Yearly Archives: 2014

December 9, 2014

69. Le testament d’Orphée (1959)

2000: 069 box 1 (out of print 4/2010)


Criterion #69: Testament of Orpheus.
= disc 3 of 3 in Criterion #66, “The Orphic Trilogy.”

As you can see, the full onscreen title is actually Le testament d’Orphée : ou : ne me demandez pas pourquoi, i.e. “The Testament of Orpheus : or : Don’t Ask Me Why.”

This subtitle appears as a line of dialogue in the movie, immediately after a character informs us that the “idol of celebrity” has six eyes and four mouths: don’t ask me why. So here it means: “Don’t ask me what any of this stuff means. It’s poetry, not symbolism.” Just as at the beginning of Orpheus and Beauty and the Beast, once again, Cocteau is giving the audience unnecessary “instructions for use.” This time he managed to get anxiety into the title itself. Well, the subtitle, anyway. The title proper is just a self-aggrandizing tag: “Orpheus, the Eternal Poet of my prior films? Yes, yes, c’est moi. Now receive this, my last bequest of Poetry to the world.” (Place back of hand on forehead and pose.)

In a nutshell: Portrait of the Artist as an Artist Portraitist, Asleep. Jean Cocteau is onscreen in nearly every shot, playing himself, wandering around inside his own surreal dreamspace, thinking about himself, and interacting with characters from his own prior work, reenacting motifs from the preceding two films. This movie must be the absolute high-water mark for cinematic self-involvement. Bosley Crowther: “It is hard to think of anybody (with the evident exception of Jean Cocteau) who, however egotistical he might be, would have the nerve to make a full-length film about himself. But M. Cocteau has done it.” You’ve done it, Jean! By Jove, he’s done it! He said that he would do it and indeed he did!

Of course, the previous two movies were also all about him. But he wasn’t visible, identified by name, talking about himself and making other characters talk about him. Whereas this is Jean Cocteau’s Playhouse, starring Jean Cocteau playing “Jean Cocteau.” And he even stages that: at one point he and his boyfriend pass another Jean Cocteau walking in the opposite direction. The two Cocteaus peer back at each other suspiciously before the other turns the corner and disappears, leaving our Cocteau dismayed and irritable. “He hates me,” Cocteau tells his companion. “As well he might,” he replies, “He suffered mockery intended for you.”

That excerpt should suffice to indicate the texture of this very strange movie. It is not, like the two before it, a thinly veiled expression of the artist’s hangups: it is a completely unveiled staged catalogue of the artist’s hangups. Having worked my way through miles of Jean Cocteau to get here, absolutely none of those hangups were new to me. But the baldness of the project was, and to my surprise that baldness made it my favorite of the three films. The egomaniacal circularity of it all had a hypnotic effect. The movie has a kind of unary pulsating weirdness that feels like integrity. It’s like a little planetoid, held together exactly by its own gravity.

The integrity derives from the fact that this is how all selfhood operates. My self generates itself, and this self consists of no more and no less than that process of self-generation. Like the sun, which is its own burning. A work of art that operates similarly, as a fixed process of existence, is always going to be of value as a meditative object. No matter how vain and angsty and petty its materials. I found this other person’s dream very easy to relate to, much moreso than the preceding films with their awkward modicum of “modesty” and “objectivity.” In those films I saw various kinds of evasion. Here I saw a person’s mind as its own existential sun, with no escape. This I can believe.

I don’t know if Manny Farber’s dichotomy of “white elephant art” vs. “termite art” is so great or necessary, but it has force and has stuck around in my head. (Summary: White elephant art = top-down = calculated to fulfill imposed forms, satisfy inherited ideas of quality and dignity = mostly worthless; termite art = bottom-up = form is generated only by the inexorable “termite-like” processes of the artist’s work = valuable.) Farber’s idea seems to be that “form” is inherently suspect, and that the real artistic goods will always be ragged-edged, like a fungal growth. But this kind of self-sustaining/self-devouring film seems to me to be the ultimate in termite art, and yet also satisfyingly well-formed: a complete organic process that happens to take the shape of a perfect sphere because it is organized around a single obsessive center: “I”.

Other planetoidal works from my recent experience, which came to mind while watching: Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, also about the dreamlife of the real author as he writes the very work we are reading (gay, French); Roussel’s Locus Solus, also about surreal dream-images hashed out with ostensible analytical rigor that only becomes more of the same dream (gay, French); Proust’s Big Book of Proust, also about the inner poetry of the “I” that generates the work we are reading (gay, French); Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which is of course all dreamy-analysis and analytic-dreaminess, and which also circularly contains dream-descriptions of itself and its author and its writing and reading processes and its own circularity (not gay and not French, but heavily influenced by French writers.)

Also — rather less pertinently — the scenario at the beginning of the movie, where Cocteau is a time-traveling ghost who encounters a professor at different phases of his life, surprised me by calling to mind the horror story “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” by Theodore Sturgeon (warning: extremely creepy). Surely Cocteau was not a reader of Weird Tales and the plot similarities are a mere coincidence. Nonetheless it does point up a sort of pulpy Twilight Zone thread in Cocteau’s work — think of the car radio that receives broadcasts from the underworld, in Orphée — which throughout this trilogy has appealed to me as the one unabashedly enthusiastic element, free of self-regard. I don’t know from where exactly this sort of off-kilter sci-fi stuff got into Cocteau’s head, but its ego-function is simply as intriguing fodder for Cocteau-as-spectator, lover of fantasy, and in this role he and I overlap quite genuinely.

I endorse Testament of Orpheus, with full knowledge that it is not for everyone and in fact maybe not for anyone. Not even for Jean himself. It simply is. It is a disembodied self-indulgence, a dream about dreams, but without any dreamers. That feels like a real kind of art, to me. One with no inroads and no function. If you can dig it, this is a fun one.

There are a passel of celebrities in it for no good reason. Like, Pablo Picasso, for a second. He is in a tableau recreating the society onlookers from Blood of a Poet. His onlooking is fairly hammy. Elsewhere, Brigitte Bardot is in there (as well as Roger Vadim; everyone stay tuned for Criterion #77!), as is Jean-Pierre Léaud (everyone remember Criterion #5 and stay tuned for Criterion #185!). And of course Yul Brynner in the role he was born to play: Athena’s receptionist or something. And others.

At the end Cocteau says out loud (I paraphrase): “You may have noticed some celebrities along the way. They were not included because they are celebrities, but because they suit their roles, and because they are my friends.” Or to paraphrase more loosely: “Follow me on Instagram #SaintTropez4eva OMG I’m such a dork ;).”

Cocteau has found a really fantastic location, a bauxite quarry in Provence, and he uses it to the fullest. It already brings with it all the mytho-symbolist suggestive atmosphere he needs. Some of the most compelling sequences are the ones where he lets the location be the show and just wanders through it.

My criticism that Cocteau does not know how to handle pacing has finally been put to rest. By the age of 70 he had either figured it out or let his collaborators guide him a bit more. The film has flow and a sense of mystery in the cutting. That counts for so very much, in this game of the unknown and the unknowable. That alone would make it my favorite of the three.

So now that it’s over, what was “The Orphic Trilogy”?

Well, I am hard pressed to find any evidence that it was so named or considered by Cocteau; seems like he thought of all his works as thematically and spiritually interrelated, not just these three films. The first reference to an “Orpheus trilogy” that I find in Google Books is in a 1975 book of film theory, in which the modes of reportage and creative interpretation are intermingled; the reference to a trilogy can easily be read as being that author’s own observation and coinage. There are a couple more such references in the following two decades. Then after Criterion released this box set, suddenly the tone changes and “The Orphic Trilogy” is widely referred to as a thing. What I’m saying is that it might not be a thing.

That said, the links among the three films are quite explicit, and this third one is so overt about being a riff on a riff that it actually begins by replaying the last few moments of Orpheus as a refresher, or as a dovetail joint. But when one thinks of a “trilogy” one tends to think of something like an altarpiece in three panels or a story told in three chunks, or a sequence of three adventures in the same world. These films are more like three times that an artist did the same thing, with cumulative knowledge of his prior efforts. But they fit into a body of work that (I am led to understand) increasingly consisted of doing the same stuff over and over in varied forms.

I don’t hold the boxset or its title against Criterion; it makes good sense. I just think that as far as my finding something to say about the mysterious spine #66, there is no such overview for me to take. The films fit into one another like nesting dolls and leave no synthesis left for the viewer. This last one has already eaten up and incorporated any kind of perspective I could try to have at this point. The anxiety of the artist will always get there first!

This movie sets out to be a kind of ultimate arthouse movie and succeeds. Watching it is like scuba diving through endless poetical seaweed; not to pick it or identify it, just for the sweet sleepy creepy ambiance. I made a tongue-in-cheek movie like this when I was in high school, where (if I recall correctly) an everyman is questing through a dreamscape after an apple, but menaced by a paperclip. I made it because I thought such things were funny, but a special mesmerizing kind of funny that some pretentious people considered serious — which was what made it so funny! Now I see that what I was doing was not parody after all, but the thing itself. Daring to be absurd — daring to seem pretentious! — is the same serious joke, the same risk and the same reward, at any age. There are parts of this movie that made me chuckle because they were so hilariously damned poetical. But I was always simultaneously able to be on the flip side of that chuckle, underwater.

Like I said for Blood of a Poet: dream-art is a good thing, and we should love what we have of it as best we can.

Villa Santo Sospir is on here as a bonus film, but I’ve already seen it because the new issue of the preceding disc took it over after the boxset went out of print; remember how that worked?

The only other bonus feature is an essay by Cocteau, which is again, as usual, both sympathetic and anxiously overarticulate about how none of these things can be articulated. “Everything that can be explained or demonstrated is vulgar,” he says (actual quote this time!), while of course in the process of explaining and demonstrating. I know what that’s like. Where else can that energy go? One must simply wait it out, and make speeches with it while one waits.

Here is a passage I would like to keep, so I copy it out:

This time, in my film, I was careful to make the special effects serve the internal, not the external, development of the film. They should help me to make this line of development as supple as the thought processes of “un homme qui gamberge” — to use a splendid term not found in our dictionary.

Gamberger” means to let the mind follow its own, uncontrolled course; and, while it is different from dreaming, daydreaming, or reverie, allowing our most intimate notions (those most tightly imprisoned within us) to escape and flee unseen past the guards. Everything else is just “thesis” or “flair”: I am repelled by both.

A thesis forces us to “buckle the wheel,” to twist it so that it will obediently follow an artificial line, while flair incites us for no valid reason to accelerate, slow down, or reverse, and although it is very tempting to use these devices, the effect of surprise only carries weight when they are integrated into the task and remain unobtrusive.

Good advice here for those seeking peace of mind, and I like having a suitably new word for it.

This movie has the most elaborate music credit of any so far:

Musique enregistrée
sous la direction de
Jacques Météhen

Indicatif musical et Trompettes
Georges Auric

Structures sonores
J. Lasry et F.B. Baschet

Martial Solal

The majority of the underscore is classical. We hear one movement by Handel three times (Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 4 (HWV 322): I. Larghetto affettuoso) and if I weren’t so set on picking original music, that would be our “theme from Testament of Orpheus” for sure. Under the title we hear, appropriately enough, Gluck: Orfeo ed Eurydice — Minuet. During the scene of building a flower in reverse motion, we hear Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 BWV 1067 — 6. Menuet, 7. Badinerie And late in the movie there’s a theme from Tristan und Isolde but I can’t find it right now on Spotify so forget that. This stuff all goes uncredited and unidentified so I enjoyed identifying it, especially the Handel which I didn’t know before. That’s the only reason for all these Spotify links. Anyway, I assume that stuff was all conducted and maybe arranged by Jacques Météhen.

As for the Lasry/Baschetstructures sonores,” these are used for eerie sound effects in a few places, mostly corresponding to the appearance and disappearance of the hibiscus bloom that Cocteau carries around throughout the film (representing his poetry/soul, of course). (I had heard of Baschet’s musical sculptures before because of my interest in film scores, but not this one — they are a footnote in the pre-Jaws work of John Williams.)

The “piano-jazz” by Martial Solal makes just two brief appearances as the sound of “young people,” one of Cocteau’s fixations.

So that leaves us with Georges Auric again, who we see has not actually composed much original music at all this time: just an “Indicatif musical” and “Trompettes.” The trumpets are some unremarkable fanfaric stuff when Cocteau finally reaches the temple of Athena. (spoiler: She turns away coldly, then kills him when his back is turned. But then he returns to life and continues wandering the earth. She is essentially the same character as Lee Miller in Blood of a Poet.)

So our selection is going to be Auric’s indicatif musical, which I believe refers to the music played at the very beginning of the movie during the footage from Orpheus: a cue, newly recorded and maybe rearranged, from the Blood of a Poet score. This is apparently meant to serve as The Poet’s “theme music,” though it’s sort of a slithery little cue and, as is usual for Cocteau, an odd choice, dramatically. But in any case, it links the trilogy together (for those of you who have watched Blood of a Poet recently enough to recognize this snippet, that is) and is the only original music in this score that’s in the clear. So here it is: Prologue.

That’s enough. Good night, Jean Cocteau. It’s been real. No, wait, not real. It’s been not real.


November 21, 2014

68. Orphée (1950)

2000: 068 box 1 2011: 068 box 2


written and directed by Jean Cocteau

Criterion #68. “Orpheus,” of course.
= disc 2 of 3 in Criterion #66, “The Orphic Trilogy.” Or at least it used to be.

Criterion generally doesn’t let their DVDs go out of print if they can help it. But in 2010, about 25 titles went “OOP” at the same time, for backstage business reasons. The films in question had been licensed from StudioCanal, who opted not to renew their agreements with Criterion because they had just made a new deal with Lionsgate: Lionsgate would get exclusive US distribution of titles from the StudioCanal library, in exchange for which StudioCanal would get the Germany/Austria/Switzerland distribution rights to major new Lionsgate films.

I always find this sort of stuff rather unpleasant to contemplate, since I prefer not to think of movies as just so many marbles being traded and collected by a bunch of chortling executives. But they are that. (Everything is, in the end, because everything can be, and executives will be executives.)

The casualties included #67 Le sang d’un poète and #69 Le Testament de Orphée, thus killing the “Orphic Trilogy” boxset.

However, the middle film of the set, #68 Orphée, is not a StudioCanal property, so a year later Criterion came back out with a new standalone edition of just this one film. Plus, naturally, a lot of bonus stuff. That’s the edition I watched.

The upshot is: this title is both part of the ongoing boxset and not part of the boxset. Depending on what kind of system you’re using for your chart of my progress, this may call for a dagger.

For my purposes here, there is a problem with the bundling of these three closely related films right in a row: namely, I’ve already said the stuff I have to say. Cocteau described this movie as an “orchestration” of the theme “played with one finger” in Blood of a Poet and that sounds right to me. So it means my big picture response is nearly the same.

To recap: Jean Cocteau is a sincere, sensitive, neurotic egomaniac. He chases his own tail in circles, but thinks what he’s doing is descending into the underworld. He believes that he is on the dark and perilous quest of a poet, since poets must lead the world in matters of heart and sensibility. Whereas actually he’s just alone because it’s his own tail and poses no problems for anyone else.

At times it seems like he and his art are deliberately crying out to be psychoanalyzed, but I think that’s actually not the case. I think he didn’t believe in the possibility of being understood, did not believe in psychology, only in its manifestations. There is something very lonely about the work.

One of the many bonus features is a French TV segment from the 50s called “40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau,” in which he is seen wringing his hands and staring fearfully while he says his same old stuff about the true poet being some elusive interior self, and musing about all the things people project onto him, in his fame, that have nothing to do with him. At one point, completely unprompted, he takes up some papers from his desk, announcing that they are sketches from the preparations for Blood of a Poet as he nervously thumbs through them, and then just as suddenly puts them back down, saying, “I don’t really want to show them to you.” He then shyly/proudly points out his diary, which lies open on the desk. Then, again seemingly unprompted, he takes out a large piece of paper and signs his name on it, finishing with his little star. All of this behavior comes across as being compulsive, anxious, like he’s desperately trying to figure out what to do in front of the exciting, scary cameras, and these are the things that spontaneously occur to his racing mind.

In fact “compulsive” is a good word for the spirit of most of his output. I think he frequently confused compulsion with inspiration. Since his compulsions were so intrinsically aesthetic, he got away with it. Or, better said: because was skilled in his compulsions, it didn’t occur to anyone to help him stop.

What I said about La Belle et la Bête in relation to fairy tales applies equally to Orphée in relation to myth: Cocteau’s opening injunction to the audience to “interpret it as you will” is fundamentally anxious, since it should go without saying.

Richard Taruskin, writing about the bad faith of Late Romantic music, makes an example of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, at the end of which is an attempt to create a spiritually cathartic climax with the text “O believe, my heart, O believe!” As Taruskin points out, this is exactly what shows that the artist and his audience do not truly believe, since a believer needs no such command; only a doubter is moved by the very idea of belief. That example came to mind when Cocteau instructed us in La Belle et la Bête to watch it innocently like a child, and here when he told us that “A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.” Who said it wasn’t? Believers don’t defend and explain such things, they just live by them, comfortably. Cocteau’s interviews are the same: all that articulate talk about what he’s doing and what it feels like and why it’s mysterious reveals that he actually stands outside it.

His doubts touch the craftsmanship as well. Often the movie seems to be doing what nervous actors do: indicating rather than being. Only the special effect shots are consistently and overtly the thing itself; only when the artist’s anxiety gap has been filled up with the business of technical trickery does the sense of affect really come through. The most artistically satisfying moment in the movie is its most elaborate trick shot: an upgraded edition of exactly the same wall-walking effect already seen in Blood of a Poet.

So all in all this felt a little disappointing. I wanted to be taken somewhere for real, given something for real. Is that so greedy?

If you haven’t seen the film, the criticism above will be misleading. There is definitely something of some value here. And like I said last time, we should probably try to make the most of such dream-films because there aren’t many of them.

In some ways the flavor of Orphée is unique in my experience; it might be called naturalistic surrealism. Very odd poetic stuff is happening in scenes that aren’t outwardly distinguishable from ordinary Hollywood fare. Some characters are standing and discussing their situation; the car is pulling up to the house; the woman is staring off wistfully… but the logic of their reality is perpetually half-asleep.

In principle that sounds great to me. The movie that was indicated by this movie was a great one.

There were moments that moved me. The ending is a kind of poignant self-cancellation that felt familiar to me: it’s what calming down feels like to those who don’t know how to do it, like a kind of nauseating time travel.

Okay, fine, fine, I’ll do a quick psychoanalytical interpretation of the movie:

Eurydice = ordinary life = happiness = social self = heterosexual norm = Cocteau’s pre-pubescent identification
Death = dream world = fear = artistic self = homosexual feelings = Cocteau’s post-pubescent identification

He is unaware of the possibility of a fully unashamed homosexuality, so his commitment to his authentic experience feels like a commitment to fear and to a fracture. Thus the two components of his psyche are unreconciled to one another and he experiences a constant sense of mythic drama as they slosh back and forth, which the movie stages.

Duh, right?

It’s got his ex-boyfriend and his new boyfriend in it, it’s got people representing his rivals and his colleagues, every image in it is drawn from his life in some way. “It is much less a film than it is myself, a kind of projection of the things that are important to me,” he wrote. Right, exactly so. And so I don’t want to talk about any of that stuff; it would be mere description. In a sense, that stuff is all merely genetic; it has nothing to do with my experience of the finished art, as an audience member.

My experience as an audience member was mostly a genuine neutral. The work simply was. I neither begrudge Jean Cocteau nor love him. Fundamentally, I am not him, and that’s the experience I had: I am me and this movie is this movie.

I said of poetry, at one point, that reading a whole body of it is more like encountering a person than like encountering art. So is this. There he is. And reviewing or critiquing people is a category error.

The commentary “featuring French-film scholar James S. Williams” of course takes the biographical/psychoanalytic approach, because an academic can’t afford not to, but it’s not particularly trenchant or compelling. When he announced his intention to point out all the sexual subtext, I thought, “great, let’s have some fun with this,” but his idea of Freudian fun is to talk about how when men touch each other on the shoulder they’re being homoerotic, and how the hand going into the mirror is like a sexual penetration. That kind of thing seems easy and cheap and pointless to me. The movie is completely rife with overt psychosexual significance; why resort to the facile old Where’s Waldo “phallic symbol” game? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the person smoking it is meanwhile making a movie all about his inner life.

About 10 minutes in, the commentator describes a scene with a couple of men in it as being a “circulation of male gazes.” After that I started skipping around. I didn’t really listen to the whole thing.

So what else do we have here? A whole second disc’s worth of stuff:

Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown (1984), a feature-length documentary

But ah-ha, remember how this release stands in for the whole deleted boxset… well, this is the same documentary that used to be on disc one of the set, which I saw and discussed last time. (Conveniently enough, there were no bonus features on disc two of the old set, which this is replacing for me, so I’m not missing anything.)

Jean Cocteau and His Tricks (2008), a video interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau

Ordinarily this kind of discussion of effects and techniques would be interesting, but the techniques are all deliberately obvious so there’s not a lot to be said. However I do always get something out of seeing how a participant from the then can still be photographed in the now. The guy is pleasant enough. The notable thing here is that this interview was conducted and edited by Marc Caro (formerly of “Jeunet & Caro” fame, but no longer) and has some outlandishly childish strobing and looping effects stuck on to it for no reason, as though this is playfully artistic in the spirit of Cocteau. It’s not. You’d think Criterion would be advertising the name “Marc Caro” in their list of features, but they don’t. Surely it’s because what he delivered is so dumb and obnoxious.

40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau (1957), an interview with the director

As mentioned above. By the time I got to this I’d already spent many hours with Jean Cocteau so another 40 minutes was sort of gratuitous, but seeing him caught in the TV headlights was somewhat revealing.

In Search of Jazz (1956), an interview with Cocteau on the use of jazz in the film

More old TV, but more in a Charlie Rose vein. Cocteau is more relaxed and in better form generally since he has something other than himself to talk about. His comments on jazz and youth culture were interesting in passing. I’m afraid I already forget what they were.

La villa Santo-Sospir (1951), a 16 mm color film by Cocteau

A thorough self-indulgence — Cocteau called it “an indiscretion” — which is basically just a glorified house tour home movie where he very slowly goes over all the art he drew on the walls, often putting his finger in the frame and literally pointing at it. Another 40 minutes spent in the company of his nervous vanities; to me this was the most inescapably desperate and lonely document of his little kingdom of selfhood. But anyone’s home movies can seem that way to strangers such as myself. If it didn’t end with some reverse footage of him assembling flowers out of thin air, I doubt anyone would think of it as a real “film.” To me there was something particularly sad about imagining him tearing and crushing these lovely flowers as part of a scheme to create a film image of himself as a magical creator. But maybe he recognized that poignancy.

• Gallery of images by French-film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau

These didn’t seem any more remarkable than any other film photographs.

• Raw newsreel footage from 1950 of the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins, a location used in the film

I guess good for them for finding this, but it is really just that; raw footage of a location. Okay.

• Theatrical trailer

As I said, the film outwardly resembles a normal film, so despite its underlying strangeness, the footage lends itself readily enough to being turned into a run-of-the-mill trailer.

• PLUS: A new essay by author Mark Polizzotti and an essay on La villa Santo-Sospir by Williams; and an excerpted article by Cocteau on the film

The essays were both satisfying and on point. I appreciated that they were not unreserved in their respect; the main essay won me over immediately by saying that Cocteau’s was artistically self-fixated to the point where some of his particular obsessions “have taken on a whiff of the ridiculous.” Usually the essays are available on the Criterion site but for some reason these aren’t. The Cocteau article is just as you’d imagine, at this point.

• New cover by Fred Davis

Indeed. If you click on his name and flip through his portfolio you can see two showier alternatives that weren’t used.

Music by Auric again, a tasteful score if sometimes a bit staid. And once again, somewhat ill-served in the editing by Cocteau.

It has one really excellent piece, a fancy scherzo with sort of a Frenchified Bernard Herrmann sound to it. Unfortunately I can’t use it as our official selection because there’s talking all over the second half. Here it is anyway because I enjoy it so much and it’s not available anywhere else. (There was a rerecording in the 90s of much of this score, including the scherzo, but they take it much much too slow.)

As frequently happens, by process of elimination, the official selection will have to be the Main Title despite its being one of the least distinctive cues in the score.

This bland entry represents my best effort at relaxing and not forcing myself to engage too deeply, despite feeling like I was being begged to. Maybe if he hadn’t needed it so badly I would actually have been inspired to say more. But that feeling of one’s attention being needed can be stifling. “You see, you see, you see?” he is saying, his eyes nervously darting around. I am inclined to say, “Yes, yes, very nice, Jean,” and then let my face glaze over in passive defense.

Ultimately I aspire neither to do that nor to cave and cater to the demand. I want to just hold to a route of my own choosing. I’m still not great at it.

I won’t deny it: I’ll be glad to get out of Jean Cocteau-land. I am trying to get out of my own personal Jean Cocteau-land, and this kind of encounter is a direct challenge to that.

But the list is the list. One more to go.


I forgot, I wanted to institute a new feature at the bottom of these Criterion Collection entries: a “still” screen capture of an empty location from the film.


November 19, 2014

Disney Canon #54: Big Hero 6 (2014)


[I considered redacting the spoilers in the conversation below, but on reflection, I don’t think there’s anything very precious about the surprises in this movie. Consider yourself spoiler warned: the following conversation gives away absolutely everything that happens. See the movie first, why don’t you. Why not.]

[Also, a more basic warning: This is by far by far the longest of these conversations. For no good reason.]

[Seriously. I considered posting it in two parts but decided that would just be a needless formality: pacing yourself appropriately is ultimately up to you, the reader. Ergonomic microbreaks are encouraged.]

ADAM I should say first: I did enjoy it. But it had almost no Disney Animation DNA left in it, which was a little wistful, coming at the end of this project, or at least the trailing edge of this project. It had a lot of Pixar, it had a lot of Marvel, it had a lot of Blade Runner. And I got a faint but persistent note of Scooby-Doo for much of it.

BROOM For sure.

ADAM Almost every influence but Disney, actually.

BROOM There was Disney DNA. The protagonist has no parents, so that he can go on a free journey of self-discovery, and work out his emotional issues. And — I guess it’s more out of the Pixar playbook, but still — the scene where he sees the video of his brother, and realizes that he’s on the wrong path, that hate is not the way… That’s not really an old-school Disney formula beat, but it’s a medium- to new-school Disney beat, right?

ADAM What are you thinking of?

BROOM You know: the Lion King goes into exile but then realizes he wants to live his destiny and be who he truly is.

ADAM It was a lot sadder than most Disney movies, in its literal events.

BETH Well, Bambi

BROOM And The Lion King more recently.

ADAM That’s true.

BROOM We all talked about how Lilo and Stitch was a wonderful updating of some of those emotions. This had some similarities with that.

ADAM And I guess there’s a note of Brother Bear here too.

BETH I thought it was great. I really, really enjoyed it, and didn’t really have many problems with it. I mean, I’m interested to hear what your problems are…

ADAM Well, I don’t want to overemphasize my problems, because I really liked it. It was just a very conventional plot that was sort of dressed up with a lot of…


ADAM But the stuff was all very satisfying.

BETH I really enjoyed that it was a fully-realized world, that it took place in this San Francisco/Tokyo hybrid. It was the future, but not too far in the future. I guess maybe it was just a parallel universe.

ADAM It was the San Francisco of Starfleet Academy.

BROOM I would say it took place in a comic book. But at the same time it also sort of stood outside comic books, which I think is part of the way that they imagined they could adapt a Marvel property into something for general audiences.

ADAM Was this really a Marvel property?

BROOM I believe the story of this movie is that after they bought Marvel five years ago, they looked through the catalog to find something they could use, and this is some obscure comic book they hit on — which apparently isn’t really like this. I think it has some form of Baymax-the-big-robot and Hiro-the-kid, and that’s about it. So they said, “We can use this and make it into our own thing.” And I think having the characters keep joking about comic book tropes was part of repackaging it for non-Comic-Con audiences.

BETH That was something I was thinking about — and I guess this goes back to it not being like a Disney movie: it seemed like something that was being made by the animators for themselves more than for kids.

ADAM Because it’s about amazing nerds?

BETH Yeah, and the superhero fantasy, and cool tech. Yes, amazing nerds.

BROOM I didn’t feel it as sincere as that. To me it seemed a little calculated, in a lot of different directions. Maybe that’s just because my mind was running faster than was appropriate.

ADAM My word was “triangulated.” You know: it’s an American movie that’s intentionally appealing to Asian audiences. It’s an action movie that you can take kids to… and has strong female protagonists. It felt marketed. And think of the tie-ins! The video-game tie-ins, and the Disney ride tie-ins. No wonder the entire executive staff of Disney Animation was credited! But, again: even as I perceived that, I took authentic pleasure in the pan-Asian setting and the videogame thrills and chills. And in all the doodads, which were very well executed.

BROOM I felt strange for a lot of it. I mean, obviously I didn’t really feel all that strange, but the more overtly comic-book-y it got, the more disoriented I got. Like, that the bad guy wore this scary mask

ADAM “It’s old man Callaghan!”

BROOM It was strange combination of elements, tonally, from a bunch of different worlds. Like you say: on the one hand “it was old man Callaghan,” but at the same time…

ADAM There was a Daphne, and a Velma, and a Shaggy. And the black guy was like a Fred.

BROOM Fred was always kind of a problematic character, because he would seem to be the hero, but he isn’t.

ADAM Sorry to interrupt with that.

BROOM No, the Scooby-Doo connection is absolutely there; I thought about it too. And all of those characters in this movie made me a little uncomfortable.

BETH Okay, yeah. If I had to have a problem with it, it was with them. See, I can have problems with it, but in the moment I was very much enjoying it!

ADAM That’s totally cool!

BROOM Yeah, I’m not naming this stuff to say “let’s all agree to dock the movie a few points for these things.” They’re just responses that I happened to have. Such as: the Jewish-American Princess character somehow made me squirm.

ADAM The who? You mean the Latina character?

BROOM She was Latina?

BETH The tall one?

ADAM She was voiced by “Genesis Rodriguez.” And she kept saying “Hiro” [with palatal H and tapped R].

BROOM I thought that was her being absurdly over-sensitive about his Japanese name.

ADAM No, I think that was just her Latina accent.

BETH Oh, I took it the same way BROOM did.

BROOM That was the only word she said that way! I thought it was just her idea of how culturally enlightened she was.

BETH I thought of her as Phoebe from Friends. Just as sort of this goofy ditzy person.

ADAM It’s true that her weapon was a heart-shaped purse that produced colorful balls.

BROOM It seemed so clear to me that she was Jewish. I don’t know where I got that from, since neither of you guys got it.

BETH It didn’t even cross my mind.

BROOM I guess my discomfort came from the combination of her and the “sarcastic Asian” woman, where there was no layering to the sarcasm to indicate a real personality underneath.

ADAM You mean the Sonic the Hedgehog girl?

BROOM Right. That always bothers me, when someone’s defensive front is presented as what makes them awesome, and it’s never acknowledged that it’s just a front. That happens in nerd-culture stuff all the time.

ADAM She reminded me of the main character from the last one, but just on the surface. What was that girl’s name?

BROOM From Frozen?

ADAM No — what was that movie that we just saw? The “Everything is Awesome” one.

BROOM That’s not a Disney movie. That’s The Lego Movie.

ADAM Oh, so it’s just the last movie I saw in a theater! Sorry! Nevermind, everyone!

BROOM Right, “Wyldstyle.” But that’s exactly what I’m talking about, because there they eventually break it down and admit, “well, her name’s not really Wyldstyle, because that would be absurd.”

ADAM It’s Fat Becky.

BROOM It’s Lucy or something.

ADAM That’s from a scene in Pitch Perfect where it turns out that Fat Amy’s real name is actually Fat Patricia. It’s funny when you peel off the mask and there’s an equally ridiculous mask underneath it.

BROOM So… I’m not actually comparing it to Chicken Little, but it made that same kind of claim: “hey, we’re in the fun world of nerds!” And I don’t buy that as a complete description of any world. So I was sort of hoping it was eventually going to get broken down, and it didn’t. Whereas the actual Scooby-Doo kids certainly aren’t “awesome nerds.” They don’t joke with each other self-consciously.

ADAM They don’t live in a social world, they live in…

BROOM … a van.

ADAM … a world out of space and time. They don’t have relations to any characters other than the five of them. I mean, Fred would never speak to Velma in real life.

BROOM In this movie “Fred” is the name of the Shaggy role. But that he’s the rich kid makes him into a John Hughes kind of character.

ADAM That was a funny touch, that he basically lives in the Spreckels mansion.

BETH And they get to practice on the butler.

BROOM I don’t know what the Spreckels mansion is.

ADAM It’s the fanciest mansion in San Francisco. In real life Danielle Steele lives there.

BROOM It was during that sequence, when they decide to be superheroes and then they’re practicing at his mansion, that I specifically had the thought: “This movie is weird. This movie is not one thing. It’s a bunch of things.”

ADAM I felt it in three very distinct segments. And I liked the middle segment best. There was the beginning segment, which was like…

BETH “I have the awesomest brother in the world.”

ADAM It reminded me of… was it the beginning of Treasure Planet? “We’re alone in our room and we’re bored.” Dreaming of things and bein’ little misfits. And then the middle segment, from the explosion up to the superhero room, was the most satisfying. Because far and away, Betamax — what’s his name?

BETH Baymax.

ADAM Far and away, Baymax was the strongest element in the movie. And then the end was just… Remember when Lilo and Stitch sort of goes off the rails and becomes an action movie? It felt like that.

BROOM Yeah, exactly, every movie has to have that happen so it can end.

ADAM But the middle was super-lovely and awesome.

BROOM Since they kept saying “The bad guy must be Krei!” I thought, “Well, I guess that means it’s Callaghan. But why is it Callaghan? What is that supposed to mean to us?” And I’m still not sure.

ADAM I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I guess you should know that if a character’s voiced by James Cromwell, he’s gonna be the bad guy.

MS. BAREBURGER So we’re doing last call; do you guys want to get in anything else?

BETH No, we’re okay.

BROOM I think we’re gonna be good.


BETH Thank you.

ADAM Thank you. … … … (You’re gonna be famous!)

BROOM You think she’s Hispanic?

ADAM No. There’s nothing about the character that actually looked Hispanic. Until I noticed that she was pronouncing things that way.

BROOM Just “Hiro.”

ADAM But there were no other Hispanic characters in the movie! So she had to be the Hispanic one.

BROOM Well, that’s why I was surprised they made her Jewish.

ADAM Anyway, I thought that Baymax was the soul of the movie. Obviously.

BROOM He was also a marshmallow robot who didn’t really have any perspective. At the end, when they go into Star Trek: The Motion Picture space, into V’Ger…

ADAM I thought of it as What Dreams May Come space.

BROOM Yeah, the void, the lost socks dimension.

ADAM Nebulae.

BROOM When he has to leave Baymax there — spoiler alert! — I thought “This is Beth’s perfect movie: saying goodbye to a marshmallow.” If there’s anything that could make her cry…

BETH It did.

BROOM … it would be a movie where someone carries around a giant pillow the whole time, and at the end it’s like, “I have to leave you here, pillow!” Which I guess is the plot of Castaway with Tom Hanks.

BETH Well, it did make me cry, so, you’re right.

BROOM But it was exactly because Baymax represented nothing other than Hiro’s own emotions that he carried around with him. Or, like, the concept of a hug.

BETH That’s right. But I knew that the disk was going to be in his glove.

BROOM But how satisfying was that? At the end — spoiler spoiler alert — when he makes a new Baymax because he has the disk, weren’t you like, “Hooray, Baymax lives!… or… well, new Baymax lives… or… well … I don’t know, does this actually make up for Baymax being gone?”

BETH When he said, “Hi, Hiro,” then, yeah, it was like, “Baymax lives!” Because he remembered.

ADAM Do you find it consoling when Dumbledore appears in the portrait after he’s killed?


ADAM It’s like that.

BROOM My real answer about Dumbledore is that it feels a little like: “So his death meant… what?” It’s exactly like how Obi-Wan Kenobi keeps coming back in the other two movies. When I would rewatch the first one, when he died, it was just in quotes. It was just an event in the story like any other. Because I know he’s going to get to keep talking whenever he wants. He can walk around like anyone else. He’s blue. He’s fine.

ADAM I was very surprised that Hiro’s brother didn’t contrive some way to come back. I totally thought that was going to happen.

BETH I thought that might happen.

BROOM I did consider that the bad guy might turn out to be the brother. But I thought, “that would be pretty rough.”

BETH When they were about to unmask him, I thought, “It’s the brother! Oh my god!” But no, it wasn’t.

BROOM It’s Spencer Tracy.

ADAM I thought it was Krei the whole time. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t think to think ahead, in movies.

BROOM Krei was like Crispin Glover.

BETH And Callaghan was like Sam Waterston.

MR. BAREBURGER Okay, California with beef, medium?

BROOM California for me. Yeah, thank you.

MR. BAREBURGER The Mediterranean with lamb, medium.

ADAM Thank you.

MR. BAREBURGER Sweet fries.

BETH Yeah, just in the middle. Thank you.

ADAM Can I get some—

MR. BAREBURGER This is curry ketchup, special sauce, and ranch.

ADAM Can I get some mustard too?

[MR. BAREBURGER goes to get it]

BROOM “Sir, if you insist. If that’s what you need, to make you happy. We’ll do it.”

ADAM All right, so: the animation was just extraordinary. Just gorgeous.

BROOM What did you think about their skin?

ADAM It was the right side of the uncanny valley. They didn’t try to make it too porous. Like, pore-y.

[he is given mustard]

ADAM Thanks.

BROOM They did something with it that was new. It definitely had some kind of blushing translucency that was a new technique. And I at first had kind of an icked-out response. Not exactly that it fell in the CGI uncanny valley: it looked to me like real fake skin. It looked like those silicone, you know…

ADAM RealDolls?

BROOM Yeah, or like, “the robot that’s got a hand!” where the hand looks genuinely fleshy, and that’s creepy. It looked like that kind of skin.

ADAM But what beautiful 3D!

BROOM Aren’t you glad we sprang for the 3D?

BETH I am glad.

BROOM And… RPX! [ed: “Regal Premium Experience.”]

ADAM My favorite 3D moment was when you’re hovering outside the window in the rain, going into the memorial service, and the bay window just looks slightly bulbous. It just looked perfect. I had never thought about how you could use animation to do all the crazy shit that you can’t do in a real movie. Why even bother having motion-capture? Just animate it, and some day it’ll be good enough that you won’t even notice. That’s the feeling I got for parts of this movie.

BROOM When they were landing on the secret island, for a second I thought, “oh, they’re going to have them land on a live-action island!” And then of course realized, “no, that’s just something that looks particularly photorealistic in their animation system.”

BETH Yeah, there were a few times when I forgot that I was watching animation. And that, I think, is why when they were on top of the Golden Gate Bridge, I really felt worried for them! Because it was that realistic.

BROOM I had the thought at one point that the outdoors in this movie felt more outdoors than most animation. Maybe that’s a credit to the people who did the sky, or the weather, or the lighting, or whatever. It felt like we were really outside, which is rare for CGI.

ADAM So what do you think about the design concept for San Fransokyo being: San Francisco with paper lanterns? And, like, Chinese dragon heads on the top of the Transamerica building and the Golden Gate Bridge.

BROOM Please take this as innocent, and not as cranky: what is the point of these kinds of mash-ups? Are they supposed to mean something political, or about the cultural overlap that actually exists between those cities? Or is it just, like, “what if two things were the same thing?”

ADAM ‘Cause it’s cool, man.

BETH I think it’s that. “Wouldn’t it be cool and weird if these cities combined?”

BROOM But some combinations would seem all cyberpunk-y, and some would just seem stupid. If I was like, you know, “It takes place in Paris/St. Louis,” you’d say, “What’s the point of that?”

BETH The point is someone thought of it! Someone had a dream.

ADAM It adds to the futuristic post-racial funkiness of the movie. But also, it’s cool. But also, it’s cross-cultural marketing.

BROOM The basic idea goes back to Blade Runner and other stuff; it’s been in sci-fi for a long time. And I think a lot of the time it’s supposed to represent…

ADAM Dystopia.

BROOM … some kind of political futurist speculation. Like in Clockwork Orange where they all speak bits of Russian. That’s a Cold War idea: “you have no idea what kind of havoc is going to be wreaked on your sense of cultural lines.” So it seems to come out of some idea like that, but it’s really just arbitrary stuff. I guess this is the same question as “what’s the point of steampunk?” And the point is undoubtedly that it gratifies some subconscious desire, but I’m not sure I have a theory about what that desire is.

ADAM I really liked the music.

BROOM I thought the score was pretty good for one of these.

ADAM When they were about to play some really obnoxious song… what was it?

BROOM “Eye of the Tiger.”

ADAM And I thought “Oh man,” and then it turned out just to be a gag. “Thank god!” Because I was gonna be really annoyed by that.

BETH I thought it was funny.

BROOM To me, that moment was one of their hedges, where they’re ostensibly saying “Ha ha, we’re all sick of that kind of movie.” But of course this is exactly one of those movies. They’re just not using that particular cue.

ADAM Well, I appreciated that they didn’t use that cue.

BROOM So I guess you guys didn’t have any sort of underlying feeling that the movie was pretty weird?

BETH I feel like I might later reflect on it and have completely different feelings, but in the moment…

BROOM I just mean in the moment.

MS. BAREBURGER I’m just gonna drop this ’cause we’re starting to close out but take your time with it, no rush.

BETH Okay. Thank you.

ADAM I don’t know. I mean, it was a weird mash-up, but it was pleasurable, and it felt tonally consistent. And the kids in the audience, as represented by that Russian woman behind us, or whatever she was, seemed to like it.

BETH Polish, I think.

BROOM I think that was Russian they were speaking.

ADAM Whatever it was, she was the most childlike person in the audience. She really liked when Baymax deflated.

BROOM The sequence where he gets drunk because his battery is running out was pretty funny.

ADAM “We jumped out a window! Shhhhh!” Maya Rudolph didn’t have much to do.

BROOM Yeah, great role.

ADAM She got to talk about those chicken wings.

BROOM So I thought the one girl was Jewish, you can take it or leave it — but really I was uncomfortable with all of the racial-typed nerds. I’m a little embarrassed for the big black guy to be a coward — or, you know, a nervous Nellie — because “look, we’re inverting stereotypes!” is just as embarrassing as sticking to them.

BETH I think millenials and beyond are so post-racial as to not even think of stereotypes as being inverted with these characters.

ADAM Yeah, they don’t even see race!

BETH That’s what I’m actually saying, though!

BROOM Yeah, BETH is actually saying it, and at the same time you’re accustomed to making fun of it. And that’s kind of how I feel: they really don’t have that stuff in their heads at all? Aren’t they in fact intensely proud of their rejection of it?

ADAM Let’s ask Eddie. He’s a millenial or beyond.

BETH Okay, yeah! I really genuinely believe it.

BROOM Eddie, his nephew?

BETH No no no, I’m not saying that.

ADAM I’m just being silly. I’ll stop undermining your point.

BETH I’m saying I genuinely believe that younger people are not attuned to that stuff, and not because they’re less sophisticated, but because they’re growing up in a place where it’s just not as prevalent. It’s just not part of their experience the way it has been for us. Maybe that’s naive of me, but…

BROOM When you were a kid, didn’t you feel incredibly savvy about all of the aspirational pandering stuff in kid culture? Like, the fact that The Care Bears existed — didn’t you get that it was not because the world had actually become an emotionally accepting world, but because someone had this sanctimonious sale they were trying to pitch to you?

ADAM No. I did not.

BETH Well I hated, hated, hated The Care Bears. But it wasn’t because of that. It was just because they were the most boring possible thing.

ADAM Well, we can keep talking about this subject if you want to…

BROOM What subject is this?

ADAM Race and stereotyping in the movie.

BROOM Oh yeah.

ADAM … but I did want to know what you thought about science in the movie. Because it made being a nerd seem super-cool, but then it also had a lot of that… what was that Sandra Bullock movie? The Net? It’s what I think of as “science mysticism,” where there’s not actual science; you just throw around a lot of words.

BROOM I thought here they’d actually been very careful about the words, to the point that the dialogue seemed forced. “Is that a lithium-ion battery?” “Yes it is.”

ADAM Okay, yes, they had a lot of technical consultants, but the effect was still that sort of blizzard of… You know, any movie where the way you interact with a computer interface is grabbing images in front of you…

BETH Grab and pull.

ADAM I was getting all annoyed that it was like, “Tech is amazing, and it’s easy, and it’s all about being brilliant!” But then thankfully they had the scene at the end where Tadashi has to try 87 times to get Betamax to work.

BROOM Baymax.

ADAM Which of course is what actual science is more like. So I was grateful for that. I did on the one hand appreciate the message “Thinking is cool! Use those big brains of yours!” But on the other hand, “thinking” just meant, like, videogames.

BROOM I respected their desire not to let it be just movie-ese tech talk, like, “Mr. President, the…” Well. You know. Any line that starts with “Mr. President.” But at first it was a little overkilled, and then they kind of let the whole issue go. After that initial scene where he visits the lab there isn’t too much science talk.

ADAM I guess I should have figured out that they were introducing all the sidekicks, but it didn’t occur to me.

BETH Yeah, I felt like maybe the beginning was a little rushed.

BROOM Or, rather, too slow.

ADAM Well, they had a lot of sidekicks to introduce, so it took a while.

BROOM I can imagine them in story meetings: “Is it really necessary to introduce them all before the plot gets in motion?” “Yes, obviously it is, or else it won’t feel like assembling a team of friends, later.” “So how are we going to introduce them all without giving away what’s coming? What role should they play in the opening section?” “They’ll play the role of enticing him into a more ambitious lifestyle.” But do you really need four lively characters to serve that function? No, you don’t. So it didn’t really work, I thought.

ADAM There had to be six of them, because of the title. God, if only someone had enticed me into a more ambitious lifestyle when I was at an impressionable age.

BROOM I felt that way watching this movie. “Why didn’t someone come to me and say ‘Too bad you don’t want to be here at the awesome place that’s perfect for you’?”

BETH “Age doesn’t matter.”

BROOM Yeah, he’s going to college at 14, and his friends are all 20.

ADAM That was like the Good Will Hunting segment. But yeah, who wouldn’t have liked that? Maybe I wouldn’t be just, like, a burnout corporate lawyer, if someone had come and told me to, you know…

BROOM Yeah, and I wouldn’t be just a bot fighter. I had more to say about that sequence but I forget what.

ADAM It felt slow.

BETH I was confused too.

ADAM I didn’t understand it was a superhero movie, so I didn’t know what I was being set up for.

BETH Me neither. I hadn’t read anything about the movie. So I was like, “Okay, so… he’s going to school. And these guys want him to go to school… Okay…” Thoughts about the brother character?

ADAM He was super-hot.

BETH Yeah, and they knew it. They were dressing him to be, like, “the perfect dude.”

ADAM He was the hottest Asian dude in a Disney movie since the Mulan guy.

BROOM Surely half-Asian, right?

ADAM Right, because Aunt Cass was not Asian.

BROOM Wasn’t there a picture of the parents on the wall?

ADAM In, like, Samurai outfits.

BROOM Yeah, totally traditional dress. Maybe that’s a wedding photo… but at least one of the brothers was in it! It seemed to me like it was showing us that both the parents were deeply traditional Asians. There was no half-anything about it. So I didn’t understand what I was looking at, there.

ADAM But the brother was super-hot.

BROOM See, I didn’t know that. This is one of those cases where I didn’t know it.

ADAM And sensitive.

BETH Yeah. Really, the perfect guy.

BROOM That’s what you said about the guy from last time!

BETH That’s right! But this guy was even more perfect.

ADAM Yeah, I wouldn’t want to date them both at the same time. Maybe marry this one, and that one… Well, but the other one was Jonathan Groff. Hard choices, Disney. And I would have been okay dating the big black dude too. Even though he’s a coward. It’s okay.

BETH I couldn’t go for him.

BROOM ADAM, he’s such a nerd.

BETH Just because he was muscular?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM You’re sure that he had muscles?

ADAM He appeared to. Yes.

BROOM He could have just had a big ribcage.

MS. BAREBURGER How are you guys doin’ over here?

ADAM Great. We’ll pay up.

MS. BAREBURGER Thanks so much you guys.

BETH Thank you.

BROOM Thank you.

ADAM Thank you.

MS. BAREBURGER Are you guys…?

BETH Wait a second, I’m gonna put a card in too. One sec. You can split it.

ADAM Thank you.


ADAM Luckily Hiro wasn’t that hot, ’cause he was only 14.

BETH Luckily!

BROOM Luckily for all of us.

BETH He wasn’t hot at all! He was cute like a little kid.

BROOM Why don’t they put the perfect girl in? They never do. They’re more sensitive about that.

BETH They think that they do.

ADAM You didn’t think Elsa was the perfect girl?

BROOM They always have some kind of personality that comes first. They can’t just be, like, “a wonderful person,” like Tadashi.

ADAM Tadashi was too good for this world. I should have seen it coming.

BETH I thought that the one princess… the one who wanted to run her own business?…

BROOM Oh, with the frog?

ADAM Princess Tiana. She was pretty great.

BETH … I thought that she was basically a really good person.

BROOM But her personality was that she “didn’t get it,” until deep into the movie.

BETH Okay, but she was a real person.

BROOM She was an admirable person.

MS. BAREBURGER Thanks so much you guys.

BROOM Thank you.

BETH Thank you.

BROOM That’s different from just being a simple presence, where you can imagine, “ooh, I would gladly date her.” Like with these guys you’re talking about.

ADAM You know, the more I think about this, the more it did feel like Brother Bear. It’s an odd strain in Disney-dom. And for that to be the sole surviving remnant of Disney DNA is weird.

BROOM The only real reason for the parents to have been absent in this story is because if there had been parents, they would have been grieving for the brother as well, and they needed to make Hiro be alone in his grief.

ADAM Yeah, Aunt Cass didn’t seem to give a shit.

BETH She looked really sad at the wake.

ADAM At the funeral, yeah, well, that’s good of her. Aunt Cass seemed to be a little bit medicated.

BETH Or just sad and lonely. A lonely lady running a restaurant by herself, who has a cat.

ADAM I thought it was a missed opportunity that they never actually showed us Mrs. Whatsername who was dressed ridiculously inappropriately for an 80-year-old.

BETH Yeah, they should have, just for one shot.

ADAM All right, so what did you think of Feast?

BROOM Also very strange.

BETH Yeah, Feast was really weird!

ADAM I didn’t like Feast at all.

BETH Feast is not going to be nominated for an Oscar!

ADAM No, it probably is. They always are.

BROOM I liked how it looked. And I would never bet against a Disney movie being nominated for an Oscar.

ADAM What a creepy message!

BROOM What was the message? I thought it was just about a visual style.

ADAM The message was “Junk food is…”

BETH Okay, so it was, like…

ADAM “Lovable girl gives us greens, but we love her anyway because she makes our master happy.”

BROOMBut what if I don’t like greens?”

ADAM Yeah, it was weird. Really, the only raison d’etre of that short was the dog being cute.

BROOM I think it was that they had created a different style of rendering, this sort of edgeless smooth world.

ADAM It was attractive, but it creeped me out on a number of levels. Like, the weird gender stereotyping. It was weird. Ugh.

BROOM It was offering us a little sensual world. Food is a natural part of that. That’s the kind of thing these images are good for. A lot of times with these things, I feel like we’re just going through…

MS. BAREBURGER Thanks guys.

BETH Thank you.

ADAM It’s just, like, “we have some images that we want to give you, and we have to hang them on a plot, and so the plot is gonna be the most awful, stupid…” I mean, what was the last one that we saw? About the umbrellas in love?

BETH Oh, that’s right. Yeah, umbrellas.

BROOM That wasn’t on Frozen, though, because that had Get a Horse. Where was that umbrellas thing?

ADAM It must have been two ago.

BROOM But we didn’t see that one in the theater. Did we see the umbrellas in the package of Oscar-nominated shorts? [ed.: Yes, as a non-nominated extra. It was originally released with Monsters University]

ADAM Anyway, that was awful too. What was two Disney movies ago, before Frozen?

BROOM It was… you know, Break-Em-Up Harry. What was that called?

ADAM Oh, the Candyland one.

BROOM Beat-Em-Up Barry.

ADAM Wreck-It Ralph. I think it might have been the short before Wreck-It Ralph. [ed: that would be Paperman]

BROOM Anyway, here’s what I was going to say about plotting: I feel like when I’m watching them the way that a kid does, or as I would have as a kid — i.e. the best way — I’m watching very intuitively, I’m not thinking analytically, and a lot of these kinds of questions, like, “what’s the message this is sending?” — those questions don’t even occur to me. And I think that they’re often written in that same mindset, by people who operate that way all the time. They’re people who are very sensitive to whether things look right, and whether they feel right on kind of an irrational level, and so you end up getting these very deep cultural-subconscious ideas coming out in them. I think it’s so obvious that the message and the story and the meaning of Feast are messed up that it’s clear they weren’t thinking about it that way. I think it was just worked out like: “then they’ll have to be in love… and then something will have to come between them…” I don’t know how exactly to put it, but in a very intuited, unconceptual way. The same way I as a kid understood every cartoon as, like: “Sure, now the bad guy falls in the chasm, ’cause bad guys fall in chasms.” You never “thought it out.” I don’t think that Feast had been “thought out.”

ADAM Yeah, I agree.

BROOM I don’t know if that means it does in fact work on some magical deep level, and I’m just uncomfortable with it.


BETH No. I don’t think kids liked that movie. I mean, maybe they liked part of it, I don’t know.

BROOM It looked nice and you got to look at food. That was the point of it, I think.

ADAM BETH, How do you feel about your gender being symbolized by a sprig of parsley?

BETH I don’t feel like it was.

BROOM It’s not presented as a bad thing, really. You spend the whole first half of it hoping for something healthy to show up.

ADAM I thought something horrible was going to happen to the dog after eating all that horrible food.

BROOM Exactly. So when you see the sprig of parsley, you think, “Thank god he found this woman.” Right. And then later, when he goes back to his old ways…

ADAM It turns out he’s a slob in a bathrobe, in fairness.

BROOM … and the dog is eating Eggo waffles, you’re meant to think, “this is clearly no good.” So I don’t think it was negative stereotyping.

ADAM Yeah, but it was just gross. It creeped me out. Okay. Should we read the New York Times Review?

BROOM All right.

BETH But what you were just saying… about how when you’re watching a movie and you’re not thinking about it analytically — that was how I watched Big Hero 6. And so having come from that place, it’s difficult to… That’s why I feel like it has been difficult for me in this conversation to get myself to a place of thinking about it analytically, because I really did enjoy it on the level that it wanted me to.

ADAM I want to be clear: I very much enjoyed it, and I don’t want to nick it unnecessarily. Because it was a pleasure to see in the theater.

BROOM I haven’t said the words “I really enjoyed it” yet, but I basically did. I had a good time, and I never disengaged completely. But I did feel genuine feelings of “what’s going on?”, which I think were unforced, kid-like feelings. However I also have the psychological sophistication to understand that I may have had those genuine problematic feelings because my mind is just involuntarily accustomed to working too hard, and were I more relaxed generally I would have soaked it all up.

ADAM How did Callaghan get the headband?

BROOM You’re joking, right?

ADAM No, I’m not.

BROOM He didn’t have the headband.

BETH He built the mask.

ADAM No, I understand, but when he caused the explosion, how did he get the shield to form? Did he take the headband? Did we miss that?

BROOM Oh, I see.

BETH Also, this bothered me: when they were leaving afterward and saying, “hey, let’s go get dinner,” I thought, “you guys, you left all of your stuff in there, and that guy wanted it! What are you thinking?” I don’t think Hiro took the headband with him.

BROOM All right, here are some other things I have to say: When he did his demonstration, I already thought it was scary.

BETH Oh, yeah, me too. It was clearly, like, “oh, this is obviously going to be used for evil.”

ADAM “This is a disaster.”

BROOM “I hope no one ever builds this.” He could have gotten into school any way he wanted. It didn’t have to be this. There are a million things you can eat that aren’t cheese. The next thing is: he apparently made all that in two days of fast-motion, so afterward, he could have just made another army of microbots!

BETH No, it was like a month.

BROOM He slept in the chair, and then woke up the next day and finished it.

BETH No no no! That whole stop-motion sequence is a month where people come in and go out, there’s a party…

ADAM Yeah, didn’t he write down how to do it?

BROOM He himself did it! So he could have gone home to where he still has his 3D printer, or whatever…

ADAM I see, and made a counter-army.

BROOM Which is, like, the greatest invention of all time and the most dangerous, and he could have pursued it himself. Also, he could have built his own headband!

ADAM “Use that big brain of yours! Think of another angle.”

BETH I really liked that fake stop-motion sequence. I thought it was very nice.

BROOM Next thing: I believe this is the first Disney movie, and one of the only movies in my entire life, that had no title at the beginning. No titles of any kind until the very end.

ADAM What are you gonna do?

BROOM Good point! I guess I’ll use the title from the end at the top of the page. I have to.

BETH When the Minions ad started, I thought, “Wait, is this it? Is this the movie?” Because I really didn’t know.

BROOM That’s a sequel to Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2.

BETH Yeah, well, I’m just that out of it.

BROOM I haven’t seen them, but I know that, because I’m not out of it. What other previews did we see?

ADAM We saw some awful previews. We saw Hillsong: Live Your Faith, or whatever.

BETH Oh, WHAT IS THAT?? Super-offensive!

ADAM Well, it’s not offensive to a Christian!

BROOM “Offensive” isn’t really the problem — it’s just Christian rock — but I was shocked that it was on a general Disney-distribution movie, that they assume there will be enough overlap in the audience.

ADAM “They’re changing the world… but the world isn’t changing them.”

BROOM “It’s not about them… it’s about Him.” That’s weird! I mean, this is on a Disney movie, in Times Square!

BETH Yeah!

ADAM I felt violated by that. What else did we see? We saw Tomorrowland, which looks… pretty cynical. By the way, she shouldn’t go into that world; she doesn’t know what’s happening to her body back on Earth world. Hello! She should at least have picked it up with some plastic and taken it to a secure location before she did that.

BROOM And put on restraints.

ADAM Put herself in a well-ventilated room.

BROOM Probably in the movie they address this question. Or maybe every now and then they cut back to her lying on the floor of the detention center, twitching.

ADAM What else did we see?

BETH The penguin thing.

ADAM Oh yeah, Penguins of Madagascar. The woman behind us really liked that.

BROOM Yeah, you said your dad would like that, I assume because it had that…

BETH The kind of humor.

BROOM South Pacific humor.

BETH That’s a good way to characterize it.

ADAM Were there any more previews? There were, and they were bad.

BROOM Annie.

ADAM I had read that they were making Annie with a black lead. Who was that? Is that Quvenzhané Wallis?

BROOM The girl? Boy, I don’t know.

BETH Who is that?

ADAM She’s the little girl who was nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

BROOM It could have been. I don’t know. And Jamie Foxx. And Cameron Diaz.

BETH And some other famous woman. Well, there’s some nice British lady.

ADAM Oh, no, you’re thinking of Paddington, because it has Lord Grantham in it!

BETH That looked just miserably bad. That looked so embarrassing.

BROOM My thought was: it’s a kiddie movie, and it’s a style of kiddie movie that the three of us don’t generally have to encounter. It might not actually be a bad one of those. It was just that the music was so aggressive in that ad: “It’s awesome!! Every joke in this stupid movie is awesome awesome awesome!!” “That. Was. Amazing!” I imagine that for the four- and five-year-old target audience, it might not be the worst movie there is.

BETH You’re right.

BROOM Because, you know, when Nicole Kidman appears saying “Did you say marmalade?”… in the course of the movie it’s probably so obviously tongue-in-cheek that it’s charming. At least potentially.

ADAM Was that Nicole Kidman? I didn’t even notice. “Did you say marmalade?” That’s pretty funny. I can tell that that could be funny.

BROOM Movies like that are supposed to seem like a lark for these adult actors.

ADAM “Stranger danger, keep moving. It’s some sort of bear.”

BROOM What was bothersome to me was just that the preview was pushing it so hard. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to see that movie. I don’t like those kinds of movies.

BETH No, you’re probably right about it.

ADAM Okay, now let’s read the review. I don’t think you should put all that stuff about the previews in.

BROOM Or maybe I should!

BETH Do what you like.

[ed: Okay! FYI, we also saw previews for Inside Out and Spare Parts]

[we read the review… in the course of which:]

BROOM “… The group is as harmoniously balanced as a university diversity committee, and largely distinguished by safe quirks of personality rather than stereotypes and unfunny accents.” My insertion here would be: it only occurs to you to say that, Manohla, because they were in so much the same school as stereotypes and unfunny accents.


BROOM I thought that the joke of him processing space like a robot, when he has to move that chair in his very first scene…

ADAM Or when he comes out from behind the bed; that’s the funniest thing.

BROOM I wish they had brought that joke back later in the movie. I know it got inconvenient for them to have him be an idiot, but I thought it was clever to have him be as unsophisticated about space as real robots.

[finally we reach Manohla’s lame conclusion: that it’s too bad Disney “didn’t decide to take a real leap into the future, say, by making Hiro a girl”]

BROOM That was a dumb thing to say.

ADAM That was a sort of easy shot.

BROOM It doesn’t even make any sense.

[BETH goes to the bathroom]

ADAM Well, it was satisfying. Even if it had sort of a pedestrian plot and sort of odd things mashed together, it’s still… we’re a long way from The Rescuers Down Under.

BROOM Well, The Rescuers Down Under was stupid. But it does feel a little like the specialness of this product that we’ve been tracking through the years is, like she said at the beginning of the review, mostly out of the cultural system. I know, I’m the one who said that it did still have some Disney DNA.

ADAM I think this movie will make a fortune.

BROOM I think it’ll do well but I don’t think it’ll beat Frozen. I think Frozen spoke to people at that deep Disney level. I thought it was better than this.

ADAM I thought Frozen was better constructed than this. And it had some emotional high points that spoke to pent-up need. Like a girl saving a girl, and a great power ballad.

MS. BAREBURGER Thank you guys.

BETH Thank you.

BROOM Thank you.

[we exit and begin walking uptown but we do not turn off the recording]

[You are more than 2/3 of the way through.]

ADAM Whereas this felt sort of Studio Ghibli-ish in its visual whimsy. Which I like. But those movies aren’t blockbusters.

BROOM Those movies feel much more like dreams, of the heart. Whereas this felt like a superhero movie. Mostly.

ADAM With dreamy floating cats.

BROOM Yeah, some of that, it’s true. So in the scene where Fred is singing a song about what awesome superheroes they are, and is making up stuff that isn’t in fact their story…

BETH I think that might have been my favorite part.

ADAM “The lost amulet…”

BROOM Right, that they found an amulet in the attic. Even though they already have a real superhero story that they’re in the middle of… That’s funny, but it’s also exactly why I felt like “I don’t know where I am!” He’s in it, but he’s not in it; we’re in it, but we’re not in it. Or are we just supposed to be many many layers inside it? I don’t know.

ADAM I’m glad Manohla Dargis also thought of Scooby-Doo. That was satisfying.

BROOM I think the comparison is unavoidable.

ADAM But Scooby-Doo has a reassuring pattern. It doesn’t matter how scary a Scooby-Doo episode is, because you know what’s going to happen at the end. Though I was still always scared by, like, “It’s an Easter Island mask and it’s chasing them!” That always scared me, every time, but…

BROOM Even though the music would be, like [imitates]?

ADAM Yes! It always scared me! But you still knew it couldn’t be that bad, because at the end, someone would be unmasked.

BROOM Yes. The monster always turned out to have been a costume. Even if it was something impossible, like a skeleton. How does a skeleton costume work? It just does.

ADAM Scooby-Doo had a deep conservatism that I found reassuring. And here, too, even though that was a very scary Kabuki mask he was wearing…

BROOM It was very scary!

BETH It was super-scary. I was going to tell my brother. I mean, of course my niece is too young for this anyway. But for the next six years she’ll still be too young!

ADAM Excellent taste in masks, Callaghan.

BROOM Yeah, it didn’t really seem to match his personality. Where would he get the idea to be a scary Kabuki bad guy?

ADAM We hardly know anything about him. He’s probably really into manga.

BROOM Spencer Tracy wouldn’t pick that mask! Please. He also seemed like he could be one of your uncles, BETH. They wouldn’t do that; they don’t have that sense of themselves. He just seemed like a professor.

BETH He really seemed like Sam Waterston to me.

BROOM Well, that’s not so different. I’ll tell you this: I was certainly surprised to find out he spelled his name with a G. That was a real twist for me, late in the game.

BETH That’s the traditional Irish spelling.

ADAM My only friend named Callaghan spells it with a G, so I was braced for that.

BROOM I thought it was compelling for his motivation to be exactly the mistake that Hiro is guided away from, which is that he turned his grief into furious revenge. The most profound thing in the movie is when Baymax asks Hiro “if we kill him, will that improve your emotional state?” and Hiro says “Yes! No! I don’t know!” Ultimately, all of Callaghan’s rampaging is needless, because his daughter is actually in hibernation. She’s wherever Mr. Spock goes.

ADAM Did you think that was a touch of Sleeping Beauty at the end?

BROOM When she comes out of the pod? It was the same pod that Sigourney Weaver sleeps in in Alien, and/or the pod that Leonard Nimoy gets in in the Star Trek movies…

ADAM It also reminded me of Gravity.

BETH Yeah, and when Baymax falls away it’s very much like what happens to George Clooney.

BROOM That’s true. I was thinking of Star Trek during that whole sequence, because that’s what it looked like. And there’s also a self-sacrifice in Star Trek.

BETH I liked the moment when Hiro confronts Callaghan and says “what are you going to accomplish?” and there’s just an instant where you think he’s going to change his mind and relent. And then only action — I think some kind of thing falling — is what breaks it.

ADAM No, it’s Krei talking. He ruins it because he’s such a douchebag.

BETH Oh right, he says “I love that robot!” or something like that.

ADAM He says, “Listen to the kid, Callaghan!”

BROOM I thought Krei was well handled. I was sorry for his nice building getting destroyed.

ADAM “Everything you love is going to be sucked into this vortex… like, office furniture!”

BETH The standard office chair is still being used in the future.

ADAM The Aeron chair.

BROOM In the first section of the movie, I was thinking, “you know, I might have various anxious uncertainties today, but when I was a kid, it’s pretty clear I would have liked this, because it has all these places in it and all this stuff, and I would have rolled with it.” And then it got to the shot where the Kabuki man shows up in the warehouse, and I thought, “Ooh, but I definitely wouldn’t have liked that.

ADAM Yeah, it felt menacing to me.

BROOM His nanobot horde was awful.

BETH When their car went underwater and it was filling up…

BROOM I saw you cringe.

BETH That’s a real fear of mine!

ADAM And Baymax has told him to buckle his seatbelt, and it’s stuck!


ADAM Did you see Cloud Atlas? A lot of the San Francisco sequences reminded me of the 70s sequences of Cloud Atlas, where she’s the investigative reporter. And her Volkswagen bug also plunges off a bridge.

BROOM Oh, I forgot about that. How does she get out? I don’t remember.

ADAM I don’t remember either. But it has those same sort of Dirty Harry San Francisco noir visuals. But yeah, that sequence, ooh.

BETH I thought, “If you’re going here, then I’m probably going to feel uncomfortable a few times.”

BROOM I wasn’t worried because I knew Baymax was a big flotation device.

ADAM Even though you know they’re going to be fine. Why the guy doesn’t just entomb them with nanobots, I don’t know. They were his students! Has he no heart?

BROOM I know! When they wanted to establish that his revenge was about emotions going out of control, and that he had not intended to kill Tadashi, when they wanted us to see him in this tragic psychological light, they have Hiro say “You let Tadashi die! He went in to save you!” and Callaghan says “I didn’t ask him to do that! That was his mistake!” … I thought, “but you can’t deny that you’ve been very deliberately trying to kill me for the last 15 minutes! You made the bots into a pile driver that you were going to drop on me!”

ADAM Maybe if the nanobots had been puffy and white but had the same functionality, they would have been less frightening. I mean, it really speaks to the importance of good design. “Don’t you think the armor will compromise my non-threatening huggable healthcare personality?”

BROOM I know I’m the one who started calling them nanobots, but they’re actually “microbots.” A nanobot would be microscopic.

BETH This might be the longest we’ve ever spoken about a Disney movie.

BROOM I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. [looks at recording counter] Oh wow, it’s long, isn’t it. I guess I should stop it now?

BETH You’re the one who has to transcribe it!

BROOM So, readers, I guess we’ll see you again at Zootopia in March 2016.

ADAM Is that the next one? Oh god.

BROOM In March 2016! How much of an imposition on your heart is that really, that you have to say “Oh god”? You’re gonna have to see a 90 minute movie in a year and a half. “Ugh! Oh, brother!”

BETH Well, wait, what did the “Oh god” mean?

ADAM I just meant that that title doesn’t sound promising. Like, what’s wrong with fairy tales, guys? Frozen made a billion dollars.

BETH This one will make maybe not that much, but close.

ADAM While you were in the bathroom, BROOM said he thought Frozen tapped something pent-up.

BETH Oh, Frozen was definitely better. It was a more soulful movie.

ADAM Just the hunger to see a girl save a girl, and hear that fabulous song, that’s worth a billion dollars right there. Whereas I don’t think this has that resonance, in the same way. The hunger to see a really hunky half-Asian dude, maybe.

BROOM To see him get blown up.

ADAM Well, you don’t see that.

BROOM He really shouldn’t have run in there.

ADAM Yeah, what a chump.

[we turn off the recording and ADAM departs]

[but lo! moments later, BETH’s secret thoughts stir and the recording comes back on!]

BETH It’s always interesting for me when I experience something cultural and am truly transported, and then I’m in a situation where I’m required to analyze it and talk about it, as a work… You know, I think what we were doing was talking about things as both experiences and as products, and in this particular case I had trouble thinking about it as a product, I think because of the emotional state I have been in today, working; I needed some kind of release, and it really provided exactly the release that I needed. I found it challenging to talk about… and I said this earlier, so this is kind of just a repeat, but this is just what’s on my mind now… to think about its motivations and think about its, you know, cynicism, if it was cynical. I can’t… Because it reached me, I feel like, “well, my experience wasn’t cynical, so it’s not cynical.”

BROOM I sympathize with the difficulty of figuring out how to hold to that. Because there is this feeling that… My whole life, in fact, earlier in my life when I wasn’t struggling as life-and-death with these kinds of issues as I have been, I had this thing that I would keep returning to, this idea, that being analytical gives you some kind of…

BETH Control, or order, or…

BROOM Yeah, defenses, or cachet if you like; it gives you some kind of edge over other people, which is an unfortunate principle because being analytical is not always a good thing to do. And yet, once you do it, it raises you above everyone else, and then you either…

BETH It sure makes you feel smart, you know?

BROOM It makes you feel safe, and makes them feel unsafe. And I always knew that that was a bad thing. And yeah, I’m trying to find a different solution, now, to that problem, just like you’re talking about. And I think that part of the solution is to defuse it by making it be about the person, because it is about the person.

BETH Yeah. And I was trying to say that as much as I could, when I was sharing stuff tonight, but I have — and the reason that I’m talking about this now is that I have some sort of embarrassment built up about my inability to really think about it the way that you and ADAM were thinking about it.

BROOM Yeah, but it’s actually the opposite. You don’t have an inability, you have an intuition that not thinking about it that way is better for you. So that embarrassment, if you misinterpret it, will make you do something bad to yourself.

BETH But I think this is how [a friend] experiences most movies, and it’s why she doesn’t dislike anything.

BROOM Because she actually feels good about them.

BETH You know, like on Goodreads, she gives almost every book five stars, and sometimes she gives a four, and very rarely she gives a three. And thinking about that, versus how I experience literature… It’s rare for me to give books five stars, and I think that’s because I am in fluctuating mind- and mood-spaces during my experience of a novel, which takes many days.

BROOM That’s right, you can’t just have a two-hour happy experience with it.

BETH And to have that consistently average out to a five is very rare!

BROOM It’s funny that she’s the counterexample, because I think of her as so deeply anxious. But I guess people who are deeply anxious, it’s always compartmentalized. In fact that’s part of what creates the anxiety. She’s socially anxious, which means she’s not necessarily… when it’s just her and a book, she might actually feel more at ease than you and I do.

BETH Yeah, I mean, she prefers to stay home and watch her shows on TV than to socialize. She would prefer to go to a movie by herself, on an afternoon. That’s the main thing she spends money on, is movies.

BROOM Well, I grew up in my family culture… which I have new ideas about, and I also have a desire to stick to old feelings about, too, because they didn’t need to be as analyzed as they’ve been… but what I grew up with was that you saw a movie, and then afterward you all talked about it, but the spirit of talking about it was not, like, mastering it, or mastering a cultural…

BETH Like, figuring out where it stood in the canon.

BROOM It was socializing what had been individual but now could be social, where everyone’s like, “And when he said that thing, that was funny!” and everyone agrees that it was funny. And then on the flip side of that, “something was weird to me in that scene!” and “yeah, that was weird to me too!” And the point is not to be, like…

BETH Like, “they must have been misguided, or thinking about this, or trying to do this…”

BROOM Well, see, that’s the problem, because in my family the culture also was, that you say it and then you say, “They shoulda done this. They shoulda done it this other way that would have been better.”

BETH Well, sure, which I think is natural.

BROOM Well, yeah, but it does have kind of an element of “if people wouldn’t screw up all the time, we’d be able to be happier!” So…

BETH I guess the upshot for me with this movie is: it’s not a five-star movie. But it’s a solid four, because my experience of it was entirely positive. I just don’t feel like it transcended any… it wasn’t…

BROOM I think that… to get philosophical, maybe unnecessarily… I’ve been thinking about these very issues, and… Maybe you remember, there was a quote — in a passage that I read aloud back when I was reading the Harvard Classics passage-of-the-day, by Burke. Talking about that there’s the Sensibility, and then there’s the Judgment, and that if you enjoy something with the Sensibility but without Judgment, then, you know, it’s amorphous; if you enjoy something with Judgment but without Sensibility, then it’s dry. And I said at the time, it seems like he just couldn’t bring himself to say what I would say, which is that actually, if you enjoy it with Sensibility and without Judgment, you don’t have any problems! That’s fine! But I do kind of agree that the ideal state is to enjoy something with both, which is possible. Sometimes I’ll have the experience of “I’m coasting through this and loving it, but I don’t think that if I thought about it analytically, that pleasure would remain intact, so I’m sort of…”

BETH Holding something at bay, or preventing yourself from…

BROOM Yeah. But maybe that’s just an illusion.

BETH Yeah, and I agree with you, I think that the primo state of experiencing something is to really be in it, and… I don’t know. Now I’m questioning it.

BROOM Like when we watched Rushmore the other day, I enjoyed it with both halves of myself. And that gives you this sense of freedom, like, “I can flop back and forth and I’ll be gratified in either place.”

BETH Yeah, I guess that’s it. It’s having both halves of your brain engaged.

BROOM Or equally able to be engaged. It’s sort of that feeling of not having to… You know, there’s two paths in front of you, and they’re both fine. So there’s no, kind of…

BETH Conflict.

BROOM … yeah. And I think that’s what affects my reviews of things. At least when I’m at my best. It isn’t that in advance I’m thinking, “well, everything has its number of stars and this is certainly not a five, oh ho ho.” It’s more that if you ask me afterward how many stars to give something, and I honestly am like, “all right, let me think”… the answer is going to have to do with whether I felt freedom the whole time, or whether I felt like, “well, this only works one way.

BETH Yeah. So, watching this, I wasn’t thinking about freedom at all. I mean, I think that I sort of did switch off…

BROOM Yeah, it’s an anxious way for me to say it. Like, no one’s taking away my freedom. Go ahead, sorry.

BETH No, but I think that… I really wasn’t thinking analytically, I really just was letting it wash over me like a beautiful bath.

BROOM Yeah. Good!

BETH And that was great.

BROOM I’m happy for you. When I saw that musical last week, I mostly did that. I cried and I just let it move my feelings around. And only when it really left me in the cold was I like, “What? Oh, it’s not working, I guess.” And then afterwards, when I talked with someone who’d been in the show and was sort of sour on it, and they asked what I thought of it, I said, “well, I think it had problems, but I enjoyed it and that’s the main thing.” But then as the conversation proceeded I ran up against exactly what you’re talking about: I couldn’t think of anything to say about being moved by it, because being moved was the end, was complete.

BETH It’s strange. It’s kind of uncomfortable in the aftermath, to feel like, “well, I had this, you know, encounter, and now I’m supposed to talk about it, and I’m not able to access it.” I don’t know, I can’t churn up anything to say.

BROOM But, you know, that difficulty, I think, it’s not right to say that that difficulty is inherent to the nature of experience. I think that difficulty is a specific kind of nervousness, embarrassment, anxiety, on your and my part. And I should not neglect to mention, in my story of trying to talk about that show, that, like, I get nervous in the place where I was, talking to the person I was talking to — lots of things about the social situation I was in, talking about that show, were nervous-making for me. So in that state of nervousness, I was embarrassed, I think, to be effusive about my emotional experiences, which is not itself actually inherently confusing or difficult for me. And I think that that’s probably true for you. I don’t think that effusing — being effusive — about whatever was gratifying to you about the sensory experience or the emotional experience you had here, is so foreign to you. It’s just that there’s something about me and ADAM, and maybe about being out in Manhattan…

BETH Well, just the tone. Yeah, I think it’s the tone that you guys by nature bring to these conversations, and I knew going in, like, I wasn’t going to be able to match it, because I just couldn’t. It had nothing to do with what I had just felt. So I felt nervous about trying to impose my… I think I was pretty honest about it. I think I essentially said that, so.

BROOM Yeah, you didn’t misrepresent yourself as far as I could tell. But you can aspire — and so can I — everyone can aspire, when in a situation where other people are being sucked toward the analytical, at the expense of pleasure, to actually stand up for pleasure. Even though it seems like you are trying to win a battle from a lower station. It’s not actually lower.

BETH Yeah, it always feels like, “I’m gonna fight for the right of the idiot instead of the intellectual.”

BROOM Yeah, but the more that you do that fight, say, you know, “I think that rock should beat paper,” or whatever, just, “no, it flows upstream”… you will start to really hear that you do believe it. I think you’re expressing it somewhat now: you really do believe that enjoying that movie the way you did is better than the nitpicky stuff that I was saying. It’s better for people, it’s a better understanding of the movie. And you have to do that to start realizing that, “yeah, there’s actually as much to say about this as there would be to say about his thing.”

BETH I have a complicated feeling about it, because in some ways I feel like, “well, there’s the experience of a movie, and there’s a conversation that you can have with people about the movie,” and if I don’t have anything to say, then I won’t have a satisfying experience of the conversation.

BROOM Well, what I’m saying is, you’re describing the situation as if you inherently don’t have anything to say, or you can’t scrounge up anything to say: but that’s a description of…

BETH Anxiousness.

BROOM Something that you’re underpracticed at, or… the way nervousness makes itself felt to you, is that your thoughts are harder to grasp, or you can only come up with so many words. I’m saying do whatever you can that’s honest, and aspire to it getting bigger and bigger, rather than doing what you can to meet the other standard, like, “well, I can certainly come up with a bunch of words from this other less sincere part of me”…

BETH Like, from within my experience, say what there is.

BROOM Yeah. And you do, you always have, I’ve always admired this about you, that even against the fashionability of it, that other people are buying into, you will say something very emotionally simple or emotionally direct, because that is better than it. But…

BETH Yeah, I just always feel like that comes out as… I mean, reads as… you know, like a cow wandering into a field in the middle of, like, two professors talking.

BROOM Yeah, right. And I think there’s a kind of nobility in being the cow. Because actually what’s in that field is two other cows with, like, Groucho glasses on, talking like professors. And to show up and be, like…

BETH “Hey guys, we’re just cows.”

BROOM …”Hey guys, we’re just cows,” is really beneficial, it’ll make everyone’s lives better. But to get there you need to practice attributing nobility and, kind of, heroic value to that. Because otherwise the embarrassment just shuts us all up. Professors too. I know those feelings exactly, though. I mean, it’s hard to say, when you’re being a professor: “All I really want is for someone to give me ice cream,” so you end up saying, “Hm! Hm! Something was missing; I don’t know exactly what.” So then if you show up and you’re like, “I’m the ice cream man, guys! Here’s the ice cream!” you’re doing a favor, even if the first response you get is, “Pff! Ice cream! As if! Please!” A few minutes later they will eat the ice cream, and agree that they’re better off. I mean, I try to acknowledge it now as much as I can. I think when I was talking at the restaurant I said, “I get that I probably only had these thoughts because my mind is in an anxious place.”

BETH Yeah, you did say that. You said that a couple times. Can we get juice on the way back?

BROOM Sure. So that you don’t have to listen to my lips smacking?

BETH No. I feel I’m getting a cold for real and I want to “stave it off.”

BROOM Okay. We’re gonna stop this now.

[The recording is shut off a second time. It has not yet come back on. Total duration 1:27:14!]

[I hope it did not take fully 1:27:14 to read. Congratulations. You, the reader, are the real Big Hero 6.]


November 6, 2014

67. Le sang d’un poète (1930)

2000: 067 box 1 (out of print 4/2010)


written and directed by Jean Cocteau

Criterion #67.
= disc 1 of 3 in Criterion #66, “The Orphic Trilogy.”

The Blood of a Poet.

It seems that in 1929 Jean Cocteau and Georges Auric were both at a party hosted by big-time art patrons Charles and Marie-Laure, Vicomte and Victomesse de Noailles (I know, they look like a lovely couple, but keep in mind he was gay), and at this party, Auric announced his desire to write music for a cartoon, if only someone would make one. His hosts nominated Jean Cocteau, pre-eminent doodle-master (with whom Marie-Laure was reportedly infatuated (yes, also gay)), as just the person for the job.

Cocteau apparently counter-proposed that he make not a cartoon but a live-action film that would be as fantastical as a cartoon. This proposal was deemed acceptable, and the Noailleses cheerfully handed over one million francs. “Don’t you two come back until you’ve made some completely crazy art. That’s our thing. That’s what we do.”

And so Cocteau, who had no film experience whatever, made this, and Auric scored it, and here it is.

Watching it, you can tell: this is a very pure product of the uppermost echelons of aristocratic decadence. That’s not a bad thing. I’m using “decadence” in a very clean sociological sense, without anger.

I think high-surrealist dream films are great fun, in principle. In fact I wish there were more of them, so that we wouldn’t have to be as precious about the few we have. If this movie were just one among hundreds, it would be easier for me to simply enjoy the parts that work and forget the rest. But knowing that this kind of thing is relatively rare, I feel obligated to try to make the most of it. Surrealism doesn’t grow on trees, and there are only so many Vicomtesses to go around.

My feelings are nearly the same as they were about Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast:

The most rewarding things here are the unearthly atmosphere and the compellingly simple magic effects: the wall is actually the floor and the girl flies up it; a mirror is actually a pool of water and the guy falls into it; the eyes are actually painted on their closed eyelids.

The thing that gives me the most difficulty is the editorial rhythm, which seems pretty much neglected as a dimension of craft. Some shots are too long, some are too short. Mostly too long. Sequences tend to drag on well after we’ve gotten the point. Jean doesn’t notice or care. It always surprises me when musicians, poets, or filmmakers don’t have a passion for rhythm; to me it is the first principle in all three arts.

However, in his preface to the screenplay, written in 1946, we read:

The innumerable faults of The Blood of a Poet end up by giving it a certain appeal. For example, I am most attached to the images. These give it an almost sickening slowness. When I complained of this recently to Gide, he replied that I was wrong, that this slowness was a rhythm of my own, inherent in me at the time I made the film, and that changing the rhythm would spoil the film.

He is undoubtedly right. I am without doubt no longer sensitive to the “element of God” that he speaks of, and that this film uses and abuses. As I know it far too well, I can only observe the acts, and the slowness with which they follow each other hides the rest from me.

At this point in my life, I think I have a feeling for what he means by “the element of God,” and I can see some sense in his equating the slack editing with the poetic truth, which is to say the poetic trance. In fact I experienced it. I watched the film twice, and both times I found that my critical reservations were strong at first, but eventually gave way to a sleepiness that is their obverse. This happens in an instant, after which everything seems different. Naturally, my sleepy side is more in sympathy with the state of mind represented by the film, and so too with the “almost sickeningly slow” rhythm — or un-rhythm — of the film itself, which nicely complements a state of trance.

Which means that maybe my initial reservations about the editing were wrong after all. Or rather, maybe my critical thoughts exist as a closed system within me, and have little to do with the film. The thoughts just are, and can only await that moment of inversion that reveals their hypnagogic underside.

(Exactly this sort of flip-flop transition is portrayed in the film, I think. When the poet sleeps, a spinning mask is shown, with tears on the front and Cocteau’s own likeness painted on its concave reverse. These sort of pat images of duality have started to make a lot more psychological sense to me.)

All the same, I am still heartened by the implication, between the lines in the quote above, that Cocteau at least momentarily considered re-editing the film to improve the rhythm. Because that’s exactly what I was doing in my head while I watched (“I would cut away… now”). Or at least that’s what I was doing before the moment of turnover, before my mind started floating alongside the movie, up a wall that’s actually a floor, rolling around on a ceiling that’s actually a wall.

The potential problem with watching all that floating while floating is that floating doesn’t care about anything very much. I don’t need any fancy Frenchy stimuli to make my dreams sufficiently dreamy: if I’m dreaming, then I’m dreaming great, and I know it. Once I slip away, I stop caring what’s on screen. My inner poet knows full well that poetry doesn’t matter in the least, and that it’s completely unnecessary to pay attention to, say, this movie. There’s something a little self-destructive about dream-films; if they’re authentic, they erase their own audience.

That’s why I watched it twice: I had to pass through it again before I felt confident that I’d actually seen it.

But I think that’s fine. I certainly didn’t notice Jean Cocteau or The Criterion Collection getting annoyed with me for drifting. And I am always grateful to be encouraged to slip away. That can be what this artwork is.

So that’s what it is, but what’s it about? Well, M. Cocteau would deny that it’s about anything. And I think that’s right. It’s a pitfall of the critical mind to think that a question like “what’s it about?” is pure and necessary, when in fact it is deeply prejudicial. What is a hypnotist’s pocket-watch about?

Nonetheless, this is Cocteau’s trance and his psyche is doing the catering, so the psychodrama that plays out onscreen is, if not about anything, certainly specific. It seems that Cocteau was preoccupied throughout his life with the risks an artist takes when he exploits his inner poetry, lets it leave his body. That’s the subject here; that’s what the “blood” of the title refers to.

The poet in the film is playing a game of cards against a glamorous Muse; lacking a good enough hand, he is compelled to appease her by shooting himself in the temple, which creates a wound in the form of Cocteau’s signature star, through which blood then pours. This elicits the applause of a society crowd watching from box seats. (Originally this society crowd included the Noailleses themselves, but apparently their families objected to them being shown celebrating a suicide, so the scene was reshot.)

It would be easy to accuse Cocteau of being absurdly spoiled and self-pitying to have portrayed himself as a sacrificial victim, given that he lived in a milieu of society parties and million-franc commissions for work that is nothing less than complete self-indulgence. But I don’t believe in those sorts of accusations anymore. I have no doubt that this is not a calculated self-dramatization but an authentic self-revealing. And revealing himself authentically is the very thing that scares him. He was genuinely afraid, it would seem, of just those sorts of accusations, of losing his private sense of himself in the unsympathetic, unseeing eyes of others. But he suffered that fear for the sake of art. That is the nature of the self-sacrifice seen in the movie. To me it seems entirely sincere.

(My skeptical comment about La belle et la bête, that it had “an unpleasant Siegfried-and-Roy air of unchecked homosexual ego” about it, is no longer something I would say. Ego isn’t a threat to me or society; nobody is obligated to “check” it. Last year I read a nice essay that reminded me that even Siegfried and Roy can be taken seriously. They are people, after all.)

Cocteau is fixated on his own inner fragility because he strongly believes in using his innermost feelings as the fuel for his art, but it makes him nervous to do so, which is what generates the fragility in the first place. This circularity is reflected in the work; the art can’t help but begin to take on a self-obsessed quality. To him, the ultimate self is something he feels obligated to reveal and also afraid to reveal, so, like a vitreous floater, it is always flitting out of reach of his fearful approach. Seeking it, questing after it, he feels like he is flirting with half-benevolent, half-threatening gods, enigmatic masked figures of myth that toss his emotional fate from hand to hand. He comes to find the experience of thinking about himself mysterious, ominous, important. Art for Cocteau is self-exposure, self-exploration, self-wonder. Self self self, with integrity.

I believe that by disc 3, Testament of Orpheus, in which he stars, we’ll be watching him essentially eat his own tail right on screen. But I’ll have to wait and see.

That all said, this egoistic thread of the work does still pose problems for me. As I said in the Rushmore entry: despite what it might seem, the only thing actually unpleasant to the audience about self-obsession is the anxiety that it implies. But that unpleasantness can be real. I think a more secure Jean Cocteau would have inserted his actual name and face and signature less often, and part of me involuntarily winces — albeit lightly — whenever they appear.

The cosmic mystique of “Jean Cocteau”: this is the thing that I have least in common with him, and yet he’s made it central to the work. If he had had the freedom of mind to focus more on the experience of having a life, rather than the experience of having a certain identity, there would be more for us to share.

But I do respect his sincerity. This is what was inside him, so here it is.

The movie had plenty of stuff to offer me directly. When the poet passes through a mirror into the hallway of a seedy hotel with screwy gravity, and peers through keyholes at one surreal tableau after another, I don’t feel that there are any anxieties standing between me and the image. This is a very easy subconscious landscape for me to visit. I know it well; I’ve dreamed it myself, more or less. Magritte is full of it. It’s in Yellow Submarine, too. I think it was on Muppet Babies, for that matter. Going to door after door and seeing weird stuff. It’s primal.

It’s all primal, if you can get there. If you’re really open enough, I imagine it’s possible to genuinely feel that you are Jean Cocteau, for the movie’s purposes. I didn’t get all the way there, but that’s okay too. It’s just a movie. Only a 50 minute one, in fact.

That’s 20,000 francs per minute. $785 in 1930. (So $11,189 per minute, adjusted.)

Connection to previous movie: the director finds an excuse to insert his own lovingly-cultivated handwriting.

The DVD also offers a 66-minute film about Cocteau’s life, made in the early 80s but built around autobiographical interview footage from one of the last years of Cocteau’s life (he died in 1963). It only touches on Blood of a Poet briefly, and prematurely gives away big chunks of footage from Testament of Orpheus, so maybe I should have waited to watch it. Probably it would have gone on the last disc in the boxset if content were the only consideration, but this is the shortest of the three films and so its disc has the most room for bonus materials.

I was tickled by the documentarian’s use of construction paper to create a colorful abstract background for cut-out historical photographs (of ballet costumes, etc.). I don’t have occasion to think about construction paper very often these days. As a backdrop it offers access to a distinct imaginary textural space that was familiar from my childhood.

I had a perfectly nice time with this documentary film and with Cocteau’s company in it — it’s fun to hear unpretentious anecdotes about the personal manners of Diaghilev and Satie and the like — but even having been through it, Jean Cocteau remains a fairly peripheral figure for me. He was clearly a conscientious artist with genuine talents, but there’s just something insular about his body of work. I said that the only turn-off in self-involvement is anxiety, and I stand by that, but it can also have an unfortunate constraining effect on the spiritual breadth of your output. I kind of get what his thing was, and I can only make so much use of it.

I felt similarly indifferent about the biographical life casually documented here. And he himself said that his outer self was of no significance; only the inner poetic self counts. His inner poetic self does seem like it had something to offer me: some sweet floaty naptime. I’m always game for more. Let’s see how the next one goes.

This is Georges Auric’s third Criterion appearance. He’ll be back again immediately for our next two selections, and then according to the Criterion database he’ll be returning five more times after that. I hadn’t realized how prolific he was as a film composer. His music never makes the impression of being spectacularly inspired, but it seems like he always brought a certain level of cultured intelligence and taste to the work. In the world of film that’s not to be taken for granted.

The project originated in his desire to write cartoon music, and despite the fact that it went in rather a different direction, it seems like maybe he just did what he wanted and wrote a suite of cartoon music anyway. The score is full of vaudevillian comic sparkle that has nothing the least bit Cocteau-dreamy about it. Whereas it can easily be imagined to have Mickey Mouse in mind. It never particularly matches the action, and has frequently been heavily hacked up to try to contrive some sync. And even so it still often seems incongruous — not purposefully surrealist, just incongruous. I don’t know what you pictured when you heard that little excerpt a moment ago, but I’ll bet it wasn’t this!

I suspect Auric — whose name is after all on the title card right next to Cocteau’s — did not respond to the footage itself, but to the scenario in the abstract (if that!), and then made his own free and equal submission to the project. It’s unfortunate that Cocteau had to do such clumsy meddling with the soundtrack to get it to fit, because the music seems quite charming as a little ballet in its own right. I think complete it would be about 25 minutes. It deserves a clean rerecording, which it’s never received. The original recording was never released intact either, and is presumably lost at this point.

Despite the relative paucity of dialogue and sound effects, selecting a listenable cue still turned out to be hard, because everything is eventually interrupted in one way or another. The music for the opening titles would seem to be the thing, except that the whole film begins with a terrible hiccuppy edit into the middle of some music already in progress. Later, pieces of the same material recur, in a nearly identical performance, but with a proper beginning. I gradually came to suspect that Cocteau had constructed the different cues by variously editing multiple recordings of the same music. That at any rate is the premise behind the restoration work I did to try to make something listenable for our excerpt.

I have had to make many (hopefully inaudible) edits, combining audio from three different places in the movie, to try to restore a musical continuity. Unfortunately right before the end there is still one hiccup that I was not able to heal because the missing audio is nowhere reused. It can serve to give you some sense of what I was up against.

I guess we’ll call this Main Title and Introduction, which is where the bulk of it appears. But is that really what it was composed to be? I don’t know.

Performance is conducted by Édouard Flament, leading the “Orchestre Flament,” which was probably just a pick-up group.


November 1, 2014

66. The Orphic Trilogy

2000: 066 box 1 (out of print 4/2010)


The Blood of a Poet (1930)
Orpheus (1950)
Testament of Orpheus (1959)

Criterion #66.

Criterion spine number 66 is not a movie. It’s not even a DVD.

Some things to consider:

14, 15, and 16 constituted the “Samurai Trilogy.” These were originally released separately, and only some years later bundled into a boxset. This boxset, offering as it did no new material, received no spine number of its own. Recently, this trilogy was revamped and repackaged, and is now only available as a set, in a single fold-out booklet-style package. This set itself has no number of its own: the spine is marked “14 / 15 / 16”. This is one way of cataloging.

51 was Brazil, the first set to be sold in a slipcase. This is a single movie and receives a single number, which appears on the fat spine of the slipcase. Inside the slipcase are three separate regular-width cases containing the three constituent discs. The spines of these cases are marked “51.1” “51.2” and “51.3”. This is another way of cataloging a boxset. Given that this is a single film, whereas the Samurai Trilogy is three films, there is a consistency thus far.

The present set is, like Brazil, three separate cases in a single slipcase. The slipcase is numbered 66. It is, like the Samurai Trilogy, a set of three separate movies. Those three movies are numbered 67, 68, and 69. Those three movies were not available separately. The set includes no additional disc or booklet that is not part of one of the three constituent movies. Thus this number 66 seems to stand oddly only for a piece of cardboard.

One might be tempted to say, alternately, that 66 is the set proper, and it’s the numbers 67, 68, and 69 which seem stand only for pieces of plastic. And yet this demonstrably not the case, because set 66 went out of print in 2010 (because they lost the rights to the first and third films in the trilogy), and then in 2011 Criterion came out with a new edition of the middle film, the one they still had the right to release, as a standalone spine 68. Which clinches the argument of which number is the silly number with no content: 66, this one.

Such a system is only absurd when the discs aren’t also sold separately, which in Criterion’s practice is frequently the case. The rest of the time it makes sense, for cataloging distinct shippable products with distinct prices. Either way, it will always put a kink in my game here, because I of course want to have the meaningless satisfaction of having written one blog entry for each number, and yet there’s nothing for me to blog about.

The obvious thing to write about would be the set as a whole, how the movies relate to each other, etc. But I can’t do that because I haven’t seen any of them yet. If that’s what they wanted out of me they should have assigned the numbers in the other order, with the set last. No way am I posting #66 after I’ve already posted #69. No way. Absolutely not. No.

You can look forward to more water-treading in the future:

86 is a slipcase for 87 and 88. Only available as a set.
124 is a slipcase for 125–128. Only available as a set.
167 is a slipcase for 168 and 169. Also separately.
179 is a slipcase for 180 and 181. Only available as a set.
185 is a slipcase for 186–188 and a repackaged copy of 5. Only available as a set.
203 is a slipcase for 204–206. Only available as a set.

And so on.

Possible topics for a few paragraphs of filler include:

1) thoughts about packages and packaging generally
2) thoughts about licensing for distribution, and the reasons why Criterion movies go out of print
3) thoughts about numbers
4) how amazing it is that I’ve actually watched 203 Criterion movies
5) whether the Zorg-Blon Tachyon Pulse Hyperpicture is really better than Blu-ray
6) this

And here’s our musical selection: the audio that accompanies the opening Criterion, Janus, and StudioCanal logos on the first disc.

(Interesting fact about low-end computers like mine: if the sound card is near the graphics card, you can hear interference corresponding to the level of activity in the graphics processor, which of course spikes when things move. If you turn it way up you can hear the logos coming and going.)

November 1, 2014

65. Rushmore (1998)

2000: 065 box 1 2011: 065 box 2


written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
directed by Wes Anderson

Criterion #65.

Let me say at the outset that I really like this movie and have seen it many times because it’s in my personal collection. Along with the Criterion Brazil, this is one of the very first DVDs I ever purchased, more or less immediately upon its release in 2000.

Instead of trying to sum up my long-term opinion of the movie I’m just going to follow the train of thought that arose during this particular viewing.

A few weeks after Rushmore came out, Wes Anderson wrote a little piece that appeared in the New York Times, about the screening he arranged for an ailing Pauline Kael (“I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes,” was her only response). It’s the anecdote of a slightly off-kilter visit with one of his heroes, narrated with amused detachment and a focus on minutiae. Just as you’d think he’d write it.

David Edelstein, a Kael protégé, took umbrage at the essay: “A person with even a trace of decency would not have turned around and written up the encounter in a way designed to make sport of her infirmities.” And then he took professional umbrage at the movie. To Edelstein the two sins were the same. Of Max Fischer he writes: “His churlishness isn’t compelling, it’s just an embarrassment, a callow cry for attention,” and then he ends his review by referring to the Kael incident:

Given the state of her health at the time, it was gracious of Kael to entertain this chucklehead for even a minute — a mistake she probably won’t make again. Anderson, meanwhile, probably doesn’t realize that he did anything unseemly. “What do you expect?” said a friend. “He’s like the kid in Rushmore, a callow narcissist.” At least the kid in Rushmore confines his aesthetic offenses to high-school auditoriums.

Below Edelstein’s letter to the Times, you can read Anderson’s public reply: “The suggestion that I wanted ‘to make sport’ of Ms. Kael’s infirmities causes me great pain and embarrassment. I thought it was clear in my article that I not only deeply respect Ms. Kael but that I very much enjoyed meeting with her.”

This is all background. I had already read all this stuff when I watched the movie yesterday and it was in my head.

So many things in Rushmore have been put there simply for us to share in the noticing of them: The moment when the barber shows you the back of the cut by angling a mirror at the mirror. The first piece of 3M tape with the plaid tab on the end. The act of positioning and then opening a typewriter case.

These are the same as the whimsical details in Anderson’s Kael piece — the exchanges that went nowhere, the fact that the door was stuck, the question about butter — that Edelstein wrongly took to be “sport.” The spirit of this kind of reportage is joyful, in a very basic way. Art is about sharing experience, and this is art at its most essential. Like stand-up comedians’ observational “have you ever noticed” jokes that don’t really have punchlines: the audience laughs because they have noticed. Previously they were alone with it, and now that it has been named, they are not. That’s a feeling of joy.

This is the Wes Anderson mindset. To accept his movies one must be inside it.

The spiritual value of all the bric-a-brac is that freshly shared observations are a taste of freedom; they belong to no order, are not yet claimed by any political powers. A disconnected detail hangs in the air with a quizzical functionlessness. It is out of such things that real experience is built — at least if we are happy enough to allow ourselves to see things in this pure state.

Perceiving detail in this way means remaining unbeholden to any system of rational meanings, values, or ethics, and just seeing things themselves, pristine in the halo of their subconscious associations. Edelstein senses this in Rushmore and calls it a “narcissistic trance,” which is a terribly hostile name for it. He is right that it is a distinct state of consciousness, and one where the self is the ultimate source of meaning. He’s wrong to imply that it’s a morally bankrupt position. It should be held as a state of grace.

This is the moral framework of the movie. Max is utterly unprincipled; he exasperates and hurts and endangers the people around him. But the movie does not tell us that he is wrong. In fact it tells us that there is no wickedness in the world, only chaos, an acceptable chaos in which can be discerned all these fond familiar things: library checkout cards, piranhas, fencing helmets, whipping by like the rowboat in the twister.

I was touched this time around by the movie’s portrayal of what it is that Max falls out of, emotionally, and then back into: his “spark and character and imagination” are exactly in his commitment to lies. In the scene where his vitality visibly returns to him, it takes the form of an ever more absurd performance of the excitement of kite-flying. At first he is somberly simply holding the kite reel, which is of course sufficient, but as he begins to feel that there are things worth pursuing in life (“Take dictation, please: possible candidates for kite-flying society”) he starts to weave and dodge and imagine himself catching sudden gusts off guard, performing a fantasy of supreme kite-flying savvy. The idea of the movie is that this performance may be a kind of lie — there are in fact no such gusts — but it is also the source of all true happiness. Certainly it is the source of the circle of happiness into which all the characters are gathered at the end.

The turning point in the script that immediately precedes his revitalization comes when he learns that Margaret Yang, straight-arrow honor student, faked her science project results because she too is a fantasist and a liar. Whether Max grows up to be “a senator or a diplomat” or not is beyond the movie’s purview, but it is clear that when, at the low point, he says of his former wild ambitions: “Pipe dreams, dad. I’m a barber’s son,” it is the sense in which this is true that is the villain of the movie.

I was touched also by the premise that Mr. Blume takes Max seriously as a person exactly because he is more interested in being alive than in truth or ethics. “You seem to have it pretty figured out,” Blume says admiringly, and it’s not because he has fallen for any of Max’s posturing. He sees Max for exactly what he is, and really believes that this, eager self-delusion with gusto, is what it means to have it figured out.

Later, Max hides in the back of Blume’s car, waiting for Blume to emerge from Miss Cross’s house so that he can make a calculated dramatic appearance: asking “Was she good?” with worldly bitterness and tapping cigarette ash out the window, like in movies he’s seen. The beautiful thing about the scene is that Blume responds seriously, rendering Max’s absurd performance real after all. Blume knows that the borrowed forms of Max’s self-image, the constant recourse to phrases he’s heard and mannerisms he’s seen, are really no more absurd than anyone else’s performance of adulthood. Max, wanting to blot out his feelings of shame and loneliness, dreams of being a great man, and so goes through the motions… yet lo and behold, this manic devotion to fantasy does in fact turn out to be his entrée into the real lives of the adults around him, which are themselves just a set of motions being gone through. That is to say: childhood’s absurd imitations of adulthood are not a mistake that will later be corrected; they are adulthood itself in embryo.

In my junior year of high school, standing in the parking lot at some evening event, I saw that a classmate of mine was, like Max Fischer, “casually” smoking a cigarette with great conspicuousness. I had known this guy for years and saw him around all the time. I had never seen him smoke before. Clearly he had just started recently. He dropped the cigarette, and, grinding it out with his shoe, said wearily, “I really need to quit.”

I saw the absurdity, but I had no audience to share it with me. At the time, in fact, it infuriated me, because it seemed like I was surrounded by this sort of thing; I felt like my real social world was slipping away into make-believe.

Now I see that actually what bothered me was not the make-believe itself, but rather the feeling that this make-believe was very brittle, and would explode into the fury of the humiliated if I were to call it like I saw it. I felt that I was being extorted into collaboration: “Act like I am a mature smoking-type adult-man, or I will cut you.” And I may have been right about that. But certainly I was wrong to grow sour about role-playing itself. I could have stood to allow myself a bit more.

Rushmore stands as excellent encouragement in that direction. Or, conversely, it stands as a caution that “maturity” is no antidote to absurdity; just the opposite. Max ceases to be absurd not when he outgrows his illusions — that’s actually his low point — but rather when they cease to be illusions because the community has been drawn into their circle, as in the final scene.

The happiness can no longer be said to be founded on a lie once the happiness becomes general. This is the meaning of the slow motion in the last shot of the movie. The imaginary is now real because it encompasses everyone.

Maybe I haven’t quite articulated it, but I think this is a profound philosophical message about the nature of society.

It also connects to one of my recurring fixations, about “outsider” aesthetic value. The movie asks: is it not good that Max puts on these crazy plays? And are they really crazy as all that? Or are they perhaps actually excellent, by the other, secret standards of art? Perhaps Pauline Kael wasn’t sure how to respond to what she’d seen because she was never truly comfortable confronting this question. For my part I am unable to watch the Max Fischer Players and not be sincerely pleased. As I said in the Carnival of Souls entry, I take very seriously the idea that the hometown auditorium might be the site of profound artistic experience.

The first time I saw the movie I thought it was funny that Mr. Blume, a Vietnam veteran, is moved to tears by “Heaven and Hell,” Max’s pyrotechnic extravaganza. Now I find it touching. Blume/Bill Murray has no use for superiority. He would always rather watch the show. The absurd can always be enjoyed truly, without “making sport” of it.

Then on the other hand witness David Edelstein’s contempt. (Anger always gets stuck in my head and I can’t help but keep turning back to it.) I feel for Wes Anderson as the victim of that particular scorn, because there is no defense against it beyond the state of grace itself — and we all know what a dangerous position that can be. “Innocent delight in the self” is a very hard stance to maintain in the public culture, because it is vulnerable to any and all resentful attacks — moral, political, intellectual, personal, everything. I can only wonder at how much further “pain and embarrassment” Wes Anderson must have had occasion to suffer in the 16 years since this movie came out.

And yet he — and Bill Murray — seem to have made it through, somehow (or close enough, anyway), and in the process laid out a vast slimy snail’s track behind them for the legions of wannabe innocents to loll around in. I daresay Rushmore singlehandedly changed American culture more than any other movie in recent decades. Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

As regular readers will know (not because they are regular readers, just because they know me), one of my freshman-year roommates in college was seen for the lead in Rushmore because he had been a kind of Max Fischer Player at his prep school. After the audition he confidently reported that it had not gone well, and apparently he was right. But he got to keep the sides, so we had three script pages from the upcoming film “Rushmore” in our room for a while afterward. It was the “Has it ever crossed your mind that you’re far too young for me?” scene.

When the finished movie arrived in theaters a year later, we had the sense that this was “our” movie, come back to do its part in rounding out one of our self-delighted freshman year anecdotes. And the movie was surely satisfying on that first viewing — I absolutely recognized with pleasure all of the doodadery it wanted me to recognize — but only at that gleeful remove. I felt the sentiments in aesthetic terms, but was not conscious of any meaning. It wasn’t until now, so many years later, that it has become possible for me to see what kinds of people, which is to say what parts of me, this movie is really about.

Then again I don’t think a gleeful remove is any sort of mistake. A pleasure jaunt through a cyclone full of goodies is at least as valuable as self-recognition. All I’m saying is I was there then and I’m here now. (Tomorrow the world!)

I don’t think Wes Anderson did anything quite this direct and true again. (I know a lot of people prefer The Royal Tenenbaums but I certainly didn’t at the time. I’ll reconsider it in due course, just 92 movies from now.)

Before I go on, I want to say a word of praise about Olivia Williams, in the least rewarding of the lead roles, for managing to get us to accept a whole series of extremely unlikely things so that the scenes work. Miss Cross makes no real sense as a character, and yet we do feel that there is a human being onscreen and that the story is revolving around her sensibly. Williams makes Anderson’s pre-teen obsessions feel less outlandish than in his other movies, by playing the part as a genuinely composed adult, and allowing the strangely childlike details about her character to emerge around her, rather than on her face. I think the whole thing would have fallen apart if she wasn’t as clean about it as she is.

Obviously the movie would fall apart if not for Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray too, but everyone already knows that, because they are full of character, whereas Miss Cross fades away as soon as the movie is over. Wes Anderson seems never to have invited Olivia Williams back to play again; maybe he had hoped for Miss Cross to put off more of her own sparks. But I think the movie functions as well as it does exactly because she’s so unremarkable, because she approached it as a sort of featured workhorse role. And maybe Williams hasn’t been in another Anderson movie for her own reasons; it seems like maybe this isn’t quite her scene. Which is part of what I’m praising.

Hey, I didn’t realize she and Bill had a reunion after all: she was his Eleanor Roosevelt!

Okay, that’s more than enough Rushmore for now. “That’s a long ‘Rushmore.'” The time has come to address the bonus features and then move on.

I’m really getting into these horizontal lines. They help me reassure myself that readers will not drown in the overkill. Your head will always be above water, because your feet can always rest on the next horizontal line. Easy. Here, take another breather.

The commentary is Wes, Owen, and Jason. It has been very well assembled from separate interviews — and possibly from two separate passes for Wes Anderson, since sometimes his voice seems to come from a different distance. The flow never feels forced, and the relationship of what’s being said to what’s on screen is organic throughout. My compliments to the editor. This is how it ought to be done.

The easy enthusiasm of the movie comes across in the personalities. Owen Wilson in particular comes off as sensitive to the nuances of what they’ve done; if you listen past his creaky voice, he really doesn’t seem anything like his standard stoner screen persona. In fact it is strongly implied that most of the emotional framework of the movie comes from his life rather than Wes Anderson’s.

All three guys seem like just guys who are alert to their own feelings about life and about movies and thus were able to make a movie. I was inspired.

Criterion’s covers these days regularly feature fancy new illustrations, but in 2000 that practice was still a long way off. (I just went through the covers thus far and the only ones that could conceivably be original illustration work are the paired first editions of Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, and even those are likely derived from existing materials.) So this is probably the first original illustrated cover, and certainly the only one for a while. It’s of Max on his go-kart (with cigarette added), a shot designed to mimic a photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue that actually appears in Max’s dream sequence as part of his classroom corner, which he has apparently decorated with favorite images like it’s his bedroom. (I didn’t work any of this out for myself; it’s known.) That the source image is already specifically derivative makes this sort of an odd choice for the cover, but no matter.

The illustration is by Wes’s brother Eric Chase Anderson, who also provides a “Collectible poster” for the package. The style — which is referred to in art circles as “Maybe I’m anxiously affecting like I’m as innocent as an 11-year-old or maybe I’m doing deliberate homage to how 11-year-olds draw or maybe I’m genuinely still in touch with the same aesthetic ideals within myself as when I was 11; there’s no way for you to know which!” — bears an obvious relation to Wes’s style, which has increasingly posed the same quandary over the years. It also bears a relation to Wes’s storyboards, some of which can be seen on the disc. They are, as you’d imagine, thoughtful and also not a little precious.

I guess my thought of the day about the Wes Anderson preciousness is that scoffing at it just alienates us from the creative impulse that allows him to make these impressive movies. If one of the symptoms of having the aesthetic vision to plan an effective sequence is that he also takes pleasure in his own quirky quirky handwriting, what’s wrong with that? The only thing that’s wrong with it is the shadow it casts: it seems to reveal that he must worry about himself too, and nobody likes to be around worry.

A general psychological principle to which I am constantly returning: what’s off-putting about vanity is not the outward display, it is the underlying shame. The thing that grates about twee-dom is the sense that it is a show of comfort put on by the uncomfortable. As I said above, the lesson of Rushmore is that even such a show can stop being denial and start being real, once the community joins. So the thing to do with Wes Anderson, and with all hipsters, is to take as much authentic pleasure in what they’re doing as possible.

The problem with hipsters is “the problem with hipsters is.” Being scrupulous about not aligning ourselves with any happiness that shows anxiety through its seams just propagates the anxiety rather than the happiness. The disdaining/distrustful observer is just one more person who, in turn, won’t seem happy enough to be trusted. Despite its best efforts, an anxious society just gets more anxious.

This is to say that since trust has to start somewhere: sure, Wes Anderson’s quirky handwriting is kind of fun to look at. And I also think the shuffleboard place in Brooklyn is cool. That wasn’t so hard, was it? No.

I mean, in the long run, yes, it has been very very hard. But today it was not.

Back to the bonus features. In addition to the illustrations, Eric Anderson also supplies 16 minutes of on-set video, which is appealingly unguarded and makes the circumstances look pleasantly ordinary. As you know, I always like this stuff. I could have gone for a lot more than 16 minutes.

Then we have Charlie Rose segments with Bill and Wes, which are fine, but unfortunately also feature Charlie Rose. He’s sort of a Max Fischer of the airwaves, isn’t he, saving Latin weekly.

There are bits of audition video for the various kid roles. I guess that’s interesting too, but of course they only show you the winners, and, no surprise, they seem like themselves. Auditions are fascinating in their natural state, in parallel, but unfortunately that’s something the public can never see.

The main kids in the movie were reconvened to make three Max Fischer Players segments for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, doing scenes from Max’s hypothetical stage adaptations of The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight. They feel like an essential pendant to the movie, since they are fully-produced bits of Rushmore-world. And they’re cute enough.

Then finally there’s the trailer and a few sort of random still images of props and stuff.

Overall I’d say the amount of bonusage is just right. You flip through with interest, recognize there to be a generous assortment of goodies, and then after an hour or two find you’ve finished, well before experiencing “extras ennui” (the feeling that maybe you’ve been suckered into pretending to care about stuff that nobody could possibly care about, not even Michael Bay himself).

Relation to the previous movie: a major character called “Calloway.” For all I know this may not be a coincidence.

The music is great. Rushmore was the one and only time that I went out and bought a “mix”-style movie soundtrack. Admittedly I bought it for the score, but more than half of the album is the licensed 60s pop songs. I didn’t know any of them previously, so for me they emanated from the movie, and I came to feel fondly toward all of them. Yes, even the whole sprawling 9-minute thing by The Who.

By contrast, at the beginning of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson uses the Ravel string quartet, which I already knew, and on hearing it my immediate response was, “ah, I see, okay, well… I guess you can use it for this.” A little grudgingly. I couldn’t really get all the way to feeling it purely — couldn’t get all the way into the narcissistic trance, which knows no culture. Even though that’s where the best listening takes place.

That’s what I like about movie soundtracks: they come with their own pocket-sized culture and otherwise leave you free. Yes, they might be pre-listened by the moviemakers, but that’s what all good artistic experience is: something passed on. I am grateful to Wes (and/or his music supervisor Randall Poster) for passing on some good experiences they had. The problem with the solo-traveler library-going approach to culture is that everything reminds you a little of the library, and of loneliness. Whereas movies are full of people, more than any other art. (Well, so is theater, but because they’re real people, you have to be aware that they aren’t your friends. Whereas Jason Schwartzman may as well be my friend from college. That for some reason I never talk to.)

Even more than the song selection, I love the original score by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame). This is really one of the all-time best displays of creative instrumentation, every bit as strong a thing as the zither in The Third Man. In the commentary Wes Anderson reveals that the temp track was a Vivaldi mandolin concerto (surely this one — you can pretty easily figure out which parts temped which cues in the score), and there is indeed often a suggestion of Vivaldi under the surface, but Mothersbaugh has concocted a very special kind of play-baroque that corresponds perfectly to the play-reality of the movie. The toylike instrumentation is simultaneously sparkling and exposed, which suggests jazz and its characteristic pleasure of being at play in the arbitrary real world.

In the score as it works in the movie, the classical elements don’t seem to come direct from Vivaldi in the 18th century; they come from the classical music that filters down to kids through a loving, simplifying, school culture, which constitutes a kind of institutionalized narcissistic trance. This is sit-in-a-circle-and-space-out “ta ta ti-ti ta” music. And, I have to assume, sit-in-chapel-and-space-out music, for kids who went to a prep school with a chapel.

But those are really only extra-musical associations. In the pure state it’s just a kind of warm, twinkling, well-ordered happiness. Here is the End Credits (on the soundtrack for some reason called “Margaret Yang’s Theme,” which it is certainly not).

I could go for much more of this than there is — the complete score as heard on the album comes to less than 10 minutes. Someone should transfer whole real baroque concerti into this kind of sweet tinkertoy sound world; I would gladly listen.

You have now reached the end.

October 22, 2014

64. The Third Man (1949)

1999: 064 box 1 2007: 064 box 2 (went out of print 10/2009)


directed by Carol Reed
screenplay by Graham Greene

Criterion #64.

Again, I pick up from last time.

I said that phantasmagorias like Alice in Wonderland offer relief because they let us admit that life is surreal and consciousness is unreliable.

Dutch angles are the same. A crooked world is one with no stable reality. The tilted lens simulates drunkenness, delirium, compromised consciousness in the observer, but in a film like this there is no observer, so the tilt becomes an idea about perception generally, and thus about the world itself: “Maybe, maybe not; you know how things are…” The tilted camera agrees with Alice that there’s really no hard distinction to be made between the way things seem and the way they are, and that often they seem quite bizarre — more often than most people want to admit.

(By the way, I really dislike the expression “Dutch angles.” But I just chose to use it anyway. This is an example of a phenomenon wherein I assimilate things specifically because I dislike them, apparently trying to neutralize them by ingestion. Not a sensible procedure but unfortunately it’s subconscious. I’m learning to stop it, which, counter-intuitively enough, turns out to require accepting whatever damage has already been done. So: Dutch angles.)

A movie like The Third Man can have a spooky dream-comfort, even if it’s entirely undreamt, simply because its camera knows that reality always stands at an eerie remove. Maybe in a way it’s even more comforting than something like Alice, because it shows us that this distance applies to the everyday, not just to Wonderland.

The music confirms all this. The zither score is famous, which is no surprise because it insists on being noticed: its voice, like the camera, stands apart. It is not quite scoring the movie; it’s scoring a watching of the movie. It is an observer and it speaks to us as observers. Carol Reed purportedly found his zitherer in a cafe, and it is explicitly cafe music, meant to accompany a stationary cafegoer’s wistful sense of all the folly passing on the street.

The story of The Third Man unfolds just outside of the circle of our coffee. The zither’s knowing look is supposed to be Viennese color, but I think it’s also about what the rest of the world does when it looks to post-war Vienna, or to any other times and places romanticized for their fallenness. People want to hang out at Rick’s cafe in Casablanca — or in Nighthawks for that matter — because world-weariness is actually much more emotionally rewarding than the struggle to stay above it. The continental persona/routine of sighing, shrugging, and indulging yourself another cigarette is tremendously appealing to Americans and Brits who are constantly fighting to prove that it’s not so. Noir is release: it’s so, and we admit that we know it. If you admit to the broken heart you get to enjoy the cigarette. And the dreamlife of the world around you. Give up and smell the roses.

So the zither and the camera both say: “You know how things are. Of course there’s not going to be any need to stop smoking during this whole story.” When we see a corpse floating in the water at the very beginning and the voiceover says “Some businessmen weren’t as savvy,” or whatever, the terms of our wry detachment are being declared. It’s only sardonic, “cynical,” if you have a stake in it. Noir — good noir, anyway — has no stake, other than a refusal to pretend to be surprised. Even if that too is a kind of posture, it’s a rewarding one: a calm one.

This isn’t a mean-spirited movie, after all. I don’t know if Graham Greene was a mean-spirited person — he may have been — but the screenplay seems born purely out of a sincere desire to be interesting, to be diverting. It very cleverly manages to have real social morality in it without doing what Casablanca does, which is give in to it. The curtain has to fall very quickly in Casablanca because the noir jig is up. Here, taking the moral high ground just means nobody gets what they want, so the curtain is free to fall very, very slowly.

The last scene and the basic moral equation are copied in Miller’s Crossing, which I’ve always liked; other aspects of the ending are copied in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has been a ready point of reference around here for the past couple years (and which is, probably not coincidentally, about the same person later in life). But those two works have in common a puzzly convolutedness that The Third Man doesn’t really attain; their noir conclusions are the knot still left in the rope after a great show of complication and untangling. I think that may be a structural improvement on the The Third Man, excellent though it is. The first half has plenty of mystery and portent but the plot is almost confusingly straightforward; I had to keep wondering if I was missing some extra strands of the story, since the simple one I was following didn’t seem to justify all the texture and wit and breadth of detail that was being lavished on it.

(To be honest, I had a sense of dissonance between the means and the ends many times throughout the movie, but I think of it as a personal problem of mine: once I’ve cranked up my brain to be as quick as some of the denser parts of this screenplay demand, simple sequences can touch off my anxiety: “So now they’re just, like… chasing him around… right?”)

Orson Welles’s role really isn’t much more than a kind of prize cameo, but people remember him vividly because when he shows up, 2/3 of the way through the movie, not only have we been building up anticipation about his character the whole time, we’ve also been building up anticipation about what is the underlying conflict of this movie?, which he finally articulates. Before that, we can basically intuit what’s at stake because we’ve seen movies before, but we don’t actually get to know it on screen until very late in the game. This makes for somewhat disoriented first viewings but wonderful second viewings, when we can sip our coffee and bask in the deliciously glum offhandedness of it all.

And maybe, as with Citizen Kane, there are no pure first viewings anymore. Even on my first go, a few years ago, I knew what was up and why. Maybe that kind of clean slate never existed in the first place, for anyone. Why else would they be talking so damn much about Harry and whether he’s good or bad? Hey, and do you remember that girl Laura? Man, she was beautiful and charismatic, right? And either good or bad! Oh and remember that Rebecca? She was really beautiful and charismatic, and either good or bad, you know?

Actually, the three cases are all rather different from each other. Well, no matter. The point is just that I’m no fool. And the point stands.

(Yeah, so I’m using the term “noir” a bit loosely. These aren’t all strictly films noirs. But there is a general spirit of tragedy-as-worldliness that extends through many genres of the same era, and it deserves a name. And I think “noir” gets it across. Here it has a distinctly upscale international flavor: the wisdom of having been a few real places and seen a few real things about how the world works. But the underlying downward glide is the same. It makes some sense that this is how Brits would frame their disillusionment. Post-imperialist noir.)

What I haven’t quite articulated yet is that this is a strange sui generis movie. Much like M, with which it shares more than a few images, it contains iconic moments that seem to encapsulate a genre to which it does not itself entirely belong. Not that it specifically belongs to any other genre. It is, like M, an “interesting text”: instead of laying out its track in the expected straight line, it keeps looping back on itself until it forms a little village. You can walk it from one end to the other, but what’s really being offered is a single unified place: this movie. That’s often the mark of a classic, since it breeds nostalgia: remember the time we spent inside that movie?

I think some of this effect may have to do with its Britishness. Foreign films — even only very very mildly foreign ones like this — often seem to me to have intriguing dramatic or aesthetic “impurity” or “heterogeneity,” when really they’re perfectly unified and well-formed; they just don’t happen to exactly align with my very closely-trained American expectations. What seems to me like a touch of “high” nonconformity is actually just conformity within a different cultural psychology. I’d like to believe that I could benefit from letting my heart (and my inner dramaturg) find these alternate centers of gravity. But locating the exact emotional holes inside myself, through which I can lower myself to feel things a bit more Britishly, is not an easy task. During the course of a single movie it’s not going to happen; I would have to be immersed in the culture for a long time. (This has happened for me with some kinds of classical music, but only over the course of many years, and even with those I tend to lose the breadcrumb path when I try to return; one is always more likely to listen with the ears of the moment, no matter how stupid the moment is.)

So anyway, as far as me-of-the-moment goes, there’s something “interesting” about The Third Man, and my ambivalence about this sort of thing still holds: part of the fun of a thriller is in how thin a show it is; maybe I don’t want a thick one.

Nonetheless I still admire this one. It’s just the right thickness to be able to satisfy all sorts: a golden mean that many movies wish they could hit. How would you like that done? Medium rare.

I could have sworn that somewhere very recently — like, in one of the essays in the packaging — I had read someone talking about how The Third Man shares a basic structure with The Great Gatsby, where we follow our observer-protagonist closer and closer to someone who’s reinvented himself as a mysterious and dashing man of the world, ultimately to discover how phony and desperate that new identity really is. And I could swear that, wherever I read this, it was followed by a point about how Gatsby is popular for the wrong reasons — i.e. for exactly the glamour that it purports to debunk — whereas nobody comes away from The Third Man wanting to be Harry Lime.

In the scene on the Ferris wheel, when Orson Welles tries to be cavalier about everything and keeps calling Joseph Cotten “old boy,” but is actually nearing the end of his rope, I was spontaneously reminded of it, this thing that I read. “Ah yes,” I thought, “that point about The Great Gatsby rings true.”

And yet just now I’ve gone back in search of the source and can’t find it. It’s not in any of those Criterion essays after all. In fact it’s not in google, as far as I can google. I think it must not have been about The Third Man, it must have been someone writing about something else in relationship to The Great Gatsby. But what? Or was it maybe an essay I read only in a dream? Maybe it was a premonition of this essay? Seen at a Dutch angle?

If anyone can explain what’s happening to me, please do.

Okay, okay, you don’t need to: I found what I was thinking of. It was actually from when I was rereading various articles about Stoner to locate a similarly half-remembered tidbit for the previous entry. It’s a New Yorker piece that calls Stoner an “anti-Gatsby,” and then posits that Gatsby is popular because people envy Gatsby. The Third Man doesn’t enter into it. But you can see how this worked in my mind. I vaguely remembered reading a comparison, felt it superficially locking into place, and so retroactively invented what that comparison must have been.

So the point I’ve just made, about Holly Martins being kind of a dopey Nick Carraway to Harry Lime’s corrupted Gatsby, turns out to be my own.

For very superficial reasons I also thought of him as a sort of a dopey Richard Hannay, freshly arrived from across the pond and guilelessly falling into a smooth black-and-white fantasy of impenetrable European conspiracy. I wouldn’t take the time to say this except for the one very striking commonality: both movies have the protagonist running for his life at high speed and then abruptly deposited at a podium and forced to give an impromptu lecture. I suppose this is a joke that occurs independently to anyone who’s ever been asked to give a lecture; I imagine John Buchan and Graham Greene were each drawing on personal experience. Or recurring dreams; I don’t have quite that one but I know it’s common. The jolt of tone and tempo, so characteristic of inter-dream transitions, is the crux of the joke in both cases. Like a moving train car bumping hard into a stationary one on the same track.

Connection to the previous movie: Confusion about whether someone is alive or dead. Or: the whole movie exists to take advantage of a decaying real-life location.

This Criterion 2-disc set is so packed that I am admitting defeat. I can’t get through all these bonus features. It’s already overdue at the library (I can’t renew because it’s on hold!) and I can’t force-feed myself any more.

Yes, I know I could check it out again later but come on.

I will list in the order given on the Criterion site. We have:

• New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed mono soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition

The movie itself looked great on the DVD; I couldn’t find the Blu-ray. This title has been out of print for 5 years, and it seems to me that libraries have only started daring to purchase Blu-ray in the last year or so. And we all know nothing this famous can survive 5 years at Netflix.

• Video introduction by writer-director Peter Bogdanovich

This is in the manner of a TCM promo spot: just a couple minutes of informal interview musings. There’s nothing particularly introductory about it other than that it’s short. And a movie like this needs no introduction. It’s fine, but here begins our journey of hearing the same thoughts from ten different sources.

• Two audio commentaries: one by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, and one by film scholar Dana Polan

Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy are just some arbitrary movie dudes (I guess the connection is that Soderbergh had just made The Good German?) but that’s fine with me — so are the “experts” always just some arbitrary academic dudes. And I’d rather listen to movie dudes. This is a perfectly listenable conversation, mostly about craft. (Tony Gilroy: “The best way to do exposition is to have two people arguing.”) Commentary tracks that represent actual social situations pretty much always work for me, even when it’s just the awkward reunion of the director, the editor, and the star, or whatever. Tracks that are a person alone with a script and an academic reputation to uphold are a lot less likely to succeed. This guy Dana Polan does okay — he never says the film is “investigating” anything, but he does make a lot of reflexive “itself” claims. You know: “…can be read as a comment on the film itself.” This always reminds me of Larry Kroger’s essay on Macbeth. (It also reminds me of more than a few of my own efforts. All the more reason not to want to hear it.)

Shadowing “The Third Man” (2005), a ninety-minute feature documentary on the making of the film

This one I didn’t get all the way through. There are probably a few jewels in there that make it worthwhile but there’s also a lot of projecting whole scenes of the movie against buildings in Vienna, which is a dumb and worthless gimmick. That and I’d already heard all the stories in the commentaries, and the essays (see below), &c. Also I recalled getting burnt by the lame documentary on the Black Orpheus set. It’s all very admirable of Criterion to go out and find these things and bring them on board. I just wish they got to edit them too.

• Abridged recording of Graham Greene’s treatment, read by actor Richard Clarke

This is a third alternate audio track. The treatment was later published as a novella, and it stands as a legitimate prose sibling to the movie. But hearing it read while the movie is onscreen is completely unsatisfying. I made it through about an hour’s worth with my attention constantly wandering and finally stopped. This happened with Lord of the Flies too. Apparently somewhere out there is recording of this read by James Mason that a couple of internet fans really like. Doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. Why didn’t you get that one instead, Criterion? I guess because you’d already produced this one back in your younger days.

“Graham Greene: The Hunted Man,” an hour-long, 1968 episode of the BBC’s Omnibus series, featuring a rare interview with the novelist

Oh, oops, that sounds good and I completely forgot it was on there. But I have to return the disc in the next two hours or pay more money! Listen, I watched the movie, that’s 104 minutes; then 2 commentaries, that’s 208 more minutes, at least 60 minutes of the treatment, 20 minutes of the documentary, 30 minutes of the documentary I haven’t even gotten to yet… that’s 422 minutes! 7 hours, to you! 7 hours of The Third Man, and all of it repetitive because there are only so many stories to be told here! Get off my case!

• Who Was the Third Man? (2000), a thirty-minute Austrian documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew

Right, I watched this one. It was totally totally goofy, European TV style. Again, by now I knew nearly everything it had to tell me. But if you wanted to see what the little boy looked like grown up, you will get your wish.

The Third Man on the radio: the 1951 “A Ticket to Tangiers” episode of The Lives of Harry Lime series, written and performed by Orson Welles; and the 1951 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of The Third Man

That’s 90 more damn minutes! And look at those links! I could listen to these any time. I’m listening to them right now as I type this, in fact. Sounds fine. My review is: these sound fine.

• Illustrated production history with rare behind-the-scenes photos, original UK press book, and U.S. trailer

Yes. I did look at all this stuff. The U.S. trailer is a striking Selznick’s-eye-view of the movie: it makes no mention of Orson Welles (bad for the box office!) and pushes as hard as it can on the romance angle.

• Actor Joseph Cotten’s alternate opening voice-over narration for the U.S. version

More Selznickery. This doesn’t work at all, and he apparently made a bunch of other cuts to try to make the goings-on more sympathetic. Be glad we live in an enlightened era when the US version is no longer the US version.

• Archival footage of postwar Vienna

This encompasses a few very brief newsreel and documentary snippets, including a bit about Anton Karas. I was happy to watch this stuff. I wish they had carved out the worthy bits from those other documentaries and presented them this way.

• A look at the untranslated foreign dialogue in the film

Sure, that’s nice of you. But guess what: they’re saying what you think they’re saying.

• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

I appreciated that they were optional!

• PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by Luc Sante (DVD and Blu-ray), Charles Drazin (DVD only) and Philip Kerr (DVD only)

When you get these out of the library, the booklet is occasionally present, but usually it’s missing. This time it was missing. I read the essays on the Criterion site and you can too. They don’t mention the essay from the original 1999 release, by Michael Wilmington, but that one‘s there too. Reading all of these straight in a row will give you a good sense of where I am now. Ready to be done.

Music, by Anton Karas, a restaurant-zither-playing Austrian nobody. Nobodies can do a pretty damn good job when they’re given the opportunity. My sense is that Carol Reed sort of squeezed the music out of him over many many sessions of telling him what to do and then having him improvise it, but there’s nothing wrong with that. These things are almost always a bit more collaborative than the credits would lead us to believe. In this case the credit is actually pretty clear: “Zither Music Played by Anton Karas,” which I think correctly implies that the music has not been “composed” by anyone, because it does not come from a tradition of composing, just playing. It has been, like pop music, simply “produced,” by Reed. The score is one of the best of all time and can be fairly said to make the movie.

The Main Title. The so-called “Harry Lime Theme,” which is really a “the story of Harry Lime” theme. It isn’t the sound of Harry at all. It’s the sound of his value to the audience. This is not a subtle distinction.

Playing the zither looks pretty hard.

October 12, 2014

63. Carnival of Souls (1962)

2000: 063 box 1


directed by Herk Harvey
written by John Clifford

Criterion #63.

I’m going to pick up from last time. This is after all a sort of diary.

Of Joan of Arc I asked, “What is this for?” That’s my recurring skepticism when I’m emotionally taxed by a serious movie: “Let’s make sure we’re not locking ourselves into a paradigm of difficulty by getting too fond of ‘confronting’ the difficult.”

But difficulty is in the eye of the beholder. So the skepticism has something essentially to do with me. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel the need to express it.

A phrase came to mind today from John Williams’s novel Stoner (which, note, I have never actually read beyond the first couple chapters): surrounded by righteous public fervor about World War I, the protagonist “discovered within himself a vast reserve of indifference.” This reserve, which I think we all have, is a precious resource, the font of serenity. But it’s also something that we are under considerable social pressure to deny, as that wartime context suggests.

A few months ago the New York Times Magazine ran a “riff” praising Stoner, in which a detractor (described as “an elderly gentleman… in a state of high dudgeon”) was quoted, addressing a book group: “Why should I read about this loser? He refuses to fight for his country… He never does anything.”

That guy’s irritation stuck with me, and today, I found myself responding to him in my head: You don’t have to read this book or any other, but perhaps you would benefit from reading this one exactly because you object to it. Read it with the ambition not of coming to love it, but of becoming indifferent to it. The only reason you would ever feel the need to object to something as inconsequential as a book is because some form of denial has cut you off from your natural reserve of indifference. The irritating book can serve as a useful tool for sanding down that denial. Which will improve your quality of life.

Something along those lines.

When I was in elementary school, the idea that I could ever “hate” any TV show seemed absurd, something like “hating” particular raisins in a box of raisins. Nonetheless I felt social pressure to have some “shows I hated” up my sleeve, so I got used to exaggerating my disinterested opinions into a display of phony riled-up emotion. Mr. Rogers is so stupid! Ha ha ha! Cut to the present day: a lot of the time I genuinely can’t remember whether things actually bother me, or if I’m just saying they do to hide my underlying indifference.

Ultimately it comes to the same thing: if I claim to be bothered by, say, a movie’s choices, what I am really bothered by, one way or the other, is some form of my own denial. Otherwise I would just shrug. Shrugging is a much more pleasant experience than complaining.

The cranky man who didn’t like Stoner nicely embodies the problem, since his objection is, specifically, that he doesn’t want to read about some loser who wasn’t angry enough to fight. Both in form and content, he is committed to denying the capacity for indifference.

So when I claim to object to something as unsurprising as The Passion of Joan of Arc, what do I reveal? (“Unsurprising” as in “I wouldn’t be surprised”; its existence on earth poses me no puzzles, is readily dreamt of in my philosophy.) At its root, my denial is the same as the elderly gentleman’s: I simply don’t want to admit how easy it is for me to not care about things.

But my specific stated objection is to what I see as an over-fondness for “confronting” hard emotions. So the denial, I guess, would be of the fact that I live in a world where many many people do subscribe to just that. Including me, sometimes; including me during the movie. I can’t just argue it away. Watching Joan of Arc I did feel moved, and then wished I hadn’t been. Saying “maybe there shouldn’t be movies like this” as though it’s purely intellectual criticism is an attempt to deny the real feeling: “I am ashamed of myself that I was moved by this.”

Becoming less irritable, less critical, doesn’t mean “confronting” anything. It means releasing the impulse to deny that these things, and my responses to them, simply are. It means being indifferent to them the way I was indifferent to, say, Silver Spoons, a TV show about which I have never in my life taken the time to say a bad word. Why would I start now?

This is really getting out of hand. For the love of god, say something about Carnival of Souls already!

Well, here’s how I wanted to segue: All horror movies are designed to grate, to make the viewer uneasy. A horror movie is a kind of machine for eliciting objection; not critical objection, but emotional objection. And so, following on the logic above, I think an effective horror movie has to pick at some form of denial. If you’re serenely indifferent to its scares, they’ll just seem like so much Scooby-Doo, and if you’re serenely displeased by them, you’ll simply and calmly turn the movie off. Whereas if you are getting through your life in a state of denial, a horror movie will be able to successfully trouble you, get into your dreams, go to work on you with that heavy duty sandpaper. So the question about a horror movie might be: what form of denial does it target?

The obvious scab to pick at is the denial of death, which would seem to be the most essentially universal denial. But it’s not uniformly universal. I find that my own personal state of death denial fluctuates greatly day to day and moment to moment. My responses to horror movies are a way of gauging this fluctuation: sometimes the threat of cinematic death feels like a terrible pressure on me, really turns my gut and makes me sweat. Other times that same gut blithely assures me that it’s all just Punch and Judy, army men. Sometimes, in fact, when I feel particularly at peace with the world, my gut tells me that so too will my own death just be a kind of final bop on the head, after all, and that there is nothing to know about it that I don’t already. Those days are rare but getting more common, I’m proud to say.

From here we could easily hop off on to today’s movie: Carnival of Souls is rather explicitly about this kind of denial. If you get my drift. If you trawl my car.

But the more interesting forms of denial prodded by horror movies are not to do with our ultimate fates; more to do with our present existential condition. Such as:

That we are a kind of animal; that we are fragile; that we are made of biological matter, or even just physical matter; that the Earth is what it is in relation to the universe and the universe is what it is in relation to the Earth; that interpersonal relationships are contingent and changeable; that the social order is contingent and changeable; etc. etc. etc.

I think it is perfectly possible to be genuinely at peace with all these things, but it is very common to be in denial of them. From the outside, these two states look more or less the same. Apart from horror movies, nightmares, and emergencies, we don’t have a lot of occasions to expose the difference.

So. Despite the rather traditional motif of “death and the beyond,” I think Carnival of Souls actually gets at a form of denial that is one of the hardest for us to transcend, and yet the most rewarding: denial that consciousness itself, our sense of inner and outer reality, is contingent and changeable, and absolutely uncorroborated.

Do you know who you are, and where you are, and what’s going on, and whether it makes sense? Accepting that you might not and you might never — normalizing that idea — can be very upsetting. People don’t just get into a high dudgeon about it, they put each other into mental institutions to keep it locked safely away. But if you can normalize it, you allow yourself access to a great existential serenity.

This I think has always been the appeal to me of Alice in Wonderland and Yellow Submarine and all such phantasmagorias: they offer a dose of normalization to all the ways in which, like it or not, life is but a dream. The ideal such work takes place in a zone that is safe and dangerous in equal measure, as in some ways Alice and Yellow Submarine both are. Or think of Twin Peaks. Whereas Carnival of Souls is exclusively a horror movie, isolating and ominous. And yet it can’t help but have a kind of a subterranean reassuring quality: the coziness, the trust, of being allowed to admit that consciousness can be creepy and unreliable. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I enjoy returning even to someplace as nightmarish as The Shining: because to be inside a dream always lifts the burden of denial, no matter how bad the dream itself. It relieves us of our anxieties of madness.

This zone I’m talking about, it’s a kind of middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. In a sense, it’s as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It lies between the pit of man’s fears and the height of his knowledge. Do you see what I’m saying here?

Carnival of Souls is Twilight Zone material done in something close to a Twilight Zone spirit. It shares with The Twilight Zone that it manages to evoke the tightly limited reality of a short story. My imagination has always found it easiest to stretch out, to really experience wonder and fear, when I’m given only a relatively bare outline. (Maybe this is an example of the old Scott McCloud idea about iconicity, though it doesn’t quite feel that way to me.) There’s something about the clearly-demarcated function in mid-century short stories that leaves them feeling potent, whereas a lot of mimetic ambition can tend to siphon off a story’s power. (I still haven’t finished Mimesis either. Many books to finish.)

A lot of movies have way more needless ornament than would the corresponding short story. This one doesn’t. Apart from The Twilight Zone I’m not sure what else I could point to that shares that strength.

Production cost about $17,000, making this probably the all-time aesthetic-bang-for-your-buck award winner. The photography is simple and thus effective. The movie is simple and thus effective.

The pitch: the distant blonde who doesn’t really know herself — you know, the one from movies — goes into a trance and montage time begins to trickle over her face. Someone keeps looking at her. She keeps looking at a building. Someone is definitely haunting, or being haunted by, something else. Maybe she’s doomed. Maybe none of this makes sense. Maybe this isn’t “life,” exactly. Maybe it’s just a quick and dirty low budget movie made on an artsy lark by industrial filmmakers from Kansas. Maybe being doomed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re heading toward anything. Maybe doom isn’t so bad after all.

That’s one pitch. Alternate pitch: Betty Draper’s Bogus Journey.

If that doesn’t sound good to you, then this movie isn’t for you. It sounds good to me, and I’ve come to really like the movie. When I first watched it a few years ago, I was afraid it might unnverve me badly. It didn’t. It is genuinely creepy, but that’s a friendly thing. I talk about being averse to untrustworthy movies; this is the opposite: I’m willing to let you jump-scare me if I trust you. In Carnival of Souls I can tell that behind the camera are non-sleazes.

Behind the camera, in fact, is a guy who reminds me vaguely of my grandfather, and so does his art ethic, in a way. A steady-handed, contented American type, not unaware that life has troubling depths, but secure in his position many well-stratified layers above them.

I said last time that you’d have to be an extreme person to make The Passion of Joan of Arc, and that I never would. Carnival of Souls is certainly “weird” but I can readily imagine myself making it (assuming I were a filmmaker in Lawrence, Kansas in 1961). Extremity is relative, of course. To me, this doesn’t feel emotionally extreme. But maybe that’s just because it falls in the zone of my personal emotional extremity. Maybe I should fess up: this movie doesn’t actually seem weird to me at all.

I mean, it’s tremendously cheap and doesn’t all work and has moments of really sloppy amateur writing, acting, directing, editing, everything. Stuff that would be laughable under other circumstances; and maybe even under these circumstances. For the first few minutes, it is nearly indistinguishable from the very saddest sort of Mystery Science Theater fodder. But over time it shows that it is reliable at some basic level where those movies aren’t, even as it wanders around humming to itself like a child. In the commentary, Herk Harvey notes, rather sagely, that part of its appeal and power is in its amateurish surface. Even if that’s not necessarily true, I respect him for being able to see that it might be.

The movie doesn’t have anything to say and it doesn’t do anything that isn’t done elsewhere with more skill. It’s fairly goofy. But it dreams its dream without wavering, which is a rare thing. I can dream along with it if I’m in the mood. Good enough for me.

This is a rather substantial 2-disc set from Criterion. Disc 1 has the 1962 distributor’s cut of the movie, with about 7 minutes edited out to keep the pace and interest up (and to allow it to be shown in a drive-in double-feature with The Devil’s Messenger). The cuts are intelligent and don’t really hurt the movie or remove anything of significance; they might in fact help it overall, very mildly. Disc 2 has the director’s original longer cut, restored for its 1989 revival. The shorter copy seems to be in slightly better shape, visually, though that might be my imagination.

It seems a little unnecessary for Criterion to have sprung for 2 discs just so we’d have the choice between seeing this movie with or without these mostly inconsequential 7 minutes, though I do respect the integrity of this presentation. In any case, I didn’t consider it necessary to actually watch both versions all the way through, just so I could feel the very subtle difference. I poked around and got the gist.

We get some unpretentious commentary by writer and director, but there’s only about 30 minutes of audio there, spread out with gaps, which can be a little frustrating to sit through. Then there are are two early ’90s segments from local Kansas TV about the movie, including footage from the 1989 reunion screening that gives a nice strong sense of the essential midwestern small-towniness of the whole project. The occasion looks more or less like my home town, gathering in the school auditorium to see someone’s show because why not, and happening to see something better than usual. I like this kind of art, art that doesn’t come out of art communities, but out of the latent artistic intelligence of other kinds of communities. (The false note in Waiting for Guffman is that they’re all supposedly eager for Guffman, the voice of higher showbiz, to validate them. I don’t think that’s ever the motivation for people in those situations.)

The artists here are all good decent Kansas folks, plus exactly one ringer, a movie-glamorous actress hired from New York. Part of the reason the movie works is because Candace Hilligoss, with lips and cheekbones to match and coming to you straight from the Lee Strasberg studio, is so spookily different a being from all the calmly textureless non-professional non-actors around her. Also, because she is talented! She’s in nearly every shot and she carries it all, despite being very much in the middle of nowhere, doing her own stunts and hair and makeup for someone’s tiny hometown project. Not to mention staring into space, saying strange things, seeing ghouls, and screaming. I felt a little bit irritated at the somewhat condescending, impersonal way in which she’s praised by the director and documentarian, dwelling on how she didn’t want to get in the freezing river and had to be forced. Well, what about how she gamely did everything else? It’s her damn movie! And she didn’t really have any others, so can’t we all give her this one?

I think what might be going on there is just garden-variety midwestern chilliness toward glammed-up cityfolk. That was probably a pronounced undercurrent at Centron Corporation, the industrial film production company where the filmmakers worked, competing against the smug coasts.

But all the same, everybody involved comes across as friendly and human, and deepened my sense that this is a friendly human movie, some kind of a spooky Kansas cousin to my backyard video experiments of childhood.

There are also 40 minutes of outtakes, which are nice if you like outtakes, but that’s all they are, and 40 minutes is a long time. You get to see ghouls break character in the middle of being eerie, which is fun I guess. This is accompanied by the score (see below), but mostly as ripped from the movie, with some effects and dialogue. (If you want to hear it in the clear you need to find a copy of this CD.)

The biggest bonus feature is an hour worth of excerpts from Centron Corporation films. I have seen my fair share of educational and industrial films over the years, in both serious and parody contexts, but this was the first time that the people responsible were so fully humanized. Watching this kind of thing with an emphasis on the studio that produced it, I felt a kind of envy for the job these guys all had, at once workaday and genuinely creative. They got to churn out movie after movie on every conceivable subject (well, every conceivable boring subject). The weird whimsy of some of those movies, the “Well, Johnny, have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a tooth for a day?” writing, starts to make sense as a kind of wholesome enthusiasm for a quirky career. The more I watched, the more I felt hungry for Criterion or someone to do a whole set of such films, well-restored, with commentaries.

The extent of the curation here is that we get an essay profiling Centron as excerpted from this book, and then brief texts introducing: a travelogue promoting Kansas; a fisheye-lens zip around the film studio; a safety lesson for operators of Caterpillar construction equipment; promotion of the community education initiatives in Flint, Michigan (unfortunately titled “To Touch a Child”); a classroom film for McGraw Hill about the Greater and Lesser Antilles, shot on location; and a visit to the wonderful land of South Korea, circa 1980. They’re all staid and soporific and the color prints have all faded well toward red. It is all tremendously dull. And yet I felt like I was having my eyes newly opened to this familiar aesthetic: never before had I thought to think of it specifically as coming out of Kansans. Or for that matter out of Kansans who in their spare time made dream-like horror movies. There was something very stimulating to me about the fact that Carnival of Souls is demonstrably a direct sibling to Korea: Overview, and that the latter is a suitable companion piece on the DVD of the former. These real but counter-intuitive aesthetic relationships are among my favorite things to discover about culture: secret passages, steam tunnels.

I think we all agree that those classroom films are a kind of middle-American gothic, but it had never occurred to me that they might really be that, intentionally, with some kind of artistic integrity. I think people tend to feel that they are inventing for themselves what’s interesting about those films, that we are bringing our own Mad Magazine or MST3K cleverness to bear on something hollow, born out of some black hole of pure anonymous density. But those films were real and deliberate products from a real place, and the people in that place were not absurd drones but full and thoughtful human beings. Having a slightly fuller sense of who they were only deepens the daydream their work offers. Like some grandma’s living room with a deep pile carpet and butterscotches in the bowl. Sure, this may not be how you want to live, but what’s mysteriously enveloping about it is that it really is how someone lives. It’s not just a game.

Oh yeah and the disc also has some print interviews with the writer, the director, and the star, to be read off the screen. DVDs don’t do that sort of thing anymore, but they were good interviews and I didn’t mind pressing “next” to read them. Oh and I forgot there’s also an illustrated history of the Saltair resort outside Salt Lake City, which serves as the movie’s Devil’s Tower. Basically, there’s a lot of stuff in this set. That’s why this entry is so ridiculously long; I started it after I watched the movie once, but couldn’t finish it until I’d gotten through all that bonus stuff, which took a long time. Maybe too long a writing window for my own good. Or yours.

Almost done here, just a couple more bits of business to attend to. Let’s have another horizontal line.

I haven’t mentioned yet that this is a movie widely asserted (by opportunists) to be in the public domain for lacking a copyright notice on its original release. Charade, already Criterioned, is the most beloved movie in this category; Carnival of Souls is probably number two. Number three is almost certainly House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price (which has a proper notice but, so they say, was not properly renewed). I doubt Criterion will ever get around to that one, though one never knows.

This means that it’s on, ready for you to knock yourself out in both the long and short versions. (This high-quality copy seems to be have been ripped straight from the DVD, but it’s not streamable.) And it’s all over youtube; seek and ye shall find. There is naturally also a colorized version. And a fan apparently converted it to 3D, a mind-boggling task.

Just now I got a pickle out of a jar, and it looked to me like Herk Harvey coming out of the Great Salt Lake. That’s the power of art.

Connection to the previous movie. I guess I’m going to go with: a woman has visions that isolate her and compel her toward death. Or, if you prefer: a creepy guy looks straight into the camera.

Our heroine is an organist, which gives the movie an excuse to show one of the neatest locations available in Lawrence, Kansas: the organ factory! That the score should be an organ solo follows naturally. It’s by one Gene Moore, another local, who apparently recorded it in the course of one morning, with minimal preparation, mostly improvising. It’s very confidently done and works excellently. I have to imagine that he had been a theater organist for silents, or had at least observed the craft closely in his childhood, because you can hear that it’s all done on instinct, very well-honed. People talk about how the organ contributes a unique ingredient to this movie’s particular mood; they forget that live organ was the soundtrack standard for decades. So here is an opportunity — I’m actually not sure how many such recorded opportunities there are — to hear what kind of a thing an improvised organ score was, and why for so many years it was counted on to provide an entire movie’s worth of atmosphere. Moore uses all the essential organ orchestrational tricks: juxtaposing material on the different keyboards, in different registrations, pushing and pulling on long sustained chords and clusters. It is disembodied and ethereal but still closely responsive to the action.

The musical centerpiece is a scene where Mary is supposed to playing church music but her inner creepshow takes over (“Profane!” exclaims the minister), and the longest continuous cue is a climactic merry-go-round-of-the-dead type thing — a “carnival of souls” I suppose you might call it — but those both end up being sort of formless to hear without the visual, so I’m just going to give you the relatively brief Main Title.

That soundtrack CD would be great for your haunted Halloween party. The whole movie would. It’s a peeled grapes and cold spaghetti kind of movie, with all that that implies. Butterscotch candies, too.

October 7, 2014

62. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

1999: 062 box 1


directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
written by Carl Theodor Dreyer (with the collaboration of Joseph Delteil)

Criterion #62.


You can call it The Passion of Joan of Arc. Criterion does.

As you can see, the title card seen on this disc calls it La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, so that’s what I’ve called this entry. But this title screen and all the other French intertitles are not original; they were set in 1985 or thereabouts, when the complete first version of the film was restored under French supervision. The source for this restoration was a single print that had come to light in 1981. These French-language titles were created as replacements for the intertitles on the rediscovered print, which were in Danish, the language of the film’s director, as prepared in 1928 for the world premiere in Copenhagen. Just recently those original titles were finally released, at least in the UK, on a newer, better-restored Blu-Ray edition, not from Criterion.

Why the 80s restorators felt that the movie absolutely had to be released in French, even if that meant losing all those original 1928 intertitles, is unclear. I suspect it has to do with the nationalistically possessive attitude the French have toward Joan and toward this movie: having always known it, from the later cuts, as retitled in French, they weren’t about to give up their Joan to some other language just because that happened to be the historical reality.

This is to say that I think the true original title of this movie might reasonably be considered to be Jeanne d’Arc’s Lidelse og Død (which is literally “Joan of Arc’s Suffering and Death,” which seems to be the standard Christian term in Danish.)

Then again, maybe not. After all, no matter what the intertitles say, the mouths on screen are certainly speaking French. A viewer of any nationality is expected to be able to translate the mouthform of “oui” without assistance. So maybe the surviving Copenhagen copy, historically significant though a premiere is, should indeed be seen as a translation of a French film.

Luckily, this stuff doesn’t matter.


This is that movie with all those beautiful extreme close-ups.

Extreme close-ups are indeed beautiful. At a distance of one inch from the face, you can’t tell that these people are from 1928. Their skin is not from 1928, and looking in their eyes you can see that their minds weren’t, either. This is what it would have been like to be in love with someone in 1928: the same. At a distance of one inch, people are without historical limitations.

And then of course one thinks: this must have been true of the medieval people they are portraying, too. Their pores were undoubtedly the same as ours, their flesh the same. The real Joan of Arc, in the real 1431, from one inch away, would have been just like a person who is only one inch away.

We all know it’s good to flex the historical imagination toward vivid commonplaces: to imagine what ye olde shoelaces really felt like to tie, imagine what was in ye olde cupboard, etc. But to be pushed up this close, into kissing range, to where you can smell the skin, was closer than I’d ever thought to try going before. There’s something new to feel, at that distance. It’s as though historicality gathers, like fog, with distance (and makeup), whereas up close and undecorated, we’re all crystal clear, the same as we’ve ever been.

Of course I already knew it and have already spent many an hour thinking it. But one always knows things better after seeing them and feeling them in a movie. (I considered qualifying that, but I think it stands. Movies teach us how to be aware of the world, perhaps more deeply than any other art.)

So that — the purity of the extreme close-up — is for me the principal virtue of this movie.

It is also a movie about something. Here I am less sure how I feel.

I recognize that this angle of critique is getting a little old around here, but:

What is the point of stories about persecution? I mean what is the therapeutic point; what are we doing for ourselves when we make them and watch them? Why this? What is this movie up to?

You could say that it’s avant-garde and essentially intellectualized, formalistic — the ultra-modern photography and editing suggest it — but it doesn’t feel to be that at all. It feels quite sincerely and intensely emotional about what’s happening to poor poor visionary Joan.

To accuse the movie of being merely the agonized self-pity of the misunderstood might seem petty; it’s clearly a far greater piece of work than that. But the agonized self-pity of the misunderstood is actually a very rich tradition. Not just Romanticism, but Christianity itself, right? Poor visionary Jesus, right? And poor visionary you, if you dare. This is a fine monument in that hallowed tradition.

Self-pity is philosophical: Is there room among men for the purity of truth? Good question. I worry about that too. When Falconetti lets a perfect single tear go — repeatedly! suck it, Meryl! — I’m on board. Goddamn this council of condescending jerks, trying to snuff out grace itself! Goddamn them! Damn dirty apes!

But as that perfect single drop of pain dries up, that’s where my wondering comes in. Why is this being done to me? To anyone? Why was the real story of Joan of Arc — who was persecuted for her military actions, not her tears of purity, though you wouldn’t know it from this movie — rendered into this simplistic witch-trial emotional scenario, with these glistening eyes at the center of it? When she burns — spoiler: she burns — and we are horrified and heightened, what spiritual principle have we moved toward? Is it to the good? Or just in a circle? I’m not sure. I’m wary.

The political motivation of her persecutors is not explored. In fact their psychological motivation is not explored. They are bad guys. Some of them are softer than others, and some nuances are hinted at in a few sideways glances, but at the dramaturgical core, they’re just doom judges and she’s just a unearthly creature of grace that they are set on destroying.

But okay, it’s like devotional art. Only one idea at a time, intensely rendered. Simple, deep images for meditation. Everyone gets to pick their own devotional. This isn’t mine. Or at least martyrdom isn’t. But faces might be. I was moved, and that can be enough. What else is there?

It’s like what I said about Charlie Chaplin: his vast egoism is healthy for the viewer, as long as it goes unobserved. Being transported is an absolute good, so long as you don’t name what’s happening. This is at the heart of the Wagner debate: how to keep your rapture without defending it.

This, like that, is moral art with no moral but plenty of force. So is every person’s face, I suppose.


This film has no score. Apparently it was shown with the standard theater-discretionary live accompaniment in 1928, but Dreyer didn’t specify anything in particular and apparently was skeptical about the inauthenticity of music. Decades later, complaining about the classical music that had been stuck on the version then in distribution, he said crankily that the film would be better shown silent. No makeup? No music! The first option on the disc is just that. Complete silence for 80 minutes.

That’s weird.

The film is stark and bare, “like silence,” and so one wants to believe the silence is working in some bracing MOMA way. But in the absence of sound, one’s inner pulse starts attending to the editing rhythms, as though they were the movie’s heartbeat. They aren’t; they’re just the flickering of its attention. Taken as a rhythmic foundation, the cutting is jittery and counter-intuitive; dramatic time feels constantly disrupted and shuffled and misjudged, rather than synthesized into heightened montage-time, which is clearly the intention. To feel that, we’d need some steady grounding, laid down in actual music. Speaking as a pianist: the visual is very right-hand, so we feel the lack of a left hand.

That’s my opinion. Others will tell you that the silence is ideal. But, like I said, it’s aesthetically tempting to say so in denial of one’s actual experience. It just seems like it would be cool for the silence to be ideal. But it’s not. You can’t make a sandwich without bread.

So here we have this acknowledged masterpiece of cinema — simultaneously of avant-garde, mainstream, historical and religious interest and thus frequently programmed at museums, festivals, and arthouses alike — that still lacks a standard musical score. An enterprising film composer can surely see that here is a great opportunity. Programmers aren’t going to want to solve this problem themselves; they’re going to want to do whatever everyone else does. So why not take a stab at being the guy who wrote the score that everyone uses? If you can be the standard, and you can maintain the rights: woo-hoo! Score! So to speak.

Well, meet composer Richard Einhorn! Who is Richard Einhorn? He is a composer! And he has played all the angles on this one. His score is “not actually a score, but rather music inspired by the film” … music which just happens to sync up perfectly with the film for 80 minutes! A miracle! You see, being miraculous in this way, it is suitable for live performance with or without the film — both at events promoted as classical music with film accompaniment, and those promoted as film with live music — as well as for sale on CD as a pure classical composition, released by Sony Classical. The important thing is that it is not a score! It remains at all times Voices of Light by composer Richard Einhorn. Score!

So: the other soundtrack option on this disc is to watch the movie while hearing the non-score Voices of Light by composer Richard Einhorn. We can also watch a little promotional video where composer Richard Einhorn yaks about his process and his intentions with Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, which is more indulgence even than Philip Glass got, back on La Belle et la Bête.

Yes, so I’m a little cynical about this, but: I watched it first silent. Then I thought, “okay, I have to,” and watched the Voices of Light version. To my surprise, I preferred it. It is far from ideal. But given the choice between no soundtrack and this soundtrack, I choose this soundtrack. For any other movie, that wouldn’t be saying much. And for this one it isn’t saying much either.

Voices of Light is a very Nonesuch/BAM kind of thing, vaguely slick vaguely serious mood music for the cultural intellectual crowd. Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex turned down to 5, via Philip Glass, via Howard Shore. Chorus and strings do a lot of tasteful chugging. There are some medievalist gestures but nothing that Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame couldn’t swallow. Post-minimalist, pre-Raphaelite, neo-classical, non-confrontational. I am being a little mean but I basically like stuff like this. I like the lulling rhythms that say “relax, relax, rest assured that even as you relax you are urbane and culturally discriminating (or least high middlebrow) circa 1988, relax.” I like stuff that lets the mind soften without retracting its validation of your taste. Piercing attention didn’t used to be as obsessively revered among the cultural elites as it is now. A topic for another time.

The score gives the visual what I said it demands: a grounding rhythm, over which the visual rhythms can be read as thought rather than feeling. It allows the emotions to enter the space and survive intact through all the cutting. Einhorn’s sound world does not grate against the visual. It basically invites feeling. I felt, while watching and listening.

But all the same it is not a good score, not the right score. It honors one stratum of the movie’s emotional life to the exclusion of others; its anachronisms reduce our range of possible thoughts to only the intersection between the 1928 visual and the perpendicular 1995 audio. And it gave me a bit of a sense of that condescending post-modern retro affection: trust us, this old black-and-white movie really is wonderful, transcendent. Sometimes it feels like it’s trying to subordinate this world-class movie to its own soggy ends; which after all is the explicit intent when it’s played at orchestral concerts “accompanied by film projection.” Just the fluffball title Voices of Light should give you a clue. This music isn’t nearly as offensive as that Philip Glass opera (also NOT A SCORE) but it has a little of the same hubristic blandness.

I mean it, though: I basically enjoy this style! Here’s our sample: an instrumental interlude that is one of the few short sections that are unique to the “with film” version and are not included in the “without film” version as heard on the Sony CD recording. (This transitional cue would fall between the 3rd and 4th tracks of the CD.) When you hear it, you’ll get it.


I’d say that Mike Nichols got those inaudible angry jabbering mouths at the end of The Graduate from here, but he probably didn’t. They came to mind while watching anyway.

Because of all the close-ups giving it that ahistorical quality I mentioned above, my mind kept trying to identify the actors as people I’d seen recently on TV, or the like. Then I’d have to remind myself that, no, this guy definitely couldn’t be “that guy,” because this was 1928 (and France, to boot).

Connection to the previous movie: is broad and obvious. I don’t know why I’ve started playing this game but I have. This one was a gimme. Next time is going to be harder.

The other stuff on the disc, besides the Voices of Light promotionalia, are a few brief excerpts, not particularly enlightening, from an interview by Einhorn with Falconetti’s daughter; and a full commentary by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg.

The commentary is entirely academic, not a personal response, but done with complete integrity and unforced expertise. I enjoyed and appreciated it even though I don’t usually think such things are necessary. In the case of this particularly quizzical sort of mute high art film, it was welcome.

He mentions that the actors were required to maintain real tonsures for the entirety of the six month shoot, regardless of how long they appeared onscreen and regardless of whether their costume included a skullcap. One of the actors later said that Dreyer was “a certifiable lunatic.” Hearing this quoted, I immediately believed it — not literally, of course, and not in a derogatory sense. But to make extreme art in good faith, one must be extreme. He must have been. I for one would never ever make this film. Is that criticism or praise? It’s neither.

Again I think of the Scorsese comment about something rare happening when an artist’s feelings are out of control. And of what seems to be my broomlet refrain: that all art encounters are social encounters. There are two kinds of social satisfaction: being intrigued by someone who is different, and being put at ease by someone who is the same. High culture validates the former, pooh-poohs the latter: “art should be an encounter with the extreme, not a warm bath.” But nowadays I think there is no general principle, no art ethic. Life is a balance of same and different; we alternate between which we need. Right now in my life I think I benefit more from sames than differents. Whereas this film is different, fervently different, different from almost anyone out there.

It seems to be telling me that if I do not identify with it, I am putting it on trial and burning its flesh. What? No! Not at all! Stick around, Jeanne and Carl, mingle, everyone’s welcome. Jeanne d’Arc, Mike; Mike, Jeanne d’Arc. So glad you could make it, truly. Get a drink, have fun… I’ll be back around, but right now I’m just going to check and see how things are going in the other room.

October 2, 2014

Best Original Screenplay 1945: Marie-Louise


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 18th Academy Awards, presented March 7, 1946 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

The other nominees were:
In Which We Serve — Noël Coward
The North Star — Lillian Hellman
Air Force — Dudley Nichols
What Next, Corporal Hargrove? — Harry Kurnitz

Opening of screenplay:

1. I n v a s i o n (Mittwoch, 12. Juni 1940)

Landstrasse in Frankreich


1. Gross

Vier Ziffern erscheinenMusik
klein und undeutlich.Die Musik des Vorspanns geht
Ziemlich rasch heben sieunmittelbar in den ersten
sich deutlicher vomKomplex über.
dunkeln Hintergrund ab,Ernstern Charakter, dem Rhythmus
kommen nach vorn undder folgenden Bildvorgänge
bilden jetzt gross,entsprechend.
die Bildfläche beinahe(durchgehend)
die Jahreszahl 1940.

Die Jahreszahl verschwindet,
indem sie sich nach vorn

In der dunkeln Bildfläche
wird jetzt ein schräg ge-
stelltes Autoschild (fran-
zösische Nummer) sichtbar.
Ueber das Schild ziehen

Kamera fährt zurück

Das Auto wird sichtbar.
Es steht schräg geneigt
am rechten Strassenrand.
Die Wände der Karosserie
und die Bereifung sind
von Kugeln durchlöchert.
Der Lichtkegel eines ab-
aber vorläufig noch nicht
sichtbaren Scheinwerfers
trifft den zerstörten Wagen.
Schatten von Menschen ziehen
darüber weg.

Kamera fährt zurück bis

My translation:

1. I n v a s i o n (Wednesday, June 12, 1940)

A country road in France

Fade in

1. Close-up

Four numbers appearMusic
small and indistinct.The music of the credits goes
Almost immediately, they standdirectly into the first
out more distinctlysequence.
from the dark background,More serious in character, in
come forward andaccordance with the rhythm of
now grow big,the following visual events.
almost filling the screen,(continuous)
the year 1940.

The year disappears,
moving forward
out of sight.

On the dark screen
an obliquely angled
license place (French
number) now becomes visible.
A shadow is cast
over the plate.

Camera pulls back.

The car becomes visible.
It stands at an angle
on the right side of the road.
The walls of the body
and the tires
are riddled with bullet-holes.
The cone of light from a
dimmed, but as yet
unseen headlight
falls on the destroyed car.
The shadows of people
are cast against it.

Camera pulls back to
Medium shot.

First lines in finished film, which begins differently (at least in the “Religious Film Association” copy we watched):

June 1940
The German armies approaching the Seine.
Rouen a field of battle.
The civil population in panic.

— Vous apporter beaucoup trop trop, Madame Fleury. Croyez-moi, dans deux ou trois jours vous serez de retour!
— Il est facile de parler comme ça. Le seul dans la vie, il ne va s’occuper de personne.

— You are bringing too too much, Madame Fleury. Believe me, in two or three days you will return!
— It’s easy to talk that way. One who is alone in life, he is not going to take care of anyone.

subtitled as:
— You’re taking too much, Mme. Fleury… Why, you’ll be back in a few days!
— You’ve only yourself to think of.

[We are joined by MRB courtesy of the technological marvels of the day]

ADAM Welcome to our little party.

MRB Thank you.

BROOM We four are the only people who have seen Marie-Louise.

ADAM That’s probably true, the only living people. Though Pierre could still be alive.

MRB Well, he’s not!

ADAM Yeah. That was sad. Though this movie was nothing more than a gesture, I found it very affecting. I cried several times.

BETH I didn’t cry, but I was moved the entire time, and completely engaged. It was very interesting to see how Switzerland was making movies in 1943, because it had nothing to with how Hollywood was making movies.

BROOM I’m not sure Switzerland made enough movies to have “a way” that Switzerland made movies.

BETH Well, whoever made this movie was not being influenced by the American system.

ADAM I think now we can all speak pretty authoritatively about 1940s Swiss filmmaking.

BROOM I can speak with the slightest authority, because in searching for this, I had to go down the byways of the internet that have to do with buying Swiss films from the 40s. And there are some, and they’re very obscure, and the affection for them is similarly obscure. There’s no bragging about them. The VHS copy of Marie-Louise that’s being sold in Switzerland is being sold by the institution that produced it, and their site makes no claims at all about the value. And that’s how this felt. It felt not unlike an American PSA-type film.

BETH It was more than that, but I know what you’re saying.

BROOM Yes, it was more than that, but it didn’t feel like some it was some other tradition that was artsier and higher.

MRB BETH just said 1943. This won in 1945. Was it made in 1943, that you know of?

BROOM I think it was released in 1944 in Europe and only in 1945 in the US, which is why it received a 1945 Oscar. But it was actually a 1944 movie, and maybe made the previous year.

MRB So it was made during the war, for sure.

BROOM Yes. I found a web page about the movie where there was a promotional press release from the time, in German, saying “Many people, since seeing the film, have wanted to know what happened to the little girl who played Marie-Louise.” Because the story of the movie was essentially true for the real actors involved. They were asking, “How’s she doing in France?”

ADAM She died.

BROOM Well, as of the time of that press release, she was okay, but that was probably only six months later. I don’t know what her life story is. I tried to look her up and couldn’t find anything. I’ll do more googling now that we’ve seen it. [ed: Still no trace of “Josiane Hegg” after 1945.]

ADAM Let’s talk about why it was composed so oddly. It didn’t have anything resembling a plot that I understood. Maybe it’s because I had too much wine, but by the end, I just didn’t understand what was happening.

BETH The last half-hour just went in another direction. I don’t know why! Like, why was that kid introduced? Why was the troublemaking boy part of the story?

BROOM That is a question.

MRB He was sort of comic relief, wasn’t he?

BETH Yeah, but only introduced at the very last minute. Script-wise, it felt weird to me.

ADAM At the time, I said that I thought Mr. Rüegg was adopting the boy so that he could forcibly dress him as a girl and send him back to France in place of Marie-Louise, but that didn’t happen!

BROOM It did seem like something like that might happen.

ADAM I successfully predicted that she was going to drop the plate, so I was feeling confident.

MRB Yeah, I heard that coming too.

BROOM The way I understood it while watching was that this was a movie about a current issue, and we as Swiss audience members were supposed to feel good about Switzerland’s role. And once that had been addressed in a realistic and moving way, they had to wrap up the movie somehow, even though the issue is still an open question. This program involves sending people back into war zones, but the movie had to have a happy ending because it’s positive, so the arrival of that kid felt like: “We need a little bit of a distraction from this reality. We’re going to pull back a bit from here out. So here’s this kid…”

BETH Here’s a character!

BROOM “You know how French people are! Oh ho ho! Well, even the little boys are that way! A little boy like this will be fine, if we send him back on a train. So too will everyone else.”

BETH “I’m sorry I broke your central heating system.”

MRB And it also gave the grandfather — I know that’s not what he was…

BROOM Yeah, Geppetto.

MRB … Mr. Rüegg. It gave him sort of a consolation prize for giving up Marie-Louise. Though I guess André was leaving too.

ADAM Yeah, they sent him back after three days.

BROOM I don’t understand why he needed a consolation prize. They just sent her up to the chalet to, like, calm down.

MRB I meant for losing her.

BROOM But that’s not how it worked out. I see. Yes.

ADAM What do you mean? He gets to keep the beautiful model of her house, which was demolished.

MRB Oh yeah, she can’t take that with her. Did anyone get the Wizard of Oz vibe that I got twice?

BROOM I got a vague Wizard of Oz vibe, yeah.

MRB At the beginning, when all the adults are out, and she gets out of bed, and bombs are falling, and she’s alone in that place… I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I thought, “All the adults are going to be killed and she’s going to be left alone.” Which felt like The Wizard of Oz. And then when she’s on the roof hanging clothes, she’s essentially saying “Auntie Em, Auntie Em!” when she’s pounding on that door. That felt Wizard of Oz-like. That’s my film study.

BROOM I thought it at the end, when she was walking down the train tracks. She looked sort of like Dorothy going toward that backdrop. But with a real landscape. I thought that tracking shot was very pretty.

ADAM I was thinking about War and Peace the whole time, because I’m reading it. The part that I’m in — spoiler alert: Napoleon conquers Moscow and the city is burning. And it’s sort of like Gone With the Wind where Atlanta’s burning, but with really horrible depictions of what it’s like to be a refugee and have your city burning. And I don’t know what’s going to happen, yet, so it feels like it’s happening in real time. I was thinking about that at the beginning. This really was a graphic and moving depiction of what it would be like to be in a city that was being bombed. And it was awful.

MRB It was.

BETH It was. It felt like vérité, like it was a documentary.

BROOM I was moved in part because it wasn’t a documentary, it was a movie that had been filmed near the real time and place. This movie itself was not particularly slick, but they just needed to point it at those buildings, because it was really 1943. All the help they wanted to give my imagination was there in those settings. And it was genuinely well staged. At the beginning when she looks out the window and the curtains suddenly burst inward with the blast, I felt like it was both a real detail and a movie scare for a kid. It got me contemplating the fact that war actually scares actual little kids who are stuck in it. I saw a comment from someone online who had seen it when they were a kid in the 40s, who said that it really made an impression on them because it was the first time they had realized that children could be harmed by war. [ed: this is the reader review at the New York Times page as linked below]

ADAM I thought that the incomplete subtitles were actually effective, because it kind of made me feel what it would be like to be a refugee, where you don’t really understand what’s happening.

BROOM And like a child. A lot of the movie was shot from her point of view, and she didn’t know what they were saying.

MRB But that wasn’t intentional on the part of the person who provided the subtitles.

BETH No, but it did add to it.

MRB We’re evaluating this as Best Screenplay, and I felt like we only got about fifty percent of the screenplay. I’m not sure that was the best ratio.

ADAM There were no great lines. Well, maybe “I’m sorry I destroyed your central heating system.” And “Your house is so modern — do you have a ping-pong table?” was a pretty good line.

BROOM And I liked the father’s speech about “They said they were going to ask me afterward… but for me, afterward is too late.”

ADAM “Discussion unnecessary.”

BETH I laughed at that.

MRB “The president has nothing further to communicate.”

ADAM That’s the only Wilson joke anyone has made in the last 40 years.

BROOM From what we were able to pick up of it, I thought the screenplay had a nice delicate touch. The situations he set up were nicely balanced. Like the whole arrival, where the women in the household say “oh, we’ll eventually tell dad, it’ll be fine,” and we feel uncomfortable on Marie-Louise’s behalf because she’s completely helpless and should not be made the pawn of this. And then the ball rolls down the stairs… I felt just the right kind of uncomfortable through all that. It puts you in the child’s moral position.

ADAM Yeah. It did emphasize her total helplessness. The dad didn’t have to turn out to be this avuncular Swiss factory owner; he could have been a monster. This could have been any kind of movie. It could have been The Secret Garden. You know, the beginning. But in fact it was The Secret Garden: the middle and end.

BROOM That’s what I thought was effective. It ultimately was… maybe not a PSA but an issue movie — “We’re not going to push you too hard, but think about this issue. Come up and shake its hand” — but it had the spirit of children’s literature. I also thought of The Secret Garden. And some other book; I forget what.

MRB Heidi.

ADAM Is Heidi a refugee? Oh, I see, she’s Swiss.

MRB I don’t remember what her problem is, but she has a grumpy grandfather who she softens by her sweet lovableness.

ADAM This past weekend, my sister-in-law in Minneapolis was talking about a Somali refugee she had sponsored, and my nephew was like “What’s a refugee?” And she said, “Well, it’s someone who, when their country is in a terrible war and they can’t stay, they go to another country.” And he wanted to know what would happen if America got attacked. She said, “Well, we’re very powerful, so that’s unlikely to happen.” He didn’t really press the point, fortunately.

BROOM Canada is familiar to him, right? They must go to Canada sometimes.

ADAM They’ve been to Prince Edward Island. But I don’t know that he has any familiarity with what it’s like to be a refugee.

BROOM Well, neither do I, but I got some idea out of this movie.

ADAM I didn’t really have a point there. But it was a striking conversation. Luckily he forgot about it, so we didn’t have to follow it up.

BROOM I thought it was interesting to see any amount of Swiss national self-image, because that’s not something I’ve been exposed to before.

ADAM It was sort of like Canadian self-image: a kind of smug, quiet self-righteousness.

BROOM That’s not what I got at all! Are you joking?

ADAM No, I’m not.

BETH I got a little of that. I know what you’re talking about.

BROOM To me it was more like Soviet-style propaganda, when all the guys in the loom factory spontaneously start saying “Well, I think we should work longer hours to save the children!” “Well, I do too!” “I don’t know whether this will work, but we’ll try!” And then we see a montage of the looms going vroom vroom vroom!

BETH Everyone was like, “Fifteen minutes? Okay!”

MRB I was so touched by the fifteen minutes. I thought, “I would work fifteen more minutes to help something!”

BETH That’s what I thought too: “I’m happy to devote fifteen minutes for these kids!”

MRB I know! I thought it was great. What’s fifteen minutes?

BROOM So that’s Swiss patriotism: that sequence, and then a montage of the looms going, with stirring music.

BETH I really enjoyed watching those looms.

ADAM But there was a kind of smugness in “oh, there’s no airplanes here, of course.” Why didn’t Hitler invade Switzerland?

BROOM I don’t know.

ADAM Because it wasn’t worth it?

MRB Because they’re neutral! I always wondered how Switzerland gets away with saying “nope, we’re neutral.”

ADAM Well, right. [ADAM later looks it up] Anyway, after the technicolor triumphalism of Wilson, to go back into this flickering magic-lantern world felt like it suited the content.

BROOM Yes. I think for many movies, this kind of degraded image would have been an insufficient way to watch it, but in this case I felt like it was appropriate that I was imagining myself watching this in the church basement. Or rather the basement of The Religious Film Association.

ADAM I couldn’t help comparing this movie in my mind to… what was it? 2007’s Stalingrad. Remember? It was like a big-budget romantic war picture set in the battle of Stalingrad. Anyway, it was too high-budget. See it sometime; we can talk about it.

BROOM That really exists? Are you sure you’re not thinking of Australia?

ADAM It’s like that! It’s actually very much like that. I was going to say it was like Pearl Harbor. It’s that same kind of brilliantly overdone extravagant spectacle. But this flickering dream-world bombing was more effective, for having the curtain half-drawn on your understanding.

BROOM In the original print, I’m sure one could have seen more in those scenes. MRB, at the end of the opening scene, could you tell what it was that made her gasp when she looked down at the cart?


BROOM We couldn’t tell either. [ed: subsequent email from MRB: “I’m pretty sure we can see a body in a coat lying on the ground next to the cart. It is likely the unidentified neighbor woman who was impatient for the cart to come. It looks like the man from that opening scene is investigating and bending over her body.”]

MRB I didn’t really understand what was happening there. They were going to try to leave Rouen right then in a cart?

BROOM In the original screenplay, it doesn’t begin with that scene at all, it begins with a scene of horrors on the road as the refugees are trudging along. The first image is a car riddled with bullets at the side of the road.

ADAM [having looked it up] So… it’s not called Stalingrad, but I’m thinking of 2001’s Enemy at the Gates, with Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz.


BROOM That’s not called Stalingrad.

ADAM But it’s set in the battle of Stalingrad and has vivid ultra-Technicolor depictions of the battle of Stalingrad.

BETH That movie wasn’t a total failure.

ADAM I didn’t say it was a total failure.

BROOM But Stalingrad (2007) must have totally tanked!

ADAM Whatever. Both those years and those titles sort of blend together in my mind.

BROOM So: Richard Schweizer, winner for Best Original Screenplay. What do we think the Academy was thinking?

MRB How did it even come to their attention to consider it?

ADAM It was probably the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of its day.

MRB Maybe they were just feeling very paternal toward Europe.

ADAM Charitable, yeah.

BROOM I looked up the guys whose names are on the title screen as the American distributors. One or both have them must have gone to Europe and seen a lot of movies, and from out of what they saw, they picked this. They thought Americans would like something about this movie in particular.

ADAM And we did.

BROOM Yes, they must have gotten it right. Do you think Americans felt proud of themselves for sampling something European?


ADAM I think we felt proud of ourselves for our generous and paternalistic role in the war, and this was flattering to that.

MRB Was it? How did this flatter America?

BROOM I think this flattered that same attitude, but from the Swiss point of view.

ADAM Yeah, but it was basically our point of view. To say, “Look at all we’re doing for these wretches.”

BROOM It wasn’t about what we, Americans, were doing; it was about what “we,” the psyche of the audience, are doing. What we, good people, are doing for them, helpless people.

ADAM It wasn’t literally about America, but it was about goodwill toward the unfortunate, which is what we pride ourselves in.

BROOM Being good. Being nice. “If you saw this little girl, would you want to give her the best dollhouse in the world? I should hope so! Would you want to make her laugh?” I liked that the movie was summed up by him saying “My teacher used to pull my ear like this!” and when she doesn’t laugh at that, he’s horrified. “My god, war is terrible!”

ADAM To pick another recent analogy: what did you think of Life is Beautiful? And did you think that this had any of those defects?

BROOM That was a very strange phenomenon.

BETH Didn’t see it.

[the movie is summarized for her]

ADAM This movie isn’t really like that, because it’s not as cynically self-involved. But is there anything problematic about putting this wartime experience between the cottonballs of her beautiful dollhouse, and so on? I mean, her brother dies, so that’s pretty sad.

BROOM I think we’re shown real harshness of the beginning, where they tell us that bombs really do fall on people and blow them up, and then later when it happens to her brother, where they show us…

ADAM His tiny coffin.

BROOM With his little voice coming from inside: “I was born in February 1937…” That was pretty sad stuff. And the mother looking destroyed. They also showed his cot smashed to smithereens, before they showed the funeral. That’s all pretty unvarnished. So they earned the right to focus on comfort: “You’re happy to stay in this nice bed, aren’t you? Yes! It is nice of us.”

ADAM Then why is she so happy to go back at the end, after her nervous breakdown?

MRB She did miss her mother!

BETH Yeah, I think it was a reality check for her to be put in this chalet, and realize, oh, she doesn’t really want to live here.

BROOM In the most beautiful place in the world.

BETH Right, she wanted to live with her family.

ADAM … at the chalet.

BROOM Maybe that was part of the point of having the naughty kid take her bowl: being a refugee means living with random weirdos.

MRB … So it’s better to go back to the bombing?

BROOM Well, one wants to be with one’s own family.

MRB Those kids weren’t being rescued; they were just getting a respite from their terror. And it was only a three-month respite, and they were always going to go back. It was like, “these kids are too stressed out and they just need a break.”

ADAM That’s such a strange idea!

BROOM It is strange that they weren’t ready to say, “Since all of Europe is banking on this war ending sometime, we’ll just keep these kids safe until then.” I mean, if they had known in advance that the war was going to end in 1945, I’m sure they would have said that. But it still suggests this strange attitude of, “The best we can offer you is three months! After all, you wouldn’t want to be away from the bombing for more than three months. Your mom needs you.”

MRB “You’d miss it.”

BROOM At the end of the movie, BETH and ADAM both said “I really thought we were going to see the reunion with the mom at the end.” There was something strange about Madame Fleury not reappearing after her son’s funeral. IMDB says this movie is 103 minutes long, whereas the version we just watched is 90 minutes long. But so is the VHS being sold by Praesens in Switzerland. So I’m not sure if there ever was a 103 minute movie or what.

MRB After I watched it the first time several days ago, I googled something, I can’t remember where, and it said that you could tell that parts of it had been chopped up. I don’t know what parts they meant.

ADAM The music suddenly dies off in a couple places.

BROOM The soundtrack was in bad shape throughout. Like I said, I expected from the screenplay that the first image was going to be a bullet-ridden car, and it’s not. But then again, the title music gets prematurely cut off by a splice, and then the first scene starts. So there may well have been some scene at the beginning that was deemed unpalatable for the international audience. Or possibly just unpalatable for distribution by the Religious Film Association. I don’t think that title screen is what the Academy voters saw. I think the Religious Film Association bought a copy for their own use, and then stuck their own titles on it, and maybe made their own edits. And that’s the copy that happened to get transferred to this bootleg disc. That’s what I suspect. So it’s hard to know what we’ve seen here. Anyway, it was a sweet movie.

ADAM Yeah, it was deeply affecting.

MRB I agree.

ADAM But I would not recommend it.

BETH I think I would recommend it if it were available in a better copy. I’m happy to have seen it.

BROOM It was like something you’d get shown in school, and for that it was excellent.

MRB Right. Someone said earlier that this is what they were making in Europe while Hollywood was making something else… How did they know to be so natural in front of the camera, when in the US nobody thought that was a good idea at the time?

BROOM I think Europeans are more relaxed.

MRB Or maybe Hollywood thought they were more advanced because they knew how to do schtick, where Europe was just being like people.

BETH It reminded me of a movie called Rome, Open City, which was shot right after Rome had been bombed.

BROOM You’ve heard of that.

MRB I don’t think I have.

BROOM 1945. It was Rossellini’s big break-out movie.

BETH So it’s after this. That’s interesting. I thought this had been influenced by it a little bit, but maybe the opposite is true. Anyway, I think there’s just a more natural attitude about everything. It seemed like the shots were more relaxed, and I liked that. “This is just gonna play out the way it plays out.” I liked that the music was not intrusive in most of the movie. There wasn’t a need to fill time with music.

BROOM I thought about that same stuff. At one point I thought something like: “Europeans are better at knowing what they’re doing and just doing it. And sometimes that can feel simplistic, but it’s also wholesome. This is a scene where X happens, and that’s exactly what’s happening. And if your mind starts looking around the edges of it, you might be able see the seams, that it isn’t a whole world. Whereas Americans, especially in this era of Hollywood, if you think carefully about their movies, you’ll reach the conclusion that they don’t actually know what they’re doing, or why, that it’s all fundamentally just distraction, but the distraction is effective, so you’re not as inclined to notice superficial thinness.”

BETH I thought a similar thing. My thought was: “Hollywood is manipulating in a particular way, and knows it; and Europe is manipulating the audience in an entirely different way, that to me feels like it doesn’t know it.” But they also knew it.

MRB I think “manipulating” is the word. Someone who’s sad is “manipulating” you to feel sympathetic, but that’s not called “manipulation,” it’s just feeling; that’s just called “somebody who’s sad.” It seems like in the US, in Hollywood films, they would calculate how to make you feel a certain way, but here it’s just like, “these humans feel this way, and you’re going to feel, in reaction, a human way.”

BROOM I thought about it in the scene where the father plays Hot and Cold with her. This game was played with me as a child. “Oh, you’re freezing now! Brrr! North pole!” And it always had a little European tinge to it. This is the thing in the storyline that finally makes her laugh, and it’s a very pre-structured thing. There was no joke that he made that surprised her. He just played the Hot and Cold game. He took off his coat when she got “warm,” but, you know, you can’t picture David O. Selznick saying “Ah-ha! And when it gets hot, he’ll take off his coat! That’ll get ’em!” It was just a ritual associated with happiness, and they did it. That was within the scene, and it was also the premise of putting the scene in a movie. I thought an American movie wouldn’t take that kind of time, because of anxiety about everything that scene doesn’t address. The American movie would feel the need to lacquer it somehow so that you wouldn’t be able to notice its limitations. Whereas here the limitations were just up front. “This is what there is. This is the movie we made.” I enjoy that; it’s very soothing. The crackle the whole time was also very soothing.

MRB Of the film?


MRB I agree — after the feeling of “this is all awful for kids,” when the bombs are coming down and she’s scared and running through the street with her little brother — then when she gets to Switzerland, and everybody is so nice, it’s just so comforting! Because we’re modern Americans, because of what we’re used to seeing in films: when they were distributing the kids out for the families, weren’t you waiting for some awful family to come?

BETH Yeah!

MRB But no! Everyone is kind and cheerful. “Bonjour monsieur!”

BROOM Well, what happens is: “Oh no, that family’s son got the measles, so what’s going to happen to you?”

MRB “You’re going to go home with this beautiful lady!”

BROOM Right, of course, but that was the section of the film that I found the most effective, because the level of threat was just right. “Don’t come downstairs ’til we tell you!” “Oh, your family isn’t here, so sit in that chair over there!” She’s scared of everything, but it’s all this safe, mild stuff. And that’s a real childhood feeling. We have this big traumatic premise, and then we come way down to the scale of “Is the nice lady going to be nice this way or that way?” and it still feels uncertain.

ADAM I was afraid she was going to get thrown out by the dad, or something. I was worried he was going to be a bad dude.

BROOM Exactly. We’re able to be afraid about all these things, while actually what’s happening is a repeated soothing message: “No, no, you’re in Switzerland now.”

MRB Yeah: “You’re safe, you’re safe.”

BROOM And you can call that smug if you want, but that’s also what actual comfort feels like. Being around smug people.

MRB It was like taking your dolls — I’m not thinking of any actual children that I might have had, just my dolls! — you put your doll in the bed and you cover it and you say, “Now you’re safe and warm.” And when she comes the first night, they put her in that lovely bed, and they say, “Here’s some milk, and here’s how you turn on the light, and you can sleep as late as you want.” It was the best possible thing. “And this lady will pray with you.” It was all very nice.

BROOM “We’re Protestants but it’s okay for you to be here.”

MRB “Our servant will pray with you.”

BROOM Yes, that’s right. “We keep one Catholic.”

MRB I have a little anecdote, the thing it reminded me of in my own family. My brother was born in Israel before it was Israel, and that was where he spent his first two years. This was during the 1948 war. And he was a little kid, and they would put him on the balcony, and when the planes would fly over they would grab him and run down to the cellar, the bomb shelter. Because they were getting bombed. And the story about my brother is that when the war was over — I forget when it was, actually — but he’s in the playpen, and he hears an airplane in the distance, and he puts his arms up to be whisked away. And some cousin of mine says — in Hebrew, which I can’t reproduce — “No, no, Gareleh! It’s ours, it’s ours!” Like, “those are our planes.”

BROOM Just like in this movie.

BETH That’s a good anecdote.

BROOM That’s very closely related to what happens in this movie.

MRB Yes, it is; that’s what I thought.

BROOM Did you identify with Marie-Louise?

MRB No. I didn’t live through it.

BROOM I know you didn’t live through the war, but did you have those dresses?

MRB Oh, the dresses. No. “I look like a little Swiss girl.” She had a very Anne Frank look, didn’t she?

BETH She really did.

[we read the New York Times review]

BROOM On point, Bosley.

ADAM I basically agree with that.

BROOM He said that it was “bluntly told in places,” and that was something I wanted to say. Some of the photography was really nice and attractive and had good ideas in it — I imagine that more of it would have been if we could see it better — and then some of it just wasn’t. That’s why it reminded me of an educational film. Some parts felt very much merely functional.

ADAM Which parts?

BROOM I don’t remember a specific moment; I just remember having the thought “Well, this shot looks good,” after having been through a period of very pedestrian, Voyage of the Mimi stuff. But I guess that’s just sort of a relaxed quality. As is the case in those school films.

MRB “Quiet integrity.” Was the phrase in the review.

ADAM Who was bombing Rouen? Probably we were. Or the English. Oh well. I didn’t know that there was widespread bombing in France.

BETH Maybe that’s because we were the ones doing it.

BROOM I know from Saving Private Ryan that they pass through towns that had been bombed to pieces. But I didn’t think about who did it.

ADAM I was in a Wikipedia rabbit hole a few weeks ago where I was reading about every firebombing in World War II, and… the people in this movie got off pretty easy.

BROOM Maybe in the dark shots there were horribly mutilated people, and we just couldn’t see it because of the contrast.

ADAM We can talk about it later. Not on camera.

Last line in film:

— Vive la Suisse! Vive la Suisse! Vive la Suisse!…
[Soyez les bienvenus]


Complete broadcast of the 18th Academy Awards is available here (download only, 19 Mb). Writing awards begin at 32:00, presentation by Bette Davis. First she does a reading from the work of John Cowper Powys, backed by dreamy music. You don’t get that at the Oscars these days! Actual announcement and polite applause is at 36:32. “He won’t be here? Is he in Switzerland? Well, our congratulations to Mr. Schweizer.”

This moment happens to be included as one of the selections at the official Oscars site (scroll down, second audio clip). The only film I can find from the evening is the set of restaged presentations found on that page. (A writing award is included, for once.)