Between winter 1984 and summer 1985, Gilbert Adair took over Sight & Sound’s regular ‘Double Takes’ column, under the pseudonym ‘Heurtebise’. If this nakedly Coctelian reference hadn’t already provided a garishly neon-lit clue as to the writer’s identity, almost any random paragraph would betray more than enough stylistic and/or preoccupationary evidence. Incidentally, those tempted to enter the ‘Cinematiclerihews’ and ‘Acrosticriticisms’ competitions should be advised that the closing date passed a quarter of a century ago.
— Michael Brooke
The Distinguished Thingumabob
Well, well, as Henry James is supposed to have said with his dying breath, here it is at last, the distinguished thing. I should make it clear, however, that the distinguished thing which concerns me is not Death (touch wood) but British Film Year, first announced at the 1984 Cannes Festival, officially launched in London a few months back and due to get under way this coming March. Its brief would seem to be less that of promoting the British cinema per se than of augmenting the number of paying customers on the domestic front (by a mere 4 per cent, a nevertheless ambitious target) for whatever fare, local, American or ‘foreign’. Incontrovertibly a good idea, then, even though its slogan’s claim – “Cinema – the Best Place to See a Film” – is an untenable one these days. (With the exception of mismatched screen formats, I am firmly, heretically, convinced that the best place to see a film is in the privacy of one’s own home, sans supporting programmes, sans ice-cream salesgirls, sans the privilege of hearing a neighbouring spectator prise open a box of chocolates and being assailed by a graphic mental image of the inside of his mouth, a humid coffee cream obscenely enthroned upon his tongue like a minute, plump, well-oiled eunuch on a red velure rug – sans, in short, any distraction.)
And yet… Why is it that, intermittently fond of the British cinema as I have been over the years, I cannot help gagging on the attendant hype? Perhaps it is, as with this latest ‘Renaissance’, that the publicity is always contingent on a notion of patriotism, so that everything is whipped up together into a peculiarly unholy mix, Falklands and Chariots, Diana and Koo, Randy Andy and Gandhi. Consider: A film, Chariots of Fire, wins a fistful of Oscars, and we are subjected to the spectacle of Colin Welland brandishing his statuette as though it were a blunderbuss and issuing a threat the like of which had not been heard in the colonies since the War of Independence – “The British are coming!” (When you think of it, the film’s ascension to Oscardom constituted in itself a genuine Chariots of Fire-type success story, and you can easily visualise how Hugh Hudson might have shot it, with Welland and David Puttnam gracefully straining in slow motion towards the Academy podium to the catchy refrain of a theme tune by Vangelis…) Or: A director, Lindsay Anderson, who once (as a contributor to Sight and Sound aeons ago) shrewdly compared the chore of reviewing British films with doing one’s National Service, now sounds (or sounds off) like some irascible, puce-complexioned colonel (rtd.) out of Cheltenham demanding the return of that same National Service for the younger generation of critics.
What has such jingoist swagger to do with the cinema? Why am I already persuaded that British Film Year will be, like the above-mentioned Renaissance (and, indeed, like the film which lent this expression its revived notoriety), a ploughman’s lunch, an adman’s hunch? On reflection, I still believe that the wisest crack ever made about our national product was Truffaut’s, when he suggested that there might be “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain’.” For what every film shot in this country has in common is an indelible humdrum Britishness, one compounded of, inter alia, class rigidities, physical traits, a predominantly literary culture and, not least, a factor cited by Stephen Frears apropos filming thrillers, to wit, the funny shape of policemen’s helmets. And if I were to coin a motto for British film history – a device, in the heraldic sense – it would be “And yet…”
Hitchcock? And yet his Hollywood movies were so incomparably richer. Powell? And yet it is eccentricity (which is what he and Pressburger traded in) rather than normality that is the enemy of the truly strange. Thorold Dickinson? And yet he was a textbook Eisenstein, a textbook Welles (never mind that his career actually predated the latter’s). The documentarists? And yet how offensive was their idea of dignifying the trodden-on masses by positioning them against dark lowering skies (a trick they picked up from that old aesthete Flaherty – in the cinema, aestheticism is invariably related to the horizon). Jennings? And yet his lyrical alleluias to all things British make his films difficult of access to those shadowy, faceless unfortunates born outside of the royal throne of kings, sceptred isle, and so on.
Korda? And yet his world view is encompassed by E. C. Bentley’s clerihew:
The Art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about Maps,
But Biography is about Chaps.
That there might have been more to our colonial history than a few Chaps (with Pipes) pointing at Maps appears never to have occurred to him or to his scenarists. (Flora Robson’s feisty Elizabeth I in Fire Over England was what you might call an honorary Chap, while Paul Robeson’s Bosambo, the tribal chief in Sanders of the River, was just part of the Map.)
Little has changed. Despite the triumph of The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway struggles to finance a new feature; Bill Forsyth becomes ever more ‘Czech’, gradually transforming himself into a homegrown Jiri Menzel, which is all we need; Kevin Brownlow may simply have lost heart. To my mind, the one currently employed British director of international class – and, significantly, one who has actually succeeded in confronting that bedrock Britishness and appropriating it as a theme – is Mike Leigh. The snag is that critics heretofore – even those sympathetic to him – have tended to stub their toes on his gift for near-hallucinatory naturalism, as though it were the last, not the first, word on his work. Yet, beneath that admittedly overwhelming surface mimicry, his kinship is rather with such austere mandarins as Bresson, Rossellini and Dreyer, i.e. he is a director of miracles. Those in Leigh’s films are all the more authentic for being almost intangible: the mutual commiseration offered by two frustrated women in Grown-Ups or the unforeseen delicacy with which a teenager caresses the raw, brand new baldness of his skinhead brother at the end of Meantime. And, in view of his abiding preoccupation with the family unit, he just conceivably might be considered, toutes proportions gardées, the British Ozu.
The incompatibility of which Truffaut spoke can therefore be turned to advantage; there need be no outright fatalism as regards the capacity of British films to rise above the second-rate; and, yes, I genuinely hope that, beside the hype, something of enduring value will survive this forthcoming British Film Year. And yet…
Pierrot le Sage
Edith Piaf was a monstre sacre celebrated by Cocteau in what he affected to call his poésie de journalisme. He also wrote a one-act monodrama for her, Le Bel Indifférent, filmed in startlingly garish colours by Jacques Demy and the model for Godard’s laconic short, Charlotte et son Jules, with which it shares the conceit of a male character remaining mute throughout his mistress’ tirade. The chanteuse died only a few hours before Cocteau, which at once engendered the characteristically Coctelian legend that he himself had expired while listening to his own improvised radio tribute to her. True or not, I was reminded of that queer sequence of events by the recent, similarly coincidental deaths of François Truffaut and Oskar Werner. Indeed, were one (ha ha) of a superstitious cast of mind, one might well be disturbed by the cluster of premonitory signs which attended them.
Though a matinee idol in his native Austria, Werner doubtless will be most fondly remembered as the gentle, long-suffering Jules in Jules et Jim. In 1966 he worked again with Truffaut, playing a recalcitrant fireman who slowly acquires a political conscience in the eerie yet gorgeously Toytown-ish adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. By then, however, relations between them had begun to deteriorate, as the director himself was to record in his diary of the shooting of that film, published in Cahiers du Cinéma. To his dismay, he discovered that his protégé had been meanwhile, so to speak, ‘kicked upstairs’ into international stardom – stardom, moreover, of the old, discredited school. For not only was Werner comically neurotic about his ‘profile’, he was reluctant, during one crucial scene, to collapse in a faint, lest it compromise his ‘image’. Truffaut’s exasperation with him became such that, by the completion of shooting, the two men were barely on speaking terms; and, years later, when the director made his most sombre film, La Chambre Verte – about a writer of newspaper obituaries so obsessed with death that he erects a private shrine to his deceased friends – Werner’s photograph figured prominently in the ‘green room’ (as did Cocteau’s and that of the author of the two novellas on which the film was based, Henry James, both of them, of course, unlike Werner, already dead).
It was Truffaut himself who, with an unprofessional stiffness that I found very moving, played the necrophiliac protagonist. And if, at the time, the systematic morbidity of La Chambre Verte made it seem absolutely sui generis, a film has since emerged to which it bears a remarkable resemblance in both mood and subject-matter. I refer to Resnais’ L’Amour à Mort, the account of a man’s death, his resuscitation and his subsequent longing to die a second time, which is the latest film to feature Truffaut’s companion (and the mother of his third child), Fanny Ardant. Resurrection was also a theme of Le Testament d’Orphée, Cocteau’s ‘will’, financed in part by the young Francois Truffaut, flush from the commercial success of Les Quatre Cents Coups. In one of its most beautiful sequences, the Poet (played by Cocteau himself, who else) was transfixed by the lance of the goddess Minerva; whereupon, with the behest “Only pretend to weep, my friends, since poets only pretend to die”, he solemnly re-ascended from his deathbed “without”, as the published script does not fail to inform us, “bending his knees”.
To end with, merely note that Truffaut’s last film before his death was Vivement Dimanche! (meaning not Finally Sunday!, which is how it was translated in this country, but “Roll on, Sunday!”, as a schoolboy might sigh, “Roll on, 4 o’clock!”) and the name of the fireman whom Werner played in Fahrenheit 451 was Montag, which also happens to be the German word for ‘Monday’. As it turned out, Truffaut died on a Sunday, Werner the following day.
Truffaut? What can one say about him that hasn’t been said? To be sure, far too much of his output struck one as unworthy of a major cinéaste, from the “two hours of babies’ bottoms”, as Richard Roud scathingly put down L’Argent de Poche, to the “hips that pass in the night” of the equally vapid L’Homme Qui Aimait les Femmes. If his precipitous decline can be attributed to any one externally verifiable factor, it would, I think, be his decision, in the 60s, to act as his own producer – a dual operation which calls to mind the old legal chestnut about a client who defends himself having a fool for a lawyer. To no one’s surprise, his films became cautious and ‘respectable’, wholeheartedly in compliance with the codes and practices of mainstream French cinema. And yet… There was, even then, La Chambre Verte, a brave and, for an artist so disposed to ingratiating himself, a profoundly contrary project; and Le Dernier Métro – oddly, a solid ‘prewar’ movie about the Occupation.
And from the early work nothing will ever detract, made as it was when Truffaut believed in the cinema, to employ an incongruous analogy, the way the Watergate conspirators believed in the Nixon Presidency. That is how I shall prefer to remember him – youthful, fierce, incurably romantic, Pierrot le Sage to Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, each of his movies the manifestation of a kind of camaraderie (or camera-derie). It is the death of that director which appears to me to have devalued the cinema as ‘real estate’, to have caused the neighbourhood to go down, as they say. Then I recall Cocteau’s words from Le Testament d’Orphée, and I think: Dead he may be, but he will bury us all.
If you recall, I have in this column already quoted E. C. Bentley’s celebrated clerihew on Biography and Geography. Well, it set me to wondering whether it would be possible – I won’t say, advisable – to write a history of the cinema in that capricious form (defined by Frances Stillman in The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary as “a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length more or less in the rhythm of prose,” and christened after its begetter, whose middle name it literally was). Though E.C. himself, notwithstanding the fact that he lived into the 1950s, composed no clerihews on films or filmmakers, his son and occasional illustrator, Nicolas, was the author of these lines on de Mille:
Cecil B. de Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of ‘The Wars of the Roses’.
Bentley’s Complete Clerihews was edited, annotated and prefaced by the poet Gavin Ewart, who subsequently published a volume of Other People’s Clerihews, in which verses on Jane Fonda, Mae West, Betty Grable, Alan Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Diane Keaton and Faye Dunaway can be found. Mostly stars, as one might have predicted, and something of a ragbag miscellenea, as much in terms of subject-matter as of the quality of the versification (e.g. “I’d rather be fed to the lions, Than watch Jeremy Irons”), though Joyce Nice contributes an ingeniously droll lampoon of Polanski:
Is a very small manski –
So his taste in women’ll
Always be criminal.
This last-quoted example, entirely personal and scurrilous in nature, is not, of course, very informative about Polanski’s gifts as a director; and even Nicolas Bentley’s squib on de Mille, while faithful enough to the kitschy spirit of its subject, errs in the letter, as de Mille unaccountably omitted to inflict the Biblical Babbitry of his vision on that particular era of English history. One therefore might propose as a more accurate alternative:
Cecil B. de Mille
Discovered with a thrill
That the Bible was nothing but sex
And special effects.
And off we go, from the medium’s foggy dawn:
Cried Auguste Lumière,
“Vive le documentaire!”
At the name of Thomas Ince,
For his place in film history
Remains a mystery.
Through Hollywood’s ‘golden age’:
Was a son-of-a-bitch
And, according to Spoto,
Hung out with jocks –
Hunters, aviators, speedway motorists
Liked shots that were circly.
That would explain why
His overheads were high.
On to the Movie Brats:
It makes John Milius
When Francis Ford Coppola
Is more popular.
Is said to be crazy
Brian De Palma
And the history of film criticism:
Of the Auteur Theory
I’ve grown extremely weary.
It started in Paris
And ended in Sarris.
Readers’ contributions are most welcome, and the best of them will appear in the next issue of Sight and Sound. No prizes, I’m afraid, except the unbeatable, un-overrateable one of seeing one’s work in print. But be warned – whatever its apparent artlessness, the clerihew is by no means an easy form to practise (Auden’s were wretchedly feeble, and I’m not too pleased with a couple of my own efforts). The rewards, on the other hand, can be incommensurately gratifying, above all in the matter of felicitous rhymes. So here, as a final incentive, is one I have titled ‘The Artist and the Critic’:
Is Georges Méliès
As often on the telly as
George Melly is?
The hell he is!
It’s All True
Chaplin’s sort of rapport with his audience, it is safe to assume, exists no longer in the cinema (save, maybe, where science-fiction is concerned, with the younger generation, whose perception of the human species, or of its universalised prototype, is of a phalanx of sexless homunculi, their physical components just about legible in the little interlocking blocks of right angles enabling them to flit across the computerised grid of a video game). In its stead, however, there has evolved another, vampirically nostalgic passion for the near-moribund medium, that of the buff. And since you out there – yes, reader, you – are no doubt unaware of the eccentric, concentric circles of Hell into which the victims of this passion have been vacuumed up, it might be amusing to illuminate them in a few luridly Dantean tableaux.
There are, in one circle, the buffs capable of reeling off a detailed rundown of all the current movie grosses, as though they themselves were up for a percentage cut, and of quoting Variety as reverentially as though that curious publication were not only “the Bible of American show business”, but the Bible itself. Those for whom the quality of a film resides essentially in its rarity, and who will chase up some forgotten curio or museum piece, no matter how undistinguished, with the sweaty single-mindedness of a reporter on the track of a scoop. Those who can date a ten-minute Looney Tunes cartoon to within a year of its making by examining the draughtsmanship of Tweety Pie’s voluptuous bee-sting beak. Or, most remarkably, furnish a verbatim report on the encapsulation by Leonard Maltin of virtually any film selected at random from the ten thousand or so covered in his TV Movies guide, even contriving to get his star rating right to the nearest ½*.
Then there are the collectors! In Hollywood, several years ago, I encountered a prize, though by no means untypical, specimen of the breed. He collected Abbottiana, which is to say, Bud Abbott memorabilia (or, to anyone but himself and perhaps an intimate acquaintance or two of the late straight man, unmemorabilia). He was the proud custodian of gaudy tiepins and cigarette holders and monogrammed handkerchiefs once owned by the scowling, brilliantined Abbott, along with numerous autographed snaps. The centrepiece of his collection, its Koh-I-Noor, was a soft grey felt fedora with a dent down the middle. But exactly – I mean the invisible type of hat you could have purchased (and indeed still can) in any men’s haberdashery throughout the Free World, except that, since Abbott had actually worn it in one of his low-budget comedies with Lou Costello, this somewhat greasy model was consequently imbued with the necromantic properties assigned by credulous Christians to a chip off the True Cross.
Needless to add, our collector could scarcely have been more indifferent to Costelliana. Make a present to him of the ogrish strop razor with which Lou Costello shaved a balloon in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood and he wouldn’t thank you for it. But show up with a pair of Bud Abbott’s slacks from the same film, of an almost comically sober pattern and cut, and as unlike a clown’s baggy pants as it would be humanly possible to conceive, and you could name your own price.
I know one monomaniac who over the years has amassed 35,000 copies of sheet music from Hollywood musicals, the most coveted of which is the ‘legendary’ (his word) red polka-dotted sheet from Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal, an issue withdrawn only a week after its publication in favour of a regulation achromatic one; a couple whose accumulation of Valentino memorabilia includes a gate from the actor’s ranch and a silver-capped cane which he twirled to irresistible effect in his swan song, The Son of the Sheik; a well-known movie journalist whose apartment enshrines a seemingly inexhaustible trove of Olive Oyl rag dolls, Betty Boop ashtrays, Elmer Fudd cruets, Mickey Mouse watches, of course, and other such kitschy mementoes; and a witty Manhattanite connoisseur of truly execrable films, whose collection comprises turkeys from PRC, Grand National, Monogram, all of them rock-bottom Poverty Row studios of the 30s and 40s. (To give you some idea of the rigour with which he effects his selection of titles: he spurns Republic Pictures – whose founder, Herbert B. Yates, immortalised his wife, the former ice-skating champion Vera Hruba Ralston, in a well nigh unbroken sequence of rubbishy melodramas – as too upmarket.)
As should be clear, the focus of a movie buffs fanaticism tends to shift by degrees from direct involvement with the medium he professes to adore to a fetishistic pawing of some of its most evocative promotional accessories: newspaper ads, posters, lobby cards and life-size cardboard cut-outs. And trailers. In fact, for a cinema in financial difficulties, the shortest cut to a bonanza is organising an evening devoted exclusively to trailers. Many a buff, I am sure, would admit actually preferring them to most of the films they mean to promote. For, like the kind of person who, upon entering a public lending library, makes an immediate beeline for the Just Returned shelves, as though the mere fact of a book’s having been recently borrowed, read (one presumes) and returned, albeit by a total stranger, somehow constitutes a recommendation, an up-to-the-minute seal of desirability, as well as setting that particular volume apart from the achingly vast arena of choice represented by all those thousands of others that would seem to have remained undisturbed of late and may well be, the borrower suspects, on the shelf in more ways than one, the movie buff is hope-lessly, fatally teased by the illusion that what is Coming Next Week will be an improvement on what is Now Showing.
The sprightliest entries in the ‘Cinematiclerihew’ competition which I set in my last column are published on the next page. And, as some readers may already have guessed from the neologism of my caption, another challenge is posed. So what is an acrosticriticism? A necessarily pithy critique of a film, each word of which has to begin, as in a traditional acrostic, with the corresponding letter of that film’s title. Though the natural instinct, one I myself have declined to resist, is to favour a shortish, ideally a single-word, title, the length of an entry will certainly be taken into account; moreover, competitors should interpret the notion of a critique as freely as they see fit.
Thus it might take the form of an atomised plot summary:
Amadeus: A Musical Ame Damnée Eventually Unbalances Salieri.
Or an unpretentious interpretative intuition:
Psycho: Perkins’ Schizoid Youth Constitutes Hitchcock’s Oedipus.
Or even pick up an extra-cinematic reverberation:
Star Wars: Sound The Alarm! Reagan Wants America Ruling Space!
The final ‘Heurtebise’ column, retitled ‘Single Takes’, consisted exclusively of two pages of aphorisms, a selection of which follows:
An opinion can be shared, an idea can only be stolen.
To adapt Shaw: “If you can, create; if you can’t, become a critic.” Yet what else is the artist but a critic who confines his attentions to a single body of work: his own?
A film critic should have his inner eye tested every five years or so.
There are three stages in a critic’s career. One, he is so enchanted to be asked to write about films that the question of remuneration hardly enters into it. Two, he cannot credit his good fortune at being paid to write about films. Three, he is outraged at being paid so little to write about films.
A woman’s body in representation, even in a pornographic film, is never ‘naked’, always ‘nude’.
Dietrich was a creature of the screen to such an extent that the grain of her snowy masklike features seemed a photographic grain; every frame of her life, so to speak, resembled a still by Horst.
Though the British cinema can claim many fine actors, there is one discipline most of them have not yet acquired, and that is how not to act. Consider a single frame enlargement from some British film – the actors in it, unlike their American counterparts, will still be seen madly acting away.
Even in their professional status film actors risk being typecast. If Gig Young, let’s say, had ever played Hamlet, and played it for all it was worth, he would doubtless have found himself nominated for Best Supporting Performance.
When two people see a film together, they are more likely to agree about its value than when they see it separately.
Never judge a person’s intelligence by his taste in films.
Watching The Navigator in an ‘art cinema’ and laughing out loud, I am told by a neighbour to make less noise. “But it’s a comedy!” I reply. “It’s not a comedy,” he snaps back, “it’s a classic!”
How thrilling to read about the shooting of a film, to anticipate its performances, its set-pieces, its overall ‘look’, to study the ads, posters and trailers which announce its forthcoming release. Whereupon it opens; it is reviewed (well or badly); and we end by seeing it (or not). It has, in short, become just another film. To release a film is, in a sense, to diminish it.
Eyes are vulnerable – “those tenuous instruments”, as blind Borges called them – and film is vulnerable. And it is the confrontation of two such vulnerabilities which makes the cinema such a poignant medium.
The cinema was lunar (black and white); it is now solar (colour).
Underground cinema (often): contemplating other people’s navels.
Most young artists are kleptomaniacs who have no use for what they steal.
An artist can only be imitated if he imitates himself.
Coleridge, according to legend, was interrupted in the composition of Kubla Khan by the inopportune arrival of “a person from Porlock”. Hollywood has always imagined itself as Xanadu: it is, in reality, Porlock.
There are film-makers who have never ‘sold out’ solely because no one ever offered to buy.
A long film (in the pejorative sense) is long after five minutes.
There are films which are released – but only on parole.
Confronted with the work of certain film-makers, one would like to “turn the meaning down”, as one turns the sound down on a radio.
In the cinema, money has been devalued by inflation (nothing short of a billion dollars, for example, will satisfy the criminals in a heist movie). Yet Bresson, in L’Argent, could invest a mere handful of false banknotes with an extraordinary sense of reality.
The cinema itself is unlikely to have a happy ending.
Do not dismiss generalisations. If nothing else, they offer a very precise insight into the mind of the person who makes them.