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Festivals: New York 1982

Sour grapes

Any masterpieces? No. Any exciting new directors of great promise? No. With that out of the way, and granted that the Festival’s twentieth year was not of corking vintage, it can be stated that there were at least half a dozen films well “worth the detour.”

La Truite/The Trout (★★★), Joseph Losey’s best film in a decade, is a plum pudding for auteurists. Sexual ambivalence, elaborate settings and camera work, game-playing, the corruption of the bourgeoisie, the intrusion of an outsider upon a social body, you name it—there are the Loseyan leitmotifs in abundance. More important, The Trout was the most enjoyable film on view at Lincoln Center this year.

In the Roger Vailland novel on which the film is based, all but one of the principal characters are introduced in the first chapter, which takes place in a bowling alley. That is where they are to be found in the first scene of the film: Frédérique (Isabelle Huppert), a peasant girl from a trout farm; Galuchat (Jacques Spiesser), her homosexual husband; Rambert (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a businessman who works for a multinational company; Rambert’s associate, Saint Genis (Daniel Olbrychski); Rambert’s wife, Lou (Jeanne Moreau).

Frédérique hustles the bourgeois bunch in a bowling match, then spends the rest of the film bowling the men over, beating them at their own sex, money, and power games, penetrating their world without ever being penetrated by it or them, and unleashing passions in others without manifesting the slightest emotion herself. In a sense, this virgin is a whore, a Loulou who will not put out. Her character is a near inversion of the angel-messenger figure played by Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema.

Before production started, Gaumont requested Losey to drop the bowling sequence from the script. Fortunately, he stuck to his guns. The scene is thrilling, a remarkable technical tour de force: long takes, great traveling shots on a Louma crane establishing the bowling alley as a sexual metaphor. (Anyone for a game of Losey? Cricket: The Go-Between; hide-and-seek; The Servant; rugby: Accident; pig-grabbing match: The Gypsy and the Gentleman.)

Saint Genis invites Frédérique to accompany him on a business trip to Japan, where her picarescapades flesh out the film’s finest sustained sequences. And as she rises socially, her hair gets shorter; during a scene of Huppert being cropped while watching sumu wrestling on TV, I flashed back to the director’s first film, The Boy with Green Hair (1948), in which a haircut was also a dramatic plot element.

Losey is not above a bit of self-referential sport. Alexis Smith’s show-stopping scene as an American matron cruising her way through Tokyo (she catalogues to Huppert the cities of the world in which she has made love) is a reprise of Leporello’s Catologo aria in Don Giovanni, in which he delineates the geography of his master’s sexual conquests. The presence of Ruggero Raimondi (Losey’s Giovanni) in the cast of The Trout confirms that this is no Accident.

The superb cinematography is by Henri Alekan, who worked with G.W. Pabst and Marcel Carné and who lit Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête. The memorable “Japanese” interiors are all sets built in French studios to the designs of Alexandre Trauner (Children of Paradise); the entire film is an architectural stunner.

Vailland (1907-1965) from Savoyard peasant stock, became a Resistance fighter during the Occupation and specialized in train derailments. In post-war France, he seemed a strange literary figure: although a Communist, he was a self-proclaimed libertine, with a taste for Sade and Choderlos de Laclos, and thus markedly at odds with the notorious puritanism of the Party to which he belonged. His Goncourt Prize novel, La Loi, was made into a film by Jules Dassin in 1958. In 1959, he wrote the script for Roger Vadim’s modernized version of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangeureuses. (There is more than a whiff of Laclos in La Truite, both book and film.)

La Truite was written as Vailland was dying of cancer. Shortly after the book’s appearance, Losey planned a movie version which was to star Brigitte Bardot, Charles Boyer, Dirk Bogarde, and Simone Signoret. He could not find backing at that time. The cast he finally assembled is beyond reproach. Huppert has not done better work with any French director; Olbrychski is dubbed by Jacques Perrin, yet makes a strong impression.

The action in the novel’s opening chapter is similar to that of the first scene in the film, with one important difference. It is narrated in the first person by Vailland, the novelist, who doubles as the character, Roger, a friend of Rambert, Saint Genis, and Lou, and who is present at the bowling alley. Roger is so taken with this encounter of characters from such different milieus that he decides to write a book about it—the book that is being read. Succeeding chapters on Frédérique’s progress in society are narrated to Roger in turn by Rambert, Saint Genis, and Frédérique herself. The style and cast of these chapters are neo-eighteenth-century roman.

The film’s Japanese journey replaces what in the book is Saint Genis’ narration of a business trip he took to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters, accompanied by Frédérique. They make a side trip to an Indian reservation in Colorado—a wildly comic interlude. The film’s Hamada, the company’s Japanese gray eminence, who becomes a father figure for Frédérique, derives from the book’s Mr. Isaac, a Jewish millionaire who meets her in L.A., takes both Galuchats to his bosom, and is last seen conducting them on a tour of the art museums of Europe.

Vailland does not despise Frédérique. She may be a bit inhuman, but she is not unsympathetic: “To survive in a world of men, she must behave as if playing a game…She has everything I like in a woman, in wild animals, in plants, in rivers: they live their lives with indifference.”

Though full of good things, the concluding sections of Losey’s film—after Frédérique’s return from Japan—are not satisfactory. The book could be of little help here. Vailland’s final chapter is a vaguely Rashomonish series of suppositions on the part of the four narrators as to what has happened or might happen to the Galuchats. It works as a literary jeu d’esprit; it would have never worked as a climax to the film. Personally, I would have preferred to see Lou/Moreau survive, as in the novel. Lou and Frédérique could give all of the men their walking papers, freeing the two women to become lovers.

The inept English subtitles (by Mrs. Losey) rarely capture the tone of the French dialogue. All remarks concerning homosexuality are mistranslated and softened. “He went to Japan with that bowling girl,” will not do for: “He went to Japan with that bitch from the bowling alley.”

One Man’s War (★★★) is the third feature by Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentinean who lives in Paris. The director has constructed an unusual essay, using as mainstay the Paris journals of the German writer Ernst Jünger, who was a Wehrmacht officer during the Occupation. The journals are read in French and accompany scenes from Vichy government newsreels, for the most part fascinating clips not seen here before. Jünger was an aristocrat whose reservations about Hitler seemed mostly grounded in matters of taste. He was enamored of the old chivalric knighthood of war, saddened by the realization that it was being replaced by technicians. He is still alive and was recently awarded the Goethe Prize.

As Jünger relates a visit to a doctor who takes pictures of dying men, we see a fashion show of the last word in women’s hats. As Jünger expresses his qualms at supervising the execution of a deserter (he describes the execution with loving detail), we see a joyous crowd feting Marshal Pétain. Cozarinsky’s method is hardly ever that of direct illustration.

The diaries dialogue with other voices from the period: a French bishop urging youths to fight alongside the Nazis on the Russian front; a droning newsreel commentator hailing the arrival in Paris of Herberg von Karajan and Zarah Leander; a vernissage of chic Parisians attending the opening of an exhibition of the work of the Third Reich’s official sculptor, Nazi-realist Arno Breker. (Breker is also still around. His portrait bust of Jean Cocteau adorns the writer’s tomb. His recent work has included portraits of Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Salvador Dali, Winifred Wagner, and Rudolf Nureyev.)

The film is at a pole from the standard historical documentary which speaks with the Voice of history—and is lying. One Man’s War is not fiction, but a jumbled mosaic of the big and little events of the period. No truth is privileged; a great deal of truth breaks cover.

The intelligence that shaped the film is nowhere more in evidence than in the selection of music by composers who allied themselves with The New Order and those who did not. Included are: the stirring Palestrina overture by the Nazi Hans Pfitzner and a beautiful lied, Die Dunkelheit sinkt schwer wie Blei (The darkness sinks heavy as lead), by the great artist and teacher Franz Schreker, who resigned his post as director of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik when the Nazis came to power. The highpoint of the entire film is the passage where Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot (In the glow of the evening) accompanies scenes of the Liberation of Paris. It is not your standard jubilant Liberation music. The sadness of the Strauss song—with these images—is shattering.

One Man’s War and Miklos Jancso’s The Tyrant’s Heart (★★★) were the only coherent films I saw at Lincoln Center this year, the only ones whose conformations revealed the purity of a single thought. They started where they should have, ended where they should have; every part related organically to every other part. Koyaanisqatsi is about but one thing, a fairly complex thing; the film itself is merely simple-minded. All Fitzcarraldo is the story of a single obsession, but the film is as full of disparate lumps as a bowl of badly mashed potatoes.

The typical Jansco film is a complex choreographed version of a piece of Hungarian history, photographed outdoors on the low-horizoned plains, where the men are handsome and in uniform, the women are beautiful and are naked, and the camera has become so aroused it has contracted a terminal case of St. Vitus’s dance.

The Tyrant’s Heart is a variation: a chamber version of history. Nearly all of it takes place indoors. (In a movie studio? A city? An aquacade? A Turkish bath?) The entire film is one extended “number.” It is a department store of Jancsoisms: there are long takes of characters on treadmills; violence is abstracted; history is transformed into a gesticular masque; characters suddenly shift from tenderness to brutality. And, as is often the case with this director, the film, without containing any homosexual scenes is quite homoerotic. The women are sex objects; the men direct their tenderness only to other men.

Gaspar, the king’s son, had been sent to Italy as a child. He returns as a man, with some Italian actor friends, after the strange death of his father. His mother has been keeping herself young through the daily blood sacrifice of virgins. Mama is obviously based on Erzsebet Bathory, the Bloody Countess, previously portrayed on the screen by Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula, Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness, and Tina Aumont in Necropolis. (All three were made in 1970, a big year for Erzsebet.)

The period is Renaissance, the events Jacobean: intrigue, revenge, betrayals, and a shifty struggle for the succession to the throne. At the very end, the camera follows the actors outdoors for the first time, for a chilling massacre scene.

Jancsó is a master magician. Tyrant is not his most illuminating trick, but the magic is still operative.

Although I’ve seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman (★★) twice, there are still a few things I’d like explained. What is that damn thing in the tree? How does it happen that, during the first reel (which does not appear to contain flashbacks), Niccolo is threatened with trouble if he continues to see Mavi? He hasn’t met her yet!

I can live with the tree and the funny continuity. What I understand less is the choice of Tomas Milian for the lead role. He is as thrilling as Jell-O.

Niccolo (Milian) is a recently-divorced film director who is looking for a new old lady and a good script. Who isn’t? Antonioni and his collaborator on the screenplay, Gerard Brach, should have looked a bit further themselves. Their script is skimpy, shaky, unfleshed.

A failed Antonioni film has more going for it than most other director’s successes. I could return to it for several scenes:

  • The main credit title sequence. It begins with a high angle shot above the staircase and continues further down as Niccolo tries to enter his apartment. It is dizzyingly beautiful. I’ve never seen a movie in which images and opening titles were so skillfully co-composed.
  • Mavi and Niccolo ascending a staircase, on their way to a party. When they reach the landing, she notices someone she doesn’t care to meet and insists that they leave. Every set-up here is brilliant.
  • A rousing Good Steady Fuck scene with Mavi and Niccolo. Every film school in the country should have a print of this one.
  • A muffled party sequence at the home of the very rich. Mavi’s world—Niccolo does not belong here. He knows it; he feels he is looked on as a spy. Someone remarks: “Once the poor emigrated from Italy. Now they do.” This ghostly hushed underwater elegant soirée is the best scene in the film. It not only looks great (this was after all the best looking picture in the festival), it is the only scene in the film in which Antonioni’s exquisite formalism collides with an interesting social situation of significant content.

Daniela Silverio (Mavi), Christine Boisson (Ida), and Veronica Lazar (Carla) make three distinctly strong impressions.

Retrospectives this year were a diverse lot: Cecil B. De Mille’s Madam Satan, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Light Ahead, and Ivan Mozhukhin’s The Burning Brazier.

Madam Satan (★★) was made for MGM in 1930. It was not a success; De Mille never made another musical. It was appreciated in Paris, where Jacques Spitz (La Revue de Cinéma, June 1931) compared the film to those of Méliès and wrote that “If I had to go live on the moon and could only take one movie with me, it would be Madam Satan.” It is an oddity and a half, but not nearly as good a picture as Dynamite, made by De Mille the year before, also starring the delicious Kay Johnson.

The central situation is a steal from Die Fledermaus and concerns Angela (Johnson), a society lady whose husband (Reginald Denny) has been carrying on with a chorus girl. Disguised as the glamorous French Madam Satan, Angela attends a masked ball held in a dirigible and wins back her spouse.

The film falls neatly into two parts. The first is talky and dull, except for the inspired delivery of Roland Young and the wigglings of Lillian Roth as Trixie the gold digger. The second part is one of the great nut sequences in American cinema. After several rousing production numbers in the dirigible (with Constructivist settings by Mitchell Leisen), the best of which is a Ballet Mécanique led by the Spirit of Electricity (Ted Kosloff), the dirigible is struck by lightning. With Cecil Blount De Mille the finger of God was always poking in somewhere. Everyone parachutes to safety. There are mirthfully happy landings scattered over the face of Manhattan, the best of which is that of a girl dressed as a six-armed Hindu goddess who falls on top of a crap game in progress on a Harlem street.

I enjoyed the notes the Festival press office supplied for this film. They informed that “De Mille soon became known for his mammoth spectacles, thus proving his farsightedness.”

New York City was the center of a Yiddish motion picture industry that produced films from the Twenties until the late Forties. Most of them were primitively made, on tiny budgets. Edgar G. Ulmer was, for a two-year period, this industry’s star director. Pare Lorentz called Ulmer “Director of the Minorities.” Ulmer made (mostly in New York and New Jersey): Natalka Poltavka (Ukranian, 1937), Green Fields (Yiddish, 1937), The Singing Blacksmith (Yiddish, 1938), Cossacks Across the Danube (Ukranian, 1939), and Moon Over Harlem (in English for black audiences, 1939).

Fishke der Krumer/The Light Ahead (★★) was shot in New Jersey. It takes place in the Glubsk shtetl and the countryside between Glubsk and Odessa. Fishke (David Opatoshu: young, frail, handsome), a cripple who works in the bath house and his blind girlfriend Hodel (Helen Beverly) become the focus of village hysteria precipitated by a cholera epidemic. A prophetess convinces the villagers that if the young people get married in the cemetery, it will appease God’s wrath. Hodel does not want to be a “cholera bride.” “What can we hope for here?” she asks a friend. “He’ll remain in the bath house and I’ll pluck chicken feathers!” Encouraged by the bookpeddler, Reb Mendele (Isidore Cashier), they break away from the ignorance and superstition of the village and set out for the big city.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Miss Beverly (who was married to Lee J. Cobb) gives a sweetly moving performance. Robert Benney, who worked on the sets with Ulmer, was present at the Festival screening. He brought along his strikingly original Fishke designs. The entire expressionistic village set was built inside a warehouse. Benney’s sketches for the bath house set were the finest of all, which makes the loss of this sequence seem all the more regrettable. (Fishke has been preserved by the National Center for Jewish Film.) The picture reminded me of many low-budget Indian films I have seen about life in untouchable villages.

As a young man, Ulmer worked with Max Reinhardt, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang. In Berlin in 1929 he co-directed (with Robert Siodmak) a seminal documentary, People on Sunday. He began directing in the United States in 1933. His work is extremely uneven, ranging from the sublime to the sub-ridiculous; this may well be a consequence of shooting many of his films on Poverty Row schedules. Paradoxically, some of the best of them were five-day quickies. The Black Cat (1934), Club Havana (1945), Detour (1945) and Ruthless (1948) are all remarkable films. François Truffaut has acknowledged that Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955) was the inspiration for Jules and Jim. The demented poetry of Ulmer’s best work is addictive. He died in 1972, an auteur in France, a nobody here. In honoring Edgar G. Ulmer, the New York Film Festival honored itself.

After the Revolution, a little army of white Russians settled in Paris. Many wound up driving cabs, some opened restaurants, and a few made avant-garde movies.

Ivan Ilyich Mozhukhin was born into an aristocratic family in 1889. After some success in the theater, he entered films in 1911 and was soon the reigning divo of Tsarist cinema. Most of his films were produced by Josef Yermoliev, directed by Yakov Protazonov, and co-starring the actor’s wife, Nathalie Lissenko. Father Sergius (1917), based on the Tolstoy story, is generally agreed to be his best film from this period.

By 1917, many in the motion picture industry felt that after the revolution they would be considered luxury items and that it would be prudent to leave. They packed up and went south where there were still studios operating. By 1918 most of the Russian film industry, with its equipment, had moved to Odessa. When the Allies abandoned Odessa, the movie colony escaped to Constantinople on a British ship. Nearly all eventually made their way to Paris.

Producer Yermoliev bought the studio which had been built by Georges Méliès in the Paris suburb of Montreuil. Several films begun in Russia were completed at the old Méliès studio. With their release in France, Mozhukhin’s star ascended in Western Europe.

The Burning Brazier (★), made in 1923, is pretty much a one-man show: it stars Mozhukhin, who was also the writer and director. Today it seems little more than a minor curiosity, a footnote to film history. Much of its load is shot in the opening dream sequence, a nightmare from which Lissenko awakens to find that elements from the dream, including Mozhukhin, are entering her waking world. Its experimental effects may have impressed when it was made, but at Lincoln Center more pleasure was to be found in the occasional scenes of 1923 Paris streets than in the rapid montage sequences and reflections of expressionism. Some of it looks like a silent René Clair film, minus the wit. Mozhukhin has been compared to Buster Keaton; he looks more like Larry Semon.

He pursued a successful acting career in France during the Twenties, notably with Kean (1923), Marcel L’Herbier’s The Late Mathias Pascal (1925), and Casanova (1927). He was Abel Gance’s first choice for the title role in Napoleon, but chose to accept an offer from Hollywood. The American film, Edward Sloman’s Surrender (1927), proved a flop. He returned to Paris. He could not shake his heavy accent, and after the arrival of sound, he was offered only small roles. Mozhukhin died penniless and forgotten in a Paris clinic in 1939.

How regrettable that no Turkish Les Blank was on hand to film The Burden of Yol. It would most likely have turned out a more interesting enterprise than Yol (★) itself. Yilmaz Güney, film star and a star of the Turkish political left, has been imprisoned on several occasions. His last conviction was for the murder of a judge during a brawl in a restaurant. Güney directed Yol by proxy: his assistant was Serif Gören. The actors visited Güney in prison; he gave them direction—acted out their parts for them—in his cell. He escaped in 1981 and is now in Switzerland, where he supervised the film’s post-production work.

Its distributor is Triumph Films, an outfit whose press kit is a model of modesty. This document informs that Güney is unique in world cinema: “It is almost as if Clint Eastwood, James Dean, Ingmar Bergman, and Stanley Kubrick were rolled up into a single figure.” A few lines later, Güney is compared to Andrzej Wajda, Satyajit Ray, Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Pier Paolo Pasolini, D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Charlie Chaplin.

In Clint-Jimmy-Ingmar-Stanley Güney’s film, Turkey is a country which seems to be one vast depressing prison, where women are in total subjection, and where the shackles of medieval behavior codes have been clamped on everyone. It contains one good scene: a man and a woman who have been caught making love in a train toilet are almost lynched by a mob of infuriated passengers. The man, the woman, the crowd all suddenly become very real. Elsewhere, the performers seem to be going through pre-determined motions, with no space to create their own realities. The big set piece, a trek through the snow, is classically filmed, but—and this is true of many scenes—too aestheticized for its own good and for that of the picture as a whole. Not a pretty picture of Turkey, yet Yol is too “pretty” a picture. The story concerns five men who are on a week’s leave from a semi-open prison. We follow three of them home. Interest is dispersed, sliced in three. It is difficult to get involved in any one of the stories. That two of the three prisoners resemble each other, and both look like G. Gordon Liddy, does not facilitate empathy or clarity. Yol is an ambitious movie, but a curiously slick and distant one.

Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, is one of the best films of the year. Fitzcarraldo () was the worst film I saw at Lincoln Center.

I was wrong to assume that things could only improve after the preposterous opera scene at the opening of Herzog’s film. Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso are appearing in Verdi’s Ernani at the Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, at the turn of the century. Bernhardt is portrayed on stage by a dragperson, mouthing the music, while a singer in the pit does the vocalizing. The dragperson flails about, a ghostly pasty-faced old thing. Mention is made of her wooden leg.

That none of this ever happened does not bother me. (At the period in which the film is set, Bernhardt was in her early 50s and well-preserved. Her leg was amputated in 1915.) Poetic license is half of what movies are about. The scene is wrong, not because the dates are wrong, but because it is vacuously arbitrary. It isn’t funny. It makes no sense in terms of Fitzcarraldo’s passion for opera, the supposed fulcrum of the story, a passion Herzog does not share with the character in the script and cannot transmit to the lead actor on the screen. The scene was directed by Werner Schroeter. It is a tatty and tired bit of demeaning camp. It’s all false.

I know that the Los Angeles of Blade Runner exists: I saw it. For two hours I lived in the L.A. of 2019, though I knew while I was in the theater that it had been created with mattes, mockups, and miniatures. Though I know that Herzog made his film in the jungle, his Amazon does not exist for me. I also know—who doesn’t by now?—that he hired some poor Indians to schlep his boat up a mountain at the risk of their lives. But the only triumph of his will was the fact of their labor. This botched, shapeless, gratuitous, ignoble, neo-colonialist film is so poorly made, written, edited, and directed that its centerpiece, its raison d’être—the honest-to-God hauling of a boat up a mountain before your eyes—is meaningless.

It quickens to life briefly during one scene. Fitzcarraldo has come to the unfinished station of his Trans-Andean railroad. The little black stationmaster (Grande Otelo) has waited years for his master’s return. His joy at the thought that the railway will now be finished vanishes at the news that the boss has come to remove the rails. The scene stands out, not because it is better directed than others, or because the director cares more about the stationmaster than he does for the other characters. Otelo does nothing and endows the scene with a state of grace. He is a great natural film presence. The man’s sweetness and disappointment is tangible and moving. Klaus Kinski in the title role heaved and flap-doodled for 157 minutes and convinced me of little; Otelo blinked and convinced me of everything.

Grande Otelo was the main actor in The Story of the Samba, one of the three episodes which composed Orson Welles’ It’s All True, shot in Brazil in 1942. He played a sort of Pied Piper, who led the dancing crowds and related the history of the samba schools of Rio. The footage was superb, if one can judge it on the basis of surviving stills. Welles was sacked by RKO before shooting was completed and Desilu acquired RKO. Later, when Paramount took over Desilu, most of the It’s All True material, which gave signs of decomposition, was dumped into the Pacific. No attempt was made to copy or preserve it.

Welles’ film is at the bottom of the ocean. Fitzcarraldo is at your neighborhood art house. It’s all crazy.