Tag Archives: film

Kind Hearts and Coronets, the post-war middle class, and the massacre of the nobility

The English aristocracy have always been a crisis-prone sort. When not nearly rendering themselves extinct in the Wars of the Roses or hand-wringing over a bunch of 18th century peasants rioting across their estates (see my previous post), they were busy envisioning their doom at the hands of the inter-war proletariat. In the end, it wasn’t so much a menacingly Bolshevik working class or any Europe-haunting spectres standing nonchalantly beside a dripping guillotine; it was the war itself and the rise of that ceaselessly aggressive social phenomenon, the middle class.

Having just bankrupted itself by participation in the Second World War, the social winds of Britain changed course irrevocably. A beleagured population, emerging from six years of war and the dawning realisation that Britain was no longer as important, or as rich, as it once was was, was not the same docile beast that faced the aristocratic classes in the inter-war and Edwardian period. For the great mass of the population who had to struggle through the war years, the idea of hereditary wealth no longer fit the national mood, and the long march of decline for the English nobility began at the hands of the middle-classes.

When faced with the grimly determined, Protestant work ethic-fuelled assault of the professional classes, typified by the pre-war, suburban, Orwell character of George Bowling, they stood no chance. George Bowling appears in Orwell’s underrated 1939 book Coming Up For Air, the melancholy story of a middle-class man whose life is defined by mediocrity. He inhabits one of thousands of suburban homes, he thinks little of his family and his job, but merely carries on with his life regardless, escaping for relief into the ecstatic, high jinks memories of his Edwardian youth.  George Bowling, or more dynamic versions of him, were precisely the kind of people who, in the post-war atmosphere of shared sacrifice were storming the (faux-Tudor) ramparts of the stately homes of nobility, their entitled and hereditary wealth now an aberration in the national narrative of hard work and sacrifice.

And while George Bowling himself, given over to fatalism as his character is, lacks the capacity to improve his own life any more than he already has, this new middle class, and their ghettos of strip suburban development, had always in reserve a thousand more George Bowlings to take his place. This is the same middle-class that, two months after VE Day, dispensed with the conservative Churchill government and flocked en masse to Labour, awarding them a landslide victory on the promise of full employment and the welfare state. A general levelling took place, not in favour of any idea of working class emancipation, but on the vaguely general principles of ‘the people’, the middle classes and workers, as opposed to the nobility. The times of the idle gentry quietly surveying their lands, or knocking croquet balls on the lawns of Mandalay were over, and their Late Victorian and Edwardian heyday must have seemed a distant memory.

It is this insurgent middle-class that manifests itself in the character of Louis Mazzini in the Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Although set in the Edwardian era, the film was made in 1949, the highpoint of post-war Labour government, and so displays a contradictory setting of being set during the last hurrahs of the English nobility, while displaying fully the politics and sensibilities of the post-war, post-aristocratic era. The politics of 1949 are being played out in 1910.

The film begins with the protagonist’s mother exiled from her inimitably aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. Having married beneath her station, she finds herself living in a cramped house in Clapham with her young son, her husband having since died. Demeaned and humiliated by her family, she teaches Louis the injustice of their situation, constantly drumming into him the fact that, no matter where he lives or what job he is doing, and despite his mother’s exile, remains a distant heir to the Dukedom of Chalfont.

Despite his heirdom, Louis’ situation is resoundingly middle-class. Having finished school, he further demeans his true station by taking a job as a draper’s assistant, eventually working his way to one promotion after another, thus proving that enduring piece of middle-class folklore that nobody chooses poverty. He becomes the archetypal professional man, all the while becoming more embittered over the injustice of his situation.

After being publicly humiliated in the shop by a distant relative of his and being sacked for his angry response, Louis resolves to murder all the members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and the dukedom, or his birthright, as he puts it.

After doing away with the young playboy who cost him his job, suitably by drowning him and his mistress at the fashionable weekend resort of Maidenhead, he moves on to the others.

He ingratiates himself with his next victim, and proceeds to blow him up while he is developing photographs in his garden shed. Through the course of the film, he goes on to poison a priest, shoot down a hot air balloon, blow someone else up, lure an elderly man into a bear trap and shoot him in the face, rejoice at the news of a relative dying of a stroke and celebrate a pair of infant twins dying of diphtheria. And still, at every point, the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with Louis and cheers him along his rampage through the aristocracy.

The aristocrats he kills off are painted in an entirely unflattering light. The best of them are shown to be nice-but-dim types, while the worst are dinosaurs; callous, lazy, rude,  uncaring, dishonest, mean-spirited and completely lacking in feelings or tact. Louis, on the other hand, is hardworking, witty, urbane, displays honour and dignity, and expresses himself in ways that only a modern man would. For instance, when invited to go hunting with the clownish elderly gentleman, Ethelred D’Ascoyne, he refuses to take part in any shooting, claiming that it would contravene his principles. We are clearly supposed to be rooting for the protagonist, even as he takes part in what is, to all purposes, an incredibly brutal, comedic killing spree that resembles something like a comedy of manners version of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.

Needless to say, Louis avoids any inconvenient investigations into his spree and becomes the 10th Duke of Chalfont, bagging the charming wife of one of his victims along the way. Displaying his modern (read, post-war, 1949) levelling sensibilities, he tells the servants at the D’Ascoyne family home that his first priority will be to ensure them a good life. He is then promptly arrested for a murder he did not commit, and finds his hard-won dukedom, and his life, hanging in the balance.

Louis aspires to become a member of the aristocracy, but once he is there he behaves nothing like them; he is enlightened, and cares for his servants. He perfectly embodies the post-war, ceaseless aspiration of the professional middle-classes, importantly, through hard work and not entitlement, to occupy the position of power previously held by the dying nobility. Many merely yearned for power and wealth, but for every George Bowling, there was always a hundred of his neighbours willing to take his place. But instead of occupying the now unaffordable landed estates of this beaten nobility, now resentfully left open to the public as museums of another age, they moved up the professional ladder, bought homes, and built conservatories. Kind Hearts and Coronets, like the bankrupted post-war nation, is the literal massacre of the nobility.


1 Comment

Filed under cinema

Sidney Lumet and Dog Day Afternoon; politicising everyday life

Sidney Lumet died last month, and although this is a little late for a ‘tribute post’, I thought I’d write something on what I consider one of his most interesting films, Dog Day Afternoon.

Released in 1975, Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalised account of a bank robbery that occurred in 1972 in New York City. On a boiling August morning, John Wojtowicz, a former bank teller, and two accomplices walked into a branch of the Chase Manhatten bank in Brooklyn with the intention of robbing it. It went wrong. One of the accomplices got cold feet and fled the scene when he saw a passing police car in the street, they held a number of hostages for 14 hours, and there was a botched attempt at a negotiated escape (a classic hostages for helicopter scenario) which ended bloodily, but Wojtowicz survived.

In the film, John Wojtowicz is substituted for Sonny Wortzik, who is played by Al Pacino (interestingly, Wojtowicz later stated that he based aspects of his plan on scenes from The Godfather, which he had watched earlier in the day), and aside from several minor aspects that Wojtowicz later stated were embellished for the film, the actual robbery itself is mostly an accurate representation of what happened.

In his recent tribute to Lumet on Salon.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film, ‘politicises everyday life in ways that modern films wouldn’t dare do’, and this is the film’s main appeal; that the motivations behind an act that most films would take at face value, a bank robbery, along with the political atmosphere of the time, are spelled out and form the backbone to the film. Instead of a film that is just about a bank robbery, Dog Day Afternoon presents an uncompromising insight into the society in which Sonny lives. At the present time, there is a tendency in film and literature to follow the cue of a depoliticised society, where social problems and acts are personalised and diluted of their political significance, Lumet’s films, notably Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and his excellent 2006 release, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, treat everyday occurrances with the political significance an overreaching post-political, and post-ideological culture denies them. Lumet is the enemy of what the documentary maker Adam Curtis has called ‘oh dearism’, the spectacle of an event that has been removed from its political context, and therefore not understandable or possible to analyse through any meaningful political discourse. The example he used was the Rwandan Genocide, which, deprived of its political context by a media now confused by its inability to use the good guys-bad guys dichotomy of the Cold War, which had recently ended, was reported solely through a constant barrage of awful images with little political explaination, to which the only possible response from the viewer can be a neutral and helpless ‘oh dear’.

The film begins as it means to go on. To the tune of Elton John’s Amoreena, we are presented with a four-minute long montage of shots that we typically associate with 1970s New York. Long traffic jams, litter-strewn streets, open fire hydrants, people sitting on benches and talking the day away, dogs eating out of bins, all conducted under exhaust fumes and a boiling summer sun. Then the camera focuses in on the bank, and we see the prospective robbers arriving. The first part of the robbery plays out like black comedy. We have Sonny wrestling with the box he has hidden his gun in, unable to get it out, his accomplice panics, asks Sonny if he can leave, and nearly drives off in the getaway car so he doesn’t have to walk home, and a general series of unfortunate events that eventually lead to the police turning up. Then, after the shots of the massive police presence descending on the bank, barriers being erected, and snipers settling on rooftops, Sonny begins to communicate with the negotiators, and the political side of the film begins from where the initial montage introduction took off.

Sonny eventually goes outside to remonstrate with the police, and with the camera acting as his eyes, he is faced with the overwhelming nature of his situation in wide shot, complete with jittery cops pointing guns down the camera lens. The local residents are another important aspect of the film; as the police turn up, so do the locals. As the police surround Sonny and the bank, the local population surround the police, constantly pushing against the barriers to catch a glimpse of the action, and the relationship between these three sets of protagonists is explored throughout the film. When Sonny goes outside for the first time, this is when the film reveals its political nature.

Sonny talks with the negotiator, and, failing to be convinced by the usual ‘you’ll get off lightly’ arguement, he then fires up the crowd with shouts of ‘Attica! Attica!’, invoking the name of the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot, where prisoners staged an uprising after the death of George Jackson, an inmate and Black Panther Party member, at the hands of prison guards. After four days of rioting and negotiations, the riot was put down by force, at the end of which 39 people were dead. A New York State Special Commission on Attica, set up after the riots, concluded that,

‘With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.’

The crowd are soon heard shouting in support of Sonny’s anti-police speech. As Sonny is under siege in the bank, the police are under seige in the neighbourhood, and when the camera ventures outside, we usually see the crowd surging against barriers and pouring scorn on the police.

The invocation of Attica renders the anti-police atmosphere obvious, and another exchange between Sonny and an FBI negotiator, who has replaced his police counterpart, makes an equally pertinent political statement. Sonny asks the agent if he would be willing to kill him, and the reply is ‘Yes, but I would only be doing my job’. A familiar response from an authority figure (and one that I heard countless times from those policing the student protests in London in the winter), it is interesting to remember that the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, as it was known, had recently closed in 1971, and was very much still fresh in the public mind when Dog Day Afternoon was released.

Established in 1956 by J Edgar Hoover, the aim of COINTELPRO was to, ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’, ‘subversive activity’ in the United States. It did this through smear campaigns, wrongful imprisonment, illegal surveillance, violence, and even assassination, against targets such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, left-wing groups, anti-war activists, and even monitored the activities of Albert Einstein. Implicated most notoriously in the murder of Fred Hampton, a radical black activist, the existence of COINTELPRO was dramatically and publically revealed after the burglary of an FBI field office in 1971. At a time when law enforcement agencies in America had just been found to have committed political assassinations, Sonny’s reply to the negotiator, ‘I hope if someone kills me it’s because they hate me’, is a powerful negation of the ‘only doing my job’ arguement, the attempt to divest yourself of personal responsibility by deferring responsibility to somebody else, in this case, your superiors, or your ‘job’. And unless the FBI solely consisted of completely barbarous individuals, we can assume that in the immediate post-COINTELPRO years there were many guilty people moaning about ‘only doing their jobs’.

For most of the film, however, we are trapped in the bank with Sonny, Sal, and the hostages. Again, when the camera reverts back to the inside of the bank, the dynamic between the hostages and hostage –takers is almost comedic. The hostages don’t condemn Sonny, they mostly see the episode as an inconenience, and almost treat Sonny with the familiarity of a boy from the neighbourhood ‘gone wrong’. We see them chatting together, and in return Sonny is more than willing to indulge their demands for food, bathroom breaks etc. This dynamic cements the political aspect of the film to the extent that when we see the hostages interacting with the police outside, usually through Sylvia, the head teller who has a maternalistic attitude towards ‘her girls’ (John Wojtowicz referred to her as ‘The Mouth’), she is usually shouting at them or upbraiding them for some oversight. Subverting the dynamic of traditional bank robbery films, and introducing the political atmosphere of the time not as background to the story but as a central feature of it, we are more inclined to view the hostages, Sonny, and the neighbourhood on one side, and the police, the representatives of traditional authority, on the other.

This is something that recent cinema has often failed to do. When we see the apocalyptic ‘last days of Sodom’ madness of seventies New York through Travis Bickle’s eyes in Taxi Driver, we are well aware that his reponse to it is psycopathic, but we understand his motivations, as we sympathise with Sonny, who in essence is holding a group of innocent people hostage in a bank. Compare this to Martin Scorcese’s The Departed,which is in many ways a film of ‘oh dearism’, and the differences are obvious. The criminals are sweary, violent, selfish, one-dimensional characters, the policemen mirror them almost exactly, and the story requires no further thought beyond, ‘crimes are being committed in this film, oh dear’. Where we sympathise with and understand the motivations of the morally dubious actions of Sonny, and the morally dubious and downright psychotic actions of Travis, there is no such depth of theme, or understanding required in a film like The Departed.

Soon after Sonny’s ‘Attica!’ speech, the media arrives, and are treated with the same deserved cynicism that was developed in another Lumet masterpiece, Network, released a year later in 1976. Network tells the story of unhinged news anchor Howard Beale, who, after finding out that his ratings are plummeting, announces on air that he will commit suicide live on television. This accouncement causes his ratings to spike, and as he uses the show to deliver increasingly deranged rants to his audience, he is exploited by a ruthless television executive who uses his madness to further her own professional ambitions.

The message in Dog Day Afternoon is a similar version of this, as Howard Beale is exploited in his madness, Sonny becomes a minor celebrity overnight as his situation is exploited as light entertainment for news channels. He sees himself on television, and is telephoned by reporters, who conduct a live interview with him while he is in the bank. Sonny is baffled by the inane questions; he is asked why he is committing the robbery, and after a moment’s stunned silence Sonny answers, ‘cos they got money here, I need money’. He is asked why he doesn’t get a job, and Sonny runs through the reasons why he can’t find a job, which, given the dire financial straits of New York City during the seventies, is justifiable. He then turns the conversation around, asking the interviewer how much he earns a week, introducing a class dynamic, and further entrenching the idea of ‘us and them’ which is apparent throughout the film, which places Sonny and the hostages in much the same social situation.

By looking at the state of New York City during the 1970s, it is impossible to imagine how Lumet could have made the film without the political thrust that it has. Deindustrialisation as a consequence of a slowdown in the post-war boom, along with mass emigration of affluent city-dwellers to the suburbs, combined to lead to an almost perfect storm of social disintegration. The decade saw an estimated million people leave for the suburbs, taking their jobs and businesses with them. As a consequencce, unemployment rocketed, leaving over a million people living on welfare, property prices dived, crime increased rapidly, and entire districts became slums. Strikes, blackouts and rioting became endemic, and many landlords took to burning down entire apartment buildings to claim insurance on now mostly worthless property, leading to the term ‘Dresdenised’ being coined to describe block-upon-block of burned out buildings in slum areas. One South Bronx fire station in the mid-seventies was recognised as the busiest in America, having to deal with arson attacks of this nature daily. And if this wasn’t enough, in 1977 the city came within hours of financial collapse after defaulting on its loans, and in that summer experienced one of the worst blackouts in its history, which led to massive rioting and looting over the course of two days, during which 4,500 people had been arrested.

Through the context of these events, the social setting of a film like Dog Day Afternoon, or the claustrophobic atmosphere of Taxi Driver, where we see the madness of the city through the dirty windows of a taxi speeding through a ghetto, are all the more important.

In the crowds of Dog Day Afternoon, swarming around and goading the police, we see the expression of this environment. This braying crowd is made up of the slum dwellers of mid-seventies New York, and their threatening nature and vehmently anti-establishment feelings are an obvious result of their dehumanised conditions, and this is spelled out clearly in the film. Christopher Null said that it, ‘captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom…John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.’ The character of Sonny is the desperate individual consequence of these conditions, and it is this emphasis on social and political relevence where Dog Day Afternoon succeeds, and where many films that are consciously de-politicised fail.

1 Comment

Filed under film, politics

Danton and the French Revolution; between DW Griffith and Soviet Russia

In his introduction to Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, a collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s speeches and writings during the French Revolution, published in 2007 through Verso Press, Slavoj Žižek quotes the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’. He is right to quote it; few historical events are as likely to be interpreted through the prism of prevalent political consensus as the French Revolution.

‘Our story is of two little orphans who suffer first through the tyranny of Kingly bosses, nobles and aristocrats. After the king’s government falls they suffer with the rest of the people as much through the new government, established by the pussy-footing Robespierre through Anarchy and Bolshevism. Strange that both these evil rulers were otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID. The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism’.

So states the intertitles at the beginning of DW Griffith’s silent epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm. As a statement, this is about as bold and unequivocal as a filmmaker can be about the political intent of his film. Released in 1921, Orphans of the Storm is a remake of the lost Theda Bara film The Two Orphans, released in 1915. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play two orphans who find themselves in Paris during the Revolution, running afoul variously of lecherous aristocrats and characters of the revolution, including Robespierre, who eventually sends Lillian Gish and her lover to the guillotine.

The referral in the intertitles to ‘Bolshevism’ means that as much as it is a film about the French Revolution, it is equally a film about what Žižek calls the ‘most traumatic event of the 20th century’, the October Revolution, and personalities and events from France in 1789 are manipulated and made to resemble those of Russia in 1917.The last sentence of the intertitle already forms a connection between the proponents of revolutionary terror in France and the Bolsheviks of Russia, warning against any attempt at ‘Bolshevism’ in America.

Griffith was not a mad voice in a crowd. In the years immediately following the October Revolution, Americans were seized by an almost constant fear of a repeat event in their own country, spurred on by the overenthusiastic paranoia of Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General of the United States from 1919-1921. An earlier incarnation of Senator McCarthy, and a far more succesful one at that, Palmer fanned the flames of what is now known as the First Red Scare, initiating mass searches, arrests, and deportations of suspected radicals. Where McCarthy blacklisted obscure screenwriters and classified Charlie Chaplin as a threat to national security, Palmer was shipping hundreds of radicals, mostly guilty of nothing other than ‘being’ radicals, including the famous anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, ‘back’ to revolutionary Russia. Through the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm shows us the violent birth of 20th century communism, and at the same time expresses the early paranoia of ‘reds’ that America was to suffer for the next century.

If Orphans of the Storm is the birth, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 release Danton documents the death, and the host for this allegory is Georges Danton, Jacobin and revolutionary leader. Once an ally of Robespierre, the film documents Danton’s unease with the excesses of the Terror, his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the de facto government of France during the Terror, and his execution because of it in 1794. Wajda is as bold as Griffith in telling the audience that what they are watching is a political allegory of a modern issue, that the film is not about Paris in 1794, but Poland in 1983. We can safely say that Danton, played spectacularly by Gérard Depardieu, represents the Solidarność movement struggling against the Soviet-backed Polish state, which is represented in Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, who, symbolically, are portrayed by Polish actors who spoke Polish during filming, and were later dubbed into French.

In Danton, characterisation reflects the popular struggle against the Polish state. If history exists so that one day cinema can be made of it, Danton would have existed for the sole reason that Depardieu would play him. Danton is hulking, larger than life, full of bombast, an insurrectionary bon vivant with a taste for good living and fine dining, in comparison to the stern, prim, mathematical and cold Robespierre, the personification of austere Socialist Realism, and his wild-eyed and fanatical ally Saint-Just. Robespierre’s pre-revolutionary background of a country lawyer gives a mirror image in 1983; had there been no revolution (1789) or revolutionary crisis (1983) we could easily see him being still a quiet country lawyer, or a factory accountant in some industrial backwater of socialist Poland, extolling the virtues of rationing to his fellow workers. Robespierre is always the man summoned by history. If Danton is the freedom loving Polish people, Robespierre is the cold bureaucrat of the Polish state, while Saint-Just could equally be a young, unhinged ideologue of the Party of 1983.

In a marvellous scene we see this chasm mapped out; Danton has invited Robespierre to dinner, a first meeting between the two since his brief retirement from revolutionary Paris, which we see him return to at the beginning of the film. Danton intends to convince Robespierre that if the Terror is continued, the people will rise against the revolution, and that it should be ended so that they may continue with a less-bloody revolution as allies. We see him nervously flapping around various intricate dishes that have been prepared for Robespierre, upbraiding his supporters for having put the wrong flowers on the dining table, ‘He only likes blue flowers’, eager to impress his old friend. Robespierre arrives late, treats the meeting like a political mediation instead of a meeting of old friends, and declines food, leading Danton to fly into a rage and upbraid him for his coldness and unmanliness, and his distance from the people – ‘They say you’ve never had a woman’, he shouts, ‘You know nothing of the people’. Danton is the colourful freedom fighter, a man of the people, while Robespierre is the distant bureaucrat of the state machinery. This is Danton as a doomed version of Solidarność, who instead of perishing on the guillotine in Paris as Danton did, are rotting in the Soviet prisons in the depths of Krakow in 1983. But, as the communist states eventually fall in 1989, so too do Robespierre and his allies, executed after the coup of 9 Thermidor in 1794.

Žižek sums up the modern liberal attitude to the French Revolution as ‘1789 without 1793’; an appreciation for the overthrow of a despotic monarchy and aristocratic class, and for the values of modern democracy that the revolution gave birth to, but an abhorrence of the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and the Terror. He argues that without 1793, the ‘zero level of Jacobinism through which the fundamentals of democracy are established’, any talk of the democratic plus-points for liberals of 1789 becomes invalidated, as the revolution would almost certainly have failed, or been defeated. Then, the revolution becomes a product without its vital essence, or devolved of its harmful ingredient; like non-alcoholic beer, a ‘decaffeinated revolution’.

Orphans of the Storm is without a doubt a product of this attitude, albeit in the harsher climate of a rabid American anti-communism. Griffith’s intertitles talk of the exploitative and despotic nature of the monarchy, but also condemns Robespierre and the Jacobins. Danton also plays a major role in Griffith’s film, and in an attempt to find a plausible figure to represent his middle-ground, a completely fictional Danton is manufactured and created as a character who is a sober opponent of oppression, be it Royalist or Jacobin, opposed to both Kings and Terror in equal measure. Early on we see him chinwagging congenially with Thomas Jefferson, who is apparently in France as a diplomat, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate royalist during the revolution who argued the case for a constitutional monarchy. A more historically accurate meeting between Danton and Lafayette would have been on July 17 1791, when Danton led a crowd against the National Constituent Assembly after they had decreed that the monarchy would remain in place, which was fired upon on the Champ de Mars on orders from Lafayette, leaving dozens dead.

What we get in Orphans of the Storm is a Danton twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition. Later, he is referred to as the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, and at one point witnesses a benevolent aristocrat distributing bread to the poor, and sadly tells him, ‘If more of the aristocrats were like you, things would be different’. Paralleling the dominant ideology of our times, whereby liberals may acknowledge the unjust nature of capitalist society, and have been handwringing over it since the economic crisis of 2008, but believe any fundamental shift in the structure of society to be unrealistic, and prefer instead tweaking reforms; Griffith believes that France would have been safe in the hands of a reformed and paternalistic aristocracy.

In the midst of exploitative aristocrats and marauding, fanatical sans-culottes, Danton is Griffith’s stabilising factor in the midst of chaos. He has equal distaste for both the aristocracy and the brutality of the fanatical sans-culottes who we see rampaging over Paris, fighting with soldiers, and wielding oversized butcher’s knives and sickles. Equally condemned is the figure of Robespierre, who in Griffith’s interpretation  we can take to represent Lenin.

When not leading a revolutionary crowd in Orphans of the Storm, Danton is quiet and reflective, not quite the bombastic ‘tribune of the people’, a thundering one at that, we see in Wajda’s film, which presents an overall more truthful version of Danton. When finally charged and dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunel in Danton, ostensibly for financial misdeeds, but equally for his opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, Danton is reminded, and acknowledges, that he himself had been instrumental in forming the Revolutionary Tribunel the previous year, which had been used to try and and send to the guillotine countless political enemies. This acknowledgement is important, and leads us to remember that Danton was no political innocent, he was a Jacobin, he had voted for the execution of the King, he sat alongside his friend Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Marat as a member of The Mountain, the most radical group of the National Convention, so-called because they would occupy the high benches of the debating chamber, he had participated in the suppression of the moderate Girondist faction, and he had been instrumental in founding the Committee of Public Safety and had served as its first President.

Danton has long been a staple of literature, he has featured in as many novels, poems and plays as Robespierre himself, and the reason for this could be that he is one of the few figures of the French Revolution who fulfill both the aesthetic, and especially Romantic, ideal of the passionate revolutionary, the crusader for the people, and a safe ideological figure, free from the stain of tyranny in his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the excesses of the Terror. Other figures of the Revolution are unpalatable for various reasons and have been defined as such; the Girondins and other moderates are passionless, dull, and compromising, Lafayette was disgraced, Jean-Paul Marat is a psychopath, Saint-Just is the bloodthirsty fanatic, and Robespierre the calculating tyrant. Danton, or a whitewashed version of his character, ticks all the boxes for a literary ideal where others do not, and it is this version we see in Orphans of the Storm. In turn, when he is designated the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, a preposterous comparison if there was one, Danton is again manipulated to represent the figure of the pure and just American democracy, standing up against the revolutionary excesses of the young Soviet Russia.

Žižek recounts a popular anecdote about the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai, that when asked his thoughts on the French Revolution, he answered, ‘It is still too early to tell’. It is now thought that he was misquoted and was instead referring to the 1968 upheavels, and this is a shame, not only for the loss of poetry from the statement, but because it is true; in 1921 the French Revolution is interpreted through DW Griffith and America’s anti-communism as a warning against ‘Bolshevism’ and the spread of communism, its 1983 version is that of the fall of Robespierre mirroring the eventual fall of the Soviet-backed Polish state, and in the West, in our time, we see it interpreted through the liberal democratic prism of ‘1789 without 1793’. The French Revolution continues to be twisted and manipulated to reflect the dominant ideology of the present, it is the ultimate ‘history of the present’.

1 Comment

Filed under film, history, politics

Johnny Guitar; between John Wayne and Camus

After witnessing a stagecoach robbery, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) enters an unnamed frontier town in the Old West to start his new job as guitar player in a saloon. The saloon keeper, a strong-willed woman called Vienna (Joan Crawford), is hated by the town’s populace due to her support for a railway being extended through the town. She believes it will bring new money to the region, but the population believe an influx of strangers will threaten their livelihoods. She also allows a suspected robber called The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang to drink in her saloon, which draws the ire of the locals. The townsfolk suspect Vienna and The Dancin’ Kid to be responsible for the stagecoach robbery, and after a confrontation with a posse, led by a zealous local woman called Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) who is jealous of Vienna and The Kid’s relationship, it becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is in fact Johnny Logan, a famed gunslinger and Vienna’s former lover.

Later on, The Dancin’ Kid and his gang commit a bank robbery, for which Vienna is blamed for being the mastermind. With a posse on their trail, Vienna is caught hiding an injured gang member at the saloon, and Emma convinces the posse that Vienna must be hanged. At the last moment, she is saved by Johnny Guitar, and they flee in to the mountains, leading to a final shootout between Emma and Vienna.

On its release in 1954, Johnny Guitar left many American critics uninterested, while in Europe, and especially amongst the New Wave directors in France, who were already great champions of Nicholas Ray, the film was lauded as a masterpiece. Francois Truffaut ranked it amongst his favourite films, and Jean-Luc Godard was equally enamoured with its existential and social themes and Ray’s consistently pioneering filmmaking technique. A wonderful quote from a negative review that appeared in Variety on the film’s release uncannily sums up the two viewpoints,

“It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment. [The scriptwriter] becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle…The people in the story never achieve much depth, this character shallowness being at odds with the pretentious attempt at analysis to which the script and direction devotes so much time.

In this, it is not hard to see why the French critics were so excited by Johnny Guitar. Complex characterisation, long, idiosyncratic dialogue, and exploration of motivations and philosophical themes, rejected by the reviewer as ‘nuances and neuroses’, were the bedrock of New Wave. And it is equally easy to see why American critics rejected it; the main gripe of the reviewer in this case seeming to be the lack of action, ‘rearing up in the saddle’, usually associated with Westerns, in favour of a more measured film interested in character exploration and wider themes.

It is true that Johnny Guitar utterly falls down as a Western, and would have left many American fans of the traditional Western bewildered. Truffaut called it a ‘phony Western’, and it is probably best to initially compare it to other Westerns of the time, and then to view it outside the form of a Western completely, as its themes are much wider than this usually narrowly defined genre.

Regarding the characters, Johnny himself is not a typical Western hero, and many aspects of him fail to live up to the typical male lead in a Western; although skilled with them, he eschews the use of guns, his dialogue is often philosophical and idiosyncratic, he is often reserved and stays in the background, and his general demeanour and outlook are of a relaxed quietness that seems quite alien to traditional Westerns. When compared to the archetypal Western hero typified in the 40s and 50s by John Wayne, gruff, tough, straight speaking, often selfish, but ultimately good, Johnny and his wandering dialogue and far less ‘manly’ gait seem out of place, and in turn make a John Wayne character look incredibly one-dimensional to the level of appearing similar to Hollywood’s later ‘one size fits all’ action movie stars. With John Wayne being the John McClane of the Wild West, Johnny Guitar seems more the literary existential loner than action star. And, again in opposition to the traditional Western, and to the vindication of the previously quoted American reviewer, while there are lots of guns, there is very little shooting.

The film is overwhelmingly existentialist in tone, and the events that unfold during the course of it often seem farcical, pointless, and, as Albert Camus would have claimed in his theory of the Absurd, cruel twists of fate in a world without meaning. Vienna is being forced out of business by the irrational fear of the townsfolk to the coming of the railroad, and is blamed, through a series a chances, for masterminding a robbery she had nothing to do with. By chance, she is present when the robbery takes place, and the young robber, Turkey, somehow ends up wounded on her saloon floor. When the posse turn up to search the saloon, she almost convinces them of her innocence until Turkey inadvertently reveals his hiding place under a table, and they are then led away to be hanged. And what led to Turkey arriving at Vienna’s in the first place? His injury, farcical to the last, is caused by his failing to duck when riding his horse under a large branch. A fate far too inglorious for most Westerns, it is reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider, and the series of unfortunate events that Meursault is victim to that lead to his shooting of the Arab on the beach.

Adding to the sense that Johnny and Vienna are being persecuted by conditions and cruel chance rather than individuals is the presence of the posse, who appear throughout the film as an amorphous mass. Aside from the obvious individual of Emma, and a couple of others, such as the Marshall, the posse as a whole is anonymous, and this is emphasised by the uniformity of their appearance; they are almost all wearing exactly the same clothing, which Vienna makes reference to at one point as ‘funeral clothes’.

But the true personal conflict of the film is between Vienna and Emma, and it is interesting in itself that for a film whose title bears him name, the character of Johnny could almost be surplus. At times he appears weak when faced with these two strong characters, and the male characters as a whole are completely secondary to the two females, both Johnny and The Dancin’ Kid and his gang defer to Vienna, who is clearly the leader of the group, and the posse always seem unsure of what course of action to take unless instructed by Emma. It is jealousy of, and fear of what she represents that drives Emma’s relentless persecution of Vienna. While the rest of the posse are also opposed to Vienna and would obviously rather be rid of her, they are uneasy at condemning her for a crime they know she did not commit, and are reluctant to take her to the gallows, but do so anyway in the face of Emma’s psychotic urging. It is Emma’s zealous hatred of Vienna, in the face of a town otherwise reluctant to condemn her, that drives the film, and also throws up the obvious social aspects at stake.

It is unclear when Johnny Guitar is supposed to be set, but we can fairly safely assume that it is some time around the turn of the 20th century. The Old West is in its dying stages, and Emma and the townsfolk represent the hopeless struggle to defend their town from the march of modernity, represented perennially in the railroad, which will eventually render the frontier, and their old routines, broken. Emma and the posse can be seen as protectionists, economically, and in regards to their way of life. An interesting if more dramatic comparison to make would be to Spain in the mid-19th century, a steadily industrialising country that faced substantial opposition to modernisation that manifested in several civil wars known as the Carlist Wars. Finding their support base mainly among the ultra-conservative peasants of the mountainous northern Navarre region, the Carlists would march from the mountains, often led by priests, to attack the symbols of liberalism, secularism and modernity, often represented again, by train stations, which were attacked and burned to the ground at any opportunity. Another example of this resistance to the new world encroaching on the values of the Old West can be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, where we see the resistance of farmers and townspeople to oil baron Daniel Plainview’s plans to build a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, and their will is broken only by the extraordinary amounts of money he has to offer these struggling people for their land.

But, in true existentialist fashion, alongside these entirely rational themes there is, at its heart the irrational that would have appealed especially to European cinema and the New Wave;  that good, protestant settler Emma’s hatred for Vienna, strong enough to want to kill her for no good reason, is partly fuelled by her love for The Dancin’ Kid, by all accounts an amoral criminal. It is this irrationality, farce, and the existential twists of fate at the heart of Johnny Guitar, and its complete disregard for the traditional Western, that led to its poor reception in America, and in turn also led to its hailing as a masterpiece, a ‘Beauty and the Beast of Westerns’, as Truffaut called it, by European cinema.

Leave a comment

Filed under film

Detour: Extremist noir

Detour, released in 1945 and directed by Edgar G Ulmer, was a product of the highly productive, if now largely forgotten series of low-rent movies produced through short-lived studios known as ‘poverty row’, B-movies produced by small studios from the late twenties through to the mid-fifties, typified by featuring relatively unknown actors, low budgets, basic set design, and short shooting schedules. Over the years it has found itself designated classic of film noir, has appeared on numerous great movie lists, notably the All-Time 100 Movies, and has been bestowed the label of ‘cult film’. A cult film is defined by a fanatical devotion from a small number of fans, and this can sometimes lead to a it being regarded as a novelty. This is an unfair label to be placed on a film like Detour, which I think should not only be regarded as a classic of film noir, but a film that subverted common practise of the time and took noir to its logical, and purest, extreme.

Detour is now in the public domain, and is available for download here;


Detour tells the story of Al, played by Tom Neal, a hapless piano player from New York. He plays in a small bar, and is in love with Sue, an ambitious young singer he accompanies on the piano. We first see Al in a roadside cafe at night, unshaven, dishevelled, and argueing with the staff and other customers. His narration, in classic noir style kicks in, we learn that some misfortune has beset him, and a flashback begins.

Al and Sue are performing a rendition of ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’, and afterwards Sue tells Al she intends to leave New York for Hollywood, and after initially criticising her decision, Al eventually agrees to join her once she is set up there. She leaves, and, lacking money, Al decides to hitchhike the journey, and is picked up by convertible driving Charles Haskell Jr, a cynical chancer with the demenour of a small-time crook. Haskell spends most of his time bragging about his wealth, and Al spots some scars on his hands that Haskell attributes to ‘some dame’ whom he had also offered a life. Haskell is obviously unwell, and during their journey together we see him popping pills. Night falls, and as they drive through a lonely part of Arizona, Haskell falls asleep in the passenger seat, and it starts to rain. Al unsuccessfully attempts to raise him, to ask if he should put the top down, and opens the car door. Haskell falls out, and smashes his head on a rock and dies. After some initial moral to-and-froing, Al decides that the police would never believe that he hadn’t committed murder, and drags Haskell’s body to some undergrowth, swaps their clothing and wallets, assumes his identity, and a not inconsiderable sum of money, and drives away in the convertible.

Al sleeps the night in a motel, and the next morning wakes and continues his journey to Hollywood, not before picking up a girl outside the motel who is also heading for California. She tells him to ‘call her Vera’, and he introduces himself as Haskell. After some initial stilted conversation, she tells Al that she knows he is not Haskell, as she is the one who gave him the scratches on his arm, and that she knows that Al has killed him. She takes Al’s, or Haskell’s, money in exchange for her silence, and they both agree that on arrival in Hollywood they should sell the car with her keeping all the money.

They get to Hollywood and rent an apartment as Mr and Mrs Haskell, and while Al spends the time stalking the apartment with a worried look permenently fixed to his face, Vera sets about getting drunk and chastising him for his bad decisions, threatening every so often to phone the police and tell them everything. They attempt to sell the car the next day, but Vera calls it off after noticing an article in a newspaper that tells her Haskell’s father is dying, and he is looking to reconcile with his long lost son. Sensing an inheritence, Vera attempts to convice Al to play Haskell in front of his dying father and family, and Al refuses, believing he would be found out. They retire back to the apartment, where Vera gets drunk again and harangues Al, threatens to phone the police, and eventually runs with the phone to her room where she locks herself in. Al pleads with her to see sense, and eventually grabs the phone line under the door and pulls it, trying to drag the phone away from her. After a few moments tugging, he opens the door and Vera is lying dead, the phone cord wrapped around her neck. Al has another moral dilemma, and speculates on how life’s misfortunes have got the better of him, and we return to him in the cafe from the first scene, unshaved and dishevelled. He leaves the cafe, and while walking down a dark road, is picked up by a police car which then drives away without explaination.

The film itself is just over an hour long, and is surprisingly low-rent, even for a B-movie. The filming took place over six days, only three sets were used, a few scenes were shot on location in the California desert. Stock footage and a short location scene on a used-car lot is used to represent Los Angeles, and a street scene in New York is clearly just a set with fog used to obscure the background. This film has more scenes where the characters are either driving or being driven in a car than any other I’ve seen.

The low-rent nature of the film leaves us to focus on the main characters. Apart from fairly fleeting appearances by Al’s love interest, Sue, and the real Haskell, and a few lines from minor characters, Al and Vera take up all of our time. Vera, played by Ann Savage, is a classic noir femme fatale, but taken to a logical extreme that is often unnerving; she has all the sass and cunning of a traditional noir female lead, but is completely amoral and unsympathetic, and at times she makes for uncomfortable viewing. She spits out her lines, and is permenantly blackmailing, threatening, mentally torturing, or just plain insulting Al, berating him and calling him a ‘sap’ or a ‘sucker’ every other sentence. She assumes the dominant role in the parternship, with Al is usually either nervously following her plans or worrying about whether he should. Al is repulsed by Vera, and the viewer is left with no appealing qualities to see in her. In many of his scenes with Vera, except their last, he has the demenour of a kicked puppy, and several times we are led to think he may be on the verge of killing her. But even so, her cunning does not extend to her intelligence, and between whining and attempting to appeal to her better nature, or which she has none, Al is left to convince her that her plan to impersonate Haskell is front of his family is completely ridiculous and unlikely to succeed.

As a side note, Tom Neal seemed to exemplify the film noir male more powerfully in his private life than the uncertain and nervous characterisation of Al we get in the film. He was a successful college boxer, and in 1951 left actor Franchot Tone in a temporary coma after beating him half to death in a dispute over a mutual love interest, Barbara Payton, and in 1965 he was conviced of involuntary manslaughter and served six years in prison after shooting his third wife, Gale Bennett, in the back of the head, killing her.

Al’s narration reveals another dimension of the film, and unlike most traditional hardboiled narration in a noir, cannot be taken at face value. Throughout Detour we get the impression that the viewer is being deceived. In most noir, we take for granted that the  narration is the viewer’s exclusive access to the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. The protagonist has no reason to lie to the passive viewer. In Detour, given the unlikely nature of the deaths that occurr in Al’s presence, which he acknowledges and frets about continuously, and the almost pleading tone he adopts, we get the impression that the narration is a deception. Al has committed the murders of Haskell and Vera, and what we are hearing are his attempts to convince us of his innocence with ludicrous explainations of their deaths, and the pictures we are seeing on the screen are his lie to the viewer. This is where the cynical pessimism and lack of apparent morality in film noir is taken to its conclusion, where the viewer is in fact being deceived by a murderous protagonist, and the cynicism is reaching beyond the screen.

The very last scene, though, proves Detour’s place as the purest of noir films, and has to be seen in the context of restrictions on filmmaking at the time. Between the end of the silent era to around the late fifties, all American films were subject to massive censorship at the hands of the Motion Picture Production Code, an overwhelmingly conservative code of moral standards for cinema. Known as the Hays Code, after William H Hays, Hollywood’s chief censor until he retired in 1945, it was introduced in 1930, though for the next four years was mostly ignored This period, know now as ‘pre-code Hollywood’ produced many films that appear shockingly racy when compared with what came after them, dealing with themes of drugs, sex, murder, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and portraying women and blacks in a strong and favourable light, something later Hollywood often failed to do in regard to the former, and nearly always failed to do regarding the latter.

The Hays Code became mandatory in 1934, and was effectively enforced from then onwards, prohibiting, among many things; themes on homosexuality, depictions of mixed race relationships, favourable portrayls of sexual relations outside marriage, ridiculue or criticism of authorities or religious figures , ‘lustful kissing’, ‘scenes of unnecessary passion’, unnecessary portrayls of violence, and any nudity. Its intention was to capture cinema, seen by many conservatives as a deviant art form, and instill in it the virtue of ‘traditional values’. Even Betty Boop found herself transformed from flapper to long-skirted housewife. Few films managed to get past the restrictions, and when they did it was through minor transgressions. Hitchcock notably mocked the code’s ban on kissing scenes lasting longer than three seconds in his 1946 release Notorious; Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman engage in a prolonged session by breaking off their kiss every three seconds to nuzzle each other, and then start again. Amazingly, and to Hitchcock’s great satisfaction and amusement, he let this carry on for two-and-a-half minutes.

A victory over the censors, but one that seems incredibly tame when compared to a film such as the 1931 pre-code classic Safe In Hell, about a smart and savvy secretary-turned-prostitute played by Dorothy Mackaill, with its frank depictions of murder and sexuality, almost nudity, the presence of a strong and intelligent female role, and its allowing black actors to forfeit any ‘negro dialect’ required of them in later films. Between this, and Cary Grant’s extended kissing, we see the effect the code had on American film.

Not satisfied to restrict filmmaking on the moral plane, the code also extended to politics, with its specifications for ‘respectful treatment of the flag’, and that the nation, and authority were not to be made light of. All in all, the Hays Code set out to ensure that,

‘No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it’

Another important aspect of the code was that crime in film could not be presented as in any way rewarding, and criminals would always have to either apprehended or punished for their crimes by the end of the film. Although appearing to follow this rule, the last ten seconds of Detour completely circumvent it. As Al walks into the night, and the police car rolls up to collect him, we can almost imagine Edgar G Ulmer laughing behind the camera, and his audacity is astounding.

Al’s ‘arrest’ is so brief, so unnecessary, and presented in such an offhand way, almost as an afterthought  as though Ulmer had finished the film and suddenly remembered the existence of the censor, that we know it too to be a deception. Never has a token gesture been so purposefully lazily committed to film. Ulmer is winking to the audience, and telling us that, if not for the police car, the film would not have made it past the censors, but, as both audience and director know, in reality Al has walked in to the night, and has gotten away with murder. He may as well have flashed a message over the police car, ‘for the benefit of the censor’. Detour has performed the impossible task of completely subverting the Hays Code while complying with it, albeit with an obvious complete lack of sincerity, at the same time. The last ten seconds of the film are a middle-finger salute to the censor.

The fact that the protagonist has committed murder and gotten away with it, the unpleasant and unsympathetic characterisation of Al and Vera, compounded with the fact that Al has sought to deceive the viewer through the entire film and his narration, show Detour to be almost a pre-code film. Stripping away Al’s unvoiced deception of the viewer and the token gesture of the police car to save the shock of the censor’s imagined ideal of respectable filmgoer, the viewer is confronted with noir in its pure form; the unpalatable reality of a murderer who has gotten away with it. Because of its low-budget and technically strange presentation, and the almost ‘nothing to lose’ feeling familiar of many B-movie productions, Detour is noir in its logical extreme, a film that the big studios were prevented from, and would not have run the risk of, trying to make.

Leave a comment

Filed under film

The First Blow

I’m a big fan of French New Wave, and as this blog continues I’ll hopefully get a chance to write more on it. I’m currently working my way through the five films Francois Truffaut made charting the life of his restless alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played in each film by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 when he was just 14, Léaud and Truffaut give us Antoine realising unrequited love at the age of 17 in the 1962 short Antoine and Colette, through to his courtship and marriage of violinist Christine in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, and ending in 1979 with Love On The Run, by which time Léaud was in his mid-thirties.

Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is often held as the defining figure in French New Wave, due to his appearence in Jean-Luc Godard’s defining New Wave debut A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and his continued association with Godard throughout the sixties, Léaud’s claim to the title is resoundingly stronger. Along with his role as Antoine Doinel, he featured prominently in Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Week End, as well as appearing briefly in Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou. His involvement with both directors was such that when Truffaut and Godard eventually broke off their friendship, as documented in the excellent documentary Two In The Wave, released last year, Léaud was so torn between the two that he felt bartered with and bandied about like a child caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

Long before the degeneration of their friendship, when both Godard and Truffaut were critics and friendly rivals on the burgeoning film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and Truffaut had just released the opening volley of fire at French cinema in the form of The 400 Blows, Godard wrote of his friend’s film;

‘The face of the French cinema has changed.’

Just a year after being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival because of his uncompromising attacks upon the French cinematic establishment, Truffaut had successfully transformed his sobriquet from the ‘gravedigger of French cinema’, to its saviour. The 400 Blows was selected by de Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux to represent France at the 1959 Festival, at which it won Truffaut the award for Best Director.

If The 400 Blows was the opening volley against an out of touch French cinema, the opening scene in the film presented traditional French society with no question of what it was to expect from this new age. We find Antoine Doinel at school, in trouble with his teacher having been caught passing a picture of a bikini-clad woman amongst his classmates. He is sent to stand in the corner as punishment, and is not allowed to play with his friends at breaktime, leading him to scrawl on the wall behind the blackboard;

‘Here poor Antoine Doinel was
punished by Sourpuss
for a pin-up fallen from the sky
it will be an eye for an eye’

The scene plays out as a condemnation of the old forms of learning and expression, and the target identified can clearly be seen as French cinema and the cultural establishment. We see the disciplinarian teacher boring his pupils with rote learning of an uninspiring poem called ‘The Hare’, and the teacher himself is shown to be representative of the generation of wartime Frenchmen and women who confronted the sixties, and everything that came with it, including the New Wave, with disdain and a feeling of powerlessness. At one point, the teacher laments the rebelliousness of his pupils with a cry of,

‘Poor France! What a future!’

In the same way the New Wave was rebelling against the cinematic age its founders existed in, so too are Antoine Doinel and his classmates unwittingly rebelling against traditional French society. This is even more pertinent when we consider the political situation in France when New Wave was born.

The Fourth Republic had collapsed in 1958, after what was essentially a coup d’etat by army officers in Algeria, leading to the founding of the Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as president in an almost dictatorial capacity, having granted himself extraordinary powers and an unchallengeable seven-year term.

The radicalising effects of the Fifth Republic, the opposition to the war in Algeria, the continuous liberatory movement of the young through France during the 1960s, all these factors exemplified perfectly in the films of New Wave, manifested itself in the largest uprising in Europe for decades, and the largest since; the near-revolution of 1968. Students rioted and occupied their universities, and even more threatening to the established order, the country experienced the largest general strike in its history, with hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories and running them independently of their bosses.

The uncompromisingly emancipatory nature of the uprising, along with its potential for victory, was such that the workers and students were eventually forced back to work by ‘their own’ organisations, the French Communist Party and the official trade unions. The level of political liberation was such that workers and students found themselves in direct opposition to their traditional representatives, who sided with the state against revolution.

The changes in culture, sexuality, political structure, ideology, gender relationships, in France in the sixties were massive. Antoine Doinel and his classmates are at the age of twelve in The 400 Blows, and in 1968 they will be students or young workers, and likely to be involved in some way in the 1968 uprising, and it is easy to imagine an older Antoine with a paving stone in his hand.

In this way the opening scene of The 400 Blows is a metaphor for the changes France is about to experience, and just as many of the older generation felt a sense of helplessness when confronted with the liberated young of the sixties, and the ’68 uprising, the teacher can do nothing in the face of his rebellious pupils but lament for the future of the country. Their rebelliousness is not without a check however, for the immediate image we are confronted with when we leave the classroom is a looming close up of the powerful emblem of traditional French republicanism outside the school, the immovable ‘Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie’, carved in stone, a reminder of the power and constant presence of the state.

Refusing to remain passive observers and documenters, when 1968 came around Truffaut and Godard didn’t leave it up to Antoine Doinel and A Bout de Souffle’s eternal gangster Michel to voice their rebellion, and they became actively involved in protests, notably in the campaign for the reinstatement of the dismissed director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Langlois had been dismissed by culture minister André Malraux, who had by this time turned against New Wave and sought to replace him with a government-appointed board of directors. The incident was a massive error of judgement on Malraux’s part, who had vastly underestimated the symbolic importance of Langlois and the Cinémathèque to filmmakers around the world. The campaign for Langlois provided a major rallying point for filmmakers’ involvement in the uprising and the campaign attracted support from names such as Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Nicholas Ray was also a robust supporter of the campaign and attended demonstrations in Paris, including one a week after Langlois’ dismissal alongside Truffaut, Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marie Epstein, Bertrand Tavernier and others, during which the crowd was baton charged by the police.

After successfully forcing the Cannes Film Festival to shut down in 1968, Truffaut and Godard organised demonstrations in support of Langlois and he was reinstated later that year, although their partnership in the campaign was their last, and their friendship was bitterly broken soon after.

The 400 Blows heralded not just a new era of artistic and cinematic expression, but also the massive shifts that French society was about to experience. Antoine Doinel’s rebellion against his teacher and his parents exemplify this, as does his rebellion against the army in Stolen Kisses but nothing in the early New Wave films rivalled, as an opening declaration of opposition to all that had come before it, the first scene in which Antoine is chastised by his teacher. It is little wonder that the poetic lament for his situation and statement of revenge he scrawls on the wall is so reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans painted over Paris during the uprising of 1968. Sous les pavés, la plage – Antoine Doinel?

Leave a comment

Filed under film, history, politics

The Red Shoes vs Black Swan

The similarities between Black Swan, which was released earlier this year, and The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and released in 1948, are obvious. Both tell the story of talented young women engaged as ballet dancers, both relatively unknown, who are suddenly propelled to the limelight as prima ballerinas, dancing the principal role in a new ballet for their respective companies. In Black Swan’s case, a bold new reworking of Swan Lake, and in The Red Shoes, a brand new composition also called The Red Shoes. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young girl given a pair of red shoes by a mysterious and sinister cobbler, which, as soon as she puts them on, possess her and make her dance uncontrollably until she dies from exhaustion.

Black Swan shows Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, who, having been a minor member of her ballet company, attempt to unburden herself of her self-consciousness and attain a near impossible level of excellence expected in her new role, while at the same time dealing with her fragile mental state which is exacerbated by her overbearing mother, herself a failed ballerina, played to an often frightening intensity by Barbera Hershey. In The Red Shoes, Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, is a relatively minor dancer in the Lermontov Ballet company, and is thrown in to the limelight when her director, Boris Lermantov, chances to see her dance in a small, run down hall somewhere in London in front of a handfull of people. She is offered the lead in the new play, The Red Shoes, and it is a resounding success, as proudly exhibited to the viewer in a magnificent, and completely hallucinatory and Fellini-esque fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film.

Nina struggles with her new role; she is precise in her delivery of the part of Odette, the angelic White Swan, but, in the eyes of her director, Thomas, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassell, passionless, restrained, and lacking in the sexual energy he sees as essential to the part of the Odile, the Black Swan. Vicky’s adaptation is smoother, although conflict soon manifests itself when she falls in love with Julian Craster, the young, up-and-coming composer of The Red Shoes.

Both women suffer the machinations of manipulative directors; Leroy is passionate and lecherous towards Nina, whereas Lermontov is an ice cold Russian exile, who fires Julian from the company once he finds out about their relationship, believing Vicky’s love for him compromising to her art. Vicky leaves also, in solidarity with her lover, leading Lermontov to sink in to a depression, believing no one else capable of dancing The Red Shoes but Vicky. She eventually returns, without the knowledge of Julian, and agrees to dance. However, moments before she is due to go onstage, Julian turns up, and, incensed at her betrayl, demands she choose between their love and the ballet. She chooses the ballet, he storms off, but as she is walking down the long corridor to the stage, wide-eyed before the camera, the red shoes she is wearing, representing her conflict between love and art, carry her off, and she runs out of the building and commits suicide by jumping from a balcony. In an equally dramatic parallel, Nina is broken by her fragile state of mind, and unwittingly stabs herself during the intermission of the opening night, then completes the second half to rapturous applause, and dies on stage.

The material likeness of both stories are obvious, but what is more important is the believability of the principal characters in their adaptation from obscurity to the unbelievable pressure of performance, and as both films adopt the familiar story-within-a-story formula, attention must also be focused on both Natalie Portman and Moira Shearer in their performances. The idea is to see the ballet in the film through their eyes, as we are seeing the film through our own eyes.

Black Swan opts for a simple psychological thriller angle, showing Nina’s struggle with her role through the prism of her faltering mental health. Vicky’s adaptation to her role stands on Moira Shearer’s performance alone, without the aid of any psychological gimmickry, and in many ways that is enough. Moira Shearer herself was a professional ballet dancer, a rising member of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, and The Red Shoes was her first film. It shows, and, as brilliant as she is, her nervousness and innocence is obvious, especially during conversational scenes, where she spends most of her time staring in to space when she is both listening and talking. Her nerves and earnestness are translated perfectly through Vicky, who through a quiet, although shaky at first, dignity confronts her own impending stardom. In comparison to this genuine manifestation of both a character and an actor/dancer’s response to art, in both Vicky Page and Moira Shearer’s response to ballet and film, the conflict of Black Swan seems artificial and forced, resting on the psychological angle alone.

The Red Shoes was a bold film for the time, a jump in to near fantasy when realism owned post-war cinema, and was a testement to art over real life. As Michael Powell later reflected,

“For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”

In the tragic endings to Black Swan and The Red Shoes, both Nina and Vicky lose their lives to their art; Nina after sacrificing her mind for it, and Vicky after sacrificing love.

As a side note, it is interesting to note the response of the ballet world to both films. Upon its release, The Red Shoes was celebrated as an accurate portrayl of ballet, as well as during filming when several ballet critics were given access to sets. With its later popularity however, it began to be criticised as portraying ballet in a cliched and negative light. The attacks often bore a resemblance to the condemnation by other art forms of early cinema, laced with ignorance and disdainful of the medium as a whole, which, in 1948, seems a bit of a stretch. Moira Shearer herself later attacked the film also, although this seems mostly from exasperation with the technical side of filmmaking; during the dance sequences she was only allowed to dance for short periods at a time, often having to repeat the same thirty seconds of dance continuously, and it took some time for her to adapt back to the structure and technique of a full ballet.

The response from ballet to the release of Black Swan was, by comparison, caustic. Critics saw it was portraying dancers in a negative light, as ruthless, selfish, and egotistical. Not entirely unfair claims, although I have no idea how cut-throat ballet dancers might be having spent little time with any, but it is no stretch to imagine competition in companies to be fierce. Reactions weren’t helped by the portrayl of Nina by a non-ballerina, and the dance scenes were attacked as amateurish (which, by their own definition, they obviously were) and the subsequent claims by a professional dancer to have performed some of the dance scenes only added to the controversy.

As a modern art form, ballet is distinct in the way it seems to be disdainful of publicity, and often actively hostile when it receives any. Following the reaction to Black Swan, various following articles criticised the ballet world for its insularity. These observations were not unjustified, for example, in an age where nearly anything popular to someone has an in-depth article on Wikipedia, the page on ballet, for a major form of artistic expression, is surprisingly short, and goes in to little historical or technical detail. In comparison, the page on the Basque variant of the sport pelota, hardly a pursuit with the same worldwide appeal, is over double the length. But maybe this is a positive attitude for ballet to take, and a perceptive one.

Those in ballet know it is never going to have widespread appeal today, and instead of compromise itself to the cheapening effects of mass culture in an attempt to broaden its appeal, as so many other art forms have done, it closes itself off, and retains its integrity. In refusing to debase itself to a lowest common denominator of pure entertainment value, it refuses to even engage in the arguement on the terms defined by those of mass culture, that of entertainment value itself. In this way its insularity is positive, and it can remain a pure art form. Of course, the attention ballet has received from the recent release of Black Swan will be unwelcome to many of those who wish it to remain anonymous from mass culture, and they will be hoping the momentary popularity will fade like many Hollywood-inspired fads.


Filed under film