“Hail Mary,” directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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She’s the One

By Ray Sawhill

In the sixties, when Jean-Luc Godard was in peak form, he worked as a kind of essayist-collagist. He had a real fondness for junk culture; he assembled his own movies from scraps, skits, readymades, found objects, parodies and reminders of other movies, his own commentary, pages from his journal. He drew from the contemporary world and returned his work to it.

There are similarities in the ways Godard’s early movies and his recent ones are put together — in the fragmentation, the vivid “natural” sound. But in the sixties films, Godard’s state of mind wasn’t his only subject. Nowadays it is. Despite their contemporary settings, Godard’s new movies have focused entirely on his own psyche. In his work, he used to be aroused, jangled; now he’s distracted and self-absorbed. He no longer speaks to us directly, in a film language we all share, and he isn’t making much of an effort to make us see things through his eyes. These films have no force; they’re fascinating only if you find Godard fascinating. (Probably many of us still do.) You have the sense that if you want to figure out what he’s saying you’ll have to go more than halfway.

The new pictures are a series with a development that moves from the rejection of the audience in “Every Man for Himself'” through “Passion,” “First Name: Carmen” and “Detective” to the passivity of “Hail Mary,” in which he brings together everything he has been doing in movies since he returned to feature filmmaking. In these films, Godard has been developing a code, consisting of very few signs. One is classical art — the recreated paintings in “Passion,” the plots of “First Name: Carmen” and “Hail Mary,” the music he has used in all of his recent films. Another is the day-to-day world of sexual and financial commerce — which he presents as a place of lies and corruption, populated entirely by sell-outs. A third is woman as Woman, the repository of Mystery and Creation. And there is the moon, there is water, there is nighttime traffic. Godard seems to be developing this code for his private use, yet he’s also doing something we usually associate with self-dramatizers: he’s been exposing himself, putting his insides up on the screen.

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From “Every Man for Himself”

“Every Man” left me with the impression of a beast rousing, pulling himself reluctantly out of sleep. Godard seemed irritated, and his put-upon air suggested that he felt forced by us into action against his will. The film is set in a Swiss town. A character named Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) who works in video is being left by his girlfriend (Nathalie Baye), a pretty woman who has been a colleague of his and who now wants to move to the countryside. She bicycles into the hills along winding roads, escaping town, escaping him, renewing herself. The Swiss countryside is rolling, healing. She seems to grow stronger; Paul Godard sinks inside himself, vanishing behind his glasses and lank hair. He visits his ex-wife and young daughter and talks dirty to the girl, but there’s no sadism or meanness in his words — there’s nothing in them. He’s not really abusive; filth just seems to be all that remains in him — his soul is like a public beach after the crowds have left.

The film’s colors seem to have been painted on a ground of battleship grey, and the forms are contoured, shaded. Here and there, Godard uses slow motion and stop motion. We’re meant to be “analyzing” what we’re seeing, but what comes to mind is an image of Jean-Luc Godard at his editing table, running these frames by over and over, dissecting them, trying to find out what makes them tick — trying not just to get his bearings but to figure out how to get his own motor going.

The film has a running joke: the characters keep wondering aloud where the classical music on the soundtrack is coming from. It also has a little poker-faced whore (Isabelle Huppert), who looks for an apartment, works her trade and agrees to introduce her new-to-the-city sister to the business in exchange for a fifty percent cut. Godard uses the whore partly to establish a context — to show that even the most intimate of exchanges are commercial, that men are brutal and corruption is inescapable. The whore’s clients — including Paul Godard — treat her callously and her pimp beats her, forcing her to repeat “No one is independent.”

Godard also uses her as an an icon of primal Woman. She’s presented as practical, as someone who despite being a victim of capitalism and men survives and keeps something for herself. And like Paul Godard’s girlfriend, she gets out of the city — she visits a dairy farm. Women can flee — the film’s French title “Sauve Qui Peut” can also be translated as “Run for Your Life” — and endure. But the Godard stand-in is stranded in town, and his soul is infected; men are vulnerable to corruption in ways women aren’t.

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One night the hooker visits a businessman in his dimly-lit office; through his windows we see the city twinkling invitingly. He orders her and another man and woman to form a kind of sex machine, assigning them roles, positions and sounds. Godard draws a jokey parallel to moviemaking — as the businessman gives his subordinates their orders, he says, OK, now that we’ve got the image, let’s work on the sound. We’re supposed to accept this as a joke about how capitalism deadens and routinizes everything, even sex, but the scene has a strange feel. For one thing, Godard is saying that capitalism routinizes his work, too — he’s blaming the lack of life in his movie on The System. And as we watch the grinding of the sex/movie machine, we remain aware of what’s outside of camera range — the placid, beckoning nighttime city. The scene registers as an X-ray of Godard’s mind at work.

When the Paul Godard character is hit by a car at the end of the film, his ex-wife and daughter hurry by without helping him. (The camera emphasizes their callousness by panning with the two women and revealing seated musicians — our first view of the source of the mysterious music.) The film is like a demonstration of the old superstition that women are not only hardier than men, they don’t really die. They can give birth; men exist simply to plant the seed. (In “Hail Mary,” the hero is denied even that.) The film is Godard canceling himself out.

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From “Passion”

Godard introduces new elements into the code in “Passion,” which is a sophisticated version of the movie film students are forever making, the one that results when someone says, “I’ve got an idea! Let’s make a movie about a bunch of people trying to make a movie!” “Passion” is also set in Switzerland, largely in a film studio, a hotel and a factory. A director (Jerzy Radiwilowicz) is trying to make a film that consists entirely of paintings — Ingres, Delacroix — that have been recreated on a soundstage as life-size dioramas, with live people, live horses.

But he can’t bring himself to film; before writing he has to live, he says, and the light isn’t right. He has an affair with the wife (Hanna Schygulla) of the boss (Michel Piccoli) of a local factory, and with a young woman worker (Huppert again) who gets fired by the boss. On the soundtrack is some classical music and a lot of talk about how one should love one’s work and work to love. At one point the director proposes giving it to the working girl from behind, and we’re meant to see this as a metaphor for what men do to women and what management does to labor.

With its talk of work, love, factories and film, “Passion” is reminiscent of some of Godard’s film and video work from the seventies, in which he seemed to see capitalism as an expression of testosterone, the penis as a weapon of political oppression and his own sexuality as a threat to humankind. It’s especially reminiscent of the 1975 “Numéro Deux,” in which the hero was impotent and the heroine was constipated; he finally raped her anally as their daughter watched. In “Passion,” Godard is showing us what he’d like to do — which is to make “high” art — and he’s also showing that his medium won’t allow that. The moviemaking process is too distracting, and, besides, the light isn’t right.

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From “First Name: Carman”

What he does in “First Name: Carmen” is something many men have done on off days, which is to try to conjure up some feelings, or to bring what feelings they have into focus, by throwing themselves into sex. The film is a contemporary takeoff of the Prosper Mérimée story, with Carmen (Maruschka Detmers) a dark-haired modern girl who’s involved with a group of terrorists. She visits her Uncle Jean (played by Godard himself), a former film director who has been institutionalized and who may still be crazy but who gives her what she wants — an apartment by the seaside and the promise that he’ll try to make another movie. (The terrorists want to use the filmmaking activity to disguise a kidnapping.)

During a robbery, a bank guard (Jacques Bonaffé) falls for Carmen, abandons his post and escapes with her; it isn’t long before she has him tied in knots, and he becomes impotent. (Two new elements of the code: the image of a girl wearing nothing but a T-shirt and, by her side, the guy, mesmerized and demoralized; and the way Godard splits himself in two, between the young hero and the aging film director Uncle Jean.) Directing “Carmen,” Godard goes through the motions of setting up Carmen as a vortex of passion, and he amuses himself with some jokes and technical trickery, and with his own role, but his heart isn’t in it. (Carmen herself comes off as just another sulky kid.) He can’t focus on his story any better than his sap hero focuses on the girl. Godard keeps cutting away — to images of nighttime traffic, to ocean waves, to a string quartet playing Beethoven.

Godard is again musing about (and parodying) his own position vis à vis the movies. He sees movies as kids’ stuff. When Carmen drags Uncle Jean out of the mental home (where he seems relatively content), he goes along uncomplainingly but without any relish, as if saying, Sure, kids, anything you want — an only slightly stylized image of Jean-Luc Godard saying, “‘Carmen’ is what you want? OK, I’ll give you a Godard ‘Carmen.'” The central story seems less an erotic hallucination than a whimsy. Godard is saying that even if he were offered a pretty young girl as a plaything, he’d prefer to sit by the side of a lake, watching the waves and listening to classical music on a Walkman.

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From “Detective”

“Detective,” Godard’s next movie, has a different tone; I found it the easiest to take of his recent movies. Godard fills a Paris hotel with corruption, sexual misery and crime, and sets Jean-Pierre Léaud off on an investigation into the hotel’s goings-on. (This may be Godard kidding himself about how in “Passion” and “Carmen” he seemed to be searching for his excitement and his sense of connectedness as if they were things a detective could turn up.) The hotel and its contents are like a model of Godard’s depressed head; Léaud leads us at a brisk jog-trot through it. (The effect is like a ride through a not-so-funhouse.)

Godard’s work doesn’t come to life in this movie, but he seems to have been amused — in a low-grade, very black way — by his own situation. The film wasn’t a personal project, it was commissioned, and Godard functions as an old pro whore/entertainer. He’s cracking jokes at his own expense; he’s turning his grumpiness and misery and despondency and reluctance into a show, putting them on display for us to chuckle at. He uses bits of classical music and snatches of emotional old movies on television to mock the pettiness of the squabbles and double-dealings in his own film, and includes some wistfully poetic shots of red and white balls moving across a pool table. He gets a lot of his very rueful humor by suggesting the vastness and grandeur of what could be, what perhaps once was — the movies, music, maybe his own work — and contrasting it to what’s here now. He’s like a weary roué amusing friends with a story about a fiasco the night before: “She was beautiful, we were hot for each other, and — don’t ask me why — for the life of me I couldn’t go through with it.”

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From “Hail Mary”

“Hail Mary,” is a sweet, heartfelt, rather piteous movie. What’s most distinctive about it is that Godard has stopped trying to rouse or goad himself. He has given up trying to bring a film to life. In the earlier films, he was looking for the spirit — his essence and energy source; he was like the director in “Passion,” who ran around saying he couldn’t film. In “Mary” he’s saying that he can’t find his essence, and that he accepts that. He accepts impotence; he’s not kicking anymore. (In “Detective” and “Mary” his mood hasn’t improved, but he’s quit taking it out on us.) Some people may find “Hail Mary” the most banal of these movies; it’s certainly the purest. It has an otherworldly shimmer — that’s what you get in place of excitement — and it feels as though it had been made by an alien who had been deposited on earth and had taken on human form. He has learned our language (with no great enthusiasm), but all he can talk about is how unnatural he feels on this planet, in this form, how much he misses home, how — given our language — he can’t even begin to describe what it’s like where he comes from; about how he’s really genetically unsuited for life on earth.

The film is composed of two stories, both of them set in the same dull, clean and (apparently) Swiss town. In one, a Czech emigré philosopher spins theories to some students — in a classroom, on a walk by a lake. Life on earth isn’t an accident, he tells them. It’s not the product of anything as hit-or-miss as evolution; it was desired, willed. If you want to see what an extraterrestrial being looks like, he says, look into a mirror. A pert blonde girl in his class is named Eva — he persists in calling her Eve. They’re taken with each other, and soon they go to what seems to be her parents’ place, a large house called the Paradise Villa on the shore of a lake. They chat about Wittgenstein, Eva/Eve takes a few bites from an apple — the sound of her teeth bursting the apple’s flesh is magnified — and they begin an affair. Not long after, he leaves her to rejoin his wife, who (he says) has been let out of prison.

In the other story, Joseph is a cabdriver who reads pulp, keeps his big dog with him in his cab, and is caught between two girlfriends, both of whom play on the same women’s basketball team. One doesn’t have a name, the other is Mary (Myriem Roussel), the daughter of a gas-station owner. Joseph is confused because, though he has sex with the Nameless One, he’s drawn to Mary, who won’t let him touch her. She won’t even let him kiss her. Gabriel and a little assistant angel arrive in town by jet; Joseph drives them to the gas station in his cab, and Gabriel tells Mary she’s pregnant. The movie’s backbone is a long passage during which Mary, with the occasional help of Gabriel and his chum, tries to get Joseph to accept that she’s become pregnant without having been touched by a man, that he should agree to marry her and take care of her while continuing never to touch her, and that he should above all never abandon her. As soon as he shows any erotic interest in her, she slaps him down.

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The movie has a glazed, absent surface, like the face of someone daydreaming. Godard breaks the narrative up, and there are bursts of classical music on the soundtrack and innumerable cutaways — to the moon, to the sun, to landscapes, to bodies of water. An intertitle — “en ce temps là” — is shown repeatedly, and helps give the movie a feeling of having been lifted out of linear time. It sets the picture at a remove and makes the contemporary setting something close to a joke — the action takes place in the modern world yet has no buzz of contemporaneity. Despite the buildings and cars and a cutting style that we tend to think of as cubist, the movie’s look has zero immediacy; the sensibility it expresses seems to have never emerged from or to have retreated to the pre-modern era.

The picture feels curious and faraway, like medieval plainchants and illuminated manuscripts. Watching “Hail Mary” is like looking at something through the membrane of an egg. The colors are tempered, pale — pale gold, pale blue, apricot — and the light is soft, slantwise, pewtery. Gently sloshing water, grass and flowers stirred by the wind, the motion of nighttime traffic — the film’s look is lulling and restful, like the decor in a shrink’s office.

As in “Carmen,” Godard is putting two sides of himself on screen — this time he’s contrasting them and opting for one. He wants us to see that while the exile-philosopher has brains and can be a charming, suave guy, he’s also a callous rotter — a man who uses his line to get laid and then runs out. Godard underlines this when he has the prof promise Eva that he’ll return some money he’s borrowed in a way that makes it clear to us he won’t. The Joseph figure may be Godard’s idea of himself as a total mediocrity. He’s not bright or clever; his only characteristic is dullness. Yet, Godard is saying, I back this guy, not the other one; Joseph may be boring, but he’s willing to try to be virtuous, and he will be true. The training Mary and Gabriel give him may never completely succeed — Joseph remains irritable even after becoming the stepfather of Jesus (who is called Junior) — but he does learn to accept the miracle of the virgin birth, and to accept his very subordinate role in it.

“Hail Mary” is based on the idea that the world we live in and photograph, this world of physical beings and limited time, of sex and commerce and individuality and noise, is a botched reflection of a more essential world, the world of ideal form, of essence. Godard shows an image of blackness with, in one corner, a sliver of moon, and, in another, a sliver of red light; it takes a second to realize that the red is a traffic light. Mary talks about how men are but the shadow of God, and Godard shows ripples passing through water — his point is that this world is but the loused-up reflection of the Other World.

He records the clangorous sounds of this world as beautifully as ever, but the effect is different than it was in his sixties films. He’s no longer saying that these grindings and whirrings are the music of this world. He sees them now as intrusions; they break the spell. This horrid, annoying noise is what music turns into when it takes on earthly form. As the professor leaves her, Eva says, “The world is too sad.” Mr. Sensitivity responds, “It’s not sad, it’s big”; distraught, she leans on her car’s horn as he walks off.

There are no bursts of classical music in this scene — just that horn. I think Godard now believes that the squawking, grating sounds of the modern world are howls of grief, of protest at the conditions of being human — that if you listen closely enough and follow these sounds to their sources, what you’ll find are creatures in pain. Noise is music ruined, electric lights and globes are poor reminders of moons and suns, sex is a bad substitute for real oneness, men are lousy imitations of God.

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Godard’s coded style is meant to make us conscious that something is missing. He’s making the film but he’s absenting himself. He wants us to register a lack of presence and strength, and his cutaways and break-ins suggest where that vitality has gone — into some mystical elsewhere.

How is he to represent or suggest the other world, the unseeable world, especially in feature films — maybe the most this-worldly of all the arts? Godard is too much the skeptic or perhaps just too reticent to do what Welles and Peckinpah did, which was to treat the worlds they filmed as settings for their inner dramas; the landscapes of “Chimes at Midnight” and “Major Dundee” are as deep, eerie and peculiar as any Tanguy — the frame is used as an opening into a man’s mind.

There’s nothing theatrical about Godard. He doesn’t find vastness and possibilities within. He’s struck by how commonplace and rigid his insides are, how inappropriate they seem as an arena for drama, movement. And he doesn’t do what those romanticizers of the vasty deep Boorman and Herzog do, which is to fish out and display what they imagine to be essence — treasures and sea-monsters from the Jungian or Germanic depths.

Godard’s images — the landscapes, the moon, the water, Mary’s belly — and the always-interrupted classical music aren’t actual depths, they’re indications that depths and essences exist. They’re signs, reminders. Godard isn’t showing us what he’s daydreaming about; he’s showing us what sets him off. (I imagine a boy burying his head in his mother’s lap and listening, and remembering.) His mind is on the unseeable, and he’s convinced there’s no way to show it.

In the ’60s, Godard was a slangy poet whose materials were ephemera, throwaways — ads, gangster movies, street noise. The abruptness, speed, brash sounds, pop-out colors and bold graphics of modern life excited him, and so did popular forms. The impulsiveness of young people, the shallowness of the characters played by Anna Karina, Jean Seberg, Chantal Goya and Anne Wiazemsky, the lies of popular culture — these things used to get him going. (They may finally have torn him apart.) And he brought out something in them, especially in Anna Karina.

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Godard and Karina

As an actress and a presence, she had a glow. And her characters glowed too — with amorality, consciencelessness, with the simple joy of participating unquestioningly in life and a determination to take the world as if it had been made expressly to please and entertain them. A Karina character often seemed as indigenous to popular culture as a lion is to an African plain, a pine tree to the side of a mountain. She was a pop primitive, unshackled by the confusions of modern consciousness. (Godard marveled at that in her: Look at how strange this world is, and look at how perfectly suited to it this creature is.) She lacked all sense of history and anything more than a provisional sense of loyalty; she was pure superficiality yet she was alive onscreen, and she could be penetrated, even if that never seemed to mean much to her.

Today, Godard’s mind is on the eternal. Surfaces no longer arouse him. They’re obstacles, impediments — they’re what get between you and what you really love. As Mary, Myriem Roussel is slim and tall; she has great beautiful breasts and a dancer’s litheness. But her clear face with its just-hatched eyes isn’t an actress’s face. This is a deliberate choice by Godard: we’re meant to find something significant in the fact that nothing is going on there. Actually, he directs her to go beyond inexpressiveness — he wants her to rebuff all advances. He’s trying to get us to focus on Myriem Roussel’s depths, or supposed depths. He certainly has her focused on them.

Godard is rejecting the claims made by his brains and by his genitals. There is absolutely no satire of Mary; he presents her as heroic. Yet if you think of her in terms of life outside this movie, she’s a dumb girl determined to keep herself intact, unconsciously hogtying Joseph with guilt. She wants him to believe in her; the training she subjects him to is meant to get him over not only his lust and rage but his skepticism. Godard cuts to the sun among clouds as she talks about “the power gathered in Him … that power you can’t describe or explain, but only feel.” At another moment, she says, “I no longer wish to understand,” seeing that as representing spiritual progress.

She views her feelings with staggering solemnity and wants other people to be as awed by them — by what she views as her magnificent mystery — as she is. She demands to be accepted as sacred and inviolable; she’s intent on being treated with “respect,” yet she will permit Joseph no self-respect — she won’t let him have anything his way. (Traditionally, a girl like her settles for letting some guy have a go at her and then spends the rest of their lives reminding him of how momentous her sacrifice was and continues to be.) “It’s not your body that’s the problem. It’s your lack of trust,” she says to Joseph. (The emigré prof would know enough to avoid this girl.)

Mary is literally impenetrable. By any down-to-earth standards, she’s unhappy, egotistic, thumbsucking — you see her type on the subway reading Shirley MacLaine’s latest. But Godard takes her at her word. She is special: he lets her have the kid. He’s showing that she was justified in her obstinacy. He poses her in a polo shirt by a window, ironing, like a 20th century Vermeer, and you’re meant to see her as an expression of the divine. And in case we’re thinking subversive thoughts about this imperious simpleton, he ennobles her. He shows her writhing on her bed, fighting back her carnality — she appears to be trying to keep herself from masturbating. He cuts from an image of her fingers in her long, thick pubic hair to the wind moving through grass and flowers and trees. Nature participates in her struggle, lending it beauty and grandeur. (Nature participates in her vindication too; when she has the baby, Godard cuts to a pair of horses, and to a momma cow licking clean her newborn. He wants us to think of Mary as guileless.)

Godard wants us to understand that this isn’t easy for Mary. He shows her looking longingly through a department store window at tubes of lipstick; he ends the movie with her furtively smoking a cigarette and applying some lipstick (the final image is an enormous closeup of her open, painted mouth). She still longs for a normal, sexual life; even she hasn’t truly overcome herself.

Godard has retreated inside himself to some dull, serene hideaway, just as he has physically retreated to Switzerland — a country that looks calm and stable, even if it is repressed, the least with-it culture imaginable. In its apparent lack of the capacity for excitement and expression, Switzerland is an objectification of that place of refuge in himself where the Godard who speaks to us in these films now lives. And his soul, in withdrawing inside, seems to have come detached from his flesh; this Creature Within — what Godard now feels to be the real Godard — probably looks a lot like the bespectacled, featureless Godard stand-ins in these recent movies. (His frame of reference has changed too: he has turned from the modern world and movies to a love for Great Art, and to daydreams about unity.) Nowadays, his body, his physical envelope, feels foreign to him.

It’s as if what he’s been trying to do in these movies is reassemble some image of himself. “Hail Mary” is a bringing together of his present vocabulary, and it represents his current sense of himself. But while the pieces have fallen into place they don’t really come together; they don’t spark each other into life. You get an image of a man in shock after an accident or operation touching his limbs and body to make sure he’s all there, because he doesn’t really know — there’s no feeling there.

Godard still has his moviemaking skills, and he shows a little of what he’s capable of. But moviemaking no longer turns him on. He can’t give over and bring a film to life — this is the central problem of his recent movies. He simply doesn’t want to be bothered; he is content to stand back from his mind and watch his wheels spin. He’s not interested in penetrating surfaces, to make them yield something substantial. He has lost interest in bringing anything out of his actors. And even his cockiness and gamesmanship are gone. He can’t dramatize his feelings of impotence — he’s illustrating them, or rather providing analogues of them. “Hail Mary” tells us — in a factual voice, with no bitterness — that he feels that moviemaking and life in the form of a physical being don’t give him the opportunities he needs. He knows that he’s not connecting with something essential, and he feels that that source is in women. (Mary huddles over, protecting the infinite, the root of creation.) Men are exiled from it. They destroy and degrade it when they try to touch or excite it.

If “Hail Mary” is a confession, it’s a reticent one — it has nothing of the exhibitionism of a Catholic confession, nothing of that flirtation with the forbidden. You have the impression that you’re eavesdropping on a private conversation between Godard and God. It’s not an avowal of any particular sin; it’s more a statement that “I am a miserable creature; even my sins are small, petty, depressing — evidence of how truly mediocre I am.”

This is a very Protestant confession, and a very lonely movie. Godard hasn’t welcomed our presence; he’s resigned himself to it. He’s tired and abashed. He can’t bring himself to make a real show of his confession, or to inflate it. He’s struck by its smallness. He stays at a distance from himself even as he looks inside, yet he can’t bring himself to do anything but confess. Moviemaking for Godard now isn’t a way of taking part in life, of tossing in his two cents; it’s a way of isolating himself. He seems to be hoping that his acceptance of feeling lost and alone will confer a peaceful, beatific glow on the film. But he knows that he hasn’t been completely transfigured. Joseph remains crabby, and Godard keeps cracking jokes and being grouchy. What he may not realize is that the occasional spasms of irritability in these recent films are their only real signs of life. If he did, he might eradicate them.

“Hail Mary” catches a certain alienated, dreamy state of resignation to misery. Maybe it doesn’t catch that state, exactly, maybe it’s more an embodiment of that state, a symptom of it — of a kind of distractedness, of an inability to detach yourself from your thoughts of what could be, an inability to bring yourself to bear down on anything. This film shows Godard dealing with the world around him without really engaging it, without really taking it on. He’s functioning, and sometimes he can be really amusing or do something very beautiful, but you never know where he’s coming from. It must be that he feels dismay and hopelessness when he looks at the world, and when he looks at the structure and contents of his own consciousness.

Joseph’s final lesson is to learn what love is, and the right way of saying “I love you.” He is reading the books on theology Mary has given him, he is wearing untinted glasses. Mary seems to trust him; we gather that she has got him thoroughly trained. He asks Mary if he can see her nude body. He won’t touch her, he promises, but just once he wants to see her naked. She agrees. But when we see him in his cab getting ready to visit her, he’s talking to his dog about how this time he’ll finally get a piece of that girl. When he enters her bedroom — she wears only a T-shirt, and her pubic hair is the focus of most of the compositions in the scene — he nuzzles her. She pushes him away, then stands before him and makes him say that he loves her. He says, “I love you” and touches her belly. “No,” she screams, and falls to the floor, imploring God. Gabriel climbs out from under the bed and shakes Joseph up some.

Joseph tries again: “I love you,” he says, this time removing his hand from Mary’s belly. He does it a few more times. He’s got it. He understands. “You’ll never abandon me, will you?” she says. “Never,” he says, and we know that now he really means it. Godard cuts to huge closeups of the flowers on Mary’s dresser. Light glows through them, the petals and stamens are thick, curving expanses of luminous red and yellow — something essential, something true has occurred. These closeups of flowers are like photographic correspondences of the glory of God’s Word.

Is the naiveté of the technique — the pathetic-fallacy stuff here, and in the scenes with the wind and cows — intentional? It must be. Godard must be quite deliberately being artless — dealing with his self-consciousness by regressing and retreating. Joseph has accepted that his role is to be handmaiden, to be impotent; he should do his best not to respond erotically to anything. Joseph won’t make the mistake the hero of “Carmen” made, thinking dirty, hopeless thoughts as the girl displayed herself half-naked, and then trying to rape her in the shower and failing to get an erection. By repressing his eroticism as completely as possible and never acting upon it, Joseph won’t have to endure that kind of humiliation — that will be his reward.

In an interview Godard said that “Hail Mary” isn’t about virginity or religion, it’s about being virtuous. It’s clear that the movie is less about the Joseph-Mary-Jesus story than it is an opportunity for Godard to state his feeling that women don’t really need men. He is subjecting himself to feature filmmaking in the same way that Joseph submits to Mary and Gabriel. Insofar as Mary stands for the movies, Godard feels that the movies don’t need him anymore, although he’s free to tag along provided he try no funny stuff. He’s saying that he accepts the terms of feature filmmaking even though they no longer do much for him. The woman is the boss.

In “Every Man” and “Passion” and “Carmen” you could still get the impression that Godard was trying to get a handle on his misery, trying to get the better of it. The sweetness of “Hail Mary” is that he’s no longer trying to end-run, barrel through or outwit it. He’s being perfectly upfront about how he feels. He’s forlorn and knows it, but he’s also at relative peace; he has stopped trying to get over his reflex to pull back. His sincerity and resignation are what make the movie so pure and give it its air of grace. He is saying in a small voice that he feels shut off from the sources of creation, that he’s alienated from contemporary culture, feature films and his own sexuality, and that there seems to be nothing he can do about all this. All that remains is to try to be virtuous, and to daydream. “Hail Mary” is a graceful admission of defeat — Godard’s acceptance of his new role as a mere toiler.

©1985 by Ray Sawhill

“The Last Bolshevik,” directed by Chris Marker

marker

New Waves

By Ray Sawhill

The best new works I saw at last year’s New York Film Festival were all documentaries about great figures from the movie past. The documentaries — about Leni Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, and the early Soviet titan Alexander Medvedkin — were reminders of the power of industrial-age myths and dreams: the dream of revolution; the revolutionary potential of film; and the idea of revolution as an esthetic, and artist-led, thing.

Watching these films and thinking about myths and dreams, I felt not just awe and horror, but nostalgia. I’ve loved some recent films, but the trends that have been discussed as new New Waves — the Hong Kong action films, the 5th Generation Chinese directors, the African films — have left me dumbfounded, worried that movies are a moribund medium. The festival itself has been a multicultural affair for some years, and though you can feel worthy catching up on what filmmakers from Burkina Faso and Vietnam are doing, you may wonder where the high — the drunken elation — that made you care about movies has gone.

CI recently went to the International Center of Photography for the opening of “Iterations,” a show of computer art and digital imagery — work not by techies, but by traditional artist-types using the new media. Some of the work was likably inconsequential, some dismal, but most of it gave the viewer the same scolding that art shows have been giving art-goers from some years now: oppose oppression, undermine the hegemony of the image, move the marginal to the center, question technology, etc.

What was striking about the show was how even-more-than-usually redundant this familiar package of messages seemed. The media the artists were working with made it irrelevant. Does anyone “trust” a computer-generated, or computer-related, anything? In the digital/multicultural world, it’s simply a given that all is relative, that everything connects, and that power gets dispersed. You don’t have to fight the medium or the establishment it represents to convey this — the medium conveys it for you.

The “avant-garde” (ie., establishment) art world is dealing in the rhetoric of an age that’s almost gone; the artists may see themselves as subversives, but they’re playing a game that’s passé. They think they’re fighting centralized (presumably WASP and male) power and “hegemonic” images, but that world is vanishing all on its own, of old age and sheer out-of-dateness. (And the new world doesn’t offer instant liberation, but a new set of demands, constraints, and challenges.)

We’ve tended to think of artists as romantic figures, and of the best art as being a vanguard activity; we assume that the first indications of new moods and feelings will appear in an art context, whether high or low. And if political revolutions haven’t worked out, well, we have our artistic revolutions to be thankful for and enjoy.

But this time around, the artists (most of them) are not only not leading the new demographic and technological wave, they appear oblivious to it. It just seems to have leaped beyond their conceptions. In the weeks following the Film Festival, tens of billions of dollars of media-company mergers were announced, and the businessmen seemed far ahead of the artists.

The Riefenstahl and the Welles were no more than proficient documentaries with exciting subjects. The documentary that pointed in fresh direction was Chris Marker’s videotape on Medvedkin, “The Last Bolshevik.” The emotionality of this tape isn’t the kind that comes from seeing an artist-hero storm the barricades (or pretend to); the crowing of ego simply isn’t to be heard. It has a different kind of excitement, one that it shares with such works as Robert Altman’s HBO series “Tanner ’88,” the “reality tv” of “Cops” and the Court TV channel, and some CD-ROMs.

Seeing or playing with these new works is different from going to the movies and hoping for a great picture. Traditional films almost always have at least a little of the self-conscious showcase about them, a monument-like aspect that’s suggested by the studio fanfares and logos that usually introduce them: sit back, pay attention, an Event is beginning. You watch, expecting to take in prepared performances, made-up scripts, and predetermined visual schemes; perhaps you hope against hope that the film’s elements will come together and a vision will take you over.

But energy isn’t erupting through the arts at the moment, it’s surfacing in the new technology and the category-busting social changes (the crumbling of boundaries, the new nationalisms, the age-group shifts). “The Last Bolshevik” and the other new works tower over nothing; they’re avowedly part of the general media flux. They don’t make their appearance wearing a familiar label (art, cinema, books), and part of the experience of watching them is wondering, “What is this?” Fictional and non-fictional elements are often scrambled; sometimes beginning and end aren’t apparent, or they seem to have no importance.

Even if you watch “Tanner ’88” on videocassette, it still feels like an inexplicable cable-tv form you’ve stumbled across and haven’t yet got used to. You watch it thinking, “Where did this come from? How did it take shape?” “Cops” can leave you wondering: “Who wrote this? Who’s the director?” Court TV is a story-telling creation (or vehicle) that happens to be a tv network. In these works, the creators aren’t battling the cosmos to wrest form from formlessness, or something from nothing; they’re accepting energy from elsewhere, and surfing on it. Creation becomes less a matter of overturning values and giving birth from the unconscious, and more a matter of balance, imagination, resourcefulness, and craft.

Chris Marker

In his slyness, obliqueness, and love of evanescent effects, Marker (who is French) can seem rather Japanese, and he has often visited Japan. (One of his best films is “The Koumiko Mystery,” a portrait of a young Tokyo woman.) The painter and art critic Peter Plagens once explained the difference between western and Japanese sculpture to me this way: westerners make objects that assert their presence against nature, while Japanese sculptors make slipknots in the space-time continuum — devices and contraptions that bring out qualities in what flows over, past, and through them.

That’s what “The Last Bolshevik” is like: a kink in the all-pervasive electromagnetism. Marker is meditative, and his video could be said to be about where images come from, and the roles we play in creating our own fictions and histories. He circles around and around his themes, but dartingly, quick-wittedly.

This video is in the form of six “letters” to Medvedkin, who late in life was a friend of Marker’s. Medvedkin is best known here as the organizer of the Soviet film trains that carried filmmakers, studios, and projection rooms out to the peasants for the sake of education and criticism — to keep the revolution’s fires burning. (In 1988, as perestroika was taking effect, Medvedkin died. One of the last hopes he expressed was that finally a real revolution might be occurring.) The video is Marker’s wave goodbye to his friend, and it’s also a wave goodbye to the movies.

In Marker’s view, the Soviet Union was the great, tragic, esthetic-political experiment of the film age, and he draws connections between it and such subsequent film movements as the French New Wave. “The Last Bolshevik” is impassioned, but it’s also modest and elusive; the computer that Marker, or someone, has used to monkey with some of the historical footage is given its own credit in the title crawl, and this isn’t meant as a joke.

Marker returns several times to talk with a lonely-seeming Soviet cameraman who once worked with Medvedkin. In one shot we see the old technician looking at himself in a mirror through Marker’s Handicam. He seems delighted by the tininess and efficiency of the machine; you have the impression he’s never touched a videotape camera before. As he plays with the focus and zoom, the voice-over says: “this revolutionary’s last act of cinema propaganda won’t be for Communism, it’ll be for Sony.”

Marker is a movie legend himself — he had dealings with the French New Wave, and is the essayist who made such films as “La Jetée,” “Le Joli Mai,” and “Sans Soleil.” In “The Last Bolshevik,” he shows us the industrial age — and its media, and its myths — receding into the distance. Marker isn’t like the artists at the International Center of Photography. He knows that the new technology and demographics are simply moving the old aside. Opening up to history, paradox and irony (and implicating ourselves) is all the “criticism” that’s needed.

Medvedkin — enthusiastic and naive, willfully blind to the turn the Soviet revolution took and desperate to continue working in a medium he adored — gave over in the ’40s and ’50s and made cheery Stalinist propaganda.

Marker, 72 years old now, knows that the artist in the new world has become a relativized figure him/herself. His videotape gets you thinking about how we sully our ideals and let ourselves be misled by them, how we ruin opportunities, and how we see things go to hell. The fact that “The Last Bolshevik” is on tape is one of the most poignant things about it. The infinitely manipulatable video images lap around the edges of the heroic, absurd old film frames like water around a sinking ship.

©1993 by Ray Sawhill

“Vincent & Theo,” directed by Robert Altman

vincent

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” isn’t the tidy package of Culture some audiences may expect, and it isn’t a conventional biopic, either. Instead, it’s a searching look at the intertwined lives and aspirations of Vincent van Gogh and Theo, his art-dealer brother; it’s also a study of the moment in European art when art and its market came apart and the avant-garde was born. It has themes in common with Ingmar Bergman’s films — the slipperiness of identity, the pain of creation — but Altman’s work is looser and freer than Bergman’s. Altman has a sorcerer’s ability to crack open scenes and invite us in to wander through them, and he keeps “Vincent & Theo” bristling with emotions and ideas.

With the help of Julian Mitchell’s script, Altman makes you see the brothers as two sides of one organism, struggling to get by and straining to give rise to a new kind of painting. As Vincent, Tim Roth takes you into the painter’s isolation; by the film’s end, we can see in his eyes that Vincent has no company but his own fervor. Paul Rhys shows that what burns in Vincent burns in Theo, too, wrecking his attempts to be a family man and a suave aesthete.

altman

“I was resisting doing ‘Vincent & Theo,’ and I told one of the people I work with that I just don’t like biographical films about known people,” Altman recalls. “And she said, ‘Then why don’t you do it and make a film out of it that you do like?” The gamble has brought renewed attention to Altman’s work. His poetic 1971 Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was re-released in London this spring to greater acclaim and popular success than it enjoyed on its first run. The American Cinemathèque in Los Angeles just sponsored a weekend retrospective.

One of the most intuitive of filmmakers, Altman keeps on the move, looking for the freedom to try out new ideas. The gods haven’t blessed all his hunches; he has directed his share of fascinating failures (“3 Women”) and outright duds (“A Perfect Couple”). But the features he made in the early ’70s — including “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “Nashville” — helped define one of the most remarkable eras in filmmaking history. And in the ’80s, he did innovative work in opera, in the theater, and for film and television. “Right now, television is the most fertile field,” he says. “Television people are confused, and that’s what’s healthy for the artist.”

In “Vincent & Theo,” Altman, who has known frustrations in getting his own work seen, takes on a resonant subject. “I’m using Van Gogh to get your attention to tell you about the sweet pain of a man in that condition,” he says, “an artist to whom nobody ever said, ‘That’s nice what you’re doing — I want one of those paintings for my mother’.”


©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reprinted by permission.

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” directed by Philip Kaufman

unbearable poster

Almost Real

By Ray Sawhill

The three geographical and dramatic turning-points in the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are initiated by Tereza. They occur when she’s interrogated and, surrounded by slides, negatives and projectors, understands that what for her has been an extension outward of herself — photography — is now being used against everything she cares about; when, in the western world, she is confused and upset by taking nude photographs of Sabina; and when she has sex with a near-stranger in occupied Prague. (These scenes embody the same cluster of issues, too: power, the uses and misuses of imagery, betrayal, and mirroring.) The central turning point of the film is the mutual-nude-photography session between Tereza and Sabina: the movie literally balances and turns on that scene of woman/camera/woman/mirrors. The scene itself is a double-sided mirror at the heart of the movie. After it, Tereza returns with Tomas to the Czech countryside, and Sabina winds up alone in California.

Philip Kaufman’s film has a life and liveliness quite distinct from the Milan Kundera novel it’s based on. The film is a combination of conceptual sophistication and lustiness that could be said to be about the lure of the idea of an Old Country. Tereza represents this, or something like it (the rural, the direct) to Tomas; Kaufman invites us to let Czechoslovakia itself, with its ancient culture and modern political tragedies, represent something like it to us. Viewed outside the terms of the movie, Tereza may appear to be a dumb, enchanting guilt-tripper, but it’s clear that the film uses her to draw from us our feelings about not being whole.

In the past, Kaufman tried to give some of his movies melancholy undertones. Here he makes melancholy the point of the film, proposing that we view Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche as representing what many educated adults feel torn away or cut off from. His work suggests that he believes that expertise, energy and sophistication can bring him only so far — that without what Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche represents, his own work isn’t emotionally complete. In this film, Kaufman isn’t just fearless about sentiment, he makes of traditional forms of sentiment (dappled forest light, the camera wheeling around and around embracing lovers, etc.) his very material.

***

unbearable binoche and camera

It seems to me that Janacek’s music (a little like Dvorak’s, but much more so: Dvorak always remained a bit of a peasant himself) is about how learning a sophisticated language, even one you may love, can remove you from your sources. It’s about looking back and realizing you can never again utter a peasant’s unself-conscious cri de coeur. (Whether you were ever actually able to doesn’t really matter: Janacek can stand in our minds for a cosmopolitan man looking at the countryside, an emigré looking back on his homeland, or any of us contemplating childhood.) Time passing in this kind of work is implicit. Janacek, and Kaufman in this film, seem to simply turn around at a certain point and take note of the fact that time has passed, all on its own. (This is a constructed illusion: one way Kaufman achieves it is by making a motif of shots of passing countryside and water seen through car and train windows. He’s using these sentimental-movie-cliché shots in ways that suggest Janacek’s use of folk melodies, and he’s weaving our feelings about them into the movie.) Incorporating cris de coeur (even if those of others, even if of created others) into the work becomes a tribute, a resurrection and a nostalgic act. Janacek’s music is about the beauty of where you are and the beauty of where you (may or may not) come from and the distance between — and a little about how that distance has perhaps helped enable you to find the beauty in where you come from, has maybe even helped you express your love. It’s a little about the absurdity of all this. It’s about the costs and rewards of awareness.

***

unbearable olin mirror2

Kaufman uses being in the position of being a Hollywood filmmaker with an international cast making a big-budget movie about Czechoslovakia in 1968 — he has worked that nuttiness into the film. (He uses Janacek’s music to mirror his themes.) Think about how Tomas and Sabina enjoy each other’s playful erotic expertise (and how Day-Lewis and Lena Olin enjoy each other’s acting expertise): when they’re with each other (and often when they’re with others) they manage to turn everything into an enticing erotic challenge. The fun of being together for them is taking everything, and responding to everything, erotically.

They recognize this ability in each other and delight in it; that’s the basis of their friendship, it’s what they share. With others, they’re sneaky, even if sneakily direct; with each other they can be direct, even if that means being direct about their sneakiness. Tomas looks out from under his eyebrows and says “Take off your clothes.” Painting for Sabina seems to be a way of turning herself on: she keeps her hat by her side, and sometimes wears sexy underwear as she paints. If turning herself on involves or demands other people, fine. The female Sabina makes herself into an object that can be fallen in love with, and her art work is all mirrors, silhouettes and water imagery; the goatish Tomas is a surgeon, all analysis and action.

This kind of expertise can produce its own high: remember Olin on the train with her Geneva lover when he tells her he’s married? For an instant she looks stricken — will she become angry or dismayed? Then she manages to get turned on by this new bit of information. It’s a torchy moment: she thrusts her head out the window and turns her face to the rain. Kaufman uses rain and water in the film for its associations with death, fate and history. Sabina is being impudent; she’s defying what the elements would have her do. She’s defying what Tereza contemplates returning to after she realizes that the tall Prague stranger she has sex with may not have had the cleanest of motives. Tereza is introduced to us swimming in a pool; later, in her nightmare/fantasy about Tomas’ catting around, she’s in a pool too, her vision bobbing above and then below the surface. And in the country, when Tereza and Tomas move there, it’s often raining.

When Day-Lewis is a window-washer — and Kaufman uses Tomas’ position vis à vis windows and frames to make his status in relation to established power clear: for instance, Tomas is introduced at the beginning of the film in a commanding position, “performing” and being observed through a window, ordering a nurse to take her clothes off — and the woman invites him in, he sees photos on a bureau of her with what could be her father or her husband, who appears to be a successful Party hack. There’s a moment — is Tomas thrown out of his intrigued, sexed-up mood by this, or can he sustain it? — and then he’s going with it, and when his eyes return to her you know something of the (power-saturated? vengeful?) flavor his sex with her will have. Purity doesn’t mean a lot to Sabina and Tomas. They’re fallen, and they like it that way.

***

unbearable binoche olin

The taste of sex-without-love changes for Tomas in the post-invasion country, but he can get off on the new taste, and even enjoy his ability to get off on it. That sex is now fraught with pitfalls and ugly possibilities doesn’t prevent him from taking erotic pleasure; he’s able to use the danger and his own resentment as flavors, spices. The danger terrifies and sickens Tereza. Kaufman uses the sound of breathing as one expression of this. When Tereza arrives at Tomas’ apartment early in the film and he raises her sweater, Kaufman amplifies her frightened, aroused breathing — it’s funny and sexy. When they have returned to Prague after the invasion and we again hear her breathing that clearly, it’s when she sniffs another woman’s scent in Tomas’ hair. Anticipation vs. surveillance: the political shift has effected them even on that level.

The effect of the political shift on what’s allowed is made clearest in this film’s theater/performance element. Tomas has written a little scribble for a newspaper about “Oedipus The King.” It’s intended both seriously and playfully — I mean it and I don’t mean it, and you know in which ways — and readers understand and enjoy it. When he returns to Prague after the invasion, and is wooed and grilled, the policeman asks Tomas if he “really” meant that the Party leaders should pluck their eyes out. Of course he didn’t, and you watch Tomas size up how things now work. What was once theater — playful and liberating — is now read literally and used against you.

The enjoyment of expertise can be a basis for companionship and comradeship — it’s like “The Right Stuff.” Whizz-bang, so to speak. All those scenes of Tomas and Sabina making it in front of her mirrors and mirror-sculptures: they enjoy their reflections, their self-consciousness. To them it’s an erotic heightener. (And it’s akin to the lustiness and showmanship, the surface zappiness, of Kaufman’s earlier movies.) There’s swagger and brio in their sex, as there’s swagger and brio in the way Day Lewis and Olin work the fairly-explicit sex into their performances — they seem to turn that into an erotic performance challenge. They enjoy being cut loose, they enjoy their sophistication — she’s an adventuress, he’s a buccaneer.

***

unbearable b and w newsreel

Then Tomas falls for pure/peasant/uncouth/soulful/rooted-in-the soil/simple Tereza, whose idea of getting into sex seems to involve not a whole lot more than smooshing herself against him. She comes to the city during the Prague Spring. She’s part of what the free atmosphere coaxes forth, and she emerges from herself, first from the country and then from Tomas’ apartment — we’re given a shot of her standing behind Tomas’ window — into the commerce of life via her camera.

Sexually, she’s a klutz, nothing but needs and fears. But when Tomas is with her, what he feels seems deeper, more direct and genuine. He discovers a whole range of what seems to him to be pure feelings; she awakens in him the belief that without a connection to something “genuine” he’s incomplete, and that she is that something “genuine.” What she stirs up in him he misses otherwise. When she returns to Czechoslovakia we see him, through a window, use on another barmaid the same routine — mouthing the word “cognac” — he used to pick up Tereza. He isn’t being callous, he’s a performer enjoying his bag of tricks. But it isn’t the same thing for him anymore.

Tereza’s feeling so often crushed has some relation to what Tomas finds himself loving in her, and in oppressed Czechslovakia. She feels lost and confused in Geneva; she can’t handle western-style freedom, and her confusion is brought out in the nude-photography scene: she’s aroused and terrified, she genuinely doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. (It suggests a world of total disconnectedness, and she can’t make sense of that.) Surrounded by mirrors and art and facing another woman, she can’t account for her confusion or her arousal. She grows terribly nonplused when she’s turned on by Sabina’s sexiness before a camera — her yielding to it and commanding it all at once — and by Sabina’s pointing the camera back at her nakedness; we’re given to understand she doesn’t even like being naked. (Tereza needs to feel undefined.)

In Prague, when she tries to even the score with Tomas the perpetual cocksman, she’s clenched and frightened, and she insists that her partner pull back the curtains that are hung around his room to show that he’s hiding nothing. Kaufman lets us register the contrast with Sabina, who, on the train, enjoyed the wiliness — the role-playing and duplicity — of the pretending-to-be-asleep voyeur. Tereza hides behind frames without recognizing them as such until she’s urged out; Sabina propels herself into new situations, then puts frames around them and moves on.

Tereza can’t bring herself to enjoy the performance aspect of sex; Tomas and Sabina work costumes and playacting into their sex, and enjoy posing before mirrors. Binoche’s being so “available” yet not an accomplished performer jibes with this. What she is as an actress (at least here) in relation to Day Lewis and Olin parallels what Czechoslovakia (history! tragedy! a peasant culture!) can mean to an American: pure soul.

Much later, when Tereza and Tomas have retreated to the Czech countryside and go with their farming buddies to a country bar, she’s so at ease that she dances and teases and flirts; she’s consciously vamping Tomas. It’s the first time we have seen her do any active seducing; this is the only environment in which she feels secure enough to play. In California — all glorious surfaces — Sabina paints a picture of the ocean: she consciously, knowing the effort and what it costs, erects not a wall but a scrim between her and sorrow/fate. She needs to be able to experience her emotions as fully as possible yet not to be stymied by them. She thrives on what disconnectedness makes possible. (Only death rends the scrim.)

***

unbearable newsreel tanks

Kaufman’s movie is like a Janacek work, the filmmaker incorporating “Czechoslovakia” into his film as Janacek incorporated folk songs into his music, as Tomas incorporates Tereza into his life. It’s funny and touching that, in the movie, “Czechoslovakia” is as created (from France and other places, as well as from newsreels) as “Tereza” is. We’re not really seeing “soul,” we’re seeing an actress; we’re not really seeing Czechoslovakia, we’re seeing locations put to work. The doctored photographs that show up — the woman’s father or husband with Brezhnev; Erland Josephson with Kennedy and Khrushchev — and the whole passage about the Russian invasion, which is a kind of extended-through-time doctored photograph, have a special poignancy in this context. Kaufman is using movie fakery to make the emotions more immediate. He lets us realize, when Sabina puts her head out the train window, that Olin is performing in front of a blue screen and facing fake rain, but the effect is the enhancement of the character’s (and the actress’) impassioned recklessness.

Kaufman uses the newsreel footage similarly. When Tarkovsky and Wenders use newsreel footage, you can sense — despite what the filmmakers seem to be saying (which is usually about the need to leave the confines of your own head) — that what they’re doing is working the newsreel footage into their mournful and virtually totally self-reflexive fiction. Ie., their conceptual thinking is more important to them than the historical events the footage, in whatever way, portrays.

Kaufman’s approach liberates libido; he works the story and the characters into the newsreel. He alters the newsreel footage and lets us know it: we have the fun of trying to figure out how it’s been altered even as we register the awfulness of the invasion, and experience the rupture it represents in Czechoslovakian history (and in the film). For Kaufman, using this footage is a tribute art (as a part of life) pays to life (which includes art even as it washes it away and moves on). Though Kaufman never shows Tomas and Tereza rising into the heavens, the movie’s final image — it’s of a road through a forest, seen through the front windshield of a moving truck; the image grows brighter, suggesting pure radiance — may be the most beautiful Ascension ever put on film. What the light elicits depends on us.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“The Player,” directed by Robert Altman

the player

Hollywood’s Hip Cynicism

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Altman plays with the elements of film-making the way jazz musicians play with tunes and changes, the way painters like Jasper Johns and Jim Dine play with pop iconography. He destabilizes the elements he works with, opening them and making them part of larger processes, part of a flow. He works with what you’re not used to admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories.

Altman’s one-time assistant Alan Rudolph recalls that Altman used to say to him, “Nobody makes the films they want to make, they make the films they’re able to make.” Altman’s film-making suggests an ethos of taking your clue from what life presents to you. “I don’t go in and say, Let’s see how we can do it differently,” says Altman. “It’s more like, I don’t want to do that, because I’ve seen that. And also, it never rings true to me. It’s more starting at the inside of these projects and building them from the inside out. I’m always surprised myself by what the exterior, the total package, looks like.”

His 1992 film, “The Player,” is another easygoing goof on an institution. In his 1971 “M*A*S*H” it was the Army; in his 1975 “Nashville” it was politics and the country-music industry. Here, it’s Hollywood. The picture is naughty, and it has dazzle and audacity. But “The Player” doesn’t have the all-devouring quality of Altman’s early 1970s work, or the intensity and concentration — of bitterness, exile, rancor, and obsessiveness — of some of the work he made in the 1980s after leaving Hollywood. “The Player” may remind us of the great Altman films, but it isn’t really great: it’s movie-making as sunny-spirited recreation. Is there a danger Robert Altman will become a benevolent, lovable sweetie? Altman’s relationship with his subject isn’t the antagonistic one you’d expect, given his history with Hollywood. He doesn’t seem to have a serious quarrel with the film industry anymore. It’s like a formerly married couple spending an evening together: maybe they wrangle and feel some of the old heat, but in the end they back off. They’ve learned they can live and let die.

In “The Player,” which is taken from a Michael Tolkin novel that’s essentially a writer’s hate letter to the movie business, the central character is the once-thought-to-be-rising studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). He feels his career is riding on every decision. He’s freaked out and paranoid; Altman and Tolkin suggest that this is the normal emotional state of Hollywood people on the make. Griffin is having trouble being a player. Something’s holding him back and torpedoing his prospects. His girlfriend, Bonnie, who is a story editor at the studio where he works and who is his ally in his job wars, doesn’t excite him. At the office, he’s picking up bad vibes — it’s rumored that another young hotshot is being brought in and will rank above him. He’s also receiving threatening, homicidal postcards from an anonymous writer whom he has evidently snubbed. Griffin is a brat, but a brat in torment; the postcards bring together the lousy feelings he has about his life. So when he thinks he has figured out who the writer is, he tries to placate his suspect by offering him a deal. But this writer isn’t grateful, and Griffin’s rage gets the better of him. As Altman presents the movie, it’s a joke on the idea of the “up” Hollywood ending: Griffin learns (you always have to learn something in a Hollywood film) to live with being a murderer, and this releases him from his torment.

Altman opens “The Player” with a bang — a virtuoso shot that begins with an image of a clapper coming down in front of a mural depicting early film-making. During this shot’s eight minutes, what we see and hear includes a discussion of the virtues of fast cutting vs. continuous, unbroken shots; a chat about the famous opening shot in “Touch of Evil”; two different close-ups of a postcard; several cases of mistaken identity; a variety of activities seen through windows; a group of Japanese visitors on a studio tour; and three or four movie “pitches.” This shot sets the stage for a film that could be said to be about the manipulation of images, and frames within frames.

Altman moves in tight for Griffin’s drama, and then backs off and takes in the moviemaking world, a cuckoo-land where lives, careers, and projects exist in a state of perpetual, dangling uncertainty. The movie is filled with “real” celebrities — actual performers and film-makers playing themselves. You’re kept (enjoyably) uncertain about which performers are appearing as themselves and which you’re being asked to accept as fictional characters. We can take this as a visualization of Griffin’s paranoia, as well as of how much of life in the movie world consists of stargazing — in Hollywood, you’re always on the lookout. A producer (Carolyn Pfeiffer) who attended the first screening of “The Player” says that afterward, when the lights came up, it was as though the movie had spilled out into the auditorium — the audience was full of film business types, and some of them had been up on the screen.

It’s usually a gag when Altman moves in tight on Griffin again. We laugh at this spoiled boy’s fears and humiliations, and at his “dignity.” When Malcolm McDowell (playing himself) spots Griffin at a hotel and needles him, Griffin is shaken; for a second he looks as if he might burst into tears. When the Pasadena police grill him about the writer’s death, they unnerve him with their small talk and their unsmoothed-out eccentricities. (In “The Player,” Pasadena contrasts with Hollywood; it’s where a rep house plays “The Bicycle Thief,” where the “truth” is still an issue, and where Griffin’s power strategies count for nothing at all.)

For Griffin, writers might almost be interchangeable nuisances. When he tries to locate the author of the threatening postcards, he’s willing to settle for the first name that’s plausible. In a sinister, oddly fluid and beautiful scene, he drives up to this fellow’s house and calls him on his cellular car phone; he gets June (Greta Scacchi), a painter who is the writer’s girlfriend. Although he’s calling from right outside her house, Griffin lets her assume he’s at his office. He walks from window to window, looking in on her as they talk; she moves about, playing with her paints and paintings. The camera moves from outside the house with him and his phone and his pretence to inside with her and her reflection — it’s night and the house is lit up from within. June is dressed in flowing white. The interior of the house is white and blue, and it’s full of paints and jars, and hung and stacked paintings. Transparent and patterned shower curtains hang from the ceiling, and photos are taped to the walls and the refrigerator door. Everything is mingling and filmy; the imagery may put you mind of tissues and placentas and pregnancy. This is June’s bell jar, but she isn’t coming apart, she’s happy, moist and glowing — a woman in her own world, “creating.” (Later, after he’s met her, Griffin asks which gallery she sells through; she explains she doesn’t sell because she’s never finished with her work. These images are her feelings, and she’s never done feeling.) They talk and flirt. She explains that her strange last name — Gudmundsdottir — is Icelandic; there’s some banter about Greenland being icy and Iceland being green. Somehow the Red Sea is mentioned.

When he goes off to find the writer, Griffin thinks that what he wants is to make amends. (What we learn in the course of the film is that what he really wants is not to be bothered by his scruples anymore.) David Kahane, the writer Griffin finds, is loud, angry, and shabby — a perpetual grad-student type who is intent on his autobiographical movie idea about a student in Japan. The plot of the “The Player” turns on whether the studio is vulnerable to a Japanese takeover; Griffin and Kahane’s conversation mostly takes place at a Japanese karaoke restaurant/bar, where customers get on stage and, looking into a monitor and singing into a mike, perform to canned music, with a screen above them projecting MTV-like imagery and subtitles (“Why can’t we start over?”). Nearly everything in the film is doubled and tripled in this way. And the question of who owns the image is always being posed.

Kahane guesses that Griffin discovered his whereabouts from June, whom he refers to as “the ice queen.” Griffin doesn’t really flip until Kahane taunts him: Everyone knows Griffin can’t O.K. projects any more, that the new executive is supplanting him. When Griffin is fired, what will become of him? “I can write. What can you do?” yells Kahane. That’s when Griffin’s rage overcomes him; he kills the writer, holding his head in a puddle that reflects red light — the writer dies in a “red sea.”

Part of the reason the executives hate writers is that they depend on them; the writers actually come up with ideas. Altman sets up a writing-related satirical scheme; in this picture, the more you’re attached to writing, the more conscience-stricken and miserable you’re likely to be — and the more full of integrity. The unhappy story editor Bonnie is a “tragic” character; she gets more and more shut out as the movie goes along. Early on, Griffin himself stands up for writers at a meeting where the new hotshot is passing around an issue of the L.A. Times so he can show his finesse at improvising movie subjects from public (i.e., free) sources. Griffin watches the paper with dread; a small front-page headlines announces David Kahane’s death of the night before.

Altman uses a writer/director played by Richard E. Grant for contrast with Kahane. The Grant character broadcasts how uncompromising he is. His idea for a film, he’s quick to point out, requires no stars and an unhappy ending — because that’s how life is. He gets tearful when he tells his downbeat story, he moves himself so. He’s brilliant at using the appearance of daring, integrity, and passion: he’ll do well for himself. By the end of the “The Player,” he has turned his vision into an upbeat Julia Roberts/Bruce Willis vehicle. “The audience wrote this ending,” he exults.

Altman catches a central thing about Hollywood: Griffin, like all the other executives, is always at pains to manipulate “image” to make the most impressive possible statement about himself. The depiction of Hollywood life feels authentic — these people have enormous egos, yet they are wildly insecure; they don’t really have anything that’s theirs. Something is forever eluding them — the idea, the hit, the magic. So it’s always crucial to give the impression you possess the magic — everything becomes a matter of positioning, strategy, and one-upsmanship.

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“The Player” shares with Altman’s 1973 “The Long Goodbye” a breezy sense of humor about movie-fed foolishness and a distinctive view of corruption. Altman doesn’t overdo the corruption in either of these films: everything that counts can be bought and sold, yet the environment isn’t ominous. Inside and outside spill into each other, as they do in L.A. Altman’s camera zooms in, zooms back, changing position and focal length, moving from room to room, from inside to outside. This is a visual realization of what happens in your head when you spend time in L.A.: you stop worrying about what’s real and what’s not.

The two films also share a vision of L.A. as a make-believe city bedazzled by the movies. Yet “The Long Goodbye,” for all its sophistication and cynicism, has a little nostalgia for what people tend to think of as the “kind of movies Hollywood doesn’t make anymore” — with the old stars and the old glamour, with the “well-told stories” — essentially, escapist fantasies from the 1930s and 1940s. The Hollywood of “The Player” doesn’t have that depth or beauty, or that quality of fantasy. It doesn’t even seem to bother feeding its own myth. It’s simply a place sharp people exploit. The characters here aren’t square; they’re media-savvy, hip cynics — in this world, everyone’s become a connoisseur of self-reflexiveness. And there’s an extra layer of technology, technology within technology: car phones, faxes, phones in screening rooms. (When Griffin opens up his glove compartment and there’s a fax machine at work and it prints out a replica of a postcard, the Chinese boxes seem endless.) This is an environment where media competition and attention-getting have become the only activities anyone admits to believing in or standing by.

June the painter has no awareness at all of the movie business; it seems to strike her as little more than a glamorous lark. Courting her, Griffin takes her to a resort in Desert Hot Springs favored by film-business people because they’re kept anonymous there. “Do places like this really exist?” she says in delight. “Only in the movies,” he replies. The spas are glowing and blue, but they have been set among boulders and rocks; they have been given “natural”-seeming shapes. Let’s go into the water, June suggests. “You’re not really Icelandic,” guesses Griffin. “Oh, did I say that?” says June.

June’s acceptance of the surface and only the surface might seem like a form of brain damage in Europe; in L.A., it’s the city’s special form of grace. June makes it all up as she goes along; she plays with images. Apart from the cops, she’s the one character in the movie who isn’t in the film world; she’s the only character Altman doesn’t really satirize. (This makes her seem rather indefinite; and Scacchi seems to get only about halfway into the groove.) Many of June’s paintings have words and letters in them, stenciled (it seems), but very painterly, with drizzles and drips. Griffin asks June if she likes words, and she answers, “I like words. I like letters. Sentences I’m not crazy about.” Griffin is entranced; he is sprung loose from what binds him to words.

Griffin is completed by his involvement with June — the film world doesn’t make him crazy anymore. He has shaken free of his feelings of responsibility. He just doesn’t care, and that makes him a winner. He can play on the surface and not be dragged down by his conscience — this is seen, satirically, as a triumph. Getting away with murder becomes the most freeing event in his life.

Altman framed “M*A*S*H” with a p-a system, which was constantly making bungled announcements for old war movies that were going to be shown in a tent somewhere. In “The Player” he frames the action with posters for old crime pictures. They’re gaudy: the titles are amusingly “dramatic,” and the ad copy on them is hype from another era. “M*A*S*H” ends with the p-a system announcing a final movie, which turns out to be the one we’ve just seen. At the end of “The Player,” Griffin is driving home after a day at the office. He receives a call on his car phone and listens to a pitch from the writer who actually wrote him the postcards that filled him with terror; it’s the story of the movie we’ve just seen. The faceless writer could be any one of hundreds of writers who have pitched their movie ideas to Griffin. Is the writer blackmailing him? He might be, but Griffin is intrigued anyway: who cares where a marketable story comes from?

As he steers through the L.A. streets, Griffin is wearing a black suit with charcoal pinstripes. He has traded in his enclosed Range Rover for a black Rolls Royce convertible, and the vivid red leather interior glows in the sun. Griffin is happy and masterful. He drives up to his home and we’re given a shot of big lush red roses; through them we see a pregnant, radiant June welcoming him. The blue and white of the ice queen; the black of the demonic; the red of sexual excitement and fullness — even June’s dress has some red in it in addition to the usual blue and white. Griffin and June hug; male and female merge. This is American wedded bliss, Altman is saying good-naturedly: red, white, and blue against black.

It doesn’t seem to bother Altman much. Is one reason “The Player” doesn’t have a lot of bite that Altman just can’t take seriously the anguish of a vain young studio executive? Tim Robbins has gravity, focus, and a delight in being found silly; he manages to suggest that Griffin would dearly love people to believe that the thoughts he’s keeping to himself are dignified and impressive. And with his height (6’5″) and his huge baby’s head, Robbins is quite a camera subject. But Altman’s Griffin — the center of the film — is thin. The Griffin of the novel has evil in him, and the reader experiences the world as Griffin experiences it. Altman moves the malevolence out into the system generally, where it disperses and becomes a shared craziness.

Altman sees the current Hollywood as nothing but an absurd business based on fleecing people, empty even of the entertaining hucksterism of old. But Hollywood people don’t seem to take the movie as a hate letter to themselves; this satire of Hollywood is embraced by its targets. They can enjoy “The Player” because there’s nothing really adversarial about it. Altman is saying out loud what they all think and feel; his film jibes with their view of themselves. (It’s like the last Buñuel films, which tickled the haute bourgeoisie Buñuel once threatened with murder.) “The Player” doesn’t add up to much more than a very sleekly done roast — an amusing series of inside jokes choreographed around and through the familiar restaurants, offices, and parking lots. Altman isn’t fighting the business people. Now they can accept him as a master.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“The Piano,” directed by Jane Campion

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Loose Talk

by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Polly Frost: I can’t imagine anyone taking “The Piano” seriously, but I thought that as a silly movie it was on a level with “Beaches.” Holly Hunter plays Keith Jarrett-style music even though the film is set in the Victorian era. You get to see Harvey Keitel naked, sensitive, and in Maori makeup. He’s not the Bad Lieutenant anymore! Although I’m not sure I want the hero of my romantic fantasy to have feelings.

Ray Sawhill: Did you love it when, naked in the half-light, he caresses her piano because she’s not there?

PF: Of course. And I especially liked the idea of a guy working his way up under my hoop skirts to give me a lick.

RS: It’s an enduring feminist issue: the virtuous man eats pussy and likes it.

PF: I’m all for that. And when Harvey finally fucks her it’s important that it’s not from behind. They’re face to face, and he looks deep into her eyes … But not in that tedious way men have of trying to figure out whether you’ve come or not.

RS: I’m a big fan of the frontier movie where all the work you ever see being done is the occasional closeup of a log being split. And I did enjoy the way the Maoris sat around all day and communed with nature, taking breaks only to disparage Sam Neill’s manliness.

PF: In the movie, Maoris exist as nothing but elemental beings — they’re sort of like the mud. For all her feminist/deconstructionist airs, Jane Campion doesn’t have the most progressive view of “the other.” But mother and daughter communicating in sign language, being a woman corseted and then set free — I eat that stuff like candy.

RS: It’s really a self-conscious, upscale version of “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Holly Hunter is a member of a superior species, i.e., a modern woman. So she takes no part whatsoever in making a life on the frontier. She just goes around acting passionate, furious, and indignant.

PF: It’s pure supermarket Gothic, with an “I’m in charge” attitude. Men oppress women’s sexuality because they can’t deal with it. Women are the more sexual, and men chained women up, and now finally in the Nineties men are awakening to their place as secondary to women. Alright!

RS: What do you make of the fact that liberation is seen as marriage to a macho, sensitive guy?

PF: It’s as key in these new radical/retro fantasies as it was in the originals not to want to cheat on your husband. He has to drive you to it. Here, everything conspires to make her have an affair. Bliss.

RS: The movie seems to be like catnip for post-feminists. Harvey blackmails Holly in such a perfect “I’m so sorry I’m ravishing you, but I can’t help myself” kind of way. Women keep telling me they find the film quite haunting.

PF: Some of the imagery does have that “Seventh Seal” quality. Although any time you have people in dark clothes wandering around for no reason on a wild beach I guess it’s haunting.

RS: The piano, Holly’s feelings, and the sea, our great mother.

PF: But how do you actually feel about the film? Stop shifting in your chair so uncomfortably.

RS: I guess I find it frightening.

PF: Maybe the fantasy gets to you more than you want to admit.

RS: What I really find scary is how seriously women can take their fantasies. The Holly Hunter character is a Nineties woman-with-a-grievance dropped into an era that’s truly repressive. She’s mute because the world is so unjust — isn’t that what the bad hair-do and the bonnet and the angry slit of a mouth are about? At least a conventional romance would give us a panting beauty popping out of her bodice. The women who love the movie seem to want to believe that their desire for a romantic movie represents a threat to the status quo and that their sexual pleasure represents a political triumph. Guy fantasies are more often presented as cartoons you’re not meant to take seriously.

PF: Clint Eastwood really lets you take his recent movies lightly.

RS: But isn’t it true that many educated women like their romantic fantasies to be presented with a solemn, high-art aura? That’s what I find so terrifying.

PF: Campion is like Margaret Atwood and Naomi Wolf. They have temper tantrums over their right to enjoy the most routine female fantasies.

RS: Though there’s no avoiding the fact that Campion knows how to make an eccentric, threatening image. One after another, in fact, with no flow between them.

PF: These women feel guilty about their fantasies. Just have the fantasies!

RS: Campion is such a bad director of actors. Holly Hunter seems to have decided that her character’s muteness means that she should never change her facial expression.

PF: Sam Neill is a wonderful actor, but the film emasculates him. He’s even called “dry balls” by the Maori at the very start of the film.

RS: And what is it about feminists and the Victorian age?

PF: Basically what it is is that women who like these movies go around in Laura Ashley dresses.

RS: Holly’s muteness, her hands reaching into that box to finger the keyboard, the nailed-up windows and doors — it’s all that tediousness about being “denied a voice.”

PF: It’s OK, you can calm down — the movie’s over. The honest film about women, sex and imprisonment is “Mrs. Soffel.” Gillian Armstrong just films what she wants to film as a woman. She doesn’t justify it at all.

RS: Maybe that’s why Armstrong’s “The Last Days of Chez Nous” is even scarier than “The Piano.” What is it that makes Campion such a perfect subject for journalists? I’ve never seen a single pan of any of her movies.

PF: It’s the whole Spike Lee thing — she writes out their copy for them. Campion plays at inspiration but she never allows it to take her over. Ray?

RS: Yeah?

PF: You’d look good in Maori makeup.

©1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Malcolm X,” directed by Spike Lee

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Malcolm Zzzzzzzzzz

By Ray Sawhill

With his underslung jaw, his 6’4″ lean-and-hungry build, and the fury in his eyes, the real Malcolm X was unquestionably a star. He had a triumphant, gritty voice and worked a crowd close-in, relishing the tumult. He may not always have made a lot of sense, but you could see what delighted blacks and frightened whites; on a stage, he was an angry, defiant turn-on.

Alas, Denzel Washington, who plays the role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” just isn’t riveting. There’s nothing behind his restraint — he’s in control, but of nothing. He doesn’t get a rapport going with the audiences he speaks to (and Lee makes counterproductive whoopee with the camera and the editing scissors during the speeches). For all the bravado of the opening credits — which play over footage from the videotape of the beating of Rodney King, intercut with an image of an American flag burning until it’s shaped like the “X” on an “X” hat — the movie isn’t fiery. It’s a stolid civics lesson, complete with heavenly choir. There are a few hippity-hop, disjunctive editing tricks, some overhead shots that are “unusual” in a familiar way, and that cross-angled mustard light that Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson seem to like. But otherwise the filmmaking is mainstream. Only the length (three hours and 21 minutes) and an occasional freedom in the way it ribs blacks suggest the film is anything more than the usual worthy docudrama. The end features little black schoolchildren (first in America, then in South Africa) standing up at their desks, one after the other, to announce, “I’m Malcolm X.” (Study guides and Malcolm X book jackets are being provided to high schools in the 100 largest U.S. urban areas.)

Lee has based the movie almost entirely on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was written by Alex Haley, who completed it after Malcolm X was murdered in 1965. (Lee revised a nearly 20-year-old script by Arnold Perl and James Baldwin.) Among some groups, this “autobiography,” like Malcolm’s speeches, has taken on the aspect of a religious text, with exegesis-happy scholars and fans quarreling about what Malcolm really meant, what his stand really was. Lee has committed himself to putting the material across not as drama but as truth — we’re meant to accept Malcolm’s view of himself reverently, every step of the way. (It’s embellished with a few twists, such as CIA men following Malcolm on his tour of the mid-East, and the FBI tapping his phone.)

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What we’re given is the Malcolm legend. When Malcolm is a child, his family is destroyed by whites. He tailspins off into a life of crime and cheap thrills, bottoming out in jail, where he finds his personal hell and is given the nickname “Satan.” He pulls himself together with the help of the Nation of Islam, which encourages him to blame all his troubles on whites, and he achieves fame giving voice to his race’s rage and demands. After 12 years he becomes disillusioned with the Nation’s leadership and quits the organization; he becomes an ordinary Muslim, visits Mecca and realizes it’s OK to be any color. Wiser and more humble, he’s martyred by the Nation of Islam followers he himself had once fired up.

Spike Lee begins with the street years and proceeds straight ahead, using incidents to trigger off flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood. He mimics Malcolm’s development in his filmmaking. The street years come with daddy-o colors and sassy crane shots; the prison section is shot in end-of-the-road blue-grays. The Nation of Islam passage has “Godfather”-style dignity and solemnity; the tour of the Holy Lands is a Barbet Schroeder-style spiritual travelogue; the troubled final year is paranoid and portentous (it’s the Oliver Stone section). The flashbacks — which are meant to explain Malcolm’s drives — are “Birth of a Nation” racist nightmares.

“The Autobiography” has push and heat — Malcolm X and Alex Haley tell good tales. But you can sense that the stories have been brightened up, and the lessons Malcolm X draws from them often have little to do with the experiences he describes. As one flamboyant tale follows the next, what comes together is a man’s view of his life as a superhero myth. Essentially, the film is the autobiography, recapped 27 years later, with considerably less flair. Yet Lee obviously wants people to accept his movie as factually accurate.

In the film, as in the book, we’re asked to accept Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam as a genuine religious experience; Lee gives Malcolm a literal vision. Yet when Malcolm quits the faith on discovering that Elijah Mohammed, the Nation’s leader, is a hypocrite — Elijah has been screwing secretaries while demanding near-celibacy from his followers — he doesn’t spend a single day thinking to himself, “Whew, what a fool I’ve been.” He doesn’t ask himself: “What was it about me that made me so vulnerable to that line of baloney?” At hour one, we’re meant to feel tender awe at the faith, and to be impressed by its insights; at hour three we’re meant to see the faith as corrupt and crazy.

The film doesn’t question Malcolm’s sincerity either; we’re meant to find his disillusionment as genuine as his conversion. He’s always aggressively heading off in some new direction, as certain of this one as he was of the last. It’s such an odd passage when he’s grappling with the fact of Elijah’s hypocrisy that you almost think the message of the movie must be, “Don’t go getting involved with weird religious cults.” Yet when Malcolm’s racial views shift and, after all those 12 years of preaching that the “white man” is the devil, he decides that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, there’s no indication that he regrets leading his followers astray. Sometimes it seems as if what was inspiring about him was his inconsistency.

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In the film, as in the Malcolm-Haley account, Malcolm’s father was a strong, very dark Marcus Garveyite who was terrorized and finally killed by whites; his mother was a proud, light-colored woman whose family was ripped apart by the social welfare agencies; Malcolm’s schooling came at the hands of abusive whites. But a recent (and very sympathetic) biography, “Malcolm” by Bruce Perry (Station Hill Press), suggests that while Malcolm certainly did suffer from white racism as a child, most of his pain originated in his family.

Malcolm’s father never earned enough money to support a family, and this was a family with 10 kids. He beat them, and beat his wife; he was also, one family friend told Perry, “a natural born whoremonger.” He didn’t die tied to streetcar tracks by white men in black hoods and robes, as the film would have it. Perry shows that he stormed out of the house after an argument, missed his step getting on a streetcar and fell under it.

Malcolm escaped most of his father’s brutality but was beaten by his mother so hard his screaming could be heard by neighbors. (And his family didn’t live in a city apartment; they lived in the country.) Malcolm wasn’t ripped from his mother by welfare workers; with another brother, he tried to get the authorities to send him to reform school (“we heard they had good beds there,” recalls the brother). Malcolm grew up largely among whites; if his enemies and rivals as children were white, so were his playmates and friends. He was teased and put down by some whites; other whites fed him when he was hungry and fought and played alongside him. Light-skinned and red-haired, he also got teased and put down whenever he was in a black neighborhood, where kids called him “Snowflake” and “Eskimo.”

The Malcolm of myth — hard, uncompromising, defiant, manly (yet ever “evolving”) — is fuelled by a rage that is very pure; he stirred up other people’s rage, too, and made them feel exalted by it. (This seems to be what people mean when they say he “gave them hope.”) Malcolm’s late “tolerant” phase wasn’t what it’s sometimes meant to be: what he said was that some whites were OK with him — whites, that is, “who had accepted the religion of Islam.”

In one scene, when Malcolm has become a top leader of the Nation of Islam, a black man is injured by police; Malcolm leads a crowd of blacks to the hospital to insist he get proper treatment. A cop (Peter Boyle) orders him to disperse the crowd; Malcolm resists, then, when it suits him, he makes a tiny sign with his hand, and the mass of people breaks up, the Muslims in their hats and overcoats marching off in perfect order. Denzel Washington shows a minuscule twinkle of satisfaction, and Boyle marvels, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I understand the joy blacks may feel at seeing a black man fling it right back at “the white man,” and I can enjoy a “kiss my ass, honky” gesture. But the film is too pleased by violence cockily and righteously contained, and that twinkle undercuts the idea we’re mean to have of Malcolm having achieved egolessness.

I found myself interpreting the material differently than we seemed meant to. Early on, Malcolm is invited by a big-time crook to sit across from him at a table in a dark restaurant; the crook winds up taking Malcolm on as a hood-in-training. The scene is balanced by a later one. Malcolm has become a Nation of Islam leader; he’s drinking coffee with assistants in a diner, and an eager young boy who has seen him and wants to join up begs his way to the table. It’s hard to know what’s intended — are we just meant to recognize that Malcolm has found some success? But we’re also left wondering: did Malcolm just want to be a bigwig all along? Did he fail at crime but find his niche in the religion game?

Malcolm’s life suggests that he was trying to create, by himself and in himself, his own idea of a father — his idea of manliness. As a young man — before he joined the Nation of Islam — Malcolm beat a number of his girlfriends (this is not in the film) and chased after white women. (In the film, he has one white girlfriend.) He had a drive to control women that apparently took a new form when he joined the Nation. Moviegoers may find the film’s images of womanly submission really alarming. Malcolm’s wife calls him Dear Heart, and says things like, “Even when you’re not with me, you’re with me.” At one rally, a huge banner hangs from some columns — we’re shown it several times. The text reads, We Must Protect Our Most Valuable Property, Our Women. The men in their gray suits, white shirts and skinny dark ties sit on one side of the stage or the auditorium; the women, in their white robes and shawls, sit on the other. Visually, these ranks of sex-segregated automatons may be effective in suggesting lives cleaned up and set in order. But it’s still hard to take.

You don’t have to accept the myth to find the actual Malcolm a fascinating character. But what we’re being asked to watch is an epic about a Chosen One, and the uninspired moviemaking works against the mythology. Spike Lee will need a lot of help from the press and the Malcolm Industry to keep people talking about his movie. Lee hasn’t found a way to give the movie a present-day bite, either. He offers a Sixties view of things: white equals oppressor equals bad, black equals oppressed equals good. Presented to us in the Nineties — when the press would rather accept the Malcolm myth than get into touchy areas, and a black ad agency is helping Warners create a “groundswell of positive word of mouth” about the film — this view seems preposterous and inadequate.

malcolm x2

Denzel Washington was impressive in Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” and in “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by the Canadian Norman Jewison. The characters he played had reserves. You could see that they were choosing what they said and what they did from a range of possibilities; when they lashed out, the violence came from a source that you could feel demanded release. The characters Spike Lee creates don’t have inner lives. At one point Norman Jewison was on the verge of making “Malcolm X”; Spike Lee caused a public uproar about the supposed inappropriateness of a non-American white man making the film, and Jewison withdrew from the project. Did Lee think that being black was all he needed to connect with his character and his audience?

In Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he showed a relaxed impudence. I saw it with a mostly black audience that laughed at some jokes I didn’t even identify as jokes; they also enjoyed being teased about black traits and habits. But his next film, the college comedy-musical “School Daze,” was a self-conscious, chaotic piece of in-your-faceness, with a joyless central character who, in the final scene, rang the school bell and yelled, right into the camera, at close range, over and over, “Wake up! Wake up!” Spike Lee has been ringing that bell and hollering at the camera ever since. As a self-publicist, he’s in a class with Madonna; they think like magazine editors, pushing hot buttons and goosing you along with graphics and outrageousness even as what they’re packaging gets thinner. Lee has stopped being an entertainer/artist and has become an entrepreneur/haranguer; he has turned himself into a marketer of superficially radical ideas and attitudes. As he has assumed the mantle of savvy firebrand/spokesman for his race, all the shadings (and the humor) have gone out of his filmmaking. Everything is black or white.

©1992 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.