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Le Brasier Ardent

When the world gets to a point where it no longer expects to be hit into excitement or tickled into guffaws by every film, when speed isn’t the test of a film – and that time isn’t so far distant – the French film will come into its own in the world’s eyes and the eyes of France.  – Harry Alan Potamkin, The French Film, 1930

When Harry Alan Potamkin wrote his article The French Film for the publication Cinema in 1930, I am sure he had no idea how far away we’d still be in 2017 from a time when “speed isn’t the test of a film”. I can say that, from my own experience as a teacher, that it is speed, the speed of cinema today versus the speed of the cinema ten or twenty years ago, that is the primary prohibitive factor that keeps today’s youth from discovering the cinema’s history. But why distinguish narrative cinema by a binary complex of “art” and “entertainment” at all?

 

Le Brasier Ardent

I believe there is something to be said for films whose system of aesthetic values defy categorization as either “entertainment” or as “art”. There exists between the two, the “speedy” and the “slow”, a happy medium where, on rare occasions, a different kind of cinema occurs. In this medium zone one would probably find such classics as Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), Sara Driver’s When Pigs Fly (1993), and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012); each film a brilliant, genre defying accumulation of incongruous cinematic expressions whose singular totality yields new and sometimes profound insights as to how we perceive and interpret films.

One of the truly anomalous works of cinematic art I have encountered, as strange and threatening as Tough Guys Don’t Dance but as chaotic as The Paperboy, is Le Brasier Ardent (1923). Le Brasier Ardent brings together such conflicting elements that its relatively fluid narrative trajectory should, under no circumstances, function cohesively; and yet it does. The film opens with what appears to be a D.W. Griffith inspired piece of metaphorical moralization which transitions into a slapstick styled satire (featuring a gadget infused bed and a speaking dog) that transitions once more into a different style altogether that combines Louis Feuillade’s sense of pulp with Fritz Lang’s sense of design to comic effect. The hero of Le Brasier Ardent, Detective Z., is equally absurd. He first appears as a Dr. Mabuse style vilain in a dream, then reappears in “reality” sporting a bizarre disguise only to metamorphose into a series of other personalities, in rather quick succession, including a dapper private eye, a grandma’s boy, a bumbling clown, a sadistic pianist, and finally, a giddy man-child.

The reason why all of this nonsense seems to work is because of Le Brasier Ardent’s star/director/writer Ivan Mosjoukine. Mosjoukine, a prominent member of Films Albatross, was a highly regarded actor in his day who only directed two films (of which Le Brasier Ardent is the second and last). The lack of a formal regard for the cinematographic, coupled with Mosjoukine’s sincere interest in exploring notions of fantasy, combined to create one of the most highly original and entertaining films France produced in the early twenties. According to the excellent Flicker Alley DVD liner notes to Le Brasier Ardent, this was the film that inspired Jean Renoir to first pursue a career in the cinema.

In many ways the genius moments of stylistic juxtaposition in Le Brasier Ardent are the byproduct of an amateurism; much in the same way that the beauty of Flaming Creatures (1963) was the byproduct of Jack Smith’s relative amateurism. The disregard for formal convention is one thing that, in most cases, cannot actually sustain a film on its own. Luckily, Mosjoukine’s own aesthetic convictions, as well as his charisma on screen, sustain Le Brasier Ardent where it may otherwise fail visually. Even more important though to the complex of Le Brasier Ardent’s various stylistic parts is Mosjoukine’s speed. We move at a rapid pace from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, style to style, at such a clip that it has to be Mosjoukine’s constant presence that sustains us as his image unifies the sum of the film’s parts.

Ivan Mosjoukine’s direction, his absolute authorship of the film Le Brasier Ardent, stands as a sort of latent self-portraiture. Ivan Mosjoukine began his film career in tsarist Russia, relocating to Paris during the revolution of 1918. At Films Albatross, Mosjoukine, along with other Russian émigrés Victor Tourjansky and Alexandre Volkoff, began to explore with tremendous enthusiasm the French cinema. The “discoveries” Mosjoukine made in the French cinema are felt throughout Le Brasier Ardent as if the film were a kind of index on the very potential of cinematic narrative forms. On another level, Le Brasier Ardent is not just a catalogue of aesthetics and techniques, it is a record of Mosjoukine’s various incarnations and meanings in the role of a matinee idol as Detective Z continues to shift and change with the narrative.

 

Le Brasier Ardent

Consider J. Lee Thompson’s What A Way To Go! (1964) in comparison with Le Brasier Ardent. Both films examine different styles of narrative film using one star (Ivan Mosjoukine and Shirley MacLaine) as the anchor point with which to provide narrative continuity in an otherwise discontinuous film. Each of these two films proposes questions about the interplay between the cinema and our own private fantasies. What A Way To Go! approaches this textual collage, as it were, in an episodic form, prioritizing accessibility for an audience with affiliations for the classic Hollywood form by locking its different styles alone in various isolated dream sequences. Mosjoukine’s film is more bold than that, maybe even careless. Le Brasier Ardent doesn’t treat each new style within a narrative vacuum. Mosjoukine grounds his investigations into differing forms within a straight fluid narrative that imbues the film with a spontaneity and intensity verboten in What A Way To Go!.

Le Brasier Ardent is one of those explosive little films that conveys a true and highly contagious passion for the cinema. However, if one were to consider seeking this film out, there is something to keep in mind; the plot-line is patriarchal and chauvinist (though no more so than the majority of silent films). Le Brasier Ardent is a film of value because of its technique, its uniqueness in this respect, not its political or social message.

-Robert Curry

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“I’m a fraud and you’re a cock sucker.”

1969, Norman Mailer runs for mayor of New York City and loses.  A few months later, Mailer journeys to the Hamptons with a film crew and entourage to produce his film Maidstone.  Unseen till 1970, Maidstone represents one man’s vision of a nation in chaos, but it also presents its audience with Norman Mailer, warts and all.  Of all the personal films made by the Underground in the sixties, none was as honest a portrait of its maker as Maidstone.

In 1968 Norman Mailer covered the Republican and Democratic conventions (Miami & The Siege Of Chicago), published his experimental novel Why Are We In Vietnam? And directed his first two features Wild 90 and Beyond The Law.  The themes in his work quickly evolved beyond the pulpy prose of An American Dream (1965) and the political idealism of The Presidential Papers (1963).  His book on the Pentagon demonstration, Armies Of The Night (1968), had jettisoned Norman Mailer into the liberal upheaval of the late sixties, which became the focus of his creative output in 1968, and the basis of his film Maidstone.

The violence and energy of the Pentagon peace rally and the Chicago demonstrations fascinated Mailer.  The power, both physical as well as abstract, that could be derived from politics became an obsession that, when coupled with his fatalistic Romanticism with regards to Kennedy’s assassination, provided the ground work for Maidstone’s narrative.  Unlike his first two features, Maidstone was to be about the urgent problems that were tearing America apart, designed to probe and explore the mechanics of politics and violence.

Maidstone focuses on Norman T. Kingsley (Norman Mailer), an art-house film director with ties to organized crime and high society who is running for president.  A secret society meets and decides that Kingsley is “ripe for assassination”, and this is the basis of the rest of the film.  From shooting a whore house drama to hosting a political convention, Norman T. Kingsley is at the center of the film, exerting his influence over all those he has gathered around himself, a patriarch in every possible way.

The patriarchal attitudes of Kingsley, as well as his passion for boxing, suspicion of women, his desire to be president and his delusions as a filmmaker are all exaggerated aspects of Mailer’s own persona.  The political stance of Kingsley is a direct response to Mailer’s own The Idol and The Octopus (1968), in which he outlines possible solutions to the problems that arose from the Johnson administration.  There is a lengthy scene in Maidstone where Kingsley addresses the Black Power movement that represents Mailer’s perspective as outlined in the White Negro (1957), that is in turn manifest in Kingsley’s proposal to eliminate ghettos and establish a stronger black presence in the senate.  There is a naïveté in how simple Kingsley’s solutions and ideas are, a distance so far from the reality facing America in 1969 that it soon becomes apparent that Mailer’s own understanding of the more radical political movements is inhibited by a conservativism, of which both Mailer and Kingsley seem unable to address.  In the context of Maidstone, it is necessary to assume that Kingsley’s partial understanding of the liberal movement and the naïveté of his ideals are precisely why there is a plot to kill him.  After all, Kingsley is a respected, popular filmmaker, often compared to Fellini and Bunuel in the film, who reaches a very wide audience.

The issue of filmmaking is also addressed.  The sex scenes Kingsley photographs for his “whore house drama” parody the Joe Dallesandro scenes in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), but also indicate the presence of Mailer’s long term desire to shock his audience, as he did in the misogynistic celebration that is An American Dream and the vulgar encapsulation of misdirected youth in Why Are We In Vietnam?  In Maidstone, Mailer describes his tactics as a means to reach some sort of truth.  This extends beyond the mere desire to shock to the very style in which Mailer creates his films.

By acting out the glamour and corruption Mailer witnessed in Miami, Chicago and Washington DC in a series of long improvisations, Mailer is attempting to present his audience with several views of the truth.  Maidstone opens with a fake news report that further solidifies the film as an extension of the search for truth that Mailer began in his journalism and prose.  That all the characters in Maidstone collapse into a decadent and corrupt free for all at Kingsley’s rally must then be interpreted as a signifier of the corruption of truth.  That there is no one truth, just various perversions of an idea or event, which is, in short, the message of MaidstoneMaidstone is then a logical conclusion to the exploration of paranoia Mailer began in An American Dream that found its foothold in reality with The Armies Of The Night.

The crossing over of themes between Mailer’s writing and his films has been the major obstacle in any critical evaluation of Maidstone.    To discuss Maidstone in the film vernacular is a mistake.  One must evaluate Maidstone as a continuation of Mailer’s literary pursuits; it’s even broken up into chapters.  During production Mailer has admitted that the final shape of the film was unclear to him, that he had no finished product in mind.  The assembly of all the parts in post-production of Maidstone is where the narrative is made.  Before hand Mailer has only ideas for scenes and a vague sense of linear direction, “I know where I’m going, more or less.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get there” (see page 62 of Joseph Gelmis’ The Film Director As Superstar, copyright 1970).  The manifestation of traditional film techniques is reserved for the cutting room.  So it becomes pointless to analyze shots for their significance, which is why Mailer’s films are so far removed from the films of John Cassavetes, Paul Morrissey or any of the major Underground filmmakers.  Norman Mailer is essentially making his films backwards.

The lack of traditional directing during the production of Maidstone left the film open ended when Mailer called cut for the last time.  The first ninety minutes of the film follow Kingsley and his entourage as they debate, argue, fight, make a movie, and have a party.  The tension slowly builds towards an assassination promised at the outset of the film, yet never appears.  After Kingsley’s rally, the film cuts to Mailer addressing the cast out of character.  As reflexive as the inclusion of this scene is, it does more to stress further the likeness between Mailer and Kingsley.  However, this scene is brief, and gives way to a long sequence of Mailer strolling with his wife and kids through a field on the estate where the film was shot.  What happens next is the most famous scene in the film and the reason for the film’s infamy.  Actor Rip Torn describes it in Peter Manso’s book Mailer: His Life & Times– “Everyone was saying to me, ‘You gotta save this film, you gotta do something.’ …”The film was supposed to be over and I was supposed to be in Stockbridge.”

Torn returned to the set to deliver Kingsley’s assassination.  Torn attacked Mailer with a hammer, hitting his head.  The fight was brief, but entirely real.  Mailer’s head was bleeding when the two men were separated; Rip Torn had had a piece of his ear bitten off.  The horror captured in this scene, Mailer’s screaming children, provides Maidstone with an unexpectedly haunting conclusion.  There is no assassination, but something more poignant, real violence.  1968 had been a year of political assassinations, whose terror and shock were perfectly captured in the conclusion of Maidstone.

I have tried to contextualize as much of Maidstone as possible above, but now it is time to place Maidstone into the larger context of the Underground Film movement.  Critic Parker Tyler has described the Underground film of the sixties as a “peepshow”.  Tyler is referring to the introspective nature of Underground films.  The mechanics by which this is achieved involve cinema verite’ camera movements, insular sets/locations, non-actor friends, and a personal subject.  The implication of voyeurism is too vague and abstract to justly dissect the modes by which Underground films function.  However, “peepshows” will do.  Considering Maidstone as a peepshow at first seems ridiculous.  On a superficial level there is nothing claustrophobic about the Hamptons.  So the application of Tyler’s term must be metaphorical.  The alignment of parts in Maidstone present perhaps a series of vignettes, each vignette is in turn a miniature window into the mind of Norman Mailer.

Like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, scenes unravel at a natural pace in the hands of non-actors and hand held cameras.  Both films focus upon one central character whose journey through the narrative brings him into contact with a variety of characters.  Each encounter is designed to explore a singular theme or idea, maybe not until its end, but to some sort of mutual understanding.  It’s interesting that Jonas Mekas, in his book Movie Journal, attributes Mailer’s interest in the cinema to the films of Andy Warhol.  Morrissey made countless films for and with Warhol before Flesh, but like Mailer, has sought to expound upon the devices of Warhol’s aesthetic in a strictly narrative form.  In comparison to Empire (1964) or Blow Job (1964), Maidstone and Flesh are strikingly narrative driven.  Yet, neither film strays too far from Warhol’s use of long takes or his preoccupation with natural human behavior.

Though Morrissey scripted Flesh, he allowed a certain amount of improvisation with his actors, just as Mailer relied only upon improvisation.  The concept of “high brow” art films utilizing improvisation began with John Cassavetes’ first version of Shadows in 1959.  Cassavetes implemented more control over the improvisation in his film than either Mailer or Morrissey, but his film does not capture the “real-time” behavioral responses that make Mailer’s film so compelling and Morrissey’s narrative believable.

The effect in Maidstone is almost surreal.  Mailer’s players are extremely self-conscious about the validity of their improvised dialogue, yet maintain a naturalism exclusively because not a single expression or facial tic is manufactured.  Flesh cannot escape the campy artifice of its hammy players, which is precisely Morrissey’s point.  Mailer on the other hand perceives this anomaly as a means through which his films can reach a wider audience.  The associative powers of human experience and understanding lend Beyond The Law, Wild 90 and Maidstone an earthy credibility that is absent in Morrissey’s film.

Despite the positive and innovative tactics at work in Mailer’s films critics were unable to excuse the lack of mise en scene or the abrasive cuts in the films.  The cinema of Norman Mailer was all but dismissed before Maidstone had its release in 1970.  This prompted Mailer to withdraw from his cinematic pursuits.  Having self financed all three of his films; he had made a large investment with almost no pay off.  Even Mailer’s celebrity as an author could not draw the audience or the serious criticism he desired.  It wasn’t until 1987 that Mailer directed again when he adapted his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance into a film for Golan-Globus.  Tough Guys Don’t Dance was a Hollywood production, not the self financed “peepshow” that Maidstone was.

By the time Mailer published Existential Errands in 1971, the hey day of Underground films had passed.  Yet, in Existential Errands (an anthology of personal essays), Mailer tries very hard to justify Maidstone.  The financial problems in the wake of Maidstone and the critical beating of the film prompted Mailer’s essay.  The tone of Existential Errands is one of sorrowful defeat.  Again and again, Mailer attempts to persuade his reader to reevaluate his film.  Sadly, this would be the recourse of many an Underground filmmaker.

-Robert Curry

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