Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Haymitch Abernathy, Peeta Mellark, and Katniss Everdeen (Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, and Jennifer Lawrence). Photo: Murray Close.
1. HIGH SCHOOL IS NOT LIKE WAR. College admissions and the job market are not like war. A reality show is not like war, and neither is love. When books and movies made for teens are recast, by critics, as allegories for teenage life, you know it’s the grown-ups who can’t hack the world as it is. What are The Hunger Games books, and now movies, really about? Exactly what it looks like: war.
2. As The Hunger Games (2012) opened in theaters across a post-Occupied, pre–Obama ’12 nation, we wanted to talk its politics. Those to the left saw the systematic impoverishment of the Districts by the Capitol as a punny economic critique. To the right, many saw the dead-same set-up as one of Heartland values and hard-working families vis-à-vis the effete decadence of “liberal elites” or “big government.” But to choose between these sides is to make no decision at all. Today’s government, no matter its size or orientation, is more tightly aligned with the wealthy and the corporate than with any other group in America. As for Panem, the nation-state at stake in The Hunger Games universe, its risible elites could be the fashionably late-capitalist 1 percent or the Kremlinites in Stalin’s Russia.
The achievement of power is to forget where it came from. This is a prerequisite of force.
3. People say The Hunger Games are “hard to read” or, later, “hard to watch.” I feel that’s not the case. Very little is required of you in your seat. You do not have to wonder, for instance, what kind of man would send seventeen-year-olds halfway across the world to kill other seventeen-year-olds for the sole purpose of upholding one nation’s right to be entertained by death on TV.
In cross-purposing entertainment, there can be revolutionary art. There can be art that intends revolution. But there is no art made in revolution that is greater than the art birthed by war. Picasso’s Guernica. Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam. Chris Burden’s A Tale of Two Cities. These are the war paintings I love. For paintings of revolution I feel mostly… gratitude.
It seems less that war causes art, and more that art is a justification of war. Museums are fortresses we mourn very hard when they fall. Post–World War II, you may have heard, the CIA loved Abstract Expressionists too.
Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Caesar Flickerman and Katniss Everdeen (Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence).
4. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Those are just the US veterans. In District 12, a few months after they beat the system to become the first joint winners of the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) find their victory Pyrrhic. They wake with scarifying nightmares. They wake alone.
They’re not the star-crossed lovers they pretended to be—“for the cameras”—in order to win, and in fact they are not even friends. All the same, they will pretend again, because if Katniss can’t convince that kind of man that these two seventeen-year-olds were really madly in love with each other, not just defying the Games, he will kill her to stop the insurrection. Or—worse—he’ll marry her off. Per the new head Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in costume as Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Capitol will broadcast every profligate detail of her wedding, her dress, her cake, while in the Districts the black markets are shut down, the floggings are public, the executions are doubled without a cause.
(As if this worked for the State when the cipher was Marie Antoinette.) (Or Kate Middleton, whose wedding to Prince William took place four months before four days of riots tore the edges of London to shreds.)
When President Snow tells her this, Katniss goes: “Why don’t you just kill me now?” And you believe her.
Meanwhile, Peeta gets abreactive with a paintbrush, turning out garish, realist canvases that mercifully appear much less in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the movie (2013), than they do in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the book (2009). Actually seeing war is not so conducive to making art of it.
5. In order to fight, the soldier must be separated from that which he’s fighting for. His family, his country, and his culture become a flickering series of stock photos. This is one difference between war (brothers in arms) and revolution (brothers arm-in-arm). Revolution is impossible where the ethos is “winner take all,” which is another way of saying “winner leave all behind.” In a revolution you are here to make friends.
6. Two things are certain in America: War and sequels.
7. “The progress of the war in the Iliad is simply a continual game of seesaw,” writes Simone Weil in her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” “The victor of the moment feels himself invincible, even though, only a few hours before, he may have experienced defeat; he forgets to treat victory as a transitory thing.”
While Heavensbee makes the eugenics-y pronouncement that the whole “species” of Victors must be eliminated, Peeta is teaching Katniss to befriend. “You have to know the person,” he tells her. They are on a train speeding through collapse toward the Capitol. Soon they will be called back to the arena, along with eleven other pairs of previous “winners,” for the seventy-fifth annual Hunger Games. For now, still on their victory tour, they see only sparks of revolt: Crowds whistle the song Katniss sang to Prim. Signs burn, becoming symbols. Police redouble. Out the window, a scream of red: THE ODDS ARE NEVER IN OUR FAVOUR. “What’s your favorite color?” Peeta asks. This is how we know the third film will be one of revolution.
8. The signifying difference between The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that when Katniss steps into the arena for the second time, the film expands to IMAX, filling the corners of the screen. The effect of this precession—from unreality to extra-reality—is swift and irreversible. The jungle gulps you whole. You forget there was ever an outside.
9. Or else you’ve become the outside. It’s so bloody hot. In seconds, each of the Tributes is enveloped in 70-Mpix sweat.
Fredric Jameson, writing on science fiction in his Archaeologies of the Future (2005), says:
Heat is here conveyed as a kind of dissolution of the body into the outside world, a loss of that clean separation from clothes and external objects that gives you your autonomy and allows you to move about freely, a sense of increasing contamination and stickiness in the contact between your physical organism and the surfaces around it, the wet air in which it bathes, the fronds that slap against it. So it is that the jungle itself, with its non- or anti-Wordsworthian nature, is felt to be some immense and alien organism into which our bodies run the risk of being absorbed.
In the jungle of the seventy-fifth annual Hunger Games there is no history. There is no determinism. There is only—as Haymitch tells his protégés—“staying alive.” You want to stay alive in the jungle because you are the most alive, in the sense of being animal, you have ever been. Katniss has been degenerating with trauma for the first 110 minutes of the film. Now she looks incredible. In nature, she is a force.
Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman).
10. Only in war and sometimes in fucking can an absence of politics be tolerated. There is no fucking in The Hunger Games.
11. Suzanne Collins does not give many interviews, and when she does, she has the smiling, chin-up demeanor of a media-trained Katniss on tour. Collins reads from the cards. Her inspirations loop: Greek myth; Roman gladiatorial games; “reality television”; her army dad’s stories of the Vietnam War. She is often asked how she can write scenes of such violence between children, and her answers are always humane, reasonable, and short, pacifying the asker.
We want to know that the author condemns her violence. But in The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire both, no blood is willingly shed. The Gamemakers do evil not by endowing children and teenagers with the ability to hurt and to kill, but by stealing from these humans the innate moral ability, and the right, to hurt and to kill for good reason.
Because violence can be angry, it can be righteous. It can be justifiable or not; when used against power, it can be revolutionary. Violence is force with intent. Force is. It just. It is.
“Force in the hands of another exercises over the soul the same tyranny that extreme hunger does; for it possesses, and in perpetuo, the power of life and death,” writes Weil. “Its rule, moreover, is as cold and hard as the rule of inert matter […] The truth is, nobody really possesses it.”
12. There is nothing as amoral as neutrality, except for nature. “Remember,” says Haymitch to Katniss, “who the real enemy is.” Minutes from the movie’s end, she does remember, although she never quite knew, and takes unquivering aim at a force field in the sky.
That the Games are controlled by computers far far away is supposed to make this a futuristic, or speculative, plot. On the ground, however, the combat is still flesh-to-flesh with handheld weapons. This is not much longer the reality of war. Instead, flocks of drones—not good, not bad, not violent—begin to carry out the unequal distribution of terror. The Hunger Games becomes a sweet Baudrillardian nostalgia trip. It succors me to watch it. To think—the stomping boot of history once had a human face.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Mohammad Rasoulof, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, 2013, video, color, sound, 125 minutes.
IT BEGAN WITH AN ABSENCE. Invited to serve as jury president at this year’s DocLisboa, where his new film Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) would close the festival, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof had his passport confiscated by the authorities to prevent him from traveling abroad. This event takes place three years after Rasoulof’s arrest in 2010 for carrying out propaganda against the state. Like many banned directors in Iran, Rasoulof has shot his latest films clandestinely, owing to threats by the ruling regime. Exile used to be the punishment for crimes against the state. As the outside world becomes more accessible, the situation has reversed, with the state serving as a jail for dissident artists like Rasoulof and Ai Weiwei.
In the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it’s a jail that no one ever wants to leave. At least that’s the claim made by the citizens featured in The Great North Korean Picture Show (2013), Lynn Lee and James Leong’s depiction of the elusive country’s film industry, which was micromanaged by the “Dear Leader” and noted cinephile Kim Jong Il until his death in 2011. Though he does not appear overtly in the documentary, his presence is a suffusing force, as all film students in the DPRK learn directly from his propagandistic writings. “It’s not about fame,” explains Un Bom Kim, a young actor training at the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts when asked what makes his country’s film industry different from the West. “We have to serve our Leader. By making him happy, we are happy too.”
That’s not a claim one could ever imagine director Bela Tarr making. Tarr Bela: I Used to Be a Filmmaker (2013) portrays not only the Hungarian auteur and his exacting process as he works on his final masterpiece, The Turin Horse (2011), but also many of those in his extended cinematic family. The desolation and emptiness of the Hungarian plainthe locale for many of Tarr’s filmswhich has been abandoned with the decline of agriculture in that country, serves as a geographical metaphor for Tarr’s withdrawal from the world of filmmaking.
Like Tarr, whose magnum opus Satantango (1994) clocks in at over seven hours in length, Wang Bing makes duration-intensive films that allow viewers the immersive experience of time becoming a space; as such, Wang’s films often force us into occupying discomfiting yet fascinating positions. After Three Sisters (2012), which won the top award at last year’s DocLisboa, Wang returns with ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), a 227-minute feature set in the caged walls of a men’s mental institution in the poverty-afflicted Yunnan Province in southwestern China. All the men we come to meet have been committed involuntarily and live in wretched conditions of institutional abjection that even Beckett could have scarcely conjured. The claustrophobia-inducing effects of the film’s length sicken the viewer, but this seems justified once one learns that many of these men have been locked up in this cage for over two decades.
Of course, certain allegedly advanced societies allow their nuts to apply their time to other institutions, such as public service. Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known (2013) portrays Donald Rumsfeld through its subject’s tormented battles with rhetoric. Throughout the course of a ninety-six-minute interview that forms the basis of the film, Rumsfeld negates the smug and insulting figure he evinced in his tenure with the Bush administration. His post–Oval Office persona showboats the sort of smiling “by-golly” folksiness that forms the middle-American epitome of charisma and sincerity, the same kind that the rest of the world tends to diagnose as a symptom of brain damage. Of course, anyone who can read a liar’s face will easily see the truth in, among other moments, Rumsfeld’s deplorable defense of Nixon and, most creepily, the shit-eating grin he gives when Morris expresses amazement that no one in the White House or Pentagon had any inkling of what might be coming on September 11, 2001. But it is ultimately Rumsfeld’s war with language, quoted from his countless White House memos that Morris has him read aloud, which forms the core of his tragic flaw. Rumsfeld’s efforts to rewrite the dictionary and assert hegemonic control over meaning to erect a justificatory discourse for doing whatever he wants evoke the clear likeness of a man smart enough to know only what he can get away with, but barely.
In its eleven years of existence, DocLisboa has not only been a testing ground for the documentary’s stakes as an art form, but a restless and unyielding forum for philosophical probings on filmmaking in general. The hosting of cinematic visions as unlikely and incomparable as those of Kim Jong Il and Bela Tarr alongside digital activists like Zhu Rikun—a pro-democracy Chinese dissident whose film The Questioning (2013) consists of footage shot from a static camcorder he set up in his hotel room in Xinyu when the local police came to shake him down—gives the festival its rich and varied texture. You might very well bump into international auteurs like Chantal Akerman or local enfant terrible Joao Pedro Rodrigues, yet DocLisboa remains fundamentally anti-elitist in its civic devotion. It is not uncommon for Lisboansthose lucky enough to be employed during this era of financial duressto schedule their annual vacation leave at this time to volunteer for the festival and attend screenings. As the festival slogan has it, “Each October, the whole world fits in Lisbon.” A comforting thought in a world that unceasingly troubles our notions of home.
The eleventh edition of DocLisboa ran October 24–November 3.
“BY 1972 my own Sturm and Drang had catapulted me into a new terrain of representation,” Yvonne Rainer writes in her felicitously titled memoir, Feelings Are Facts: A Life (2006). That year marked the completion of Lives of Performers, the first feature film by the choreographer, cofounder of the Judson Dance Theater, and author of 1965’s “No Manifesto.”
In her transition from dance to film, Rainer said yes: “Having survived my various physical and psychic traumas”—including a suicide attempt in 1971—“and emboldened by the women’s movement, I felt entitled to struggle with an entirely new lexicon. The language of specific emotional experience . . . promised all the ambivalent pleasures and terrors of the experiences themselves: seduction, passion, rage, betrayal, grief, and joy.”
Yet that surfeit of emotion is presented austerely and disjunctively in Lives of Performers, parenthetically labeled “a melodrama” by an opening title card. Indeed, the film revolves around a love triangle, a standard setup of the genre, focusing on a man involved with two women. These romantic entanglements, however, are delineated only after a prologue of sorts, featuring Rainer leading a rehearsal of Walk, She Said, a dance that includes the four main “protagonists” in the film: John Erdman, Valda Setterfield, Shirley Soffer, and Fernando Torm. (Of this quartet, only Setterfield, a member of Merce Cunningham’s troupe from 1964 to 1974, had previous professional dance experience.)
Over this footage, we hear Rainer’s directives: “Foot open, gaze goes to the window, gaze goes to closet.” The audio, save for a few instances, is almost entirely offscreen. Though the performers deliver their lines, as Rainer does, without inflection, their voices are distinct, a mix of accents from the UK (Setterfield), Chile (Torm), and Kings County (Soffer); the few sentences in a buttery French intonation are uttered by Babette Mangolte, the redoubtable cinematographer with whom Rainer would make two more films. (The same year that Lives of Performers was made, Mangolte began another important collaboration in New York, shooting Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre and Hotel Monterey.) We hear the pages of the script being turned, further estranging us from this spartan soap opera about a man who “can’t make up his mind”—though this distancing device never dilutes our fascination with the intensely private moments, sourced from dreams, perhaps from letters or diaries, presented on-screen.
“I remember that movie—it’s about all these small betrayals, isn’t it?” reads an intertitle, a device that allows Rainer to interrupt her film further, including quotations from Leo Bersani (whose thoughts on cliché serve as epigraph) and Carl Jung. But Rainer’s use of intertitles, a contrivance of silent films, two of which greatly inform segments in her project, also reveals her fascination with the lives of performers from another era. Alla Nazimova’s notorious 1923 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, particularly the “Dance of the Seven Veils” scene, was the inspiration behind “Valda’s Solo,” featuring a dramatically spotlit Setterfield, in Rainer’s film. G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), his first of two films with Louise Brooks, is recapitulated in the final fifteen minutes of Lives of Performers as a series of thirty-five tableaux vivants. Seen forty-one years later, Rainer’s film also transports us to another indelible epoch, documenting, in the director’s own words, both “shabby loft living” and “the spectacle of a group of people intensely involved in a kind of work, in the task of performing.”
Lives of Performers screens Tuesday, November 19 at Light Industry in Brooklyn. The film will be introduced by Gregg Bordowitz, and a conversation between Yvonne Rainer and Bordowitz will follow the screening.
THE ENTRY POINT for Amei Wallach’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here, a marvelously layered, purposefully nonlinear documentary portrait of the husband and wife team known to the international art world as “the Kabakovs,” is the enormous 2008 retrospective of their work that was mounted in three huge Moscow venues: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art, and the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. It was the first time Ilya Kabakov had worked in the Russian capital since he took advantage of a 1987 travel permit to Austria to flee the Soviet Union, even as it began to crumble. Returning two decades later, hailed as one of the greats of contemporary art, and, in collaboration with his wife Emilia, a dauntingly prolific maker of installations, he worries about how his work will be received. Anxiety, Emilia explains, is his MO, the result of being born in 1933, during Stalin’s reign of terror, to a Jewish family in Soviet Ukraine. It fuels his nonstop painting and also makes him an arresting and sympathetic subject for a filmmaker who cares deeply for his work and his person. An art critic and the Kabakovs’ neighbor on the North Fork of Long Island, Wallach is also the author of the 1996 Abrams monograph, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away.
Anyone who has entered one of the Kabakovs’ chock-a-block installations, where one’s feeling of claustrophobia is countered by the sense that every object and verbal reference opens onto multiple strata of history—personal, cultural, ideological—and where, as Ilya says, “Irony is the sauce on the sandwich,” will understand the documentary strategy that Wallach and Ken Kobland, her editor and director of photography, adopted. This is no PBS art doc, although there are just enough titles (names, dates, places) to keep the viewer from being totally unmoored. The film moves fluidly—by means of understated dissolves and superimpositions and overlapping voice-overs—from the opening slo-mo close-ups of “Tout Moscow” at the Garage to the Kabakovs in their studio in the US, and from the permanent installation they created at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, of an abandoned Soviet schoolhouse (the realistic detail mixed with fantasy, memory, and color coordinates of abstraction, as Ilya explains) to preparations in Moscow where dozens of separate installations created all over the world are being reorganized for this enormous exhibition. (As an aside, the Garage—founded by Dasha Zhukova, who recently acquired with her partner a collection of Ilya’s pre-1987 work for a rumored $60 million—is housed in the very transportation hub that Dziga Vertov filmed for Man with a Movie Camera [cue the clip].) Among the other sights of the city which needed to be seen as they are today—and as they were in photos and home movies—is the attic art space that Ilya built, where he and his painter friends could escape a society that Ilya describes as “repulsive, dangerous, and destructive,” and fashion their own visions of utopia.
As you can glean, this much-interlocked material could result in a shapeless pileup, or worse, a watered-down show-and-tell. But Wallach and Kobland (himself an accomplished “personal” filmmaker and a red-diaper baby) have made a graceful, enormously moving portrait of a complicated artist and an artistic collaboration. Like the Kabakovs’ installations, it resists its own frame in time and space and invites you to return once and again.
Alexander Payne, Nebraska, 2013, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 115 minutes.
AFTER EXCURSIONS to California’s Santa Ynez Valley for Sideways (2004) and Hawaii for The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne returns to his home state for Nebraska. Admirers of the director, a proud Omahan who set his first three films—Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and About Schmidt (2002)—in that city, frequently praise Payne’s unerring regionalism. Detractors point to Payne’s reliance on noxious condescension toward his characters, often hypocritically mitigated by sticky sentimentality. Though I don’t consider myself an unequivocal member of either camp—I detest the smugness of About Schmidt but appreciate the complex teenage heroines of Election and The Descendants—Nebraska, despite a few pleasures, strikes me as Payne’s most cartoonish, one-dimensional work.
Payne’s sixth film is the first for which he does not have a writing credit and the second, after Citizen Ruth, not to be adapted from a novel—the script is by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson. It is also his first in black-and-white. (Works named after the Cornhusker State seem destined to be rendered in monochrome; see the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album.) It opens in Billings, Montana, where Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled seventy-something alcoholic stripped of his driver’s license, is seen walking alongside the highway in twenty-eight-degree weather. Falling for a bogus sweepstakes announcement he received in the mail, the old man plans to trek all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim one million dollars in prize money. “They can’t say it if it’s not true,” Woody guilelessly protests to the younger of his two sons, David (Will Forte), who tries to convince him otherwise. But David, eager for a respite from his rudderless life, decides to drive his dad 900 miles to Lincoln, with an unplanned stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne (a fictional locale played by Plainview, Nebraska).
The father-son road trip also provides viewers temporary relief from Kate (June Squibb), Woody’s vituperative wife. When not referring to her spouse as “a son of a bitch” or an “old drunk,” Kate speaks as if she were Ann Landers, reprimanding an especially hapless advice seeker in the 1950s; in one outburst alone, Woody is a “dumb cluck,” “stubborn as a mule,” and has “lost all [his] marbles.” Her splenetic eruptions, whether vulgar or cornpone, are played for laughs to increasingly diminishing returns, hitting rock bottom during a scene at the cemetery where many of Woody’s immediate family members are buried: The matriarch lifts up her dress to reveal to a dead would-be swain what he missed out on.
Kate’s bush—or at least the suggestion of it; Squibb is shot from behind—typifies Nebraska’s wearying reliance on unseemly body parts or body types for comic relief. Woody and David hunt for the former’s missing teeth along the railroad tracks in Rapid City, South Dakota; the sheer mass of two of Woody’s nephews instantly signals their cretinism.
Yet there are moments of genuine warmth in Payne’s film. A waitress, one of the many nonprofessional actors the director likes to cast in bit parts in his movies, sweetly reminds the Grants to help themselves to the soup and salad bar. Onscreen for a mere five minutes, a wonderful performer named Angela McEwan, who plays the coproprietor of Hawthorne’s local newspaper and a one-time love interest of Woody’s, sympathetically explains to David the etiology of his father’s dipsomania: “It happens early around here—there’s nothing much else to do.” Her words remain the most gracious and nonjudgmental in a film too quick to clumsily deride.
Nebraska opens in limited release November 15.
DIRECTOR GREGORY LA CAVA found an ideal outlet for his talents in the screwball comedy of the 1930s and helmed two of the period’s indisputable pinnacles, My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937), both of them startling feats of plate-spinning stagecraft and tragicomic prestidigitation. He was also instrumental in transferring W. C. Fields’s persona from vaudeville stage to screen—and before that had been one of the first figures in American cinema to make the leap from animation to live-action comedy.
While the effect of this transition is the first thing mentioned in most existing writing about Looney Tunes–trained director Frank Tashlin, the writing about Gregory La Cava establishes his very lack of notoriety as his most notable feature. This isn’t because programmers aren’t trying—last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival presented a La Cava retrospective, and now along comes UCLA Film & Television Archive with “Our Man Gregory La Cava,” a fourteen-film retro which includes such exciting rarities as 1941’s Unfinished Business and 1932’s The Half Naked Truth (also new on DVD from the Warner Archives Collection).
While he became one of the highest-paid directors of the 1930s, La Cava was of humble beginnings. He was born in Towanda, a small town on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where his Italian immigrant father found a job as a shoemaker. The family later moved to Rochester, New York, where Gregory worked as a cub reporter for the Rochester Evening Times. After attending the Art Institute of Chicago and Art Students League of New York, La Cava began working as a newspaper political cartoonist—it’s said that he was a talented painter in oils, but needed to earn for the family. Writing for the funnies provided La Cava an opening into then-infant film animation, working for Canadian pioneer Raoul Barré and eventually heading William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service, producing animated versions of various comic strips running in Hearst’s newspapers.
UCLA will screen one of La Cava’s IFS shorts, Abie Kabibble Outwitting His Rival (1917), while the earliest example of his live-action work playing the Billy Wilder Theater is His Nibs (1921), which already evinces the director’s gift for jaunty pacing. Set in a rural movie house, the Slippery Elm Picture Palace, His Nibs features “Chic” Sale, a vaudevillian famous for his hick characters. Sale plays a variety of roles, including the on-screen hero of the film-within-a-film, the Palace’s hillbilly projectionist-proprietor, the local half-wit, and the pecksniffish self-appointed local censor. La Cava shared a contempt for hypocritical moralizing with his new Hollywood neighbor, W. C. Fields, as well as a fondness for golf and the drinking of strong waters. The man who Fields affectionately nicknamed “Dago” would go on to direct W. C. in two of his silents, So’s Your Old Man (1926) and Running Wild (1927), in which Fields test-drives a character that he would play for years to come, the henpecked stealth-drunk. The Fields double bill (November 17) is aptly accompanied by La Cava’s 1919 animated short The Breath of a Nation, which contains such Fieldsian nemeses as an old battle-axe wife and Prof. Witherbones, a sanctimonious temperance lecturer.
Though rarely credited as a screenwriter, La Cava would constantly improvise and rewrite through rehearsals, a process which allowed him an unusual amount of input into the content of his films. He would tinker with lines right up until it was time to call “Action!,” and the vivacity and spontaneity of his best work, as well as his ability to coax relaxed, natural performances out of actors not known for giving as much, is attributable to this.
In his films of the Precode years, La Cava freely vented a detestation of middle-class cant, known in the parlance of the day as “Babbittry.” Age of Consent (1932), a crackling campus comedy, has callow undergraduate Richard Cromwell almost railroaded into a shotgun wedding after a gin party with an underage soda fountain waitress—blame is placed on society’s expectation that Jazz Age kids should follow an outdated Victorian moral code. At the beginning of Bed of Roses (1933), Constance Bennett’s cynically hardened ex-streetwalker is sprung from a ladies’ prison, and sets out to use any deception necessary to find the title’s comfort, before being redeemed by the love of cotton bargeman Joel McCrea. A word on this pairing: While La Cava’s films move at a snappy tempo, with actors stepping on the heels of each other’s lines, his ample rehearsals created an easy atmosphere on set, and he was able to capture unusually frank and fresh flirtation. The back-and-forth between his romantic leads is often quite sexy, and his beautiful casts tend to look especially beautiful because they’re been allowed to show themselves as something other than burnished profiles. (The series was underwritten by the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program, who also financed last year’s monthlong tribute to forgotten rom-com master Mitchell Leisen.)
Desire is nothing dirty in La Cava’s films, but money certainly carries a taint, and in his best works, you can see that the shoemaker’s son remembers what it was to be truly hungry and hopeless. My Man Godfrey begins in an East River city dump, a veritable Valley of Ashes, before moving to the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue, as heiress Carole Lombard scoops up homeless William Powell, an example of the “Forgotten Man” needed for a high society scavenger hunt. La Cava so liked the idea of an interloper upending a wealthy household—and was so tickled by the morbid self-dramatizing of the idle rich—that he filmed the same premise twice, with Ginger Rogers taking the Powell role in Fifth Avenue Girl (1939). Rogers also appears in Stage Door (1937), a Bechdel-test-besting ensemble whirl set in a theatrical boarding house for women in New York. La Cava had his cast, which included Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, and a young Lucille Ball and Ann Miller, live together for a period before the shoot, and Rogers remembers that La Cava would “listen to the off-camera chitchat among the girls . . . and then incorporate these off-the-cuff exchanges into the dialogue.” He also sipped gin-laced tea throughout the filming.
La Cava’s practice of winging it—and on-set boozing—gave indigestion to risk-averse producers, and so, despite a solid box-office record, he skipped freely between studios throughout the ’30s. If La Cava is an attractive case for reclamation today, it’s because he has something of the rogue, maverick character about him. His films show a pronounced anticareerist, anticommercial streak, evident especially in She Married Her Boss (1935) with Claudette Colbert, a film whose department store window display scene ranks among La Cava’s finest set pieces. “I hate business, stores, everything that crushes the life out of people and turns them into pieces of machinery,” Colbert will say, anticipating a climax which is like the start of a riot. (For purposes of getting a grip on La Cava’s strange personal politics, it’s a shame UCLA couldn’t get hold of his 1933 presidential fable Gabriel over the White House.) Frank Capra even called the renegade La Cava “a precursor of the ‘New Wave’ directors of Europe,” adding “Pity he didn’t live long enough to lead them.”
This unlikely scenario didn’t happen with good reason. Among Fields’s drinking buddies—the infamous Hollywood Hellfire Club—life expectancy wasn’t long, and by the ’40s La Cava was a certifiable dipsomaniac, in and out of sanitariums. When producer Mary Pickford had La Cava removed from One Touch of Venus (1948) for working, as he always did, without a completed script, he sued her for wrongful dismissal and effectively sealed his reputation as “difficult.” (He also lost the lawsuit.) Never making another film, La Cava spent a brief retirement shooting pigeons with a BB gun from the beach in Santa Monica. On March 1, 1952, he was found dead in his Malibu home.
While he wasn’t around to curate his legacy with the rising generation of film historians, La Cava’s work speaks for itself. He was an insubordinate spirit, a disruptive, rebellious force whose method shook up the formality endemic to assembly-line studio filmmaking. He was also an astute surveyor of the American scene, and didn’t feel it was his patriotic duty to repress his knowledge of how circumstance shapes people—or more often misshapes them, for his films are full of souls that have been warped by poverty or privilege.
Now La Cava has a new showcase, and it’s standard practice to say that he must finally be up for reconsideration—the write-ups said as much before the 2001 La Cava retro at LACMA or the 2005 retro at MoMA. The fact is, though, that La Cava seems destined to eternally remain the Forgotten Man of prewar comedy. Perhaps it’s La Cava’s simmering anger that’s to blame—for in his prattling, shiny romps, there are glimmering shards of hard truths that we’d rather not remember.