PRINT April 1968


Clutter in The Graduate, China Is Near, The Fox, Psycho and Strangers On a Train

The movie scene: crawling with speciousness; one type of clutter examining, reporting, publicizing another. The dictionary defines clutter as a confused mass, untidy collection, crowd (a place) with a disorderly mass of things, litter. Just to go near the art theater district on 3rd Avenue is to be jostled by the definition, a cattle drive that includes the little pink plexiglass sign with $2.50 printed into it (if you’re lucky; sometimes it’s $3), and a character, tenacious as Epoxy resin, guarding the sanctuary with red velvet hose and an unswervable litany: “There will be no further seating for the present showing. Buy your tickets now, seating will begin at 7:50 for the 8 p.m. show.” A customer comes out of The Graduate saying, “Finally, I’ve seen it,” and you realize an hysteria has been built up by a thousand-headed ghoul named Advance Press.

This involves a jangle of affirmations and pronouncements by critics, raging controversies that follow and overlap one another (Bonnie-Titticutt-Jason-Graduate-Tell-Me-Lies-Fox), crazy lines—a critic’s quote or a line from a movie, (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends, Mrs. Robinson”) stamped on every subway rider’s brain, Sunday supplement interviews in sensation prose by Flatley Rex detailing Sunday morning with a Saturday night hero in the Royal Suite of the Plaza.

And this festering, knick-knacky swarm doesn’t stop when the lights go out. For example: China Is Near, a beehive film in which a dozen digit like, turned away people, mostly unlikable (they seem small even in the bed scenes) suggest a kind of ratty elegance within a humid, Marienbad structure of boredom, deeply dimensioned pieces of nothing, somber suavity. The plot, criss cross or mixed doubles, centers around an innocuity running (who knows why) for local office, has been likened to Stendahl and genius. Some of it’s fun, but most of the time you just sit there and watch.

Each of the characters (a ninny professor who happens to have two aunts who are nuns, a teen-aged brother who is a raging Maoist, a sister who is a beautiful fullback) represents a different segment of society. The professor, besides being a dead loss as an actor—immobile, cowardly, puddle-like—stands for the effete dregs of played out aristocracy (a superior actor in this role: the Jimmy Fox architect in The Servant). His sister travels this film with incredible selflove, as though the other actors were Little Leaguers: she gets her ennui, distemper from Jeanne Moreau in the Antonioni role of a woman who is Lost because men have disintegrated. Then there’s a Joe Lampton Room at the Top type (he suggests a sneaky buck private, faire savoir, after impregnating two of .the film’s disgusted women). He chills it through the film and moves in on the professor as a political advisor.

In one scene, showing talent for getting multiple angles on a locale, the Italian Fernandel backs into a village square where he’s to give his first man-of all parties (snobbish joke) speech. Chilled by the lack of turnout for his debut, scared to address even the three straggling locals, infuriated by a kid who bicycles off with his speech notes, beaten down by villagers who attack him for cuffing the kid around, the professor is squirted in and out of a nice shuttling action filled with familiar ideas about little people, losers, and small time politics. This is a readable scene, also an atypical one.

For the most part this prize film is comprised of hard to relate skits, composed in a puzzling staccato, creating an ambiguous feeling of high modern skill in Renaissance-style scene sculpting. Scenes of a bird-shooting range (mindless sadism of the rich), cherubic boys clustered around an old bed-ridden monsignor (ravishing charm of child muggers),girls and boys together in dark rooms (lack of proper lighting). The sex scenes, rather than ideal love or great passion, suggest pleasurable passing of time, second-rate opportunism. Underneath is the insinuating esthetic idea that texture, technique, subject, should be dedicated to how lousy, discordant, an average day is when it isn’t sharpened and cleaned by an orthodox script writer.

The Fox (bleak outlands, two forbiddingly lonely women trying hopelessly to make a go of a chicken farm, an extremely willful hunter-soldier wants the stronger of the two girls) is always in a middle area between decorum and sensationalism: a rough-stuff movie dished up in the most insipid, uniform, up-tight manner.

The movie has the piddling, top of a cookie tin look of a painting over a motel bed. Nothing unstaged ever enters the chicken farm. No woodchuck, no birds, but a great army of tensed-up technicians trying to charge up a scene with the sense of sexual obsession. So a fox—quivering nose, piercing stare, head jutted out—performs admirably. He moves up to a chicken coop just like a little train, well behaved in the manner of Brandon de Wilde acting Shane’s kid idolizer.

One of the problems is the landscape: a dry, coldless snow setting in which everything has the feel of pieces of glass, with no sense of Nature. Because of the lack of pliability in handling this snow scene, delay (not Dullea) becomes a major actor. The scene stays simple, calendar scenes of winter woodsiness, but it takes an infinity to look through those damn crystallized twigs at a gabled house sticking out of a woodland thicket.

Indoors, Lawrence’s earthy, work ridden story is transformed magically into a silent, ersatz psychodrama. In a quiet evening after pitching hay, chasing a cow, the movie gets hung up on a trolley wire, journeying between three faces lushed up with color. Sandy Dennis, doing her homework in the farm book, is quivering like a baby rabbit (“We would have come out even this month, if we hadn’t lost those chickens to The Fox.”). An empty weight is in the room as her loneliness sinks home and the movie trundles over to the solid, self-sufficient partner, Anne Heywood, an actress who has an up down fence post quality, reading in a chair. Aftera short long stop over her rigid and slack face, the movie crosses the room to Primeval Male, cleaning a rifle Step By Step. The movie is stolid, patient, but Dullea gets it to a plod by his mystical enunciation, penetrating features (he did the same stretching job in Holy Jim and Lisa, another psychotic drama).

The thing about The Fox is that it needs Clutter, i.e. distraction from its deadly adherence to a coarsened Lawrence theme (seething earth, the dark enveloping force of sex). The smart people in films—Ray, Godard, Warhol, Kuchar (now and then)—realize that the scene today is one of Clutter and the problem is finding the disarray technique to fit the discordancy.

The Museum of Modern Art, the Fort Knox of film footage, has recently had major retrospectives of the following closely related giants: Michel (salt of the French earth) Simon, the Charlie Chan conceptions of Sydney Toler, some third-rate Japanese pornographers, and middle European animated films. Relating these four entities would be a trial; but actually the juxtaposition makes sense if the museum is considered as a notions counter: bathing caps, steno pads, combs. Under Iris Barry’s tutelage, the Museum’s library had the feeling of a camphorized chamber; now the film department suggests the work of a Lon Chaney curator, a man of many faces, a Tinker’s tinker. Unbeknownst to the savants above the E and F trains, the museum has osmotically picked up the idea that film is clutter as much as a multi driven vehicle that can be simplified to the point where it can suggest any philosophical content, stylistic acumen.

The element of debris, disconnection, has been in most finished films, but it’s obliterated by Mr. Clean critics who need antiseptic design the way some people need catsup. Tons of criticism have been written about Hitchcock: the Catholicism, talent for directing viewers, cosmic homicides—a Lewtonish conception in which environment, a shower curtain or telephone booth, is inclement and capable of unleashing the most violent destruction on a mild clerk or schoolmistress. More tons have been offered about his over rated knowledge of cheap thrillers, his synthesizing of diverse events into a path like visual event, compacting a whole Gulliver’s adventure into a silent linear pattern that takes five minutes.

It beggars such uneven films to keep pressing in on them with more and more analyses, favoring the film as a one-man operation, pure genius. As late Hitchcock passes into history, his bashful cleverness (“I used the high angle, I didn’t want to cut, I insisted that the audience . . .”) becomes less apparent than the feeling of pulpishness, a mostly unbelievable woman’s mag thriller. Spotted throughout are those much celebrated stretches, frittery and arty, where the director’s hand is obvious: the berserk carrousel, the feet going this way and that into a Pullman encounter, the bloodthirsty crows on a jungle gym (OK, send the next bird out).

To either put Hitchcock up or down isn’t the point; the point is sticking to the material as it is, rather than drooling over behind-the-camera feats of engineering. Psycho and Strangers On a Train, respected films in the Hitchcock library, are examples of good and bad clutter, though the first third of Psycho is as bare, stringent, measly, minimal as a Jack Benny half hour on old TV.

Seeing the latter film today is disturbing for the amount of suppositional material. Why is taxidermy necessarily a ghoulish hobby? Are stuffed birds in a motel’s back parlor dead giveaways of an aberrant mind? First, a passing motorist, then a wily detective, takes one glance at seven stuffed heads and becomes either queasy or intrigued by the psychological significance. (“What kind of a warped personality is this?”) The great supposition is that the haunted house, California Gothic, is going to scare people. Having picked such a Casper the Ghost turreted antique, a cliché before Charles Addams stamped it to death, his choice isn’t justified by anything more daring, unexpected, against the grain than Abbott-Costello rudimentary Eeeeek. Forget the fake-y mother-mummy down in the wine cellar, a rocking with one hand on each knee, a stock old lady wig on a stock skull (the viewer is supposed to faint), the most contrived scene is the head-floating-backwards of a stabbed detective falling downstairs. Hitchcock and his devoted auteurists have sewed and sold this time-expanded scene a dozen times.

Taking this “classic” apart, scene by scene, is pointless because the horror elements have dried up (with the exception of the shower scene) like mummy’s skull in the cellar. The most striking material is the humdrum day in the life of a real estate receptionist: Godard-like, anonymous rooms, bare, uncomfortable. Except for the World War II armor plated brassiere, the opening of a girl having only her lunch hour to be in bed with her hardware swain, is raunchy, elegant. The scenes later are even better: packing the bags (there’s something wonderful about the drabness), and the folks from her office, off to lunch, passing in front of the embezzler’s car: the little smile and wave, and then, nearly out of the camera’s range, the double take.

The point is: why deal with these films nostalgically as solid products of genius? Strangers is medium-superior to Psycho, right through the murder in a pair of fallen spectacles: a ravishing wooden island with a pavilion, a balmy dusk air that can actually be felt. If “pretty” in a good sense can be used about film, it’s usable here. There’s nothing handsomer than the calm, geographic scything through Time, from the moment of the feet going through a railroad station to Robert Walker’s head back-foot-out promise of sex in an open-air carnival, the unbeatable elegance with which he rings the bell in a hammer-and-ball concession.

Nothing, even the pristine engineering of the bashful, uncomplaining Master, is sustained here (how many movies since Musketeers Of Pig Alley have been sustained?). Walker’s contaminated elegance, which suggests Nero Wolfe’s classy, intricate hedonism, with omelettes in a 23rd Street brownstone, dissolves into bad, semi bad brocade. Alongside a pretty block of husband wife bickering in a record shop, its unusual use of glass partitions, sexual confidence and bitchiness in a girl with glasses, there are literally acres of scenes in elegant homes and tennis stadiums which could be used to stuff pillows if there were that many pillows in the world.

One of the best studio actresses (Laura Elliott: a sullen-sexy small town flirt with ordinary, non-studio glamour) gives a few early sections extraordinary reality, eating up the sexual tension created by a posh character who tails her around an amusement park, while she juggles two local louts. Then, like a homing pigeon, the movie goes back to the old Hollywood bakery, dragging out those supposedly indispensable ghastly items: Senator rye bread, daughter egg twist, and little Babka. Hitchcock has always been a switchhitter, doubling a good actor with a bad one, usually having the latter triumph. It takes real perversity murdering off Elliott and settling for Ruth Roman, a rock lady in Grecian drapery, plus Pat Hitchcock, who, aside from her clamped-on permanent wave, carries an open-mouthed bovine expression from one dull block-like scene to another.

Manny Farber