PRINT November 1967


Le Départ, Made in U.S.A., Bariera, Mickey One, Puss & Kram, Darling

If any symbolical figure appeared at the film festival in New York, it was the emergence of the Flat Man, a central character structured like a vapor, a two dimensional hat salesman, telephone operator, or decrepit dirt farmer who doesn’t appear to come from any relevant Past, and after aimless reels of time, there is no feeling that any Future is in sight.

The only one who could be remembered with any clarity, with any sense of physical impact coming from the screen, was a sportscar fanatic, a late adolescent (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who gives shampoos and delivers wigs throughout Le Départ. With his crimped manner, a darkly impassioned face and intensely clear definition of some vigorous act that makes him suggest a pair of scissors gone angrily out of control, Léaud is somewhat less frenetic than he was in last season’s Masculin Feminin, where his innocence was more apparent than the exhibitionism that is all that’s present in Léaud’s other festival appearance, a sort of shadowy sidekick whose main occupation is entering and exiting in Made in U.S.A.

Jerzy Skolimowski’s Bariera is a gentle infant-asy of monumental contrivance, such as a scene in which students tumble onto their faces from a kneeling position on a table, having had their hands tied in a competition, the object being to mouth a matchbox which is held just tantalizingly out of reach by the outstretched hand of an anatomy-class plaster model.

On the order of Mickey One, this film is a Surrealistic maze about a man named He astir in the new Poland. He, picked arbitrarily from the four students who are involved in the quest for the matchbox in the opening tableau semi-vivant, is almost too boring to describe. Sort of handsome in the Ricardo Montalban dark, muscular style, with Vittorio Gassman’s down-pointing nose and chin, his indecipherable career is aborted by a series of Bauhaus compositions that shunt him into corners and tie him into square knots—at one point a gauze-draped house chases him into a bathtub.

There are street scenes on top of street scenes, like a club sandwich of masonry, in which crowds stream while street lights march backwards across the screen in perfect alignment into space. Later on in this semi, sham-Odyssey, we enter a dead-white ballroom (the “dead” here is used advisedly) in which youthful He and She come face to face with “capitalist opportunism,” a featured star in this festival. Skolimowski’s idea of capitalist wreckage: no one on the dance floor, waiters seated like last year’s autumn leaves at tables, the one other important detail being a few palm trees, suggesting the old Poland, or the old Coconut Grove in Hollywood in the era when a ballroom scene meant literally twenty minutes of uninterrupted laughter with Harold Lloyd wearing a magician’s jacket and its zoo of hidden animals.

In most of the festival films, particularly the limp, pale grey menage of Puss & Kram, where the theme is a smooth, muscleless gliding in and out of love, a definite disassembling of people and events takes place. Eva (Agneta Ekmanner), as a free-swinging sex cat, takes on lovers in a quick, deadpan, indiscriminate way that makes Julie Christie, the dip-lipped Diana of Darling, seem erotically stodgy. The peculiarity of Eva’s most uneccentric body and her democratic style is that she is amazingly mellifluous, almost unobservable, and her languid nothings seem to take place in an amphitheater of dead space and dead time.

At the center of this new European entertainment—no pace, a desert-like evenness—is a threadbare, condescending treatment of the individuals: the character who is no deeper, no more developed, prepared, explained than the people in fashion advertisements. In the limpidness, the anemic charm of Puss & Kram, the haberdasher Max and his statuesque wife appear transplanted from Elle Magazine. Repeatedly, the classic Richard Avedon fashion shot appears (the kind of image that also opens and closes Le Départ). It shows a large photograph of the antelope-like wife, in bellbottom pajamas, legs akimbo, seated in white space. This blow-up appears above the movie’s central bric-a-brac, a bed, and it consumes an enormous amount of silly footage.

First you look at this dark silhouette of the wife framed with a finely etched contour, then the movie image slides with cliché chic down the wall, onto the two cute heads barely perceptible beneath the sheets. Again, it’s more white and more deadpan sophistication of a type that seems to go back to Cary Grant-Carole Lombard Topper humor: sunshine-y, well-heeled, contrived.

Too often, the movie character has been stripped of many of his functions: not so much the victim of a totalitarianism (the smile-less boys boarding school in Young Toerless) or a paternalistic Japan (Toshiro Mifune fighting the clan in Rebellion) as a puppet in the hands of his director. The actor, the incredibly passive Toerless, a young Audrey Hepburn in military uniform simply by standing in esthetic fashion, has been sacrificed to the self interests of the director, while the modishly leaden scene moves around him.

For instance, the Puss & Kram scene is supposed to be carried by an interesting looking actor, Hakan Serner, a bowlegged star with a Papov-like face, whose Pinter-esque mission is to de-fleece his schoolday pal of house and hold. His puckish mimicry becomes pointless—trying to sustain slight sophistications whose purposes in the new movie syndrome are to belittle him and keep his world trivial. The wife’s need for sunglasses before she can breakfast in bed sends him to retrieve the errant glasses: nothing must weigh down or slow up the general buoyancy of the situation. The trouble with this movie program is that, in the effort to keep out any complication that might gum up the works (the message about a decadent laissez-faire world) the Serner character is forced into moves that are insipid.

One of the elements scalping the New Actor is a simple-minded contrariness to the old story-telling film. An amazing complacency allows any arbitrariness as long as it reverses-mocks traditional expectations.

There was a steady rain into the festival of names, erudition, calculated to score instantly with the In segment of the audience. This eclecticism—someone gets murdered on Preminger Street, a character runs off in mocking ecstasy to catch a showing of Hatari, over the loudspeaker in a swimming pool comes a deadpan “Will Ruby Gentry please come to steam bath 67?”, two girls cavort with the giggling innocence of the Gish Sisters in a scene that has the wintry desolation and spareness of a Dovschenko—is too blatant to be bothersome. What is unsatisfying is that this snickering appeal to the sycophantic spectator takes over the forefront of the movie which the actor used to have.

Actually there were peaks at the festival where the actors were given opportunity to Go. One of the great scenes in Battle of Algiers is the besieging of an FLN hideout, a frantic scrambling in a wet clammy Arab house. It’s a perfect scene of shock and terror worked out with a multiplicity of detail, a palpable tremor working through the inner court of a four-story building. But the real hammer in Algiers is its vengeful, ferocious women, who seem to go on their own: three Arabs, dressed as Europeans, planting bombs in a crowded cafe and dance-hall, a fifteen-year-old bride whose incredibly thin-limbed body projects a flower’s delicacy blended with suicidal courage.

Le Départ, a conventional New Wave film, balances a cheeky, flake-type actor against the French notion that outdoor telephone booths or tunnels are—bang!—nerve-centers of the modern psyche. Léaud’s acting trademark is a passionate decision that peaks his frenzied exasperation, quizzical compulsiveness. His taunted, berserk, exhausted moods are not unlike Julie Harris’s Frankie Adams in Member of the Wedding, the same sense that everything around them is insipid, banal, and what they need, crave, is a release to some glamorous scene. With Léaud, the release never comes; he’s a sort of Lilliputian given a streak of go-go energy trying to keep from sinking in the middle class sloth, a near paranoiac who’s dead if he ever slows down.

There is a surrender being played out in many European films, a decision to forego any apparatus of pleasure (any groping in the acting that will make the role transitory and human) in order to show the deficiencies of modern man.

In Made in U.S.A., there is a joke amongst the actors that each is to act below his normal talents. Thus the image is truly contrary: in a scene of total artifice, surfaces covered with an enamel version of nighttime Times Square color, the actors are pinned down in curious angularities and stiffnesses. Unusually small-sized even for French actors, all looking as though they were dressed by Ohrbach’s (the Junior Dept.), the general impression is of the Ken and Barbie dolls, a cardboard lower echelon Madison Avenue group maneuvered into cramped settings and held there.

A typical image presents a man named David Goodis, seated at a tiny table squashed between bed and window. His uncle lies bruised on the bed, spot of red paint on each cheek. Meanwhile the woman he loves sits in a bathtub, scrunched up, shell-shocked, singing plaintive Rock and Roll on the guitar. Choked with people and no movement at all, the scene is so disconnected that every word, person, decoration presents itself as a solitary unit. The overall effect is a pastiche of fakery, a day in the life of a hotel room, Atlantic City.

Midway in Far From Vietnam, this same contrariness and condescension is repeated: a long dull dissertation by a French actor reviewing Herman Kahn’s book On Escalation. Explaining the war to his wife, he is a man drowning in a no-technique film. The only relief he gets in this static situation is an occasional glimpse of his wife, her eyes glued to him, dripping melancholy, plus a heavy sense of art objects in his vicinity. This cultural surface—pontification, name-dropping, the appurtenances of High Art—is one of the chief dilemmas that is vaporizing the movie actor. The actor in effect is being flattened by erudition.

This is probably the hidden message of the festival: the notion that a surface rich in suggestions of high culture is becoming more the character in movies than life itself, whether the life comes through characterization or a vital use of the medium. It is as though the movies were acquiring the character of the place itself: Philharmonic Hall, with its overwhelming sense of worthy endeavor, posh program notes, a cheerful clubroom atmosphere for critics, plus a special aroma of Money Being Spent.

Manny Farber