PRINT December 1968


Weekend, Signs of Life, The Easy Life, The Nun, Les Biches, Secret Ceremony, Negatives, Tropics

“Manny, how are you holding up? How’s your Festivalitis? Oh well, Lola Montes will do it to the best of us. (‘What film did you like best?’) Definitely The Nun. I liked the whole projection of the period. But my favorite director is Jancso: he’s a great stylist. (‘Didn’t you like anything about that German film, Signs of Life?’) Good God no. When the Germans deal with minutiae, they leave me.”
––(film critic)

“What a corny coincidence that both the husband and wife manage to get laid in the same night. I just can’t stomach that kind of unbelievable coincidence in a film which pretends to be raw realism.”
––(Director of a film department)

"It’s just a shitty film. These North American sincerists call me up all the time. I caught your film: simply fantastic or terrific. But I know it was nothing but a shitty film, just shit. I didn’t delude myself for a minute. I didn’t like the French entries, the Bach thing was a bore, Mouchette was a piece of shit, the German film was rather nice in a crude sort of way. Couldn’t seem to get an image, could he?’’
––(Canadian film photographer)

People talk a lot about the star glamor, action, straight-ahead drive that the old Paramount film used to have, but one thing it didn’t have is even a fraction of the talk that goes on outside of theaters today. This drone, which starts the moment the Times informs you that Pretty Poison is a bangup job à la Hitchcock and doesn’t stop until sleep rubs out an important comment about Jacqueline Sassard (“She looks slim, but I’m sure that when she has her first kid her ass will spread.”), goes on everywhere, all the time, until life is one long, steep ramp leading upwards to a classy double bill at the Elgin Theater. This hum, which could occur driving down the West Side Highway, over a phone to a friend in Brooklyn, in a roadside college bar where Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin are soul shouters just barely audible over “Jean Vigo was a master at street scenes complicated with a lot of cross-currents,” is compulsive, decisive, scrofulous, flapping about, and completely engulfing once it gets under way.

One of the desperate facts about being part of movies today is that every thirtieth word might be “Truffaut-Moreau-Godard,” a depressing, chewed-over sound, and that a heavy segment of any day is consumed by an obsessive, nervous talking about film. This is often a joyless sound that couldn’t inspire anybody, but it suggests that modern moviegoers are trying to possess the film or at least give it form or momentousness which it doesn’t have.

Godard’s Weekend is the handsome, maddeningly long pilgrimage of a jaded, fascinating, wrinkle-faced woman (Mireille Dare), which gets more and more barbaric while the actress shows a sexy, haunting talent for withdrawing, going blank when she hasn’t anything to say. It is a soul-shouter movie which often devours the violence it wants through a spoiled rotten, rich man’s technique, a toy-like presentation of highway cannibalism, sexual expertise, capitalism at its hate-consumed dead end. Sometimes the web of words builds into a good, funny speech, and there is a growling display-room color, a vehement moving from one grotesque, humorous texture and setup to another.

There is a scene in a gas station after a sports car smashes up against a tractor, that has a dizzy, blunt, Mel Frank momentum. Odd, wonderful stray faces are flashed on screen, and the actress’s unconvincing rhetoric somehow becomes menacing and real as she prods herself, trying to charge herself up into more and more vituperation. It builds into a jelly-apple shrillness, with a last terrific shot of stray onlookers banded together in a we-are-the-French-nation camaraderie, soul brotherhood. Through her last words, “You crumby Jew bastards,” the idea gets implanted that these onlookers and the victim herself can only get together when they find a common enemy: a possibly Jewish couple in another sports car who won’t give the girl shouter a lift.

For its Cubistic pace and garishly cruel throwaway dialogue this scene in a gas station has a wild, daring, hit-and-miss excitement. The rich, girl, whose boyfriend is killed, screams at the farmer driving the tractor: “You filthy unwashed peasant, you killed the man I loved and ruined my car. He was handsome and he was rich and now he’s dead and you’re stupid and ugly and you don’t even care. You hate us because we screw in St. Moritz. You probably don’t even know how to screw. You just get screwed by the Union. You probably don’t even own the tractor. (She kicks the tires.) Cheap tires! My car was beautiful. It had a Chrysler motor. I got it because I screwed the son of General Motors.”

It’s a film which loves its own body odor. A husband and wife sit on the side of the road. She says, “I’m fed up,” climbs down into a ditch to take a nap. Husband lights a cigarette. Tramp comes along, asks for a light. Husband says: “Haven’t got one.” Tramp spots the wife in the ditch, says: “Hey, that’s a bird down there. Is that your bird?” Husband doesn’t answer, just looks bored. So the tramp climbs down into the ditch and rapes the wife. The treatment, with the motionless camera, far back and across the road, is offhanded, anti-formal, so slight and slack that the spectator feels, “Well, OK, what’s next?”

What’s next is a scene with two garbage collectors who give the couple a lift. The garbage men, a white and a black, lean against the truck, eating submarine sandwiches. The ravenously hungry husband asks for a bite, and the Negro gives him a small section, saying: “If this sandwich were the American budget, what I gave you represents the portion the U.S. gave to the Congo this year.” Movies like Weekend show the spectator how to run off at the mouth and keep a sense of self-importance at the same time.

In yet another scene there is this delighting in far-fetched spuriousness. Mireille Darc takes a bath, and, while the camera watches her washing her neck, her husband, not seen on screen, tells a story about a hippopotamus: “The hippo goes to the master of the animals. ‘Please let me live in the water.’ The master says ‘No, you’ll eat up all the fish.’ The hippo answers: ‘If you’ll let me live in the water, I promise that when I shit, I’ll spread it out with my tail and you’ll see that there are no fish bones in it.’” This story (most of it is Darc in the bathtub, plus cuts to previous material) has charm and piquancy, but in the recounting there is the uneasy feeling of a director moving unresisted material, that he knows backwards, from one end of a film to another without snarl or conflict.

Czech films, Underground film, Hollywood films. Now people who take films seriously study skin flicks, TV commercials, scopitone. In the days of Wrath or Raft, there were just Hollywood films, B or A, Arthur Rank, and a few art directors like Renoir. The sheer bulk of what is known as film, plus the equal cheers for so many different types of film, has loosened everyone’s bowels. Everyone’s in the cat-bird seat casting out rambling comments.

A smarmy, navel-rubbing movie like Zita shows this instant aging process with its pretentious and precocious facility by a crew of movie-world teeny hoppers. The film’s point is that the circle of life goes on in a delectable, heartfelt slow motion as this French Debbie Reynolds, whose beloved aunt is dying, finds earthly love at the same moment that her aunt passes into the hereafter. The main presumption is that skill permits any amount of goo to run into a film: a blue-ribbon ram on a tear through Paris streets, a little red toy auto taken as a memento, lovers coyly eating peach preserves out of a jar by the spoonful.

Among the visual gimmicks is an embarrassing bedroom scene, a wispy prancing pas de deux in slow motion as the two lovers undress. Imagine Bogart, in a haze of spring blossom color, pantomiming ecstasy as he drifts around the bedpost, tearing off his shirt, a flower opening to the sun. Or standing with such fey charm in the middle of a highway at dawn, playing a bass fiddle.

Signs of Life (three Nazi soldiers on a cushy detail, on an island near Crete, pass the time making fireworks, dozing, eating in the yard at a small card table) has been the subject of a typical noisy dismembering: “A modern Don Quixote, apathetic and inhibited, is at last stung into rebellion against society, and reveals the first senseless signs of his humanity only in insanity.” Very ephemeral in its charms, Signs has some of the casual goodhearted zaniness that Gassman injects into The Easy Life: playing up meandering activity over dialogue, getting all the times of day, the feeling of friendship in its inactive-silent aspects. The meals at the table are perfect: dramaless, engrossed in eating, an unemphasized graceful Greek wife who comes across as a war-bride who doesn’t know the language or the people she’s living with. The hub of this sly, dry, truly comic movie is a cranky-bitching soldier, a butcher of insects, so serious working away in the corner or on the beach trying to devise Rube Goldberg traps to devastate the “cookalockers.”

The Nun is a young girl in a Chardin pose doing needlepoint. A maid comes in with a message: “Your mother will see you.” The camera, an undistinguished onlooker, doesn’t move, and the perfume-y scene doesn’t develop until there is a cut to another stage-y setup with people in chalk-marked confrontations.

Les Biches, Secret Ceremony, and Negatives are psychologically oriented movies about fetishes in which the subtlety consists of playing perversion very close to normality, unlike Huston’s Golden Eye movie, which goes sour because of the “oh-look-at-that” attitude about soldiers riding bareass or playing with a Baby Ruth wrapper.

With a constant lacquered barrenness, from its stylized acting to its setting, St. Tropez in December, Les Biches is an exploitation-doesn’t-pay film. Two women meet in the middle of a bridge where the younger one, “Why,” earns a living doing chalk drawings of does on the sidewalk. Frederique (Stephane Audran), a droll and spicy sybarite, circles around Why, flamboyantly throws her a large sum of money, and, after moving indoors and putting one too many sugars in her coffee, seduces her. In this seduction scene, Jacqueline Sassard has just bathed and is standing around, a pretty girl with a strange neuter manner and the walk of a dull penguin, her head always down, constantly in need of a good nose blowing. The whole scene plays as though it were inside a mattress: Audran slowly rearranges Sassard’s shirt, and, in the corniest of hushed close-ups, the camera frames itself around her hands as they start to unzip the girl’s blue denims.

The movie depends on Audran’s willingness to lay it on in a pure baloney performance. One of her slow, succulent moments takes place in her stadium-sized kitchen where the frazzled cook is whipping up some veal and brussel sprouts, the favorite dish of two dull-acted pansies who live off Frederique. Looking as though someone rubbed berry dye on her face, using a slow cat-like walk, making one small name, Why, sound like three bars of an organ piece, she addresses the cook: “Vio-let-ta! Ça va? Ici Mademoiselle Wh-y-ee.”

Tropics, a fictional documentary about a Brazilian dust-bowl family on the road, is a lukewarm muddy river. There seems to be a film over the film: no blacks or whites, nothing emphasized, a limp-vague father moving through villages bereft of script and money, even the air and trucks evidently needing a Geritol pick-me-up. (“You know, I didn’t really mind it. I couldn’t bear the first half, but in the second half, I got interested in those crabs they were pulling out of the mud. I thought it gave a true projection of what it means to be poor. You know what I mean: standing out in the mud all day long, reaching down for those ugly things.”)

Hugo and Josefin is life as seen through the eyes of people in a Kodak camera ad. There is the sense of a hummingbird or apple orchard just around the next bend in this clean-fresh-buttery movie (“It could be called something like a pre-adolescent Elvira Madigan, impossible to resist.”) Their Breck-shiny hair, photographed through lichen, pine trees, and spotless windowpanes, has an equal importance with Hugo’s little tooled Tyrolean suspenders and Josefin’s beautifully pressed micro smocks (there is an obsessional effort to get the grey flannel pinafore above her tiny white drawers). It’s the epitome of a Blonde Is Beautiful and Best film, a proper bourgeois mentality and relentless wholesomeness that should further madden the already maddened Stokely Carmichael.

Manny Farber