PRINT November 1972


The Venice Film Festival

THE GREAT OCTOPUS, THE Venice Film Festival, whose tentacles pull in every film except the Baillie-Lehr-Snow structuralism, which is just too radical, takes place in a building as bland and depressingly familiar as Volker Schlondorff’s Strohfeuer. Neither the film palace nor the film (a young woman’s bid for freedom from her marital grind, but Schlondorff doesn’t give her a fighting chance) has a hint of Venice’s eccentric grandeur. There’s nothing Italian about the brand new two-story mausoleum which has to be perked up with massive freestanding bouquets of gladiolas (visiting sex bombs like Gina Lowbridge are posed in front of these bouquets) and Don Jose cops with swords that start under the armpits and reach the ankles. That’s metal-clanking nonsense the only crime in the city is committed inside on multiple screens in works like Samy Pavel’s narcissistic drivel Les deux saisons de la vie, and Carmelo Bené’s intensely vulgar free form adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play Salomé, clearly the two dogs of the festival; the two directors also starred without reservations in their films as versions of Jesus Christ. One of the bewildering charms of any festival is that some revered critics, Dilys Powell for Les deux saisons and John Francis Lane for the Berle color spin with flashing nude behinds, will champion the flagrant pretenses; immediately someone else comes up with “What an abomination, don’t you agree?” A person keeps running into the same two types: a bus-crash of commuters going all of eight blocks, every other one Alain Delon or Catherine Deneuve, a teenager’s slender body in skinlike garments that are spotless, wrinkleless, perfect. The second most common face at Venice is a hard working maestro who runs a similar festival in Trieste-Sydney-Chicago, spends every year on an unenviable festival grind, partaking of “hospitality”: plane fare, plus bed and breakfast at a stripped down Edwardian spa.

Like the Whitney Annual and its arbitrariness, the festival is a pointless hodgepodge, mostly box office films; a stalled adolescent film, in which a supercilious ambulance assistant roams around the city, moving between his separate lives as dutiful son and secret father (Mein lieber Robinson: pleasant, lackadaisical, and low key); a recall movie in which a massively sensitive lover goes into his past to piece together his identity (Sindbad); or a tourist sensibility film that combines postcard camera expertise with bicycles and the first day in an exotic turreted city (Klara Lust). A lot of sincerity seeking and professionalism goes into a single person’s private experience of the world, but just a murmur comes out.

It’s a drag to write about mediocre movies. Sindbad (Zoltan Huszarik), the penultimate of lush turn-of-the-century reminiscing, suggests fat rich soups. The Ragman’s Daughter (written by Alan Silitoe, directed by Harold Becker) is an established way to make a film less flexible and fresh than its Billy Liar-Saturday Night progenitors. It’s the Nottingham ash can school, castrated by a stupid, incongruous Truffaut love affair, daring pranks, and unbelievable law breaking for kicks. Nothing rings true about the smalltime Bonnie and Clyde pair, especially the white horse and long blonde hair on a stilted actress, Victoria Trennant. But the hero grownup and his wife are acted well with grit and the movie itself is closely knit and holds the eyes. The Harder They Come (Perry HenzeII) is the first line of a hit tune sung by an ambitious Jamaican from the country (the very agile Jimmy Cliff), a classic rise and fall from choir boy to pop singer-pusher-killer-public-idol-bullet-riddled corpse. The movie has snappy pace and a thousand disparate views of Jimmy Cliff’s antelopelike, long-limbed swagger as he makes his zap zap way through the underworld, always sinned against in a funny newsreel shot in which the camera illogically goes anywhere to get a smashing focus on the hero. Cinderella as a jive killer, everyone a corrupt citizen fleecing his neighbor, and the main corruption being a cute camera. It’s fun to watch, which Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah isn’t. Deadly arabesques.

Searching for scraps of surprising art in the white warehouse, a critic can feel as unnecessary, shunted to the side, as the small, hunched Venice cat with his absorbed, haunted gazing, a remnant looking for a remnant pizza crust. The hodgepodge here is about one third of the film spray shown in the modern, blocky building which houses five or six theaters, featurelessly impersonal despite the human Sala Dreyer, Sala Volpi titles. An antifestival, supposedly the operation of more advanced, leftist Bellochio-Bertolluci directors runs concurrently several canals away in two unrepaired 18th-century cockpits. Lit by two yellow bulbs, the interior shaped like a dilapidated three-tier wedding cake, filled with cigarette smoke and fierce, irreverent customers armed with coke-cigarettes-comments, the Moderno and Margaritta twins are next door to Manhattan’s Thalia for mad singularity and setting up obstacles between the spectator and screen. How incongruous are the sleek cult films, La Cagna and La notte dei fiore, with glamour stars in full St. Laurent couture, in these abandoned, pockmarked remnants of austere regality.

It is hard to convey the layered experience which is the Venice Festival: a German film about a tempestuous Goya, played by an actor in bronze pancake, dubbed with Italian voices, possessing French subtitles, engineered in the polished rococo kitsch of a Tijuana iron-leather shop; a press conference moderated by an expatriated, slightly worn Henry James type, awkwardly translated into three languages by the Swiss director of a paralyzed Dracula film, the main speaker being a Munich enfant terrible whose mock boredom permits only a snide yes or no to long questions, or an occasional “Why are the Venice press conferences so boring? I have beautiful conferences other places.”

Feeling humiliated, like Bresson’s enduring donkey harnessed to a fruit cart, a henpecked boob beats up his wife in a bedroom tableau which stays on screen without camera change until the remorseless ending, the husband rolling over in a drunken stupor. The agonized, frustrated drunk beating up his selfish, penny-pinching wife is the oldest scene in movies, going back to Greed, but this fully lit futile explosion in a 1971 Munich movie is a remarkable blend of charm and ferocity. Aimed against prissy, middle-class taste, the purple overstatements of Written on the Wind and Splendor in the Grass, the camera work (straight recording), lighting (shadowless, very bright), and sound (the film has no musical score) stay cool on a melodramatic scene: a grunting husband beating up the screaming, flailing wife while their golden haired tot tries to separate them. In movies of marital angst, the camera inevitably milks facial reactions; here the removed camera stays quiet and what’s recorded are three figures intermeshed around a narrow bed, their awkwardness, and the out-of-control momentum. Anyone should look clumsy being beaten and this movie doesn’t welch on dreary but touching gracelessness: the wife’s legs thrashing in the air with a brazen vulnerable exposure of her crotch in spotlessly clean cotton underpants. (The whole film, with scenes juxtaposing hygienic neatness with raw physicality, expresses a droll, whiplashing temperament.)

After five days at the Venice Film Festival, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Der Handler der Vierjahreszeiten is the single antidote to thoughts of suicide in the Grand Canal. It’s a supersimple fable about bourgeois defeat, the awkward despair of a chunky fruit peddler, for whom events move too quickly to grasp, told in panellike tableaux of similar length. Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller, one of the festival’s most pungent actors) is seen as a victim in a modern Matisse image of four orchard-fresh colors. He is Sturges’ bumbling, well-meaning conquering hero at the mercy of others’ machinations (these standing for the middleclass status quo), given no relief from miserable frustration in an intense shadowless image that’s miles more personal than Sturges’. Where the 1940s’ Sturges is sexless and censors out mean details, Fassbinder adds a lot of unpleasantness, frankness about the body (like Warhol, all shapes and sizes are given their due as sexual creatures), and petty shopkeeper’s ambition to a fable of drudgery with no end in view. Deliberately giving a primitive innocent turn to the peddler’s stubborn retreat from the venal ambitions that surround him, Fassbinder makes a wholesome frontal image in many ways like small Fra Angelico panels: a man in a crisp blue and white plaid shirt hawking the pale green pears filling a rectangular cart, a humble action frozen in a shallowstill composition.

Like a cat burglar feeling out the combination lock on a safe, Fassbinder keeps turning the knob on a character, working parsimoniousness with lustfulness in the same pinch-lipped house-frau (Irm Hermann), compassion and coldblooded frankness in a marvelous sister (Hanna Schygulla) who sticks by the peddler against his disapproving family and stands for integrity in the film.

The clear individualizing and silhouetting of each character are emblematic of Fassbinder’s tough decision-making about style. His intense, shadowless image is disarming: though the story is about a fruit pushcart and its discontented couple, there are no shadows, dirt, or squalidness anywhere. To see the spinster-wife’s transformation in mid-movie is never to forget it: she has been straight hypocrisy and stinginess, but, after crucifying her inept Epp husband into the hospital, there is a jump cut that has incredible impact. She turns up with a stranger in one of the most robustly staged sex acts in film: a woman who had heretofore been all tightness is suddenly exposed in all her white length, abandoned to pleasure. Blatantly head-on sex with no coy-tease covering up sections of the body: as in the fight scene, the blunt impact comes from the impersonal lighting and head-on camera (imagine this scene in the Turkish bath lighting of The Godfather). An unmistakable decorative modernity and human savagery are gained through antisentimental cunning working inside the oldest kitsch narrative.

Fassbinder’s American neighbor is obviously the Warhol of Bike Boy, Chelsea Girls. There is the same painterly ability to hit innocent, insolent colors, using flat, boldly simple formats; Warhol’s image is more porous, coarse grained, while Fassbinder’s has a sardonic fairy tale look. The Tartar-faced writer-director has done five films in 1971, which is up to the early Warhol pace, and, in the background of Fassbinder’s image, there is the sense of grifters and bootlegging, plus the effect in early Warhol of being tough and able to control such anarchy. Probably the most important revelation is that Warhol innocence needn’t be unraveled at the edges: Fassbinder’s Marxist world unchained is compressed and delineated; you know where each form-idea-narrative-sequence starts and stops. While the Munich director moves inspiringly into the structural area of Godard and Straub, the Warhol-Morrissey film is tamed, made respectable in Heat (shown in Venice), the closest that they have come to the Harvard Crimson collegiate spoof. Morrissey’s remake of Sunset Boulevard, with Joe D’Allesandro in Bill Holden’s role, is close to Russ Meyer’s and Roger Ebert’s Beyond the Volley Balls, having fun with clichés. A very raucous film.

The crazy quilt set-up reaches its peak in late afternoon with the Chaplin reruns—the all-ages audience covering every seat-aisle-wall, kids tumbling around the stage, hesitantly fingering the screen. Hotels, buses, different theaters, patching a film segment seen one day with its mate, seen the next day in another theater, watching one film in the red plush grand salon and the next one outdoors in a handsome red brick amphitheater, banked by twenty-foot trellises and even taller poplars. A sea of umbrellas goes up and down through intermittent showers, while the outdoor arena audience is unforgettably combative: the main thing is to get the whole family seated together.

The festival hits one human stretch, pure joy, each time the “Little Fellow” appears in the Il tutto Chaplin retrospective. The massive audience formally applauds every scene change, the iris shots used in The Kid, any deft example of Chaplin’s balletic footwork, or exquisitely timed malice. Most of the adults react with an explosive, joyous certainty as though no time had elapsed since 1917 and the herky-jerky egotist is still their spokesman, a perfect fit for every thought process and feeling. This instantaneous reading in which the audience knows immediately whether the sweet, cloying smile like a baby’s ass is true or trick, gets its best rewards in The Kid, a marvelous film, one of the rare Chaplins where another actor shines. The whole screen is activated, and the primitively staged exits and entrances are comparatively bare of biased competitions in which a devious pest inevitably wins (the Arbuckles are great for the same reasons). How all of a piece Jackie Coogan is: four years old, with copious good humor and resourcefulness, he moves across screen like a buzz saw. Breaking glass for Chaplin’s window-repairing business, Coogan unites all the lovely features of the ’20s comic strip: its amalgam of spirit, cheerfulness, and guileless perfect design. He is a perfect tension-building counter to Chaplin’s Irish neighborhood strutting and lifelong insistence on the truisms embroidered and framed on 1914 walls.

One esthetic development of the ’60s, from the jump cuts in Breathless to Straub’s use of unbroken Bach scores in the diary of Anna Magdalena Bach, is the discovery of ways to keep a movie from being engulfed by anecdote. There’s been a steady parade of movies in which some director finds a new area in which to assert the element of distance, keeping either actors, sound, or image from being numb integers in the storytelling continuum. Godard, who’s tried this Brechtian attitude about art in so many ways, and extracted his Tout Va Bien (codirected with Jean-Pierre Gorin) from the festival at the last moment, is symbolically buried every hour by such a regressive daydream as Klara Lust (pastoral optimism in soft focus), Les deux saisons de la vie (seven different camera angles each time the director and star, Samy Pavel, moves from one narcistic position to another), and Le grand sabordage (two self-admirers moving nude across cotton clouds at a tormentingly slow pace, finally proving their Juliet-Romeo kinship by scoring each other’s breast with matched daggers). What makes the festival hard going is the sparsity of work like that of Fassbinder and Duras in which there is the attempt at removed self-enclosed abstract-structure.

Nathalie Granger (Marguerite Duras in French with Italian subtitles, an easy film to understand) is Hamlet done through a feminist domestic metaphor(?), a hexagonal portrait in which each resident in a French country house and its single visitor are sides of the same character in retreat from the outside world(?), a feminist tract about ceaseless monotony in a woman’s daily routine(?), all these possibilities suggested by movements that barely crack the surface: somnolent clearing of dishes, silent raking in a long neglected pool, burning of dried leaves, sewing of name labels into a child’s wardrobe. Official story: one afternoon in the civilized, tasteful Granger home, from which the young daughter is to be sent to live in a school for disruptive children. Official verdict: a didactic, puzzling movie which uses apathy as a unifying structural force in the film, its star actors like furniture, and produces an exciting equilibrium, as well as black humor, with two actresses (Jeanne Moreau, Lucia Bose) who move to a secret metronome with a grand presence.

A high-toned Resnais-ish film for this festival in a large blockhouse run by a small silvery blockhead, Gian Luigi Rondi. Like Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, an endless rearranging of symmetrical alliances is done somnambulistically, slowly, and deliberately. There’s pleasure seeing these two majesties becalmed, moving like chess pieces in an elegantly photographed (Cloquet) de Hoochlike interior. Bose, a statuesque giant in black velvet, paces abstractly from room to room, starts a task and drops it. Mostly Moreau picks up and does the chores, has ironic humor, but, together with Bose, is in an elegant marathon of noncommunication.

All the subject matter seems to resonate suggestions of broader societal facts: Nathalie’s boarding school (concentration camp), an intrusive door-to-door salesman (the worker left out on a spiritual limb by the callous commercial world), the absence of a male figure in the household (the daily isolation of women), the house itself (the apathy inside the boundaries of existence). Duras is not the most nimble director: too much stasis, excessive and ponderous mystification, and an excitingly tasty scene (two completely humorless dames looking stony and never at each other, doing mannered exits and entrances) has been familiarized by Marienbad-Femme Douce work. It’s a likeable movie: precisioned, private, totally mysterious.

Random pleasures of the 33rd Mostra Cinematographia. The Baddest Daddy in the World, a documentary cashing in on Cassius Clay, doesn’t threaten Vertov but gets quite a few of Clay’s sides: his puckishness, good heart, pious naiveté. A perfect bit takes place at a restaurant breakfast, as Clay four times steals big mouthfuls of his tiny daughter’s cornflakes by focusing her attention on an imaginary big dog out the window. Each time she suspects what he’s done, the charming gagline being how he outfences her mounting suspicion. Morrissey’s Heat, dirtied-up Wilder minus the Gothic element, has some funny whiny unique-to-Warhol sounds (“Look, you’re not a Lesbian. I want you and her to stop going to these gay bars; the word is getting around. You can’t do things like that in Hollywood.”) and a craven unisex daughter, “one of those kids who come out of Hollywood High,” who brings back the Warhol sting. Never seen convincingly or full face, her head is ducked and a craven voice comes out of a corner of her streaked blonde hair.

Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson