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The Criterion Collection’s selection of films on Hulu Plus is a boon for any cinephile, and compared to Netflix offers a superior collection of classic and foreign films available to watch instantly. Not every Criterion title is available, but many are— including hundreds of titles Criterion has not released on disc at all. Included in the latter group is Elaine May’s 1976 film Mikey and Nicky, a film that follows two Jewish gangsters played by Peter Falk and John Cassavetes around New York in the course of one night. It’s a film that deserves recognition as a key work of American cinema of the 1970s, right beside other canonical urban crime dramas like Mean Streets (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and other portraits of frustrated men struggling to adjust to a post-Vietnam world in which the American dream has been exposed as hollow and corrupt, where their preferred way of living isn’t enough to account for the vast changes in the world around them.
Read the rest at In Review Online.
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a 3-D film without having been shot in 3-D. Perceptions of visual depth and breadth are key to the film’s narrative and thematic progression, but it’s not just important how space in used in the film but how the characters and the audience interact and understand them. Sound acts as a particularly important resource for how this space is controlled. One is used to control the other, though ultimately it is mastery of visual space that allows the characters to resist the power wielded by speech. The film traces a power struggle between husband and wife not through psychology or emotion or even violence, but through the dominance and control the characters are able to exert over these two elements, the two foundational senses of the cinema.
The film links space and speech early on. Spica, the thief of the title, hardly stops talking the entire film. His endless prattle, complaining about and mocking nearly everything and everyone around him, is entrancing, even horrifying, and the audience is forced to account for his presence as much due to his speech as with his position in the frame. People listen to him (though often reluctantly) and allow him to run things seemingly because they can’t get a word in edgewise.*
* He does display acts of physical cruelty, including in the opening scene, though these acts of actual violence become much more necessary as the film goes on and his power begins to wane. For the first half, Spica’s power is almost all vocal.
Spica’s authority is reflected in the film’s shot compositions. At the restaurant, he appears like Christ in Leonardo’s The Last Supper (deliberately, of course, especially given Greenaway’s interest in Renaissance painting):
Note the red column behind him, as if Spica is holding up the restaurant with his head. As he talks, Spica is usually placed at the center of things, not just the focus of attention but in the seat of power.
But how much of his power is real, and how much of it is based on momentary control over the visual and auditory elements around him? The introduction of the restaurant itself begins to provide an answer, though it takes some time for its broader implications to become clear. The set appears laid out in a horizontal line, stretching from a loading dock behind the kitchen to the front dining room. The camera tracks with Spica and his entourage as they pass through, the sort of traditional establishing scene meant to make you feel that you have a good grasp of the location’s geography. The restaurant feels large and open, albeit with lots of human activity and an elaborate set design. It’s a busy set but easily navigable in two dimensions with very little three-dimensional depth. By the time the camera reaches Spica’s table, you’ve received a solid orientation of the place. You know how all the pieces of the restaurant fit together, and that we will be observing our characters in the sort of shot seen above, their relationships clear based on the shot’s composition.
This is similar to the kinds of compositions favored by Wes Anderson, who also frames his subjects and locations in flat, often theatrical, spaces, often as part of similar-looking tracking shots. But where Anderson sets up visual space as a framework for investigating character, as if laying them out for examination, Greenaway investigates the space itself. For it becomes clear, not too far into the film, that the restaurant does, in fact, have three dimensions. Within it are many nooks and crannies, rooms and corridors and hideaways away from the straight, horizontal lines we’re initially presented with. Away from Spica’s gaze and speech.
The power of speech to offer a degree of independence becomes more pronounced as the characters weave through the film’s architecture, with Michael and Georgina gaining more lines and more autonomy as they find ways to get away from Spica’s dominance.
Since his speech cannot be directly opposed, it is only by finding and colonizing their own private space that Georgina and Michael can have their affair. These spaces are fragile, obviously, constantly under threat of being discovered by Spica. But away from him they are able to start speaking to one another, building their own reserve of strength, offering up some kind of resistance.
(Music is an important site of resistance, too, boiling underneath the action, building, and finally exploding at the film’s climax. The singing kitchen boy also provides a sonic counerpoint to Spina from the very start of the picture.)
Late in the film, they are able to escape from the restaurant entirely and hide out in Michael’s apartment, where for once Spica has absolutely no control. At about this time Spica’s grasp over his own authority begins to fade. Underlings begin to speak up, Spica’s balanced shot compositions are thrown off, and other characters begin to step into visual spaces where they are the ones in control.
Spica will reassert his control violently and ironically. When Michael is killed, Spica stuffs pages from his books down his throat, simultaneously silencing him and drowning him in words. But it won’t last. The damage is done: the power of sound and space are transferred from Spica to those he has abused. In the final scene Spica is completely stripped of visual and auditory dominance. He is isolated at the front of the dining room (which he enters though a door he had never used until then) and up against the full cast of wronged characters who have taken over the restaurant and its menu. He is also silenced, not through force but through a visual horror. He has lost control of sight and sound, and thus of the movie.
Cook, Thief is a great distillation of and metaphor for cinematic craft, using the audio/visual as the metric for and means by which stories, characters, plots, themes, etc. are measured and judged. t’s a highly stylized film, obviously, but that only helps to highlight the film’s symbolic project. Power in Cook, Thief lies in the hands of the ones who control the cinema.
Monkey Business could almost be a horror movie. A slightly different point-of-view and it’s virtually The Fly. (Yes, Cronenberg is still on my mind.) Instead of bodily disgust, however, the horror of the film is found in the loss of self, or rather at the loss of a mature self. The horror of youth is not that it’s an unknowable force threatening to overwhelm and destroy you (no clash of generations here); the horror of youth is that it is knowable, that we’ve been there, it was embarrassing, and we can’t remain functioning adults by returning to it.
It’s a horror over our own fragile autonomy. But losing control over oneself can either be tragic or hilarious, and for Hawks this time it’s hilarious. Monkey Business is a comedy because, as is often the case with Hawks, the horror of the situation gives way to the saving power of the group, the community. In the case of Monkey Business, even though there is a larger community of scientists, secretaries, and bureaucrats, the real group at the heart of the story is that of a married couple, Barnaby and Edwina.
The exploration of that marriage – Cary Grant’s absent-minded but brilliant chemist and Ginger Rogers’ patient and level-headed wife – raises the film up to something special in Hawks’s oeuvre. Ranking Hawks’s comedies is difficult and ultimately not really useful, but in general I prefer those where the central relationship is pre-established to those where the relationship is brand new and developed over the course of the film. (I’d include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the former category, as the central relationship is between Dorothy and Lorelei, not between the girls and any of the men.) This is just a personal preference, and it certainly doesn’t make a film like Ball of Fire less great, but I’d rather a film explore a relationship than create one.
Romantic comedies, including many great ones, tend to rely on the “getting together” setup. After all, marriage (or some sense of permanent coupling) is an effective and time-tested way of ending a story. Even a film like His Girl Friday, which draws most of its comedy out on how well Hildy knows Walter and what she expects him to do, is able to end its plot this way by allowing its separated couple to reunite. (David Bordwell called this the “getting back together” plot, and was quite common in the 1940s.)
Monkey Business is thus somewhat unique in that Barnaby and Edwina start and end the film a happily married couple, and the plot does not create tension out of whether or not they’ll stay together. It’s perfectly clear to the audience, even when Edwina kicks Barnaby out of their hotel room in hysterics, that they’re a good fit and aren’t going to be splitting up.
So the whole conflict – the whole comedy – of this film is not in what will happen to Barnaby and Edwina’s relationship but how that relationship will respond the loss of control and autonomy of adulthood. What happens when a marriage – the most quintessential of adult relationships – becomes uncontrollably childish?
Like I said, it’s often quite horrifying: Barnaby and Edwina become rude, inconsiderate, spiteful, and sometimes downright cruel. And it’s not a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, either.* They aren’t becoming different people so much as less sophisticated versions of the same people. Thus, when Barnaby inquires as to whether Edwina really did kiss Hank Entwhistle (and begins to worry about her continued affections for him), his anxiety is not unfounded. He really does have some jealousy issues to work out. Likewise, Edwina truly feels that Barnaby may not fully respect her and may even look down on her. They may act irrational while using the formula but their feelings are still real.
The film doesn’t go in for a cheap ending, either, in which Barnaby and Edwina definitively resolve all of these problems. Drinking the formula is an enlightening experience but it doesn’t (indeed, it can’t) actually fix Barnaby and Edwina’s underlying issues. It can only make them aware of those problems; working them out is a long process which will never really be finished. That’s what Monkey Business gets right about marriage: it isn’t the “end” of a love story, as in so many films, but an ongoing one. Coming up against the limits of your own commitment just means that you can continue onward with each other wiser and better prepared, if still growing and evolving.
In the film’s final scene, Barnaby and Edwina are still married and in love, and they’re still basically the same couple we met in the film’s first scene. Their biggest change is that they are more aware of their own limits, as individuals and as a couple, and how maturity and shared experience is key to maintaining their own happiness and sense of self. The film’s general silliness, and the presence of an up-to-no-good animal, certainly makes Money Business feel like a cousin of sorts to Bringing Up Baby, but it’s a much more mature film, a romantic comedy that actually explores a living, evolving romance between adults.
*Actually, this is a cliche and not really fair to Stevenson’s original novella, in which it’s made quite clear that Hyde is not a different person than Jekyll but merely his own worst instincts freed from the constraints of upper class, Victorian gentility. Very much like Monkey Business.
An old cathedral, dimly lit. Oscar, the actor, walks down a long hallway with an accordion. He starts to play, quietly at first. The camera tracks with him. He turns a corner, and is joined by additional accordion players. The camera follows as they march around the cathedral, picking up more and more players and musicians. Their song grows louder, more energetic. The camera does not cut away, save for one moment of anticipation among the band before they resume their merrymaking. The scene is pure joy of performance, sound, and movement.
Scene: A limo in Manhattan, driving through an anarchist protest. The protestors are drawing graffiti on the outside of the limo, rocking it back and forth. Inside are Eric Packer, the young CEO of Packer Capital, and his Chief of Theory, Vija Kinsky.
KINSKY: You have to understand: the more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind. This is what the protest is all about. Visions of technology and wealth, the force of cyber-capital that will send people to the gutter to wretch and die. What is the flaw of human rationality?
KINSKY: It pretends not to see the horror and death at the ends of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present. The future is always a wholeness, a sameness, we’re all tall and happy there. This is why the future fails. It can never be the cruel and happy place we want to make it. What would happen if they knew the head of Packer capital was in the car? We know what the anarchists have always said?
KINSKY: Tell me.
PACKER: The urge to destroy is a creative urge.
Holy Motors handles its central conceit – a man, played by Denis Lavant, living his life as a series of roles in a variety of short films – with a delicate balance of elegy and fun. It is a sad and mournful film, both grieving over the loss of “cinema” and the loss of self in a postmodern world. But there is joy, too, as it finds inventive ways of approaching death, technology, sex, love, family, aging, music, madness, and storyteling. And Oscar is not alone. The holy motors are everywhere, and everyone is acting.
It’s possible it’s all much ado about nothing, a cynical attempt to drum up nostalgia over the death of film without much substance. What happens, however, is that director Leos Carax tackles the utopian promises of the cinema by contrasting it with the disappointing, meaningless, and disorganized processes by which we travel through the day-to-day. That the cinema is a lie – that all these roles are temporary, designed and performed for the benefit of an invisible audience – isn’t ignored. Rather, cinema’s value is in the lie itself, and the challenge it poses: Are you capable of looking past the lie and seeing something beyond it? Or is it just a parlor trick, an intellectual fancy that doesn’t matter because it’s false?
The actors of Holy Motors at least have the benefit of knowing they are part of a larger project. Eric Packer, the protagonist of Cosmopolis played by Robert Pattinson, is struggling to find any greater meaning in his fortune and misfortune. His company’s value is deflating rapidly due to international politics he can hardly comprehend. His prostate is asymmetrical. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Sex gives him no pleasure, though he desperately wants it to. He looks at the acts of protestors burning themselves alive but can’t find purpose to it because it’s “not original.” But if it was original, what would he think then? He doesn’t know, which is largely the problem. He plans for the future, but for what end?
Cosmopolis is an artificial film. The dialogue is baroque, and delivered by its actors without any attempt at the kind of verisimilitude we’ve come to expect in our contemporary line readings. Sarah Gadon, who plays Pattinson’s wife, is particularly brilliant at this. The limo itself is never convincingly moving through the city; at no point are you unaware that it is anything but a set. Characters come and go out of the limo quickly, but where did they come from? How did they know to find it? How is Benno Levin, Packer’s disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti, able to track the limo’s route? How does he come to live in that apartment directly across the street from the limo’s garage?
These are not nitpicks. Director David Cronenberg has made a film about its own artifice, its own inability to fully and realistically exist. Its characters struggle to find reality admist the deluge of data and wealth and conversation that they endure everyday. What does the future hold out for them, especially if the artifice they’ve worked to construct is so false and could come crashing down at any moment? Is there any kind of utopia they can even imagine, let alone create?
The irony of Holy Motors is that it allows for so many possibilities and yet the characters are trapped in their scripts. Oscar acts the way he does because his roles demand it. It is the same with every other character: nobody does anything unexpected. And if they do, such as when Kylie Minogue’s actress kills herself, it’s only unexpected to the observer. Everyone acts as they are supposed to, not how they want. Oscar’s roles change often and dramatically, but ultimately he’s just following the script. The world of Holy Motors may offer a future of hope, but it is future not of its own characters’ creation. How does one live in the world where your actions are not your own, where the end is already written?
“I wanted you to save me,” says Giamatti’s Levin at the end of Cosmopolis. This is after a long conversation in which Levin and Packer talk about, and talk around, Levin’s motivations for wanting to kill Packer. There are many reasons, it seems, and at the same time none. Packer is rich and Levin is poor, and at the end of the day that’s about all there needs to be.
But what will Packer’s murder solve? Levin doesn’t know, but even Packer himself seems open to the possibility that it might be necessary. He doesn’t want to die, but he can’t quite articulate why he shouldn’t die. Whatever the future will be, his fake world can’t be a part of it.
The promise of cinema is the possibility of being able to see anything one can imagine, of having everything be real. Even in the CGI era, we still approach the art of film much as André Bazin did, as possessing “an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.”
But of course cinema’s reality is false. Everybody knows that and always has. It’s what makes Hollywood so enticing in the American imagination, a place where dreams literally spring to life. We accept cinema’s falseness in order to accept cinema.
What happens when the falsity of the cinema overwhelms, when it no longer appears possible to shape the mess of the world into something coherent that we can see and hear? That’s the question at the heart of these two films, and it is a question that reaches beyond simply the cinema. How do you live when the stories of society and the self are no longer effective? Do we give into self-pity, desperately trying to find meaning in inconsequential things, or do we push on, acting our roles with what enthusiasm we can muster while knowing all the same that we are slouching toward an ending? Is the cinema a fantasy or a solution?
Reading subsequent history back into a film is dangerous, if sometimes inevitable. The Blue Angel, despite director Josef von Sternberg’s insistence otherwise, cannot be viewed removed from Germany’s descent into facism and war that marked the decade following the film’s premiere. It’s not just that the movie was shot in Germany (though an English-language version, which I have not seen, exists), or that its three leads wound up taking very different paths through Nazism’s reign*, but that it is essentially a film about a facist and his destruction. A destruction that comes about at the expense of his own masculine self-conception.
*Marlene Dietrich, of course, ended up a star in Hollywood. Emil Jannings, who plays Professor Rath, became a willing propaganda tool of Goebbels. Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert the magician, was killed at Auschwitz.
Early sound films like The Blue Angel, produced before sound mixing became more sophisticated, can sometimes exist in an odd aesthetic space. They don’t follow a strictly silent aesthetic that favors a more abstracted continuity style – The Blue Angel follows typical Hollywood continuity rules from this time, even if it has a few German Expressionistic flourishes – but the aural universe is limited enough and the compositional choices crafted such that one feels ready to fall into a silent movie at any moment.
Take this early pair of scenes. The first finds Professor Rath, played by Emil Jannings, in his apartment with his housekeeper. It’s a quiet, no-nonsense introductory scene as sits down for breakfast and then discovers that his pet bird has died. It’s perhaps hard to describe the full affect in a text-bound medium, but suffice to say that while none of these shots are doing anything unusual, the sound mix lacks the sophistication one will find in later talkies.
This is not a fault. Indeed the following classroom scene has much more noise, even if here the focus is less on following a character through a space than in isolating individuals for their actions and reactions to a moment (with the iris framing the shots) – a visual choice much more common in silent film.
What Sternberg is doing, perhaps unintentionally, is navigating a shifting visual style by pulling on old and new traditions simultaneously. If Rath is a man who ends up unmoored in his personal and professional lives, we see early on that such an outcome was always present in the cinematic space around him.
But before that can happen, we learn that Rath centers his own sense of self in authoritarian silence. When Rath enters the classroom, it falls silent. Any trace of empathy he showed to his bird vanishes. He is very stern, more interested in discipline than education. When I said it’s dangerous to read history back onto a film, it’s because of moments like this:
Those young men in Germany in 1930 are going to be, in a few years’ time, standing at attention in a similar formation here:
We never learn anything of Rath’s politics. But he’s just the kind of man who would no doubt feel comfortable in the ultra-disciplined ranks of Nuremberg. Silence is his weapon; it is how he deploys his authority. When the sound world of the film interferes with this authority, the film truly takes off. The allure of sound proves to be his undoing.
When Rath arrives at the eponymous nightclub, there is of course much more noise. The chaotic atmosphere here, particularly backstage, is at odds with the quiet and disciplined man Rath wishes to be. The visual space, too, allows Sternberg to indulge himself as nearly Lynchian levels of absurdity intrude upon his exasperated protagonist.
That’s a bear, in case you can’t tell, quickly moving across the room. Since this is supposed be a troupe of performers, the action is diegetic, if absurd. Sternberg retains just the right cinematic objectivity to render this world slightly strange but believable.
A shot like the one above, where Rath literally looks into the face of his future, could be heavy-handed if not handled appropriately. As directed, it’s a funny shot but remains slightly disturbing in this same slightly surreal way as the rest of the nightclub action.
But back to the sound. If Rath’s sterness and masculine is buttressed by his silence, Marlene Dietrich, in her first major film role, provides the sensual alternative with her voice as Lola Lola, the cabaret singer.
On stage, she flirts with Rath (she’s the only performer of the bunch with real presence and verve) and backstage she banters with him and Kiepert, the show’s manager and magician. Some of her dialogue even feels like it would be at home in the Hollywood screwball comedies that would become popular later that decade. As Rath falls for her, he remains mostly silent, awed and gawking. It is Dietrich who pulls him along into this new world with the power of her voice. Once she has seduced him, Rath quickly loses his composure, his job, his sense of purpose, and very quickly ends up following Lola Lola and her troupe around the country trying to impress her.
The Blue Angel is not directly about how to destroy or pre-empt fascism, but it is about the insecurities surrounding masculinity and control which underlie a fascist personality, and what would happen if those latent insecurities were exploited and ridiculed. Rath is a proto-Facist, and his “decline” is, if not outright celebrated in the film, not really a thing to be sad about, either.
Perhaps the intention is for us to feel sorry for Rath as he gradually becomes emasculated. That would be the typical way of reading this type of plot, but I find that hard to do because of both how that downfall is portrayed and how much sympathy we are supposed to feel for him before hand. In terms of the latter, I personally find it hard to pity Rath, partially because the concept of “emasculation” appears ridiculous to me, but also because he’s so clearly the least interesting of the major characters. Dietrich is a refreshingly independent and sure-footed woman; Kiepert is also a funny and dynamic performer. They both respect Rath, though perhaps not in the way he wants or desires.
As for his portrayal, Rath’s downfall is not tragic but pathetic. This is encapsulated in the best shot of the film. It occurs toward the end, marking Rath’s full transition into a clown and magician’s assistant. It’s a long shot, held for over a minute on a mirror with hardly any sound, as Rath applies the cosmetic symbols of his failure.
Out of time when first presented (no establishing shots precede this), the shot is a silent film moment if there ever was one. It is also the one moment Rath has to take stock of his situation, and either come to terms with it or change. He does neither.
Mirrors, after all, are a popular place for movie characters to confront themselves. Sometimes characters see a truth, but more often they see a fantasy of their own construction. Sometimes they see nothing at all.
Aggressively framed and held, like a long close-up in a silent film, the mirror forces one to witness oneself. Its introspective qualities do nothing for Rath. Before long he is back on the stage and without agency. His own silence is irrelevant; he goes mad surrounded by noise. The hyper-masculine ethos which drives fascist politics would have no use for such a gaze, either.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme is unlike Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. in most every way, but they share with one another an interest in the power of the moving image: how it works, what it’s saying, what it may be hiding. They make an interesting contrast. Keaton saw film as a way of becoming. For Godard, looking back at over a century of cinema, he sees a lot of waste and disappointment, but also possibility – if not outright hope.
I’m not going to try to rehash what the film is about, because to a large extent I don’t know. That’s not meant to be cheeky; I find much of the movie captivating, intriguing, even moving, though I’m still sorting out how all the pieces fit together or even if they’re supposed to. Jim Emerson summed it up best when he said, regarding the film’s reception at Cannes, that:
…the initial reviews from Cannes are, incredibly, the same ones he’s been getting his entire career — based in part on assumptions that Godard means to communicate something but is either too damned perverse or inept to do so. Instead, the guy keeps making making these crazy, confounded, chopped-up, mixed-up, indecipherable movies! Possibly just to torture us. Many approach the films themselves as though they are puzzles designed to frustrate (and to eventually be “solved”), then they blame Godard for not doing a better job of solving them himself because they’re too hard.
Frankly, it’s rather clear what the movie is about: it’s about European history, how the promises of the late 20th-century have largely failed to deliver, how the legacy of war is always present, how modernity has fractured relationships and made communication difficult, and how film (or video, or digital, or whatever comes next) might still offer a useful way of organizing, thinking about, and relating to the world and people around us.
See? That wasn’t so hard. What makes the film fascinating (or infuriating, depending on your take) is how Godard refuses to present any sort of “thesis” and “statement” about these things. Some things are clear: Godard is certainly appalled by the situation in Israel/Palestine, for example. But, overall, his approach is to watch, to string together sounds and images, to act more as a collector of media than as a crafter of it.
The video and digital cinematography is, apart from everything else, quite lovely. There are some really striking passages of visual poetry in this film, particularly during the first portion on the cruise ship (my favorite section). The splotchiness of the many of the interiors is actually anachronistic, feeling more like a home movie shot on analog video in the 90s than the high-def digital available today.
Godard used a variety of cameras, so I’m sure that’s intentional, but it’s a bit odd to feel nostalgic when these aesthetic qualities appear onscreen. All of my family’s own home movies have this same visual quality, since they were indeed shot on magnetic tape on a consumer camera in less-than-ideal lighting conditions some twenty years ago. And yet we’re constantly hearing that video is the “new” technology replacing film, even though this elides the quite long history of video images in our culture.
All this is to mean that Godard is not setting up some sort of binary where video stands in for the muddy, ever-so-banal present and film for the lost, glorious past. Perhaps video is a more interrogatory medium, which would explain the reporters in the middle section or the use of video in the final essay portion, but that also means it can be more intimate. The collection and interaction of passengers aboard the cruise ship feels almost Tati-esque at times, loose and lightweight but framed so lovingly, the camera a tool for letting people act out their inner humanity toward one another (or cruelty or stupidity, as the case may be).
As for the “Navajo” subtitles, the cryptic little poems which “translate” the dialogue for us, I personally loved them. It means I saw a movie much different than the one I would have if my French was better. There are surely details and important points I missed without the full dialogue, though enough is communicated visually that the complete meaning of the words was largely beside the point.
So what does the movie have to say about socialism? Or film? I don’t know. Nothing, really. It’s more meditative than argumentative. Those concepts, whatever they are and whatever they mean, still have a place in the (more multicultural) future of Europe, but I wouldn’t look to Godard to find out what that is. He’s more content with being an enigmatic poet, or, if you’re less charitable, your crazy, nonsense-spouting uncle. It’s a film well worth your time, either way.
One final point: the opening shot of the waves breaking behind the ship? What are the chances Paul Thomas Anderson lifted this for the opening of last year’s The Master, also a film featuring boats, secretive characters with a need to communicate, and an obsession with film history? I hardly feel that it’s an accident.
It feels appropriate to start with a movie about the movies – or, rather, a movie about our own relationship to storytelling and imagination. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is of course one of the silent star’s masterpieces, a lean, witty film that balances and builds the comedy of Keaton’s setpieces more expertly than in any other of his films except perhaps The General. Much has been said in the nearly 90 years since the film was made about its physical and visual genius, but I wanted to kick off this blog with this film, for more than any reason, because of this shot:
This is after all a film where a projectionist dreams himself into a mystery where he attempts to set right the problems of his personal life. It works by identifying the cinema as a dreamspace, where the physical and emotional laws of reality are warped and man can reinvent himself with relative ease. How appropriate, then, that the first shot is of the movie screen looking down at a theater, empty and awaiting an audience. This shot would have played differently in 1924, when the viewer was herself in a theater (not sitting at a computer or on a couch in the living room), the first shot thus a partial reflection of the physical space of the audience. The screen, a window to the imagination (which, by the time this film was made had a quarter century of visual precedent and myth-making behind it) looks back at you, except you aren’t there. What is there is the solitary figure of a man not even watching the film. In a theater devoid of an audience, he becomes the audience, and the vehicle through which the cinematic dreamworld will be explored.
By “cinematic dreamworld” I do not mean the physical movies themselves, which are fixed on celluloid (or now, in bytes) well before you start watching them. Nor do I mean the subconscious as depicted on film, the sort of Lynchian universe where people’s actions are larger in scope and emotion while also being more difficult to parse. I’m really referring to the idea of the cinema as a place where, on the one hand, anything is literally possible while, on the other hand, you can experience a more rigorous and understandable moral universe. It is the kind of place where you can have adventures on the frontier but still ride off into the sunset, the sort of place our capitalist society likes to pretend it is, and which has done an excellent job simulating for a certain segment of the world’s population. It is this cultural fairyland which Sherlock Jr. is exploring.
There’s a whole genre of “movies about movies.” Some of these are about Hollywood (Singing in the Rain, The Player), fame or creative struggles (A Star is Born, 8 1/2), or our shared cultural mythology as shaped by cinema (Spielberg, Tarantino). However, some are more meta, more about performance and how we use culture to model and shape our own public and private selves. This last category is probably the richest, and includes everything from Citizen Kane to Breathless , Taxi Driver to A Serious Man. Sherlock Jr. is in this category, one of the earliest films to tackle the question of how a man – especially a fairly unimpressive, unaccomplished man – thinks of himself and how he’d like to be thought of by others.
Buster Keaton’s status as an “Everyman” figure is well-trod, but it’s not just because of his innocence and unyielding stonefaced expression. It’s because he’s able to tap into the audience’s own experience as viewers, that is: as people struggling to define themselves by using stories – and cinema specifically – as a means in which to do so.
Keaton is trying to be a detective, and is doing so by reading a book titled, quite bluntly, “How to Be a Detective.” In the film’s first half, we see him attempt to use the guidelines of this book to solve the “mystery” of a stolen watch. But he’s far too literal and naive, and the book doesn’t really help him at all. He ends up accused of the crime himself, and eventually forced to escape from a moving train (the only brazen showcase of this portion of the film, which otherwise is fairly low-key). The mystery is eventually solved by his girlfriend, through a fairly simple and not dangerous method of inquiry.1
Keaton aspires not to be a real detective but to be the idea of a detective – the sharp wit, the quick instincts, the romance, the constant getting into and getting out of danger – which he can only find on screen.
And not even really on screen – despite the film’s conflation of movies and dreams, it is only in the dream where Keaton’s character is able to pursue his enemies and win over the girl. The imagination of cinema, not the cinema itself, provides the space for him to play around with his own deficiencies.
“Play” is the operative word, since the action of the film’s second half is almost entirely playful. It’s just unbridled fun and enthusiasm. But it’s only possible because it’s not real. In the waking world, Keaton’s attempts to play fail. You could probably come up with a good list of why that happens: he’s naive, he’s isn’t assertive, he tries to fashion himself as something he isn’t – something with is inherently false – and fails. Even before trying his hand as a detective, he’s trying to be a romantic, but his chocolates are too cheap, the ring he buys is too small, and he acts awkwardly around the woman of his affections. He doesn’t know how to act, only how he’s supposed to act.
The last scene of the film, when Keaton awakes from his dream,2 he famously mimics the action on the screen in order to console his girlfriend, only to run into a situation on film he cannot hope, or does not want, to duplicate. Cinema gives us the tools to navigate the world, faulty as those tools may be, but even those tools have their limits. We can’t always be watching movies if we want to live.
1. It’s rather interesting that in this silent film it is through a conversation that the crime is cracked. Keaton’s detective, relying on surveillance and physical interaction, is hopeless.
2. Which ends, by the way, with Sherlock Jr. and his girl floating helplessly in a lake, not exactly a heroic conclusion.