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At the cinematheque: Dead Man's Stroll Through "The Late Films"

David Phelps

Above: Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Late Films,” BAM’s new series is titled, as a series of neglected films made late in major directors’ careers, but as if the films themselves were dead. They nearly are. Late films by Welles, Tati, and Renoir, which smudge the boundaries between documentary and fiction and feature magic tricks as a wink at what they’re doing, which find comedy on the streets, and which assemble what they find as a loose, Mother Goose compendium of sketches and ideas (from artists known for their precision), are not included. Mostly, BAM’s late films are a particular sort, with no flourishes of young men out to prove their potency; impotence is a constant theme. They’re zombie films, but zombies don’t just kill people—they let the dead live. And that enchantment, of dead people and places being brought to life, is the other theme, opposite impotence. The great late films can play like works of God, unable to control or enter the world he’s made, but able to form it perfectly.

They’re works where characters and director reconcile themselves to worlds and situations and people they hate and need. “What do we do now?” Tom Cruise asks at the end of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and Nicole Kidman responds with an incentive to fantasy and recourse to practicality: “Fuck.” Not at all a happy ending, but the same lesson as every other scene of the film, in which the characters have nothing else to do but fuck each other, and don’t, anyway, because the mental pleasure of fantasizing would be killed by enacting them, because Cruise’s Bill Harford doesn’t want to expose himself for who he really is—even as just a body—and because refusing pretty prostitutes and confessing his temptations is the only way Harford knows how to express his love for his wife. To need each other, they can’t have each other; they confess their adulterous desires because it makes them need each other more.

Eyes Wide Shut, which recreates an entire backlot New York where every building leads into a different decade, and watches a guy, like a camera, who would like to just walk around and watch it, is the story of a man with no identity but his sex drive, just a body in a series of disguises, like a skeleton in a suit, in search of unmasking other disguises, of a societal bigwig, of an orgy’s conspiracy (Kubrick’s great parody of civilization), of his wife. “If you men only knew!” Kidman taunts Cruise, nothing’s as it seems, and who they are really it’s impossible to say, or easy: a pair of eyes and genitalia, their entry points to the outside world. That fear and understanding, straight from Triumph of Death, that personality and fantasy are just a ways of sublimating universal physical impulses, is one of the great old men themes: corpses playing make-believe to prove there’s a “deeper” connection, that they’re alive and in love. Probably half the films in the series, from Cluny Brown to Marnie to Private Life to L’Argent to A Talking Picture, feature long scenes of silent characters walking around while floorboards creak beneath them. The Duchess of Langeais and Red Line 7000 both will take up the theme of lovers who can only love each other by taunting each other with other men and women, and never consummating the affair.


Above: Howard Hawks' final film, Red Line 7000.

Hawks’ earlier, teasing films follow the desire of frustration; his late films follow the frustration of desire. “I don’t want you to want any one else. I just want you to want me,” a girl tells a guy in Red Line, nearly Hawks’ most frivolous film and most profound, most tender and cold, lightest and darkest, but definitely about his bitterest. In a long, unmoving take, as the lovers stare at each other in bed and fiddle with their hands, the girl reveals all her insecurities and needs as Hawks girls almost never do; while other Hawks girls ask to be loved by asking to be punched in the face, she simply asks to be loved. Is she sexy or not sexy, she asks, and how do men tell who’s sexy? “Do a little research,” he says. “Cut it out, you’re acting like a female,” he tells her earlier. “Gabby, is Mike in love with you?” Gabby’s asked. “Sometimes,” she says. Playful lines that don’t hide the confession, but allow it. Red Line is the Hawks where the lovers do punch each other in the face. A guy throws a cigarette at a girl to get her attention. There are Travis Bickle intimations: “You’re a liar, you’re a liar, you’re a slut!” “Have you ever seen a tire iron crush a man’s skull?” one guy threatens.

With Red Line, Hawks strips off all the pretense and says what his films are really about: a den of Aryan Gods, sex maniacs facing constant humiliation, wanting to kill each other if they can’t win each other’s affection, distracting themselves with sports—the only way they’ll ever succeed at anything—finding release in whistling to one other alone, in late-night benders on a race track, and in dancing rockabilly in a Holliday Inn parking lot. Death, like love, is still a Hawksian fact of life like hunger or a scratch, that happens to anybody. A couple friends go to console the girlfriend of a dead friend, stand outside her door, and hear the rockabilly inside: “For some people, this is like a hymn,” one says, or something like that, with Hawks’ old point that rockabilly is Handel to some people as delivering the mail is saving the world to some people, not because either is intrinsically worthwhile, but because having a purpose in life is better than not having one, regardless of whether the purpose is worthwhile for itself.

Red Line’s the hell to Hatari’s heaven, and another film in which an old men accepts the world as he hates it and offers the only way he can stand it (women, booze, or death). The unvarnished style, of long takes as characters react to one another, is not just typical late Hawks, as characters hang-out and conversations go in circles like a ball bounced back and forth for the fun of the game, but typical late film, in which there’s little action, the camera’s hardly active, and director and characters just sit and ruminate instead. Impotent, or imaginative, like Bill Harford. Ozu’s early films end with brawls. His late films end with sighs.


Above: Mizoguchi's Street of Shame.  Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Stripped-down, stripped-off, late films move from action to reaction. Hawks had been making movies about stranded communities for years, but it’s with Rio Bravo that his famous late style emerges with friends sitting around and kidding each other over a song or game of cards. Hawks nearly abandons story, but not plot—wisecracks and ballads are a means of charting the course of relationships, as people get to know and trust each other, and it’s this plot, of how people become friends, enemies, and lovers, that will dominate Hawks’ last films as other plots, like the murders in The Big Sleep, have always just been an excuse for them anyway. What’s easily considered Hawks’ loosening up, privileging grace notes over the melody, is really a distillation, a means of condensing character development, plot developments, jokes, and emotions into the most relaxed exchange of people resting and eating lunch (Hawks’ patchwork ’30 films like Road to Glory are the grace note films). Red Line would make a good double feature with Ford’s 7 Women, which condenses similarly, and a better one with Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame, in which Mizoguchi lets his geishas tell their melodramatic backgrounds to each other over drinks: a means of giving both the action, and their reactions to it, at once.

Mizoguchi, like Hawks, favors every member about equally, as they come and go from scenes playing round-robin with the same lovers and the film circles among them, scene by scene, literally to see what their story is. Only glimpses are caught, of the characters’ previous lives, of how they spend their current one, as they jostle from table to doorway to make a drink, but it’s enough to suggest a total portrait. After the Rehearsal, Ingmar Bergman’s most Hawksian film, takes place on a single stage and distills every form of self-expression—thoughts, speech, recitations—into single dialogues, as Shakespeare did, and reminiscences and reenactments of the reminiscences into single scenes: Bergman’s earlier films show projections of life as it’s remembered, rather than life itself, but After the Rehearsal shows both, as actors watch themselves replaying old parts and new ones both. At one point, two lovers mock the trajectory their lives could take, and are taking, and it’s the trajectory of Scenes from a Marriage. Action and reaction at once. Rohmer’s lovely An Autumn Tale takes off on Shakespeare’s comedies, with their matchmakers scheming to hook up their friends and enemies till everyone’s fallen in love with everyone else. But nobody does fall in love with anyone else, as is typical for Rohmer—the seeds are just planted for relationships that could go anywhere. What is important once again is not the action itself, but how the characters process it. Like Eyes Wide Shut, An Autumn Tale is made to raise possibilities, not commit to them. They’re contemplative films.


Above: Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

And what’s contemplated, in An Autumn Tale, as it is in Walsh’s late films, as it is in Cluny Brown, in which a servant girl dreams of being bourgeois, is the tawdriness of any lifelong dream, at best the surmounting of a particular time and place and society. An Autumn Tale plays like Ozu’s late films, in which there’s no greater concern in the world than who will marry who, and it’s precisely the fact that the most important moment of life is so determined by practicalities, petty jealousies, and small character charms, that’s moving: earlier Rohmer films can play as small-minded, but as in the Shakespeare comedies, it’s the pettiness of people seeking true love in formalities and cheap insults, the tragic lack of any real tragedy in their lives, that makes the thing funny and sad.

With enough perspective, anything looks small-minded. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, probably Billy Wilder’s best film, shows a detective out to solve the crime of the century as a small figure plodding the hills for clues. What lingers in other Wilder films is their total application of 20th century mechanization as a rule of life, comedy, and rhythm; characters are manufactured types, branded as such by Nazism or communism or capitalism, and to be sounded off as firecrackers, an acerbic motto apiece, according to some syncopated tempo and system that’s the film itself. Wilder treats his characters as his governments have treated them: as musical instruments. But only in Sherlock Holmes does Wilder end with the bittersweet conclusion that people can have mysteries to themselves, autonomy, and that not everything can be expressed in quantifiable terms. Where Wilder’s other films are celebrations of 20th century exploitation, Holmes is an elegy to 19th century innocence, unlike every 19th century novel, with a single scene played for caricature as the queen introduces 20th century technology that will ruin everything. What lingers in Holmes, a few years later, are ballet dancers in the background of a theater, Holmes’ nightly hall up the stairs of his pension house, pans across grassy hills as Holmes and Watson walk about, a girl looking out a window so she won’t face a man she’s lying to, and the sudden shift to winter after Holmes loses a case, a girl, and realizes how much he’s liked her. I don’t remember the plot, but the mood comes back easily.

Holmes is probably the only Wilder that could be called meditative: like Oliveira's A Talking Picture and Bresson's L’Argent, Holmes tracks the blood of modern civilization through paradises, while William Wellman's Track of the Cat, like some medieval allegory of death, shows civilization as nothing more than an ongoing funeral in the snow: men try to find the cat (death) but it finds them. Then they die.


Above: Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie.

Hitchcock’s Marnie still gets jolted for not being genuine—there are backgrounds that are clearly painted, reverse projections that are clearly reverse projections, and the acting’s as stiff as Marnie herself. But Hitchcock could have easily ordered more realistic matte shots, as he did for The Birds, when he obsessively asked co-workers if they thought the backgrounds were photographed. Marnie is less genuine, but more honest: it foregrounds the illusion as an illusion, a projection of its heroine’s imagination, and leaves it to the viewer’s imagination to imagine it as real. It could be Hitchcock’s most mysterious film, as The Duchess of Langeais is Rivette’s most supernatural—by dint of a single, inexplicable moment, when the duchess walks through a corridor blindfolded from a lover back into society, and we hear her voice though she doesn’t speak, and the caw of birds though she’s in a Paris hallway. Langeais, unlike Hawks’ late films, is so precisely calibrated to the sound of every footstep and the rustle of every dress that the film literally hinges on this one apocalyptic note of freedom: from there the duchess will go from pursued to pursuer, and finds herself the target not of his desires, but her own.

Marnie and Langeais, like Eyes Wide Shut, make no excuses for their illusions. In their level, steady way—very late film—they all chronicle worlds in which everything is a willed illusion: society an act, identity a business-card, or a history, desire a construction that characters pass their time constructing with whoever’ll play the game. There are no intrinsic personalities to characters in any of these films; people are only what they present themselves as, are the sum of their experiences. They’re like works of art.

Old men feel the weight of their bodies, all the parts long taken for granted as they start to fail; old men’s films tend towards introspective heroes who operate mostly as a digestive tract, a nervous system, and a sex drive. Strangely, almost inevitably, late films are theatrical, real bodies blinking and strolling through dreamlands half-consciously, playing parts in places they hardly notice, theaters of war and love that could be the kitchen to them. Or to the camera, which usually just waits for them to cross from one side of the screen to the other. Late films by Chaplin, Buñuel, or Lang—Limelight, A Countess From Hong Kong, That Obscure Object of Desire, Moonfleet—could just as easily been included. Jacques Tourneur made late films his entire career.

And for all their flatness and materiality, the great late films are mystical, unable to account for the behavior of what they depict. Marnie and Langeais, like Bill Harford, look for explanations for their most traumatic scenes, but the only explanation is that that’s what human beings are like. L’Argent nearly ends with a few minutes of still lives, of unsullied nature and a house interior, and a dog rupturing through the shots, his whining the first melodramatic expression from a Bresson character in years, as he searches after a murderer and the dead bodies. As a moment of expressionism, it’s not: there’s a real dog, in a real place, not faking anything. Action’s shown in reaction, with a sense of impotent rage: a dog who can’t stop the deaths, a camera that can’t show them, an event that can’t be explained beyond the physical details of one body going after another, so that everything’s left to the imagination. Which is what’s mystical: the old man acknowledgement of the unknown. “I wanted to give them God,” Stan Brakhage said at the end of his life. His The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him just records waves off the coast of Vancouver and edits them together, but covertly equates the director with God: making things move, giving them light, bringing them through the same cycles endlessly. God of Day, like most of Brakhage’s films, shows the world moving on fluidly even as Brakhage revives forgotten moments. Late films, often recreating lost worlds that can’t be recovered or escaped, show dead worlds like death: just something that happens like that. At the end of 7 Women, Anne Bancroft poisons a brute, another of the late death angels, like Wellman’s cat, or Bresson’s teen, who murders for the sake of murder. “So long ya bastard,” she salutes him, and with nothing else to do herself, sips her own poison, collapses to the floor, and dies.


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