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PRINT January 1983

A PENNY FOR THE PEEP SHOW

The worst films I’ve ever seen, the ones that send me to sleep, contain ten or fifteen marvellous minutes. The best films I’ve ever seen only contain ten or fifteen valid minutes.
—Man Ray, 1951

Who has failed to detect the note of avuncular senility in the writings of our most powerful film critics, as they wax on about the Important Films in their lives? As they recall the “quintessential and atypical,” the “good but not great,” the “stylish but not powerful,” the “powerful but not stylish”? To paraphrase the Surrealist obsequies for Anatole France: once these stiffs are finally dead I propose we nail them up in a box with copies of “those films they loved so much” and dump the whole insipid mess in the East River. Whether or not these messages from Planet Debby are indeed Works of Art, bearing the stamp of a single consciousness, we fling ourselves into their substance in the dark as heedlessly as we go to sleep at night.

Like photographs, films can be made by utter amateurs and yet compel our attention. A ready example is Robert Van Ackeren’s Deutschland Privat (1981), an assemblage of German home movies. Bad films, even discarded footage can be transformed by artful tampering, vide Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), and Warren Sonbert’s 1966 Hall of Mirrors. Our fascination lies in the mechanical transcription of the thin consensual substance of “reality,” the visible skin of the world. Because this is film’s most immediate element, both Walter Benjamin and Nicola Chiaromonte argued against the cinema as a plausible vehicle for truth, for moral ideas, for concepts. Less imperious esthetes of the early 1930s convincingly asserted that the introduction of sound destroyed the potentially universal language of silent movies. With speech, movies become local, regional, national. When we speak about film today, in whatever mode of discourse, it’s mainly “the interesting” that we discuss, rather than “the valid.” Nothing serves this conclusion better than a film festival, where large, arbitrary chunks of the annual production are displayed for industrial purposes: to provide travel gratuities for directors and stars, a trade show for distributors, an opportunity for critics to influence patterns of consumption. The 20th New York Film Festival was streamlined for the industry. Only four films appeared that weren’t being pitched to the market, unless one includes a ghastly collection of short (5- to 30-minute) films guaranteed to make anything they preceded look like Birth of a Nation.1

Within a numerically substantial presentation, patterns hovered before the weave. The films that best confirmed Chiaromonte’s sour view (in The Worm of Consciousness and Other Essays, 1977) that “cinema is nothing but action devoid of reason and aimed at arousing the emotions” were, paradoxically or not, signature pieces by senior directors fashioned around sociopolitical themes: Antonioni’s Identificazione di una Donna (Identification of a Woman, 1982); Miklós Jancsó’s A Zsarnok Szive Avagy Boccaccio Magyarországon (The Tyrant’s Heart or Boccaccio in Hungary, 1981), and an unspeakable piece of rubbish by Jerzy Skolimowski, Moonlighting (1982). These films were, to one degree or another, aimed at arousing the emotion of awe at the director’s compassionate yet ironical understanding of things close to his heart: himself, his homeland, his previous films. To the extent that they can be considered “personal,” these films reveal the obsessional character of authorial inscriptions perfectly capable of repeating habitual gestures after exhausting their substance. The Jancsó and Antonioni movies—and, in a more curious way, the Skolimowski film—project the filmmaker’s private anguish into a metaphoric model of truth-telling. If I strip for you, you will see my wee-wee (and, by implication, your own). The seminal period of all three directors’ work, it will be recalled, was the 1960s, a decade in which showing your wee-wee was often mistaken for searing candor. This notion appears quaint today, like Beatle-mania and Godspell. In the equation of neurotic self-exposure and universality, a mingy sort of truth is indeed unveiled: something mealy in texture having to do with the frailty and isolation of the human condition, spiritual vacuity, lost illusions.

In Skolimowski’s case, the expatriate director demonstrates how much he cares about his native Poland by casting Oxford-accented Jeremy Irons as a Polish foreman supervising three Polish contractors who’ve come to London to renovate a getaway house for Irons’ boss, who mayor may not be making it with Irons’ fiance back in Warsaw. Irons alone speaks English, and when events of December 1981 cut off communication home, he conceals the news of the military crackdown to keep the renovation going on schedule. The three workers, depicted as slobbering dumbbells, might as well have been shown trying to screw in a light bulb or freezing to death at a closed drive-in in January. That Skolimowski conceived Moonlighting as a forthright statement of concern says volumes about how far from a sense of reality a celebrated movie director can drift, very far from Poland.

Moonlighting is curious in contrast to two distinctly nonmetaphoric films: Károly Makk’s Egymásra Nézve (Another Way, 1982) and Peter Gothar’s Megall Az Ido (Time Stands Still, 1981). Both films refer, repeatedly, to the catastrophe of the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. The criticism these films represent is only provisionally acceptable to a stable, cynically impervious socialist system; they risk saying as much as the system can possibly allow. The anguish that suffuses them is authentic, the consequence of tangible repression, as distinct from the spasm of liberal remorse, indistinguishable from stomach cramps, that seizes the bourgeois auteur in his Mayfair digs, and the fluttering of socialite ennui that inspires Antonioni’s protagonist to gush lines like, “I feel so impotent!” as he fiddles with his cordless telephone.

Another Way is the first film from any Communist country to deal explicitly with homosexuality. The film’s consistent position is that socialist society is diseased, rather than its individuals. Eva, a lesbian journalist (played by Jadwiga Jankowska-Ciéslak), gets a job on a political weekly in Budapest. She falls in love with Livia, a colleague (Grazyna Szapolowska), and begins pursuing her recklessly. It’s 1958, and the 1956 uprising is still called “the counter-revolution” by anyone who values survival. Editorial meetings serve to elucidate how much fact can be mixed in with official lies. Eva refuses to censor her articles and brings up embarrassing facts, making enemies with the party stooges and compromising the chief editor, Erdös, whose paternalistic protection she ultimately rejects by quitting her job. Livia, married to an army officer, becomes conscious of her own sexual nonconformity and finally has an affair with Eva. Her husband pretends she’s seeing another man: if it’s humiliating to be a cuckold, it’s intolerable to believe your wife is a lesbian. Livia forces him to acknowledge the truth in a moment of supreme disgust. He shoots her several times.

One instantly recognizes this as a modern European film, but technical virtuosity is kept at an inconspicuously steady level. Makk knew he had something important enough to deliver it plain. The film faithfully records the processes of psychological mutilation and the fate of desire in an inorganic society that imposes, over the will to truth, an abstract, invalid remodeling of consciousness. “Building socialism” is the unpleasant task of every character, the useless rock they push uphill while trying to get on with real life. All relationships are contaminated by the bad faith required for survival; what doesn’t fit gets crushed. (Western societies achieve the same result, but with an extravagance of means that absorbs explosive energies, effortlessly transforming them into products. Deviant sex drives merely present a marketing challenge.)

Time Stands Still opens in 1956 with garish, grainy black and white streetfighting footage that segues into roughly matched fiction, and later skips ahead to the early ’60s. Like Another Way, Time Stands Still uses dogged realism to reveal the effects of artificial systems, stale and rotting dogmas, repression carried forward from crib to coffin; it fixes those moments in people’s lives when they see through illusions that sustain them but have to continue living anyway. What resonates in both films is their nonallusive, frontal address of social issues. These films are more than simply large achievements for Hungarian cinema; they force one to reflect on the gratuitous quality of cinema in the Western world, its inexhaustible projection of fetishism and relative lack of necessity to our lives. How did it happen that our art, the art of the 20th century, became an appliance of the status quo, when it was clearly meant to liberate us? I didn’t go to the New York Film Festival with this sort of question in mind; the spectacle of “world class directors” floundering helplessly in the turgid goo of our present cultural and political mess made such questions in escapable. The Festival misrepresented personal artistic freedom by offering its most commodified results within a puerile esthetic of “taste.” When everything becomes a question of taste—as opposed, for instance, to spiritual necessity—the reason for art of any kind to exist disappears. The festival may have excluded the cinema of anesthesia (E.T., Tron) but it stuck anyway to the technical illusionism this cinema has perfected, and merely replaced one type of hallucination with another—with a program that looked like the A List for some dreary embassy cocktail party. Its pushy emphasis on “the Director” as the prima donna assoluta of the film art backfired. What kept popping out of the stale cakes being offered were star performers, cinematographers, and all “the little people” whose names roll by on closing credits.

The directorial stance assumed by Makk and Gotbar is artisanal and discreet: one trusts the tale and learns nothing of the teller. But in light of the heavy credit bestowed on directors generally, it’s illuminating to know that Szapolowska and Jankowska-Ciéslak, who play Livia and Eva in Another Way, are Polish actresses who can’t speak Hungarian, while the director Makk doesn’t speak Polish. The liaison man seems to have been Jozef Kroner, a remarkable Czech who plays the editor Erdös. (He plays a form master in the Gothár film, and gave a memorable performance years ago in the Czech film The Shop on Main Street.) The actresses improvised their parts with scarcely any directorial intervention. Who, then, gets credit for the astonishing credibility of their performances? The sticky side of the auteur theory is that well over half of what works in most films has nothing much to do with the director. Mary Woronov is the compelling reason to sit through Eating Raoul (1982), an agreeable piece of junk by the auteur of Death Race 2000 and of the astonishing Private Parts, Paul Bartel.

Editors often transform garbage into gold, or at least into something vaguely presentable. Any production is like the formation of a small nation ruled by a despot, whose whims are the declared laws. Underneath the declared laws, though, an active and pervasive system of creative sabotage operates which determines the actual, rather than apparent, state of affairs. Just as the black market constitutes the functional economy of the socialist world, transactions between the cameraman, the sound person, the actors, the art director, the hairdresser, the makeup person, and the individual who decides whether or not you can stick gaffer’s tape on some oleaginous surface to hang a light determine the physical elements of film that arrive on the editing table.

A viable defense of auteurism could be activated with a few names: Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Nagisa Oshima, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Of these, Fassbinder was not only the recognizable author of his films, but also, in his own person, a sort of walking simulacrum of an industrial process, a model of incessant production that only intermittently participated in its qualitative claims on public attention. There was a solemn air around the presentation at the festival of Fassbinder’s Bolwieser (whose English title is The Stationmaster’s Wife, 1977), and Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (The Yearning of Veronika Voss; released in the U.S. as Veronika Voss, 1982). His death has been the occasion of such extreme monumentalization that it’s as though the academic press wants to bury the cadaver of his films as fast as they can.

Near the end of his life, Fassbinder viewed himself as the exemplary conscience of Germany, fully expropriating the despotic stance that has always been the director’s privilege in Hollywood. He tempered his insatiable egotism with a self-deprecatory, questioning sincerity, although Schopenhauer had already provided him with every excuse for his extravagance, his meanness, his contradictions. Genius became the justification, at times the cause, of any questionable move on the chessboard. International fame, artistic success, and the fierce loyalty of those lucky enough to work with him never quite assuaged his paranoia, his terror of being alone, his hatred of the way he looked. You could read Fassbinder’s future, seeing him in Lili Marleen (1981): the bloated physical frame, the face pocked and swollen from drugs and overwork. It would not be necessary to mention all this had it not had a powerful symbiotic relationship to the last films he made, which doubled as critical paradigms of cinema itself, deployed against its libidinous surface to emit all kinds of messages. Part of Fassbinder’s psyche that could never be wholly subtracted from his work perceived Rainer Fassbinder, the man, as a vamping sin queen with brains, demonically inhabiting the bodies of actresses. He could not bear the autonomy of people he envied. He colonized them, took them over, monopolized their time. When he was forced to realize that they existed outside his orbit, he hated them. However, everything he did was interesting, energetic, complex; he had mastered so many engaging tricks of narrative and dramaturgy, to say nothing of optical nuance, that even his flimsiest productions transcended the often sordid ideas from which they originated (and to which they were, quite frequently, assimilated).

If the livelier Bolwieser is Fassbinder’s Madame Bovary, then Veronika Voss is his Caligari. Here is the malefically sealed universe of Mabuse and M. It evokes the condition of trance and scarcely travels beyond it. The 33 wipe cuts, each different and obvious as a gun going off, struck me as easily the best thing in Veronika Voss. (A film editor’s response to this suggestion was: “Wipes? Don’t be ridiculous, wipes is what you put when you can’t think of anything else to do.”) Nevertheless, those split-second iris-in-iris-outs, grid fades, and vertical splits punctuating each scene gave Veronika Voss a slapped-together insouciance, rescuing it from ponderous ironies.

Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is a junked-out former UFA star indentured to her woman doctor in exchange for morphine. Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer) preys on the despairing, who sign over their bank accounts and property with hardly a trace of bitterness. A sportswriter, Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), meets Veronika near a trolley stop, falls for the eccentric movie queen, and gradually puzzles out her dependence on Dr. Katz. He’s a bit of a dullard. Other figures play significant dupes, villains, victims, and discards. Robert’s girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) gets bumped off after securing evidence in the form of a prescription. Like the scientist in the science fiction films who knows that “they” have landed, Robert appeals to the unbelieving authorities to stop Dr. Katz’s operation in time to save Veronika’s life. No soap.

Veronika drifts through the remnants of her life, sporadically flashing her dimly remembered eccentricities and otherwise sinking into an ambulatory stupor. Robert’s attentions do little to stimulate her. What she really needs is that hypodermic needle and the glare of klieg lights. On a minor film job she’s had to beg for, Veronika collapses into a writhing jelly of drug-hungry nerve endings. When she isn’t queening it over “the little people, out there, “Veronika regresses to a more primitive form of being, vaguely marsupial in character. At one point, as Robert confronts Dr. Katz and her two assistants in the hallway of the clinic, a door at the end of the hall flies open and out crawls Veronika, hot for a shot. This scene is like the cryptic detail from Uccello’s painting The Profanation of the Host reproduced in André Breton’s Nadja: a fragment of some horrific larger picture, inserted for shock value. A theme song gurgles hilariously at hair-raising moments: “Memories Are Made Of This.” Another audio trope consists of radio reports on West Germany’s entry into NATO. Fassbinder equates the numbed, declining condition of the cashiered film star with the spiritual bankruptcy the German “economic miracle” cosmeticized with American skyscrapers and a glut of consumer products.

The film rolls forward as a brilliantly sustained joke. It plays nimbly with visual abstraction, placing characters behind windows with rain drooling down them, picking up mottled reflections and wet surfaces that lurk all over the mise-en-scène like frogs after a heavy downpour. Anything that can sparkle sparkles, spraying jets of light all over the lens. These effects look more beautiful here, in black and white, than they did in color in Lili Marleen and Lola (1982). By the time he made Veronika Voss, Fassbinder had mastered thematic art direction more thoroughly than any of his contemporaries.

I don’t think Veronika Voss sustains anything like a relevant critical analysis of 1950s Germany. It inverts a lot of clichés from films like Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; it also reverts to quite a few as well , while dancing on the wire between irony and self-pity. The “investigative reporter” device, so overworked by the time Fassbinder used it, had to be jumped up with visual conceits from horror movies, a genre that seems to have spilled into the narrative. One can read anything into anything, and in the case of this film, everyone will, for the next decade.

I don’t recall what rating Veronika Voss got on Vincent Canby’s Peter Meter in the New York Times Sunday supplement, but it certainly wasn’t received with the solemnity Variety reported. Nor were there massive film-festival audience walk-outs during Scott and Beth B’s Vortex (1982); that was another Variety hallucination. Vortex raised a lot of people’s blood pressure, not because of its “suspense” but because it was chosen for the New York Film Festival. Some other independent filmmakers queasily allowed as to how it was a good thing Vortex got in. Others read Vincent Canby’s fairly balanced review as a wholesale drubbing and gloated. The film itself hardly inspires controversy. It’s a well-constructed parody of the detective-suspense genre, containing some impressive performances and wonderful art direction. The ambitiousness of its discrete elements—music, cinematography, script, dramaturgy—deserves the praise it’s received elsewhere. Considered as an artifact, Vortex, like Fassbinder’s film, raises questions about the usefulness of historic genres: why do filmmakers revert to them as if they were a priori categories of the mind? Why does parody enjoy such currency in modern narrative filmmaking? How many people have actually encountered detectives in the course of their daily lives, and why do detectives always speak in voiceovers? If the answers relate to the fact that this is what the mass audience has been trained to swallow whole, we are well outside the cinema of necessity and deeply entrenched in the cinema of consumption: production for the sake of production, “product reliability,” “satisfaction guaranteed.”

Gary Indiana is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

1. I didn’t see all of them. Of the ones I did see, all but two were afflicted with terminal cuteness. The two: Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter to Freddy Buache, containing a prescient meditation on photography; and Miami is OK, by Stephen S. Weiss, an unpretentiously experimental home movie.