident reasons. In my case, cinephilia stopped ordering the films I watched, the books I read. With no obligation and for no apparent reason I started watching William A. Wellman’s filmography. He is a classic Hollywood director who is more or less overshadowed by the Great Auteurs. Perhaps that’s for the better: his art could be described as modest, small, lacking high aspirations. In his movies I was introduced to a new world that has similarities with and can shed some light on ours. Let’s be more precise: with his light, Wellman traces the contours of our tribulations, which are so hard to identify for those of us right in the middle of it.
From 1930 to 1935 Wellman made an outstanding 21 films! Among them, Safe in Hell, The Public Enemy, Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse, Frisco Jenny, The Purchase Price, Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale. These years are a very particular era of the cinema classified as “pre-code”. The Hays Code, a diatribe of rules destined to preserve the morals and which restricted what could be shown on film, was not yet the final word. The movies shot during these years were torn between family-friendly fun and the need to be a bit risqué, a combo that sells. What do we encounter when watching these films? A clumsy mis-en-scène that nevertheless is heartfelt, social mandates, and an era’s subconscious almost devoid of mediation. These films, as critic Manny Farber used to say, border art but they do not aspire to or could be labelled as Art with capital A. We can witness how the people narrate themselves in the midst of misery after the Crack of 1929. Narratives are conservative, appeal to an inherent machismo, timidly trust the good intentions of the American people given that they stay away from communism. Direction is clumsy but when the camera stays still actors work their magic, they try to seduce the lens and the audience with two or three minor slapsticks. During this time cinema was close to the circus. Most characters suffer from the same ailment: poverty. Situations thereafter vary of course. There is a limited number of ways in which one can be poor. But the poor also make plans. Family dinners. Sometimes they wanna get married because they are terribly horny, sometimes a date is enough, steak and coffee. These plans can go perfectly or turn awry (which is often the case), but they reveal a horizon and help us share hope. We are filled with uncertainty and we are so involved that we want to scream at the screen: “Careful, things will take a turn for the worse”. As a viewer, you wish for the ellipses to be longer because that means that the characters spent some time in peace, with nothing worth talking about. These dreams involve the predictability of the everyday and are not that different from the hopes of the original audiences for these movies.
This process resembles alchemy: it involves foolish characters that do not know how to decode their environment and the origin of their own tempestuous emotions, but whose stories produce intelligent films. From characters who are definitely not poets but everyday journeymen and journeywomen, Wellman produced lyrical films. Looking at Wellman’s own life can explain this phenomenon. He was a matter-of-fact type of dude who had fought in World War I and was passionate about airplanes. He often fought with his actresses because they spent way too much time getting ready. For some films he used real-life homeless people to escape the artificiality of the studio (anyone who has watched Wild Boys of the Road could say that this tactic was at least questionable). People spent too much time at the studios, a Monday to Friday, 8-5 schedule that turned the place into something resembling a petty government office, a place in which employees tricked the system to be lazy, places with a history and room for leisure. It was in those spaces that a communal, subconscious lyricism brewed. Scenes were not written down in stone, so fiction faced the same tribulations as reality. They made do with what they had.
These films were capable of finding the stuff life is made of in the thick of banality. These movies are full of trivial matters, small gestures, foolishness in which characters have faith, care for each other, work as a trampoline or a wire. Those were the only certainties in the world. These films used the times’ themes and materials. These films inserted themselves in a lively place. They talked about everyday problems and there was an emphasis on portraying how people really live. Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t yet stated that films are like life but without the boring bits.
How can we judge these films then, almost a century after they were shot? Cinephilia, as an exercise in historical learning, unable to divorce itself from the politics of the auteur, allows us to watch them lovingly, to accept their internal contradictions, to understand the tug of war between the artist and the studio, to celebrate linguistic traps. We also accept the contradictions born out of confronting today’s values to the values of their time (today, cancel culture would erase these films). This is because the artist is not behind every shot, we can’t find an assertive gesture, an opinion. In short: a worldview. So who is to blame? It is not as simple as a director communicating their obsessions through film. What we have is an artist working as a medium.
I believe it is not easy to find these kinds of trivialities in the type of contemporary cinema we watch; if we really set our minds to it, we can find them in the lowest rungs of culture. Is there a filmmaker who shoots movies with reggaeton songs in the background, using Instagram instant stories, with people wearing Nike snickers, with young men and women with modest aspirations and dreams, surfing the waves or precarity? Considering that most of us filmmakers come at least from the middle class, that we hold a university degree, approaching other experiences different to our own is difficult: that type of “innocence” inherent in classic cinema is no longer, and to summon it would be nostalgia. Universities teach us to think conceptually and systematically; Wellman’s films are held together with precarious pins. It is as if we were no longer able to do anything other than anthropology. Banality is no longer depth, but an indication that something is missing: a beer among friends, a soccer game, a pyjama party, dancing at a club… all these things are only present when one wants to signal what is wrong about culture, what is repressed, what makes us less human. Because auteur theory distorted our gaze in such a way that we believe that every single element in a film is the director’s responsibility: any type of stupidity or conservatism would be dangerous, would be misrepresented. Who is at fault, the fictional character or the director? All that is left, then, is transcendence, intellectual dialogue or the good savage’s silence.
One possible path for films to be freed from the grasp of impostors and the designs of the festival system would be to embrace the banal. Or, as Farber said, give-and-go with banality. I discussed this issue with my English teacher and we thought that the best Spanish translation would be a soccer-inspired metaphor: “tirar una pared”. This is the term used when you pass the ball to your teammate so they can return it quickly, once you are better positioned. Americans are the best at this, of course, but it is less and less the case. Almost all of these films escape our radar, save films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood or Leonor Telles’ Terra Franca. These two films are overtly political, but they are also constructed through trivialities. So, cinephiles, we gotta spread the word: speak out loud in bars, in festivals, on public transport, at the supermarket queue… we have to make everyone know that William Wellman’s films can save cinema.