PRINT December 1977

Tepid Yesterdays

IF IT’S TRUE THAT A film festival has a particular character by virtue (or by the vices) of the predispositions of its selection committee, then the aspects informing the personality of the 1977 New York Film Festival would be, in order of appearance, control, obsession, and geography. Both directorial and thematic control were evinced, Werner Herzog hypnotizing his cast for Heart of Glass and the Taviani Brothers’ grimness about a Sardinian father’s cruelty to his son in Padre Padrone being, respectively, the most extreme example of each mode. Obsessions centered on one woman (Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire), all women (Francois Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women), one man (Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker), and death (Martin Brest’s Hot Tomorrows). Geography ranged from Wim Wender’s confusion of Manhattan on Hudson/Hamburg am Elbe/Paris sur Seine in his leapfrog conceit The American Friend to Marguerite Duras’ sure handed and witty use of the Chartres countryside in The Truck. Confinement, a corollary of geography, was the frame of James Ivory’s Roseland, set exclusively in that cathedral of ballroom dance; Marta Meszaros’ Women, set mostly in an unspecified Hungarian work hostel; and Robert M. Young’s Short Eyes, set entirely in The Tombs (the Manhattan House of Detention for Men).

Such shorthand categorical description of the festival movies is only useful during that last mile between your seat in Alice Tully Hall and your seat on the subway home while you try to fathom motivations for their selection. The quantity to which this year’s collection of controls, obsessions, and geographies adds up is yet unknown. Seeing 22 movies in 14 days is an overload. Even after repeat viewings, the firmest impressions remaining are of the movies with the most infectious sensibilities (to borrow from Tolstoy, who said the greater degree to which a viewer was “infected” by the author’s condition of soul, the better the art). One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, The Devil Probably, and Handle With Care all manifest the festival’s trademarks: control, obsession, and geography, respectively. And they also have a certain pungency of character (some might call that infectiousness) that lingers after other movies—many of which were smarter, more pugnacious, or even more moving—recede into memory as symptoms of festivalitis (also known as Tepid Yesterdays in contradiction of the festival’s snappiest title, Hot Tomorrows).

“Some Make Movies, the Others Don’t”:
An Interior Dialogue on Agnes Varda’s
One Sings, The Other Doesn’t

Criminy, her preface is like the disclaimer at the beginning of Dragnet, except instead of changing the names to protect the innocent she tells us “the film you are about to see is about men, women, and children.” That’s a lie. Men, women, and children have characters and Varda wouldn’t know character if she met one. Character is developed. Varda’s images are of a sunny, carefully composed and deep space, but the people in them are paper dolls flattened against the screen. Dimensionless, they never hold or describe the space they inhabit.

The characters are undeveloped because she’s done an audacious thing: making a chronicle of the formative years of the contemporary women’s movement, from 1962 to 1977, doesn’t allow room for character development. She takes two very different types—a tough Parisian redhead who doesn’t know defeat and a dark-eyed provincial who only knows failure—and shows how the movement enabled them to reassess their potential in order to realize it.

In doing this she relegates the men (particularly Jerome, the photographer with the lugubrious manner) to the periphery and they suffer the cardboard-characterization fate to which women in movies have often been consigned. This might be deliberate: instead of mere role reversal, Varda’s strategy is to maximize the women and minimize the men. But this fails as a strategy because of its smugness: “Let’s deny men their dimensionality the way they often have denied us ours.” This can only read as caricature. Look at Darius’ reaction when wife Pomme leaves him after the birth of their child: “You used me . . . I was good for nothing but a little semen.” That’s a line worthy of a Douglas Sirk three-hankie weeper, or the Rainer Werner Fassbinder parody of it.

And why not a line worthy of Varda? Is it retardataire for her to establish a sardonic distance from the material? By assuming the role of narrator of her tableaux vivants, Varda condenses an important chapter of feminist history to movie length, thereby making a generation of women’s history accessible for a quick read/see. Her characters talk openly about the steps necessary to their self and social awareness and offer role and group models to women lacking the conditions that would enable them to evolve their own position. Her women, Pomme and Suzanne, are activists: Pomme organizes a singing group, Suzanne, a Family Planning Center, to raise consciousness among their peers. This movie is obviously a pep rally to encourage women individually and collectively. One way to do this is to use caricatures as positive or negative role models.

As narrator, Varda explicitly asserts her directorial control by obliging us to read the images her way. This is contradictory because at the same time it admits a lack of control over the narrative by this compulsion to “fill in” what her handsome but vacuous images don’t tell us. Her condensation of a generation’s social history does little more than make us view women not as sex object but as sex subject: Pomme and Suzanne’s relationship centers completely on their reproductive systems. The movie begins with Suzanne’s abortion and ends with the birth of Pomme’s second child. All of the movie’s compelling scenes—a pro-abortion demonstration where Pomme and Suzanne renew their friendship, the meetings at a Family Planning Center which Suzanne directs, a confrontation between Pomme and her husband, Darius—all deal with the question of babymaking. Is consciousness of one’s biology the only aspect of feminism worth developing? Certainly not!

Consciousness of one’s biology is a fundamental aspect of feminism among many that Varda treats. She clearly shows the relationship between Suzanne and her children. The scene where Suzanne’s daughter Marie thoughtfully rejects the advances of her adolescent suitor is an enormously articulate assessment of the family: “In the family the man is the bourgeois, the woman, the proletariat; but their daughter will be tough: will she hump as soon as a boy whistles? No sir!”

Articulate, yes, but much more successful in writing than in an image which hasn’t a trace of this thoughtfulness, where the young actress recites this piece of wisdom as though it were a slogan or the Marseillaise. And how about the sloganeer quality of those Helen Reddy-type lyrics Pomme’s folk-rock group sings: “Not Diana, a devil or a dove . . . I am me” or “Neither Pop, nor the Pope, nor an abortion trial, no matter what the Doc tells me, biology isn’t fate, my body is mine?” This situates the movie in the middle of only one aspect of a many-faceted feminist ethos. Being a feminist and not liking this movie is precisely like being Jewish and explaining to your parents that Fiddler on the Roof is sentimental dreck trivializing the values of which you and they are proud because it simplifies the complexity of religion by glorifying only one aspect—tradition. Likewise, Varda has made a movie with a vision limited by its own fondness for the sisterhood and nurturance clichés that are a fraction of the whole of the women’s movement. She savages the social consequences of the movement by omission. The movie has no depth of character, no breadth of political context. She falls into an old trap of belief that image and sound should not duplicate each other and her movie therefore only asserts “our bodies are ours, our children are ours, our lives are ours” in words, not images: we see it on picket signs, hear her narration, hear the slogan-dialogue of her characters. This isn’t a movie, it’s an accretion of sentimental language.

This isn’t a movie that arouses the intellect; it arouses the emotions. And what’s wrong with that? When Pomme goes to Teheran and begins a postcard correspondence with Suzanne in Hyeres, the movie becomes an exciting epistolary romance. The flatness and exoticism of postcard images of Persian mosques and French beaches are perfectly suited to the screen, and the glibness of the postcard communication tersely doubles the information given in the visual. What’s to complain about a feminist “woman’s picture?”

There’s nothing wrong with a “woman’s picture” from a feminist perspective if you see this as a carrier of the All that Heaven Allows and Back Street tradition. But those movies didn’t reduce all issues to sap, and when they are reduced you should put it on your pancakes and not call it a movie. To paraphrase Varda’s ending (which itself is also reminiscent of Dragnet with its what-happens-after quality), some make movies, the others make celebrations.

Contamination Categorically:
Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably

With characteristic economy and precision Robert Bresson remarks in his “Notes on Cinematography”: “A highly compressed film will not yield its best at the first go. People see in it at first what seems like something they have seen before.” Indeed, all the elements in Bresson’s highly compressed The Devil Probably—prodigal youth, desultory relationships, coda shots of doors, ellipsis of narrative, and suicide—have been seen before in other Bresson movies. But never before have they been arranged in this order. Like Bach (whom Bresson quotes) at the organ, admired by a pupil: “It’s a matter of striking the notes at exactly the right moment.” And for Bresson, a matter of knowing which notes, struck, will resonate the ineffable.

Language like the “ineffable” and the “transcendent” is unavoidable in dealing with Bresson. Which other words approximate the religiosity he infuses into a banal action like pouring tea? Such a scene in The Devil Probably—a shot of a steaming tea kettle/cut to Alberte’s forearm and hand removing it from the burner/cut to the most poised tea-pouring posture in the Fifth arrondissement—has a sanctity of the most despairing and exalted nature. Bresson’s partisans argue that he achieves this sensibility because he is an elementalist, paring from his movies everything expendable and leaving behind the purity of action. But it’s clear in his previous movies as well as in The Devil Probably that what remains after Bresson’s paring are the interstices, not the essentials. The Devil Probably is a series of doors individuated by their distinct hardware; it is listless faces caught at the inexpressive moment between action and reaction, a footfall that neither dances nor thuds but just shuffles. How does Bresson invoke the ineffable with such elements?

One way is to construct his movies of subtle oppositions. Bresson always situates his protagonist in an adversary relationship with his/her environment. In The Devil Probably (the title is a response to a rhetorical question posed by one bus-rider to another: “Who really is in charge?”) the hero Charles opposes contamination of every kind. His Catholicism is threatened by the vernacular Mass and by, in Montesquieu’s phrase, the sense that “Catholics would like to conquer Protestantism and take it for their own.” His leftist fervor is compromised by the attitudes of peers who “proclaim destruction”—who want revolution without a program. While Charles has a man’s name, his friends Michel and Valentin, and his lovers Alberte and Edwige, have either/or names. Valentin’s brain is deteriorating from drugs. Michel’s job as an environmentalist exposes Charles to the knowledge of mercury pollution of Minamata, the clubbing of baby seals in Alaska, and elms destroyed by DDT. Obsessed with, and paralyzed by, the incursion of contamination, compromise, and mediocrity in every aspect of his life that he holds dear, Charles is a puzzle to his friends. Michel asks, “Isn’t there a limit to doing nothing?” Charles smiles with a John Caginess and responds, “Once that point is passed, it’s exhilarating.” Charles’ adversary relationship with life in the twentieth century. is a paradigm of avant-gardism: when the status quo accepts unquestioningly the subversion of tradition, the logical step ahead would be to cherish the traditional.

The first “note” Bresson strikes is defining the isolation of this adversary. The second is arranging these images in a way that their content, contamination, has a perverse and ironic gracefulness. More subtle oppositions: DDT-poisoned trees sway to the ground like the Dying Swan; a seal’s skull is crushed with an arm movement as startling as Lou Pinella’s World Series catch; Charles emerges vomiting from his attempt to drown himself in a bathtub, but with the face of an angel. The third is to eliminate suspense: we know from the movie’s newspaper-clipping prologue that either “Youth Kills Himself in Cemetery” or that “Cemetery Suicide Is a Murder.”

Bresson’s fastidious avoidance of all narrative or visual embellishment—suspense, expressive acting (he uses only nonprofessional actors), long takes—is a curious way of invoking the ineffable. But with the material of these subtle oppositions there is something ineffable in every frame, every sound, because Bresson’s interstices are so moving that by inference that which is not there—the essential—can only be even more powerful. And although Bresson’s repeated concern with the individual bespeaks an individualist ideology, Charles’ ultimate purchase of his own murder is a most chilling comment on the market society: so contaminated are our values that he must buy death in order to be buried anonymously in a pauper’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery. The movie’s last scene, Charles in the cemetery to his hired hit-man: “I was sure I’d have a sublime thought at a moment like this but what I’m really thinking—” is cut off in mid-sentence by the assassin’s gunshot. This is not tactfulness or an inversion of suspense on Bresson’s part. He omits the essential because “essential” seems too subjective. Showing Charles’ individual protest is by no means Bresson’s arbitrary isolation of an event from its context: in Bresson’s words, “The void around you makes the void within you.”

Citizen’s Bandits:
Jonathan Demme’s Handle With Care

Handle With Care, its title a tender reference to citizen’s band radio jargon where “handle” means “name,” is a radical choice for the film festival because it is a Hollywood studio product, and a radical movie for Hollywood because it deals with an economic class (lower middle), a phenomenon (citizen’s band radio), and a geography (inland rural Southern California—possibly Escondido) that are all invariably consigned to the second bill of no-budget double features.

CB radio is subversive: it has claimed for itself public access to radio bands the government otherwise licenses to commercial stations and it has developed a lively anti-authoritarian language intelligible only to those who “have ears” (CB radios). Commercial radios are turned off when CBers put their ears on. The obvious challenge of dealing with CB in a movie is that it’s audio. Director Jonathan Demme and his scenarist Paul Brickman meet the challenge by detailing a comedy of CB manners as complex visually as it is aurally. In Handle With Care the use of CB hardware does three things that Demme and Brickman develop with images as well as sound: it transforms personality, creates a community bounded not by geography or class but by air power, and gives anyone who owns equipment “someone to talk to.”

In a movie with equal emphasis on sound and image, Demme’s visuals have a lot of competition. He gets a lot of mileage out of undercutting the verbal through visual; e.g. Electra, a CB seductress, titillates her listeners with a throaty “There are a lot of voices out there, but yours, I like it” while she prepares a tuna, pickle, and mushroom sandwich. He understands the vastness of California, the fact that the highway is a metaphor for life: a cheerful prostitute with the handle “Hot Coffee” complains to a regular about why business is bad, “First they passed the bond issue, then they moved the freeway, and now there’s the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit—no one has time for anything.” With a CB and a mobile home, however, Hot Coffee gets back on the highway. Demme is particularly fond of ending a scene with a freeze frame that seems television-commercial trendy but works because the image remains for a moment in contrast to the audio jungle that is CB.

And why is CB a jungle? For Handle With Care’s hero Spider, CB is a terrific resource complicated by the cross-purposes of people who use it as an instrument for wish fulfillment. As “Chrome Angel,” a trucker saved by Spider’s response to his emergency message on CB, remarks, “Everything’s gone mobile,” and in California often personal space is more clearly defined by your car than your home; CB becomes a stable element in a mobile world. Via CB the voice reaches out beyond physical limits and constraints. There is a distinct lack of repression on the band: a reactionary tells his hate of “pea-picking commies,” a preacher delivers CB sermons about the Almighty, a physiologically immature 16-year-old compensates for his impatience to grow up by adopting the handle “The Hustler,” Spider’s father “Papa Thermodyne,” a senile ex-trucker, becomes lucid on CB. This is a mixed blessing, for while it provides a forum for emotions, those emotions are transmitted into yet another electronic device that divorces the emotion from the source. Spider—an appropriate handle for CB’s web that spans territory—realizes the mixed blessing, and in vigilante fashion he vows to “clean up the band.”

Through Spider’s clean-up, which is oddly more FCC- than populist-identified, Demme and Brickman warmly grapple with pollutants that are anathema both to society and CB—loneliness, geographical dislocation, family breakdown—concluding with a development that gets people out of their vehicles face-to-face with their extended CB family. In terms of CB language, Handle With Care hasn’t the jazzy quality that another movie, Smokey and the Bandit, glorifies. What’s more important to Demme and Brickman is to examine the phenomenon not for the glamor of its language or voluptuousness of the air-brushed 18-wheelers (trucks) in which CBs are installed, but for its different meanings to a community. The community where this all takes place is called “Union,” and Brickman and Demme work the fragmented double-lives of their characters to a happily resolved conclusion that makes you want to put your ears on.