PRINT February 1970


The Ten Best: Black Girl, Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, ←→, Ghronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, Le Gai Savoir, _The Wild Bunch

THE TEN BEST: 1) Black Girl 2) Ma Nuit Chez Maud 3) Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son 4) ←→ 5) Ghronik der Anna Magdalena Bach 6) Le Gal Savoir 7) a tie among three Hollywood eccentricities, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, The Rain People 8) High School and La Raison Avant La Passion 9) Coming Apart 10) They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and La Femme Infidèle.

One. Black Girl could have been sentimental pro-African anti-white (a very quiet, particular, personal story: an obstinate, naive Sengalese, taken to France as a mother’s helper, finds that she has no freedom of movement when she gets there. Thrilled to begin with, anticipating high life and parties, she is made into a full-time maid, baby-watcher, chef, and, quite soon, a bathtub suicide), but instead Sembene’s perfect short story is unlike anything in the film library: translucent and no tricks, amazingly pure, but spiritualized by a black man’s grimness in which there is not an ounce of grudge or finger-pointing. The whole movie, echoing flawless acting of an inarticulate who hasn’t broken out of an adolescent self-absorption, holds an even, equilibrated, spiritual tone. Within a spiritualized braille art, Sembene catches perfectly the terrible thing about irreconcilable disjointedness: an illiterate village girl employed by an educated, advantage-seeking French couple; servant-boss; lonely-secure; ritual as against lack of ceremony, the materialistic domesticity of a family circle as opposed to the adventure-seeking of a romantic in a foreign place. With marble cool visuals and one marble cool actress, the spirit of loggerheads is caught in the most minimal conditions. The most charming image: a very long-legged girl teetering around the kitchen on foot-long high heels and a dust rag in her hands.

Two. Ma Nuit Chez Maud is civilized work, beautifully spaced out and observed. Very straight, not pretentious in any way. Rohmer has conceived a potential love affair that doesn’t take, by way of a 24-hour verbal sparring match that is magically phrased by Trintignant and Francois Fabian. A very atmospheric movie—dry, cold snow, both outside, in the forest-y suburb and inside, in the minds of two people who can’t be totally happy. It’s unusual to center a film inside an encounter of hesitance, either-or moments; his resolve wavers, then he catches himself, the girl goes through a lot of changes from understanding, then sympathy, to miffed and final resignation. Trintignant’s drying out technique for suggesting vulnerability is that of a lean-exquisite miniaturist in a very private, intelligent ground-covering act. Within Fabian’s taunting, flamboyant role is the pathos of a confused intelligence at loose ends. She’s very exciting.

Three. Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son is a shockingly different reconstruction film in which Jacobs, a combined historian-painter-camera nut, too endlessly reshuffles the parts of a rustic 1905 film about two boys and a piglet being chased around one-sided barns and cottages. The major part of an hour-long film is of not-totally abstract shapes in which there is enough of the specific pig-beret-fold to make for the movie’s trademark spiritual richness. Jacobs’ image of the wide black-white crumpled stripes in a boy’s pants or the goose-like neckline and upswept hair of a Char-din maid not only ravishes the eye but moves the spirit, much like a Seurat conté sketch on rough, pebbled paper. All of his pioneer moves—matting out whole areas, blurring, using the closest close-up on an elbow crease—are for going beyond illusionism, illustration, into a spirit world: what should be pure picturesque because of the quaint-corny material is really a turbulent experience of an analytic sensibility. By jamming the spectator right against the substance (a little boy rolls around with a pig in his arms, then rolls into the fireplace and is sucked up the chimney) and looking for the essential-irreducible elements of film, he is in the forbidding Serra-Snow area where the concepts of all his contemporaries are challenged.

Four. ←→, which caused fists to fly and eyes to roll when last shown at MoMA, is a frantically-paced, eccentric, hard-to-take pendulum movie in which Mike Snow’s high-tensile mind is perhaps too poised over the film idea of a charmless classroom projected as sculpted rather than pictured time. The camera, on a special gig that restricts its movements right and left, swings like a guillotine, a hard wooden clap registers on the ear like a butcher’s mallet, as Snow, in his most unsensuous movie so far, concertedly tries for a spiritual realism inside a minimal image. The beauty is in the hardness.

From beginning to end of a resolute three-part musical form of perpetual motion, Snow has mobilized a mirthless, lonely subject, a classroom wall, into an expressive weapon that is made up of all-but-unstomachable ingredients in their purest form: jar, jerk, frenetic motion over space. As the back-forth image speeds up to a hair-raising, psychotic clip, light appears to filter off the sides of a horizontal cube of greenish whiteness. All literary connections in a film image have been junked and a forbidding subject—sculpted in-motion space—has been made the jump-off point of a film design that doesn’t rely on any behavior-sensory patterns of the spectator. The one conventional point in the film, a greenish board choked with chalked information about the film stock, actors, the setting in Fairleigh Dickinson College, comes between the back-forth, up-down section and a hypnotic lyrical coda: this fulcrum-like effect re-emphasizes quite logically the physical conditions of a film that swings right-left, left-right from a fixed spot.

When Snow is at his best, he seems to know first-hand the historical grain of a loft room or renovated artist’s studio. In this hectic, neck-taxing film, he’s very aloof: except for a cop who drives up and cases the unreal activity inside the room, the people are out of place, and there is no curiosity about the fixtures or construction that give this pre-fab room its sterile mechanistic flavor. The asymmetrical design is much harder to take than Wavelength, from the long-short relationship of an unendurable opening and the much shorter mash of repeated shots in the coda to the misery-provoking effect of a camera that is pouring over a space that seems lopsided because the camera is much closer to one wall than to the other.

Five. Straub’s Chronikder Anna Magdalena Bach is full of reflective, icy beauty, which demonstrates that designing a Bach movie and J. S. Bach’s own job-clogged career were equals in hard work. Nothing is made up, no embroidering of the facts (a la Lola Montes). What the film is about—a wife’s life of subservience, discipline, restraint, and a composer engulfed by work, maddened by humiliating jobs, incessantly involved in conning more money out of his patrons—is poured through a minimalist movie apparatus, producing a timeless, classical, boring work in which every shot comes across with super clarity and poignance. There’s no pretense at naturalism and the hollow images of wigged actors who don’t act playing harpsichords and choir singing, suggest a touched-up super-real grisaille, like Ingres’ black-white Grande Odalisque. It looks very staged, the fixed camera angle never pans or zooms, and the basic material—the Bach music used throughout in solid chunks, alternating with silence or the wife’s intense-mellow voice reading passages from her diary—creates the silvery resonance of a Vermeer coming to lifer but not too much: no one ever runs, breathes hard, or laughs.

Six. Le Gai Savoir has the same mix, fanatic estheticism, and outrage at the Establishment of an anti-form piece at Leo Castelli’s warehouse. A fresh-faced girl and boy spend the post-midnight hours on a TV stage reviewing the state of world affairs, in a potpourri of advertisements, Tom and Jerry, Magic Marker scribbles and glaring newsreels of street crowds that come on like lantern slides and flicker off quickly. The raucous, exhilarating track hasn’t a soporific note in it. The Berto-Léaud actors are curt, impatient cartoon characters, more extremely cartoons than the Parisian red guardists in La Chinoise. Coutard’s face-slapping photography is robust and throws itself completely into every moment. Every Godard has a new form; this one, with its burning light, gem color, and scarring discordancies, image-sound-titles-handwriting sometimes all at one time, is the meanest and least lulling, a not-too-pure, sprawling attempt to stay politically committed while trying, impossibly, to keep up with the minimal Straub-Warhol-Snow film which is racing out of sight.

Seven. My reservations on The Wild Bunch are almost balanced by the passion for the period (1916 near El Paso). Lucien Ballard’s Winslow Homer-like compositions, and the two warring personalities of Peckinpah’s movie art: a scholarly care with details and a braggart Machismo complex. The trouble is that his writing is sometimes pulp (how did one Tommy Sands muchacho from a little village become a badly-acted explosives ace?), sometimes romantic (a jammed fortress of soldiers and camp followers all gunned down by four bank robbers who become Bunyan-esque heroes at the end), and often keeps the movie 1945 in sentiment. It’s often a lovely movie: a shot of baby-faced soldiers slouched around in a coach car or the slow motion of bounty hunters, like little logs, going down the river.

The whole movie is out of shape; what is good comes from a tender nostalgic, patient detailing of the period, always counteracted by the silly, schoolboy Peckinpah philosophy and what it leads to: raucous fellowship is more important than anything, the worst cheat-thief-mercenary is OK as long as he’s true to his mate.

Easy Rider is naive in suggesting that Captain America and Billy could survive one day, not because of redneck Texans or the silent majority, but from being menaced off the road by real Hell’s Angels. The film doesn’t work until these two clichés wake up in jail and meet Jack Nicholson, a Villon in rumpled seersucker. What had been a simplistic, sentimental lament for drugs, dropping out, the road, becomes specific, rhythmic, and abrupt. Comradely scenes between the three are so well set up that when each one is torn out by death the effect is shocking. Hopper, especially, is good, more contemporary than Wild Bunch acting, aware that he’s in a movie, and, through an underhand private technique, keeping the movie alive with weakish bluster.

Manny Farber