Committing Masterpieces: 100 Years of Orson Welles

“Do you think I should confess?  To what?  Committing masterpieces?”

– Elmyr de Hory

“I started at the top, and have been working my way down ever since.”

– Orson Welles

A BFI Theatrical Release

A BFI Theatrical Release

Wednesday marked the one-hundredth birthday of Orson Welles, the man famous the world over for directing Citizen Kane (1941), widely considered the greatest film ever made.  In his lifetime, Welles gained a reputation not only as a wunderkind (he directed Kane, his first film, at twenty-five), but as a difficult, extravagant, temperamental maverick who was impossible to work with and left his projects unfinished.  Maverick he may have been, but in truth Welles was hardly uncontrollable; studio documents show that several of his films came in ahead of schedule and under budget.  Nevertheless, of the nine films Welles made between 1940 and 1960, four were recut by the studios without his consent or participation, and one, It’s All True, was simply dumped by RKO, who preferred to write it off as a tax loss than allow Welles to complete it.  Welles’ former colleague John Houseman once snarkily remarked “There was nothing stopping him from making more Citizen Kanes.” On the contrary, there seemed to be all manner of obstacles stopping him.  But Houseman is wrong  on another count: Welles did keep making Citizen Kanes. He just didn’t make them in Hollywood.

As it became obvious to Welles that he couldn’t make his films within the Hollywood system, he ventured out on his own, living in Europe and subsidizing his own films out of the money he made from his acting jobs, traveling the continent with a fold-up 60mm editing machine.  When his own funds were insufficient to complete these projects, he often turned to independent backers, who frequently turned out to be less that trustworthy, leading to a number of films from this period being unreleased or incomplete.   Despite all of these odds, Welles was still able to complete Othello (1952), Chimes at Midnight (1965), and his final completed film F for Fake (1973), a movie that, true to his boast, is unlike any other before or since.

Orson Welles

F for Fake has been described as an essay film and as a documentary.  Neither label is quite accurate.  Perhaps it would best be described as a magic trick.  The film begins ostensibly as a documentary on the world-famous art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who after meeting de Hory went on to forge the autobiography of Howard Hughes.  The film then begins a stream-of-conscious journey involving Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio scare, the current state of Howard Hughes, a lost love of Picasso’s, and nature of art and authenticity.  Fake is like a cinematic journey through Welles’ mind, rocketing along at a fast clip that can be disorienting but is constantly mesmerizing.  Welles structures the film like a magic show and includes a number of illusions, and he continually finds bold new ways of storytelling through editing and staging, as in the famous sequence where Picasso, depicted via a still photograph, ogles Oja Kodar through his window, or when Kodar’s father and Picasso have a heated confrontation, played out by Welles and Kodar in a deserted, foggy train station.  Like all great art, and every Orson Welles movie, it’s endlessly compelling.  Right up to the end, Welles was pushing the medium as far as he could, and he did it truly independently, with only a traveling editing machine and a few loyal crew members to help him, an inspiration to regional and DIY artists everywhere even thirty years after his death.

-Hank Curry

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Jess Franco’s Eugénie de Sade

Eugénie de Sade

Jess Franco was one of the most prolific filmmakers who ever lived; completing an average of eight films a year during his most productive period in the early seventies.  Though his films are typically no more than soft-core thrillers churned out as economic commodities, there is a sense and evidence of a more sophisticated visual language in his better films.  If one takes only his best films of the early seventies into account, Count Dracula (1969), Venus In Furs (1969) and Eugénie de Sade (1970), there is a remarkable consistency in Franco’s framing and narrative techniques.  In all three of these films, when interior shots are employed, the camera is placed slightly lower so that the ceiling is visible.  This strategy for visual cues denoting a character’s dominance or lack there of is typically associated with the films of Orson Welles, with whom Franco worked as an assistant director in Spain.  The narratives of these films are also indebted to Welles in how they, primarily Eugénie de Sade and Count Dracula, assume a flashback structure derivative in stylistic execution of Citizen Kane (1941) and Mr. Arkadin (1955).  There is also, as is the case with Venus In Furs, a direct homage to Mr. Arkadin in which both films (or rather a version of Welles’ film) open with a nude woman’s body washed up on a beach.  Despite Franco’s assimilation of Welles’ stylistic tendencies he never truly succeeds in elaborating on the subtextual themes in his films, rendering them visually arresting yet hollow.

Eugénie de Sade, however, is a little more sophisticated than Franco’s other films.  There is an accidental self awareness at work in Eugénie de Sade that begs the question of its audience; “is all voyeurism exploitation?”  Franco, intentionally or not, poses this question during the opening credit sequence of the film.  As Eugenie (played by Soledad Miranda) walks onto screen approaching a blonde model with the intention of undressing her, the title fills the screen.  At this point the film cuts to Franco himself in the role of Attila Tanner, seated in a movie theater watching what is apparently a snuff film (Eugenie, with the aid of her father Albert, proceed to murder the blonde model).  This very simple opening sequence becomes a personal statement by Franco.  He is the voyeur, watching a snuff film, fetishizing the players of the film.  Then again, so are we.  Audiences who attended Franco’s films were there to be tantalized by the bodies of his female stars Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm.  Miranda in particular was Franco’s muse at the time Eugénie de Sade was made, and they would make six more films together that year including their most famous collaboration Vampyros Lesbos.  Franco’s stars were the show.  And as Eugénie de Sade continues, Attila (Franco) continues to spy on and fetishize Miranda’s character Eugenie.

It is Attila who questions Eugenie on her death-bed.  He extorts Eugenie by promising that he will end her suffering in exchange that she share the story of her father with whom she was engaged in an incestuous affair.  This is the catalyst for the Wellesian flashback structure of the film.  Within these flashbacks Attila also appears.  Attila is a famous writer and a tremendous fan of Eugenie’s father Albert (Paul Muller).  But he suspects that Albert and Eugenie are not only incestuous, but are responsible for a number of murders (which the audience knows they are).  It is in this scene where Attila confronts Eugenie and her father that Attila begins to fetishize Eugenie, promising the pair that he “will be watching”.

Eugénie de Sade

In the context of the narrative of Eugénie de Sade Jess Franco is Attila, whose relationship to Soledad Miranda is one of distant observation, congruent to the relationship between Soledad Miranda and her relationship to the audience.  The reality of it is, as Miranda’s director, the writer and editor of the film, and as Miranda’s lover; Franco’s relationship is more akin to that of Albert, Eugenie’s father.  Franco could touch Miranda, the audience could not.  The audience’s position is locked into one of voyeurism, into Attila’s perspective.

In many respects Eugénie de Sade is Jess Franco’s Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) or Peeping Tom (Powell, 1961).  There is even a scene in homage to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in Eugénie de Sade where Albert and Eugenie, dressed in clothes that actually recall the design of Antonioni’s film, strangle a fetish model during a photo session.  Like Michael Powell, for Franco the act of voyeurism is violent.  But Franco goes further by fetishizing his subjects with a heavy-handed masculine gaze, his camera endlessly caressing Soledad Miranda’s body through an active zoom lens.  Powell was a dramatist in the classic sense and never gave way to camera moves and shots that did not adhere to the objective reality of his story.  Powell preferred moments of subjectivity be reserved for POV shots or scenes that took place in Mark Lewis’ (Karlheinz Bohm) studio.  This gives these moments a sense of threat in Powell’s thriller.  By contrast, Eugénie de Sade is so wrought with Franco’s fetishization of his female protagonist that the shots themselves are meaningless without the correlation of other signifiers specified above.

Eugénie de Sade, Blow-Up, and Peeping Tom are concerned with issues extending beyond thematic readings, functioning, each in its own way, as a commentary by the film’s author on the nature of direction.  Powell, for instance, alludes to the function of the filmmaker as an illusionist whose plastic fictions, be they tragedy or comedy, offer in human terms and experience an escape to an audience.  Powell’s primary investigation in Peeping Tom is into the nature of manufacturing artificial or staged violence to the delight of a sadistic minded audience bent on escapism at any cost.  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up proposes that the director, Antonioni, and the film’s protagonist Thomas (David Hemmings), share a purpose in utilizing their visual art in an investigation.  Where Thomas investigates a crime, Antonioni employs Thomas’ investigation as a means to determine an abstract existential truth about the human condition or the film’s audience.  Jess Franco is interested in neither existential truth nor in the inherent theatricality of the film medium, but instead revels in the superficial delight his images offer, totally aware of the fact that the viewer will share in these delights with him.  This puts Franco as a filmmaker on the same philosophical level of participation with his audience as opposed to the dominating roles Powell and Antonioni hold over their viewership.  In other words, within the visual strategies and context of Eugénie de Sade Franco is both author and participant; a participant in so much as he is quite literally, given the Wellesian structure of the film, the instrument through which we perceive the narrative action.

Eugénie de Sade

The irony of Jess Franco’s relationship to Eugénie de Sade is that he shares his audiences’ pleasure from their perspective.  Not only do most filmmakers measure and derive pleasure from their completed films via their audience, but few directors who produced exploitation films revel so openly and communally in the act of voyeurism with their audience.  A filmmaker like Jean Rollin was obliged to include scenes of gratuitous sex, as was Terence Fisher.  Franco, on the other hand, catered his projects to the fetishes of both his audience and himself.  This fact imbues Franco’s films with a personal touch that could account for his sustained popularity within the genre of European sexploitation and horror films.

-Robert Curry

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Walerian Borowczyk: Exploitation In The Avant-Garde

Goto, The Island Of Love

Between April 2nd and 9th, the Film Society Of Lincoln Center has been engaged in a near completest retrospective of Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk.  Between his numerous shorts and his exploitation features one is struck by not only Borowczyk’s stylistic diversity, but by the fact that, despite his reputation in the popular consciousness, he is a tremendously gifted filmmaker.  One could say that these misconceptions of Borowczyk are born out of his inconsistent branding in the home video market.  Films like The Beast (1975) and Love Rites (1988) have found a “cult” notoriety via releases through distributors like Cult Epics.  Thus, on online media platforms and social media, fans discuss his films exclusively in the context of the exploitation genre, drawing comparisons to other filmmakers such as Jean Rollin and Jess Franco.  Yet, unlike Rollin or Franco, Borowczyk is an Eastern European with a decade long background in experimental animation and political filmmaking; an alignment in sensibilities far removed from the neo-gothic stylists Franco and Rollin.  Borowczyk’s background plants his sensibilities closer to the European avant-garde of Chris Marker (a sometimes collaborator and champion of Borowczyk’s films), Luis Bunuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, and Jacques Rivette.

Unlike other members of the avant-garde, Borowczyk’s features are distinctly exploitation films.  But this anomaly is one of necessity.  As censorship lapsed with the advent of a mainstream commercial adult film market in the late sixties there was, for a brief opportunity, a means by which a filmmaker could produce a film with content that, even today, could not normally find its way out of the exhibitors of adult films.  Combine that with the fact that a mainstream producer or government grant would balk at the prospect of financing a film like Goto: Island Of Love (1968), and you have a filmmaker seeking funding where he knows he can get it; exploitation films.

Even as an avant-garde filmmaker Borowczyk is not typical.  If one were to compare The Beast to the works of Bunuel or even David Lynch it would be apparent immediately that, of the three filmmakers, Borowczyk has the least amount to express in a single shot.  That is to say that, unlike the high styles of his contemporaries, Borowczyk opted to present his images in flat, brightly lit compositions, avoiding the dark moodiness of Lynch, the playfulness of Jadorowsky, the headiness of Bunuel, the reflexivity of Marker, etc.  For Borowczyk it is enough that the narrative exists.  It is enough to present that narrative to an audience, with all of its social and political subtexts in tact, as bluntly as possible.  This is why so many viewers tend to complain about how uncomfortable Borowczyk’s films make them.  And this is clearly his intent.  The matter-of-fact style with which he presents the ravishment of the Duchess by the Beast in The Beast is what heightens not just the absurdity of the image and the narrative, but also the audience’s association with the reality of that world.

La Bete

Avant-garde stylistic tactics in feature-length narrative films have been well established since the twenties as an outcropping of  the Surrealist, Expressionist, and Dadaist movements.  Therefore a film audience is accustomed to a particular approach, a thread in the compositional element of the image that connects a majority of these films together.  When Borowczyk inverts that tendency by denying it, the audience is left without the immediate comfort that what they are collectively sharing is “only a movie”.  This prompts the audience then to evaluate the film in terms of their own subjective reality in a dialogue with the film that they are unaccustomed to.

The “lack of style” as style makes perfect sense when one considers Borowczyk’s background as a political filmmaker and animator.  The primary goal of any political art is to find a way to subvert the audiences’ preconditioned expectations by realigning their relationship to the concept via the visual presentation of said concept.  That is precisely what Borowczyk succeeds at in his films post Goto, Island Of Love when he has transitioned into the exploitation film market.  Just instead of political messaging, he has opted for a Freudian analysis of human sexuality in the post-modern age.

-Robert Curry

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Concerning Gene Hackman & Eureka

Nicolas Roeg has enjoyed a career being a filmmaker’s filmmaker.  His films deliver delirious visuals in exceptionally iconoclastic montages that not only build upon narrative and character, but illuminate the psychological subtexts of scenes.  His most popular body of work is restricted to the seventies when auteurism was in vogue and audiences were more open to unorthodox employments of the cinematographic langue.  Of Roeg’s work in the seventies his most enduring and popular contributions to the cinema includes his collaboration with Donald Cammell Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1975).  Each of these films is aesthetically linked not only by Roeg’s inimitable visual style, but also by Roeg’s persistent exploration of narrative deconstruction; a sort of antithesis to the works of Sergei Eisenstein that still utilized Eisenstein’s methods counter to the filmmaker’s original theories as to their employment.

Eureka

Yet, despite the momentous contribution to the cinema that these four films represent, Roeg’s work after The Man Who Fell To Earth is practically unknown, with the exception of Bad Timing (1980), insignificance (1985), and The Witches (1990).  Films equally brilliant to Don’t Look Now and Performance, such as Castaway (1986) and Track 29 (1988), have been relegated to the singular purview of critics, scholars and cinephiles.  Thus, Roeg’s work as a whole has yet to receive an adequate and detailed survey.

Now consider Gene Hackman.  Hackman struggled for years to make a career for himself in the cinema, eventually breaking out in supporting roles in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (1969).  But, much like Roeg, Hackman would find his niche in the seventies, though his usual fare consisted of darker realist dramas such as William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975).  Hackman was not limited to these more sophisticated character portrayals, often playing camp inspired heroes and villains as well, most memorably in Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bob Clark’s Loose Cannons (1990).  As the nineties progressed, Hackman stepped back, playing the smaller supporting parts like those that originally launched his career.  But in 1983 Gene Hackman played the lead role of Jack McCann, with the same unbridled energy and machismo of his Lex Luthor, in Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka.

What may seem off handedly to be an odd pairing actually works extremely well.  It is the camp of Hackman’s McCann that pulls off lines like “lay off the sauce” and “I never earned a nickel off another man’s sweat” with an other worldly naturalism.  And it’s Roeg who has created this other world.  Scenes such as the prospector’s suicide, McCann striking gold, McCann’s attempted murder of his son-in-law Claude (Rutger Hauer), Tracy’s (Theresa Russell) various love scenes with Claude, and McCann’s murder sequence are all brimming with the kinetic free-form energy and associative cutting that one expects from Performance.  And it is Roeg’s visual wizardry and melodrama that contextualizes Hackman’s campy Jack McCann so that every word he says and everything he does is perfectly justified.  This is the kind of relationship Hackman thrived in while shooting Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) in which his own stylized characterization matched the director’s perfectly.

Roeg's Eureka

Sadly, Hackman and Roeg’s tour de force is hardly known and rarely seen.  Eureka was not a hit when it was first released and, unlike Roeg’s Bad Timing, did not receive its due critical reappraisal with a quality home video release.  Regardless, Eureka is a film well worth discovering.  Recently I screened the film for an actor friend of mine and he was blown away, not just by Gene Hackman’s performance, but by Roeg’s unique visual language.  The film propagated a lengthy discussion on acting and filmmaking in general that I believe any audience member would likely have after watching Eureka.

-Robert Curry

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Three Sisters

Bill Landis' AngerOne can never be certain where one will find the catalyst for self-revelation.  In my case, the most recent incident of this nature has come from reading Anger: The Unauthorized Biography Of Kenneth Anger by Bill Landis.  Anger, though informative, never gets beyond a basic survey of the filmmaker’s life and work.  Furthermore, Landis’ style is typically tabloid; sensationalist and cut-throat.  But the impactful portions of Anger, for me at least, came early in the reading and pertained primarily to Landis’ accounts of Kenneth Anger’s early career.  Landis points out, and rightly so, that Kenneth Anger was in a constant state of evolutionary flux as an artist, perpetually realigning himself to his work by re-editing and re-tooling his films, most infamously Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome.  Admittedly, this portion of the book would not have forced me to ask such probing questions about my relationship to my own films if I had not recently completed Three Sisters (2015).

The idea of Three Sisters is simple and motivated by my desire to demonstrate the possibilities of cinema for escape, not just in terms of a film’s viewership but also on the part of the filmmaker.  The idea being that, in the process of making a film, a Lauren Simoncini circa 2006filmmaker can get lost in the act of shooting a film.  To realize this basic concept I collected all of my student films featuring my friends Lauren, Marissa and Michelle and presented them within the context of an anthropological video essay focusing on the home movies of three fictitious sisters played by my friends.  As three sisters, my friends act out a series of short disjointed narratives that, given the recasting of the characters into the reflexive realm of heightened self-awareness, take on an unsuspected quality of familial angst.  In the title cards that espouse details on the sisters’ lives I began to interject some critical analysis of these films that would help to illuminate the familial conflicts that play out subtextually.

When I finished editing the film two months ago I was happy with the product, finding it elusive yet successful in the aim to analyze the relationship between film and filmmaker as well as sister to sister.  Yet it wasn’t till reading Anger that I realized what I really accomplished with the film.  It seemed to me that I had repossessed my earlier work, work that had little meaning to me as an adult and had recontextualized it so that it performed some personal service.  It wasn’t till the film had been completed that it became clear to me that my “video exercises” were the only document I had of the most stable relationships of four years of my life as I entered adulthood.  Marissa, Michelle and Lauren were daily fixtures during this time, and the films I made of them capture the essence of not just my relationship to them, but of their relationship to one another.  In many respects we were a family unit unto ourselves, each a sibling to the other to varying degrees.  And it was my film homework that provided the means through which we unified together to function as a single unit.

Marissa circa 2008

Marissa circa 2008

This relationship or unit I speak of has been my ideal circumstance in which to work on a film.  With Jon Tomlinson I had a brother in arms, then with Zimbo Films there was the unit of myself, Caroline Boyd, and Anat Eshel for two years to be followed by my intensified collaborations with Emma Arrick and finally with Daniel Kelly.  Still, none of these adult collaborations personified the collaborative unit of myself, Lauren, Michelle and Marissa with the kind of generosity and tenderness one only finds with family.  Thus, Three Sisters is as much about three teenage girls’ relationship to home-movies as it is about the fundamental precursor to Zimbo Films and my work as a mature film artist.

-Robert Curry

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What Does Robert De Niro Have To Say About The Vietnam War?

This film is much more radical than Greetings.  It deals with the obscenity of the white middle class.  And we are white middle class, Chuck and I and everybody we know.  So we’re making a movie about the white middle class.  And we’re using the blacks to reflect the white culture.  Because the blacks stand outside the system and they see what we are.

-Brian De Palma, 1970

Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope.

-Martin Scorsese, 1988

Perhaps by the 90s a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced, and analytical manner.

-Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1980s

still from Milestones (1975)

still from Milestones (1975)

for Dan Dickerson

The Vietnam War remains a difficult subject for the United States.  It is an ambiguous anomaly, devoid of any easy label or justification from the stand-point of a contemporary American perspective.  The most popular American films about the war, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) avoid the political aspects of the conflict as well as the Vietnamese experience.  These films prefer the traditional heroism of the G.I. action-drama popularized by the first two World Wars.  This prefered model mandates that the reality of Vietnam, the way it truly did happen and what it meant, undergo a severe filtering process so that it may accommodate the binary model of black and white, good and bad.  To say the least this is an irresponsible approach to history, even if that history is particularly ugly and embarrassing.

Perhaps the best film about the Vietnam War ever made in America is Robert Kramer and John Douglas’ Milestones (1975).  Unlike the other films I mentioned, Milestones does not take the battlefield unto its purview.  In total contrast the film never ventures outside the United States themselves, focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnam War in America.  Over the course of an epic 195 minute running time Kramer and Douglas construct a series of interwoven narratives with over a dozen characters, touching on every subject on the national conscious in 1975.  That is to say by not focusing attention on the Vietnam War, Kramer and Douglas have been able to paint the most accurate portrait of the United States and life therein during that traumatic conflict.

To juxtapose the American experience of Milestones is Chris Marker’s monumental anthology film, made in collaboration with Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, William Klein, Joris Ivens, and Jean-Luc Godard, Far From Vietnam (1967).  Far more cinematic than Milestones, Far From Vietnam pits the left of the French avant-garde against the Imperialist Western powers, creating a film whose sympathies and varying perspectives are aligned with those of the Vietnamese themselves.  In a sociological and political context what is so iconic about Far From Vietnam is that the film dared show in detail what Peter Davis’ Hearts & Minds (1974) only dared to allude to; the celebratory nature of American violence against the Vietnamese people.  In the American cinema the closest element to such depictions we have come from Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in the form of monologues during the third act of Francis Ford Coppola’s post-Vietnam spectacle Apocalypse Now (1979).  But Coppola’s film is far more concerned with the literary motifs of Joseph Conrad and the conventions of the “war film” genre to delve to the political depths of Far From Vietnam.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Now one may be beginning to wonder where Robert De Niro comes into all of this.  Well, it is not my intention to discuss The Deer Hunter any further than I already have.  It’s Gilgamesh classicism and deceptive visual realism have little to do with Vietnam as far as I am concerned other than as a tool by which one can begin to gauge how the generation that experienced the war first hand began to censor its history in the media.  No, my focus will not be on The Deer Hunter.  Instead, I prefer two early Brian De Palma films, Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970).

Be it an aesthetic choice or a necessity, De Palma, like Kramer and Douglas, focuses his two films on the American people during the Vietnam war.  Yet, where Kramer and Douglas have constructed a somber narrative film deeply rooted in the realist tradition of American independent film, De Palma has gone instead for the madcap satirical stylings of Jerry Lewis.  The same fundamental truths about America at this time can be discerned from either Milestones, Greetings or Hi, Mom!, De Palma simply exaggerates these truths to comedic effect, taking the stance that Vietnam,  and all of its ramifications included, is an absolutely absurd venture.  De Palma is also not so heavily rooted in the cinematic traditions Robert Kramer represents, who is strictly concerned with inciting political reaction in his audience, evidenced by his film Ice (1968), which, coincidently, came out the same year as Greetings.  What De Palma sees in his approach is the possibility to play with the physical medium of film, manipulating the form to achieve effects that will only accentuate the humor and meanings in his two films, an ideology Lewis had demonstrated in his films since the late fifties.

What links Greetings and Hi, Mom! is not exclusively De Palma’s filmic sensibilities of the time, but the character of Jon Rubin played by Robert De Niro.  In the first film, Greetings, Rubin and his friends are determined to do three things.  The first is seduce young women, a trope of the underground film comedy.  The second is to uncover who is responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though they never get further than reading countless books on a variety of conspiracy theories.  The third objective is to dodge the draft.  For all of De Palma’s innovative POV shots and handheld camera work the film never escapes the innocence of its comedy.  The film’s approach to draft dodging is so light and comedic that it becomes indicative of the severity of the issue.  De Palma is simply unsure of how to parody the subject successfully so that his satire would truly mean anything, so the entire sequence becomes imbued with a suffocating paranoia.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Hi, Mom!, the sequel to Greetings, is a far more mature and darker piece of filmmaking.  Robert De Niro returns as De Palma’s protagonist Jon Rubin, though this time Rubin has recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Thus Hi, Mom! is a dark comedy concerned with how a man reassimilates into a society from which he has been absent for two years.  Firstly, De Palma pits Rubin against the sexual revolution.  Never succesful with women in Greetings, it becomes doubly comedic in Hi, Mom! that Rubin choses to be a pornographer by profession.  Rubin’s scheme is to film on a cheap 16mm camera the sexual antics of the residents in the apartment building across from his squat.  So at once De Palma parodies the fetishism of James Stewart’s lens in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and alludes to Rubin’s role as a sniper in Vietnam, tampering with the POV shots of what Rubin sees through his camera to look like the view through a sniper rifle scope.  For De Palma the two signifiers are synonymous, indicating the degree of Rubin’s perversion.

However, Rubin is unable to capture any worthy sexual acts.  So, having chose a particularly lonely woman across the way(Judy, played by Jennifer Salt) as a victim, he poses as a suitor selected by a computerized dating service to take her out and, hopefully, seduce her.  To capture his plan on film, he has set his camera to begin running via a timer so that, after he has wined and dined her, his intercourse with her will be captured on film.  Needless to say Rubin fails at this.  The only result of his scheme is that he has acquired a rather needy girlfriend.

Rubin, now living with his girlfriend Judy, is still an outsider in American society.  In an effort to belong he joins a group of Black Power activists as an actor cast as a cop, thus beginning the most controversial section of De Palma’s film.  The “Be Black Baby” segment is visually different from either the primary narrative of Jon Rubin or the attempts at pornography Rubin has photographed.  In this segment De Palm shot handheld on black and white 8mm blown up later to 35mm.  In this way he employs the visual aesthetic of late sixties “social action” documentaries to capture his satirical indictment of Black militarism and the white yuppies who claim to sympathize and understand the Black Power movement.  “Be Black Baby” follows a group of upper middle class white people who, eager to undergo the “black” experience, submit themselves to a piece of avant-garde living theater.  The white audience is physically beaten, painted black, and then beaten again by Jon Rubin.  Then, after all of this violence, each comments how wonderful it was to finally understand what it means to be “black”.  As offensive as it is funny, the “Be Black Baby” segment scandalized audiences during Hi, Mom!‘s original release.

After his turn with “Be Black Baby”, Rubin is still a man isolated in a society he no longer understands.  This is when De Palma begins to hint at Rubin’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Every attempt at normalcy Rubin has made thus far has either been perverted or simply perverse to begin with.  Thus, for De Palma, PTSD is the catalyst for Rubin’s comedic exploits.  Rubin, seen at this point in the film reading militant literature and being inundated by media slogans, both for the Left and the Right, reading “take action”, begins to snap.  And snap he does.  Filling the laundry room in his apartment building with plastic explosives, he demolishes the building, killing Judy and countless others.  Now, De Palma cuts to the POV of a television camera as a reporter interviews witnesses and survivors of the “act of terrorism”.  Rubin appears in his army uniform, faces the camera and says “hi, mom!”.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Again, one must stress that De Palma has exaggerated the conditions of both veterans of the Vietnam war and the state of things in America for comedic effect.  However, these exaggerations are born out of a real truth, because if they were not, then Hi, Mom! would not have been funny or successful.  It also bares pointing out that the trajectory of Jon Rubin, particularly in Hi, Mom!, mirrors that of another Robert De Niro character, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976).  Rubin and Bickle are both veterans of Vietnam unable to find a place in their society after the war.  Each has a penchant for pornography and violence.  Where they differ is simple, in the execution of their narratives by the filmmakers who have authored them.  For Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader Travis Bickle’s story is one of loneliness and pain.  Rubin, though suffering the same symptoms, has more unorthodox ventures in his attempts at being proactive.  This unorthodoxy to Rubin’s narrative is what makes it comedic.  That both Taxi Driver and Hi, Mom! follow the same logic indicates a moral truth that America, during and immediately after the Vietnam war, was struggling to grapple with; how does one atone for what one has done?

The issue of atonement is not unique to the Vietnam war in the American experience.  Literature by the major players of every military conflict have reflected such sentiments as far back as the American Civil War and still further.  Even, at times, these sentiments have been articulated in satire similar to De Palma’s two films, consider Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple.  What is incredible about Greetings and Hi, Mom! is that, of all the films either Brian De Palma or Robert De Niro have made, neither have ever been as sociologically relevant again.

-Robert Curry

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Mélo: High Style & Emotional Content

Alain Resnais is a difficult figure to place within the world of the cinema.  He is most certainly an auteur, an intellectual, and a humanist all at once, imbuing his films with those characteristics.  Though it was early in his career when he established himself as one of France’s celebrity filmmakers with Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year In Marienbad (1961), it was in the middle of his long career when Resnais’ films began to evoke a more mature and seasoned approach to the cinema that still concerned itself with the themes that have defined him as an auteur; time, romance, and loss.  The first film I have seen of his that displays both the theoretical thinker in Resnais and the emotive storyteller is Je T’aime, je t’aime (1968).  But by the time Resnais is making films in the eighties his aesthetic has become so refined, so subtle, that the nuance that once seemed impressive in Je T’aime, je t’aime, compared with Hiroshima mon amour, began to look blatant and broad in its strokes.  The only way to describe this refinement that occurred at the onset of the decade is simply that Resnais had mastered a balance between the emotional and the intellectual.

Melo

Resnais’ film Life Is A Bed Of Roses (1983) is an immensely complex film, weaving time, space, and narrative style simultaneously into a three prong narrative film that essentially tells the same fundamental story in three different filmic vernaculars.  What is, at an intellectual level, a complicated meditation on the function of storytelling in contemporary Western Society remains, superficially, an enjoyable romantic musical comedy.  But even this approach would be further refined in Love & Death (1984), eventually reaching the pinnacle of this aesthetic evolution in Melo (1986).

There had been a feverish energy to Life Is A Bed Of Roses and Love & Death that is absent in Melo.  Melo, by contrast, has the feeling of painstaking preparation and detail.  One may attribute this sensation to the long duration of scenes, heavy with hypnotic dialogue, or the theatricality of the framing and set design.  All of which would make sense since Melo is based upon a play by Henri Bernstein.  The fact that Melo, in Resnais’ hands, is transitioning from the stage to the screen accounts for the director’s approach.  For as much as the film is a triumph for the actors’ performances and Bernstein’s play, it is also fundamentally concerned with the illusionary effects of the theater on its audience.

Consider Resnais’ use of the curtain.  Each time a scene crossfades to this image the curtain is static, neither rising nor falling.  Allegorically, an audience’s mind associates the movement of the curtain as either a marker of the end of an act or the beginning of one.  Resnais denies this closure.  For Resnais what is important is not the kind of progression signified by the curtain, but more simply that a progression in narrative time has occurred.  This enables Resnais to move ahead, sometimes by years, in the film’s story without having to walk the audience through the details of what has transpired between one-act and another, relegating that duty to the context clues within the scenes themselves.  This approach to narrative ellipses, prevalent in the films of Ozu and Techine, has a distinctly theatrical heritage.  But unlike his peers, Resnais stresses the occurrence of the ellipse in time to his audience.

Resnais is faithful to the theatrical medium of the play not only in his approach to eliptical effects, but also in how he stages the film.  When I wrote before on Life Is A Bed Of Roses some months ago I discussed the artifice of certain “fantasy” segments.  In Melo these moments of a fantasy world do not exist, they are the constant norm.  The Brechtian notion that theater engages reality by imitating it is at the heart of this device.  However, its manifestation in the cinema of Resnais is far from the minimalist exercises of Malle’s Vanya On 42nd Street (1994) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Niklashausen Journey (1971).  Resnais prefers the lush sets of warm color and hand-painted night skies of Powell & Pressburger’s Tales Of Hoffmann (1952) or The Red Shoes (1948).  This cuts any physical connection out of the film between the reality of the audience and the reality of Melo.  Resnais takes this one step further by manipulating light not in the traditional sense of narrative film like in Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970).  On the contrary, Resnais embraces the theatricality of spotlights and fades, as if he is aware that to a film audience these technical devices are as likely to evoke images of the stage as they are to emote the dreamy whimsy of Arthur Freed’s MGM musicals of the forties and fifties.

Melo

All of this theatricality and the self-awareness its manipulations are indicative of would mean little other than a formalist exercise if it wasn’t for what Resnais does with it.  Like Last Year In Marienbad, Melo is an achievement in blocking and choreography.  The performers have been staged so that every effect and set piece is instrumental in its contribution not only to the actors’ performance, but the emotional potency of every scene.  The meticulousness of the arrangements in Melo rival even some of F.W. Murnau’s greatest dramas for their heartbreaking fragility and overwhelming sincerity.  When the artifice of a theatrical world like that in Melo is put to the service of the drama as opposed to the spectacle the drama of the narrative surpasses reality in its ability to effect an audience.  This is not Jean-Marie Straub’s cinema of the intellect, this is pure emotional filmmaking on par with John Cassavetes, though in an entirely removed cinematic style.

-Robert Curry

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