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Festivals: New York 1978

All the stars are here

During my two-week stretch at Alice Tully Hall I found but one first-rate new film to cling to, all 300 seconds of it: Bruce Conner’s Valse Triste (★★★★). This evocative revery slipped by elusively, accompanied by Sibelius music. The duration of shots, the images (industrial films? Found footage?) work with the sound with the immediacy of inevitability—so much so that one becomes convinced while viewing it that Sibelius wrote the score for the film. Max Ernst would have loved this picture. Bruce Conner—master assemblagist!

There were two great features, both more than half a century old. Thanks to the reconstruction work of Enno Patalas of the Munich Municipal Museum, more of Fritz Lang’s Spies (★★★★) was to be seen than ever before.

In 1927, when it was apparent that Metropolis would not recoup its cost, Lang formed his own production company and considerably lowered the budget sights for his next film. Sets were reduced to the minimum necessities of the script. Decoration was sparse—the characters often move through almost abstract or geometric compositions in the closer shots dictated by the reduced décors. The remarkable train wreck was very simply done at no great cost, without wrecking a train. Formally, Spione is excelled by no other work of Lang. None of the pictures made during 1978 on view could rival its modernity.

The script was inspired by the Arcos Raid, an incident which created a stir in 1926 when Scotland Yard busted a London-based Russian trading company which had been set up as a front for a spy ring. It is no accident that Rudolf Klein-Rogge, as Haghi, head of the ring, bears a decided resemblance to Trotsky. This extraordinary performance refers back to Dr. Mabuse and is a precursor of Dr. Strangelove. In the standard release version, Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) is an episodic character. Here, for the first time, we get the story of his treason, disgrace, and suicide. (The character was based on the Austrian Colonel Redl who sold his country’s secrets.) The long version gives us our first view of Lady Leslane (Hertha vonWalther), an opium addict blackmailed by Haghi. Though her scenes in the den are exquisite, the most memorable shot of von Walther is as the Lady with her lapdog, in a car on her way for a pipeful.

This was Gerda Maurus’s first film; later, she was never used as well. Her striking looks were certainly enhanced by the extra pains taken by a director in love with his leading lady. Lang was then still married to the Dragoness von Harbou, author of the script. Years later, Maurus revealed that although she had never declared it, she had always been in love with Lang.

The magisterial cinematography is by Fritz Arno Wagner, who also did much work with Pabst and Murnau. There are shots (crowds rushing up and down the bank’s crisscrossing iron staircases) reminiscent of the Eisenstein of Strike; several sequences surely influenced Hitchcock. Long or short, Spies is one of Lang’s best films. That means one of the best films ever made.

Raymond Bernard’s The Miracle of the Wolves (★★★★) has already been discussed in these pages. Let the showing of this marvelous film lead to screenings on these shores of two other important silent Bernards: The Chess Player and Tarakanova.

I cannot praise or blame the films by Krzystof Zanussi, Vera Chytilová, and Peter Handke, or those who chose to bring them to us. I did not see them. I did abide almost twenty new features at the festival, a bare three of which—Dossier 51, Newfront, and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs—seemed of real quality.

The source of Michel Deville’s Dossier 51 (★★★) is a book by Gilles Perrault which made waves in France when it was published in 1968. Perrault is a lawyer turned writer; Dossier is based on a true case which he first heard about from spies who assisted him while he was researching his novel l’Orchestre Rouge. Although the book was uniquely composed of the file kept by agents on the man they named “51,” and was hardly a traditional spy story, several directors expressed interest in the film rights: Claude Chabrol, Jacques Deray, Jean-Pierre Melville, Edouard Luntz. Luntz held the option for some time, completed a script, and was prepared to make the film with Chris Marker. The deal fell through; Deville eventually acquired the rights.

Had I seen the film without its credits, Deville is one of the last French directors to whom I would have attributed Dossier 51. It is totally unlike his early pleasant romantic comedies. It is a riveting film.

It relates the inordinately detailed actions of a foreign intelligence service attempting to obtain control of a minor French diplomat, Dominique Auphal: “51.” A chilling sequence involves the successful use of psychoanalysis—a discipline presumed to have been invented to heal people—as a totalitarian tool with which to destroy them. Ironically, the efforts of the agents are self-defeating, for when “51” learns what they have on him (although he is unaware of “them” and never learns that he is under surveillance), the self-knowledge impels him to kill himself. According to Perrault, his book is taught in Cuba as an object lesson of CIA activity. Deville affirms that the agents are either Russian or American. Whoever they are, the agents in the film are portrayed by disembodied off-screen voices—most of what we see is from their point of view. The result is an ambiguous double vision: after a while we become accomplice voyeurs in this terrible assignment, but as our sympathy builds for “51” we become paranoid about our own spectator selves.

The visible cast is composed entirely of stage actors, uniformly good, with a standout performance from Françoise Lugagne as the victim’s mother. All of the film was spoken in French when the film was released in France. The version shown here suffered from the agents’ voices having been recorded by an inferior gaggle of American actors based in Paris, some of whom are apparently porno loopers, and none of whom are capable of the proper tone for a film such as this. Deville obviously did not have enough English himself to be aware of their ludicrous and distracting delivery.

In the forefront of Newsfront (★★★) is the rivalry of two newsreel companies; in the background, a rough sketch of the social history of Australia from 1948-56 glimpsed during these petty skirmishes. It is fascinating material, reasonably exotic. The outfits depicted are the more tradition-bound, Aussie-owned Cinetone (based on the Cinesound Company) and the more aggressive American-owned Newsco (based on Fox-Movietone).

Credit: fine teamwork in all departments, a good mix of news footage and staged events, excellent in the case of the Maitland flood sequence; Bill Hunter, stolidly convincing as Len, the good cameraman, loyal to country and company; Wendy Hughes, a stunning reincarnation of the young Gene Tierney and June Duprez. I loved a simple scene in which all the Cinetone crowd are having a picnic. It rains, they go indoors to a crowded room—the scene is shot from above, nothing earthshaking happens, but it is all handled so well that the passage is more thrilling than the climax of a good disaster movie.

Debit: the moral issues are simplistic—bad brother goes to Hollywood and makes good, good brother stays home, gets dumped on for his loyalty; some of the dialogue is wrong for the period. Details aside, what grieves me about Newsfront is that nearly every element for a superb film seemed to be present, and somehow a merely absolutely nice offbeat one emerged.

Lookouts have been posted, however, to signal the appearance of further work by director Philip Noyce and all the other sympathetic individuals listed on its credits. Those interested in forming a SoHo chapter of the Wendy Hughes Fan Club, write me c/o this journal.

Members of the festival committee were reported at each other’s throats over Bertrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (★★★). At the issue of the press screening it was The Kleenex War, Montagues and Capulets, Guelphs and Ghibellines all over again. If you liked Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, you were a male chauvinist bourgeois fascist piggy. If you were a woman and liked it you were a masochistic piggy. It was, admittedly, less a war than an act of pure aggression on the part of the antis—most of the pros just stood around with their mouths wide open with little idea of what all the fuss was about.

My hunch is that the abnormally low level of most of the films this year created a dialectical vacuum into which most free-floating rhetoric got sucked like gravity going Whoosh! in a black hole. One really couldn’t care a fig if one’s neighbors or colleagues care for Elective Affinities, A Wedding, or Bloodbrothers a shade less or more than oneself. But Handkerchiefs was different—if “sexist and bourgeois,” it provided a large perch for the gasbags. How else account for the fact that perfectly middle-class people leading perfectly middle-class lives working for perfectly middle-class publications would floor you with Aboriginal Shouts-That-Kill of “Bourgeous!” at the slightest indication of any tolerance for Blier’s work.

His entertaining movie starts uneasily, builds carefully, and ends beautifully. I refuse to detail its story; if it takes you, it should do so by surprise. I particularly enjoyed the ironies of a scene in which the thirteen-year-old Christian—he prefers Schubert to the Mozart so irredeemably adored by Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere)—confesses to Solange (Carole Laure) that he is suffering from Love’s Awakening Disease, in terms that, unbeknownst to him, are almost a word-for-word transposition of the sentiments expressed by Cherubino in two arias of The Marriage of Figaro. I was pleased by the Viridianaesque finale, which places beefy Raoul (Gérard Depardieu) and Stéphane sadly outside the grilles of the house in which Solange has settled down in an unlikely-but-inevitable ménage with the boy. The two pleasant dopey men stare inside uncomprehendingly but lovingly—Tweedledee and Tweedledum Stella Dallases.

Blier may take a fairly jaundiced view of humanity at large, which when last heard from included both sexes. That is his privilege. So did Swift, Voltaire, and at times, Euripides—with whom on other points he admittedly has little in common. That view does not make him a sexist fascist and it isn’t a capital crime.

Errol Morris, director of Gates of Heaven, was displeased to find his film programmed with Manimals and The Dogs. He affirmed that although his film is located in a pet cemetery, its theme was “despair.” It’s too bad Fassbinder’s film was not located in that one.

Aviva Slesin’s The Dogs (★★) offered a reunion of mutts barking “Hava Nagilah.” That is worth four minutes of anyone’s time.

Manimals (★★), directed by Robin Lehman, features the surprising spectrum of pets domiciled in New York: otters, snakes, tarantulas, coyotes, and cows. The man who simulates thunderstorms in his bathroom to make his tortoise feel at home is irresistible. Its tone is a bit cutesy; what it shows is fascinating.

I’m not sure that Errol Morris knew what he was doing in Gates of Heaven (★★); I’m not at all sure I know what he has done. I’m fairly sure that here is a quirky talented filmmaker at work who will one day turn up with something more satisfying than this movie in a pet cemetery which is not about one. No dead animals are on view, though we do have a long chat with the renderer who makes tallow out of tabbies, with Cal who first was into human cemeteries, then made it big with those for pets—and his sons, Phil the technocrat and Dan the guitar freak. They all have their day in court, but collectively they do not make Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park the gayest spot in the valley.

Robert Altman’s A Wedding (★★) is an unhinged merry-go-round that is far from merry and does not go round. It needs a weeding. One of the things it lacks most is an art director or production designer. Any designer, moderately competent, would have picked it up considerably. But where is Leon Ericksen now that Altman doesn’t realize how much he needs him? This film is a slobbery thing. Like all large disasters, it exerts some fascination. Most of the better moments come in the opening reels. As agitation increases, vitality subsides and the strain is felt. The good performances are soon outdistanced by the bad in an awkward marathon. The clichéd “screaming Wop” scene is beneath contempt.

This commedia without arte quickly descends into a game of pin-the-foible-on-the-puppet, and as revelation follows revelation, it is apparent that nothing of interest is being revealed. Conducting traffic on this scale merely to swat such feeble foibles is using a sledgehammer to crush fleas. Seeing it is a bit like looking at an Expo version of Cousin Cousine on ten screens at once.

Skip Tracer (★★), directed by Zale Dalen, concerns the moral tergiversations of a workaholic collector of unpaid debts. It, in turn, owes something to Coppola’s The Conversation. It would be unbearable without the steely attractive-repulsive central performance of David Petersen. An important secondary role is badly acted; the film might have gained from a less closety approach to the characters’ sexual impulsions; and during its course it is often more tedious than interestingly harrowing—but, once done, it does stick in the mind as the work of a director of real potential, and not in the craw where most of the festival entries eventually lodged.

If you can believe that Richard Gere is a teenager and that Tony Lo Bianco is his father and Lelia Goldoni his mother, then you are without doubt also convinced that the world is flat and the moon is made of Camembert, and Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers () is for you. This fantasy saga of a rant-and-roll working-class Bronx Italian family, although shot in New York, is riddled with Hollywood conventions. It would have benefited from a few old-fashioned Hollywood story conferences.

Gere must have gone to a different acting class the eve of shooting each of his big scenes. He is a bundle of mannerism—mostly DeNiro’s. He scratches his crotch a good deal all through the film, except during the last reel. Can this be laid at the door of a careless continuity person? If it is only a symbol of his imminent break with machodom, it is a trifle underhanded.

The surprise party birthday scene in the bar is Mulligan pilfering from Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride. The kid brother goes into anorexia nervosa. At the risk of sounding sexist, that’s for teenage girls, guys.

Elective Affinities (), which staggers along for infinities, should ideally be seen at Poggibonsi, in the kitchen, out of the corner of one eye, while washing the spaghetti plates, for it is Goethe’s novel reduced by Gianni Amico to Masterprice Theatre for Italian TV viewers.

It reminded me of the famous letter sent by an irate exhibitor some years ago to one of the trade papers: “Don’t send me no more of those pictures where they write with feathers.” This limp long-winded moralistic tale is a harmless bore, of some literary interest as a sort of anti-Liaisons Dangeureuses. Veronica Lazar, who played the corpse of Brando’s wife in Last Tango, has a speaking role, is agreeable to look at, and is as expressive as the material allows.

I can’t vouch for audience reaction here, but when I saw Violette Nozière () in Paris, last June, spectators milled out bleakly and vacantly, as if they had been at a funeral. Two hours of their lives had been spent finding out that there was nothing to find out about the lady—at least from Claude Chabrol.

The script omits much that was of interest about the real Violette. She was extraordinarily foul-mouthed (one of the reasons for the sympathy she received from the Surrealists)—and to everyone’s amazement even used gutter language on the witness stand in court.

Psychology was obviously barred from Chabrol’s set during shooting. The distancing which results could only work with truly complex and ambiguous material and the services of an actress naturally endowed with indefinite mystery. Isabelle Huppert is an empty uninvolving femmelette fatale; she pouts often, and skulks, and is less enigmatic than Dorothy Lamour. A significant difference between a cold potato and an enigma is that one just may want to penetrate an enigma.

Chabrol has declared: “If Violette had had television to look at, she would not have killed her father.” If the affair had been that humdrum, the means used by the director to obscure its simplicity—e.g., the cumbersome flashback structure—are too transparent. Violette sits there on the screen, a stylish lump, like Malle’s Pretty Baby.

A particular which I found more interesting than the film itself is that those few French critics who thought highly of it praised Chabrol for not having “explained” the character of his heroine—then each in turn continued his paper with a long exegesis of her acts.

In The Shout (), it is cricket time in Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. During a game played by lunatics, a man (Alan Bates) who has acquired the power to kill with a terrifying shout tells the story of what happened when his vocal cords met up with a musician and his wife.

It is Jerzy Skolimowski’s first film since his 1972 King, Queen and Knave. (“I’m an artist…yet I made such a pile of shit!”) The director feels he did himself a great deal of harm with that one, and admits to having had a hard time of it since. He has been trying to cure himself by autotherapy. The new film may be more remedial for him than for audiences.

A few staunch supporters were driven to heights of manic agitation. One of them affirmed that the picture was like a giant enema which had washed the bowels of Alice Tully’s Hall free of the verbiage that had blocked the festival this year.

My thoughts were elsewhere. I was reminded of those artsy mimes in Blowup. I had hoped to never be reminded of them again—but they had dropped some bad acid and were playing cricket instead of tennis, and now one of them was wailing his bloody head off.

The vulgarity of this enterprise is much in evidence with the appearance of a Francis Bacon reproduction on the wall of John Hurt’s room—it is of the beautiful blurry painting of a crippled figure. This ploy seems a desperate co-optation of the culturally kosher as a coffee-table crutch: “Look folks, strangled absurdity, they hang it in museums too!”

A festival wag remarked that The Shout was to Dolby Sound what Bwana Devil was to 3D. In that case we can keep our eardrums out of movie theatres for the next few years until things quiet down again.

American Boy () is Martin Scorsese’s profile of Steven Prince; Movies Are My Life  () is Peter Hayden’s of Scorsese. The festival’s program (in its typical paperback-jacket-blurb prose) would have us believe that Prince is: “a reflection of the frenzied years from Kennedy to Nixon.” Nothing in the film convinces me that any such generalization was earned; the man seems to be one unexceptional rapaciously beady-eyed hanger-on.

The content of this profile (not the way it is sketched) reminded me somewhat of Shirley Clarke’s admirable Portrait of Jason. Prince talks of his experiences while on the smack, and relates stories which are mostly unfunny and repugnant. The shooting ratio was an outrageous 16:1, and if so little of interest was captured at that figure, one can assume it was just not there to be captured. Were the subject of this film my friend, I would indeed feel safer filming his profile than walking next to it up a dark alleyway.

Hayden was a distributor of Mean Streets in Britain. He did a promo film for that picture and apparently this one just grew out of it. Scorsese is a Michael Powell fan, so Hayden takes a dumb plunge and inserts Peeping Tom’s brilliant pre-credit sequence into his own dismal opus. It is a solemn pain to be snapped back from Powell’s great picture to this rap of japing Scorsese groupies.

Eric Rohmer’s Perceval () is his best-looking film. For a reel or so, the eye is content to gaze at the extremely interior “exteriors,” the gilded toy castles and knights in real armor traversing the sinuousities of what appears to be a pop-up Book of Hours strung out along a series of miniature golf courses.

A conservative director’s entry into new territory is a priori fascinating; observing him gradually painting himself into a corner of that territory is less so. Once one has assimilated the spatial conventions (which are faintly intriguing but only when figures are in motion), there is plenty of time left to watch the members of the cast settle down and relate to one another in scenes which resemble those of a sixth-grade play.

Fabrice Luchini (Perceval) is physically acceptable in the role, but rings few changes in his speech. It is only after forty minutes into the film that an actor is introduced who is capable of the verse: Sylvain Levignac as Anguingueron. (This text is a modernized—and then somewhat re-archaized—rhymed reduction of Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century “novel.”) The role of Blanche-fleur is beyond the extremely limited means of Arielle Dombasle. The Sénéchal Ké is portrayed by Gérard Falconetti. His name on the credits is a reminder that he is the grandson of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc; his presence in the film and the associations set off by his name push the mind adrift toward higher realms of cinema than Rohmer has yet approached.

The film was released here immediately after the festival; the ad copy for it was of rare foolishness. Only for those who think of cinema as culture—and this in letter just a squiggle smaller than the title. Translated into English this meant: Measles. Stay out. The public appears to have obeyed the quarantine order. If Perceval is an oddity of some interest, François Truffaut’s The Green Room (★Ÿ) is an aberration to be entered at one’s own risk.

Truffaut plays Julien, a man obsessed with the memory of his dead wife. The credits on the film state that the screenplay is “based on themes from Henry James’ life and work.” Life?

The director declared (Ecran, May 1978): “The film mixes the theme of two stories of Henry James with facts from the writer’s own life concerning his faithfulness to the memory of his dead fiancée.”

James, who never married, never had a dead or a live fiancée! His most affectionate letters were written to Hugh Walpole. Truffaut’s misguided reference can only be to Minny Temple, the writer’s cousin, who died of TB at age twenty-four. She was dear enough to serve as the model for admirable heroines in two of his greatest books; but when writing to his brother William shortly after his death, he declared that he had never been in love with her. If Truffaut is going into James scholarship, he should cite his sources, not his own fantasies.

This dismal film derives mostly from James’ The Altar of the Dead, with a remark or two wrenched out of the context of The Beast in the Jungle. Its principal action is set in the Twenties in the small town to which the anally retentive protagonist has returned after traumatizing experiences in the trenches. At a critical moment he opens the doors of his private altar to reveal some of its icons to a young woman of parallel necro-amatory tendencies. Iconicized are: Oscar Wilde, Oskar Werner, Maurice Jaubert, Henry James. Since the film is heavy drama, what can we make of this outburst of private jokery? Laughing and puking simultaneously is not good for one’s dentures.

With an accomplished actor in the role of Julien, the picture might have been bearable—some spark, five or ten seconds of truth might have been struck. Truffaut’s performance is monotony incarnate; the dialogue does not sound like anything a living being could say under any circumstance. It is written words, glumly recited.

In the opening sequence Truffaut uses a shot of himself in soldier’s uniform, superimposed on tinted World War I footage of real soldiers, alive, wounded, dying, and dead. Where are those delicate souls who found Exhibition and In the Realm of the Senses obscene?

Nestor Almendros, whose de la Touresque cinematography is impeccable, was exasperated by a betrayed promise: he had been assured that every effort would be made to print the English subtitles with less glare than usual. If this proved impractical, a lighter print would be struck for the festival as compensation for the glare. It was not done.

Although he was in town for the festival, Truffaut refused to appear after the press screening. Did he mistrust his ability to duck copies of The Collected Tales of Henry James which might be hurled at his kisser?

The Green Room was preceded by Chrisopher Gamboni’s Going Out of Business (★★★), an account of the shutdown of the small factory in the back room of a movie theater in Port Jefferson where Griswold splicers had been made by artisans for years. This fifteen-minute elegy was discreetly sentimental, but unsententious. François Truffaut could learn a few things from Christopher Gamboni.

A writer is having trouble finishing a book. He has not been gainfully employed for some time; his old lady supports him. As if that were not enough, he is a skirt chaser. They fight. He splits. After a series of increasingly nightmarish adventures in various parts of the city, he returns home and will now be able to finish his work. It’s a good movie: Irvin Kershner’s A Fine Madness.

So what is it doing in the Imported Turkey Dept. of a New York Festival review? Well, it is also the plot of Luc Béraud’s Like a Turtle on Its Back (★), hailed last spring in Paris for its originality. Bernadette Lafont plays Joanne Woodward; Jean-François Stévenin is Sean Connery. To complicate things further, Bernadette and Jean François are named Camille and Paul in Béraud’s film. There is also a character named Prokosch. Why? Pull out Richard Roud’s book on Godard, turn to Contempt and check the names of the characters played by Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, and Jack Palance. Why? Let Béraud answer: “Because for my first film I wanted to kiss the feet of Jean-Luc Godard.” (The scene must have been cut; the movie could have used a bit of real spice.)

Why, Béraud was asked at the press conference, did Paul sleep in the same bed with that black man? “That was my personal homage to my two favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.” If this is getting Byzantine, remember that Béraud was at one time assistant to Marguerite Duras.

Turtle originally contained a scene in which Paul’s captors turned out to be cannibals and enjoyed some head cheese made from humans. The scene was cut in the version shown here. In A Fine Madness, Connery is held captive by rogue psychiatrists who perform a botched lobotomy on him. Anyone for head cheese?

You think I’m making it all up? You think I’m seeing doubles where there are none, that I have overdosed on Despair. Not Contempt—Despair!! It’s all true, as Welles learned to his Dismay. If you don’t believe it, go see Béraud’s The Contemptible Madness of a Turtle for yourself.

And Irvin Kershner: put on your shoes.

That the essence of Nabokov is unfilmable has been amply demonstrated by the firm of Kubrick Richardson and Skolimowski. Nicolas Roeg was to do Despair a few years ago; the project was wisely abandoned. Fassbinder’s Despair (★Ÿ) does absolutely nothing worth doing, but it does succeed in one area where several hack directors before him failed: bagging a bad performance from Dirk Bogarde.

The novel’s plot (an intrigue part MacGuffin, part any inferior Alfred Hitchcock Presents you can think of) exists as a foil for the demented ins-and-outs of the devilishly sardonic first-person narration. In that is imbedded the style; that is the book. Having eliminated it, the director and screenwriter Tom Stoppard must have realized that with the baby and bath thrown out there would be no film to make at all—so the tub was filled with (one guess!) the Rise of Fascism. That little phenomenon has as much to do with Nabokov’s Despair as the Rise of the ILGWU has to do with Top Hat.

Once the aberration was set in motion, what more natural than the enlistment of Rolf Zehetbauer, designer of Cabaret and The Serpent’s Egg, to build streets where Brownshirts could chuck bricks through the windows of Jewish shops while rabbis play chess in nearby cafés without so much as lifting up their beards.

In the curiously moving murder scene in the novel, as Felix dies, he slowly spreads his hands as if asking, “What’s the meaning of this?” In the film, he mumbles, “Thank you.” Fassbinder hath murdered Nabokov. Anyone curious enough to see how a film can swirl along on nearly continuous camera movements and still look and feel as if it weighed a ton of lead should repair to Despair.

The film is dedicated in all simplicity to: Vincent van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, and Unica Zorn. The practice of directors dedicating feature theatrical films which are collaborative works has recently become a new pollution. Did Zehetbauer want his sets dedicated to Artaud? Did Peer Raben want his music dedicated to van Gogh? I did know Unica—the poor woman suffered enough without having Fassbinder’s dreckhaufe dumped on her.