Affairs of the Heart: The Wedding Night (1935)

October 31, 2017

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The Wedding Night was doomed from the start. It was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final attempt at making the Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into a Garbo-level star, and his persistence had become something of a Hollywood joke. The Wedding Night became known around town as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten”, but though it failed as a star-making enterprise, it was another sensitively directed drama from King Vidor, detailing an unlikely romance between a dissolute big city writer and a Polish farm girl.

The story by Edwin Knopf and script by Edith Fitzgerald concerns down-on-his-luck writer Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper), a former wunderkind turned hack (supposedly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald), whose latest cash grab novel was declined by his publisher. Swiftly running out of money, he moves into a derelict house he inherited with his wife Dora (Helen Vinson). It is there he meets the Novak family, Polish farmers who are putting up tobacco acreage as far as the eye can see. Their only daughter Manya (Sten) is due to be wed to local yokel Fredrik (Ralph Bellamy, of course).

Tony is inspired by the Novak’s work ethic, and begins to write a new novel. Manya takes on the role of sounding board, and once all of Tony’s servants quit and Dora heads back to the city, of a romantic interest as well. When Dora returns, Tony must make a decision – to upend Manya’s carefully controlled life, or remain with his wife to repair their tattered vows.

Tony Barrett is introduced at a society party in a bathroom, pitching his publisher on a book when, he says, “I know its tripe.” He still expects it to be published based on the fumes of his former fame, but is soundly rejected. Tony and his wife Dora seem perpetually soused – their biggest concern about the move was the safety of their box of scotch. But while rural life bores Dora, it begins to rejuvenate Tony, who finds a focus and work ethic he had formerly abandoned.

Vidor was unenthused with the assignment from Vidor, as he found both Cooper and Sten to have severe limitations, as Cooper kept mumbling and muffing his lines, while Sten’s thick accent was another hurdle. Regarding Sten, Vidor wrote, “Her pantomime flowed quite easily and freely, but her dialogue was quite a different matter. Her words and syllables were never quite synchronized with her gestures. Rather than a director, I began to feel like a dentist trying to pull the syllables out of her mouth before the accompanying gesture had passed by.”

But once Vidor started looking at the rushes, he discovered that Cooper gave “a performance that overflowed with charm and personality…a highly complex and fascinating inner personality revealed itself on the projection room screen.” He was a performer who played well for the camera, not for the crew. Sten is unable to overcome a certain stiffness and formalism in her performance style, though it is appropriate for her character, a woman in a tightly-controlled patriarchal family unit who for the first time is granted a certain freedom of movement – inside Tony’s house. Sten’s buttoned-up coolness is an interesting contrast to Cooper’s anxious warmth, his puppy dog desire to be loved.

Tony re-ignites his will to write mostly due to his exposure to the Novak family, who have successfully avoided assimilation into the American way of life, for better or for worse. They maintain something of an agrarian existence, living off the proceeds of the land, but treat their women like slaves and their children like servants. They are completely alien to him, and are a rich source of character detail for his novel. They are content for him to exploit.

Early on Tony is invited for dinner, and Vidor sketches out the power structure through his blocking of the characters, keeping the women on the periphery, rotating around the male Novaks, rarely puncturing the center of their frame. It is only on the night of her wedding that Manya stands in the center of the kitchen, isolated in dramatic overhead lighting as the other women work around her, sewing and cooking and preparing for her wedding party. Manya stands alone, more isolated than ever, miserable in the thought that she is being given this privileged moment, this space as the center of attention, only because she is to marry Fredrik, played with utmost buffoonery by Ralph Bellamy (king of the buffoons). The film was shot by the great Gregg Toland in a naturalistic, evenly lit style, though he is already experimenting with the deep focus that would get so much attention in Citizen Kane in the next decade.

Tony believes that Manya is aiding his work, but not through any Muse-like inspiration from the gods, but simply for re-instilling in him a work ethic. She is out there milking cows every day, because if not the job will not get done. So he takes to same attitude toward his writing, putting up the following sign at his desk: “YOU MAKE YOUR LIVING AT IT – YOUR PEN IS YOUR PLOW, YOU BLANKETY BLANK!” Vidor presents writing as just another form of labor, and that practicality is refreshing for this type of romance. And the love that emerges between them seems realistic because of this practicality, it is love not of the spirit but of the flesh. And with the flesh comes fathers-in-law, and this particular one is none too pleased that Manya had been spending so much time with a married writer from the city. And neither, of course, is Dora, who returns to mend their broken marital bonds. There is no villain, no wronged party, just the messy stuff of living.

 

The End of the Affair: Cynara (1932)

October 24, 2017

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Ronald Colman signed as a contract player with the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, cranking out heart-tugging romances all the way through the transition to sound, as  in the 1932 production Cynara. A particularly “adult” pre-code drama, it frankly discusses extramarital affairs and suicide in a tone of disarming directness. Adapted from a hit play, Goldwyn wanted faithfulness to the material, though director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion sought ways to make this stagebound scenario more cinematic. The resulting film leads one to think that Goldwyn won most of the battles, as it is ends up as a very well-acted filmed play, though Vidor does find ways to be inventive at the edges. Ronald Colman, in his penultimate performance for Goldwyn, plays against type as a boring barrister who falls into an affair with a young shopgirl. He is no great lover, as he portrayed in a series of hit silents with Vilma Banky, but a nervous, guilt-ridden, self-flagellating one. Colman wasn’t happy with the film because it clashed with his established persona, but that is what makes the film so fascinating today.

Cynara originated in Robert Gore-Brown’s 1928 novel An Imperfect Lover, which was adapted into the play Cynara, a stage success in 1930. Goldwyn was in a perpetual search for quality material to funnel Colman into, wanting to build off of John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The search lasted for months, and was so consuming that one evening, according to Harpo Marx, he visited the Goldwyn home to find their son Sammy reading the funny pages. Harpo asked what he was doing, and Sammy responded, “I’m looking for a Ronald Colman story, Mr. Marx.” With its suggestive subject matter and stage pedigree, Goldwyn eventually settled on Cynara as Colman’s next film, and lined up Vidor and Marion as his directing and writing time, fresh off of their triumph The Champ (1931). Marion agreed to do the job on one condition – that Goldwyn hire Lois Weber to assist in the adaptation. Weber, one of the pioneering female directors of the silent era, had fallen on hard times, and hadn’t worked on a film in five years, taking on a job as an apartment manager to make a living. Goldwyn agreed to the arrangement, both respecting Weber’s accomplishments and wanting Marion on the job.

Told in flashback as a confession from the misleadingly named barrister Jim Warlock (Ronald Colman) to his wife Clemency (Kay Francis), Cynara is an apologia for male infidelity. Jim is a homebody whose horny old bachelor pal John Tring (Henry Stephenson) is always encouraging to join him on extra-curricular outings. So when Clemency goes on an impromptu trip to Venice with her sister, Tring encourages Jim to explore the London nightlife, specifically its females. One night at an Italian restaurant, they run into two shopgirls named Doris (Phyllis Barry) and Milly (Viva Tattersall). Milly uses the flirtation as an excuse to enjoy Tring’s money, but Doris falls for Jim’s awkward sincerity, and concocts a plan to meet up with him again at a swimming exhibition that Jim would be judging. Jim tears up a note with Dori’s address, and in a beautiful transition, Vidor dissolves from the bits of torn-up note to pigeons flying in Venice, connecting Jim’s two loves in a poetic bit of montage. Despite his seemingly abiding love for Clemency, Jim begins a whirlwind affair with Doris, which ends just as abruptly when Clemency arrives home early. The whole affair ends in tragedy, threatening Jim’s marriage and the entire life he had built up until that point.

Though the film is centrally focused on Jim and Clemency’s marriage, it finds time to give the shopgirl’s perspective – showing how Doris doesn’t have the same societal protections as Jim’s upper class bubble. Milly repeatedly warns her about how working class girls are tossed away by men like Jim, but Doris refuses to hear it. She is in love, and pays the price. It is unclear how much influence Weber had on the script, but she dealt with the double-standard between married men and single women in the fallout of an affair in films like What Do Men Want? (1921) and Shoes (1916). That double standard definitely applies in Cynara, as while Jim’s reputation is tarnished, he is still free to make a new life wherever he’d like, while Doris is jobless and spiraling in depression.

The most thrilling scenes in the film occurs when Jim and Tring deign to visit the blue collar district – there is a remarkable sequence set inside a movie theater showing Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918). Vidor has a camera boom swoop from the back of the theater down to the front, capturing the full-body laughter of a theater audience losing its mind to Chaplin. In a clumsy if effective visual metaphor, Chaplin shoves a dog down his pants to sneak into a dancehall, and the animal pokes through Chaplin’s pants, causing some awkward encounters. It is after this that Doris takes Jim’s hand in hers, and for the first time Jim exhibits what looks like lust. The sequence presents a Chaplin short as an erotic experience, both for the other revelers laughing their heads off in full body convulsions, and Jim and Doris, who find the film’s loosening of social codes a way to free themselves from their guilt, and towards their disastrous affair.

The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

October 17, 2017

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By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

King Vidor was “a little ashamed” of Bardelys the Magnificent, while John Gilbert considered it to be “Applesauce. With one John Gilbert providing the sauce.” It didn’t have the cachet of their previous films together, though seen today it’s a vibrant and funny film, one adapted from the 1905 novel by Rafael Sabatini. John Gilbert is the title character Bardelys, a womanizing adviser to King Louis XIII, he warns his servant to always let him know which husbands are in town before he schedules his assignations. But even when angry spouses drop in and challenge him to a sword fight, he flatters them so relentlessly (both their looks and their fighting skill), that they go away happy. Bardelys is such a well-known lover that almost every woman in town has been called “dark enchantress” and received a locket with a piece of his hair, meant to symbolize his devotion – they are assembled in bulk by his servants and dispensed with impunity.

The Comte de Châtellerault (Roy D’arcy) has no such luck with women. He was very publicly rejected by Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, to become Vidor’s wife after filming) before tripping over a precisely placed lunchbox and falling on his behind. The Comte becomes the laughingstock of Paris, and in a fit of pique, he makes an impossible wager with Bardelys – if Bardelys can get Roxalanne to marry him, he will receive all of the Comte’s wealth. And if he fails, Bardelys must give up his entire fortune. Bardelys is in no mood to marry, but accepts the bet anyway, as a test of his desirability. In order to win the anti-monarchy Roxalanne’s heart, Bardelys pretends to be famed revolutionary Lesperon. It is in this guise that Roxalanne’s reserve begins to crack, but soon Bardelys will have the King’s guards on his tale, and it’s more than money he has to put on the line.

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Vidor films with great agility, moving his camera in inventive ways, including dropping down with Bardelys out of a window. The most memorable shot is a ravishingly romantic one, of a canoe ride with Bardelys and Roxalanne, weeping willow branches drooping down over them like a caressing lover. King Vidor recalled the construction of the scene in his memoirs, as quoted in a post on TCM.com:

“I saw a property man wading in the lake pushing an old rowboat he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip: ‘How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches one hundred feet long?’ The leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic.” Vidor added that he was often asked about that scene. “They have forgotten the title, the actors, the author, even the melodramatic plot, but the magic of the camera made its indelible impression.”

Also making an impression is Bardelys’s wild escape from the gallows, a remarkably inventive bit of madcap action that has Gilbert springing around with uncanny mobility. In my favorite bit, he is trying to escape back up through a hatch, but a group of soldiers are thrusting their scythes into the opening below him. Taking this as an opportunity, when the scythes all clash together, it forms a kind of floor which Bardelys uses as leverage to leap up and out of the hatch. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft, and manages to display the wit of Bardelys solely through action.

Arthur Lubin, who plays King Louis XIII, recalled that the set was a happy one, and speculated that “I think the reason King was so well liked was that he left the actors alone.” That convivial atmosphere really comes across on the screen, though Gilbert himself expressed unhappiness with the whole production. He told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t want to be portraying this incredible ‘magnificent’ stuff. Whenever they talk ‘costume picture’ to me again, I am going to mentally translate all the characters into modern clothes and see how they would work out in say, Pasadena, today. If they don’t ring true, they are out.”

The film was a minor success, bringing back a profit of $135,000 on a cost of $460,000. But for all involved it was a minor affair, a diversion from the other work they’d rather be doing. MGM felt similarly, for when their rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, they destroyed the negative. The movie would have been lost forever if not for the miraculous discovery of that print in France. Thankfully, we can now see the film for what it is, an impressively mounted off-the-cuff adventure that could give Fairbanks a run for his money.

Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

October 10, 2017

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Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

Shinarbaev studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK), the oldest film school in the world, having been founded in 1919. He was there for eleven years (1970 – 1981), but his time there didn’t overlap with the future Kazakh New Wave filmmakers (Serik Aprimov, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Ardak Amirkulov, Amir Karakulov, Darezhan Omirbaev) who all joined a workshop with filmmaker Sergei Soloviev in 1984. Shinarbaev would be lumped in with them anyway, as it was good publicity for all involved. After graduation Shinarbaev spent, as noted in Tanner Tafelski’s essential interview at The Brooklyn Rail, “three years in Kazakhstan trying to do something as a filmmaker,” and after no funding, he “decided to quit forever.”

But then he discovered the work of Anatoli Kim, who he blindly started harassing in an effort to adapt his work. They would make three films together, and their third and final collaboration, Revenge, was buffeted more than usual by bizarre production circumstances. Kim had originally written the script for a famous Russian actor to make, but it had been definitively rejected. Shinarbaev accepted the project sight-unseen, inherently trusting Kim’s talent. But the Russian state funding arm was reluctant to give money to a Kazakh filmmaker working on a Russian subject, so he was only given 30% of his proposed budget, a total of 800,000 rubles. Two directors of photography quit weeks into production, and the assistant DP Sergei Kosmanev would finish the job – astonishing considering the film’s hieratically beautiful lighting, which in his Criterion essay Kent Jones describes as the film’s “awed respect for the sheer power of light.”

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The story is split into seven parts, and the main thread follows the aftermath of a senseless murder of a young girl by her schoolteacher Yan (Nikolai Tacheyev). Seemingly unmotivated, it is an act of pure evil. The girl’s father, Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev), vows revenge at any cost, and after his first attempt fails, he has a child with a younger woman, vowing that this boy, named Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) will be trained to seek revenge in the face of his father’s failure (this plot is strikingly similar to that of Lady Snowblood [1973], which I wrote about earlier this year). Sungu’s entire life will be focused on the murder of Yan. There is a prologue that lends a cosmic dimension to this tragic tale. It is set in 17th century Korea, during which a trifling king sentences a loyal subject to be beaten to death. His friend, and court poet, is also named Sungu, and is suitably disgusted by this act and requests to leave the kingdom. He is doomed to exile, wishing to depart “as a nothing remembering nothing, to become once again the nothing that means nothing, as I was before my birth.” Then he walks over the horizon into the blazing sun.

Violence follows Sungu across generations, to be reborn in the 19th century as a weapon of vengeance, though still touched with the spirit of poetry. Briefly anyway, for the weight of his mission grows so heavy that he makes his way eastward to Sakhalin Island, the contested spit of land that was split 50/50 between Japan and Russia, with a large population of Korean laborers. Sungu throws himself into a lumber splitting job, hoping to disappear into the routine, among other men trying to disappear in this non-place. But his past emerges as a wound, one that opens up and bleeds him dry. The film in this final section becomes ritualistically symbolic, as if Sungu had anticipated his own humiliation and was acting it out to fulfill a duty. Aleksandr Pan plays him as a blank, a tool rather than a human. The further Sungu heads toward his destiny, the darker the film gets. While his 17th century self departed into the sun, here is expires into darkness. The lights dim, flickering over the ghosts that he passes on his way to Yan’s house, surrounding a vision of his father, as well as the sister he never knew. He travels to Yan’s house the site of final reckoning, where he can collapse at last.

To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

October 3, 2017

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Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

Collins wrote and directed Losing Ground, shooting in New York City and Rockland County on a budget of $125,000. The film centers on the relationship between literature professor Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) and her painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn). Sara is cold, calculating and withholding, while Victor is impulsive, bombastic and outgoing. She has strict routines of writing and researching while Victor goes on instinct. His latest instinct is to spend a month in a house upstate so he can paint the local Puerto Rican community (especially, and exclusively, the women). All Sara wants is a library nearby so she can continue researching her book on aesthetics. Victor expects her to figure out study arrangements on the fly, placing his job, his art, before hers. The trip only exacerbates their differences, and neither gives any ground to the other. This is a movie in which neither spouse is completely sympathetic.

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This was Collins’ second feature after the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980, available as an extra on the Losing Ground DVD/Blu-ray), in which she adapted Henry H. Roth’s short story collection The Cruz Chronicles about a Puerto Rican family. Made for only $5,000, Collins recalled it was “terribly hard” to make, but it laid the groundwork for Losing Ground. She made both while a professor at the City College of New York, teaching film history and screenwriting. She had a masters in French literature from the Sorbonne, but a course she took there on adapting literature into film ignited her interest in cinema (previous to her academic career, she was a civil rights activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Collins began writing scripts while making a living as an editor for the BBC and a variety of other television stations. But she couldn’t secure any funding for her projects, recalling that “nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.” It was through the encouragement of one of her students, Ronald K. Gray, who would be her cinematographer, that she stubbornly carried on, and was able to scrape together enough funds for Losing Ground.

Victor is working through a personal and artistic crisis, as he shifts from abstract to figural canvases, he spends most of his time with a young dancer he meets in town, his model and mid-life crisis muse. Sara yearns for escape, so accepts an offer from one of her students to act in his student film, a loose adaptation of the “Frankie and Johnnie” lovers-on-the-run folk blues song. It is on that shoot that she enjoys her own awakening.

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Sara asserts control of her environment from the first shot of her lecture on existentialism. She speaks with emphatic enunciation, seeking clarity and directness. After the talk, a student clumsily tries to flirt with her by telling her he hoped her husband appreciated her. Sara pauses, a little shocked at this intrusion of her home life into this workspace – that pause indicates the barriers she erects between the two. Victor is introduced working on a canvas while drinking champagne at their apartment, totally collapsing his art and his life. It is essential for him to intertwine his work and his personal life, as one informs the other. As played by Bill Gunn (a fine filmmaker in his own right – see Ganja and Hess [1973]), Victor has bought into the idea that virility is the key to his inspiration, a machismo that he uses to justify all kinds of indelicate actions. His first act is to suggest to trip upstate, a journey that would aid his artistic practice, and one sure to delay Sara’s book project.

As Victor’s retreat looks more and more like a way for him to have an affair by other means, Sara’s reserve begins to crack. Her carefully drawn barriers between work and life collapse as Victor keeps intruding. She escapes into the film production, letting her hair down and dancing with a charismatic out-of-work actor named Duke (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead [1968]). This performance seems to free something in her, and allows her to discover creative ways out of her collapsing marriage. She begins to see Victor for what he is, and in the most brutally honest line in the movie, she spits out, “Don’t you take your dick out like it was artistic, like it was some goddamn paintbrush!” That is a line too harsh and too true to come back from. The film ends in a scene of creative violence, a gunshot in the film-within-a-film providing a definitive end to their affair. Tragically, this would be Collins’s final film, as she would die in 1988 of breast cancer at age 46.

It is thanks to Nina Lorez Collins that we are able to see her mother’s brilliant work. In 2010, DuArt was closing it’s film processing lab, and disposing of their vast archive of material. It included the original 16mm negative of Losing Ground. DuArt contacted Nina, and with the assistance of Milestone Film, the material was preserved and scanned for home video and digital distribution. It could have so easily been trashed at any step along that path, so any viewing of Losing Ground is a gift, and should be welcomed as such.

Black Sheep: Mon Oncle (1958)

September 26, 2017

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“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati

With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.

Mon Oncle opens and closes with scenes of stray dogs fanning out into an alley, eating garbage, urinating and making the world their home. The title appears in chalk on a brick wall, as if this was a post-apocalyptic thriller rather than a slapstick comedy. But all of Tati’s films have this “out-of-time” feeling, since Tati himself felt so upset about the massive re-development changing the French cityscape. Tati told Bert Cardullo (quoted in World Directors in Dialogue): “What bothers me today is that Paris itself is being destroyed. This really aggravates me. If we need additional housing, and God knows we do, let’s build new cities. There is enough room. But we should not demolish nice old buildings in Paris for the sake of new apartment buildings. Paris will end up looking like Hamburg. And it is uniformity that I dislike.” And it is uniformity that he skewers relentlessly in his design of Charles and Madame Arpel’s home (Hulot’s brother-in-law and sister played by Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie), a boxy glass-walled modern edifice in which everything is connected but nothing functions. It is an especially dour place for Hulot’s nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt), who finds few places to play in the ascetic setup. Even the backyard is landscaped to an inch within its life, and one hopscotches over it rather than walks through it.

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It is Tati’s first film released in color (he shot Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday [1953] in color but it was distributed in B&W), and he uses it to further establish a sense of place. The Arpel home is weak pastel, gray-blue with a smidge of green in the yard. Rather institutional in its color scheme. Hulot’s neighborhood though, is all earth tones, what Tati called, “old, velvety colors.” Hulot lives in what seems like a simulacrum of a small French village, on which probably no longer existed when Tati made the film. But he is a nostalgist for this kind of place, having fond memories of going to delis with his grandmother, “there was some sawdust on the floor, they cut us some thin slices of salami to give us a taste of it, the room smelled deliciously of oak and pepper.” Today, Tati said, “when you go to a restaurant it’s as if you were eating in a clinic.” Hulot’s home is a remarkable construction meant to channel these childhood memories. It is shot head-on in long shot, so when Hulot descends the stairs we can make out his entire journey from top-to-bottom in one sequence, tracking his progress through windows and balconies, his bopping head giving him away. This kind of “dollhouse” shot is one that Wes Anderson liberally borrowed in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

This set is not just that one trick-shot though, it is a living organism that Hulot has to manipulate to keep people happy. In order to make a caged bird sing it’s morning song, he has to manipulate one of his windows so it reflects a beam of sun onto the animal – only then will it start its song. And every day upon departure he provides the girl on the bottom floor with candy or a kind word (by the end of the film she’s grown from a tween to an adolescent while his nephew never seemed to age at all – time does strange things in Hulot’s world). Hulot is always leaving the apartment to pick up Gérard from school. Gérard is a cooped up kid who has found an escape with his ne’er do well uncle and a group of prankster kids. Their favorite routine is to wait for a pedestrian to walk near a lamp post, whistle as if calling them and betting on whether they will run into the post.

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Eventually though, Hulot has to take the boy home, and the construction of that home is one of Tati’s great achievements, a totem to conspicuous consumption without a thought to functionality. And Tati uses sound design to activate multiple levels of the screen space. In one segment Madame Arpel is complimenting a neighbor on her hat in the foreground, while in the background Gérard is cleaning his shoes on the welcome mat, that scraping sound nearly blotting out his mother’s conversation. Everything in a Tati frame matters, there is no centering character. While your eye automatically drifts to Hulot, since Tati is such a master of pantomime, he often wanders out of frame, so you are forced to find other jokes – like the two circular windows that look like eyelid-less eyes, or the great sucking sound of the fish fountain, which Madame Arpel turns on and off depending on the importance of the guest. There is a whole rhythm to the house’s apparatus, the fountain “sucking,” the front door buzz, the soft “thunk” of a glass door closing, one might be able to map the comings and goings of each character just based on the sound design.

Needless to say when they have a dinner party Hulot starts breaking down the Arpel’s much sought-after order. He does the same at the rubber hose factory they get him a job at – the hose ends up looking like sausage, the disposal of which is an adventure on its own. There are so many visual gags, layered into each intricately arrayed sequence, it’s almost enough to be distracted by the solitude of it all. For while Hulot was the center of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, here he seems more peripheral, his final expulsion a natural extension of the plot. The final images, rather touching ones, find Charles and his son Gérard ultimately bonding over the lamp post prank. What had been a completely combative relationship has softened in a shared bond over slapstick violence. But Hulot is gone, and they don’t miss him.

Summer Daze: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

September 19, 2017

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The first screen appearance of Jacques Tati’s Hulot character is inside of a car: a clattering, jittering wreck making its way to a seaside hotel in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati cuts from the sound of a train horn to the pitter-putter of Hulot’s gasping car engine as it turns the corner of a country lane. The train is carrying the middle-class vacationers to their summer home, but Hulot always travels his own circuitous path. He yearns to be part of the group, but is forever getting sidetracked, by everything from funerals to fireworks. The character of Hulot, established here and elaborated on in three more films (Mon Oncle [1958], Playtime [1967] and Trafic [1970]), is baffled by modern technology and remains continually tangled up in it, reaching an apotheosis in the shimmering urban Hulot-trap of Playtime.  Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a gentler affair, though it establishes the unsteadiness and peculiar launching qualities of his springlike body. Like his car, he is as unsteady as a reed in a wind, and the slightest stumble will launch him into the next zip code. But he will always circle back home, hoping to get a few moments’ peace before getting launched once again.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was shot in St. Marc-sur-mer in Brittany, on France’s northwestern coast. It was, and reportedly still is, a sleepy seaside resort town – you can still rent rooms in the same (extensively remodeled) Hotel de la Plage, now part of the Best Western chain. Tati shot on location during the summer and autumn of 1952, with the crew staying at the hotel. It remained open to the public, so if you were staying there during that year, you probably made it into the film as an extra. The rest of the cast was filled with relative unknowns  (Lucien Fregis as the hotel manager) or acquaintances (Nathalie Pascaud, who plays the young blond Martine, was a friend of a friend). As with Jour de fête(1949), which I wrote about last week, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead is a series of vignettes documenting a day in the town, slices of life that are then shredded by Hulot’s bumblings and stumblings (Tati made multiple edits to the feature, the final cut in 1978 – the original 1953 cut is offered as a bonus feature on FilmStruck).

The film begins, not with Hulot, but with a visual gag at a train station. A group of heavily packed vacationers wait on a middle platform. A noisy unintelligible voice on the intercom starts babbling, and the group, as one amorphous blob, runs to the platform at the bottom of the screen. But then a train starts rolling in at the platform at the top of the screen, and so on and so forth until the rabble finally gets on their train of choice. Shot with a static locked camera, Tati makes the train station look alien, almost inhuman, and the vacationers like a panicked mob. Later, a packed bus ride gets the same treatment – it is so filled with humanity a little boy is sitting inside the opening in the steering wheel. Compared to that, Hulot’s shivering little car doesn’t seem so embarrassing. He putters along at his own pace, breaking down every few miles, sure, but he’s not packed in like sardines. In these travel sequences you can really appreciate Tati’s manipulation of the soundtrack, the cut from a train horn to Hulot’s clattering car immediately emphasizes its fragility and its unconventional nature. The car sounds like it has emphysema, whereas the train is all brawn and strength.

When Hulot finally levers his reedy body out of the vehicle and into the hotel, it is already full with social circles fully formed, and it is near impossible for him to ingratiate himself. And it is here we first see Hulot in full, with the peaked cap, bobbing pipe and that angled, bouncing walk. Biographer David Bellos describes Hulot’s posture as a “‘corporeal structure’ vaguely reminiscent of Giacometti’s spidery lines.” He is spread out in all directions but somehow with a solid center of gravity. Then there is that unchangeable expression on his face which scholar Michel Chion described as “indefinable, somewhere between worry, stupidity, and polite neutrality.”

In the early going Hulot cannot manage the space of the hotel, he is just spilling all over the place. Each door he opens lets in a gale force wind, as if a twister had hit in the lobby. At check-in the tobacco in his pipe is so overflowing the hotel manager has to pluck it out of his mouth so he can speak. This is just the first of endless incursions into other people’s personal space. Even when he’s alone he annoys – during the post-dinnertime lull, he sits alone and plays an absurdly loud jazz record, jolting everyone out of their restful state. Hulot, both by accident and by design, is something of a prankster, so the only people who gravitate towards him are a little boy who gives him a run for his money at ping-pong, and the young beauty Martine, for whom Hulot is a charming respite from incessant male flirtation (from both insufferable Marxists and capitalists alike).

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The most moving vignette depicts a scantily attended masked ball – there are a few children napping in their seats, Hulot and Martine. Hulot shows up in an elaborate pirate outfit, while Martine swoops in wearing a mask and skirt. She enters while he is futzing with the record player behind a curtain – and, just before she is about to depart, he emerges, and they giddily dance around the empty room. It is a moment when the two souls in the town seeking adventure have found each other, and Hulot does not stumble or collapse. In fact he is quite nimble as they skip around the dance floor. It is a short-lived moment, but an exquisite one, showing that the Hulot character, though aloof and oblivious to the world so much of the time, is capable of joining it in full when he discovers someone with the same out-of-step sensibility. It is a transitory moment, and Hulot is swept along by his own momentum as he crashes a funeral, and in the final spectacular stunt, sets off a whole shed of fireworks in a display of sublime idiocy. He ends the summer with a bang, but leaves much as he began, alone in that fussy old car. He gives Martine’s empty room one final look (she left without a goodbye), and drives offscreen, leaving us with an image of the emptied out town. It ends with a stamp being placed on a picture, turned into a postcard, a memory Hulot will keep close to his heart during the further solitary adventures that await him.