Monthly Archives: March 2012

Life Abroad No. 4: The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert; 1986)

All of Eric Rohmer’s films in his series of Comedies and Proverbs begin with a quotation.
The Green Ray’s: ‘Ah! Que le temps vienne/Oú les coeurs s’éprennent.’ ‘Ah, for the days/that set our hearts ablaze.’

Rimbaud (‘Chanson de la plus haute tour’/ ‘Song of the Highest Tower’ 1872)

In Unrelated, we saw a character attempting to escape paralysis by going on holiday. Rohmer places the action in a more inert state of mind: the inability to go on holiday. We are trapped with Delphine as she spends the month of August (the traditional month for the French to spend away from their home) going on a series of abortive, emotionally isolating holidays.

The title cards that mark off the dates of the film are handwritten and, besides offering a sad reminder of the waste of her salad days, it is a hint to the film’s heart-rending intimacy: we are reading Delphine’s diary, uncovering scenes too personal even to be spoken aloud. And just as when we come upon an unknown’s journal, we feel initially excited by the immorality of invading someone’s privacy, then dissatisfied by the tedium of the details, then ultimately engrossed by the unfolding of their world, day by day. The ultimate feeling is that, regardless of the actual content, stealing this intimacy, is utterly compelling.[1]

Perhaps the main reason that few films treat subjects as closely and honestly as Delphine’s is the fear of the banality of the real. Many in the filmmaking community shared this view. “I went to the head of television at the time,” said Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer’s first producer. ‘He threw the screenplay on the ground and said, ‘You pick it up. I’m sorry, but this is filmed theatre.’” The opening scene offers us the premise for the whole film, setting up the incredibly low stakes of the drama. Delphine is stuck in Paris for the summer, after being ditched by a girlfriend. She seems to be reacting more to the inconvenience than the snub, and Rohmer’s staging emphasises how quotidian these events are. Without as much as a close up, or even a halt to the conversation between her colleagues, Delphine’s ‘tragedy’ is unfolded.

There’s an inherent mockery to placing Delphine in contrast to the heroic statues in one of the film’s early scenes: her Atlus-like ennui threatens to derail all sympathy in the first third of the film. We are more likely to side with the friend who attacks her inertia at the tea party. Yet as we gather a fuller picture of how her days are filled, we cannot help but become sympathetic from this wider context.

Rohmer and Marie Riviére manage to make the sufferings of a woman on holiday as emotionally resonant as Joan on the pyre. Expression and intensity are central to this.

Although the film never attempts to elevate her troubles, the honesty, intimacy and concentration with which we are invited into her world ensures that this drama does achieve the solipsistic urgency of life as we all live it. Rohmer’s easy pace is essential to this power, as he explained: ‘When filming, it’s usually: ‘Camera,’ then ‘Clapper,’ then ‘Action.’ I did the opposite. First I said, ‘Action!’ Then if it was going well I tapped the cameraman and he started filming.” When a serendipitous or troubling detail falls into Delphine’s path, we are travelling at the right speed (the speed of life as it is lived), with a sensitive enough eye to notice the details. Although this film is from Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs rather than from his Six Moral Tales, this is a quietly moral tale. As in the best melodrama, a rich panorama of suffering is opened up, a sensitivity to the experience of others that is perhaps the most crucial moral tool.

[1] This is key to the appeal of the diary novel over its brother the epistolary novel. While both share a supposedly naturalistic, but in practice, highly artificial narrative framework, the clog of subjectivity becomes an effective focus, days themselves acquiring a strange serialized interest. The realism of the groan worthy longeurs of these novels is always thankfully partnered with the equally realistic sudden change of events. Anyone who has read I Capture the Castle, The Diary of a Nobody or – god help me – Bridget Jones late into the night will recognise this emotion.


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Life Abroad No. 3: Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil Orson Welles

The version of Touch of Evil we screened was released in 1958, a corrective to the two previous cuts of the film. The heroic–artist myth of Welles career – the wunderkind miracle of Citizen Kane and followed in turn by the interference, compromise or collapse of every subsequent project – is founded upon the two opposing forces of Hollywood: the rampant studio, desperate for marketable product versus the perpetual innovator, the boy-genius. Welles has always been seen as too brilliant to contemplate mediocrity but constantly dragged down by failing to wrest final cut of his films back after the ‘failure’ of Citizen Kane.[1] Just as nostalgia is stirred most strongly for times we ourselves half-remember or long pre-date our existence, so Welles’s strongest advocates elevate him to the status of Olympian due to what is not available to us. In Welles’s cinema career, after the miracle of Kane, every project, however great, is hounded by its superior, shadow brother: the film Welles’s could have made without interference, or with funding. Touch of Evil, unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, Don Quixote or Moby Dick—Rehearsed, has the bad luck to be soiled by being complete and approaching a fair approximation of Welles’s vision. In an ironic twist, Beatrice Welles, Orson’s executor, sued to prevent the film’s release, perhaps with a careful eye on maintaining the tragic myth of her relative’s career.

That said, it’s hard not to be impressed with the scale of Welles’ ambition. Universal offered Welles only one (contractually obliged) screening (without pause) of Touch of Evil before releasing the film. The following morning a 58-page letter greeted them: Welles had painstakingly listed all of the changes and corrections to revert to his original intentions for the film.  The document is a testament to the sheer intention and cerebral force of Welles’s filmmaking. However, it took thirty years for Welles’s vision to be enacted. The sensitive eye – and more importantly, ear – that guided the film to something approaching Welles’s intention was Walter Murch. Murch’s skills at editing and his pioneering of the field of sound design made him the perfect choice. One of Welles’s innovations in the filming – and one that Murch had perfected in Apocalypse Now – was the use of decayed sound, conditioned to produce a more diegetic, ‘worldized’ effect (as Murch terms it). Just as Welles’s characters constantly seem to be talking over each other, so the sounds of the city (tinny speakers, car horns, desert winds) compete to produce a rich, unsettling effect.

Touch of Evil finds its way into the series not only because it is a film about crossing a border, but also because it is a film about Hollywood’s idea of crossing the border. Hollywood, a ragtag melting pop of diaspora from across America and from around the world has always had a peculiar view of the foreigner. The film is a catalogue of masquerading characters: Akim Tamiroff (Russian), Marlene Dietrich (German) and Heston himself are all ‘race-lifting’ as the neologism has it.[2] Welles, himself no stranger to the practice, haven played Shakespeare’s Othello on stage and in film some years before, as well as inverting Macbeth for the famed all-black Federal Theatre Project production that recasts Elizabethan witchcraft as Haitian voodoo.[3] The exact racial dynamic and implications of Touch of Evil are hard to trace. Restoration can only gloss certain elements and the standard Hollywood conception of ‘otherness’ seems to be present. Yet Welles seems to be playing a bigger game than the B-movie roots of the film allow, and the main message of the film is of personal responsibility for evil, rather than being racially branded. Contrary to Marlene Dietrich’s parting shot, it does matter what you say about people.

[1] That most still believe Kane was a sizeable loss rather than the modest success it was says a great deal about the connoisseurship involved in devoting oneself to Welles.

[2] for a comprehensive list of this practice.

[3] The voodoo extended offstage: after a poor review from the Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, a cast member produced a voodoo doll effigy of the critic. Welles found this amusing until Hammond’s untimely death shortly afterwards.


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The Secret Life of Edward James

On Friday 9th March, I presented a short lecture on Edward James (surrealist art patron, poet, aristocrat, world-class eccentric) and British follies. The centre-piece of the evening (part of our ongoing series of films about Life Abroad) was the film above, The Secret Life of Edward James from 1978. Presented by George Melly (jazz musician and art historian, as well as James’ auto-biography amanuensis), it’s a brilliant film that acts as an act of admiration and exploration of one eccentric’s life by another of their clan. It is worth every minute of your time.

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