PRINT May 1970


Loving, Zabriskie Point, Topaz, The Damned, and Au Hasard Balthazar

Despite many good things (the first notable eyes since Per Oscarrson’s in Hunger in Segal’s sodden performance, Eva Marie Saint’s intelligent and tense mimicries emphasizing a hungry, tensed-for-disaster face, the dress shop scene which has a compassionate pessimism but stops before all the material is exploited), Loving at times looks disturbingly like the “two together” cigarette commercials. Actually, the movie is a fifty-fifty movie: it shows a sensitive touch for a man who is a complete mess, whose habits are wrong from the ground up, and, along with a sharply acted wife, creates this pain inside tepidly filmed scenes.

Most hemmed in, domestic, tidy, and not put down hard by parts of the New York press, Loving deals with survival on a middle class level rather than eroticism or affection. Compared with an ingenious scene in Topaz, a silent long shot with a brilliant actor, Roscoe Lee Browne, maneuvering in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa, or with the teen-age dance in a mirrored hall in Au Hasard Balthazar in which Bresson creates a powerful psychology having to do with youthful sadism, Loving has a staid, pedestrian image.

Yet the more sensitive critics go strong for this small-gauge movie about a rather talented craftsman who, despite his youth, is a confirmed malcontent taking hidden pleasure in messing up other lives. The reasons for its success must reach beyond its ingratiating gag-a-scene format to the fact that it has a perfect combination for American box office: a well-groomed Hollywood style and a joking pessimism. It shows Connecticut life as a sloppy, painful experience, without an exalted moment to justify or bring some relief to the formlessness of Brooks Wilson’s existence, a shambling modern malaise in which everything—wife, mistress, job, children—runs together into a distasteful routine which he can hardly focus, never mind resolve.

Loving is the foolproof blend: no technical breakouts and an anti-hero whose nihilism is beyond Camus’ Algerian clerk who, unlike Wilson, insists on a measure of dignity in his daily life. George Segal’s Wilson is the third example of Director Irvin Kershner’s invention, a husband of doomed ambition who expends tons of energy promoting himself, a muddle-brained slave who is always in passage around the city looking for stakes, projects, a killing. The crux of the boulder-pushing character is the relationship to success: he’s not exactly hungry for it but on a treadmill that doesn’t yield any—even momentary—satisfactions but gives the moviegoer a vision of an endlessly hurrying wage earner who never hits the same spot twice. Segal’s competent hack, who must be the most mindless, blurred character in film history, is performed almost entirely with an unfocused fatigue around the eyes and a hulking weight in his head and shoulders which lead to endless comedy, lurching toward the camera, stumbling forward in bars, construction sites, and the lavish Connecticut party that abortively ends the movie and solves nothing.

Absolutely, the key to the movie’s interest is the extent of Wilson’s soddenness and Segal’s slurring ability to swim in abasement. Not only is the face a puddle of guilt and woefulness, but the devastating portrait of a weak man depends on Segal’s stalling, on the fact that he can never eliminate, be decisive, or turn down a possibility, be it girl, job or joke. From Brother Rat profiteer to the only employed member in the Bye Bye Braverman band of Jewish writers, Segal’s instinct is to insert himself obliquely so that he’s neither Segal nor role but a supremely devious lurking presence: he has a great pantomiming instinct for the intentional fuck-up. Pre-arranging the psyche of his roles, Segal spends an entire movie on shifting: any wave of energy in his vicinity draws him in its wake. He scores heavily in unpromising exits and entrances, planting a heavy aura of mindlessness and destructive sociability. Comics since Arbuckle and Snub Pollard have been knocking accidentally into waiters and carefully arranged dinner tables: with his sliding, floating technique for soaking in shameful behavior, Segal gives the familiar situation a grotesque realism and the sense that these slapstick moments have real consequence in the hack illustrator’s life.

So most of Wilson’s day is spent in floating, scurrying, innocuous activity; and a good part of the time it’s not far from the truth of New York life. It’s curious how the imaginative texture of this conception is stuck to a stiff, unfulfilled script. There’s no real mystery, excitement, or curiosity in anything concerning the tragic Segal marriage with Eva Marie Saint. Every scene appears to be stretched out and aborted at the same moment—events are arranged out of forgettable dialogue and arty pieces of photography—so that the feeling is of a movie moving toward the beginnings of events.

The opening razzmatazz scene seems endless: all padding and a strangely cast, uncompelling mistress. The camera pans down and across the window of an inexplicably ritzy apartment, finally taking in Segal in a nothing pose, having a morning cigarette while his mistress, all industry, walks out in a huff. The movie’s squareness is indicated before the credits finish: the over-complete decor for a low-salary museum clerk, and all that photographic romance, spotting the pair through fences, traffic signs with varied camera angles to imprint a decidedly chic New York flavor.

Forget the time’ ambiguity (she’s going to a morning job and he’s rushing to Westport to arrive late at an evening performance of his small daughter’s school play about tin men and fairies), Kirshner’s movies, from the sensitive naturalism in The Luck of Ginger Coffey onwards, have been terribly unconscious of the formal and syntactical aspects of filmmaking. This very decent, observant, socially concerned director is pulled along by conventional scripts and when there is an attempt to spike a modest realism with the broad satire used in The Graduate, the director goes for gimmicks and types.

The script could be enumerated scene by scene by listing the gags. A kid from the school operetta—a little prig dressed in a tin suit—upbraids Segal in the boy’s room; the key thing is the self-righteous crack, “You can’t smoke here,” and he picks up the cigarette when Wilson leaves. A grouchy neighbor arrives at eight in the morning with a garbage pail smeared with Wilson’s name, coyly asks “Is this yours?” A tireless female buttonholer interrupts scenes at school, railroad station, and party, to flirt with Wilson.

And, finally, a whopper gimmick: an estate with a TV hookup to all its rooms, particularly a child’s playhouse where Wilson’s drunken infidelity is revealed to the whole community. Kershner’s movies, filled with earnestness and situation comedy gags, are kept in a status quo area: his dismal marriage—a job-obsessed husband and a decent wife trying to keep the household going-is hamstrung by the neat middle class instincts of a director who sees all problems of dignity and self-respect in American life as being tied to economic survival, earning a good buck.

The limitations in density and tragedy are always suggested by the way Kershner handles wives, thoroughly domestic creatures who are fearful that their homes are falling apart and, more important, that their fantasy-possessed men are drifting into private worlds. Through no fault of their own, they find themselves in a barren position. The real horror of the film is that while dealing with psychosis it is short-circuited by the cut-rate dialogue, the dabs of impressionistic material that are used as inserts to impress certain labels about a wife (hungry for attention, bitching about petty matters, absorbed with the children). Eva Marie Saint comes across as a telling face rather than as a whole figure understood, developed, brought to fruition by the movie’s material.

The fairly conventional betrayed-suffering wife is a Kershner staple and a limited view of a woman (strictly a husband’s slant), but something remarkable always happens in these movies: an intelligent actress turns a cliché role into high art, playing it for limitless bitterness. Saint is too well-groomed to top Mary Ure’s Mrs. Coffey, but there are scenes which have a morbid honesty, the first occasions on which she has tangled with lack of self-esteem. This is the first role in which she exploits timid awkwardness and the facial qualities of maturity. In fine scenes, like the one in a dress shop where she’s trying on party dresses for a couldn’t-care-less husband, the actress’s terribly moving candor is both better and deeper than anything written or directed.

Zabriskie Point. Slugged by critics, this continuous photographic lyricism shouldn’t have been treated as a realistic portrait of America. Among the things excoriated were a non-actress (Daria Halprin) with great legs, tan, and sleeveless suede-colored dress, a dustbowl section with a perfectly chosen location and imaginatively used kids, and a handsome lyrical view of America right through the fantastically photographed shots of 1970 culture floating and shooting into the air.

Topaz. Pretty good entertainment with a number of standout scenes involving either Roscoe Lee Browne or Michel (always good) Piccoli. It is an unusual, logical Hitchcock spy film in that it deals with so many faces, nationalities, global locations, and portrays the American-French espionage geniuses as devitalized, all the others as witty and passionate. There are a lot of details—a woman’s death glimpsed in a slow spiral—that belong in a defunct movie drawer called “Hitchcock touches,” but the movie stays alive.

The Damned. A fascinating film, complexly conceived and composed in chiaroscuro color, melodramatic space, extravagant held-on poses. In a movie that has the compelling power of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, all the good sections seem to be dominated by Helmut Berger’s silent-film acting and plastered down hair. Visconti’s remembrance of the Third Reich has ridiculous images: a trumped up marriage scene and a mother-son bed scene, but it also has a great birthday party with an unexplained scream and a very intense broad image study of a daringly acted depraved hysteric in a small furnished room. A rotten musical score by Maurice Jarre.

Au Hasard Balthazar. A rich catalog of mythology and symbolism about donkeys squeezed into a queer script that wanders and doubles back, detailing the varieties of evil and self-destruction that Bresson seems to be saying is Human Nature. Anne Wiazemski is exquisitely and movingly beautiful, both willfully perverse and strong in character (a standout scene: eating spoonfuls of honey while practically trading her body for a night under a miser’s roof). I think this is a superb movie for its original content, exhilarating editing and Bresson’s Puritanistic camera work, belt-high and wonderfully toned, that creates a deep, damp, weathered quality of centuries-old provincialism.

Manny Farber