Friday, May 13, 2011

The Bachelor Party, Blue Beard, and Tennessee Williams

I was recently watching a clip I've always loved from Delbert Mann's "The Bachelor Party".

There's something about this clip that seems to fall short of the aspirations of great directors. It's written like it could belong in a play. There are few apparent ideas the director went into this scene with that could be called visual or that needed to be cinema.

I watched this clip right after I watched Catherine Breillat's "Blue Beard" which was the first film I had seen of her's and it was the first time I saw what a master of the elements unique to cinema she is. She adroitly created a fantasy world with horses that were just a little too big, dresses that were just the right shade of bright, blood red, with simple shots of crying teenage girls in carriages surrounded by a beautiful forest; created immediately understood visual puns between people's face and painting and sculptures in the background, objects clearly made for the very specific pre-verbal things she wanted to say with the frame; controlled tones of voice in the actors to the point where they were literally pitch perfect...all of these elements that frame by frame proved her a director devoted to mastering the tools the belonged to cinema and cinema alone.

That was also what turned me off. It was movie to be experienced frame by frame. Everything was perfect and it was beautiful to see what perfect was (the other sister's hair as the two sister's say goodbye, the pose of the ogre lying against a tree by a creek, the little grassy peninsula jutting out into the glittering sea in front of the castle in the background as the girl declares her love for Blue Beard while we wonder whether he's going to throw her off the balcony) but the height Brillat reaches is a cold place. This was a world that was complete but not immersive, gifted but in some very basic way lacking.

Sometimes it's better to throw our gifts away. I don't know if that's what Delbert Mann was thinking but he proves the point. He is capable of visual conceits but he hardly ever uses them. What is "film" is so subtle. It's all her face and the very small decisions they make when they define the space with the camera.

I love Tennessee Williams though I've never seen one of his plays in person, I've only ever seen the films. However, I hate the films. The very basic problem is the movement of the camera, the way cinema tries and is obliged to define space. The camera always feels like an espontaneo who has jumped into the bull ring, I always want to yell at it to get out of there, no matter who the director is.

But Delbert Mann figured it out. Every camera angle defines a space perfectly, a space that needs to be moved through. Theater does not want to be moved through. But there's no reason I'm sure, on picking up the script, we would say "The Bachelor" could not be theater. Delbert Mann figured out what has eluded countless of great filmmakers from Bresson, who was so obsessed with films contaminated with the habits of theater he completely redefined every aspect of film, to Schlondorff with his great but still flawed "Death of A Salesman". His only rival is Fassbinder who himself still suffered an awkward inability to resolve the differences of language and understanding of worlds unique to specific artforms in his borderline films like "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant". We'll remove Seijun Suzuki from the discussion since his films function largely on their awkwardness, which is the quality that brought down more respectable Japanese directors (Double Suicide comes immediately to mind). Delbert Mann stands alone, adroit, between two worlds. A skill that calls no attention to itself, that he never asks to be rewarded for. When we watch his movies we feel nothing but the movement of the film.

But this is the breadth of his talent as a film director. And we have to acknowledge all that lies beside it, which is the sin of creating a film driven by dialogue and flirting with another medium, theater no less, a crime on the level of incest, possibly bestiality.

And this is where the true richness is. The humus of film sin. The pleasure of a lazy film.

Breillat may be on Everest but Mann is somewhere much closer to home, or at least with less thin air.

Breillat should be celebrated for achieving things no one else in our era seems capable of and that are totally of our time. In many ways she stands apart in film history itself. But she is not the way forward. Cinema is a grown thing and it's time for it to be a dying thing. It must die before it can be young again.

So let us, with our Delbert Mann's, wherever they're hiding, roll down the hill into the creek and hope we are carried out to sea. Leave the cold mountain tops to the French.

And just to completely contradict myself, here is a what a very smart Frenchman had to say on the subject:

"When a film is brilliantly organized the result is too precise, too polished, and unfashionable in very little time. I would prefer a wheelbarrow to a Rolls Royce because they keep changing shape and engine."
-Jean Cocteau

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