La Nuit a Varennes has a strangely powerful effect on some people.
Also known as La vita nuova — That night in Varennes to you — a film directed by Ettore Scola and based on a novel by Catherine Rihoit (untranslated into any language on earth as far as I have been able to determine) — stays with some viewers for many years to come: having seen the movie back in 1982 during its initial release, some of us have lived all these years with it simmering in our subconscious while we waited for the opportunity to see it again.
Mine has now come — and I have used her repeatedly.
Unlike Ellen and Jim, I have not been impressed by the conversations — elderly Casanova’s wise (tragic?) refusal to engage in love affairs when he knows that they are bound to dissatisfy isn’t exactly — er — ground-breaking; and Countess de la Borde’s reflections on security is just too hackneyed-Maslowian to give anyone a pause (perhaps man’s search for security was news to Europeans Anno Domini 1982 — but Anno 2012?). Nor do I make such a big deal out of the catoptic theater — to me it seems no more than a clever trick to introduce the unwashed to the bare facts of life (hunger, shortage of bread, der Putsch, Bastille, king brought forcibly to Paris, king flees) before the play can begin — an introduction which I, for one, do not especially need — and no one should.
But I am amazed by the film all the same — and wonder if Ellen and Jim’s amazement is really due to the same causes without him/her/them realizing it is so.
First, I love the idea of telling an occluded story: the true story of the movie/novel is the flight and capture of Louis XVI. But it isn’t told that way: rather, the story told is one of accidental meeting of a haphazard (and serendipitously interesting) characters (Thomas Pain, Casanova, and so forth) in a theatrically convenient small space — a postillion carriage — which happens to follow the same route as the royal refugees on the same night. The story of the royal escape happens, as it were, in the background, must be pieced together from sight of loosed horses and discarded remains of lunch left behind, guardsmen delivering messages, etc. When, finally, we do come to see the king, we only get to see his shoes, looking, like most of the pressing crowd, through the cracks in jam-packed humanity in front of us: the king is too precious for the vulgar populus to clap their eyes upon. This technique of an occluded story always works — whether it be in Le Carre, or in An Outcast of the Isles: intelligent readers appreciate the opportunity to work things out for themselves. I know I do.
Second, I am always pleased to see in literature — or theater — historical figures I am familiar with and like presented interestingly and believably. This was perhaps the greatest source of my pleasure at Lotte in Weimar (and will be, God willing, the source of pleasure in Ein Liebender Mann, when that finally comes): dead men are not entirely dead as long as they remain themselves. Casanova comes across both touching and about right in this film.
Third, I am incredibly impressed by the film’s formal structure: its central part consists of three scenes taking place in a carriage. This is classic in design: always the same number of people — six — but always with some variation — X has been replaced by Y, Z by W — to drive the story forward; it has the geometric/mathematical perfection of Ibsen (or Chekhov, or Cosi Fan Tutte) — three men and three women; two left, two right and two center; etc. Or take the opposition of the high — the protagonists, chiefly — and the low — the charcoal burners, candle makers, bar-keepers, beggars, revolutionary mob all significant but outside the group: a classic design feature not just since Henry IV but since the Javanese Mahabharata. Or take the way the central prop of the entire story — the mysterious package (containing the Scarlet Robe) — a trick known as “foreshadowing” — is first introduced almost in the first scene of the film only to make its reappearance in the dramatic grand finale. The whole design has the grace of a perfectly shaped vase: lookers on will admire its color, painting, finish and will never even note that all those perfections are only possible because the clay had been shaped so perfectly to begin with.
But, finally, and chiefly, my greatest pleasure is at the central thought of the film, summarized in its final scene and unnoticed by any of the critics I have been able to read. And it is this: in the carriage, Mme de la Borde tells of how wonderfully the king looked in his Scarlet Robe during the ceremony at Cherbourg; when in the final scene the robe appears — one of the character hangs it on a mannequin with an unstably hanging head — hint, hint — all are struck speechless; after some silence, one of the heroes — a rather irreverent character otherwise — observes that “had the king worn this robe no one would have dared to arrest him”; and the Countess, overcome by emotion, bows deeply while the lights dim. The point is this: the irrational, inexplicable, irresistible mystery of kingship. Kings who know how to be kings deserve to be kings because they satisfy a deep human need for things transcendental: for mystery and symbols and ritual.(A fact missed by the countess herself who speaks of charity, and love, and divine right, etc. — but her misapprehension is not surprising, humans normally do not understand how they themselves work).
A king who knows how to be king — like the current ruler of Thailand — is an Magical Creature; as such he inspires mad loyalty which does not care about charity, incomes, or rights. This is the point Thomas Paine in the film misses: do the aristocracy have a special connection to God? he asks demagogically, failing to see that yes, some kings, the kings who know how to be kings, do precisely seem to have a special connection to God.
Shakespeare tells us about it Henry IV, Part 1:
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’
Others would say ‘Where, which is Bolingbroke?’
The great kings, the kings who know how to be kings, are not “like the people”, they do not have “the common touch”, they do not invite Elton John to sing at their anniversaries, or air their heart-breaks, or do any of the things the British royal family has done. When the political situation became unstable in France, Louis XVI, who fundamentally sympathized with a part of the revolutionary program, appeared to reach out to the people, to show the common touch. And, though no written history of the revolution puts it that way, that was his undoing: he had failed to be like a king.
Also, I like the scene of Mme la Contesse bowing before the royal robe because — well — because this is what I do fairly often myself — bow — now before a robe, then before a plate, or a painting, or a jewel, or a tiled wall, or a Persian carpet. Aesthetics is the driving force in life and it is as incomprehensible as it is overpowering. It — not sex — nothing mysterious about that — is the greatest mystery of life.
Special kudos for Maestro Mastroianni for acting out that horrible, repulsive, shocking scene of aging Casanova making up on a toilet (above). Not many former heart-throbs would have dared such a thing in the name of art. He did, and I love him for it more than I love him for all of his other roles combined.
McKellen — Longcraine’s British Richard III — could act.
But to the American directors of a documentary about him
his greatness lay in his gay activism. (I.e. they didn’t notice his acting).
Although it has an European writer (Yasmine Reza) and an European director (Roman Polanski), Carnage is an American sitcom: its actors ham act – perhaps intentionally, perhaps because they cannot help it – and thereby turn into satire what played with more measure could well have been a comedy – (i.e. almost lifelike).
Could it? Well, perhaps: the words and actions of the heroes of the play are not very far off from likely (they are, after all, originally French, that is to say, not Anglo-Saxon-nice: if you spent any time in Paris, you would understand). Played thoughtfully, the heroes could just maybe have been put across as believable and this would have made the whole exercise terrifying in the classical sense (“the way we are” etc.).
It did not happen, alas. As it is, the characters are caricatures and the whole thing a spoof: rather longer than the attention it deserves.
Which is really too bad for the one good moment of the whole play, when a heroine throws up on Kokoschka. In a comedy, this would have given some a pause (“investment banker throwing up on a Kokoschka?”) and others (guess who) self-recognition (“I nearly always do myself!”); in a spoof it’s just — bathroom humor.
Could any Americans have acted this as a comedy? Perhaps not: for all evidence, there appears to be no comedy in America – American “comedies” are really spoofs. Comedy is something too gentle, too subtly drawn for the brave new world.
But so is tragedy: take any mixed Anglo-American Shakespeare (case in point: Longcraine’s Richard III) and the outstanding hams – those screaming from start to finish, those so obvious they make us think Shaekspeare’s dumb — are invariably… Americans.
Why should this be? One should not blame it on the American audience – (“they are too dumb to get good acting”) — after all, it is the actor’s (and the director’s) job to put across what the audience cannot otherwise get. (Or there would be no point putting a text on stage). It’s more likely that the actors themselves do not understand the play. It is as if American actors had evolved with a separate theory of mind.
(Not all: Welles did Shakespeare well. But he ended up doing him well — in Europe).
Keep it simple
“How can a film like A separation win the Academy Awards?” one asks himself. “Films of this sort never win Academy Awards. There must be a mistake.”
The mistake is one’s own: Academy Awards — like most film awards — are not won by the best film, but by the film which ticks the most boxes; or, in other words, the film with fewest obstacles to winning. Unlike other competitions (e.g. Cannes) Academy Awards judges don’t watch the films during public screenings, but on their own time, which probably means often not, which in turn means that obstacles to winning are in fact obstacles to watching. This year, they may not have watched In Darkness for the same reason for which I haven’t (“Oh no, not another holocaust film”). They may have skipped Warhorse for shear surfeit of Spielberg. But Separation seems timely (“we’re about to bomb them”) and Islam-engaged (“divorce in an Islamic state” — “they’re just like us”) and — who knows — perhaps reflects American industry’s desire to muscle in on the “Iranian-film” market. (All the critics rave, there must be a market there).
Given all these checked boxes, Separation‘s win isn’t really surprising.
Yet, the puzzlement remains: Separation is an Old World movie par excellence: it is “difficult”: it it tells a complicated story — a story complicated by issues of class, modernity, and religion, all of which are sketched rather than spelled out; actor’s motivations are not explained — it is up to the viewer to figure things out; characters have depth; and their actions are motivated by a kind of guesswork regarding what their interlocutors are really thinking (and not saying); part of the act of watching is precisely this guesswork — trying to figure out why x is doing what he is doing. This kind of story telling is universal in the Old World — Koreans, Iranians, Bengalis, Turks, Japanese all make movies of this kind (in addition to whatever other movies they make); this kind of movies travels well — Iranians watch Ozu, Japanese watch Ceylan; and is highly regarded by a certain influential class of viewers in each of those countries. This kind of movies wins international film awards in the Old World.
Yet, Americans rarely make such movies; some Woody Allen films are like this (“Matchpoint”), perhaps one or two Kubricks (“Eyes wide shut”). (Who else?) When they do, they often make them abroad or with foreign money; and never make a success of them at home. More disturbingly a crushing majority of Americans from precisely the socio-economic class which in the rest of the world can be counted on to watch, like, and discuss this kind of movies admits openly and without embarrassment to not understanding such films and not liking them. Old Worlders uniformly find this shallow and disappointing — how is it possible not to understand this movie? How is it possible not to like it?
Perhaps one explanation lies in the fundamentality of the American concept of K.I.S. — “keep it simple”. We, Old Worlders, find life complicated: it is complicated by issues of class and religion, of traditional morality, of appearances, of social compact; but to Americans — in our eyes at least — life seems simple: it is all about unfettered pursuit of happiness, the live- and-let-live ethos; we are not happy in our marriage, things are not working out, let’s not fight it, let’s not over-analyze it, let’s up sticks and move on, life’s too short to suffer. (“Move to California, strike oil, become a dot.com millionaire”).
Which is perhaps why things work in America in ways in which they fail to work elsewhere (highways, supermarkets, customer service, shopping by mail order, etc.); and why life there seems so much easier to new arrivals from the Old World. We Old Worlders admire this, and long for it, and, upon finding ourselves in America for the first time, find the simplicity incredibly liberating; but, in our tortured Old World way, we end up finding it shallow and intellectually dissatisfying. We end up wishing America would keep the highways and shopping malls and customer service but populate itself with cultured, cultivated, complex, psychologically interesting people like the Iranians, Poles, Portuguese with whom one can watch and discuss endlessly movies like Separation.
People who probably could not set up a sensible mail order operation if their life depended on it.
The title of an aesthetico-ontological post should typically contain the phrase “two kinds”: e.g. Two Kinds of Art, Two Kinds of Beauty, Two Kinds of Painting. So this is how you know what this is: this one proposes Two Kinds of Hou Hsiao hsien.
The best thing to happen to me in 2010 was, without the shadow of a doubt, the discovery of the films of Uncle Hou. (OK, body surfing at Guincho at dawn was a close tie).
Of course, the main reason why I like Ho Hsiao hsien has nothing to do with his art, and everything with my nostalgia for Old Taiwan: his City of Sadness documents Jiufen the way it was before the first tower block went up (over twenty years ago now, I used to skip class in order to spend an afternoon staring at the ocean from there):
Then, The Puppet Master documents an artist whose troupe and students I know personally. And the bike ride in Good-Bye, South, Good-Bye, on winding mountain roads between rows of betel trees, through intense, dark tropical greenery, after rain — the out-take at the top of this post — well, it might have been my own. I cry every time I see it.
But I like his technique, too: the beautiful camera work, the sparse dialogue, the long silences, the story told mostly without telling, the long stretches of silence. I like that the story is laid out without words, without unnecessary explanation, and that the heroes’ inner life has to be guessed at from scraps of dialogue and the sort of clues we are likely to get in real life: subtle, barely perceptible, often masked: silences, sidelong glances, hesitations. It’s not accidental that HHH is the only modern director I know who has made a conventional silent film, and that it is his most gorgeous. (It is the first story of the three featured in Three Times).
One is tempted to say that the technique is Asian (Kiarostami, another great exponent of it, explains it in his Ten), except that it is also common in a certain kind of European movie as well. It is, essentially, the Old World story-telling technique. It’s what gives Americans most trouble with Old World cinema, what puzzles them most about it. It, too, reveals a kind of ontological division between two different kinds of minds.
Besides being his most beautiful film, Three Times also exemplifies the divide between another set of two kinds: the two kinds of Ho Hsiao hsien which are the subject of this post. The films’ third part, set in present-day Taipei, unlike part one and two set in the past (1911, 1960’s respectively), escapes me. I literally do not get it. Which is, for a connoisseur of the Old World story-telling technique, very puzzling. If I get HHH’s technique, what is it about this film’s third part that I do not get?
Interestingly, I do not get his other films set in the present — Millenium Mambo, Cafe Lumiere. I simply have no idea what is going on in them; or rather, what is going on in the minds of their young heroes. The decoding technique which works so well with the minds of the heroes of HHH films set in the past, here fails me utterly. It is — to my mind — as if these young people– say, those under the age of 30 today — had radically different brains.
I am assuming this means either one of two things: either HHH understands modern Asians (by which I mean people under 30 today) as well as he understands the Older Folk; and portrays them accurately using the same technique; and it is me who is somehow unable to penetrate the modern Asian mind. Or else, there is something about the modern Asian mind that HHH does not understand and therefore, when he makes films about them, the result is… Bhogi.
Either argument supports the interpretation that something has happened in Asia 30 years ago: a kind of discontinuity in culture. Putative causes one could list here are plenty: onset of compulsory mass education on a vast scale — going from 4 hours a day to what is often twelve — thus severely limiting contact between the young and the family’s older generations; the appearance of TV with its powerful (and novel) life-style models; a transition in the parenting model from children-as-assets to children-as-our-future; who knows — even diet.
None of this changes the fact that Hou’s films are incredibly beautiful. See Three Times if you see nothing else; Flowers of Shanghai if you are into gorgeous costume historical dramas. And, if you are fond of nostalgic childhood memory thinggies, Summer at Grandpa’s. Or, better yet, see everything.
And then let me know if you get the modern bits. (Scientifically, we’ll run age-regression analysis on your inputs).
Wiseman’s Le Dance is beautiful and moving, but substance-lite, dietary. Scraps of excellence tantalize with unfulfilled promise: the directrice is shown in two interviews with dancers — one a student just cast into her first role, another a sujet asking to be relieved of one; the viewer is left hungry to know more about the Paris Opera’s system of mentorship — how are young people motivated and trained by a hierarchical administration to achieve the incredible things they do? A fragment of a group discussion on pension reform tells us that Paris Opera dancers have a special status in France and can retire with full benefits at 40. One wishes to know more about that special status — how it is defined, earned, and preserved. (The directrice breaks in to say that the special status depends entirely on the troupe’s remaining the best in the world. The dancers respond with an ovation: if they care about their pensions, they clearly care to be the best in the world more). We are shown fragments of a practice session overseen by two choreographers. They discuss: is it prettier if the dancer ends her pirouette on a stretched out leg or a slightly bent knee? Fascinating, this: their choice of profession was the initial selection of like minds; their training — years of doing and looking at the same things — have shaped these minds to be even more alike. What they say to each other regarding their impressions of what is good has far greater relevance to them — and the art — than anything said by any less-trained person. Like minds communicate in half-utterances, unlike minds do not communicate at all. Hear, hear, a great law of aesthetics hangs somewhere here. We’re given extensive sections of Genus, a POB commission by Wayne McGregor, not to be bought, or pirated anywhere in the world. One if left hungry for more of that, too.
(Not surprisingly perhaps: the film was made for PBS; and the PBS interviewer of Wiseman about the film – indicative of the audience to which the film’s obliged to address itself — proved so untutored as to be… well, embarrassing. Her main comment was that… she didn’t like the directrice!).