PRINT November 1969


Duet for Cannibals, Adalen ’31, and Bob and Carol

Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals looks and feels like skimmed milk. An airless, room-locked, unusually adroit drawing-room comedy. A young man with the style and dress of an avant-garde painter is employed to catalog the life work of a political refugee. There is nothing convincing about his task, his employer’s career or the reason he and his girl are swallowed up by the powerful personalities of the two urbane, pompous vampires in an ultra-bourgeois house. The combination of a gutless spirit and sado-masochistic games (I kill you, you kill me and then we all get up and walk out the door) kills the film midway, when a suicide, with unbearable playfulness, hides herself and her lover behind a windshield that she covers with shaving soap. What is amazing is how little juice there is in the inventions and characters, yet this grey coagulation keeps going forward in a half-entertaining way.

Sifting through a Festival experience, a madness, 100 hours sitting in a dark chamber, brings back a half dozen vulgar, terrific, enervated images that are anything from piercingly poetic to whorish. Norman Rockwell’s vignettes of adolescent rural life, full of obsessively researched and accentuated-beyond-realism detail (buttons a little larger than life, suspenders filled with folksy charm), were never more fastidious than the nostalgic re-do of the early 1930s in Adalen ’31. It is the craziest picture of people out of work and on strike: an intensely lyrical evocation of slender boys in caps and trousers, flowering meadows, delicately patterned wallpaper and summer heat. Two big scenes in Bob and Carol, played on a slow-curving Spanish stairway, have squirts of hard modern patois (“Why didn’t you call me first?” “I couldn’t call and ask you, ‘Bob, can I have an affair?’ ”) calculatingly poised together, while a vulgar camera reveals old hard-core Hollywood physiques in long forgotten Edith Head costumes.

Manny Farber