I fidanzati [1963)

This is a fucking depressing film.

I don’t think I’ve ever started like that before.

Because it matters.  How you start.

But maybe it’s just a mirror.

This film.

I can imagine few pieces of cinema summing up my life at this moment quite as well as I fidanzati does.

I’m sure there’s a dangling modifier in there somewhere.

But what about the welder?

The man adrift.

Sent to some godforsaken place for the company.

I made the right decision.  But I went to the wrong place.

Unfortunately, there is no separating the two.

Work.

Too much work.

All of our thoughts occupied with work.

And what do we get out of the equation?

Nothing.

Almost nothing.

Might as well be nothing.

It is a particularly Italian version of hell on display in I fidanzati.

Ermanno Olmi was a brilliant director here.

And he lives.  84 years young.

Sure.

Some things end well.

Young girls like happy endings.

But this one is hard to get over.

It’s really harrowing having nothing to live for.

And how would I know that?

You have a phone.  It doesn’t ring.

In fact, you sometimes wonder whether your messages get delivered at all.

You have a heart.

When is the last time someone spoke to your heart?

I understand.

We are shackled.  Paralyzed.  Crippled.

Life is sucked out of us like a lemon peel in the Sicilian heat.

No, I don’t understand.

Is this how karma works?

Surely this jungle will spare me.

I can think of Anna Canzi.

Her face is a melody.

And I relate to those sad cheeks.

You keep writing because you haven’t yet expressed it.

It.

That which you need to get off your soul.

Soul.

That living feeling inside you.

Primitive man suffering with his superstitions.

Poor man paying for his ignorance.

Not all are willfully unprepared.

What could have prepared you for this situation?

Other than this situation?

That is Situationism.

Science and humanities will argue that metaphor…or rather analogy.

That this will teach you.

It is like this.  And like that.  But unlike the other thing.

No.

I disagree.

It is unlike anything I’ve ever known.

Youth was lonely.

This is vicious.

There is.

A bar down the street.

But only in the movies.

Yet here it is exposed for what it really would be.

Empty.

Loud music and louder lights.  Life!  Vitality!  Excitement!

Inside is an old woman at a cash register.

There is a little metal display tree with ballpoint pens on one side.

The rest of the lopsided taunt is vacant.

And then the little boy.

Getting ahead in life.

Like Michele Sindona.

Making the espresso.  Quicker!  Faster!

Washing the dishes…

And hauling the fruit back and forth…

The citrus.

The service.

The difference in price from one location to another.

Goldfinger.

They Drive by Night

Good god…

It doesn’t get much more depressing.

And there should be some positive message to end it off.

And there is.

Which makes it even more sad.

Because the film was running long.

And maybe it won’t win shit at Cannes.

Did you ever think about that?

So then you have a depressing film on your hands for domestic audiences.

And they spend their hard-earned cash.

And what the fuck is this shit?

Oh…Anna, Monica…don’t go see this film.

It is so depressing!

But there’s the answer.

I fidanzati succeeds because it shows a side of life we don’t want to see.

What?

It succeeds…53 years later.

Because it was true.

It stuck to its guns.

It was meaningful.

So many other films from that year…

Utterly pointless.

Diversions.

Sad candy.

But here…

Yeah.  It’s a bummer.

But it’s real.

You can stare up at it and wonder how Signor Olmi painted such color in black and white.

How he lovingly distinguished gray from grey…and Juan from Gris.

Is it the same?

From language to language?

Gray?

Even within the Commonwealth…

We damned Americans.

No.

And yes.

This.

Sadness transcends.

No explanation needed.

The machines rule us.

Time is our master.

Money mocks our fragility.

On every continent.

An indispensable story.

 

-PD

Elèna et les hommes [1956)

Sometimes we are emptied of our emotions from exhaustion.

We can’t fail at love any more than we have.

Valentine’s Day is but a mockery.

And so why does Miss Lonelyhearts push on?

And Sgt. Pepper?

Some of us have immense reservoirs of confidence.

Some of us have a penchant for risk.

But not I.

If we treat love as an investment (bear with me),

then every risk has its flipside:  the potential for reward.

In love, we weigh the possibilities.

What will she say?  How will he respond?

But our world has degenerated into a soulless masquerade.

Do anything…but never show your true feelings.

If we are circumspect in our psychology, we realize that many times we don’t know our own minds.

I am not a meditating ninja.  I do not balance, poised to act with clarity.

No, I am clumsy.

In love, I am particularly clumsy.

To speak of such things in America…it just isn’t done.

Love is more taboo than sex.

Sex is ubiquitous, but love is vulnerability.

An American can never show vulnerability.

This is the great archetypal travesty of the film Patton.

And perhaps no greater dichotomy could exist than from that film to our film Elèna et les hommes.

It is Jean Renoir again.  It is Ingrid Bergman.  It is Jean Marais.

And to a very surprising extent, it is Juliette Gréco.

It must have been this film to which Godard fell in love.

More interested in Gréco than El Greco at this time.  More interested in Juliette than his schoolwork.

Those dreams which would be realized in Anna Karina.

But things fall apart.

How hard to know the soul of a man or woman.

Ingrid plays the role of a Polish princess.

On Bastille Day with Mel Ferrer there is a Rabelaisian warmth to the festivities.

From one Renoir to another, there are the pinks in the cheeks.  Red wine.  A weak drink.  Compared to Polish vodka.

And then there are the daisies.  A marguerite here and there.  Gounod’s Faust would have such as the leading soprano.

A grand opera in five acts is about what Elèna et les hommes feels like.  There are similarities in tone and mise-en-scène to Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès, but the best comparison is to Renoir’s own The Golden Coach.

What may not be evident (due to the visual disparity between the vibrant, saturated colors of Elèna et les hommes and the black and white of Renoir’s early films) is that our film is very similar to the Renoir classic La Règle du jeu.  Both share traits with the elusive Hollywood genre known as “screwball comedy”.  There is a general ruckus of celebration…a confusion of who loves whom…indeed, about who should love whom…mixed emotions…missed connections…conflicted hearts.

There are the base buffoons who live out our easiest desires.  They just chase.  So what if they lose?  Well, it makes a big difference…from the bathos of Schumacher to the stoogery of Eugène.

But these references aside, it is the others who make us believe.  The hesitating class of Ingrid Bergman and Nora Gregor…these parallel characters.  And the luckless chaps who may or may not prevail in the end…Mel Ferrer and, indeed, Jean Renoir himself as Octave in La Règle du jeu. 

It must have been a revelation for Godard to see this film.  It was the French film industry asserting itself.  And yet, it was the spectacle against which Debord would rail a mere 11 years later.

Even so, Elèna et les hommes is (at the very least) a beautiful echo of the French film tradition which preceded it.  In a sense, it was Jean Renoir retelling that old story of La Règle du jeu one more time.

Life is a strange party in which Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre is liable to be conjured from the ghostly ivories of a player piano at any moment.

 

-PD

The Circus [1928)

I never learned to write like anybody else.

I only learned my own way.

Maybe, you’d say, I never learned to write.

By writing we mean literary composition.  Style.  Manipulation of prose.

I suppose I rely more heavily on poetry.

But perhaps I’m not a poet.  In the strictest sense.

I learned to write like myself.  Thanks to film.

Each film is a mirror.

I learned to analyze my emotions and thoughts.

And because I loved the films I tried to convey their artfulness lovingly.

I don’t mean to intimate that I’m going away.  Just yet.

I don’t know.  Who knows?

I only mean to express this important realization.

As today I sat down to write a novel.

Tried many times before.  Unfinished projects.  Absurdly obsessive poetry.

But this time was different.

I sat down with literary tools.  MY literary tools.

I have developed my own style (for better or worse).

Developing a unique style of anything (but particularly writing) is a tightrope exercise.

For there are times within the modern novel that the novelist must become truly vulnerable.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

And why make this Chaplin film suffer the ignominy of being associated with my self-panegyric?

It just works out that way.

I’m a bum, he’s a bum.

A laughing stock.

A stock character.

But I have captured the world (if only for a second).

Modern life can seem hideous, but we wield power through art.

Set pen to paper like the greats before you and know the writer’s life.

The thinking life.

I am but a shabby philosopher.

The reason why I tack these emotions onto Chaplin’s The Circus is because of my affinity for the Little Tramp.

Nothing of Chaplin’s is as shockingly good (to my eyes) as Limelight, but The Circus certainly must rank among his most laugh-out-loud creations.

Perhaps you have seen stills from this film.

Perhaps you have noticed monkeys.

Yes, it is all very hilarious.

But the best is the tightrope as metaphor.

Some “cheat” with a net (no penalty).  Others cheat with a safety wire.

In life, we really don’t know when our crutch has been removed.

We don’t realize how ridiculous we look.

Our dependence upon a thing.

And when we outgrow it we don’t realize the momentous importance of those first few moments…in which we are flying free.

You might say that I am overthinking a rather straightforward slapstick farce, but I would advise you to ponder how The Circus ends.

There is more than a bit of sad clown.

Pensive.  Reflective.

The carnival has packed up and a little guy comes into focus as the dust dies down.

Wagons rolling…

Apparently Orson Welles didn’t think much of Chaplin as a director, but on the other hand Orson Welles never made me laugh.

That’s not nothing.

 

-PD

Monsieur Verdoux [1947)

Being unwanted is a powerful feeling.

A life devoted to a profession, and then (poof!)…

But aging is a powerful experience even when separated from an event of displacement.

Let me clarify:

Aging can make one vulnerable.

We are only all too aware that we aren’t as handsome or as beautiful as we once were.

We are made aware of this decline by way of “the spectacle” (to borrow an idea from Guy Debord).

Sure, we can read it in the glances of everyone we meet, but we must realize that those eyes have glanced upon the ideal.  Those eyes are connected to minds.  Those minds have been imprinted like microchips.

With what?  “The tyranny of good looks…” to quote the brilliant Marilyn Yalom.

The quote comes from her excellent volume How the French Invented Love (2012).  Yes, this nonfiction tome is only too relevant to the subject at hand:  Charlie Chaplin’s bizarre Monsieur Verdoux.

This one won’t have you laughing yourself into the aisle.  Not till the back nine (at the earliest).

Charles Chaplin was a rebel.  When it worked, the world loved him.  When it didn’t?  Ah-la-la…  No one can be completely spared the wrath of the public.

A quick glance at the ever-reliable Wikipedia [cough cough] tells us that Monsieur Verdoux fared better in Europe than in America.

Quickly perusing the section marked “Reception” we might come to the conclusion that audiences in the United States did not “get” this film.

So then did we merely have a cultural barrier (and its opposite) in operation as far as world reception?

I think not.  I think that Europe’s humor was forever changed by the World Wars.  Coming just two years after the second ended, this film was a litmus test.  What could be found funny in this cruel new world?

The entire world had lost its innocence.

And so the comedian was forced to make do with the sordid rubble.

It is not spoiling much to tell you that in this film Chaplin plays a serial killer.  The idea apparently originated with Orson Welles, but the treatment was no doubt a full Chaplin adaption.

Yes, it is shocking.  A bit.  Nowadays.  But then?!?  It must have been much more scandalous.

This was the first time Chaplin took to the screen in a feature film without relying to any extent upon the Little Tramp character.  It was a brave departure!

What I find most fascinating about this film is that the fictional Verdoux, like the real-life Hitler, was a vegetarian and animal lover.

Ah!  However…Verdoux was based on a real killer:  Henri Désiré Landru.

They share the same first name (and a rhyming last):

Henri Verdoux?

Henri Landru.

They also share a profession:  used furniture merchant.

It is not clear to me (without further research) whether the vegetarian/animal lover aspects were inventions of Chaplin or not.

I’m guessing they were.

In any case, they are effective reminders about the intricacy of human personalities.

Schindler’s List comes down to us as a hack film because it lacks life.  That is the message I get from reading Godard’s critique of Spielberg.  What is more, Godard seems to lament (mourn) the lack of video footage shot within German concentration camps during WWII.

Some have construed this as holocaust denial.

I don’t think that is the point.

However, Godard’s presentation of his argument brings with it a certain amount of skepticism.  Put simply, his question seems to be (in my own words), “How could the Germans be so technologically advanced (particularly in film and motion picture equipment) yet fail to shoot any footage within the camps?”

What comes down to us today is footage of said camps’ “liberations”…  Indeed, Hollywood directors were tasked with making propaganda of the hideous findings (George Stevens comes to mind) [not that they needed much help there].

And so why have I made this detour?  Simply to illustrate that the human brain is smarter than Hollywood assumes it is.

Spielberg is not a great director.  He’s merely a rich director.

Chaplin was a great director.  Monsieur Verdoux was largely a failure in the United States.

To come back to Guy Debord (and I paraphrase heavily in translation from the French), “Reality has been turned on its head…”

The spectacle reigns supreme.  Who cares if it’s true?  Even better than the real thing.  That is the message of Debord’s La Société du spectacle (published in 1967).  And that message is relevant to Monsieur Verdoux.

Perhaps it was the Letterists (of which Debord was a member)…perhaps it was the Situationists (of which Debord was the guiding light)…one of these groups boycotted Chaplin when he arrived in France.

Ah, I have found it.  Indeed.  1952.  It was the Letterists.  Their screed pamphlet called Chaplin a “con artist of sentiments”.  [translation by Len Bracken]

Indeed, that is just the role Chaplin took up five years previous in our film Monsieur Verdoux.  It is also part of the argument which Godard has made against Spielberg.

As much as I love Debord (one of my three favorite writers), I have to disagree with his early (pre-Situationist) position against Chaplin.  Godard would likely disagree with Debord and the Letterists on this matter as well (judging from the abundance of Chaplin films referenced in his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinema).  But I must agree with Godard regarding Spielberg.  It does no honor to the memory of Holocaust victims nor survivors to give the sad event the “Hollywood touch”.

Godard has (along with most of humanity) been called anti-Semitic.  I don’t believe that to be the case regarding the most important director to have lived.  A single glance is not enough to absorb what Jean-Luc is saying in any of his films (not to mention writings or interviews).

Ah, but now I am far off-track.  I have left Verdoux in the dust.

But that is alright.

Perhaps the measure of a film’s greatness is how much it makes us think?

 

-PD

 

 

 

The Great Dictator [1940)

The light of the mind is in truth not revenge.

I’ll say it again.

The light of the mind is in truth not revenge.

And so with a stark wisdom Charlie Chaplin stepped into a new realm with this film…a bit like John Lennon on his first solo album Plastic Ono Band.

You think the comparison is daft.  Perhaps.

God is a concept…by which we measure, our, pain?

It’s just a maxim.  Boiled down.

Axiomatic.

And for me…from Chaplin…it is:

the light of the mind is in truth not revenge.

The “unofficial” motto of the Central Intelligence Agency:

“And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I’m trying to up my game.  As a human being.

Today.  A small miracle.  A secret.

The secret of the beehive.

Swarming with celluloid transferred to digital information.

1s and 0s.  So that a particular defect in the print (a scratch on the surface) will always appear the same.  Forever.

The Great Dictator.

I know.  I should italicize.  Like Benzino Napaloni.  In the heel of Bacteria.

[That would be somewhere between the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya river.]

But I digresseth…

The light of the mind is truth not revenge.

In truth.

And so before God and all people I verbally bow down and prostrate myself as a mere blob of unworthiness.

Day in, day out.

But today especially.

Maybe…

My spaces will be removed.

Poetry is inefficient.

And cryptic writing is so tedious.

Truth not revenge.

Which is to say.

Diametrically opposed to–

untruth and revenge.

[at the very least].

There’s nothing difficult to say anymore.

I used to consider the French and the Jews my favorite people.

And there is no reason to alter that.

Truth sans revenge.

A mind of reason.

Forever and a day you could read histories and become an expert.

On anything.

Any topic.

Matchboxes.

Bread baking in 14th-century Sweden.

I chose movies because they were young.

It was possible.

The breadth seemed traversable.

But the emotions in film can never be belted.

We cannot bale these emotions.

We cannot stack them and inventory them.

To side with a talking head is not evolved.

From David Duke to Louis Farrakhan.

And to gag every time we see Netanyahu.

Let us examine.

No.  You are right.

People are dying.

But if we have the luxury to think,

then let us examine.

What Charlie Chaplin might have been saying.

Don’t watch the final speech on YouTube.

It will seem forced.

It is out of context.

You don’t see the psychic sweat.

Watch the whole damn film and then decide.

Muslims protecting Jews.

Jews protecting Muslims.

Bodily.

Stepping in front.

Yes.

It is not fair.

The jet planes.

Truth without revenge.

My son.

Daughter.

The great sobbing of the earth.

African-Americans protecting white people.

White people protecting African-Americans.

Fully.

You can never recover from slavery.

No people can.

And the best and brightest.  The inventors of jazz.  The marginalized intellectuals.

Truth not revenge.

Get the truth.

Know it.

Evolve.

Transcend.

Easy to say sitting in a little comfy house.

Not so easy homeless.

Words are so easy.

It is a crossroads.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise, they say.

And anti-Muslim fervor is also strong.

We overcompensate.

We err.

And so I say love the Jew.

Love the Muslim.

Love the black man.

Love the white man.

Listen to the women.

Love the man and the woman equally.  As humans.

And the Jew and the Gentile equally.  Equally.  As humans.

Let the imagination of your heart run wild with love.

Feel what it might feel like.

When all those variables guide your life.

That you wake up each day in a category.

Russians and Americans in a moment.

Every nation which has previously spilled blood.

Every nation.

First nations and last nations.

Don’t be cynical.

My friend.

Myself.

A humble understanding of a few things and an openness.

To approach the new day with a more pure ambition.

-PD