Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 5

Another week of the Great Transition, another belated blog posting – I certainly hope to break this pattern soon, but as with most things, the banalities of everyday (read: non-film related) life sometimes take over. When I began this endeavor of chronicling Rosenbaum’s film series, I knew going in that there would be films/filmmakers that I was unfamiliar with or knew relatively little about. Louis Malle fits snuggly into this description. Perhaps appropriately, it is Rosenbaum’s seemingly indifferent stance to the filmmaker that has helped perpetuate my ignorance – a quick visit to the Reader’s online archive reveals a string of negative/mixed reviews of almost all of Malle’s films, fictional or documentary. Rosenbaum admitted his own ambivalence about the filmmaker during his introduction, citing Malle’s status as a middle brow, literary director, but insisting that Zazie dans le Metro is worthwhile and that he also likes Malle’s Atlantic City (Dave Kehr’s Reader capsule review credits that film’s success almost entirely to its writer). A recent string of Criterion and Eclipse DVDs has resurrected Malle’s reputation - he is fast on his way to being one of the best represented of any French filmmaker in the digital medium. But he’s still got some counts against him: he is only tenuously connected to the French New Wave (pace Rosenbaum’s opinion, as well as my own) and is a bit of a dilettante. His filmography leaps from noir to documentary to broad comedy to coming of age story to theatrical adaptation to sexually explicit potboiler, etc etc (Rosenbaum calls Elevator to the Gallows a poor Bresson imitation). But, as near as I can tell, he seems content to work within the parameters of any given genre, rather than explode them. As opposed to the New Wave proper, he would also seem to have no desire to synthesize - that is, relate the modern to the classical. Rosenbaum’s brief introductory comments further localize Malle as a pretender to the New Wave, highlighting his wealthy, traditional upbringing as a proper film school student, followed by a stint as an assistant director (to Bresson, go figure). Any consideration of Malle that I’ve come across usually emphasizes the “classical”, that is, his attention to trendy social themes or his way with actors. It is this very “tradition of quality” that the New Wave railed against.

These notions lead directly to my feelings on Zazie dans le Metro, a wacky, pseudo-subversive comedy that seems like a put-on, a dilettante trying his hand with an anarchic, anti-social comedy and finding that it doesn’t quite fit his sensibility (his next films were a short on the Tour de France and a Bridgette Bardot star vehicle). The titular character, played by Catherine Demongeot, arrives in Paris to spend the night with her Uncle Gabrielle, played by Phillipe Noiret. Her mother has acquired a new lover and must be rid of her daughter for an amorous weekend encounter. Zazie’s only desire is to ride the subway, but it has been shut down due to a labor strike (as one character mentions, it is the only way to get a pay raise). What follows is a chaotic series of chases, various childish shenanigans, and a disturbingly nihilistic ending that seems to suggest, confusingly, that while Fascism is everywhere in our modern world and that it is absurd, hilarious, violent, misogynistic, vulgar, and stupid, the inane vapidity of the working class has brought it upon themselves. Does that make sense? Perhaps not, and that is part of the problem. Zazie is pure id - precocious, foul mouthed, petulant, and selfish. Uncle Gabrielle doesn’t fare much better – he’s a big mouthed lout, lumbering about in stylish suites trying to hide his awkward gait. With regards to overbearing obnoxiousness, there are too many specific moments to mention (and I hate plot synopsis), but it should be noted that there are three different chase scenes: the first occurs when Zazie leaves her Uncle’s house unannounced and is tracked down by his landlord; the second occurs when Zazie meets a stranger who “likes children” – she persuades the potential molester to buy her oysters (an aphrodisiac if I’m not mistaken) and then steals a pair of blue jeans; the third chase involves her Uncle and his cab driver friend chasing her up and down the Eiffel Tower (with some truly amazing moments of high altitude tomfoolery – anyone who suffers from vertigo is likely to get quite nervous). This sense of constant motion, running and getting literally nowhere, perfectly encapsulates the film.

Malle adapted the scenario for Zazie dans le Metro from the book by Raymond Queneau, a member of the post-Dada, post-Surrealist, and short lived literature/mathematical movement known as Oulipo. Essentially a loose grouping of literary thinkers angered at the legacy of the Surrealists politics (my limited research suggests that they were pro-Soviet at a time when it was no longer popular within the Socialist party), the Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or “workshop of potential literature”) constructed various constricting exercises designed to increase creativity. They attempted to design new structures and patterns that could be adopted by any writer, usually involving lipograms (writing that excludes one or more letters; see Georges Perec’s “A Void”, a novel that doesn’t contain the letter “E”) and palindromes. Queneau himself compiled the “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems”, a book containing 10 sonnets, printed so that each line of each sonnet could be cut into a strip and rearranged with any other line from one of the other sonnets. Queneau claimed that it would take 200 million years to read each possible combination/variation (I myself have not tested this hypothesis). Rosenbaum discussed the fact that he himself has never finished the novel, even after several attempts. It would seem that the French language more than others is particularly susceptible to linguistic puns, and that quite a bit gets lost in translation, even if one is mildly fluent in French (by his own admission, Rosenbaum can speak it and read it, but with some difficulty). I hope you’ll forgive this digression, but I hope to illustrate that much of what is transgressive in the film seems to stem from its source material, not necessarily from Malle. Rosenbaum explicates some cinematic trickery that seems to relate directly to the ideology behind Oulipo, that is, translating a literary gimmick into a cinematic one. There are quite a few instances of people in the background of a scene who seem to be swarming about in fast forward, while Zazie and her Uncle move about normally. Malle shot these scenes at 8 to 12 frames per second, rather than the normal 24, and instructed Demongeot and Noiret to act in slow motion while the people around them moved about normally. When projected at the standardized 24 frames per second, you get the disorienting effect. There are also moments during each of the chase sequences where Zazie is clearly running in place, as well as noticeable continuity errors, obvious jump cuts, images reflecting in mirrors, and ludicrous verbal puns (repeatedly saying “damngoddit”, “bleugenes”, “hormosessual” and other assorted non-sequiters I would assume are imported verbatim from the novel).

To further diminish Malle’s auteurist status, Rosenbaum mentions William Klein’s involvement with the film. The American ex-pat photographer is credited here as an “artistic director”, and Rosenbaum credits much of the film’s wide angle and deep focus photography to him. Klein himself would go on to make politically volatile social satires, one of which, Mr. Freedom, Rosenbaum will be screening in just a few weeks. I hesitate to suggest that Klein would exert such influence over another directors’ production, but I would be remiss if I failed to note that after Zazie, Malle abandons a politically deconstructive visual schema for a more classical mise en scene (often succumbing to fashion, i.e. his lazy use of the zoom in Atlantic City), while Klein would go on to make outrageously contrarian social satires.

The end of Zazie dans le Metro involves a ludicrously long scene of Zazie, Gabrielle, and virtually every character that has appeared in the film gathering at a restaurant. They proceed, over the course of fifteen minutes or so, to destroy the entire set while beating each other senseless, culminating in a bizarre food fight and the entry of a little tyrant (played here by the same actor who has already embodied a possible pedophile, sexual deviant, and a police officer) and an army of riot police. While this little tyrant makes an absurd speech, his foot soldiers march on the restaurant in exaggerated rear-projection (their image grows increasingly larger while tiny-Hitler remains stable) and proceed to gun down a woman. The group of diners cum anarchists makes their escape only to discover that the strike has ended and that the metro is running again. A happy ending?

This confused anarchic meltdown speaks to the limitations of Malle’s scenario (and perhaps Queneau’). The dinner scene/restaurant setting has been used quite frequently by an assortment of politically conscious and/or satirical filmmakers. It makes a certain sense, as dinner represents a locust of potential symbolic/metaphoric meanings: a societal gathering, the nuclear family, mass consumption and the commerce that comes with such consumption, with commerce leading immediately to notions of capitalism and anti-capitalism. Bunuel has used the device at least three different times, to my mind most successfully in The Phantom of Liberty – in a brief sketch, a family gathers in a formal dining room and sits at an elegantly appointed dinner table. Bunuel reveals his joke, that their seats are actually toilets, and as the family and their guests carry on polite conversation, they use the bathroom. A guest excuses himself and retreats to a bathroom, where he sits on a chair and proceeds to eat a plate of food in private. The point seems clear, that our actions are social constructions that are followed only because of general consensus – a different consensus could theoretically alter our social and private habits. Tati destroys a modern restaurant in Playtime, suggesting that the possible communal harmony of a society is restricted by our impersonal, rigid architecture. Rather than nihilism, Tati celebrates the possibilities of rupturing an alienated modernism (in this sense, he is the anti-Antonioni). In her masterpiece Daisies, the great Czech New Wave director Vera Chytilova stages an elaborate scene of two women annihilating a banquet hall. In this frenzy of mass consumption, Chytilova rails against patriarchy and the hypocrisy of the Communist Party. Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie climaxes with a communal purging, an orgy of people puking, shitting, and pissing all over each other. It’s certainly disgusting, but like Bunuel, Makavejev is interested in re-writing the rules of what is socially acceptable (predictably, most of Makavejev’s films have been banned or censored). Godard’s first major work involving video, Numero Deux, equates the social and political complacency of a bourgeois family with constipation. I use these examples to illustrate (briefly) the implications other filmmakers have explored to contrast Malle’s relatively benign dabbling with political filmmaking. To the great iconoclasts, capitulating to narrative storytelling norms would be a betrayal of the revolutionary ideas they hope to espouse. But for Malle, who simply indulges in an unproductive, empty, and easy nihilism, there is no revolution, just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Destruction without meaning is easy - the real difficulty comes in suggesting what comes after.

As part of his closing comments, Rosenbaum mentions, quite bluntly, the possibility that Malle’s film is indigestible. He goes on to state that such were the aspirations of the 60’s, and that art doesn’t change without certain kinds of dangerous mixtures or blunt, aggressive gestures. If I ever get around to it, we’ll see how the films shown during Week 6 of the Great Transition reconcile these kinds of bold gestures with a firm notion of humanism, that is, a reaffirming political cinema.

1 comment:

Hanlon said...

Oulipo's still rockin' bra. Also, what about the restaurant scene in The Meaning of Life? "One Wafer Thin Mint"