Days of Being Wild

Nick Pinkerton on “Auteurs Gone Wild” at Anthology Film Archives

Fritz Lang, You and Me, 1938, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.

THE SCRIBES OF OLD speak to us of the Auteurist Wars, in which the guardians of high culture who could only love industrial Hollywood movies as mere “fun trash” were challenged by an army of young zealots, crusaders charged with the guiding doctrine that profound worldviews were discernible in that fun trash, and “that movies are primarily the creation of one governing author behind the camera who thinks in images and sounds rather than words and sentences.”

The insurgents carried the day decisively—and in cinephile circles, their burning faith has become entrenched orthodoxy. For younger critics who came of age when the Auteurist Wars were only a distant memory, “auteurism” has always been here—a sometimes useful, sometimes cumbersome framework through which to view film art, rather than a hill to fight and die on. The time is ripe, then, for a reform movement. The definition of the auteurist idea quoted above comes from “Critical Condition,” a much-discussed recent piece by the critic Kent Jones which appeared in Film Comment. Jones celebrates the critical revolution of the 1950s and ’60s during which, armed with the auteurist idea, “the lovers of cinema didn’t just argue for its inclusion among the fine arts, but actually stood up, waved its flag, and proclaimed its glory without shame”—but also expresses concern that strict allegiance to the doctrine has tended to blind film writers to the evidence of their senses, encouraging “the subtle transformation of the actual scene into an ideal one made in the state of artistic freedom.”

As though to accompany the ongoing interrogation of auteurism, along comes Anthology Film Archives’s program “Auteurs Gone Wild.” The series, programmed by David Phelps, highlights nine films which have been singled out as the “most atypical works” of classical Hollywood filmmakers—the least Capraesque of Frank Capra, the least Langian of Frank Lang, Ernst Lubitsch with an unfamiliar Touch. As Phelps puts it, these are “the exceptions that prove the rule,” many of them interestingly made in a state nearer to artistic freedom than more customary works.

I’m not sure that Lubitsch’s 1932 Broken Lullaby (aka The Man I Killed) is his “most atypical” film—the master of the droll, feather-light sex comedy once made a historical epic set in Ancient Egypt, after all—but it’s a work as weighty as the pyramids. An ironically jaunty montage places the scene in Paris, 1919, during a celebration of the first anniversary of Armistice. A young Frenchman (Phillips Holmes) is gnawed by the memory of a German soldier that he killed in close quarters. In hope of absolution, he travels to see the soldier’s family in their village, where he is accepted into their intimacy under false pretenses. The film abounds in the sort of narrative contrivances which are forbidden by the dictates of what presently passes for realism, but which allow for staggering emotional power. If there is a signature Lubitsch element, it is a certain sophistication in the film’s solemn conclusion, which suggests that the urge for confession is oftentimes a self-centered one, ennobling instead the gentle deception.

Lubitsch had arrived in Hollywood in 1923, the year of Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, also playing at AFA. It’s the only film that Chaplin directed in which he doesn’t appear at all. With it, Chaplin seems at times to be making a play for territory more typical of Lubitsch; it’s a film of gay parties and knowing twinkles in the eye, where the precision of gesture and crack timing that marked his comedies is very much in evidence. There is no question that Chaplin’s ambitions went well beyond tinkering with gags—he wrote the swirling orchestral scores that his movies dance in time to, and he took himself increasingly seriously as an emissary of world peace in later years, a self-image that smothered his talent to amuse. In this light, Chaplin’s last film as a director, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), set largely aboard an ocean liner, is oddly touching despite its waterlogged comic timing. Marlon Brando stars as an American aristocrat given to mouthing nostrums about saving the world who finally surrenders his sententiousness for a shot at happiness with stowaway White Russian aristocrat Sophia Loren. It’s Chaplin’s triumph over the burden of importance—and, like Woman of Paris, proof that the king of knockabout comedy secretly fetishized drawing room farce.

Charles Chaplin, A Woman of Paris, 1923, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 82 minutes.

Chaplin could make a risky departure like Woman of Paris—shunned by the public—because of the new freedom allowed by his formation of United Artists, the independent studio he founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith. Many of the works showing here are outliers in their director’s filmographies for such readily identifiable reasons. Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 The Saga of Anatahan, his final complete film, was made on practically a home-movie budget in Japan, where the director’s name still counted for something, though he’d been all-but-forgotten in Hollywood. Elsewhere we find works by filmmakers who, for one reason or another, were at a transitional moment before settling into routine. You and Me (1938) is an oddity in Fritz Lang’s filmography, but it would be strange in anyone’s—the movie features sprechgesang musical digressions penned by Kurt Weill, and a didactic climax in which Sylvia Sidney teaches a Seven Dwarves rogue’s gallery of mugshot character actors that crime literally does not pay. Only Lang’s third film made in America, it teeters on the pivot point between Berlin cabaret and Hollywood studio. Frank Capra’s 1933 The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a swimmily sensual Orientalist fantasy in which Barbara Stanwyck’s American missionary becomes the property of Nils Asther’s sexually imperious Chinese warlord. For some, watching it for the first time will be like discovering that Norman Rockwell dabbled in erotic watercolors. Predating Capra’s It Happened One Night watershed and his concentration on less corporeal love, it allows one to imagine a different direction for Capra and American movies promised by the Pre-Code world.

From Capra corn we go to Under Capricorn: Those who missed the lone showing of this historical melodrama set in 1831 Sydney at Film Forum’s “Complete Hitchcock” will have two more chances here. There’s not a single knifing or strangulation in the 1949 film—although it does contain an unusual amount of psychological cruelty, and one shrunken head. Like Rope, which was released the previous year, Under Capricorn is in Technicolor and uses a number of long, unbroken sequence shots, although here the style seems more naturally suited to the setting, traveling through the enfiladed doorways of oversize colonial homes, or along the veranda of convict turned businessman Joseph Cotten’s home with Cotten and Michael Wilding before craning up to catch the subject of their conversation, Ingrid Bergman’s dipsomaniacal lady of the house. (Also like Rope, the film was made for Transatlantic Pictures, Hitchcock’s own short-lived production company, which Hitch created with the intention of making more experimental films after he’d left the employ of David O. Selznick.) The house and tropical surroundings were soundstage-built in England, augmented by garish matte painting skies, which the great Powell and Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff complements with a palette of creamy pastels. (The other costume drama here is Peter Ibbetson [1935], a rather overwrought adaptation of a George du Maurier novel by Henry Hathaway, rightly better known for his noir and western works.)

As it transpires, Bergman’s character in Under Capricorn is being “gaslighted.” The term comes from the title of a 1944 thriller also starring Bergman, in which her husband attempts to convince her that she is going insane, with Charles Boyer as the most menacing spouse since Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s 1941 Suspicion. Gaslight was directed by George Cukor, the second adaption of a 1938 play called Gas Light by one Patrick Hamilton, whose other stage hit was something called Rope, which would eventually be filmed by you-know-who. At AFA, Cukor is represented by a 1949 whatsit called Edward, My Son, a film which represents fifty years in the life of Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr’s married couple, and which finds its director every bit as infatuated as Hitchcock with stringing together long, Rope-like tracking shots.

All of this says something about the trickiness of attributing anything in Hollywood, the way in which certain circulating ideas wend freely between films and filmographies. Are the films collected here one-offs in their directors’ oeuvres, or the quintessence of them? In encouraging such questions, “Auteurs Gone Wild” is the ideal program for a moment when many movie lovers have begun to dismantle auteurism in order to save it.

“Auteurs Gone Wild” runs through March 30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.