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Altering Eye

Robert Phillip Kolker

2. The Substance of Form

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Of course it’s been said about my work that the search
for style has often resulted in a want of feeling...
However, I’d put it another way. I’d say that style is
feeling in its most elegant and economic expression...
Clive Langham in Alain Resnaiss Providence

  • 1 Bertolt Brecht, Against Georg Lukács, trans. Stuart Hood, New Left Review, no. 84 (March-April, 1 (...)

Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.
Bertolt Brecht1


1The long-term result of neorealism was an explosion of form. It was as if the act of changing the subject matter of commercial cinema and altering the ways in which the audience was requested to look at the new subject released possibilities of expression dormant in cinema throughout the thirties. It is true that there had been experimentation in narrative form since the beginning of film history, and that the new energy of expression following neorealism spread and developed slowly throughout the fifties and all across Europe, climaxing in the sixties. But ”explosion” is still a fair term; for within a fairly short period of time, film caught up with what the other arts had been doing since the turn of the century: expanding, reflecting upon, and defining its own formal nature, subordinating content to the expression of content, the story to its telling.

  • 2 Roy Armes argues that the modernist movement in film connects directly to the sophisticated image-m (...)

2By the late twenties, film world wide had established a sophisticated and flexible means of telling stories through images that was diminished with the coming of sound, when the image was put to the service of dialogue2.

3The standardization of narrative technique and narrative content proceeded apace as industrialized filmmaking in the West continued to move toward easily and universally comprehensible form and content: a homogeneous set of conventions of spatial and temporal continuity and a uniformity of moral content that made cinema accessible to the greatest number of people with the least possible effort. But while filmmaking was normalizing production and standardizing form and content, the older arts were completing a process of breaking down the old codes and conventions of representation. The human figure and recognizable landscapes began to disappear from painting in the post-impressionist movements. In post-revolutionary Russia, artists, dramatists, poets, and filmmakers sought new and wider audiences and new ways of addressing them. Weimar Germany saw the fruition of the expressionist movement and new forms of architecture, music, and the graphic arts. Between the wars, poets and novelists were examining not only what could be said with language, but what the nature of that saying was. Fiction became its own subject; form was recognized as the essential content of the work of art.

  • 3 Cf. Burch, Theory of Film Practice, pp. 36-37.
  • 4 Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, trans. Stanley Godman, 4 vols. (New York: Vintage Books, (...)

4It is a marvelous irony that some of the modernist forms in fiction and painting came from the developing forms of film. Cubism is a kind of spatially simultaneous montage3. In the novel, ”the discontinuity of plot and the scenic development, the sudden immersion of the thoughts and moods, the relativity and the inconsistency of the time standards, are what remind us in the works of Proust and Joyce, Dos Passos, and Virginia Woolf of the cuttings, dissolves and interpolations of the film... ”4 (Later, the New Novelists of France, among them Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, employed the methods of cinematic description in their prose writing, and in turn wrote and directed films, attempting something of a cross-disciplinary style.) The modernists were challenging tradition, particularly the tradition of art as comforter—the locus of satisfaction and harmony, the guide to transcendent visions of nature, or the place of ideological reconciliation. Painters would not compete with photography, and rather than represent images of the world created images that reflected the properties of line and color and volume. Poets, continuing the work of the symbolistes, considered not only the thought and feeling that might be expressed by language, but the language itself that creates thought and feeling. Novelists and composers sought to redirect attention away from narrative meaning in the novel or emotional expression in music to the structures of narrative and of musical expression themselves. Across the arts modernism involved a movement away from ”meaning” as an abstraction, an entity separable from the forms that make it. Grand emotions, philosophies of life, depictions of nature were no longer the sole purpose of art; the work of art and how it was perceived became the focus of attention. Content, of course, never disappeared, particularly in the narrative arts. All stories, no matter how much attention is directed toward the telling, have meaning.

5Different artists followed the modernist impulse in different directions. The movement was no more monolithic than the forms of classicism and romanticism that both preceded and coexisted with it. It had many schools and many practitioners and many contradictions. While radical in its formal complexity and unconventional in the demands it placed on its audience, much of the modernist endeavor was in service to traditional social-political ideology. The work of Pound and Eliot, while busily reconsidering and restructuring poetic forms, used those forms to discuss conventional, even reactionary, notions of history and human worth. Others used new forms for new ends. Bertolt Brecht directed his dramatic theory and practice to social and political change, seeking a revolutionary art that would lead to a revolutionary culture. For the Russians in the late teens and early twenties the interaction of art and politics went unquestioned. Eisenstein developed his theory and practice of montage to construct dynamic images of revolution and create for the spectator a way of looking at history dialectically. Dziga Vertov wanted to use film as a place of inscription, a way of ”writing” the work of the revolution for and with the viewer, giving new eyes with which to see a new world.

6The split in the modernist movement between those who were interested only in the formal possibilities of their art and those who would use those possibilities to turn both the art and its audience toward a confrontation with social-political realities continued into the sixties when commercial narrative film finally caught up with the movement. Another split, potentially more serious, involved—and still involves—not factions within the movement, but two overriding factions, artist and audience. Modernism threatened to create a gulf between them wider than had ever existed before. It demanded an extraordinary reorientation of imaginative intent and response, and insisted that the way the work exists, and the relationship of that mode of existence to those who perceive it, are as important—more important—than any other ”meaning” the work might have. The demands thus made on audience attention, the call for work on the part of the spectator, the refusal to communicate meaning and feeling instantly could only cause resistance and even resentment among the majority of people too busy or simply unwilling to meet these demands. A new artistic elitism threatened—a separation of the work of art from a broad and engaged audience.

7The response to the threat came in many forms, some of them severe. In Russia, where much of the formal experimentation occurred, the government, worried that attention to form was denying the needs of the audience and threatening the dominant socialist ideology, repressed the modernist movement. The state feared a return to a kind of art for art’s sake where the artist would presumably satisfy his or her own imaginative needs without responsibility to a larger group or purpose. The result of this fear was a call for a return to ”realism,” a simple and direct communication of social and political phenomena through conventional forms of expression. ”Socialist realism” grew out of ideological turmoil, out of a concern that artists be in touch with their audience, and out of fear; it became a reactionary stance that chose to forget or repress the fact that revolutionary content can only be created by revolutionary form, that perception precedes action, and that content is determined by the way content is made. It took many years for the socialist countries to realize that ”realism” meant something other than simple access to simple meaning (too many years, in the course of which Soviet cinema lost its vitality). By contrast the Italian neorealists, who, like the socialist realists, chose the working class as subjects, were aware that straightforward glorification of the figure of the worker in simple narratives of triumph could not open perception and would be counterproductive to their cause. Theirs was a response both to socialist realism and to literary modernism and it made cinema modernism possible.

  • 5 Margot Kernan pointed this out to me.

8The fascists took care of the threat of elitism by simply destroying anything that smacked of imagination and threat to the status quo. ”When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun,” Goebbels is supposed to have said. The comment is parodied by Godard in his film Contempt (1963), when Jeremy Prokosch, the American film producer (played by Jack Palance), a man of cultured boorishness, says ”Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I bring out my checkbook.”5

9Godard has an ironic understanding of Goebbels’s comment—a statement of the philistine’s fear of that which is different, perhaps even threatening. ”Culture” for Goebbels was irrelevant and dangerous to the needs of the state, and as a fascist he wanted to annihilate it completely. For Godard’s producer, ”culture” is a distraction from commercial viability, and as a capitalist he wants to buy it off. But beneath the brutal mindlessness of Goebbels’s comment is a perception that Godard gets at in a less brutal way.

10Fascism, of any variety, despises difference and would destroy it. But within the concept of ”culture” there is often a notion of difference that is itself destructive if it proposes to remove ”art” from direct contact with ordinary experience and intellectual or emotional need. The concept of culture often carries the connotative burden of elitism, of snobbery and arrogance (a fact that makes Goebbels’s statement ludicrous, since fascism is arrogant and elitist at its ideological core). The extreme reactions of the right and the conservative left toward the modernist movement point up its subversion of conventional and safe artistic attitudes and expectations. Yet the fact is that its subversion can be seen to support the connotations of elitism and snobbery inherent in ”culture.” If the writer, painter, musician, or filmmaker desires to concentrate on the formal properties of his or her art, demanding we learn its language and then struggle for meaning within it, the risk of alienation, of the audience refusing the struggle, is great. Most people do not want to work for their aesthetic satisfaction. When the demands become too great, the work is simply ignored. Such seems to be the case with contemporary ”serious” music, which has lost its audience and is of interest, in the main, to its own practitioners and theorists. Such is the danger whenever a work appears to be emotionally inaccessible.

  • 6 Cf. Rhode, A History of the Cinema, pp. 117-55.

11The initial modernist movement was over by the late thirties—politically squelched, ignored by the public at large. The second World War offered little room for aesthetic contemplation, and the movement lay more or less dormant until the mid forties. The relationship of film to this first part of the modernist movement was tangential. Commercial narrative cinema was busy consolidating itself economically and aesthetically. There were major experimental figures, like Eisenstein, who were part of the avant- garde movement in Russia, and there was a substantial avant-garde movement centered in France. In the twenties and thirties, people like Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, Marcel L’Herbier, René Clair, Joris Ivens (from Holland); Walter Ruttmann (Germany); and, of course, Buñuel were actively engaged in exploring cinema’s formal possibilities6.

12Few of them had direct influence on commercial film, however. Buñuel endured a cinematic exile and then had to reemerge through the forms of neorealism before reestablishing himself as a key figure (and still had to wait many years before he saw himself having any direct influence, notably in the work of the New Wave and the Germans). The expressionist movement in Germany was rather quickly routed into mainstream American production. F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, E. A. Dupont, cinematographer Karl Freund (to name only a few of the German émigrés) came to America to work.

  • 7 Stig Björkman, Torsten Nanns, and Jonas Sima, Bergman on Bergman, trans. Paul Britten Austin (New Y (...)

13In the end the Hollywood style was able to absorb and level all others, reprocess them, and return the mixture to Europe where it in turn influenced the styles of various national cinemas. Individual figures like Renoir, Jean Cocteau, and Orson Welles pushed and probed at the boundaries of what was essentially an international style. In Citizen Kane, Welles rerouted the expressionist style once again, initiating a change in mise-en-scène and narrative content that developed into film noir, the dark, paranoid cinema that altered the look of American film and had a lasting influence abroad. (Even Ingmar Bergman admits to its influence on his forties films)7.

  • 8 Social History of Art, IV: 250.
  • 9 Ambiguous Image, p. 14.

14But the fact that film noir involved a radical change in form and content went unrecognized until the French began commenting on it in the fifties. Given its status as a mass art, narrative filmmaking in America could not admit to any experimentation and change even when these were occurring. Hollywood suppressed the initiators of change—Welles, like von Stroheim before him, was not permitted to work—and absorbed the changes themselves into its basic methods. One reason the noir style became such a constant in forties filmmaking may well be that repetition is always easier than exploration, and American filmmakers simply reproduced the style rather than attempting to understand it. That had always been their method, for it was and is neither aesthetically or economically feasible to allow the Hollywood style to begin questioning itself or its audience’s response. The economic apparatus of commercial cinema is so large and complex that everyone, from investor to spectator, is involved in maintaining an illusion of a status quo. Arnold Hauser writes that ”in order to amortize the invested capital, the cinema-goers of the whole world have to contribute to the financing of a big film.”8 And to get such global financing there must be global assent, to a style and a subject matter that please and do not threaten. So another irony occurs. If the early modernist movement borrowed from cinema, cinema itself—popular, commercial cinema—protected its audience from modernism. Roy Armes writes: ”In fact the cinema established itself as a refutation of modernism, becoming the new refuge of story, character and spectacle, and it is to this that it owed its vast popularity”9. The continuity of the Hollywood style offered security to an audience who might find the demands made by the experiments in the other arts a chore.

15None of this resolves the finally unresolvable arguments about the validity and value of mass or popular culture versus high art; ”entertainment” for the largest number of people versus subjective expressions of inquiry in painting, literature, music, or film created for those few with the education and time to understand them. The arguments are unresolvable partly because they are based on the false premise (itself often elitist) that the public gets what it wants—or worse, what it deserves. But the ”public” is not a real entity as much as it is an ideological construct, a set of attitudes and responses created over a period of time by people who have gathered to themselves the apparatus necessary to supply a culture with its goods and services—in this case the service of entertainment. The problem is not that a large public is incapable or unwilling to accept new forms. Film itself was a new form of expression only a relatively short time ago; its narrative methods had to be learned by both its audience and its creators over a period of years. The fact that specific methods of continuity construction, specific contents, and specific ideological biases emerged and controlled the film product was largely the result of convenience and fear on the part of filmmakers, not the film audience. The studios created that audience and were reluctant to change their creation by changing the other creations, the films they made. In a short time the creation took on a life of its own and the filmmakers believed that what they made was what the audience wanted; the audience was made to believe the same. This self-fulfilling process exists today in American television production and has become even more aggravated in film production, where the films themselves are of less interest to the executives who execute them than is the deal that can be made to maximize profits on the venture.

16Given all this, it is not surprising that mainstream theatrical film by and large resisted the kind of experimentation that was going on in other narrative forms—and even in other branches of film—in the twenties and thirties, or, if it did not resist, absorbed the experiments into its own development. Nor is it surprising that today cinematic experimentation and inquiry are avoided in many countries even more than before. What is surprising is that they showed up at all in that period from the late fifties to the early seventies. A number of factors account for the phenomenon. Certainly the excitement created by neorealism and its commercial acceptance was a primary catalyst. Also, the old, established forms of cinema were simply no longer terribly interesting (except to critical investigation of their nature and the reasons for their longevity). The work of the postwar Italian filmmakers provided a response to the old forms that was accessible, not overwhelmingly threatening, and profound enough to provoke some reevaluations of cinematic possibilities. The commercial and critical acceptance of Bergman and Fellini in the mid and late fifties spurred producers and distributors to allow a certain amount of individual expression in the films they handled, and this served as another important opening into commercial distribution for films that began to explore their limits rather than repeat what had always been done within them.

  • 10 See Andrew, Bazin, for a discussion of postwar film culture in France.

17Neorealism was a response not only to the history of cinema, but to the war, which created cultural and political upheaval throughout Europe. The cinema of each country responded to it in different ways and at different times. It took over twenty years for the West German cinema to reemerge and reexamine itself and its culture. It took the French about ten years to channel the political and philosophical excitement of the postwar years into a renewal of their cinema, which in turn became the renewal of cinema the world over10.

18In East Europe, the renewals were sporadic. In the fifties, Poland’s Andrzej Wajda, in Ashes and Diamonds, enlarged upon the political subjects developed by the neorealists and in so doing advanced the ability of film to create committed political drama. In the sixties Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia each produced major figures, and in the late sixties filmmakers in Cuba, Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America seized upon the narrative devices being developed in Europe and pushed them further, picking up where Eisenstein had left off, mixing his methodology with Godard’s, allowing film to function as part of their society’s political structure. In all, it was a period when the major threads of film history were picked up and rewoven, when film was rediscovered as a means of expressing the individual imagination, an analytical tool able to explore self and culture. It was a time as well when filmmakers believed the audience able and willing to join the task.


19In the last chapter I pointed out that one of the main conventions cast aside by the neorealists was psychological realism, the explaining and analyzing of character motivation through conventions of guilt, love, jealousy, revenge, nobility of spirit, and various other emotions that in melodrama are substituted for specific investigations of human behavior, conventions satisfying and convincing only because of repetition, acceptable only for want of alternatives. Alternatives were needed both to conventional melodrama and to neorealism itself. Filmmakers could not be restricted to observation of the social conditions of the working class; what was more, as middle-class artists, they were compelled by tradition to seek methods of exploring and analyzing individual consciousness (of all the traditions broken by modernist cinema, this was the most difficult and resistant). So, among the first endeavors of the post-neorealists was an attempt to reinvestigate the middle-class soul, to avoid the conventions and clichés of romance and comedy, and to discover how to use narrative images to establish subjective states rather than merely allude to preexisting stereotypes.

20Two Italian films, Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il grido (1957), signal some early moves in the reinvestigation process. Voyage in Italy is among the group of melodramas, also including Stromboli and Europa 51, that Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman. Its subject could not be more mundane: a wealthy, middle-class, middle-aged couple, Catherine and Alex Joyce (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), discover on a trip to Naples that they are bored with each other. Alex goes off in search of other women; Catherine wanders and sees the sights of the town. In the end they are reconciled. The banality of the subject is overwhelming, and Rossellini attempts to diffuse it by focusing not only on the characters but on the landscape that surrounds them, a landscape to which he makes them subject. The film becomes a three-way dialogue between Catherine, her inarticulate grief, and the world that surrounds her and provides her voice. She is subject to that world and made, along with the audience, silently to respond to it.

21Rossellini performs some important operations upon the neorealist aesthetic he helped develop. He is, obviously, concentrating on a social class the neorealists scorned; but he is still observing his characters as part of an environment and allowing that environment to speak as much about them as they do about themselves. More so, for in neorealist cinema the characters and their environment reflect one another. Here they are at odds. Alex, to be sure, seeks out places in which he is comfortable: nighttime city streets, parties in Capri. But Catherine tours the streets and the antiquities of the city, all of which are alien to her, surround and trouble her, and finally to some degree enlighten her. The characters are not so much defined by the landscape as they are set against it and changed by it, along with our perceptions of them. In the forties, Rossellini and his colleagues tended to look at both character and environment whole, to observe the character within the place. In Germany, Year Zero Edmund is within and part of the ruined streets of Berlin; they reflect each other and a greater condition of cultural ruin. In Voyage in Italy, Catherine and her surroundings are at odds, so much so that rather than portray the character within the place, Rossellini intercuts them, giving us Catherine gazing at things and showing us the things she looks at—statues in a museum, flaming lava pits, the bones in a catacomb, the Naples streets filled with pregnant women, a passionate and vital past and present.

22This editing defines both the film’s narrative direction and the character, a woman isolated from experience and history. Her troubled gaze is played against statuary in a museum which in turn is rapturously embraced by Rossellini’s camera, panning and tracking heroic figures while a tour guide drones a banal monologue. A three-way perceptual split occurs. We are shown wondrous, exciting sights, passionately observed by Rossellini; we gaze as well at Catherine’s mute and troubled face; and we hear the clichés tumbling from the mouths of the various tour guides, for whom the city’s treasures are a way to earn a living. They annoy us and frighten Catherine (at one point a guide forces her to pose like a prisoner in the caves; another shows her the lava pits that burst into smoke at the touch of a lit cigarette). The voyage becomes, finally, the spectator’s as well as hers as our perceptions are linked to and severed from Catherine’s continually. Point of view is set and broken from point to point. The climax of this counterpointing of seer and seen occurs when Alex and Catherine visit the ruins of Pompeii and observe the castings of body shapes that were formed by the ancient eruption. We watch Alex and Catherine as the forms of a couple appear. It is an astounding sequence of juxtaposition: an emotionally dead couple sees the reincarnation of a physically dead couple, a resurrection before their eyes and ours. It has an effect. Although they are still considering divorce, Catherine and Alex move off through a Pompeian street in a series of shots that show both of them together within a defined space, rather than separate from each other and their surroundings. They drive to Milan and their car is stopped by a religious procession. Catherine is moved by the faith of the people and their childlike innocence. She gets, literally, carried away by the crowd. Alex catches up with her and they both look at supplicants who have been cured by faith. They proclaim their love and embrace. The camera pulls away from them and cuts to the crowd of people going by.

  • 11 The most important analysis of the effects of the gaze in the shot/reaction shot style is Daniel Da (...)

23The problem with Voyage in Italy is evident from the verbal transcription of its end, for it finally yields to the banality of its subject more than it tries to compensate for it. But in the attempt, it pushes forward the possibilities for the cinematic gaze to create meaning out of the way characters react to what they look at. The film realizes the possibility inherent in the neorealist image to reveal states of mind; its images permit the spectator to fill in the silences that exist between the character and the landscape. The film advances upon the traditional Hollywood shot/reaction shot technique (look at character/look at what character sees/look at character reacting) by allowing a disjuncture of gaze rather than simply a suturing of the space between the character who looks, the thing looked at, and the audience who watches both11.

  • 1 Some historical circumspection is needed here: the American release version is about thirty-five mi (...)

24By keeping Catherine’s reactions separate from our reactions to the wonders we and she see, Rossellini opens a space in which we can come to an understanding of her character, her sorrow, and her anxieties, though none of these are verbally articulated as they would be in a more conventional melodrama1.

  • 12 What Is Cinema?, 11: 98.

25Rossellini asks the viewer to construct a response out of the dislocations that exist between the character and the environment before he fills in the spaces with a conventional reconciliation. When this occurs he again attempts to suggest an emotional response by means of what the characters and the audience observe, and attention is directed to that primary neorealist image, the street and its people. The surge of humanity in religious celebration is meant to release the anger and anxieties of the couple and return their faith and hope. Unfortunately the viewer’s perception of their emotional turmoil is not easily displaced by the sudden reconciliation and reaffirmation of the strength and faith of the ordinary people. The film betrays, like many of the neorealist works before it, a readiness to accept sentiment in the place of understanding. But that is somewhat beside the point. The importance of Voyage in Italy lies not in the resolution of its plot, but in the ways it investigates its characters through its images, and its request to the viewer to participate in that investigation by participating in the play of perspectives and points of view. Bazin says that the film creates ”a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness12. In recognizing this shift in the neorealist act of observation he predicts the coming of a new cinema in which the objective world will not merely reflect, but become a constituent part of the consciousness of character and audience.

26There is another element of importance in the film. It introduces a major thematic concern of sixties European cinema: the isolated and alienated hero and heroine. Ingmar Bergman had already been flirting with this subject in the forties, and it is difficult to trace direct lines of development, although there is a clear relation to the existentialist philosophy and literature that developed in pre- and post-war Europe, which itself has roots in the Marxist concerns with the alienation of labor and the reification of human activity. Alienation and disengagement had long been a subject of the modernist novel and can be seen in much of twentieth-century art, where connection, harmony, continuity are refused in both form and content. In film this theme is not only associated with these aesthetic and philosophic traditions but can also be seen as a negative inheritance of neorealism. The inability of the neorealist filmmakers to reach an understanding of the poverty and despair that was their subject and the pity and sentiment that became their essential reactions turned easily into expressions of impotence, especially when the subject of the modernist filmmaker was the middle class. In this case, the experience of filmmaker and character merged; the sense of removal from the world—figuring itself finally in a general neurasthenia, a numbness and fragmentation of the spirit—became a major character trait, and in some cases, a world view.

27The despair arising from historical catastrophe that Rossellini presented in Germany, Year Zero becomes, in Voyage in Italy, the despair of individuals who are cut off from history. The separation of Catherine’s perceptions from the things she perceives, her coldness and inwardness, the supercilious behavior of her husband work to create a withdrawal and silence between the couple and between Catherine and everything else. But, as I have indicated, the strength of the images is greater than the film’s thematic commonplaces, and the structure of their juxtapositions tells us more, non­discursively, than does Catherine’s voiced opinion of her condition (at one point she says she is sad because she is childless) or the religious yearnings that creep in at the end. Even more expressive are the disjunctures of which the film is made, the breaks in reactions and responses that enforce upon the spectator the need to make connections where the characters cannot. As a result, an interesting dialectic occurs that functioned through many of the films about alienation in the fifties and sixties. While the characters of the films are subjected to anxiety, ennui, despair, and rootlessness, the construction of the films demands that the viewer be actively engaged in finding his or her way among the very spaces in which the characters are lost. We are engaged in an act of discovery which the characters themselves are incapable of.

28Voyage in Italy is an important but incomplete film. Four years later Antonioni advanced the elements that Rossellini had just begun to consider. Il grido (”The Cry”) is not the best-known work of this filmmaker, who with LAvventura, La notte, and Leclisse in the early sixties entered the front ranks of international directors, his films articulating inarticulateness and the collapse of passion and engagement in the post-industrial West. His subjects of alienation, of anger and paralysis of the spirit, rapidly became a convention. But his formal achievements added considerably to contemporary film’s ability to structure meaning with and through the image. Antonioni came indirectly out of the neorealist tradition, and early in his career he demonstrated a desire to move away from the minimal formativeness of that tradition and its need to make the observed more prominent than the act of observing. In Chronicle of a Love Affair (1950), a sort of middle-class version of Visconti’s Ossessione, he is already concerned with expanding the possibilities of expressive framing and composition. His shots are unusually long and often complicated. The urban landscape occasionally overpowers the figures, diminishing them and making them one component in a larger structure. But unlike his later films, Chronicle of a Love Affair retains a concern with subject matter and plot (a woman wants her lower-middle-class lover to kill her rich husband) that Antonioni will eventually subordinate to a visual concentration, a desire to communicate information exclusively through mise-en-scène, the structuring of the space within the shot.

29Il grido is a measure of his early achievement of this aim. The film shares with the neorealist tradition an observation of physical barrenness and a concern about disenfranchised people in a forbidding landscape. Unlike neorealism, the poverty portrayed is not economic or even social, but emotional, spiritual (to use a desperately overworked term). The landscape, not quite urban, nor rural, is made up of the towns, roads, and flatlands of the Po Valley, an area of attraction for Italian filmmakers that figures in Ossessione, the last episode of Paisan, and an early documentary made by Antonioni. But the film is not about the Po Valley itself, nor its people. Antonioni uses both as material out of which to construct a series of observations of one individual drained of personality, energy, and desire. The narrative is in the form of an anti-journey. Aldo (played by Steve Cochran, dubbed with an Italian voice) wanders with his daughter from place to place, discovering nothing, learning nothing, eventually returning to the place from which he started and committing suicide.

30This plot description is liable to confirm the worst suspicions people have about ”foreign” films, that they are aimless and overwhelmingly depressing. That Il grido is in fact neither aimless nor depressing points out precisely what Antonioni is up to, which is a relocation of the narrative away from events and meanings the film may refer to, to those which reside in the images themselves and are largely inseparable from the images. It is true that Il grido is ”about” a character who wanders aimlessly and commits suicide; it is not an abstract film, lacking paraphrasable content. However, that content is brief, spare, and neither very satisfying nor important. The meanings seen—the meanings of the images, the ways the characters are placed opposite each other, in a landscape, in the frame that composes them and the landscape—are the meanings of greatest importance.

  • 13 The notion of closed form is similar to that of Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame (Garden City, N.Y. (...)

31In Il grido, and Antonioni’s subsequent films, paraphrasable content is diminished. It is difficult to detach a verbal summary from them; if detached, the summaries become clichés. Looking at the films’ construction with an interpretive eye creates an understanding that is available only from visual engagement. The films are closed forms, operating within the circuit created by their projection and the audience’s observation, with an effect similar to painting or photography. They do not subscribe to the ”realistic” conventions of American film (though Antonioni’s methods have an interesting relationship to American film noir), nor do they evoke an open, ongoing environment as does the cinema of Jean Renoir. Their connection to the world of ordinary experience is subordinated to the world created in and by their imagery13. In fact it is possible to accuse Antonioni of having more a photographer’s imagination than a filmmaker’s (he explores the possibilities and ambiguities inherent in the revelatory powers of the photographic image in Blow Up, 1966). But it would be more accurate to state that while he begins with the image and with the photographer’s knowledge that the image formulates bits of the given world into precise, imaginative expressions of that world, he has the filmmaker’s understanding of movement, of changing spatial coordinates, and of the ability of events to build on each other incrementally. He fully understands the possibilities of dramatic confrontation; but he is uninterested in the kind of confrontation that isolates the participants from their surroundings. Like many contemporary European filmmakers, he finds the closeup, in theory, of limited value (in other words, he and his colleagues use closeups from time to time, but in a very precise and calculated way, seldom at the expense of the environment of which the faces are a part). The characters inhabit a place, which is as important, perhaps more so, than the characters alone.

Aldo (Steve Cochran) and his daughter wander the flatlands of the Po. Il Grido. (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

32The habitation of Il grido is determined by barely graded gray tones. Mists and barren trees or a flat, gray horizon predominates in the exteriors. The interiors are composed so that people move behind doors or furniture, or are marked off from one another by objects in the frame. And the characters will often leave the frame before a shot is over, removing their presence, emptying the shot, which nevertheless remains before us, demanding our attention. Il grido follows the path of a gray, obstructed character, a working man spurned by his lover, the mother of his child; he moves through various landscapes, from woman to woman, drained further of self with each step he takes. The landscapes measure his emptiness. At one point Aldo and a woman he has met are seen on a flat, featureless marsh. The only objects present, beside the two figures, are a rowboat and some decoy ducks. The woman examines one of the decoys as Aldo, walking forward and dominating the frame, talks of what he considers was a better time, his life in Ferrara with his lover, Irma. The woman walks forward and joins him in the frame as she asks what kind of story this is, a story that seems to have no end. They turn and there is a cut to a reverse shot of the two, the landscape the same as it was, surrounding them with stretches of gray. The camera pans with Aldo as he moves away, isolating him as he continues his reminiscences. There is then a cut to the woman, herself isolated, telling of a miscarriage and a hoped-for marriage that never happened. The sequence ends with a distant shot of both, small in the frame, their backs turned to the camera, walking off into the distance.

33In description, the events seem schematized, forced, and symbolic. The decoy ducks, the empty spools of telephone cable among which Aldo and another woman attempt to make love, a gray field full of mute old men among whom Aldo’s little daughter wanders—these objects and movements sound contrived outside their visual and narrative context. Within that context, however, they express Aldo’s emotional states, obviating any other analysis or means of understanding him. It is just here that Antonioni’s advancement of the neorealist premise can be seen most clearly. The neorealists politicized the image, articulating the simple and sad relationship of poor people in a poor environment, concentrating on their attempts to carry on a life within it. Antonioni psychologizes the image. The characters’ environment in Il grido is no longer the location of their social-economic reality, it is the reflection, or better, the correlative of their emotional reality. More than that, it actually creates the characters, because we know them only by the way we see them in their surroundings. Thus a curious thing happens within the dialectics of film history. It is as if Antonioni reached through the neorealist frame back to the expressionist movement of the late teens and early twenties, merging both in an unusual hybrid. The neorealists disallowed the use of studio sets; the expressionists depended on them. Theirs was a set designer’s world of painted backdrops, painted shadows, and plaster trees. The distortions of environment they created to reflect the emotional distortions or mythological worlds of their characters were made to order, static and staged. Antonioni begins with a place that exists and so arranges his characters in it and his camera’s approach to it, so treats it with lights and lens, that he molds the ”real”— the preexistent material he finds—into a mise-en-scène that affects, explains, amplifies, and corroborates the characters. The ”real” world is given an expressive form (and here is where the relationship with film noir occurs, although the intentions of those who created the American form were different from Antonioni’s).

  • * Many years ago, when I was deeply impressed with Blow Up and head over heels in love with cinema, I (...)

34When, with Red Desert (1964), Antonioni began filming in color, he did not hesitate to interfere with his locations in more drastic ways, using paint when the existing colors were not expressive enough. In Blow Up, a photographer photographs two lovers in a park. Enlarging his pictures, he discovers what appears to be a murder. Late in the film, he returns to the park to look for the body, which of course is not there. The story goes that Antonioni filmed the sequences in chronological order; when he and his crew returned to the park for this sequence, the season had changed, so he had the grass and trees sprayed to match the color of the earlier sequence and enhance the mood.* This tinkering has no relation to the expressionists’ construction of visual design in a studio. Antonioni expresses emotion and situation out of the given world and in so doing opens out the neorealist image—or better, opens it in, makes it not only reflective of the state of the characters, but responsive and profoundly related to them. And the audience, to a greater degree than in the work of the neorealists, is asked to read the image and work out the complex relationships between character and landscape.

35But is this expression of emotion through the environment in addition to, or in place of, the political component of the neorealist image? At the end of Il grido, Aldo returns to the town he left at the beginning. There is political turmoil as the people of the area fight the government’s desire to build a military airport. The town is blocked off by the police, and Aldo has to run their barricades to get in. A parallel is set up. The town is blocked by political action and Aldo is blocked by emotional inaction; the political activity is of no interest to him. In fact Aldo’s physical movements are set against those of the townspeople, who move in the opposite direction. After he sees his former lover with her newborn baby through a window, he walks to a refinery tower, an enormous structure that dominates the town, climbs it, and falls or jumps. The film ends with a high shot of the townspeople running in the distance as the camera pans over Aldo’s body, his lover kneeling over it.

36This is a gambit the neorealists avoided in their various attempts to integrate the lives of their characters with larger political or social realities. Antonioni, working in the tradition of the middle-class narrative, is more concerned with the individual and particularly with the ways in which the individual is so overwhelmed by his or her despair that collective action, political action, is rendered impossible. The ”politics” of Antonioni’s work is, like all its elements, contained within the complex imagery and the movement—or lack of it—of the characters. That Aldo is oblivious to the militancy of the townspeople, that his physical movement is contrary to theirs do not constitute an ignoring of political activity on Antonioni’s part—no more than the infamous sequence in Red Desert where a man addressing a group of concerned workers is interrupted as the camera— assuming the man’s distracted gaze—drifts away from the group to follow a blue line up a wall. In both cases the statement is in the contrast, in the inability of Antonioni’s characters to get out of themselves enough to take part in communal activity. The often-discussed ”alienation” of Antonioni’s characters is a result of the way they are blocked by their inability to confront and understand themselves and their environment; they bend and collapse under the weight of their own anxiety, which corresponds to a cold and obdurate physical and social landscape that the characters might change were they not rendered impotent by it. When Antonioni moves from the exurban setting of Il grido to the urban and industrial characters and environments of the later films the blockage and collapse of the individual become extreme. The characters are part of, and undone by, architecture and its sterile lines. The monumental forms of the contemporary world are the signs of their entrapment and isolation; they become reduced figures amid landscapes made barren by the artifacts of cities and heavy industries. Despair and impotence replace communal activity entirely, and emotion collapses into entropy.

37At the end of Leclisse (”The Eclipse,” 1962), the last and best film of the early sixties trilogy, the characters disappear altogether. The final sequence serves as a coda to a large-scale work on desiccated love and the dehumanization of the stock exchange, a work which is really about the human figure being displaced by the architectural and economic forms it has created. Near the end of the narrative proper, a woman (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s archetype of the upper-middle-class woman immobilized by things, status, boredom, and depression) and her lover, a young stockbroker (Alain Delon), part, promising to meet that evening. They have been making love in his office, and when she leaves, he hangs up all the telephones he has taken off their hooks. One by one they start ringing. His papers begin blowing. He becomes inundated by the material of his work. Antonioni observes the woman downstairs, her figure, as so often in the course of the film, blocked by a piece of her environment, a scaffold in this instance, then an iron grating as she goes out on the street. Throughout, Antonioni’s camera has subordinated her to the things that surround her. Now it succeeds in getting rid of her completely. It moves away from her to the trees over the street, seen through iron fencing. The camera returns to her standing beneath the trees, low in the frame; she looks around and then walks out of the shot. The camera again holds on the trees. There is a cut to a long wide shot of the street where she and her lover promised to meet, a street we have seen often in the film, but which is now more desolate than usual. A nurse pushing a baby in a pram walks by. The camera pans left to observe, in the distance, an enormous tower that was first seen earlier in the film, when its mass blocked the view from an apartment window. We see a building under construction, covered with massive bamboo mats. A water sprinkler is playing. In the shots that follow, various parts of this landscape are picked out, each new angle revealing another aspect of the intractable or unaccountable: the shell of the building covered with mats returns again and again; rainwater collects in a barrel and pours over into the street; a man rides by in a horse-drawn sulky, a mysterious figure, yet in context no more strange than the nurse and pram (which cross his path), or the buildings and light towers he passes, or the featureless people waiting for or alighting from, a bus. Another building appears, white and angular, like an abstract painting, except that, in a closer shot, we can make out the heads of two people on the building’s roof, pointing to something in the distance.The water flowing out of the collection barrel (into which, earlier in the film, the man had thrown a matchbook, which we can now see, in various shots, sinking to the bottom) forms an abstract pattern on the street. There is a tight closeup of the side of an old man’s face, showing his jowl, part of an ear, and his neck; then a cut to the top part of his head—eyes and temple; and then a three-quarter profile as the camera slowly arcs around his face. Finally there is a cut to a low angle, below the man’s waist, continuing the arc until he walks off, out of the frame, out of consciousness. The camera picks up the corner of the covered building. The montage continues as twilight approaches. In the dark, people get off a bus. Street lamps go on. We see the covered building in the dark, and the sequence ends with a closeup of a street lamp, blinding in its brightness.

Monica Vitti at a window. The figure dominated by urban structures. Leclisse (frame enlargement)

  • 14 The notion of making strange, re-situating the familiar objects of the world so that we perceive (...)

38This montage lasts about six minutes and contains about forty-three shots. It has the effect of an anatomy of oppressive objects, human and inanimate; the structures and faces that make up an upper-middle-class urban sensibility, and which are, like that sensibility, indecipherable and inflexible. It is a montage of anxiety (in case we do not quite get it, Antonioni shows us a man getting off a bus and reading a newspaper with the headline ”Atomic War,” permitting a verbal message to permeate the images and play a wider and known anxiety off the bits of material that are anxiety-provoking in themselves). The things that surround us are made strange, visually detached from the context in which they would ordinarily go undetected and rendered impermeable to perception and understanding, their parts rearranged, in a linear version of cubist painting (though without the humor of cubism)14. The montage is a phenomenological act, a bracketing of material objects that does not reveal an essence but provokes in us an essential unease and dislocation in our attempt to make sense of them. What Antonioni does here is the opposite of the montage that the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu often employs. Ozu interrupts his narrative with shots of trees, gardens, a railroad station. But for him, they are images of continuity, of peace and stillness, meant to integrate viewer and characters into a structure of harmony. The montage that ends Leclisse is disruptive and discordant. Like the atonal sounds that accompany it on the music track, it forces us into a recognition of the oppressive weight of things that do not relate.

39Within the film, and for Antonioni’s work as a whole, the end of Leclisse is a summary statement of fragmentation and separation of self and world. Through no fault of his, the statement became a cliché of the early sixties, modified into a catch phrase, ”the inability to communicate.” Antonioni communicates very well, however, and his view is more complex than the cliché. He has been able to translate the cultural phenomenon of urban, upper-middle-class depression into the visual signs—the ”image facts,” to use Bazin’s phrase—of that phenomenon. In his best work, emotional and intellectual attenuation and obstruction are given their objective terms. Unfortunately for Antonioni, he has been unable to move very far from this strategy. In Zabriskie Point, an underrated film made in America in 1969, he attempted to overcome the blockage through a montage in which bourgeois encumbrances—a house, food, appliances, books—were blown to bits, at length and in slow motion. However, the montage is only a fantasy sequence. He attempted to update the sensibility of the paralyzed self in The Passenger (1975), a film about an identity crisis so severe (a newspaper reporter, played by Jack Nicholson—a seventies figure of tortured identity—borrows the persona of a gunrunner in Africa) that, at its end, the camera literally uproots itself from the character, denies his very presence as it drifts through his room, out the window, into the street, leaving him out of sight as he is killed.

40Though Antonioni was unable to move far beyond his initial insights, his expression of those insights helped build a foundation for the development of European film in the sixties. The fragmentation of the mise-en-scène into small, intractable bits of an obdurate cityscape at the end of Leclisse is a definitive statement of the modernist sensibility and a reevaluation of the neorealist style. It is, technically, a montage: a juxtaposition of images whose ultimate meaning is greater than any of the individual shots that make it up. But montage was a technique in some disrepute at the time, indeed ever since the neorealists called for an unobtrusive and unbroken look at character and place. A further understanding of the controversy surrounding montage will help us understand the aesthetic concerns that went into forming the new cinema.

41The question of montage had been of crucial importance since Eisenstein, who saw it as the structuring principle of film, allowing the filmmaker to create dynamic movement out of the raw material of the shot. In American cinema, non-dialectical montage—editing to create a strict continuity of space and time—did become a structuring principle. This was not the Eisensteinian principle of the collision of shots that would enhance and mold a revolutionary perception, but a harmony of shots that would lead the spectator through a simple and closed world. From the early thirties, however, Renoir and other European filmmakers were working against both the Eisensteinian and American principles of cutting in favor of the long take. The neorealists extended the actual length of shots to some degree, and extended further the earlier reactions against cutting as a manipulative force, a means of directing the spectator to specific items in the mise-en-scène, preferring rather that the wholeness of a given space (as opposed to the preordained completeness inherent in American continuity cutting, which is a different matter) be observed by the filmmaker and communicated to the viewer.

  • 15 What Is Cinema?, I: 27.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 26.

42André Bazin emerges again as a key figure here, for his appreciation and analysis of neorealism was part of his general aesthetic, which upheld the virtue of the long, deep-focus shot against the fragmentation and manipulation he felt was inherent in editing. His ideas were crucial, for as editor of Cahiers du cinéma, as guardian and guide of a group of young critics in the fifties, he laid the groundwork for the films of the sixties. I have emphasized that what the neorealists developed and passed on to their followers was a reliance on the image itself, a faith that the image, uninterrupted and barely tampered with, would reveal the world the filmmaker wanted observed. Neorealist theory fell directly in line with Bazin’s belief in the analogue nature of the film image, ”analogue” in the sense that it seems to correspond to the way we ordinarily perceive the world it records. ”The camera cannot see everything at once but it makes sure not to lose any part of what it chooses to see”15. The camera, the tool of the filmmaker, is the somewhat reluctant intermediary between the ”real” world and the ”real” image of that world. Any interference in its mediation must be done with thought and care lest the status of the image it records be damaged. Montage is the great threat to this status and may operate in the nature of a ”transformer’” diverting meaning so that it ”is not in the image.... [but] in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator”16. The image and the meaning it holds create, communicate, and must not be tampered with. Montage, by violating the image’s completeness, displaces meaning, makes it come from an ordering of images rather than from an unmediated perception of the barely mediated reflection of the world in the image itself.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 35.
  • 18 Ibid., pp. 35-40.

43To preserve the analogue state, Bazin would have the image imitate certain ways the eye perceives the world. He favors the use of the long take to permit an uninterrupted, undirected gaze at the figures and objects that are, first, before the camera and then before the spectator on the screen. Within the shot he favors deep focus, so that objects near and far are clear to the observer, thereby bringing ”the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality”17. By aligning the image with the phenomenon of unmediated perception and forbidding the fllmmaker to engage in anything but the most necessary manipulation of it, Bazin hopes it will capture all the richness and ”ambiguity” of reality. By ”ambiguity” he implies a multivalence, a range of possibilities in what is seen and interpreted in a film, a freedom for the filmmaker, and especially for the spectator, to elicit meaning18.

  • 19 Jean Narboni in Jonathan Rosenbaum, ed., Rivette: Texts and Interviews, trans. Amy Gateff and Tom M (...)
  • 20 See Brian Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), pp. 16-31.
  • 21 Narboni in Rivette, p. 81.

44Bazin’s theory has an ideological bias. Implicit is a notion that manipulative cinema—the cinema of montage—is authoritarian, while that of the long take is inherently democratic. While Bazin admired Eisenstein, he distrusted what he took to be the manipulative structure of his montage. He failed to note that what Eisenstein was doing was in theory not far from what he himself was looking for: ” ‘involving the spectator in the course of a process productive of meaning’”19. Bazin did not extend his theory of the image very far into a theory of narrative and of the way the spectator perceives the cluster of images (and sounds) that tell a story in film20. If he had, he might have seen more clearly that meaning is not transferred from ”reality” through the image, but produced by images in a narrative structure and perceived by a viewer who is always directed in some way by that structure21. This is a most important point, and transcends the shaky alliance of the cinematic image with the ”real world.” When we pare away the ideological and occasional religious effluvia from Bazin’s thought, and go beyond the oversimplified call for the realism of analogy, we discover in his aesthetic two major events: an attack on the editing structure of American cinema, in which a spatial and temporal whole is built up from carefully selected pieces of the image which are edited to create the illusion of completeness, and a call to the filmmaker to create images that invite the spectator’s active participation in comprehending them. The latter presents a healthy paradox. The film image must be true to the wholeness of ”objective reality,” but reality is not given to us by its analogue image, certainly not merely reproduced; it must be worked for, produced in, and read from the image.

45If we look again at what Antonioni was doing in the late fifties and early sixties, we can see the importance of Bazin’s insights. In Il grido, all commentary is contained within the images themselves. The editing is almost entirely functional, moving us from event to event, advancing the hopeless chronology of the narrative. Occasionally Antonioni will cut for effect, as when the comparatively violent action of a speedboat race is used as a contrast to Aldo’s becalmed spirit and moribund demeanor. But whenever possible, the commentary is kept within the frame. Aldo hears the noise of a prizefight going in a local club. When he goes to investigate it, we see the fight in the background, Aldo in the foreground; his stillness contrasts to the physical activity and, through the dynamics of the frame, drains its energy by diverting our attention from it to him. When Aldo’s girlfriend picks up the decoy duck on the marshes, Antonioni does not leap to a closeup and thereby does not force significance into the object or the action. Character and landscape work as internal complements to each other, commenting and reflecting. But there is no ”realism” here. We see objects, tonalities, and relationships in these images that we would be unable to see in ordinary experience. Antonioni is creating the objective correlative of an interior world, and whatever reality exists here and in his later films is the reality of the experience of his characters, whose anxieties are reflected in and reflections of their physical, social, and economic environment. Even more, they are reflections of the filmmaker’s desire to create the visual manifestation of those anxieties.

  • 22 The notion of the enigmatic code in a narrative, that which prods us into continuing by making us w (...)

46In short, Antonioni is a formalist, a filmmaker as concerned with the act of cinematic seeing as with using his vision to comment upon larger social and political phenomena. He invents images rather than records them. Even though he films on location and uses long takes, what the camera eye sees is not the physical reflection of a ”real world,” but a world perceived as the psychological and social manifestation of an individual state of mind and the emotional status of a class of contemporary Europeans. In the montage that ends Leclisse he does not deny Bazinian principles, but finds a way of breaking down objects and figures that allows us to see the whole of an environment that is forbidding and deadening. The montage does not analyze any of the causes of that deadening or offer an explanation as to why the environment should be forbidding. The fragments do not resonate widely into the cultural milieu the way Godard’s images will do. But even though they are the analyzed parts of a larger whole, they are not reductive. Each bears the weight of its own strangeness and oppressiveness and is as such complete. And so, too, is the entire section, for each shot is an increment of the last and a preparation for the next. The images are part of the narrative whole as well: they are both the presentation of and an answer to an enigma, to the question posed by the narrative at this point. What has happened to the two major characters of the film who promised each other to meet at the place whose physical parts make up the montage?22

47The montage responds to the question in dialectical fashion: they are the images. Throughout the film, Monica Vitti’s Vittoria has been observed dominated by the structures around her, caught off center in compositions that are dominated by a wall or a column or tower; she is composed against or behind a partition or door or grating. Now she and her stockbroker are displaced, eclipsed, by things which, curiously, become more expressive than Vittoria herself ever was. Like Eisenstein’s, Antonioni’s images counterpoint each other and our perception, analyzing and building a structure of structures, an architectonics. And that, finally, is what the film is ”about.” Not the difficulties in communicating, not a woman drained of vitality and emotion, not even the inhumanities of capitalism, but a particular way of seeing the human figure dispossessed by the structures it has created. The film is ”about” the way cinema can show us figure and landscape and comment upon their interrelation. In Il grido Antonioni psychologized the image. By the time he gets to Leclisse, he has gone a step beyond the political and psychological expressiveness of the image to a point where the image, while constructing a narrative, contemplates itself and its powers of creating forms, attitudes, states of mind and being.

  • 23 See Jonathan Rosenbaum, Tatis Democracy, Film Comment, 9 (May-June, 1973), 36-41; Lucy Fischer, (...)

48Bazin never quite made the leap from a consideration of images that reflect the ambiguities of the ”real world” to those that reflect the ambiguities of their own existence as images. But this was, in retrospect, an inevitable movement for the post-neorealist filmmakers to make. Freed from conventional editing, committed to acts of extensive cinematic observation, they could begin calling attention not only to the world they observed, but to the act of observation itself. Bazin believed that the long take could create a film image that would be analogous to the spatial and temporal continuity of the world as directly perceived. He chose not to be aware of the fact that the longer we gaze at an image the more we become aware that we are gazing at an image and not a replica. Anyone familiar with that archetype of the long take, the kitchen sequence in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, where Georgie Minafer stuffs himself with strawberry shortcake while teasing his aunt to hysterics, knows the effect. As the sequence builds, the camera staring impassively and at length, we get caught not only in its drama, but in its very presence as an image of considerable duration. The image communicates both the building drama within it and its own existence as communicator of the drama. Or consider Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), a film that seems to be built directly on the Bazinian model. Here complex, multi-faceted comic episodes—based on tourists set loose in a modern and sterile Paris—are created in takes that are long in duration and wide and deep enough to include many details. They invite us to pursue every bit of the image, searching and re-searching the shots, which are never exhausted even on repeated viewings. Few films in contemporary cinema demand (so genially) so much of our gaze, and few films have so little direct relationship to a preexisting ”reality.” For one thing, nothing in the film is ”real.” The sets were built specifically for the film, and Tati emphasizes their artificial reality to the point of using cardboard figures in the background of many shots. More important, the effect of the component shots, as well as of the film itself, is gained by the most careful manipulation of spatial and dynamic coordinates, so that finally it is the cinematic design that forms our perception. Playtime is not about tourists and sterile architecture as much as the effects of line, arc, and circle on movement, perception, and community; it is a film about reflections and images and the cinematic creation of space23.

  • 24 Analogue and digital theories of language and communication are numerous and complex. One source is (...)

49What is missing in Bazin’s notion of cinematic perception, but present for the filmmakers who followed his ideas, is the recognition of another term in the process of perception, the ”digital” term or mode24. We see the content of the image in a way that seems analogous to our perception of such events ”in real life.” But we also see the image, or the chronology of images that make up the narrative, and may (depending on the film or our perceptual alertness) become aware that they are not ”real life,” but discrete constructions, made up of elements specific to cinema—lighting, angle, composition, movement, gesture, sound, and cutting, even elements of theme and character that exist only in film—which combine in ways that suggest a reality we are familiar with, but are certainly not that reality. We ”read” and translate these elements, and in fact the perceptual process in film usually moves from analogue to digital and back to analogue again, from the immediate association of the image with a ”reality,” to a recognition of discrete cinematic elements that construct that image, then back to a reintegration of the construction with the elements of our world that we recognize in the image. The perceptual process is never clear cut and most often we are not aware of the ”digital” mode of our perception. In fact traditional cinema tries its best to erase it and succeeds by using that element most indigenous to its means of construction, cutting. In other words, by fragmenting its images in a way that can be executed only by the methods of cinematic construction and never in ordinary perception (notwithstanding some old and silly arguments that cutting is analogous to blinking), it creates an illusion of continuous, ”analogical” perception. By calling for the removal of that illusion, Bazin, perhaps unwittingly, freed cinema to reveal its nature as mediator, as something that might speak from, of, and to our realities, but in so doing change them into its own structures. In forcing recognition of formal properties, placing them into the foreground so that the spectator must confront the methods of producing meaning as well as the meaning produced, Bazin’s theories helped generate the modernist phase of narrative cinema.

50There is one film that stands as the model of the modernist endeavor in its foregrounding of the ”digital” mode, a film that teases, provokes, circles, fragments, bores (in both senses), promises, integrates, and leaves us, despairing of meaning, with nothing but its own images. Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) created on its appearance an enormous amount of discussion that continues to this day. It was the first film to bring together many elements of cinema modernism and place them, defiantly, in commercial distribution. On this level alone, Marienbad is a wonderful joke and an act of cinematic aggression. Posing as a film for a large (though not mass) audience, distributed through the ordinary channels for ”art films” of the time, it thereby offered itself to the usual critical scrutiny, which meant endless discussions of what it was about. Did a man meet a woman at a fancy spa the year before, as he keeps insisting to her and to us he did? Were they lovers or did he rape her? Is she married to someone? Do the man and woman leave together at the end? What is the meaning of the match game played by the woman’s husband (if he is the husband) that only he can win? Which events in the film are flashbacks? Flash forwards? Fantasies? If they are such, what is the measure of their continuity with the ”present” time of the narrative? These speculations about meaning abound whenever the film is projected. If plot and story are the thing, if psychological motivations are thought to be what best explains character, then Marienbad is a minefield, offering the viewer many spaces to transgress and threatening disaster at every step taken. Marienbad is a subversive film, and its first act of sabotage was to present itself in a manner that would engender discussion of its story when in fact the ”story” is not what the film is ”about.”

51What Last Year at Marienbad is ”about” is the way we look at film and the way film regards its subjects, the characters in it and the characters who watch it. It is about the creation of cinematic narrative and the conventions that have developed through the history of that creation. Rather than posing and answering the usual narrative questions, such as, Who are these people? What are they doing? What are their reasons for doing it? it poses new questions altogether: Why are these people? Why are they here in this spa, or elsewhere, or anywhere? What are our reasons for observing them observe each other? When one person in a film looks at another, why does that imply spatial or temporal connection between them? Who is in charge here, anyway? The film has a narrator, the man who tries to convince the woman that they met last year. He is perfectly unreliable. The words he speaks and the actions that occur—seem to occur—are related only in a realm of possibilities. At one point, during one of the camera’s many slow drifts through the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel where most of the action occurs, the narrator comments:

  • 25 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p (...)

... and silence too. I have never heard anyone raise his voice in this hotel—no one... The conversations developed in the void, as if the sentences meant nothing, were intended to mean nothing in any case. And a sentence, once begun, suddenly remained in suspension, as though frozen by the frost
... But starting over afterwards, no doubt, at the same point, or elsewhere. It didn’t matter. It was always the same conversations that recurred, the same absent voices. The servants were mute. The games were silent, of course. It was a place for relaxation, no business was discussed, no projects were undertaken, no one ever talked about anything that might arouse the passions. Everywhere there were signs: Silence, Quiet25.

52This could be an allegorical description of conventional cinema—the same conversations, the same absent voices, a place for relaxation where passion (as opposed to manufactured emotion) is never raised. It is not such an allegorical statement, but no matter; it does speak to the deadness of the imagination that must be resuscitated, perhaps by violent dislocation, which is the theme of Marienbad, if the film can be said to have any theme at all.

  • 26 For the concept of play in the film—and a reading which is generally close to this one—see Alan Thi (...)

53Spatial and temporal coordinates, so carefully organized and made continuous in traditional cinema, are exploded in Marienbad. Every shot and every cut constitutes an enigma, makes us question where we are and why. Instead of the formal organization of material disappearing behind the story created by that organization, the reverse happens and the ”story” becomes that formal organization which, like the narrator’s harangue, will not leave us alone. The film becomes a sort of terrorist attack against the concept of the gaze, the relationship of looks from character to character within the fictive space, and from the observer to that space. In Marienbad the trustworthiness of the eyeline match and the comfortable situating of the spectator has been done away with. There is a great deal of play in this (as there is in much terrorist activity). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet are fully aware of their provocations and acts of discomfiture. They prod us to expect the conventional, and relish making us squirm when they overturn the expectation at every instant26.

  • * Robbe-Grillets introduction to his screenplay is the best indication of the closeness of collabora (...)

54Early in the film, in a shot of one of the corridors, we can just make out on the right of the frame, in shadow, hovering with its feet above the ground, looking in the direction of some guests, a life-size cutout of Alfred Hitchcock! Resnais shows his hand. One thing he is making is an abstract critique of the ideal Hitchcock film. Marienbad is a thriller, or at least the idea of a thriller. All sorts of extraordinary deeds are suggested (though never shown or proved). Like a good Hitchcock film, this one has a MacGuffin, that item which concerns the characters, but is of no real importance to what is going on. In this case it is the answer to the question of whether the man and woman met last year at Marienbad. Like Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, Marienbad concerns a man who attempts to make over a woman into his own ideal image of her, who creates her and a setting for her. Like Stagefright it has a flashback—many flashbacks, though they may not be flashbacks—that lie. Possibly. Most important, like any good Hitchcock film, Marienbad is about perception, about the way characters look at each other and concoct versions of each other from what they see. Like Hitchcock, the author and auteur of Marienbad play with the spectator’s look, fooling, confusing, disorienting us.*

55What delighted the French about Hitchcock (and they were the first to articulate the complexities of his work) was his ability to indulge in complex inquiries about perception and to toy with character and audience, thereby subverting the basically conventional models of cinematic storytelling within which he worked. Rather than undermine traditional structures from within like Hitchcock, Robbe-Grillet and Resnais create an unconventional structure while embedding fragments of the conventional one within it. Whenever the man and woman in Marienbad exchange glances, whenever there is a shift in time or space, the old codes, the promises of conventional continuity, rumble beneath the glance and gestures, but are repressed. In the next instant, we are again reminded that our expectations about narrative continuity are based only upon what movies have told us to expect. When character A, on screen right, looks with eyes directed outward, and in the next shot character B, on screen left, looks with eyes directed inward, only two things assure us they are together, talking to each other: the fact that we may have first seen them together in a two-shot and the fact that in previous films such a cutting structure has always indicated two characters speaking to each other. When a character refers to a time past and we then see a new place—a room or street we have not seen before—we assume this is the place the character has referred to. Film after film has convinced us of this, usually with the guiding sign of a dissolve from the character to the place. In Marienbad, such assumptions are taken precisely as assumptions and their validity is always questioned.

  • 27 Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad, p. 12.

56Also questioned is the convention of explanation, the convention that says all enigmas will be solved by film’s end, all characters and all motivations will be understood and given meaning. Robbe-Grillet, perverse as always, says about the characters in the film, ”We know absolutely nothing about them, nothing about their lives. They are nothing but what we see them as... Elsewhere, they don’t exist.... [The] past, too, has no reality beyond the moment it is evoked with sufficient force; and when it finally triumphs, it has merely become the present, as if it had never ceased to be so27. Perverse and perversely literal. The fact is that in any film (any narrative fiction for that matter) the only thing the characters are is what we see them as when we see them. Especially in film, which is poor in grammatical past tense, the past has no reality beyond or before the moment it is evoked. What is seen on the screen is, now. That is why flashbacks have traditionally needed to be introduced verbally by a character and by specific devices, like the dissolve, and in particular the ”de-focus dissolve,” as if the past were emerging from the haze of memory. But in Marienbad time and place are undifferentiated; they are all present and all partake of the specificity of the cinematic image, whose space and time are only there, only in the image itself.

The static cinematic memory, with and without shadows. Last Year at Marienbad (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

57To a greater degree than Leclisse, Last Year at Marienbad is a film about film, about its nature and its narrative conventions. It is also about the imagination, ordering up its creations to do this or that, with the proof of their activities only within the imagination itself. The film’s narrator is in fact a voice of the imagination, questioning its own creations, attempting to determine the reality of their actions, the solidity of their being. The audience too, even more than the characters and their activities, becomes the subject of the narrative. We are subjected to it and act in it. Our reactions, our psychology, our past and future are more important to the narrative than those of the characters, for the film asks us to aid in its creation, while questioning the validity of that creation at the same time.

58All of this makes it a film greatly to be admired, but not loved. It is an exercise of importance, but its insularity, its absolute removal from any world but that of its own making, its denial of emotional response and its continual frustrating of intellectual response greatly reduce its significance. It was Resnais’s job in the films he made after Marienbad to expand upon the significance of his images. In his next film, Muriel (1963), the complex play of time and memory that goes nowhere in Marienbad is rooted in the destructive recollections of war, the Algerian war in particular, which injured the French the way the Vietnam war injured Americans. La guerre est finie (1966) turns memory inside out, studying the perceptions of a Spanish radical who confronts his role as an aging revolutionary suffering persistent failures and attempting to deal with the work of the New Left. With Providence (1977), a film written by the British playwright David Mercer, Resnais returned to the ideas of Marienbad, this time explicitly and literally focusing on a writer who keeps creating a narrative landscape, shifting time, place, and characters to suit his needs and his disposition. But here there is a warmth and humor absent from the earlier works, Marienbad in particular. The operations of the imagination in Providence reflect a soul, a personality that is alive, angry, and troubled; the film reflects upon the politics of imagination, the way it exercises power. Providence humanizes the inquiry of Marienbad, its meditations on narrative tyranny, the tyranny of convention, and the ways that tyranny can be subverted. In most of his films after Marienbad Resnais attempts to focus his political concerns while keeping his narrative forms open, responsive, and challenging, although the interrogative processes of his work diminished in the eighties.

  • 28 Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 8.

59Marienbad is as important a work for sixties cinema as Rome, Open City was for the forties and fifties, not only for its formal experimentation but for the unyielding nature of that experimentation. In isolating itself from connotation it frees itself to examine its own forms. In frustrating its viewers it permits, out of that frustration, an awareness of the perfectly arbitrary nature of film form. What Robbe-Grillet and Resnais did in Marienbad, along with Antonioni’s work in the early sixties, effected a profound change in cinema. ”After 1960,” writes James Monaco, ”every film made, whether its director intended it or not, had to be seen with this dual vision: it was at once a story and a comment on storytelling....”28 Resnais and Antonioni foregrounded the digital aspect of the filmmaking process; they demonstrated that narrative filmmaking is a process—a transposition, in Zavattini’s phrase; and they wished to examine the transpositional act rather than, or as well as, its results. As a result the whole concept of realism was turned around. Instead of the image revealing the world, it revealed itself; instead of narrative being faithful only to the richness of experience in the story it conveyed, narrative became faithful to the richness of its own construction, to the way in which the story was conveyed.

  • 29 See Peter Wollen, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Pres (...)

60Much more than neorealism before it, modernist cinema attempts to prevent the spectator from slipping easily through the structures of presentation into an emotional world of character and action. Traditional cinema generates desire in the spectator and assures its satisfaction. The longings and sufferings of hero and heroine and the narrative that takes them and the viewer through the stages of emotion guide the viewer through an uninterrupted and unquestioning trajectory of cause and effect, while making certain that she or he will want and be able to follow the developing emotions. The modernist undertaking interrupts and questions narrative movement and the completeness of the fictive world it creates. It demands that the viewer account for what is being seen and felt29.

61This foregrounding of cinematic construction and the demand for active engagement on the part of the viewer opened two possible directions for narrative film. One, which allowed for the richest movement in contemporary cinema, was instigated by the French New Wave, moved throughout Europe and into Latin America, and has continued through the works of the new German cinema. These are the films that will concern us the most. The other direction is somewhat less influential, concerned only with the formal possibilities of narrative, often at the expense of what these possibilities can offer for our understanding of the experience encompassed or created by film, the experience of the contemporary world that film must embrace. I said that Last Year at Marienbad, for all its interest and importance, is insular, even and in its refusal to contemplate the significance of its images outside their immediate context. The images, while addressing the history of narrative film structure, do so with an obliqueness and opaqueness that threatens to close the structure down, render it unimportant. Marienbad is an irritating film. Its questions about the validity of narrative are posed through figures and gestures of such little relevance and concern that we finally have to struggle not merely with questions and analysis of spatial and temporal illusions presented by the filmmakers, but with why we should concern ourselves with such questions and analysis in the first place. Possibly Resnais hoped that, apart from the formal investigations, other meaning would emerge from the film, a meditation on the hermetic, ritualized world of the European upper class. But because the world created in the film is so thoroughly isolated and self-sufficient, we have little if anything with which to compare it in order to comprehend its deathlike state. Obviously I am asking the film to offer a coherent, paraphrasable content, something I said earlier must not be demanded. That original notion must stand. As much as the viewer desires Last Year at Marienbad to yield up conventional content, that much must it deny the desire.

  • 30 Cf. Thomson, Biographical Dictionary, pp. 566-67.

62But the denial can sometimes be counterproductive. Robbe-Grillet directed his own scripts in the sixties. One of these films, Trans-Europe Express (1967), demonstrates the modernist dead end. The body of the film is a rather conventional European thriller, with Jean-Louis Trintignant (an icon of sixties European film, the featureless mask upon which a director could impress any character he desired)30 as a slightly bumbling dope runner. Robbe-Grillet interrupts the narrative with his own attempts to discuss and create it. He and two colleagues sit aboard the train in which their hero travels, making up the story that the character takes part in. Of course the story tends to get away from them, complicate itself, and perhaps even backfire on the tellers’ intentions. Pirandello does it better in Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the film stands as an example of the poverty of experiment when neither the narrative proper nor its self-examination reveals an intelligent or enlightening discourse.

63Marguerite Duras, like Robbe-Grillet, is a novelist as well as a filmmaker. She too is part of the nouveau roman movement (which might very roughly and generally be defined as a phenomenological approach to the novel, narrating through description and ellipsis as opposed to character analysis—an essentially cinematic approach that enables its practitioners to move between novel and filmmaking with a fair amount of ease). Like Robbe-Grillet, she wrote a film for Resnais, his first feature, Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), a meditation on history and sexuality, the effects of time, politics, and national conscience on two lovers. Duras’s own films are not easy to find in the United States. One that is available demonstrates both the power and the failure of this particular branch of modernism. Nathalie Granger (1974) is a study of violence in which the only violent act is a child’s pushing her doll’s carriage into a tree. It approaches its subject—and only approaches, never confronts it—from its reverse side. Violence is only alluded to; quietness and immobility are the film’s structuring principles. The child, Nathalie, is said by her teacher to be more violent than is normal for her age, and is, presumably, taken out of school. However, all that we are permitted to see of the child reveals nothing to bear out the reports of her. On the radio, throughout the film, are other reports, of a pair of young killers on the loose in the area in which Nathalie and her mother, Isabelle, live with another child and her mother, played by Jeanne Moreau.

64The body of the film is concerned not with Nathalie, nor with the killers, but with long takes in which we observe Isabelle and the Moreau character at home, doing housework, sitting, burning leaves, looking at each other, passing a few words, and, in one extended sequence, staring at a washing machine salesman (played against type by Gerard Depardieu) who with increasing despair tries to sell them his product, only to discover (they never bother to tell him) that they already own one. He leaves to go on other fruitless calls (we observe him through the window going from house to house), returns to their house, wanders through its garden and its rooms, and leaves again. (His presence this time is threatening, but the threat never reaches fruition.) In one long final shot through a window, we see him get into his truck. A bicyclist rides by. A man with a dog walks in front of the house. The dog suddenly lurches back in fear. The salesman’s truck pulls away. The man with the dog turns and walks in the direction opposite to the one in which the dog saw something frightening. The film ends.

65Like Marienbad, Nathalie Granger is most concerned with the possibilities of the gaze. It is made up almost entirely of point-of-view shots of one of the women looking at the other, or of third-person points of view, where the camera assumes a position outside the perspective of any of the characters, or, at one point, a cat’s point of view, staring out the window at birds. In this relay of points of view, nothing is revealed. Faces and objects, carefully composed in hard gray tones by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, are studied and abandoned, or returned to in ritual fashion: a pile of smoldering leaves, power lines in an open field-symbolic content suggested but never commented upon or expanded. William F. Van Wert writes of Duras’s approach:

  • 31 The Cinema of Marguerite Duras: Sound and Voice in a Closed Room, Film Quarterly, 33 (Fall, 1979) (...)

In such extremely long takes with such static frames, the inattentive viewer goes to sleep or leaves the film. The attentive viewer looks at the directional gazes of the characters, the pauses in their speeches, the gestures of the eyes and hands and the music or found sound or other characters’ speeches on the sound track. Ironically, the camera immobility, in conjunction with the... sound and voices, creates an intensified viewing experience, often approximating through point of view and reaction shots the complete destruction of the shot/reaction shot... format traditionally used for conversations in film31.

  • * An interesting companion piece to Nathalie Granger is Peter Handkes delicate feminist film The Lef (...)

66As in Marienbad, the method of structure outstrips the meaning of what is structured, and there is an all but unyielding demand for attention to the structure at the expense of what could be, perhaps ought to be, happening in the frame. I may seem here to be prescribing what the filmmaker might have done instead of describing and analyzing what he or she has done. But in this instance I think it is fair to do so. Inherent in the modernist endeavor is the call for the traditionally passive observer to assume a new role, to open a dialogue with the work, engage it intellectually, and help complete it. A film like Nathalie Granger calls out for completion, for an extension of the meaning of its images-explanations of why the dog in the last shot pulls away in fear, what the deadening boredom expressed by the two women is all about. Likewise it calls upon the viewer to request something more from its images. Their insistent inexpressiveness finally expresses a certain arrogance. The filmmaker’s desire to place the viewer at a distance and refuse all comfort of emotional involvement—a comfort too easily won in traditional film narrative—risks removing desire. As Van Wert says, the viewer has the option of going to sleep or leaving the film, and if on some level the film removes the viewer’s desire to become engaged with it, the act of distancing could become a severing of all ties between film and viewer. This is a severe threat, but a conceivable response to conventional cinema’s threat to overwhelm us with irrelevant emotion.*

  • 32 Bergman on Bergman, pp. 29, 32.

67The work of the French New Wave turned the threat of modernist cinema into a provocative and energetic examination of the myriad ways in which film, world, and audience interact. Before looking at that work, however, I want very briefly to discuss Ingmar Bergman, the most famous of international filmmakers. His films of the mid and late sixties-including The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and A Passion (The Passion of Anna)—incorporate various modernist devices, but cannot quite come to terms with them. Bergman is the great melodramatist of contemporary European cinema, concerned with individuals in the cinematic throes of personal crisis, of doubt and loathing and sickness unto death. He has fitted out his characters’ agonies in a variety of forms: in the forties, he confesses, he was influenced by American film noir and neorealism;32 Eisensteinian composition appears in The Naked Night (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953); and gothic expressionism infiltrates much of his work, aligning it with some aspects of the horror film (consider the dream sequences in Wild Strawberries, 1957, and Face to Face, 1976; the castle and its leering faces in Hour of the Wolf, 1968; the rising of the dead in Cries and Whispers, 1972; and the mad scientist in The Serpents Egg, 1977).

68In the sixties, Bergman’s formal eclecticism drew him to consider the possibilities of reflexive forms that would distance the spectator from his melodrama and offer some perspective. Persona (1966) opens and closes with images of the cinematic apparatus, the carbon arc of a projector: at the beginning we see film running through the projection mechanism and fragmented images of a silent film, of a slaughtered sheep, of a hand with a nail driven through it. In an unlocalized space we see a boy on what appears to be a morgue slab; he rises and sees as if on a screen the merged images of the two women who will be the major characters of the narrative proper. Within that narrative, Bergman interrupts the action to bring us back to consciousness of its filmic reality. At one point the film burns and tears; at another he has a character deliver the same monologue twice. The first time the camera observes the person to whom she speaks, the second time it gazes over that person’s shoulder, looking at the speaker. The construction of the narrative itself is full of ellipses (more accurately, empty with ellipses); it lurches along the paths of its mystery—the bizarre relationship of two women, one an actress who refuses to speak, the other her nurse who speaks too much, allowing the actress to drain away her personality. The modernist elements here work toward mystifying the narrative; they are an effective gambit, but only a gambit. In any given sequence, once Bergman begins to concentrate on the interaction of the two women, the devices used to create distance disappear, and we are invited to partake of immediate emotion and psychological mysteries. The characters’ fears and agonies and Bergman’s fascination with them overtake any desire he might have to examine the way they are created. His desire to communicate the perverse pleasures of emotional confrontation outweighs his need to confront the intellect by denying narrative desire and its fulfillment.

69Despite the fact that his themes of suffering and the need for love are obvious, Bergman’s modernism belongs to the obscurantist wing of the movement. Much more than Resnais or Duras he wishes to create mysteries rather than solve them. He wants to tinker with form rather than explore it; manipulate his characters and our emotions, and too often cloak psychological clichés and truisms in the guise of metaphysics. His commitment to the forms of inquiry that enlighten the viewer about how a film creates meaning was small. By the early seventies his narrative style had returned to the straightforward presentation of overwrought emotions.


70The French New Wave avoided mystification and questioned melodrama. Their work is the culmination of the movement against traditional cinematic forms that began with neorealism, and the core of creative energy in the films of the sixties and early seventies. François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Luc Godard came to intellectual maturity under the tutelage of André Bazin in the fifties and began making full-length films in 1959. Their work was the result of profound engagement with cinema and its history, a point that cannot be stressed too strongly. Whenever a film critic talks about a figure or a movement prior to the New Wave, and whatever qualities of insight and analysis are attributed to that figure or movement, one must keep in mind that—with the rarest of exceptions (such as Eisenstein, Renoir, Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson)—the figures who most affected film form and content did so intuitively. Most of them, unless they came from a wider circle of artists and writers—as did Buñuel, for example, or Eisenstein—received their training and formed their ideas while working ”in the business.” As I pointed out, the neorealists’ movement was a convergence of theory and practice; but even here the theoreticians and the practitioners were different people. Rossellini, Visconti, De Sica were actively engaged in theater and film before and during the war. They did not step back from their trade and give it prolonged study before coming up with a radicalization of its means and ends. Neorealism was the result of many social, political, aesthetic, and intellectual forces at work at a fortuitous time. The effort was concerted, not premeditated.

71The work of the New Wave, on the other hand, began outside the film business, free of the commercial pressures and rapid compromises that business, even in Europe, demands. Which is not to say that these filmmakers were outside film. They were inside it; they developed their intellects with it; they viewed film for hours and days and weeks at a time in Bazin’s cinema clubs and Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque. When they weren’t viewing, they argued and wrote about film. They learned about film from studying it rather than creating it, and therein lies the importance of their education. Rather than learning to make images and narratives in the heat of production, under the aegis of a given tradition, the demands of convention, the unquestioning attitudes of well-used, easily executed and comprehended forms, they first observed these forms. They analyzed and judged. And their judgments were a surprise. Except for some isolated figures-Renoir, of course, Bresson, Jean Rouch, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Tati, Jean Cocteau, and, outside France, Dreyer, Bergman, and the neorealists-they had little but scorn for the filmmaking of Europe, and of their own country in particular.

72In April 1959, on the occasion of the selection of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows as the film to represent France at the Cannes festival, Godard wrote:

  • 33 Godard on Godard, ed. Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, trans. Tom Milne (New York: Viking Press, 1972), (...)

In attacking over the last five years in these columns the false technique of Gilles Grangier, Ralph Habib, Yves Allégret, Claude Autant-Lara, Pierre Chenal, Jean Stelli, Jean Delannoy, André Hunebelle, Julien Duvivier, Maurice Labro, Yves Ciampi, Marcel Carné, Michel Boisrond, Raoul André, Louis Daquin, André Berthomieu, Henri Decoin, Jean Laviron, Yves Robert, Edmond Gréville, Robert Darène... what we were getting at was simply this: your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is....
We won the day in having it acknowledged in principle that a film by Hitchcock, for example, is as important as a book by Aragon. Film auteurs, thanks to us, have finally entered the history of art. But you whom we attack have automatically benefited from this success. And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema.
We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are. Today victory is ours. It is our films which will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that. Fifteen new, courageous, sincere, lucid, beautiful films will once again bar the way to conventional productions. For although we have won a battle, the war is not yet over33.

73Godard sums up years of thought applied by his colleagues and himself to their own cinematic tradition. That the filmmakers he condemns are largely unknown to us now is a tribute to these perceptions of their banality, and even more to the films he and his colleagues made in the sixties, which all but eclipsed the works of their predecessors. The core of Godard’s statement, however, is not the attack on established commercial filmmaking in France (le cinéma du papa) but the approval of one commercial filmmaker in America. The comment about Hitchcock comprises an essential element of the New Wave’s discovery of cinema and their desire to elevate it to the status of individual expression, beyond convention, beyond the commercial demands of a studio, to make it the reflection of a personality. In their immersion in film and their attempt to discover how it exists as a unique narrative form, they came to a startling conclusion. The essential ability of cinema to tell stories through its images was to be found not in the ”quality” productions, based on literary texts, that were the foundation of French cinema, but in the genre films of Hollywood—the foundation of world cinema. That cinema—the movies—scorned by American intellectuals, indeed not very highly thought of by the Americans who made it, that cinema which had been, since the twenties, a kind of colonial power, dominating and influencing audiences and filmmakers all over the world, was now being held up by a few young French intellectuals as the response to the highminded, carefully made productions of their own country’s film industry. It was an act of perversity, of perception, and of need.

  • 34 Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Praeger, 1971).

74The need was to find a place of authority, a frame of reference, something to point to and say, ”This is what I mean when I talk about cinema.” The European figures of authority—Renoir, Bresson, the neorealists—were self-evident; they had control over their films, which were investigations as much as statements, examinations of the world they observed more than reconstructions of pre-fabricated ideas and forms. But this pre-fabrication is what Hollywood has always been accused of, indeed what I accuse it of; it is the very thing the neorealists fought against. Why then did the young French critics turn to it for inspiration and a weapon? For one thing, they were able to see in the work of a number of American filmmakers an ability to overcome the pre-fabrications, the generic conventions, the givens of a reactionary morality and zero-degree narrative style, to burrow in like termites (to use Manny Farber’s analogy) and discover in these forms new modes of expression34. The perversity of the French was their ability to perceive these triumphs not in the big productions of the major studios— for these were no better than the ”Tradition of Quality,” the quasi-literary, studio-bound, convention-ridden films of France—but in Howard Hawks’s and Jerry Lewis’s comedies, John Ford’s westerns, Raoul Walsh’s action films, and Alfred Hitchcock’s ”thrillers.”

  • 35 In 1957, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote a monograph on Hitchcock, one of the first large-scal (...)

75In such films they discovered two important things. The first was a continuity of content in the body of the work of one director. Recognizable characters, themes, situations kept reappearing no matter what studio the film was made for, no matter who might have collaborated on the script. The second, more difficult matter was a discovery of form. To find individual marks, traces in many instances, that demonstrated alterations in the uniform narrative construction of American cinema took and still takes a careful and dedicated eye. The formal strategies of the more assertive American filmmakers did stand out clearly. Bazin had already used Welles as a major example of long-take, deep-focus composition. John Ford’s organization of groups in a western landscape, his ability to turn image and narrative movement into a moral statement about community and individual obligation were clear to many people (to Welles himself, who studied Ford’s style). Not so clear (to return to Godard’s example) was Hitchcock’s particular place within the American structure. He was regarded by most as a ”master of technique,” able to build suspense and surprise an audience, and it took a considerable effort to demonstrate that Hitchcock was more than just clever, that he was profoundly involved in discovering, through the way he structured his films, the way film structured audience response and how that response revealed as much about an audience as about the characters in the fiction35.

76In the course of making such discoveries about Hitchcock and others, the French worked out a theory of personality and subjectivity. In response to what they saw as the pompous blandness of traditional French cinema, they described a vigorous plurality in American film. In the face of the assembly­line, producer-dominated, crowd-pleasing aspect of that film, they traced the features of individuals, directors who inscribed their own ideas and spoke individual variations of the common cinematic language. The French were particularly delighted with the inherent dialectic: anonymous studio production no longer anonymous due to the emergence of individuals able to use the system for their own ends; these ends in turn pulled back into the anonymous assembly line, altering and redirecting conventions. The tension between the individual and the line kept American cinema and the individuals responsible for it vital and thriving.

  • 36 John Hesss analysis, La Politique des Auteurs, can be found in Jump Cut, nos. 1 and 2 (May-June, (...)
  • 37 Truffaut, A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, in Nichols, Movies and Methods, p. 234.

77There is a certain bad faith in some of these arguments and analyses. John Hess has pointed out that the attacks on the French Tradition of Quality, particularly those made by Truffaut, were reactionary, condemning the films not only for their pomposity, verbal orientation, and deadness of style, but for their anti-bourgeois attitudes. In his 1954 Cahiers essay ”A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” Truffaut condemns these films not only for their inability to overcome their literary bias, but for their anti-clericalism and anti-militarism as well. Truffaut blamed the films’ impersonality not only on their dependence upon carefully worked scripts, but on their engagement in the political sphere as well36. To be fair to Truffaut, he does take care to point out that the filmmakers and the films’ general attitude are themselves bourgeois. He pointedly asks, What then is the value of an anti-bourgeois cinema made by the bourgeois for the bourgeois? Workers, you know very well, do not appreciate this form of cinema at all even when it aims at relating to them.”37 Certainly these films do not have the working-class orientation of neorealism. Still, this early statement of displeasure at film concerned with issues beyond the personal boded ill, particularly for Truffaut, whose own work suffers from his refusal to place his characters in the world and observe them as social and political as well as individual and emotional beings. It is a problem that becomes severe in films like Jules and Jim (1961) and The Last Metro (1980), both of which attempt to recreate a specific historical setting (the first World War and the Nazi occupation of France, respectively) and then forget the setting to focus on the romantic preoccupations of the characters.

78Another difficulty inherent in the argument of the New Wave emerges from its very perversity. The Hollywood film they admired, the struggle between individual creativity and studio control they celebrated, were phenomena that could only be admired and celebrated from afar. Critically, the French created American film. They gave it status, a taxonomy, a pantheon of individual talent. They discovered its thematic and formal structures and set up the models of analysis we are still using. Had they done nothing else their influence on film history would have been enormous. But when they turned to filmmaking they neither would nor could duplicate the American production process. Not only was the French studio system operating on a different and much smaller scale than the American, but the New Wave did not want to engage it. They did not admire the American production system as much as they admired the heroic endeavor of individual filmmakers in overcoming it. There was a great deal of romanticism in their attitudes toward Hollywood. Their desire was to emulate the individuals and not the system; but they had the historical sense to know that the individuals could not have survived without the system. When they turned to making their own films, they separated out the various components of the Hollywood phenomenon, choosing what they wanted and discarding what they did not need. The financial system of big-studio filmmaking was out. Large budgets to assure large profits meant large compromises. The French received limited funds from backers who were interested at least as much in the film made as in the money made from it and allowed the filmmaker all the control. Filmmaking for the New Wave, in contradistinction to both the French and American traditions, was a personal and independent effort. While the concept of the auteur (the director as guiding, creative force) had to be wrung from the production line of Hollywood, for Truffaut, Godard, and company it was a given, and each assumed the mantle with ease. Their rallying point was the words written by the filmmaker Alexandre Astruc in 1948:

  • 38 Astruc, The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo, in The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham (Garde (...)

... the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather... the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of film-making the distinction between author and director loses all meaning. Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. The film-maker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen. In an art in which a length of film and sound-track is put in motion and proceeds, by means of a certain form and a certain story (there can even be no story at all—it matters little), to evolve a philosophy of life, how can one possibly distinguish between the man who conceives the work and the man who writes it?38

  • 39 James Monaco draws interesting parallels between Astrucs notions of writing and those of Roland (...)

79”A true act of writing!” This statement, along with their discovery of American cinema, was the most powerful impetus for the French critics to enter production. Having given authorial recognition to American directors, they wanted now to assume that burden the selves and write in film, inscribing their personality and perceptions of the world directly into images and sounds, into narratives told them with film, in film39. Even more, this personal cinematic voice would speak, as Godard says, of ”things as they are.” Again, though, this statement conflicts with their admiration of Hollywood. American film can hardly be accused of speaking of or showing ”things as they are.” American film alludes to, transforms, modulates historical realities, but rarely confronts them, rarely observes them ”as they are.” This was the major argument of the neorealists, and Godard’s call parallels theirs, though his romantic sighs for ”girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day” bears little apparent relation to what the Italians were looking for in the forties. The neorealists called for filmmakers to allow the world as it is to inscribe itself on film; some Hollywood filmmakers attempted to inscribe their personalities upon, or within, preexisting conventions; the New Wave filmmakers wanted to inscribe their subjective views of the world directly on film.

80In working out the conflicts, they made wise choices and interesting combinations. As excited as they were by the promise of ”writing” with film, of giving direct voice to their perceptions in a cinematic discourse, they were aware of the theoretical nature of the premise. The physical apparatus of cinema makes such direct inscription a concept only. A pleasant room with typewriter or pen will suffice for the writer. But the filmmaker faces an array of technical equipment, much activity, and the necessity of dealing with (indeed directing) other people. Beyond this, like the writer, the filmmaker does not create from nothing. He or she must confront tradition, the multitude of conventions, the many discourses of the works that came before. The personality the filmmaker would inscribe on film must be informed by experience, insight, and analysis; it must be manifested in characters who are involved in dramatic situations.

81Their recognition of these problems and demands brought them back to the Hollywood auteurs. For Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Lang, and the rest it was, as I said, a question not merely of overcoming the studio’s pressure to conform and compromise, but of understanding the cinematic language being used by the studios and forcing it to respond to their own voices. When they began directing, the New Wave filmmakers were not ready or able to confront tradition with a commitment to observe a specific economic class and its concerns, as were the neorealists; but because they needed a base out of which to work, and because the experience they had to draw upon for making their films came largely from film itself, American film again provided them with assistance. They discovered in its generic richness parameters loose enough to permit movement and expansion but tight enough to offer them codes and conventions they could use and re-speak, or break if they wanted to. One wide, encompassing genre appealed to them the most: the gangster film—film noir—romantic thriller, that complex of statements, gestures, attitudes, characters, and camera placements that epitomized the high forties and early fifties in Hollywood. It was to this genre that most of the members of the New Wave turned when they began their work. After an autobiographical statement, a study of small childhood moments in The 400 Blows, Truffaut turned to it in Shoot the Piano Player; after a false start in Le beau Serge, Chabrol began his elegant Hitchcockian arabesques around the genre with Les cousins, Leda (A double tour), and Les bonnes femmes (all made in 1959); Jacques Rivette worked for three years on his two-hour-and-twenty-minute version of the genre, Paris Belongs to Us (1961). Godard confronted it head on with Breathless in 1959.Only Eric Rohmer seemed immune, although the urban peregrinations of the destitute hero in his first feature film, The Sign of Leo (1959), are linked to some film noir and gangster traditions.

  • 40 Godard on Godard, p. 175.

82I am not suggesting that these films bear any immediate similarity to Notorious or Lady from Shanghai, to Mildred Pierce, Pickup on South Street, Johnny Eager, or, to go back to the thirties, to Scarface. (”... I do like A bout de souffle [Breathless] very much,” Godard once said in an interview, ”but now I see where it belongs—along with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface.”)40 They are not imitations. They share some important elements with neorealism that divorces them instantly from the Hollywood tradition: they are shot on location; although they do not use non-professionals, they do employ players not well known at the time; they indulge, though in a somewhat different way, in the neorealists’ desire to use the camera as objective observer, allowing the action to play out before us rather than carefully composing and editing our point of view. Unlike the neorealists, they seriously challenge the Hollywood conventions of continuity cutting. In this one area the New Wave filmmakers’ love of American film turned into a confrontation. Their awe at its facility, its smooth and direct action, became a desire to question those qualities and seek alternative methods of narrative construction and, in turn, audience response to that construction.

  • 41 Ibid., p. 28. And see Monaco, New Wave, pp. 104-7.
  • 42 Godard on Godard, p. 39.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 40.

83Godard, as always, led the way. In his initial infatuation with American film as a critic in the early fifties, he questioned his mentor, Bazin, about the efficacy of the long take. He was taken by the affective power of the closeup, by the ability of American filmmakers to play upon emotions by tightening space through cutting, enforcing the viewer’s proximity to the image. In an essay entitled ”Defense and Illustration of Classical Construction,” he wrote: ”... The simplest close-up is also the most moving. Here our art reveals its transcendence most strongly, making the beauty of the object signified burst forth in the sign.”41 Like so many of Godard’s early statements, this is somewhat prophetic. Although he is addressing himself particularly to the emotive power of the face on the screen, his recognition of the sermiological fact of the screen image, the ability of that image to collect a large amount of emotional and cultural information and release it when placed in a specific narrative context, will be of great importance to his later development as a filmmaker. But at this point he was still struggling with some conflicting reactions. He admires the ease with which American film creates and directs feelings through montage. Yet elsewhere he also gives his intellectual assent to Bazin’s principle that the best cinema is that which allows the unmanipulated gaze of the spectator free access to the image. Later in the fifties, when he was already shooting short films, he pursued this problem further. ”If direction is a look,” he wrote in an essay entitled «Montage, My Fine Care [mon beau souci] ... montage is a heart beat....What one seeks to foresee in space, the other seeks in time42. This is not a new insight on Godard’s part, but it is a major attempt to seek an understanding of image organization that would take into consideration Eisenstein’s subordination of the image to montage, Bazin’s subordination of montage to the image, and American cinema’s subordination of both to the unobtrusive construction of a story. Again in an anticipation of his approach to filmmaking, Godard works out the problem dialectically: ”Knowing just how long one can make a scene last is already montage, just as thinking about transitions is part of the problem of shooting.... The montage, consequently, both denies and prepares the way for the mise-en-scène [the spatial organization of the image or of the entire film]: the two are interdependent.”43

84Not a breathtaking conclusion, but at least indicative of the attempt to understand the interrelatedness of the two major components of cinematic construction, the shot and the cut. When these reevaluations were put into practice, yet another dialectical struggle occurred, between the American genres the French were adopting and adapting and the new attitudes toward the formal construction of these genres. Godard and his colleagues sought a multiple confrontation with, and revision of, cinematic practice. The construction of a film is determined by the way it is shot and cut. These in turn are determined by the choice of the genre, which dictates content and the way content is created. Choosing a genre, like the gangster film, and then structuring it in a radically new way changes the genre, its character, and our characteristic reactions. In Breathless, Godard announces fundamental changes from the very first shot. The film opens on a newspaper—a newspaper advertisement showing a woman clad in lingerie to be exact—and by so doing denies us the immediate access promised by American film, which usually opens with a long shot of a place that establishes the area that will subsequently be investigated and analyzed through the cutting of the film. Instead our attention is instantly diverted, even though it is not yet diverted from anything. In the subsequent shots of the opening sequence, Godard gives us the signs of the gangster film in rapid succession. The newspaper falls, revealing a man smoking a cigarette, hat slouched over his eyes, standing before a gate on a city street. He is the perfect image of a movie tough, and in case we miss the codes of dress and stance, he removes the cigarette from his mouth and rubs his lip with his thumb, a gesture that Bogart occasionally used, thereby signaling to us the forties and one of its premier tough guys. The man exchanges glances with a woman on the street. She points out a car. He hot-wires it and drives off. There is a dissolve, the classic cinematic transition of time and place, and we observe the road passing in a shot whose continuity is cut into so that the movement is erratic, changing abruptly. There are various shots outside and inside the car. Our gangster sings and talks to himself; he addresses us as well. He is stopped by a policeman, whom he shoots. But the shooting is shown us in small, discontinuous bits. The camera pans down the gangster’s arm. The pan is interrupted by a cut to a shot further along the arm to the gun itself. It is cocked. There is a shot of the gun barrel. Then a cut to the policeman falling and the sound of the gun. Then a shot of the gangster running across a field.

85In the course of a few minutes of screen time, Godard has abstracted and broken down the signs of the genre and questioned the preeminence of our gaze into the fiction. He has brought the fiction and its method to the foreground by first scattering before us the basic things to look at—the gangster, his girlfriend, car, and gun—and at the same time not cutting those images into the patterns we expect to see. By refusing to allow an opening establishing shot he does not comfort us with an inviting overview of place. By surprising us with Michel Poiccard’s (alias László Kovács, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) direct address to the camera—he invites us to go to hell if we disagree with him—Godard impolitely reveals the presence of screen and audience. American filmmakers feared that if a character looked directly at the camera he or she would break the inviolability of the fictional space, the safety of the spectator’s anonymity, and reveal the gulf between the spectator and the illusory figure on the screen. But Godard goes even further than this when he ruptures continuity by means of the ”jump cuts” that persistently remove chunks of time and space from the action. He insists that the viewer look at the images and their arrangement and comprehend them, rather than pass immediately through them in search of a story.

  • 44 Ibid., p. 173.

86Breathless performs disruptions similar to those in Last Year at Marienbad (and, of course, precedes it), but performs them with more ease and grace, with less arrogance as well. Godard does not defy us to come to terms with his film; he is as seductive as any of the American filmmakers he so admired, playing his formal investigations and experimentations against movement and adventure, within the comfortable confines of a gangster film. He does not deny content. Even though he redefines the generic confines—creating a gangster self-conscious of his role and its cinematic antecedents, relishing it but anxious about it, suffering for love, betrayed by the woman he loves—the redefinitions remain within recognizable bounds. The recognition factor, however, is deceptive. Breathless is not zero­degree filmmaking, though it is an attempt to return to zero. All aspects of its style and its formal innovation are planned to attack preconceptions of generic movie-making, part of the plan shared in different degrees by all the members of Godard’s group (it must be recalled that Truffaut wrote the original story upon which Breathless is based and Chabrol gave technical and financial assistance to the filming). They were out to make a new cinema. ”What I wanted was to take a conventional story,” Godard said about Breathless, ”and remake, but differently, everything the cinema had done. I also wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of film-making had just been discovered or experienced for the first time.”44 The Godard of the early sixties was never given to understatement; but he should have added one important point. Breathless not only gives the feeling of cinematic techniques being invented, but also allows the experience of viewing to be rediscovered. There is a tension created by the generic expectations of the gangster film set against the discontinuity of the shooting. The dislocations of the opening; the long tracks of Michel and Patricia (Jean Seberg) on the street or talking in bed; the abrupt jumps within some shots as time is condensed while space remains the same; the jumps between shots, the ellipses that reduce the normal continuity between actions, all force the spectator to consciousness of a cinematic act being performed. The neorealists had made the viewer look at the image content, at people and events we had rarely seen on the screen before. Godard makes us look at things we were very used to seeing in cinema—a young hood, his contacts and his reluctant girlfriend, the police—and asks us to examine how these things are being looked at. Later he will ask why.

87Each of the other New Wave filmmakers enforced this new consciousness of the look. Rivette worked in an opposite manner from Godard. Instead of foreshortening events as Godard had done, he extended narrative detail and in Paris Belongs to Us built an enormous, labyrinthine structure of paranoia, murder, the search for a worldwide conspiracy. Rivette turns narrative into a practical joke: the more detail we see, the more clues and threats and possibilities that are laid out, the less we and the characters know. Here and in later films, Lamour fou (four hours and twelve minutes), Céline et Julie vont en bateau (three hours and twelve minutes), the first version of Out One (twelve hours and forty minutes—screened only once at that length), the magnitude of time expended on the characters is in inverse proportion to what we learn about them. Rivette expands emotional and physical detail the way Godard conflates cultural and generic detail; the experience of his films is like that of the fairy-tale children who drop crumbs along their path to find their way back home, only to have the crumbs eaten by birds. The analog is particularly apt for Céline et Julie (1974), which is a fairy tale about two young women who discover a haunted house. By sucking pieces of candy given to them after each visit (a latter-day version of Proust’s madeleine) they can sit at home and relive their adventures, ”seeing” them as if they were watching a movie. We learn nothing about the house or its inhabitants, except that they play an endless melodrama of love and violence; nothing about the young women, other than that they enjoy their game immensely and that the magic they dabble in may or may not have something to do with their experiences. We do learn a great amount about our own capacity to fit narrative pieces together and our desire for the pieces to be put into place. We learn that desire can create patience, and it is a mark of Rivette’s talent at arranging and timing his shots and of his direction of actors within the shot that he is able to keep our attention and desire, to delight us with the game even when no end to it is in sight.

The Godardian gangster (Jean-Paul Belmondo with Jean Seberg). Breathless (Museum of Modern Art Films Stills Archive)

88Although that desire is threatened by other modernist filmmakers, the New Wave directors insist upon maintaining it. In the counterpoint between familiar genres and the commentary they make on them and on the way we look at film in general, an active engagement between film and viewer is maintained that comes from a forthright wish to please. In Truffaut’s films, for example, the influence of Renoir manifests itself in an enveloping care for all the characters and the audience’s attitude toward them. In the films of Claude Chabrol the pleasure is derived from the exercise of a delighted malignity. He is perhaps formally the most conventional of his colleagues, somewhat less concerned with restructuring narrative means than with narrative ends. In the best of his work he entertains Hitchcockian concerns for the violence that erupts in the most unsuspecting and unprepared of bourgeois circumstances. Chabrol is not concerned with the gangster side of the Hollywood thriller, as is Godard in Breathless and Truffaut in Shoot the Piano Player, nor is he much interested in the Parisian subculture, at least not after Les cousins and Les bonnes femmes. More than the others, Chabrol’s eye is on the propertied bourgeoisie of the provinces or the Parisian suburbs, a class he is able to delineate by their gestures, clothing, and surroundings, by the visual design of their world. Chabrol has the finest eye for production design of any of his peers. While Godard has the best eye for cultural design, for abstracting the sign (in a literal and figurative sense) that sums up a social or political attitude, Chabrol can surround his characters with a habitation that defines them, or with an instrument—a pair of ice-cube tongs, a cigarette lighter, or something larger, like a dinner party—that announces their status and class inclinations.

89Like Hitchcock, Chabrol delights in the precarious situation of these inclinations, the ease with which they are toppled and the tenaciousness with which they are still grasped when the toppling seems complete. He is less concerned about the motivations for an act of violence than he is with his characters’ reaction to it and—like Hitchcock—with the way he can tune his audience’s reaction to the characters. In that cross-testing of reactions lies a great deal of play. Chabrol is not interested in winning over his audience, like Truffaut, or probing and challenging its ideas, like Godard, and certainly not with testing its endurance for narrative like Rivette. Rather, he is interested in testing the viewer’s and his own commitment to and endurance for melodrama. Most of his films concern overwhelming emotions in highly pressured situations. A psychotic killer, son of a proper and hateful bourgeois family in Leda, is attracted to and murders their lovely bohemian next-door neighbor. A lesbian relationship between a well-to-do lady and a street artist in Les biches (1968) becomes a game of domination and submission as the lady takes a male lover. Murder ends these films as it begins others. In Just Before Nightfall (1971), an advertising executive accidentally kills his mistress (who is his best friend’s wife) in a fit of sexual violence. The film then proceeds to examine his attempts to work out his guilt, a guilt only he feels, for he goes unblamed by his wife and the friend when they learn about his deed (however, it is suggested that the wife poisons him at the end). The pattern of Violette (1978) is woven about the acts of a young woman who kills her father and attempts to kill her mother. Its characters are working class, but Chabrol is not terribly interested in social-economic problems. The Nozière family are not only cramped in their economic and physical existence, but cramped emotionally. No explanation is offered for Violette’s anti-domestic behavior, though clearly her desire to escape the confines of little rooms and her parents’ mean life and live the pretense of being an upper-class courtesan is a contributing cause. But contributing causes are not the main concern. Violette’s movements through her life of sexual assignations, her preparation and administration of poison to her mother and father, and the details of her trial and imprisonment are the items of interest and delight.

90These plot descriptions sound properly gruesome and ridiculous, and those are the exact qualities that appeal to Chabrol. He understands what happens when melodrama is extended to its limits. When he can begin a film, as he does La rupture (1970), with a father smashing his small son against a wall, continue it with the wife being blamed as instigator of the act by the husband’s crude, arrogant, and rich parents, allow those parents to hire someone to blackmail the wife as the sexual temptress of a retarded girl, and end the film with the loony inhabitants of the wife’s boarding house coming to her rescue as she hallucinates on drugs administered by the blackmailer (who then kills the wife’s husband)—when such an increment of absurdities occurs, melodrama reveals its other face, which is parody, of itself and of our acceptance of such absurdities. Because Chabrol details each element with equal care and gazes upon the characters with a visual embrace that zooms, tracks, exchanges points of view, and defines each character, everything and everyone takes on moment and portent.Quite unlike Godard, and the early Truffaut, Chabrol does not attenuate his narrative, nor does he accumulate material in a linear fashion, as does Rivette. Rather he builds out each sequence with sufficient dramatic detail and a more than sufficient attention to spatial relationships among the characters. Within these dynamics, exaggerated just beyond the necessities of convention, melodrama turns on itself and the ludicrous is visible within the serious.

Domestic upheaval. La Rupture (Museum of Modern Art Films Stills Archive)

91Rivette’s is a hooking effect, a linking of sequence to sequence to sequence until an enormous interlocking linear pattern is achieved. Lamour fou contains extended sequences of a play rehearsal. A documentary film unit is recording the rehearsals, and Rivette intercuts ”our” view of the work with what the sixteen-millimeter camera sees. The effect is to send us back and forth, in and out. When these intercut and interlocking sequences are linked with scenes of emotional conflict between the major characters (the play’s director and his wife), the result is prolonged diffusion, the weaving of our reactions into a loose pattern that threatens to unravel with each 1 ensuing narrative stitch. Chabrol, on the contrary, knits very tightly, and instead of threatening an unraveling of our emotional attention, he induces a break. Like Hitchcock, he lures us further and further inside the narrative until we come out the other side and see it in all its moral intricacy and melodramatic foolishness. Excess forces a distancing and provokes that consciousness of means that is a primary effect of modernist cinema.

92In La rupture Chabrol creates a contemporary fairy tale of Beauty surrounded by any number of beasts. Their machinations against her and the madness of their blackmail schemes are so appalling that a point is reached in which our own sado-masochism takes over and we begin to enjoy their scheming, trusting that the film will be true to its genre and the woman will triumph in the end. When the triumph comes and the dotty women Hélène has been living with suddenly come to her aid, any guilt the viewer may feel over the perverse enjoyment of her trials is diminished by the joy at a new-found community of women aiding one another. Certainly a rare joy for Chabrol, and he attempts to mitigate it by ending the film with more violence and murder. In the process, he manages to address and expose some of our patriarchal attitudes toward women, indicate through exaggerating them the repulsiveness of those attitudes, and provide some fitting revenge. In his other work, he is more likely to end in an impasse, disallowing any resolution for characters or viewer. The combination track and zoom shot that ends La femme infidèle (1968) is typical. A subjective point-of-view shot from a man being led off from wife and home by the police (he killed his wife’s lover), it suggests fear and longing: he is drawn to his wife as he is being pulled away. Since it is a point-of-view shot, we share the visual frustration and uncertainty—and more. We share Chabrol’s refusal to permit a resolution.

93The acts of meanness, violence, and emotional terrorism committed by Chabrol’s bourgeoisie, combined with their guilt and desire for pity, demand big emotions. Chabrol provides these, but makes them foolish, with the result that one melodramatic requirement goes unfulfilled: spectator identification with the central characters. They are usually too cruel, ridiculous, simple, mean, or self-pitying to elicit an attachment of spectator feelings. Even Hélène in La rupture (the female lead of a Chabrol film is almost always named Hélène and almost always played by Chabrol’s wife, Stéphane Audran) is too put upon, her victory too outrageous to allow the viewer to feel more than amused horror and then bemused elation. Besides, spectator identification, by permitting the viewer entry into the fictive space that Chabrol creates and examines, would reduce the ability to understand that space and its inhabitants. Therefore, the big melodramatic emotions the films create are not allowed to connect satisfactorily to anything within the films and any attempt by the viewer to identify with a character is frustrated. We are permitted to view the conflict, not partake in it or resolve it. Contemplation ultimately replaces emotional participation. Chabrol exercises neither the intellectual rigor nor the intense ideological analyses of Godard. Like Hitchcock, his is the joyful rigor of making us understand how emotions are manipulated by film at the same time the emotions are being played out and played upon.

  • * Rohmer was the late starter of the original group. He did a number of short films in the fifties, a (...)
  • 45 For Claires Knee, I didnt look for locations to fit a story I had written; I found the places fi (...)

94Of all of the New Wave filmmakers, Chabrol is most consistent in this cat-and-mouse game he plays with traditional melodramatic forms; he set a pattern that was embellished in a different manner by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Truffaut never could get quite far enough away from his love for Hollywood to avoid the melodrama or turn it into a game. He understates it, but does not distance himself from it. Godard confronts it and analyzes it. Eric Rohmer is the most successful of the group in simply avoiding it. His formal experiments are less openly radical than his colleagues’, and he is the least enamored of the Hollywood style. The six Moral Tales, of which three—My Night at Mauds (1968), Claires Knee (1970), and Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)—received wide distribution and popular response, are films that suspend emotional action and reaction in a pattern of talk and introspection.* Rohmer is perhaps the only filmmaker successfully to make subjectivity its own subject, without allowing it to expand into a form of expressionism. His characters move through persisting states of self-examination, acted out in their relationships with others but always contained, never hysterical or destructive, abusive or hurtful. The Moral Tales are an astringent response to Bergman’s confessionals, for although introspective and centered on dialogue, they are calm and they never ignore mise-en-scène the way Bergman so often does by concentrating on the face and neglecting the spatial context that gives that face meaning. The characters’ surroundings and the way they are situated in them are of subtle and central importance. In fact the environment generates the situations45. The gray, black, and white December of Clermont in My Night at Mauds; the bright summer by Lake Geneva in Claires Knee; the glassy suburbs and downtown Parisian offices and streets of Chloe in the Afternoon create the situations in which their inhabitants talk out concerns of will and freedom, the morality of making choices and staying with choices made. But the environment never imposes on the characters, never directly or symbolically reflects their intellectual and emotional state. Everything remains in balance, especially the position of the viewer in relationship to the characters in the fiction. Rohmer offers no invitation to emotional involvement and asks of the viewer only disinterested observation and understanding. But there is not the modernist’s defiance of the audience, nor any of Truffaut’s pleasantries and charm (at least not until Chloe in the Afternoon, where Rohmer’s control begins to slip), and none of Godard’s obsessive analysis of the image and the reaction to it. But neither is there impartiality and coldness. Except for characters in La collectionneuse Rohmer has great affection for all his creations, but it is affection examined rather than indulged; he observes the way his characters tend to observe themselves, commenting by discreet use of camera placement, gesture, expression, and the spatial relationships between them. In the central episode of My Night at Mauds, Vidal takes his friend, the subject of the film (unnamed throughout and played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), to visit Maud, a self-contained, wise, and ironic doctor and divorcée. She used to be Vidal’s lover, and Vidal is taking his friend to meet her, partly just to see what will happen. The Trintignant character is an engineer and a devout, practicing Catholic, who has seen in church, followed, but not yet spoken to a young woman whom he has decided he will marry. The long sequence that takes place between the Trintignant character, Vidal, and Maud is played out in one room and is divided between the dinner table and the bed on which Maud lies while she talks to the two men.

95It is a perfect triangle, and Rohmer shoots it as such, isolating the characters, often putting Maud and Vidal in a two-shot, while the Trintignant character is alone. Rohmer will observe at length the face of one of the characters who is listening to another (a favorite device of his, in direct violation of the ”rule,” current since the beginning of sound, that visual attention must be paid to the person speaking). Most of the talk revolves around the Trintignant character’s moral choices, his belief in the Pascalian leap of faith, and—given the company he is in (Vidal is a Marxist, Maud not very religious)—his defense of his religion. None of the conversation becomes pompous, no one treats the other with cruelty, least of all Rohmer, and the sequence, like the film as a whole, is a study of people dealing with ideas and experiences informed by understated emotion.

96In the course of the sequence, Vidal leaves. Maud has gotten into bed, and Trintignant sits in a chair at some distance from her. A lamp at the side of the bed accents the distance between them because its brightness focuses our attention in every shot in which it can be seen. Rohmer separates the characters further by isolating them in one shots, and further still by having Trintignant get up from his chair and move to the opposite wall, where there is another lamp and a painting of a perfect circle. As he stands by the wall, he and Maud talk about the difficulties he has with women, his inability to separate the moral and physical aspects of love. He moves in front of the lamp, and its light surrounds him from behind; the painting of the circle is seen to one side. She thinks that it is a trick of the devil not to be able to separate the moral and the physical, and he says he would be a saint if he could. The quiet irony of the illumination and the painting in this shot is indicative of how Rohmer integrates dialogue, gesture, and setting. His character is the perfect homme moyen sensuel, not a saint and certainly not of the devil’s party (the halo-like circle is off to one side and the illumination behind him is only a lamp and not the fires of hell). Instead of moralizing his morality or condemning it as priggish, Rohmer regards it from a slightly ironical distance and comments upon it visually. At no time does Rohmer attempt to absent himself. His control is absolute, and in a film that concerns problems of choice, will, and probability, that control offers the capping irony. It is the director’s will the characters follow.

97The Trintignant character spends the night with Maud, but does not make love to her (and she is angered not by his refusal, but by his indecision). Later in the day, he accidentally meets his ”blonde,” Françoise, the woman he saw at church. Eventually he marries her. In a coda to the film, the character, with his wife and child, meets Maud in another of the coincidental encounters that mark the events of the narrative, and he learns that his wife, before they were married, had an affair with Maud’s husband, before Maud was divorced. In his quest for moral perfection, he has tripped himself up. Earlier on, his fiancée confessed to him that she had had an affair (with whom she did not say) and he lied in order to comfort her, saying that he had slept with Maud (he does not mention her name and in fact only partly lies—he did spend the night in her bed). This final revelation about his wife’s affair therefore throws into question the moral and theological models he has constructed for his life. His lie to comfort his fiancée put the lie to his moral rectitude. Because of that lie and Françoise’s indiscretion, he is embarrassed and forced to lie further when he and Françoise meet Maud. His wager with himself that marriage to Françoise would be better than having affairs with others is made at the cost of embarrassment for him and pain for Maud, who recognizes Françoise. But it is a cost he is willing to pay. He does, after all, make a choice and stay with it. The carefully engineered revelation at the end of the film does not emotionally undo him, but merely points up the ironies of chance he had been unwilling to consider.

98No one is undone in the Moral Tales, and because of this they are in a curious way the most ”realistic” of contemporary films—realistic, that is, to the temperament and sensibilities of middle-class, intelligent French people whose passions are internalized and who structure their world with talk. Rohmer does not lay siege to his characters nor allow them to attack us emotionally. His particular use of the long take allows us to be comfortable with them, aware of the way their reactions and gestures comment on their words and the way their environment supports them or ironically sets them off.

99In Claires Knee, the male character, Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), is on a vacation before his marriage. He allows his friend Aurora, a novelist— in fact an actual novelist (Aurora Cornù) playing a novelist—to use him as if he were a character in a story, tinker with his passions, see how he reacts to different women. They chat in her room in front of a mural of Don Quixote, blindfolded on a wooden horse. ”The heroes of a story are always blindfolded,” says Aurora. ”Otherwise they wouldn’t do anything.It doesn’t matter, because everyone has a blindfold, or at least blinders.” Jérôme is blind, but certainly no picaresque hero, not even a would-be hero like Don Quixote. The callow young woman whose knee attracts him and whom he would save from her equally callow boyfriend is uninterested in his attentions, but he persists in his game and his vacation becomes enriched by a series of false emotions and thoughtless tamperings with the emotions of others. In the end Jérôme succeeds only in blindfolding himself further and sharing with Aurora the illusion of being able to affect another person’s life. He is left as solitary as he was in the beginning. But as in Maud, what we learn about him, and perhaps he about himself, is not shattering. This is not a film about loneliness and the inability to communicate. Quite the contrary. If Rohmer’s characters suffer a gap between what they say and what they are able to do, it is a gap filled not with pain, but with understanding. The closest they get to being Quixotic is to be a little silly and somewhat removed from the realities of others’ feelings; but they are never crippled by what they learn of themselves, or do not learn. Rohmer guides us and his characters through a moment in their lives that is not terribly important to anyone in the long run, yet important enough in his demonstration that cinematic storytelling can be engaging merely through the observation of small gestures and details and the accumulation of good talk.

  • 46 Joe Miller and Barbara Bowman were helpful in this discussion of The Marquise of 0.

100In the films following the Moral Tales, Rohmer tries different ways to counter melodrama through manipulation of mise-en-scène and adoption of a painterly style. In The Marquise of 0. (1976), a film based on a Heinrich von Kleist story, the carefully composed lines and color of neo-classical painting structure the compositions, giving a context and a distance to the exaggerated gestures and domestic hysterics that inform the narrative.”46 The mise-en-scène of Perceval (1978), a French-German-Italian television co-production, reaches further back in time to medieval painting and design, eschewing location work for a studio cyclorama and flat, painted sets. Perceval is a celebration of Catholic mythology and ritual, and as such presents itself in ritual form, with singing, direct and indirect address, and animation mixed with live action. It seemed possible that Rohmer’s cinematic engagement with the contemporary world was over until in 1981 he released a contemporary comedy, The Aviators Wife. In the Moral Tales Rohmer demonstrated better than any of his colleagues how small, unobtrusive films could be made. He modified conventional narrative structure so that action and intensity are replaced by the observation of subjectivity. Rohmer has proven that the intensity of event and emotion that most filmmakers believe necessary to gain and hold audience attention can easily be modulated to draw attention to detailed thought, to a discourse of the passions, in which passion is placed at the service of the discourse. For Rohmer, what we think about feelings is as important as the feelings themselves. His characters create themselves not by what they do or feel, but by what they say.

101Unlike Godard, Rohmer’s influence on other filmmakers is small, and he himself seems unable to extend his insights much further than where they were in the mid-sixties. He is the most conservative of the New Wave filmmakers, yet for all this, his denial of melodrama was crucial to the collective endeavor of the group (if, after 1959, their endeavor can in any way be called collective). It is a denial crucial to the work of most major European filmmakers of the sixties and seventies as well, for no matter what their individual concerns or their particular formal strategies, their central problem—which we saw developing in the theory and practice of the neorealists—was an analysis of why American film transposed reality into conventional narrative patterns and of the ways the audience was asked to accept the reality of those transpositions. The modernist movement in cinema, in all its various forms, was directed to the redefinition of narrative form and viewer response. The questioning of the phenomenon of melodrama was central to its work.


  • 47 Robert Phillip Kolker, Angle and Reality: Godard and Gorin in America, Sight and Sound, 42 (Summe (...)

102Of all the experiments, the searching for alternative narrative forms, the almost obsessive desire to discover the ways that cinema can communicate and engage the spectator’s mind, the work of Godard has been the most persistent, inquisitive, and influential. His influence can be seen in the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Miklós Jancsó, the sixties films of Bergman, the later films of Buñuel, all of the major Latin American political filmmakers, and the new German filmmakers, Wim Wenders and Fassbinder especially. In America too his influence has been strong, particularly in the films of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. But Godard’s is an influence that extends beyond individuals. The basic structures of commercial narrative film world wide since the mid­sixties—the treatment of locations, use of color, styles of cutting and shot composition—have their foundations in his work. If American cinema had colonized the world through the late fifties, the French, and Godard in particular, started a guerrilla war in the sixties, a war on the colonizer that took on special meaning as the decade wore on and the struggle of the new filmmakers could be seen in very rough parallel to the struggles of the Vietnamese against another form of American colonialism. In the fall of 1972, Godard spoke directly to this point in discussing his and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s film-essay on a news photograph of Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, Letter to Jane: ”We can deal with the million dollar picture by making a film with two stills. The North Vietnamese, the Vietcong, invented a two-still war against the million dollar picture war of the Hollywood Pentagon.”47 The political turmoil of the sixties was both catalyst and companion to the aesthetic turmoil in film, and Godard was aware of the parallels more clearly than anyone. The acuteness of his insight makes the contrast between the 1980s and the 1960s all the more ironic. In 1980, Godard was signing production and distribution deals with Francis Ford Coppola, who had in fact made the (thirty) million dollar picture war of the Hollywood Pentagon (it was called Apocalypse Now). After spending the seventies in isolated experiments in political filmmaking and work with video, Godard returned from the front with an inoffensive, acceptably cynical thirty-five­millimeter theatrical film, Sauve qui peut (La Vie), which Coppola liked. These two new and unlikely partners are not going to make revolutionary films. (Since forming this strange partnership, Godard has made a film in France—Passion (1981)—and it is not clear what his association with the American neo-mogul will be.) But though Godard in his middle age may no longer want to carry on the good fight, the legacy he has left is still influencing filmmakers and filmgoers. The struggle he carried forward from 1959 through 1972 produced some of the great works of the modern imagination.

103To understand Godard’s accomplishment and influence, we need to retrace some history and look at the ideas of a figure who influenced him and some other major practitioners of modernism. The cinema guerrilla war of the sixties and early seventies was fought on the most difficult of fronts: where aesthetics and politics joined to re-evaluate the work of the past, bring it to account, and change the attitudes of and toward cinema that had been all but unshakable since its inception. The theory for the struggle came from the modernist movement, with its literary and painterly roots in the twenties and thirties and its political roots in the work of Bertolt Brecht, who was carrying on struggles in the theater similar to those carried on by the filmmakers who concern us here. Poet, playwright, political and aesthetic theorist, Brecht attempted to change certain fundamental concepts of art that had been part of western culture since Aristotle.

  • 48 E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study of the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: (...)

104That is an enormous statement, but it was in fact an enormous tradition that Brecht fought against, persistently, persuasively, often ironically, in his plays and his theoretical writings. Central to it was the notion of art as imitation, as mimesis, the idea that the work of art represents the world, in a condensed and abstract way, but recognizably as a reflection. This concept of art as illusory representation of the world is a constant throughout history and it forms the basis of Bazin’s theories of cinema. But it is essentially an ideal, a fantasy. E. H. Gombrich (among others) has demonstrated that the representation of reality in any period (and in any form of imaginative expression) is in fact the representation of the idea of reality current at any given time, using the formal conventions of representation operating at that time48. The persistence of the desire for representation, however, is stronger than the need to acknowledge that reality is always mediated by the codes and conventions of a particular art at a particular time, the digital mode I spoke of earlier. The urge for ”realism”—for an apparently unmediated representation of the real world—is found at its most obsessive in popular theater and cinema, and we have seen this obsession operating in the zero­degree style, which embraces the spectator, brings him or her into the spectacle of the work, and presents it in a forward-moving continuity of time with all the conventions of proximity and transition and the exaggeration of motivation and event that create, through constant repetition, an illusion of unmediated substance and the absence of form.

105For Brecht, who was a Marxist committed to a materialist understanding of the world and our perception of it, the illusory aspect of the realist tradition was more delusion than illusion and not entertainment but a snare. Rather than dealing with the world, as the tradition claimed it did, it evaded the world. The images that are said to reflect our lives turn out to deflect us from understanding our lives precisely because they concentrate our attention on something else: a reflection rather than an investigation. Middle-class art, of which theater and cinema (and now television) are important components, adds the most complicating element. It is meant to be entertainment, a means of allowing us to remove ourselves for a while from the debilitating, often brutalizing sphere of work and the pressures of day-to-day life. But remove ourselves to what? If theater and film are meant to be realistic, how can they also claim to offer us an escape from our reality? They cannot, and of course do not, do both. Instead of reality they present ”reality,” a set of conventions in form and content that divert the viewer from a confrontation with his or her world to a sympathy with the lives of ”recognizable” characters suffering problems that appear to be possible but are in fact a fantasy of problems and a fantasy of solutions which are not merely improbable, but impossible.

106But not irrelevant. The form and content of popular (and serious) ”realist” art is profoundly tied to the various cultures of the West and it may not be dismissed. Novel and theater, film and television are inseparable from those cultures, and merely to condemn them is to evade the responsibilities that they themselves evade. The imaginative expression of any culture— high or low, elitist or popular—represents that culture and its ideology. Criticizing the form and content of a culture’s art is implicitly to criticize the culture, just as analysis of that art explains the culture’s attitudes. In calling for an alternative form of imaginative expression, the artist-critic is expressing a hope for change throughout the culture. Brecht’s examination of the realist tradition and his theories about its demolition were part of a larger notion of social reorganization. Roland Barthes writes:

  • 49 Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), p. 74.

Basically, Brecht’s greatness, and his solitude, is that he keeps inventing Marxism. The ideological theme, in Brecht, could be precisely defined as a dynamic of events which combines observation and explanation, ethics and politics: according to the profoundest Marxist teaching, each theme is at once the expression of what men want to be and of what things are, at once a protest (because it unmasks) and a reconciliation (because it explains)49.

107Brecht saw the work of art as part of society’s work as a whole. Such a work might reflect the dominant ideology, working from the top down, helping to mold people to the will of those in power, and therefore needing to be unmasked. Or it might work for the needs of the people and reconcile, because it explains and reveals the culture to its members and the members of the culture to each other. The work of art could combine the acts of unmasking and reconciliation by constantly making the spectator aware of what it was saying and how, whose voices were speaking in it, making the spectator privy to its methods, function, and purpose.

108A truly popular art might be created, one that did not condescend to its audience or attempt to fool, satiate, or divert them. Brecht had a revolutionary optimism that an audience was there and ready for an expression of its realities:

  • 50 Against Georg Lukács, p. 50.

With the people struggling and changing reality before our eyes, we must not cling to ”tried” rules of narrative, venerable literary models, eternal aesthetic laws. We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived elsewhere, to render reality to men in a form they can master....
Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society/unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who rule it/writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught/emphasizing the element of development/making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it50.

109In the dialectical movement of this statement lies the method of Brecht’s attack against the traditions of art that promote passive reaction instead of active engagement, sympathy instead of anger, assent rather than dissent. That method was to understand the thing in light of its opposite, to deconstruct every element that laid claim to being ”realistic,” every convention that invited from the spectator that willing suspension of disbelief that is the paradoxical, central premise of the realist tradition. What Brecht demanded was that the disbelief be reconstituted. If drama— or novel, or film—is to be in touch with reality then it must shed any pretense toward itself being a form, a representation, or a reflection of reality and clearly announce itself as a kind of speculum, an instrument to allow us to probe the world. It must probe, not reflect; move forward, not preserve outmoded ideas and relationships; make reality, or catch up with it, not perpetuate worn-out forms that claim to be real. It must be not a way of being, but a way of seeing.

110This ought to sound familiar, for it is in fact the kind of thinking that led to the modernism of the early Resnais, of Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. But there is a major difference. Their works do not manifest a need to go any further than themselves. The foregrounding of form in Last Year at Marienbad, the narrative and visual dislocations in Antonioni’s films, can act on their own behalf, promoting in the spectator a desire to investigate the dislocations and intrigues of form. The Brechtian notion of the work as speculum-spectacle-speculation had a different end. By forcing the spectator to examine the structure of a work, alienating him or her from direct contact with its content and from any assumption that content can exist without the intervention of form, Brecht hoped that the work would be able to act as a tool by which the spectator could learn more not only about the workings of art, but about the self in relation to the social and psychological realities that surround and create that self. Rather than an end in itself, a consumer article purchased, enjoyed, and forgotten, the work would be an active arbitrator between the spectator and his or her communal experience; at the same time it would be subject to the spectator rather than the other way around. Instead of reinforcing the dominant ideology (which is the primary role of popular entertainment), the Brechtian work would first challenge it by challenging its presumptions about imaginative expression (”realism,” identification with the main character, emotional catharsis or gratification) and then challenge the spectator by asking her or him to think about what is being shown instead of indulging in easily got emotions. The spectator might then use the work as a means for understanding his or her role in society and history.

111With this, Brecht obviates the romantic urge of art, which since the late eighteenth century has demanded on the part of creator and observer an excess of emotion at the expense of reason. ”We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth cried, announcing an anti-intellectualism in art, a domination of feeling over analysis, that has tended to remove art from social-political responsibility. Brecht would return the responsibility by making the work deny itself as an emotional way station, refuge from the turmoil of the everyday, and instead turn itself into an instrument to clarify history and return the spectator to history.

  • 51 Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), p. 37.

112Brecht set out the basic methodology in a little dialectical table that he included in his essay ”The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre,»epic” being his term for the new work that would open the world to the viewer’s active participation. On the left are the conventional elements of theater (and film), on the right Brecht’s negation of and response to them:51





implicates the spectator in a stage situation

turns the spectator into an observer, but

wears down his capacity for action

arouses his capacity for action

provides him with sensations

forces him to take decisions


picture of the world

the spectator is involved in something

he is made to face something



instinctive feelings are preserved

brought to the point of recognition

the spectator is in the thick of it, shares the experience

the spectator stands outside, studies

the human being is taken for granted

the human being is the object of the inquiry

he is unalterable

he is alterable and able to alter

eyes on the finish

eyes on the course

one scene makes another

each scene for itself



linear development

in curves jumps

evolutionary determinism

man as a process

man as a fixed point

social being determines thought reason

thought determines being


  • 52 A Short Organum for the Theatre, in ibid., p. 193.
  • 53 Screen 15 (Summer, 1974) contains a number of articles on Kuhle Wampe. For the theatre of Piscator (...)

113The precise method of achieving these ”shifts of accent,” as Brecht modestly calls them, involves breaking emotional continuity and realist representation throughout any given work. He would, for example, employ a non-realist acting style. ”In order to produce A[lienation] effects the actor has to discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself.”52 Brecht (developing techniques from the radical Berlin theater of Erwin Piscator) would break dramatic continuity by having the character address the audience, go into a song, step out of the role and out of the narrative movement. The mise-en-scène of the work would be disruptive; no illusion of real space would be allowed. In theatrical presentation, the notion of the privileged view through an absent fourth wall would be disallowed, and all manner of verbal, graphic, and cinematic intrusions into the stage space would be called upon to identify it as a place where specific theatrical activity was going on. This is not the place to examine how Brecht specifically worked out his theories in his own productions. Nor can a great deal be said about his own direct experience with film, which was not very happy. He was never completely comfortable or successful with film as a narrative form, and could not come to terms with the commercial nature of the medium. He sued the production company of G. W. Pabst’s version of The Threepenny Opera (1931) for changes made in his play, and lost (writing, as a result, a long economic and political analysis of the film business). The one film in which he did have a direct hand, Kuhle Wampe (1932, directed by Slatan Dudow), was cut by the German censors. Given the fact that it was the first and last Communist film made before the Nazis took power, it is remarkable that it survived at all. The film employs, sporadically, some Brechtian techniques, and an early sequence foreshadows some neorealist approaches: a montage of bicyclists desperately seeking work bears comparison to the ride to work of the cyclists in Bicycle Thieves53. In Hollywood, the writing Brecht did for Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943) was greatly altered.

114Though Brecht’s own success in film was limited, his posthumous influence on its later development was enormous, greater than it was on the theater, and for a number of reasons. In those rare instances when the filmmaker has independence and control, film is the best form in which to make aesthetic principles clear and sure. The filmmaker does not have to worry about other productions of the work and can achieve through images and dialogue a clear and permanent presentation of methods and ideas. More important, film offers the perfect arena for the testing of Brechtian ideas. Through its short history, film has built up conventions of realism more profound and harder to crack than those of theater, and when they are broken, the effect is even more extraordinary than it is on the stage. When in 1962 Godard introduced a version of Brechtian devices, the effect, though not unprepared for (there had already been Last Year at Marienbad, and the New Wave filmmakers were busy experimenting with traditional narrative) was thrilling and conclusive. Marienbad might have been a sport, and certainly was in part a joke. But Godard’s fourth full-length film, My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie) was neither sport nor joke; it announced more clearly than had Breathless, or any of the early works of the New Wave, a departure from traditional modes of narrative filmmaking and film viewing. More gently and firmly than Marienbad, it projected the fact that film was a form that could investigate and analyze its function as a language that addressed people in their lives.

115My Life to Live is a ”woman’s picture”; its tradition is the thirties and forties MGM and Warner Brothers genre of the woman misused and abandoned by her man, the woman too free with her sexuality, too ready to look for happiness outside normal domestic circumstances, who must suffer for those desires and perhaps even die. The film is an odd combination of Camille and Marked Woman, or rather a reflection upon such films and the way we read them. Nana (Anna Karina) is one of many Godard women who turn to prostitution to live, who allow themselves to be an object, a commodity, in order to discover, economically and emotionally, their own 1 subjectivity. Its structure turns the film into an object as well—though not a commodity—something to be contemplated and understood before it can be felt. As if he had Brecht’s table of oppositions before him, Godard arranges an orderly deconstruction of classical narrative principles and replaces them with the structures of inquiry. There is no continuous plot development, but rather twelve episodes, each numbered and introduced with a title. There is no linear development of character or action; we see only fragments, ”each scene for itself.” And rather than requesting our involvement in emotional turmoil, the film turns us into observers and makes us face something, many things, the most important of which is the way we look at the film and understand its meaning. Brecht writes,

  • 54 Short Organum, p. 201.

As we cannot invite the audience to fling itself into the story as if it were a river and let itself be carried vaguely hither and thither, the individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed. The episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment.... The parts of the story have to be carefully set off one against another by giving each its own structure as a play within the play. To this end it is best to agree to use titles.... Shown thus, the particular and unrepeatable incident acquires a disconcerting look, because it appears as something general, something that has become a principle. As soon as we ask whether in fact it should have become such, or what about it should have done so, we are alienating the incident.... In short: there are many conceivable ways of telling a story, some of them known and some still to be discovered54.

116In the first shot of the first episode, Godard denies us what every other film has always promised and delivered: the face. While low-lit, almost silhouette closeups of Nana begin the film, in the first narrative sequence we watch two characters, Nana and Paul, sitting and talking at a bar. Their backs are to the camera. Each is presented alone in alternating shots, and each shot is played out without camera movement and with only a slight movement of their heads. Their faces are present, but reflected in the mirror in front of them, and because of that literally disembodied. A double screen is created: the one on which the image is projected and the mirror in that image on which is projected the faces that we should be seeing on the primary screen. If we did see them there, if Godard had begun his film with a conventional two-shot and then proceeded to intercut the two faces singly, we would have no perception of a screen at all. Our own look would have been untroubled. But because he doubles the image, giving us in the secondary screen (the mirror) what he denies in the primary, we are disrupted and disengaged. The image is made object and the viewer made to confront it as such. Later in the film, in another conversation, in another café, Nana sits with her pimp. When he first joins her, the camera picks them up in profile and then arcs around so we see them face each other, the back of the man’s head covering the front of Nana’s. Behind them is a window looking out at the traffic below. Only the traffic is not moving.It takes a moment or two to realize that it is an enormous photograph of the street. Faces that we should see, but once again are not permitted to see; a street that is not a street, but a frozen process shot (films, especially American films, had always used a rear-screen projection of the outside world placed behind the characters when the concentration was meant to be on the characters with the world acting only as a backdrop). But the camera begins to move again, awkwardly tracking around the two characters as if looking for the best way to look at them. There is a cut to a profile of the man and, as the conversation continues, the camera pans back and forth, from one profile to the other. The film is filled with such tryings-out of points of view, of distance and proximity. Godard searches throughout for alternative ways of seeing, of directing our gaze without falling into standard patterns of cutting or creating simple spatial relationships. He discovers new ways of telling a story.

117Earlier in the film there is another investigation of the problem of the face. Nana goes to the movies to see Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, and she cries. Dreyer’s great, passionate closeups of a suffering woman reach Nana’s heart and we see her on the screen, and Dreyer’s Joan on the screen within the screen, both in closeup, in tears. ”The simplest close-up is also the most moving,” Godard had written. But he is now ready to try to understand what this ease of emotional reaction means. His fictional character understands her sadness only through the cinematic image of another fictional character’s sadness, and there is something wrong about that. An image is just an image. Yet with these images we are led to experience stronger emotions than we ordinarily experience in our day-to-day lives. Godard is seeking a way to short the emotional circuitry, the analogue circuitry that conveys the notion that films are like life, even better than life, and replace it with another structure that will assure us that films are only like films. They will discuss life and investigate it, but not reproduce it or allow us to think they are a substitute for it. That is why he keeps tinkering with something as apparently simple as the closeup, precisely because it seems to be a simple element of the language that allows us access to the emotions of the fictional characters. Once looked at objectively, its simplicity vanishes and it emerges as a major element of complexity and confusion.

118But not the only one. In My Life to Live Godard begins another process of breaking down. He begins analyzing the modes of discourse used by film—that is, the way the narrative is told, by whom and to whom. The traditional film assumes the perspective of an omniscient point of view, a neutral telling in which all the elements—character, mise-en-scène, music, narrative construction, and viewer position are integrated, assured, and controlled. We have already established that this narrative is not neutral, that the integration and control are carefully worked out and drilled to assurance by repetition, that our secure place in the narrative is based only on our acceptance of the conventional forms and their ability to make us forget the formative means. Godard, like Brecht, wishes to separate out 1 the homogeneous discourse into its component parts and allow us to hear the various voices that are speaking the film to us. For example My Life to Live presents itself as simultaneously a fiction about a prostitute and a documentary about prostitution.

  • 55 Film Language, p. 100. For Godards camera practice, cf. Burch, Theory of Film Practice, pp. 119-21(...)

119The discourse of fiction and the discourse of documentary have always been allowed a convenient separation in the history of film. Lumière and Méliès are posited as the progenitors of two separate modes of cinematic expression, the one photographing things existing in the world, the other creating fantasies in the studio. But film always documents something. As long as a camera is used to record an image, taking a picture of something that preexists the photographing of it (”pro-filmic reality” is the term Christian Metz uses),55 an act of documentation has occurred. This is not merely playing games with words. As I pointed out earlier, the neorealists, in taking their cameras out of doors and into the lives of working-class characters, were documenting people and events, even though they were making fictions. Godard is very much aware of this element of neorealism and all his films play with the dialectic of fiction and documentary, making the viewer aware of how each mode borrows from the other. ”... I saw a film at the Cinémathèque, a film on Lumière... says Guillaume, the Jean-Pierre Léaud character in La chinoise (1967):

  • 56 In Jean Collet, Jean-Luc Godard, trans. Ciba Vaughan (New York: Crown Publishers, 1970), pp. 146-48

This film proves that Lumière was a painter, by that I mean... he filmed exactly the same things that the artists of that period were painting—people like Pissarro, Manet, or even Renoir.... He filmed... parks... He filmed... public gardens... He filmed the gates to factories... He filmed people playing cards... He filmed the tramways.... What was Méliès doing at the time? Méliès was filming Le Voyage sur la lune. Méliès was filming La visite du roi de Yougoslavie au president Fallières. And now, from the vantage point of our distance in time, we realize that these were really the current events of that epoch.... [Méliès] was making documentaries. They may have been reconstituted documentaries, but they were real documentaries. And Ill go even further than that. I would say that Méliès was Brechtian.... 56

120Perhaps. But Méliès was in any case documenting some fantasies of fin-de-siècle France while Lumière was rendering portraits of the way some of France looked at the time. The point is that a film documents fantasies and fantasies document a culture’s ideology and its dreams. The ”voice” of fact and the ”voice” of fiction always intermingle. In My Life to Live, Anna Karina is not a prostitute, but an actress playing that role. We are not, in viewing the film, looking at prostitution—though one of the episodes mimics a conventional documentary on prostitution, with facts and figures read off on the sound track as the camera tracks down and pans the red-light districts of Paris. What the film is doing is documenting Anna Karina playing the role of a prostitute as well as documenting, for us, the various ways we observe this particular societal role. And in the fragmenting of the narrative, in the analysis of the closeup and of the role of frontality (the straightforward look at the character), Godard is also documenting his questions about the ways film addresses its audience and the way the audience responds. The film—like most of Godard’s work—is a documentation of the filmmaker’s and the spectator’s response.

121Particularly Godard’s. The last sequences of the film introduce material that breaks open whatever narrative seams have been left intact. Nana sits (again) in a café, where she has a conversation with a philosopher. Not an actor playing a philosopher, but Brice Parain, a French linguist. They talk about words and meaning and the betrayal of them, about thinking and action, about how, to understand life, one must go through the death of not talking, about concerns seemingly beyond this story of a prostitute (and beyond the character of Nana), yet central to Godard and everything he does. The obsession with language—with the way things are said, the proper relationship between things and words and images, the appropriateness of any kind of discourse—inhabits all his work. If Parain’s discourse breaks the narrative of My Life to Live, it advances the discourse that works its way throughout Godard’s films, the discussion of why and how words and images mean, where that meaning lies, who controls it, and how it is perceived.

  • 57 See ibid., pp. 34-35.

122Part of the discourse involves the meaning of the filmmaking act itself. After the sequence with the philosopher, Nana’s lover reads to her from Poe’s story ”The Oval Portrait,” about an artist who sucks the spirit from his wife by painting her. The lover reads, but it is Godard’s voice dubbed over him pronouncing the words (Baudelaire’s words, of course, Poe’s French translator). As he reads, Godard makes cinematic portraits of Nana—Anna (who was, at the time, Godard’s wife; at one point his voice says, ”It’s our story: a painter who does a portrait of his wife”). Just before and right after the reading, the film goes silent: Nana and her lover talk to each other, but we only see their words in subtitles. Spoken language runs out for the moment and only the visual remains. Spoken dialogue is momentarily given up, the image dominates. The film attempts to regress to an ”innocent” time when the image was silent (the characters themselves are trying to regress into an ”innocent” love, to separate themselves from Nana’s world). Perhaps Godard is experimenting with Brice Parain’s idea of understanding life by going through the death of not talking (understanding the image by silencing its verbal component). Perhaps he is merely withdrawing another conventional element of film to test the viewer’s reaction. Certainly he is reflecting upon Poe’s story: the artist uses up his material, saps its life, saps spoken language, in this instance. He reflects on the story in other ways as well. As a commodity Nana is used and not loved; she falls to the domination of her pimp. Anna, the actress, has been used by her director, who forces her to give up her personality and become an object, the way a prostitute must57. For the moment it becomes impossible for language to express the complexity of all this. The characters talk again, but the ending—at this point in Godard’s career—is the impasse of silence and death. Nana is shot by her pimp. It is a conventional end, or a parody of conventional endings, for Nana dies just when she decides to give up prostitution and live with her true love. Godard allows the climax that takes care of the character and her story and our emotions, but he still leaves all the other discourses intact. For while the story may end, the process of storytelling goes on, not only in this film whenever it is seen, but in the subsequent films Godard makes. As Brecht suggests, Godard’s eyes are on the course rather than the finish. His voice is persistent and his look continues to gather the fragments of the world.

This page and next: the signs of work. Anna Karina in My Life to Live (Museum of Modern Art Films Stills Archive)

123My Life to Live is not Godard’s most complex film. In each succeeding work more levels of discourse are added, more connections made among the apparently disjointed images of the world. The social-political connections of these images are examined more and more closely as the Marxist discourse, Brecht’s substrate, forms as the base of Godard’s own thinking and seeing. The concern of his films is always the same, the attempt to make sense of the human figure in the environment of contemporary history and culture. Following Brecht, he attempts to see the ways that figure is alterable; his characters and his viewers are asked to be part of a process of breaking down passivity and alienation. By alienating the viewer from a simple emotional reaction and from unquestioned involvement in a film’s story, Godardian cinema integrates the viewer in an active engagement with the meaning-making process. In so doing it can create alterations in the way we see and understand. It can teach. If we learn that the stories we see on the screen are not simple reflections of reality—complete, closed, satisfying—but meditations on reality, mediations of reality, even intrusions upon reality, then we may come to understand that reality is not an absolute, but something malleable and, in the end, created. Alterable.

124With the exception of a brief period in the late sixties and early seventies when he turned to a politically rigorous, agit-prop style (the ”Dziga Vertov” films, which I will look at later), Godard’s work is enormously accessible. He is able to fuse wit and irony, intellect and passion into narratives any one of which covers a large area of subjective, social, political, and cultural experience and has a vitality that invites any viewer willing to engage and meet its demands. The same cannot be said about the work of a filmmaking team who follow in the Godardian-Brechtian mode. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are French, but have done their work in Germany and Italy, work so demanding, films so unwilling to yield anything to the viewer’s comfort and solace that they have remained on the radical end of the modernist movement, noted by many but seen by few.

125Viewing a film by Straub and Huillet, be it Not Reconciled (1965), Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), Othon (1970), History Lessons (1972), or even their spectacular (for them) version of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron (1975), is essentially an act of watching oneself watch a film. More than other modernist filmmakers, they call acute attention to the process that occurs between the viewer and the screen, rather than the events that are going on within the images on the screen. Theirs is the work of paring down, of removing every unessential link, transition, reference point, continuity cut, internal explanation; ours is the work of putting all of these back, of demanding of ourselves an attention so committed, a desire for engagement and understanding so strong that we are willing to take the little they give us as a starting point from which to elaborate a film.

126Not Reconciled is ”based” on Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half Past Nine, about the effects of Nazism on a family and a number of individuals whose lives intertwine before, during, and after the war. The film eschews all novelistic and cinematic conventions of chronology, character identification, character motivation, and historical explanation; the settings, while concrete, are highly allusive and disconnected. The filmmakers provide us with no locus and assume we will either be familiar with the novel or be willing to work through the film (which is only fifty minutes long) a number of times until the characters’ faces become familiar to us and the relations between them begin to emerge.

127In Last Year at Marienbad, the narrative—more accurately, the reverie about the making of narratives—is complete within itself at the moment we realize that its only external referents are the structures of cinema and the ways people have told stories with it. But Not Reconciled has a referent; it is about history and the inability to overcome it or fully understand it. And its success lies just here, in creating a narrative form that first forces the viewer to understand how intractable history is, how difficult it is to make sense of it, and second requests that the viewer try to make sense of it in a way the characters themselves cannot; the way, perhaps, Germany and the West willfully cannot make sense of it. The fragments of images that make up this film, the skewed, off-centered compositions, the bland non-acting of the non-professional cast who talk rather than perform their lines (an epigraph from Brecht at the beginning of the film says that actors must demonstrate that they do not make up lines but only quote them) are all not reconciled, and it is finally less important to comprehend entirely what goes on within the film than it is to understand how the film is going on. Its unreconciled pieces are analogous to the pieces of historical memory which, if put together in the ways of conventional filmic storytelling, would hide reality under melodrama (think, for example, of the television film Holocaust). The refusal to put them together avoids the threat of an emotional detour and instead makes us aware of the difficulties of memory (as do most of Resnais’s films) and our inability to reconcile ourselves to a past that is, relatively, only a few years old. If, no matter how often we view Not Reconciled, we cannot separate its strands, cannot clearly identify the various characters, their relationships, the events alluded to, partly acted out, never fully begun or concluded, then we still have been successful with the film—at least as successful as Straub and Huillet in reflecting upon Nazism as a series of disconnected acts committed by banal people who could make no clear connection between themselves and those acts.

128But finally the film errs in so completely refusing analysis, in leaving all judgment to the viewer and placing upon him or her the entire burden of continuity and comprehension. As a response to melodrama, it is a lesson of restraint, an example of film as blueprint, with the spectator given the task of building the structure. But as a work that might create in us the desire to investigate, to inquire further into a way of looking at history and its participants, it fails. Its radically elliptical structure risks provoking anger as much as the wish to make it yield meaning; it threatens merely to alienate rather than using alienation as a device to permit an understanding of its form.

129Understanding the films of Straub and Huillet demands an acutely dialectical perception. The viewer has to work as much, perhaps more, from what is not given by the film as from what is. The first act in the confrontation (and it is confrontation, not observation, that the films require) is to discover the idea out of which the images emerge, or upon which the film’s structure is built. From the idea, the viewer must return to the images and work out the fit. It is film viewing as struggle. Even their most accessible work, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, requires great patience, as well as knowledge of the conventional film biography of an artist, a wish to deny the validity of that convention, and a willingness to accept a visual and narrative structure as rigorous as that of Bach’s music. Straub and Huillet are uninterested in creating any passion out of Bach’s life and work, at least not the passion of the struggling artist we are used to seeing in film biographies. The only biographical problem they are curious 1 about is financial, and the voice-over narration given us by Anna Magdalena (who wrote no chronicle) is concerned mainly with the various positions Bach held, the financial arrangements made, the occasional intrigues with various employers, and the family’s perpetual concern about money. Conventional action and emotional expression are held to a minimum. In a moment of high drama, Bach is physically removed from his place of work in the middle of a rehearsal. He is led out and down a staircase. But lest we become too involved in this excess of movement, the camera holds on the empty staircase for a very long time, forcing us to consider the events, withdraw from them, recompose ourselves, reorient ourselves back to the image and away from the extra-musical events that heretofore were restricted mostly to the voice-over commentary. For the body of the film is the music, performed by actual players, recorded directly, in ornate period locations. But we are not permitted to become comfortable with the ”authenticity” of these locations. Bach gives an evening concert out of doors. He stands at a harpsichord, framed to the right of the screen. To the left is a burning torch. This part of the composition is photographed almost, but not quite, at eye level. Behind is a rear-screen projection of a building which is shot at a tilt greater than that of the foreground figure. The result is a composition of disorienting artificiality that finally emphasizes not the contrasting realism of the other shots, but their own relative artificiality. (This technique of making obvious the rear-screen projection of a building or landscape has been since used to effect by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, by Michael Verhoeven in The Nasty Girl (1990), and by Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers (1994) and Nixon (1995)).

130Straub and Huillet are obsessively concerned that the viewer not be comfortable with what is being shown. Most of the shots in the film are extremely long. The camera is set at a diagonal to the figures and often, in the course of the shot, will track, briefly, along that diagonal. The performers are rarely in the foreground. Quite the contrary. Soloists often have their backs turned to the camera, or are in the rear or off to one side of the composition. The result is to make the viewer search the image and integrate it with the music emanating from it. The shots are so long that we begin to perform with them a kind of visual and aural counterpoint. The visual composition works both with and against the composition of the music, and every detail, every architectural nuance, every grouping of the musicians contributes to a visual-musical ”movement.” Richard Roud describes it:

  • 58 Roud, Straub, p. 78.

... for once the word counterpoint is not metaphorical. Given the contrapuntal nature of Bach’s music, what more natural than for Straub to have found, not an illustration, but an equivalent to it? Throughout the film he plays with binary symmetry, left-right polarity, and the changing direction of his diagonals both in the camera set-ups and in the camera movements. In fact, one could comfortably claim that there is never an eye­ level, straight-on shot in the film: the camera is always a little above or a little below the actors, either to the left or right58.

131These performance—compositions are punctuated by shots of an engraved title page of a piece of music, or a score sheet, on one occasion by a shot of the sun over the ocean, on another by a tree and a cloudy sky. We occasionally see Anna Magdalena at home, ill in bed in one instance, sometimes with children, and at the end there is a shot of Bach by himself looking out a window, as Anna Magdalena tells us of his failing health, blindness, regaining of eyesight, and death. We see no death. We do not even see him age.

132The work of Straub and Huillet is a cinema of withholding. It is not ”minimalist,” a term often applied to them. That implies abstraction. In fact their images are very concrete, full of material. In their film of Corneille’s play Othon (titled by them Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times, or Perhaps One Day Rome Will Permit Herself to Choose in her Turn), characters go about in togas, reciting Corneille’s alexandrines in an impossible sing­song, while, through the first part of the film, we see and hear the traffic of modern Rome move in the distance. The images are packed with the contradictions of the world, insisting we read them as part of history and through the material of our lives. They insist so much that they become annoying in their demands. Othon is one of the most irritating films ever made. It does not permit us to enjoy Corneille’s poetry, the complexities of the court intrigue presented by the poetry, the pleasures of period re­creation. Instead it demands an accounting for all of these, an accounting so defiantly on Straub and Huillet’s own terms that, were it not for the calmness, indeed the recessiveness, of this film and the others, we would feel bullied. Certainly we feel put upon, for they ask of us more than do other filmmakers and they make their demands with the least promise of returns. There is no humor, no clear and clever didacticism, certainly no conventional passion (except that contained in the music that is part of Chronicle and Moses and Aaron, though Bach and the late Schoenberg are not composers noted for overt passion).

133Somewhere between spectacle and aphorism, withholding at all times the fullness of the former and the incisiveness of the latter, treating the viewer with a respect that appears to be arrogance, the films of Straub and Huillet endanger the complex relationship between viewer and film. But here is, in fact, where their importance lies. By endangering that relationship they force the viewer to question it, and that questioning satisfies the first part of the Brechtian endeavor—to make the relationship between work and spectator a primary area of concern. Straub and Huillet may not be able to go beyond the first part; their work does not exhibit Godard’s vital, inquisitive embrace of and ironic quest through the images and myths of contemporary culture. Their films are much more subdued and limited, but they are equally concerned with the how and why of cinematic seeing.

134The Brechtian mode of the modernist movement, especially as it was 1 worked out by Godard in the course of his sixties films culminating in Tout va bien, where romance, politics, the factory, unions, the media, and feminism are mixed in a counterpoint of comedy, drama, and didacticism—had a wide-ranging influence, particularly (and not surprisingly) among those filmmakers searching for means of political expression in their work. I will be returning to that influence a number of times in the course of examining the films of Fassbinder and, especially, the revolutionary filmmakers in Latin America. Before that, however, I want to look briefly at the influence of the New Wave on some other figures, in particular two filmmakers who began their work well before Godard and his colleagues appeared, but picked up their influence in the course of the decade. While neither is within the Brechtian tradition, they both practiced, even before their contact with the New Wave, modes of cinematic inquiry that demanded responses from an audience different from those required by conventional cinema. After contact with the New Wave these demands took on a new form.

135In 1966, Buñuel made Belle de jour, his second film in color (the first was his hilarious version of Robinson Crusoe in 1952). Los Olvidados had marked Buñuel’s return to commercial filmmaking and a revision of his style and approach based on the influence of neorealism; Belle de jour marks another revision. Its subject—a moral investigation into the cultural psychosis of the middle class—was hardly new for him, but its style and approach was. The subjects of repression are no longer the various religious idiots-savants or the Mexican or Spanish bourgeoisie that had populated most of his films in the fifties and early sixties. No matter what the historical period of these films, they always appear to be somehow out of time; they create a closed world of perversity and obsession. In Belle de jour Buñuel announced his modernity. The main character is a contemporary young Parisienne (Catherine Deneuve), a doctor’s wife, who takes up prostitution to relieve her sexual frustration and repression.

  • 59 See Jonathan Rosenbaum, Interruption as Style: Buñuels Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Sigh (...)

136The images (made by Resnais’s cinematographer, Sacha Vierny) have a clarity strongly influenced by the photographic style that Raoul Coutard developed with and for Godard. The film’s narrative structure and cutting style, an easy, unexplained slipping into different modes of consciousness, was influenced by the New Wave experiments in shifting narrative modalities. As we saw, Buñuel was not a newcomer to these modes; indeed the crazed structure of Un chien andalou and LAge dor had helped prepare the young French filmmakers for their own experiments, and Buñuel’s films of the fifties and early sixties had always intermingled dream and fantasy, distortion and disruption into narratives that never quite settled down into an easily acceptable ”realistic” mode. Thus Buñuel did not copy Godard or Chabrol; he recognized that their methods of inquiry offered him ways of getting to the contemporary world he had not thought of before. He was so pleased with what they had to offer that he acknowledged it openly. In Belle de jour he introduces a gangster, a tough with steel caps on his teeth, dressed in a leather coat (played by one of the fine contemporary European toughs, Pierre Clementi, who might have come from Breathless, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, or from a film of Jean-Pierre Melville—one of the godfathers of the New Wave to whom Godard gave a guest role in Breathless). The gangster first appears on a Paris street where someone is selling the New York Herald Tribune like Michel Poiccard’s girlfriend in Breathless; and when he is finally shot down, Buñuel films the sequence as a homage to Poiccard’s death59. (Godard returned the great compliment by entitling a section of Weekend ”The Exterminating Angel” after Buñuel’s 1962 film about a group of Mexican hauts bourgeois who find themselves unable to leave a dinner party and slowly decay to a primitive, deranged state.) The references to Breathless in Buñuel’s film are more than a homage by an old filmmaker to a younger one. They are a sign of rejuvenation, an indication that the old man who taught so much could still learn. The New Wave offered Buñuel a way of altering his mise-en-scène and his editing rhythms, of introducing a contemporaneousness, observing the perversities of his characters in a modern French bourgeois environment, somewhat after the manner of Chabrol and the Godard of A Married Woman, Pierrot le fou, and Weekend.

137Belle de jour not only shows the ability of an established filmmaker to modify his style, to be both teacher and student; it validates Godard’s statement that the work of the young French filmmakers was a reinvention of cinema, a reexamination of its form so thorough that any intelligent director would have to take notice of what was happening. European film in the sixties became a great network of cross-references and influences— something, in fact, like a Buñuel narrative in which everyone’s cinematic dreams keep interfering with everyone else’s. Each filmmaker’s work seemed to give aesthetic support to the others’ and a communal energy developed. Buñuel was not the only member of an older guard who partook of this energy. Robert Bresson, whose filmmaking career began in the thirties, is among the most uncompromising of directors. He is not locatable in any one tradition, though the demands he puts on his audience can be seen in the modernist context.

  • 60 Cf. Roud, Straub, pp. 19-26.

138Bresson is interested not so much in making the audience aware of the formal patterns in his work as in withdrawing as much as possible from the audience (a methodology that greatly influenced Straub and Huillet)60. He not only denies melodrama, he attempts to deny all emotional contact between viewer and character. His players exhibit no facial expression (save perhaps a small, brief smile at a moment of perverse or ironic triumph); they are the blank slate upon which the viewer may write or not, develop emotions for the character, or simply view that character as part of a pattern, moving through—or, more accurately, being moved through—a network of events. Working in opposition to Bazin’s notions of the long take and the open frame which give the viewer room to look and make connections between character and environment, Bresson frames closely and edits sharply. His shots are mostly short and highly analytical, directing and redirecting our gaze to parts of his characters’ anatomy or sections of their environment: a hand or foot, the wall of a room, the top of a staircase, objects and gestures that cohere spatially because they are clearly related to each other, yet at the same time are disconnected and refused wholeness by Bresson’s fragmenting of them. The result is a recessiveness of mise-en-scène and an elliptical quality that have the effect of intensifying each image and forcing the viewer to complete the space and the narrative.Every Bresson film is built upon a continuous series of withdrawals and absences in which character and surroundings contribute spasmodically to an account of failure and destruction and (at least until the films of the late sixties) redemption.

139In the sixties, Bresson’s images take on an even greater substance and immediacy than they previously had, while at the same time removing the grace his characters usually enjoyed. As with Buñuel, Bresson’s contact with sixties cinema brought him closer to the contemporary world; but in his case, the contact turned his insights darker. In earlier films like A Man Escaped (1956), about a prisoner of war who silently, meticulously plans and executes an escape from a Nazi jail, and Pickpocket (1959), which documents, through the disconnected movements of hands and arms in train stations, streets, and barren rooms, the career of a small-time Parisian thief, the world of the characters is out of time. The individuals and places are dreary, isolated, expressionless, offering no information about themselves except through their dreariness. The characters are saved by love, or by the grace of God, or perhaps by our own understanding of their sufferings. In his observation, his disengagement, Bresson is able to discover in his characters a plenitude, the grace of salvation not so much expressed in the films as offered through that disengagement and the character’s persistence, teased from the narrative in spite of its sparseness, or because of it.

140In the sixties, Bresson’s slivered perceptions became much grimmer, while the mise-en-scène of his films became brighter and richer. After two films (Au hazard, Balthazar, 1966, and Mouchette, 1967) set in rural France, in which the characters are young women who fall victim to despair and a spiritual claustrophobia so extreme it destroys them, Bresson began working in color and, with the exception of Lancelot du lac (1974), setting his films in contemporary Paris.

141In Une femme douce (1969) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) his characters are young and urban. The streets and rooms they inhabit have a brightness and modernity not apparent in the earlier work. But while the production design changes, the basic approach does not. The fragmentation of action into its smallest parts continues and, if anything, is exaggerated, serving to break down the sense of wholeness and movement that the New Wave directors sought. Where Godard and Truffaut embraced their urban environment in the early films, comfortably situating their characters in it, Bresson takes the streets and bridges, the rooms and traffic of the city and makes them the image of his characters’ despair. The effect is not the same one Antonioni achieves by enveloping his characters in large, oppressive, or mysterious objects. Bresson has no expressionist tendencies (and the montage at the end of Leclisse is an overstatement in comparison to Bresson’s methods). Rather, by accentuating parts of the figure and the surroundings, by rarely allowing the viewer to see things whole, he creates a subdued montage of repressed characters and disconnected personalities. The sounds of the city become overwhelming. Traffic noise predominates and imposes a kind of external continuity on an otherwise fragmented world. Everything else in the two films either reflects or objectifies an unyielding immobility and insularity. Une femme douce begins with the suicide of the central character. More accurately, it offers partial glimpses of a suicide: a table falling over on a balcony; the sound of a screeching car below; a shot of a white scarf falling from the window; feet gathering around a body. The film pretends to piece together, in flashbacks, the life that led to this act. What is exposed is an old story of a husband who is possessive and jealous, a wife who is restless and desirous of more than she has.

The Bressonian face (Guillaume des Forêts). Four Nights of a Dreamer (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

  • 61 For a more detailed study of Bressons recent films see Michael Dempsey, Despair Abounding: The Re (...)

142But the power of the film lies in what is not exposed, in the silent exchanges of looks and the unchanging expressions of faces, movements in a movie theater or at a performance of Hamlet. The jealous husband stalks his wife; he drives her to illness. And all we learn about this couple is that obstructed passion fragments the soul, and that we, as observers of this fragmentation, can only see the pieces from the outside. Personality is never revealed. In this film, and in Four Nights of a Dreamer, the lively urban milieu mocks the hopeless breakdown of the characters, who are neither comforted by it (as they are in Truffaut’s work) or molded by it (as in Godard’s). City and character defy each other and both break down into pieces. Bresson’s characters are pathetic and moving. The gentle creature of Une femme douce is unable to articulate her stifled emotions, and the young artist of Four Nights of a Dreamer walks around the city with a tape recorder on which his own voice repeats the name of his love over and over. They cannot unburden themselves or us, and the result of our contact with them is an impasse, but an impasse that is charged with feeling and a desire to understand 61.

  • 62 Bressonisms, Sight and Sound, 46 (Winter, 1976/77), 21. Bressons complete text is in Notes on Ci (...)
  • * This defiance goes even deeper when we consider the literary sources of the films. Both Une femme d (...)

143”Accustom the public,” Bresson wrote, ”to divining the whole of which they are given only a part. Make people diviners. Make them desire it.”62 Like other modernists, Bresson demands that the audience work at the film. Like the filmmakers of the New Wave, who are something of his children as he in turn is something of their follower, he perceives cinema as the object of desire. This object is more obscure for Bresson than for the younger French filmmakers, and much more hermetically sealed. Like many a modernist, Bresson is a romantic who defies his romanticism by paring away all excess, breaking up the core of yearning in the work, making the viewer search out its parts.* A filmmaker like Godard will engage his characters, audience, and his own self at every level and moment of this search, actively seeking with them a place where some connections might be made. Bresson absents himself from the work and leaves in his place a broken discourse made up of glances, expressionless faces, and rooms, all finally bespeaking a terrible sadness and incapacity.

144This incapacity and sadness is a major theme of the modernist endeavor. The struggle with despair in life and in art is continual and unavoidable in cultures where individualism is promoted as an essential personal, social, and economic quality but then denied because the social and economic structures will not allow the individual to function with the freedom that is supposed to belong to her or him. Contemporary middle-class art responds to this ideological dilemma by depicting the sufferings of the individual whose expression of self is thwarted. Ingmar Bergman’s films stand almost as archetypes of the expression of the frenzied and tormented self, speaking its despair to an empty world, hoping, after it has torn itself apart, that love will heal it again. Brecht and his followers responded to the theme of self diminishment by asking for an examination of the causes rather than the expression of the despair and by disallowing the spectator’s taking part in it, for that would only communicate it like a disease rather than examine it for a possible cure. Bresson caught the despair when he moved away from the Christian grace that provided something of a cure in his pre-sixties films. Rather than seek out other curative forms, he sought to place the despair at a greater distance, to empty its expression of all but the most essential parts. He makes his cinematic form echo quietly the fragmentation and despair of the soul.

145Despair and disconnection-the alienated personality—is at the center of so much twentieth—century art that the subject would quickly lose interest through repetition were it not for the many forms of expression it is given. The vitality of form and the excitement of discovering life through cinema saved most of the New Wave filmmakers and many of their followers from yielding to it as subject, the way Antonioni and Bresson do. Two post-New Wave British filmmakers, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, attack the subject with sometimes interesting results. Roeg works with alienated subjects quite literally, with strangers in strange lands; Russell takes despair and fills it to overflowing, purging it by choking the audience with its excess.

146Like Resnais, Roeg is fascinated by the cinematic possibilities of manipulating time, not so much fracturing its continuum but playing with his characters’ perceptions of it against the spectators’. To achieve this he uses the intrinsic formal textures of his medium—color, movement, shape, and sound—to build montages in which space is put at the service of time and time at the service of the mysteries of subjective perception and the coincidences of association. The science fiction genre offers the best room for such speculation, and both Roeg and Resnais have tried their hand at it. In Je taime, ie taime (1968) Resnais uses the hoary old convention of the time machine to allow his subject to suffer a kaleidoscope of jarring memories, snatches of images of lost love and bad decisions built into an agony of discontinuity. In The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Roeg does something more interesting. He begins with the equally hoary convention of a visitor from space and then alters it, creating a narrative from the visitor’s perspective, so that the events of the film are seen two ways at once: from the point of view of the naïf, the man who fell to earth, who can barely discriminate ”reality” from the television images of it and cannot separate the nostalgia for his lost home from the betrayals he suffers in his new one; and from our own point of view, in which we see what is happening, attempt to supply the continuity the visitor cannot, and end up as frustrated and lost as he. By the end of the film, when everyone has aged but the visitor, trapped in his own timelessness, the audience comes to share his perspective and even go beyond it, so alienated from a comprehension of the film’s obdurate chronology that we become aliens, wandering outside the fiction while the visitor is imprisoned within it. Roeg was especially adept at making this kind of twice-told tale in which two perceptions of events—from within the film and from the outside—conflict and deform one another. Dont Look Now (1973), is, on the level of plot, a not too interesting story of the occult, of a man who is given presentiments of the future and is lured to a deadly confrontation with a homicidal dwarf in Venice, whom he takes to be the incarnation of his drowned daughter. On the level of perception, however, the film is what it is about—seeing. Colors and shapes, places and figures, keep appearing and reappearing. Space and its possible configurations become as important as time, and the configurations of both give the film a rhythm of the seen and possibly seen, of images associated on the level of form only, their content based on little more than the fact of their being seen. The main character is an architect who has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and it is just this fragile geometry that Roeg explores. Although he blunts his findings by resolving them with a bloody and silly ending, the structure he sets up is larger than the resolution and indicates how well film can play with a discoordination of its images, replacing an inevitable continuity with an ineffable reverie about images and the possible ways of seeing and interpreting them.

147Roeg belongs at a peculiar intersection of contemporary filmmaking. Too commercially oriented and too politically evasive to fit well with modernism or the Brechtian tradition, his films are created to be money— making entertainments, which is no condemnation, given the fact that within this context he is willing and able to position his audience into a perceptually active role, counteracting the simple contours of melodrama with more complex functions, allowing the audience to piece together attenuated bits of information, probing the relationships between them. It is unclear where he is going with these inquiries. His most recent film (as of this writing), Bad Timing (1980), is a nasty bit of business about sexual degradation in which the formal excitement of his previous work is reduced to its most banal components. The deracinated character, searching for self and for feelings, is still present, but now reduced to a moral squalor that is unenlightening and uninteresting. The respect he once showed for his audience and their ability to be engaged by his film’s formal intricacies has vanished. Roeg, like too many other adventurous filmmakers, may have fallen victim to the economic pressures of the business, reducing his imagination to gain distribution. Or he may, in Bad Timing, merely have run out of imagination.

148The work of Ken Russell offers a different response to the subject of the despairing, alienated individual and the problem of audience engagement and melodramatic continuity. His work is based more in the dramatic theory of Antonin Artaud than in that of Brecht. Rather than stand back and analyze events, Russell would overwhelm the spectator with them, present melodramatic gesture so enormous that it goes beyond parody to a point of self-recognition. Near the end of The Music Lovers (1971), Russell’s biography of Tchaikovsky, the composer contemplates the title of his last symphony. He will call it ”Tragic,” as that best defines his life. No, no, says his brother Modeste, ”that’s too pompous.” Call it the ”Pathetic,” he suggests, that’s a much better description of your life. With this kind of deflation effected by one character upon the other, sometimes verbally, but most often in the images and their juxtaposition, Russell attempts to join sympathy with the ridiculous, understanding of suffering with the stupidity of suffering brought on by false perceptions and miscalculation. Deflation occurs through plenitude rather than scarcity: shots are filled with violent action and dynamically edited so that they extend the action or ironically comment upon it. Russell attempts to deal with romantic mythologies by undercutting them with their own absurd excesses: for example, Tchaikovsky lies in a stupor while his passionate patron, Madam von Meek, moves about the room licking the fruit her genius composer has eaten, while the strains of his Romeo and Juliet play on the soundtrack. Again, Tchaikovsky attempts to commit suicide by leaping into a canal. The water, unfortunately, only comes up to his knees, and he stands foolishly as a well-dressed woman walks by with her dog and smiles at him.

149The important part of the Russell canon consists of the films he made for the BBC, ”lives” of Frederick Delius, Isadora Duncan, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Richard Strauss (among others), and feature films, the most important of which are The Music Lovers and The Devils (1971), and to a lesser degree, Savage Messiah (1972) and Mahler (1974). In each, a historical figure or artist is scrutinized in the light of a number of mythologies: the popular myth generated by the figure during and after her or his life and the larger myths created by the genre of film biographies in which the artist (or scientist) struggles for recognition against his or her ignorant peers, dies in the attempt or, more frequently, achieves transcendent recognition. When Russell takes up a biography, the myths are shown to be inadequate or destructive, and the inadequacies—particularly those of the central figure—are not treated gently. Russell puts his figures through a series of cruel, mocking ceremonies of humiliation visited on them by themselves and by the people who surround them. The train sequence in The Music Lovers, in which Nina (Glenda Jackson) attempts to seduce Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain), her homosexual husband, is as savage a moment of hysteria and self-abasement as exists in contemporary film. The participants are drunk and half crazed, the car rocks, the lamp in the compartment swings back and forth creating a mad pattern of light and dark, disguising the cutting and further deranging our senses. In this violence of movement, champagne spills over Nina’s body and Tchaikovsky cringes in terror, the camera alternately looking at the scene from above, regarding his face, then taking his point of view and moving up the hoops of Nina’s skirts, creating a monstrous parody of sexual fear. It is a sequence worthy of the combined cinematic perversions of von Stroheim and Buñuel, and is not the least of the horrors and humiliations Russell heaps upon his characters. Though he is far removed from the quiet analysis of a Bresson or Godard, his challenge to the conventional pieties of film biographies and the hagiography of artists in general gives him an important place in contemporary cinema.

150Russell has spawned no followers, though his influence can be seen in Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1976), whose a temporal kaleidoscope of images and sounds that make up the biography of one particularly distraught artist is more complex than anything Russell has attempted. As for Russell himself, the energy of his early seventies films dissipated rather quickly. In 1980 he moved to Hollywood and made a film called Altered States in which the ironic perspectives and mocking deflations of pomposity that humanized the characters of the earlier films is gone. Instead of putting his characters through an excess of emotion that might clarify their situation for the audience, he puts his audience through an excess of stimuli that clarifies only one thing, that an option for filmmakers with nothing more to say is to assault their audience with image and sound in an attempt to make them believe they have something to say.

151There has always been a great deal of the showman and faker in Russell, and looking back upon the films of the early seventies one can see that he loves the very melodramatic gestures he seems to want to get some distance from. He shares with a more important figure, the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, an inability to secure a consistent point of view. It is true that Pasolini was a much more intelligent filmmaker than Russell is, and films like Teorema (1968) and Pigsty (1969) stand as major Brechtian documents (I shall speak about Pigsty in more detail in the next chapter). But like Russell, Pasolini was capable of losing himself—in pornography, for example and films like The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972) are as scrambled in their exploitative sexuality as is Russell’s Lisztomania (1975). In Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), the last film he made before he was murdered, Pasolini attempted an intriguing social-political-sexual spectacle. He elided Sade’s mathematical epic of sexual cruelty with the late fascist period in Italy, and by so doing moved Sade’s work from the area of quasi-philosophy and speculation into a political arena where it more appropriately belongs. Salò is a huge allegorical fantasy of power and male domination in which the human figure is turned into an object to be exploited, hurt, and destroyed.

152But the events of Salò, despite Pasolini’s attempts to treat them as tableaux, to observe them coldly and distantly, as if they were on some far stage, to make them into a Brechtian spectacle, create as much perverse attraction as they do repulsion. Its final sequence, in which prisoners are literally taken apart and dismembered, is photographed from the point of view of one of the captors observing the scene through binoculars. Even so it is not far enough away, and the viewer is put in the peculiar position of wanting to look at the horrors and being unable to keep from averting his or her eyes at the same time. While the political perspective is never lost in Salò (it is not present at all in Russell’s films), the proper analytical perspective is never quite found. The film hovers between profound anti­fascist statement and crude pornographic horror show, much as—on a considerably lower level—Russell’s films hover between a healthy anti­romanticism and crude pornographic spectacle.


153Inconsistency, unevenness, a fallible point of view ought not to be condemned out of hand. The urge to experiment does not guarantee success; it demonstrates the desire to investigate the limits of commercial filmmaking. The investigations of the sixties and early seventies created as many false starts and dead ends as influential successes. Some figures who began with ingenuity and energy ended in complacency, working within the very forms they once had questioned and abjured. What I have tried to outline here are some of the major paths of inquiry about the nature of narrative cinema. In the following chapter I will re-cover some of this ground from a slightly different perspective, exploring further the influence of Brecht and examining the areas of subjectivity and political response contained within the formal experimentation. But here we need to move away from Italy, France, and England to Germany, where the influence of the movements of the sixties was somewhat delayed. When it appeared, however, the phenomenon that occurred in France in the late fifties was duplicated. Filmmakers such as Alexander Kluge, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog, among others, began to work, like the French New Wave before them, as if they were reinventing cinema. In the early seventies, when the rest of European production seemed to be retreating to those commercial norms that had been under attack in the sixties, the country whose cinema had been in retreat since the late twenties came alive.

  • 63 Thomas Elsaesser, The Postwar German Cinema, in Fassbinder, ed. Tony Rayns (London: British Film (...)

154It was hardly a spontaneous generation or a virgin birth. There had been some active and engaged probing of cinematic possibilities in Germany in the sixties, producing films that went against the chaotic, reactionary, and basically American-dominated production and distribution methods of the forties and fifties, which had included the re-release by German distributors of ”scores of Nazi entertainment films from the Thirties and Forties... at rates with which new films could not compete.”63 Alexander Kluge, whose works are rarely seen in America, began, in Yesterday Girl (1966) and Artists under the Big Top: Disoriented (1967), to experiment with some Godardian and Brechtian methods of narrative deconstruction. Volker Schlöndorff, whose Tin Drum in 1980 marked the popular acceptance of German film when it won an Academy Award, made some small movements toward an examination of his country’s history in his 1966 film Young Törless. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, although French by birth, made their early films in Germany and served as an important model for the younger filmmakers. In 1962, a group of filmmakers, Kluge among them, issued a manifesto at the Oberhausen film festival. It summarizes attitudes now familiar to us. We have seen versions of them in the statements about neorealism and in the proclamations of Godard and Truffaut in the fifties. They are the attitudes that always precede a fundamental alteration of a nation’s cinema:

  • 64 Quoted in ibid., p. 8.

The collapse of the commercial German film industry finally removes the economic basis for a mode of filmmaking whose attitude and practice we reject. With it, the new film has a chance to come to life. The success of German shorts at international festivals demonstrates that the future of the German cinema lies with those who have shown that they speak the international language of the cinema. This new cinema needs new forms of freedom: from the conventions and habits of the established industry, from intervention by commercial partners, and finally freedom from the tutelage of other vested interests. We have specific plans for the artistic, formal and economic realisation of this new German cinema. We are collectively prepared to take the economic risks. The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new64.

  • 65 Much has been written on the financial arrangements that make the work of the new German filmmakers (...)

155The difference in emphasis between this proclamation and some others is interesting. It assumes that a new ”international” language of cinema exists and certainly could not help but assume this, since the filmmakers involved were following closely the work that was going on in the rest of Europe. The focus of the statement, therefore, is on the financial means of getting that language spoken in Germany. The French could find independent producers willing to take risks. Few people took risks in the German film community, dominated as it was by political fears and American capital. It was not until the state moved in with a complex and never very satisfactory financing program, providing subsidies (often through state­run television), and a group of filmmakers joined to form a distribution collective (Filmverlag der Autoren) that the financing and distribution problems began to be resolved65. With that resolution, as complicated and incomplete as it was, a blossoming of talent occurred that recapitulated and consummated the movements in European cinema begun in the forties, and German cinema finally emerged in the late seventies as the most advanced form of commercial narrative cinema in the West.

  • 66 The political climate in West Germany is discussed by Jan Dawson, The Sacred Terror: Shadows of Te (...)

156The new German filmmakers carry an aesthetic-political burden heavier than that borne by their European predecessors. German expressionism, German fascism, American occupation, the ”economic miracle” (the explosive growth of postwar capitalist endeavor), and a recent wave of political oppression that threatens to cut off the state financing that originally enabled these filmmakers to work, if the work they do strikes the state as being too far to the left, constitute both material for and a danger to their films66. They have had to confront a past more complicated than that of any of their European colleagues, and out of the confrontation has come a cinema more informed by its past than any other (with, perhaps, the exception of the Italian) and more able to speak to the present because of this—though apparently unable to speak to its own people, for the ”New German Cinema” has been celebrated more widely abroad than in its own country. Germans still prefer American films. But this is hardly a unique situation.

157Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog, the three best-known figures of the movement, and the ones with the largest body of work available in the United States, demonstrate three distinct methods of approach, with equally distinct concerns for formal and contextual matters. Wenders, to a greater extent than the others, is taken by America and American cinema. Even more than the young Godard, he is obsessed by American things, American rock music, the American landscape, both physical and moral, and its interaction with the German. ”The Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” says one of the characters in Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976). And they have colonized Wenders’s films, which are all meditations on movement, on travel without direction or clear goal, in and out of Germany, in and out of the United States, with cities traversed and borders crossed to the sound of rock and amid the desolate emptiness of characters who barely react to or comprehend their own incessant motion. In his major films—The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971), Alice in the Cities (1973), The Wrong Move (1974), Kings of the Road (1976), and The American Friend (1977)—Wenders seems to be trying to make and remake, to make sense out of, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (in fact, Dennis Hopper plays the title role in The American Friend). Easy Rider was a dirge to late-sixties America. Its two characters cross the country on motorcycles, carrying dope, seeking to free their spirits and the spirits of those around them, and at the end are killed by rednecks. Easy Rider is a smug film, full of self-congratulation; Hopper and Fonda project a quasi-innocence on the central characters; almost everyone else is either uncomprehending or full of hate. But it is also a summation of the image of the road, a motif that has run through American film since the thirties.

  • 67 David Wilt, Driving the Rough Road: The Outlaw Couple in American Film, 1937-1976, (M.A. thesis, (...)

158The road is more than physical presence in American film; it is a sign—a communicative cultural presence connoting freedom of movement, adventure, discovery, danger, escape. A catalogue of various images of the car on the highway would be a structural index to our ideology of individual freedom and the conflicts, bad dreams, and disappointments that ideology leads to67. Wenders is in awe of the ideology, conscious of its built-in disappointments, and, in his desire to work some of its images into his own cultural and political milieu, able only to deal with the dark, conflicted end of it. For Wenders, the obsessive recurrence of the road and car and their alternates-trains, subways, airplanes, trucks—proves only one thing: that his characters cannot go anywhere. Whether they are German or American, in Germany or America, despair and anxiety are the only results of their movements and in turn the only things that make them want to move again. Although, as we have seen, despair and anxiety are common themes (and in fact Wenders owes much to Antonioni for subject matter and for the setting of his characters in a landscape), Wenders is able to overcome the commonplace by the way he constructs his central metaphor, sets off external movement against internal stasis, and elides European and American sensibilities.

  • * This picture is similar to a painting Ripley gives Jonathan to restore. The painting is by an artis (...)

159Wenders’s visual and narrative perspectives present some important variations on the cinematic developments of the sixties. He tends to build his films in brief, almost episodic accretions. His suppression of transitional material is as extreme as Godard’s, though not as radical as Straub and Huillet’s, but unlike either he does not care to distance or alienate his audience from the narrative events—only his characters. Their life in transition has no transitions. In some respects he employs Truffaut’s technique of ”privileged moments,” observations of instances when small actions unaccountably occur that enlighten all the participants and give pleasure or surprise, if not revelation. However, unlike what occurs in Truffaut’s work, the enlightenment that occasionally befalls Wenders’s characters is only transitory. They never learn anything and only rarely change. The spectator learns of them; we see them alone in the frame, often surrounded by the things that mark their occupations or preoccupations, traveling in a car or train. Ripley, the Dennis Hopper character in The American Friend, wears a cowboy hat (”What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” he asks), and drives a white Thunderbird through the Hamburg streets. He lives in a dilapidated mansion that looks like the White House, in a dark room dominated by a pool table covered in plastic, on which is a box of cornflakes. A Coke machine and jukebox stand in the corner (the jukebox—the gaudy American house of pop-figures in the environment of many Wenders films, and often in Fassbinder’s) and a neon ”Canada Dry” sign hangs from the ceiling. Jonathan (played by Bruno Ganz, who has become the most recognizable face in the new German cinema), a picture restorer and frame-maker used by the ”mob” to kill various people, who is befriended by Ripley and betrays him, is found either in his shop, where Wenders composes him with his picture frames, punning on the fact that he is indeed ”framed,” or with his wife and child in his old flat in an isolated tenement on the Hamburg waterfront. The flat is filled with static images of movement: a model funicular railroad in his son’s room, on which Jonathan always bumps his head; a zoetrope, that proto-motion picture machine in which one can see figures endlessly repeat the same small physical action; a lampshade with a steam locomotive painted on it that appears to blow smoke from its chimney.*

160When not in one of these two places, Jonathan is on the move between Hamburg and Paris, in trains, on the metro, on escalators, pursued or in pursuit. The movement gets him nowhere but deeper into trouble, betrayed, and finally betraying. Because it is so much a reflection of the film noir thriller (Wenders even deals with the noir theme of the man wrenched from domestic circumstances by corrupt characters), there is more physical action in The American Friend than in most of the European cinema we are examining here. But it is action meditated upon more than engaged in. In every sequence, even the most violent, Wenders will pause to observe, or add an extra shot so slightly peripheral to the central action of the sequence that it serves as a kind of punctuation and redirects our attention away from the sequence’s center. This is a formal strategy common to most of his work, in which the gaze at the character and his situation (it is usually the male who is given greatest attention) becomes more important than what the character is doing precisely at the time. The neorealist tradition again pokes through. Wenders is fascinated by the way people can be seen manipulating and being manipulated by their environment. But unlike the neorealist environment, the one Wenders creates does not so much define as set them off, characterize them negatively sometimes, even abstractly by presenting a few key elements. The determinant spaces in Wenders’s films cross the line of neorealism to its opposite, an expressionist tendency that forms those spaces to reflect states of being. Thus Ripley’s room in The American Friend is designed as an idea of the alienated American abroad, who brings with him garish bits of his culture. Elsewhere, there is a sequence in which Jonathan is in an airport. He rides a moving walkway and sees a man fall down in front of him. The shots are cut in such a way as to create the momentary impression that he is seeing himself stumble and fall. We see him walking through the terminal, the camera tracking before him. He suddenly looks around and Wenders cuts from that movement to a dolly in toward him sleeping in the waiting room in front of an enormous complex of escalators. Making the cut on his looking about creates the expectation that the next shot will be of something he sees. Instead we see him, by means of the portentous dolly, in front of an overwhelming impersonal structure of people in movement. The result is disorienting, threatening the very qualities of the character’s state of mind.

A meeting of cultures, a meeting of cinemas. Nicholas Ray (above); Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper (below) in The American Friend (above: Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive; below: New Yorker Films)

  • 68 Pierrot Le Fou, trans. Peter Whitehead (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), pp. 28-33. I have slig (...)

161Wenders is one of the few German filmmakers who feel comfortable with their expressionist inheritance. Fassbinder alludes to it; Herzog, even though he remade F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, keeps reacting in one way or another against it. Wenders, perhaps because he has managed both to absorb and be critical of American cinema, feels less intimidated by his own heritage. Although his films are about anxiety and irresolution, their form is secure and resolved. The dialogue he carries on with American film is much more at ease than is, for example, the dialogue that Godard carried on with it early in his career. The New Wave wanted to make American film by not making American film; they wanted to discover its essence and recenter it within a subjective context, a process that results in the conflict the films manifest between genre and personality. When the American filmmaker Samuel Fuller appears in Godard’s Pierrot le fou, it is at a party where, playing himself, he answers Ferdinand’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) question ”What is cinema?” Fuller responds (each word translated into French by another guest): ”The film is like a battleground... Love... Hate... Action... Violence... Death... In one word... Emotion.”68 — These are the qualities Godard examines in his films, analyzes (Pierrot is in fact a glossary of them), but never creates directly without mediation and meditation.

  • * Kings of the Road is dedicated to Fritz Lang, who was a major part of the expres­sionist movement i (...)

162When Samuel Fuller appears in The American Friend (which pays homage to Pierrot le fou in many ways), it is as a character who is part of the story, a mafia porno king. He is implanted in the action; but because he is Sam Fuller, he also glosses it, his very presence, like that of Nicholas Ray, addressing Wenders’s relationship to American film. Thus Wenders’s examination of the American tradition is absorbed into the fiction itself. More than Godard, he makes his narratives self-sufficient, though still allusive and meditative, though to a lesser extent than Godard’s. His work reflects the second generation after the New Wave, which is more ready to accept what Godard and his generation had to confront. This acceptance seems to make it easier for Wenders to deal with his own tradition. After all, American film had no trouble absorbing German expressionism, and it is reasonable to suppose that Wenders came to his own tradition via its American forties manifestation in film noir.*The landscapes and rooms he finds or creates for his characters extend their psychological state; they do not overwhelm them, as did the artificial sets of the Germans in the twenties. The characters exist comfortably in them, for there is no hysteria in Wenders’s work, as there was in the expressionists’ and even in American film noir. His is a comfortable and lyrical despair. And what is finally most remarkable about him is his ability to give a new visual and narrative power to the convention of the despairing, alienated hero, to examine it in the light of his country’s own cultural tensions. No other filmmaker has dealt with the American presence in the European subconscious so directly.

  • 69 Mike Bygrave and Joan Goodman, Meet Me in Las Vegas, American Film, 7 (October, 1981), 41-42; Lyn (...)

163Unfortunately, Wenders runs the risk of yielding to it. Like so many of the German directors of the twenties (though not for their political reasons), he left his country to work in America, for the new doyen of international filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola. He directed the film Hammett (a project Nicolas Roeg was once interested in), which he completed in 1982 despite conflicts with his producers69.

  • 70 Short Organum, p. 193.
  • 71 See Richard Dyer, Reading Fassbinders Sexual Politics, in Rayns, Fassbinder, p. 58.

164Like Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was concerned with the American presence. But for him it was not an obsessive concern, rather one of many determinants of modern German culture, and one way for him to work out some formal problems. Fassbinder found in the forms of fifties American melodrama stylistic methods that he could refashion and bring to bear on his own cultural and political insights. His movement back to and out of the fifties was as curious and enlightening a use of influence as any we have come across so far, and must be examined in the larger context of his work. The most prolific of filmmakers, he directed and usually wrote some thirty-nine full-length films between 1969 and 1982, including multi­episode series for television (which count as one film on his filmography). He began work in the theater and gathered around him a group of players, many of whom remained with him, appearing in one guise or another in film after film. Unlike the repertory companies of other European filmmakers (Bergman in particular), the individuals of this group rarely settled into fixed roles. Though they are instantly recognizable, they continually change types. In each Fassbinder film a Brechtian split is always present between the player we recognize and the character being created. ”At no moment,” wrote Brecht, ”must [the actor] go so far as to be wholly transformed into the character played .”70 Along with this anti-realist, anti-illusionary device goes one other element. With the exception of Hanna Schygulla (whose ”star” performance in The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978, may have helped make that film Fassbinder’s most popular with Americans, who still tend to separate a character from the total narrative the character is part of), most of Fassbinder’s company, including Fassbinder himself, who often played a role in a film, are uniquely and wonderfully ugly, particularly in contrast to the kind of face we expect to see in an American film71. They are not ugly in the manner of the grotesques that populate Fellini’s films. Fellini calls our attention to them, using them to create awe or amusement. The ugly faces in Fassbinder’s films do not attract attention, but rather divert it, out of the fiction to a consideration of the face in film. They so work against the kind of attractiveness we are used to that they make us conscious of its absence.

165From the very beginning of his career, then, Fassbinder forced the viewer to look at something that was, in the context of normal viewing experience, unappealing: players who were not beautiful, in roles that did not exploit the conventions of psychological realism because the player always stood back somewhat from the role itself. In the early films, this standing back is very pronounced. In Katzelmacher and Gods of the Plague (1969), The American Soldier (1970; the latter two are variations of the American gangster film), Beware of a Holy Whore (also 1970, an enervated homage to Godard’s lyrical film about filmmaking, Contempt), the pace of acting and cutting is slowed to a monotonous crawl. The camera is essentially frontal and static, and the players do little more than recite their words. Katzelmacher, which signals a favorite Fassbinder subject, the foreigner entering a German working— class milieu—here a Greek immigrant worker who boards with a couple and creates enormous racial and sexual tensions among the neighborhood layabouts—is made up of a number of scenes, each taking up the length of one shot. The neighborhood group lounges by a wall, observed frontally, from a medium distance, in carefully posed and unchanging positions, intoning their discontents. Some of the characters have various sexual escapades in a room. Every once in a while, two characters are seen walking down an alley between two buildings, the camera tracking before them and a melody heard on the sound track (the only times in the film that camera movement and music are allowed). Katzelmacher is an important (if barely watchable) exercise in which Fassbinder brings to bear on his work its major initial influences, Godard, Straub, and Brecht. The energies of Godard’s (and Brecht’s) analyses of class and character are countered by the recessiveness of Straub and Huillet’s method of giving the viewer only the barest essentials, forcing him or her to construct the film from small amounts of information on the screen.

A gallery of Fassbinder faces: Günter Lamprecht, Gisela Uhlen, Gottfried John, Anton Schirsner, Hanna Schygulla, Elisabeth Trissenaar. The Marriage of Maria Braun (New Yorker Films)

  • 72 Quoted in J. C. Franklin, The Films of Fassbinder: Form and Formula, Quarterly Review of Film Stu (...)

166But Fassbinder recognized the dangers of the Straubian method. To cut off the spectator from wanting the film and the film from wanting the spectator, allowing the confrontation of both to create only a space between, filled with denial on the filmmaker’s part and resistance on the spectator’s, is counterproductive, and counter to Brecht’s desire that the work should clarify thought rather than obscure it. Fassbinder’s ultimate rejection of Straub was due to a desire on his part to speak to an audience intellectually and emotionally. ”Films from the brain are all right, but if they don’t reach the audience, it’s no good... . [Straub] tried to be revolutionary and human in an inhuman way.”72 This strong response to the extremities of modernism is indicative not only of Fassbinder’s, but of most of the 1 new German filmmakers’ concern that they not become another splinter movement, another critically respected but commercially ignored group of ”independent” filmmakers. Independent, that is, of an audience and without an outlet for the distribution of their work. They were aware that the sources of financing as well as the audience in the early seventies were less open to cinematic experiment than in the early sixties. They were aware too that the government money they depended upon at the beginning of their careers would probably not be forthcoming for films that seemed arrogantly to defy their audience. To use cinema to investigate the way the world looked, they would have to make cinema that invited viewers to look at its investigations.

  • * Anti-teater was the name of Fassbinders early theater group and production com­ pany. Substitute (...)

167The first move in this direction was, for Fassbinder, a false one. In 1969, in the middle of his cold and distanced anti-teater films, he co-directed with Michael Fengler Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?* The film contains the seeds of Fassbinder’s thematics—a dull and passive petit bourgeois, with a boring office job, boring wife, and boring self, kills his family and hangs himself in the office toilet. But the film is created in a style that proved extremely uncomfortable for Fassbinder. Filmed in grainy, sixteen-millimeter color, mostly with a hand-held camera and available light, in long takes, it summarizes most of the cinéma vérité conventions of the time used in the service of a fictional subject. In other words, the film assumes the anxious gaze of a clinical observer of the events, curious but uninvolved, needful of seeing, but uncertain as to what to do with what is seen. It contains some fine sequences, such as a drawn-out act of humiliation in a record shop as Herr R. (played by Kurt Raab, one of Fassbinder’s major ugly actors) tries to describe to the shop girls an inane tune he wants to buy for his wife. But the series of humiliations and the inarticulate despair suffered by the character remain undefined and unanalyzed. We see them but do not understand them, and the question posed by the film’s title is only partially explored and never adequately answered.

168Mock realism was not to be the answer to Straubian rigor. Fassbinder had to go back to an unexpected American source in order to rediscover the usefulness of his European influences. Godard’s influence upon the anti­teater films is noticeable in the camera’s head-on, ninety-degree gaze at the characters, and in the concentration on their endless talk. What is missing is Godard’s ability to engage us in the talk and to fracture and layer the discourse of the films, so that many ”voices” can be heard at once. Also missing is the analysis of the characters and their social/political situation that the multiple discourse can supply. Unlike Godard’s characters, Fassbinder’s appear separated from their environment. He needed a way to bring the characters forward without denying the information supplied by their surroundings, while at the same time preventing the audience from identifying with them.

169Godard had applied Brecht, in various measures, to the genres of American film. The result was a series of essays and reveries on the musical (A Woman Is a Woman), the ”woman’s picture” (My Life to Live), the war film (Les carabiniers), the science fiction film (Alphaville), the romantic thriller (Pierrot le fou), each an attempt to come to an intellectual understanding of its genre, analyze its elements, and speak to, rather than merely absorb and evade, its points of political and social contact. Fassbinder went through some of the genres, and chose one, the one that encompasses all of them (and has been our central concern in this study), melodrama. He went to a particular kind of melodrama, formalized in the series of films Douglas Sirk made for Universal Pictures in the fifties. These films—particularly Written on the Wind (which not only had its influence on Fassbinder, but is the progenitor of the American television series Dallas), All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, and Imitation of Life—are the summa of American film melodrama. Not merely because they play so richly with family intrigues, despondent women and idealistic men, the sexually hyperactive and the passively homey; not only because they give us the expected situations of thwarted loves and crumbling business empires, conniving and denying, emotions too large and too demanding ever to exist in the plain air of experience; but because on an unobtrusive level they are aware of exactly what they are doing. Sirk was an intelligent European filmmaker in an unintelligent American business, contracted to make unintelligent films. He survived his obligations by crafting spectacular soap operas, in which he emphasized the grand operatic gestures of the genre and exaggerated the glowing pastel colors of fifties Technicolor (his cinematographer was Russell Metty, adept at sweeping crane shots and a rich, expressive lighting style; he photographed Touch of Evil for Orson Welles).

  • 73 See Christopher Orr, Closure and Containment: Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Wide Angle, (...)

170Sirk was in no position to make Brechtian cinema or indicate in any obtrusive way that he was aware of the absurdities of his material. But he was able to extend these absurdities just to the point of stylization—that is, almost to the point where, as in Chabrol’s films, they reveal themselves as being absurd. The crazed, masturbatory dance that the nymphomaniac Dorothy Malone character performs in her room while her father has a heart attack downstairs, his cries drowned out by her music, does not quite leap out of its context in Written on the Wind. We expect that in melodrama a bad girl will carry on while her father dies. Sirk fulfills our expectations (that is the greatest obligation of the melodramatist), but gives us slightly more; he exaggerates the already exaggerated, but then holds back. He will not deny us our feelings, but try on some level to enhance our understanding of them. The Malone character is an overstated figure of the explosion of destructive sexuality, of passion breaking through the corporate propriety of a male-dominated society. The more she uses her sexuality as a weapon, the more she is seen as the victim of repression, of the distortion of sexuality 1 by power—as, finally, she stands under a portrait of her father, fondling a very phallic model of an oil well73. Sirk makes the lack of subtlety a virtue. For with it he shows us what melodrama is about, if we care to look: the various forms of repression. The deer that appears at the window at the end of All That Heaven Allows is not merely a sappy image in a film drenched with our tears, but a necessary punctuation, a symbol (with all its connotations of gentleness and innocence) of two passive and quiet people who are the objects of abuse and forced to deny their desire by the proper townsfolk and family who see their union as unseemly. One may groan as the deer sadly looks in the house where Jane Wyman sits at the bedside of her young lover, Rock Hudson. Groan or not, its appearance is necessary. Sirk cultivates all the groaning silliness of melodrama, recognizes its silliness, but stops just short of showing it up. Instead by over decorating it, embellishing it with color and movement and reflections in mirrors, he attempts to redeem the form.

171But he cannot. Melodrama cannot be redeemed from the inside, primarily because it is so absorptive. It can suck any subject and almost any attitude into its center and adapt it, a fact demonstrated by the way American film has, with only a few recent exceptions, used melodrama to encompass all of its non-comedic statements. Almost all of the filmmakers I have been discussing have tried to confront and examine this phenomenon, but only Fassbinder confronted it head-on by, in effect, yielding to it. He enters the melodramatic structures of Sirk’s films and reemerges able to make them comment upon and reveal themselves. It would be misleading to imply that his attraction to Sirk was based only upon an unsullied intellectual understanding of their expressive possibilities; he was also attracted to the garishness, the pastel tackiness of the Sirkean mise-en-scène. But he could make use of that garishness, along with the exaggerations and posturings of the fifties faces and bodies that populate Sirk’s films, to manifest psychological states and social situations relevant to contemporary Germany. There is an undeniable campiness in Fassbinder’s work and with that a homosexual subtext that some believe runs through all of his films (Fassbinder was an outspoken gay). Richard Dyer has tried to analyze the double perspective that arises from this attraction to the gaudiness and posturings of fifties American cinema and the functional, analytical use Fassbinder turned it to:

  • 74 Dyer, Fassbinders Sexual Politics, pp. 62-63.

On the one hand camp is relentlessly trivializing, but on the other its constant play with the vocabulary of straight society (in particular, the excesses of male and female role-playing) sends up that society in a needlingly undermining way.... One... has to recognize that it is Fassbinder’s camp that has allowed him to develop the kind of foregrounding techniques which critics have usually preferred to ascribe purely to Brechtianism74.

  • * Perhaps not every time. There are films in which Fassbinders outrageousness does not yield insight (...)

172Camp, when it functions beyond nostalgia or the glorification of the trivial (as it does not in the works of Andy Warhol, to whom Fassbinder is often and incorrectly compared), is a method of ”making strange.” Fassbinder’s melodrama sometimes reaches outrageous proportions and refuses to resolve into the conventional repose melodrama always offers (the deer looking through the window as Jane Wyman comforts Rock Hudson). By exaggerating the characters and their situations through parodying fifties melodramatic techniques, Fassbinder is able to analyze the personal and social relationships between his characters and between his characters and ourselves. The stereotypes created by non-reflexive melodrama— even the melodrama of Sirk, which exaggerates and plays itself up rather than reflecting upon itself—when placed in a different context, a different country, a different time, become something other than stereotypes.*

173Unlike Dyer, I would not substitute the model of camp for the model of Brecht. Fassbinder’s ”campiness” is rather a part of the greater Brechtian strategy he uses throughout the Sirk-influenced films (which include most of his output from Merchant of the Four Seasons, 1971, through The Desire of Veronika Voss, 1982). The primary result of bringing melodramatic posturing to the fore, making the viewer observe it as if for the first time, is to create an estrangement from it. Suddenly we must examine what was taken for granted. The desire to draw our attention to the way we look at the image and its contents is something Fassbinder shares with all the filmmakers examined here, but none of the others, not even Chabrol or Russell, is willing to come so dangerously close to the foam rubber and satin soul of fifties melodrama as is Fassbinder in his attempt to transmogrify it. Nor is anyone quite so willing to play with his audience, to allow them to think they are coming to an emotional understanding of a situation, only to break that closeness by having the characters freeze into a tableau or by composing them within the frame of a doorway so that the viewer must observe them through the screen frame and then through a frame within that frame—often while those characters stand motionless and stare as we sit motionless and stare at them.

  • 75 Thats one of the greatest films in the world. Fassbinder in an interview with John Hughes and Br (...)

174Fassbinder works many variations upon his basic model. At one extreme, he pays direct homage to Godard. Effi Briest (1974), based on a story by Theodor Fontane, is about a woman (played by Hanna Schygulla) destroyed by nineteenth-century cultural and sexual restrictions. Fassbinder films it in cold black-and-white episodes, rigorously composed and static, in the style of My Life to Live, a film that influenced him tremendously75. Here the melodrama is squelched before it has a chance to emerge, and we are forced to observe block after block of imagery that bespeaks the character’s willingness to be passively abused by a closed social order. On the other end, he makes an almost straightforward commercial narrative. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, the melodrama of a woman who refuses to be passive, who makes her career by any means, is played against another, hidden melodrama, the German ”economic miracle.” In both the overt melodrama of the rise to power of a lower-middle-class survivor of the war, and the hidden one of the rise to power of a lower-middle-class country that survived the war, Fassbinder examines the prostitution of good faith and the manipulation of everyone by everyone else that are necessary for continued survival in a capitalist milieu. Maria Braun’s universe is created by explosion, as the old Germany is blown up at war’s end. She and her new husband lie on their bellies in the rubble, signing their marriage contract.

  • 76 The film is full of radio news reports, which, like the broadcast of the soccer match, provide a ne (...)

175The film concludes with an explosion when her husband, Hermann, returns after serving a long prison term and a self-imposed exile, having taken the blame for killing Maria’s postwar lover, a black American soldier. Maria did the killing to prove her attachment to her husband; but Hermann, long­suffering soul of the nation, took the punishment. As he suffers in prison, Maria works and whores her way to corporate preeminence. In their strained reunion, in an enormous house in which Maria lives alone, while the radio blares the commentary of a soccer match (it is 1954 and the match is the first world cup Germany ever won), Maria absent-mindedly leaves a gas burner on76. When she goes to light her cigarette on it, she blows up the house and herself.

176The Marriage of Maria Braun, more than any other Fassbinder film, depends on plot, on the interaction and continuity of events, to inform its structure, rather than on the way those events are cinematically observed (this may help account for its great popularity with American audiences). But even in this tumbling accretion of events and the double, almost allegorical text that Fassbinder asks us to read, he forces a necessary distance. By refusing to make a pure allegory in which each step in Maria’s career can be used as a key to understanding postwar Germany, but hinting enough so that we may not fall in with the outrageous episodes of Maria’s career without considering their political significance, we are kept jostled and removed enough to perceive the ambiguities of an individual and a country on the make, as well as of the garnering of power and all the destruction inherent in that process.

177While The Marriage of Maria Braun is not filmed in the zero-degree style of the conventional Hollywood film, neither does it give a complete example of Fassbinder’s stylistic and ideological methodology. If we go back to some earlier films, to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Fear Eats the Soul (1973), we can see more clearly the structuring principles he employs. Petra is another film deeply influenced by Godard. Its subject is a dress designer who lives with her mute, black-dressed, red-lipsticked secretary and slave, Marlene (played by Irm Hermann, whose mean, pinched face causes the spectator discomfort in many of Fassbinder’s films). Petra (Margit Carstensen) has an affair with Karin, a young working-class model (played by Hanna Schygulla), that involves a back-and-forth shift of power and humiliation, ownership and abuse in which Fassbinder uses the lesbian situation to indicate how insidious the patriarchal codes of domination and subservience are no matter which gender adopts them. The hurtful struggles for control are shaped by means of a carefully designed shooting style and a mise-en-scène that defines the characters at every instant. The action takes place in one room; the shots are long and precise; the characters speak slowly and deliberately. A mural of a Baroque painting covers one wall. In it, a number of reclining nudes are dominated by a central male figure, and the characters in the film are placed beneath this figure at various points in their rise and fall. Three white mannequins stand about the room, composed as the bleached, lifeless surrogates of the principal characters. At one point, after Karin has left and a hysterical Petra is surrounded by her daughter, her mother, and her cousin, two of the dummies are seen lying on top of each other, while the third looks on. They function as the dumb reminders of the power-hungry affair between Petra and Karin and of Marlene’s mute witness to it all. With the mural and the dummies, Fassbinder is able to create a modified expressionism. Along with carefully made compositions that stress the emotional locations of the characters at any given moment, they allow him to extend the limited physical space and indicate the psychological struggles going on.

Above: Marlene, who looks (Irm Hermann). Below: Petra, Karin, and the mural (Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla). The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (both New Yorker Films)

  • 77 Quoted by Franklin, Films of Fassbinder, 174. See also Judith Mayne, Fassbinder and Spectatorshi (...)

178”Indicate” is the operative word. The strained, sometimes hysterical confrontations of the characters are transposed to their gestures and reflected in the design and objects of the room. We watch the reflections of their psychological state rather than the states themselves. ”Melodramatic films are correct films,” Fassbinder once said. ”The American method of making them, however, left the audience with emotions and nothing else. I want to give the spectator the emotions along with the possibility of reflecting on and analyzing what he is feeling.”77 Petra suffers to an extraordinary degree, but our emotional access to her suffering is blocked by the static, almost incantatory style of the acting; by Fassbinder’s refusal to show us everything we want to see; or by his covering what we want with a distraction—the sound of Marlene’s typing, for example, which accompanies the sequence of Petra and Karin’s first meeting. A point is reached where the suffering is suffering about suffering, a sign of the thing itself. And we finally are not allowed to experience a resolution, even when the character seems to resolve her own problems. Three distinct climaxes are created in the film, each one skewing us away from a satisfying closure, forcing us into a position of confrontation with our own perceptions. When Karin leaves her, Petra has a nervous breakdown. But it is for us no intimate and horrifying expression of loss and despair. Instead, Fassbinder manufactures the elements of every such breakdown suffered by a woman in an American film of the forties or fifties. Petra is sprawled on the rug of the room, which is now emptied of all furniture. The mural, however, still dominates. She lies with a whiskey bottle, a doll that looks like Karin, and a telephone. She writhes and yells. Every time the phone rings she leaps for it, expecting to hear Karin’s voice, slamming it down when it proves not to be her. Through it all, the camera stays at her level, distorting the space, emphasizing her abysmal situation. Her mother, daughter, and cousin visit her; the spectral Marlene watches over everything. Through it all, Petra rants and insults. She hurls her whiskey bottle at the mural. She appalls her mother by telling her of her lesbian affair, and finally tries to throw them out, threatening suicide.

179At which point Fassbinder literally puts a stop to the proceedings. With the camera at floor level, looking at Petra on the rug with her phone and her doll, her mother’s legs in the right foreground, her cousin and daughter back by the mural (whose dominant male figure centers the composition), Marlene in the rear at the left looking on, the characters freeze into a tableau. On the sound track, a male voice sings an aria from Verdi. The shot holds for some seventy seconds as the complex situation of the frozen characters, the aria, and our gaze slowly pulls us away and rearranges our perspective. The grand opera of Petra’s passions is now seen to be just that: a prolonged aria about emotion, but not emotion itself. We have been made spectators to it (as we always are) but are now permitted to comprehend not the emotions, but the playing of emotions. Fassbinder is saying a great deal about sexual politics in this film; he is saying even more about the politics of spectatorship, about how the viewer is controlled by melodramatic form, and how he or she can be given back that control and allowed to judge the propriety of image and event. It is one of the fine distancing moments in contemporary cinema.

180The tableau finally fades to black. We have been given distance and an opportunity to resolve the problems of the film and its characters. Now Fassbinder gives the characters an opportunity to resolve their problems. When the image fades back in to Petra, she has achieved a new calm. She lies in bed and talks to her mother (Marlene stares from the doorway). For the first time since the beginning of the film she is without wig and makeup. She now realizes that her attraction to Karin was not love at all, but the desire for possession. Karin calls, but Petra, once hysterical, is now restrained and refuses to see her. She says she is at peace and Mama leaves. In the finest tradition of Joan Crawford, our heroine has discovered an inner strength. The only thing left for her is to make amends to her slave, Marlene. As she approaches her, Fassbinder composes Petra in a shot that indicates that her new-found understanding may not be very thorough. She is seen (as often throughout the film) through a set of wooden shelves that frame her face. Opposite her face is a doll. The peace and kindness she claims to have discovered are challenged by the blocked, restricting frame, the toy doll, the objects that cause us to pull away from a direct observation of the character. Petra is still removed, from herself and from us. We may not sympathize with her new calm and understanding any more than we could with her old hysteria. Marlene, the dumb chorus to all the proceedings, has a dim comprehension of the treachery of feelings and reacts accordingly. Petra offers her freedom and joy, promising that they will work together. Marlene smiles and, still the slave, kisses Petra’s hand. But her mistress refuses the gesture and instead, as she has earlier done with Karin, urges Marlene to tell her about herself.

181Marlene looks at Petra and immediately walks off. Petra puts on a record, the Platters singing ”The Great Pretender” (fifties rock becomes an interesting analogue to the nineteenth-century operatic aria). In a far shot of the room, darkened, with Petra lying in bed, Marlene returns with a suitcase. She moves back and forth, packing her things, which include a gun that she casually drops in. She takes her case and the doll that looks like Karin, and leaves. Petra turns off the light and goes to sleep, and the film ends. The only certainty is that Marlene has come to some understanding of the tyranny of feelings and of the danger of proprietorship inherent in the words ”Tell me about yourself,” while we have learned about the possibilities of overcoming the proprietary assumptions of films that manipulate our emotions.

182In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant Fassbinder created the kind of enclosed, hothouse confessional that Ingmar Bergman is so attracted to (he recognized the connection, and in one shot, when Karin tells Petra the amazing story of how her father killed her mother and himself, he frames the two in imitation of the famous two-shot of Alma and Elizabeth in Persona, one character facing front, the other turned slightly). But the hothouse quality is continually punctured by the absurdity of the characters’gestures, their overreactions, the very clothes they wear, which are parodies of high­fashion chic. In short, Fassbinder reveals the absurdities of excess that lie just below the surface of Bergman’s melodramas and exposes them baldly for the conventions they are. The exaggerations and the highly stylized cinematic treatment of them constitute not reality, but one of many possible ways of observing it.

183Petra is a formal exercise, one approach to the complexities of sexual relationships. It provides an alternative to the abstractions of Effi Briest, where the action is stopped at regular intervals, formed into discrete episodes of faltering and blocked passion. Petra employs exaggeration and indirection to point up the dangers of emotions overindulged and manipulated. What it does not do (apart from persistently reminding us of the patriarchal order) is demonstrate Fassbinder’s skill in dealing with socially determined relationships, particularly those of working people, a class he has been more successful in treating than any filmmaker since the neorealists. In 1974 he in effect remade Petra from the perspective of male homosexuality. The film, called Fox and His Friends in English—though its original title, Faustrecht der Freiheit, which roughly means ”Might makes right,” is more precise—concerns a working-class gay, played by Fassbinder, who is taken up by a group of bourgeois men who proceed to exploit and humiliate him. Like Petra, the film is less concerned with homosexuality—something taken for granted by both works—than with manipulations for power that, in the case of Fox, depend on class structure more than on sexual proclivity. In both films homosexuality is a primary distancing device. We are presented with what is for many of us an alien world. The milieu is then used by Fassbinder to get at other important problems. Fox does not close itself off from the world, as does Petra, and its narrative parallels the standard Hollywood melodrama of the woman who falls in love with a man out of her class and suffers for it, until snobbery and bigotry are swept away by the force of love. The difference here is that it is a man falling in love with another man, and rather than class bigotry, Fassbinder concentrates on the exploitation of one class by another. Love does not conquer, and poor Fox dies on a subway platform from an overdose of Valium. His body is ignored by his friends and rolled by two young boys.

The famous Bergman two shot from Persona (above: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann), and (below) one by Fassbinder from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (both Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archieve)

184Fox is a direct and straightforward film. The analysis of class structure it performs is simple and moving and proves that emotions can be valid expressions of conflict if the psychological and social realities of the conflict can be perceived beneath the conventions. Less straightforward, though more moving and acute in its analysis of social structures, is Fear Eats the Soul (Ali). Like Fox, Ali is closer to the conventions of cinematic realism than is Petra. That is, it does not attempt an abstract contemplation of its form, but instead envelops that contemplation within a traditionally ”well-made story”—well made, that is, except for Fassbinder’s insistent breaking of the action by tableaux, by the hard and exaggerated stares of the people who observe the main characters, and by the rigorous and distancing double framing of those characters within doorways, arches, and open spaces. The content of the story also creates a built-in alienation effect. Ali is based on Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows, in which well-to-do widow Jane Wyman falls in love with young nurseryman Rock Hudson and receives the scorn and derision of her children and friends. Love conquers (albeit with some difficulty) at the end. Ali is about a young immigrant Moroccan worker who falls in love with an old German widow and marries her to the scorn and derision of her children and neighbors, who finally come around when they discover that Ali and Emmi can be of use to them. Here Emmi begins showing Ali off and he leaves her for a whore. They have a reconciliation in the Arab bar where they first met, during which Ali collapses from an ulcer, which, we are told by a doctor, is a common ailment of migrant workers in Germany. Like All That Heaven Allows, Ali ends with Emmi sitting at Ali’s bedside. There is, however, no deer at the window; only the doctor looking over them, who has assured Emmi that Ali’s ulcer will simply keep recurring until it kills him. The doctor in Sirk’s film assures Jane Wyman that love and care will help the injured Rock Hudson.

A touching joke: love between Emmi and Ali (Brigitte Mira, El Hedi Ben Salem). Fear Eats the Soul (New Yorker Films)

185The pleasure of Ali is gained from the subtle layering that Fassbinder achieves, first by presenting us with a touching joke—the perfectly nonsensical notion that an old German Woman, a former Nazi Party member, would marry a foreigner, and not merely a foreigner, but a young black man—and then using the joke to express some warm emotions, eliciting pity and compaassion for the couple, and finally discovering in their plight some complex social and political problems. Ali is concerned with the isolation of foreign workers and native old people from the society in which they live, and the further isolation of one foreign worker and one old person from those who immediately surround them, an isolation caused by their attempt to overcome their loneliness by being together. It is the perfect melodramatic situation: one or two people (it cannot be more, for melodrama depends upon individual struggle) attempt to find happiness and are made more unhappy because others will not let them be. ”Happiness is not always fun,” is Fassbinder’s epigraph for the film. Emmi and Ali are oppressed on every level, by the society at large, by their neighbors, Emmi by her family (in a fit of exquisite outrage over her marriage, a son kicks in Emmi’s television), and finally by each other.

186When neighbors and family begin to accept them, because Ali is strong and can help the neighbors move things, because the family needs Emmi to babysit, because the local racist grocer needs their trade, Emmi and Ali begin to oppress each other. She shows off his muscles to the neighbors. She refuses to make him couscous. He leaves her and seeks solace with a whore. He and his workmates laugh at her when she comes to take him home. The mutuality and generality of meanness redoubles, extends. Ali stares at himself in a mirror and repeatedly slaps his own face; Emmi and her now friendly co-workers sit on the steps in the building they clean and ostracize another worker, a woman from Yugoslavia—another immigrant, isolated the way Emmi and Ali were a short time ago. The worker is observed, sitting alone on the steps, in exactly the same shot that isolated Emmi earlier. Oppression and cruelty return like a rhyme.

187Fassbinder refuses to allow his characters to learn anything. There is no liberal sentimentality in his work and absolutely no hope that everything will be all right in the end. He reveals the material facts of exploitation on all levels and counterpoints them with the false emotional security offered us by melodrama, the security that comes from believing that repression and emotional suffering will be repaid by a higher and more lasting peace. Fassbinder knows that peace on any level is impossible in a culture divided by class and overdetermined by an ideology of competition that depends upon the exploitation of one individual or group by another. The only hope he can offer is the ability to make us see this. And the only way he can make us see is to cut into the pathos at every possible point, give us the emotions we feel are our due and at the same time reorient our gaze so that we may analyze why we are feeling them and what is going on in the narrative to make us feel them. At one point Ali and Emmi sit in an empty outdoor cafe. Emmi weeps copiously and convincingly over the treatment that she and her husband have been getting. It is a high point of pathos in the film, the focus of our identification with these two apparently innocent sufferers. Two things shatter this identification. Through it all, the owners and waiters of the cafe stand in the background like statues, staring at the couple. When Emmi reaches the height of her passion, weeping, clutching Ali’s hands, the actors both suddenly stop acting, freeze, the camera pulling back, past the tables and chairs, isolating the figures in tableau. We are once again forced to leave the fiction and judge the cause of and reaction to emotions. Fassbinder died in 1982. In his work he took over from Godard the role of interrogator of everyday life and the cinematic images that attempt to explain it. A new cycle may be starting. In Sauve qui peut (La Vie), Godard reentered the world of everyday struggle, sexual gamesmanship and the oppressiveness of social roles. As the New Wave films influenced a new generation of filmmakers, so those filmmakers are now having their effect on their teachers. The communal web that marked the vitality of sixties cinema may be reasserting itself, and the creative and commercial success of the Germans may have helped to call Godard out of his isolation.

188The communal web is not all-inclusive. One major figure of the German renaissance, Werner Herzog, attempts to create for himself the romantic image of the lone artist, whose work is born out of individual struggle and deals with human mysteries in a landscape of awesome natural forms. Herzog is an extraordinary self-promoter, eager to do or to fabricate great personal deeds (walking 300 miles to visit the film critic Lotte Eisner on her sickbed; threatening a cantankerous actor, Klaus Kinski, with a gun on the banks of the Amazon; traveling with a film crew to a Caribbean island threatened with volcanic annihilation). And his films are dedicated to an evocation of the mysterious, the ineffable, a world apparently outside the immediate materialist concerns of Fassbinder or Wenders, Alexander Kluge or Volker Schlöndorff.

189Herzog is so dedicated to an almost metaphysical contemplation of the spirit that from film to film he runs the risk of being condemned as a mystic— or worse, a mystifier—a filmmaker with few ideas, but a distinct talent for creating a mise-en-scène evocative of the unknown and unknowable. Yet clearly Herzog does not completely ignore the realities of the world. He is capable of creating films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) or Heart of Glass (1976) or Woyzeck (1978), in which the taste for mysteries is put at the service of an investigation of the madness of power (and the powers of madness), the distortions and turmoils of early capitalism, the infinite abuses heaped upon the lowly and the powerless.

  • * This may sound familiar. Coppola based Apocalypse Now very closely on the structure of Aguirre: The (...)

190Perhaps Herzog is the only contemporary filmmaker who can reach for metaphysics while still infusing his meditations with a recognition of history and human activity within it. If so it is as much a result of the way he builds his films as it is of the subjects encompassed and created by them. Had Aguirre been made by a conventional filmmaker, it would have turned out to be an exotic costume picture about man versus nature in the tropical jungle. Herzog does this, but also manages to create out of the confrontation a reverie on the unspeakable attractions of fascism. This is accomplished in part by the particular way he observes his characters in their environment: a distant, seemingly uninvolved gaze that refuses to explore or to explain, and that accepts equally everything that is put in the frame. This method sets out a range of relationships and perspectives. Aguirre is a lunatic, a maniacal, physically distorted individual crazed by the belief that he can discover El Dorado. He and the conquistadors he forces to accompany him travel up the Amazon, defying its terrors and blind to the impossibility of their quest. Only we, as secure onlookers, discern their smallness and Aguirre’s insanity. The images of destruction, the decimation of the men by Aguirre’s wrath, disease, starvation, arrows shot from shore by unseen natives; images of nature’s presence and indifference to the madness of the intruder—such as the monkeys that take over the raft and are adopted by Aguirre as his new followers are viewed with a matter-of-factness that becomes hallucinatory. There is no sense of climax, no consciousness on the part of or his men of their self-destruction (and certainly no consciousness of the destruction they and their fellows visit upon the country), only a persistence that is admirable and appalling, a monomania as impossible and unyielding as the jungle through which they move.*

191Herzog has a most curious relationship to the neorealist tradition, that part of it at least that calls for objective observation of figures and landscape.

192Like the neorealists, he very carefully manipulates what he wishes the camera to see; but he is more willing than the neorealists to absent himself from the act of observation, or, more accurately, create an illusion of an omniscient eye, looking but not judging. In 1970 he released a narrative feature called Even Dwarfs Started Small, an odd, Buñuelian allegory with an all-midget cast, involving revolt and cruelty and a notion that the small are as terrible as the large, the oppressed as vicious as the oppressors. Dwarfs manages most successfully to demonstrate Herzog’s ability to treat the bizarre as if it were normal without removing or diminishing any of the bizarre characteristics of his subjects. It also contains the anomalous images that are essential to Herzog’s mise-en-scène, images that have no immediate connection to the narrative, but by entering it fill it with an enigmatic, even awesome quality: a crucified monkey; a kneeling camel; an old truck that goes endlessly around in circles. What is incomplete in this film is the landscape—physical and, through metaphorical transformation, psychological—that extends the narrative, adding connotation, attenuating rational analysis. Dwarfs is a claustrophobic work. Herzog still must find the way to observe a fully articulated world to complement the characters—or swallow them up.

  • 78 See William F. Van Wert, Hallowing the Ordinary, Embezzling the Everyday: Werner Herzogs Document (...)

193The way is found in Fata Morgana (also released in 1970), a ”documentary” of the North African desert (Herzog continually alternates his narrative film production with documentaries, and the methods used in both are similar and feed into one another), though in fact more a dadaist expression of the region than a record78. In this film, narrative is kept separate from the images. An idea of narrative structure is laid over the images by means of a voice-over commentary reading a South American Indian creation myth. The film itself is divided into three parts: ”Creation”, ”Paradise” and ”The Golden Age”, but the relationship of the images to the commentary and the headings is ironic at best, in general non-existent. After an introductory series of shots that shows, eight times in succession, a jet plane landing, the first section of the film proceeds, made up largely of left and right tracking shots of a desert landscape. As the ”creation” narration continues, remnants of human habitation are seen: oil refineries with burning smokestacks, a wrecked airplane, junkyards. When human figures appear here and in the later sections, they are connected to the landscape only by their poverty and isolation—more accurately, by the poverty and isolation Herzog creates for them in his refusal to make any links between the figures and where and how they live. He is perfectly content to photograph a native of the region in full figure, staring at the camera, his features distorted by a wide-angle lens. The figure becomes one object among the others, contemplated and unexplained. When he photographs the Europeans who live in the region, the sense of disconnection is even more startling. A German holds up a lizard and gives a lecture on the desert heat; another dives for tortoises in a pool. At the beginning of the ”Golden Age” section the camera stares at a man and woman sitting at a piano and drums, singing terrible Spanish pop songs, on what appears to be the stage of some wretched ballroom. (The man wears a pair of goggles similar to those worn by some of the dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small.) Meanwhile the commentary has broken down into perfect dada nonsense: ”In the Golden Age man and wife live in harmony. Now, for example, they appear before the lens of the camera. Death in their eyes. A smile on their faces [the couple we see are not smiling]. A finger in the pie....”

Above: the surreal landscape. Herzog’s Fata Morgana
(New Line Cinema Corporation) Below: the political landscape. Bertucelli’s Ramparts of Clay (Cinema 5)

The Herzogian landscape. Every Man for Himself and God Against All (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archieve).

194The film keeps moving from the strange to the silly and back again. At its strongest Herzog merely lets his camera move by the derelict structures of Western building companies, with a Leonard Cohen song on the sound track, or stare impassively at the dried-out animal carcasses that stain the ground. Fata Morgana is about impassive observation and refusal: the camera’s refusal to become involved in, or even inquisitive about, what it sees. ”There is landscape even without deeper meaning,” says the commentary at one point, and it is a statement without much irony. The images Herzog makes from this landscape have no past and no future. Even though many of them contain the remnants of a colonial past, the distance Herzog keeps from them (there is a preponderance of telephoto shots in the film) disassociates us from any historical analysis. One need only refer to Jean-Louis Bertucelli’s film Ramparts of Clay, released in the same year as Fata Morgana, to see how the same landscape can be entered not as a place of mystery, a surreal world to be gazed at from a distance, but as the habitation of people struggling to live, coming to consciousness of their economic and social circumstances. Bertucelli’s North African desert has deeper meaning, and while he does not entirely ignore its otherness—like Herzog he tracks persistently, here around the walls of the desert village— his tracking shots also embrace the landscape, attempt to comprehend it, as opposed to Herzog’s telephoto, lateral tracks that only emphasize its strangeness. Bertucelli does not yield to its mysteries, but rather wishes to understand them. The people he observes are not aliens; they attempt to survive the landscape, not become one of its objects.

  • 79 Peter Beicken pointed out the relationship of Herzogs landscapes to one German romantic painter, C (...)
  • 80 Quoted in Alan Greenburg, Heart of Glass (Munich: Skellig, 1976), p. 122.

195This comparison reemphasizes the dilemma of dealing with Herzog. Whenever a sense of otherness can be asserted, he will assert it. Whenever possible, he will attempt the impossible and merge a neorealist observation of people in a landscape with an expressionist’s desire to make that landscape a state of mind; if he can, he will turn people themselves into a state of mind. Like most of the filmmakers discussed here, Herzog is less interested in the individual psychology of his characters and the motivations for their situations and actions than he is in the way those situations and actions can be observed. More than the others, he refuses most analysis and chooses instead to make his characters enigmatic, self-contained objects, passive sufferers of the world’s stupidity, sometimes defying the world by withdrawal into a kind of heroic innocence, in any case falling in defeat with their grace intact. Whether a proto-fascist like Aguirre, an idiot savant like Kaspar Hauser (in Every Man for Himself and God Against All), or a mythic figure like Nosferatu, the Herzog character moves through a landscape that (in the films following Fata Morgana) is a German romantic’s dream of nature—oblivious to it while we are hypnotized by it—and finally disappears79. ”My characters have no shadows..., ” Herzog says. ”They are characters without a past, or whose past does not matter. They come out of the darkness and people who come out of the darkness cast no shadow. The light is something that always hurts them, so the character is there, at the moment, and then is gone to his obscurity. Their actions are somehow oblivious, it seems, to themselves.”80 Though not to us. We attempt to understand, though blocked at every instant by the landscape and by the characters (whose strangeness on screen is often compounded by their extra-narrative existence—Bruno S., who plays Kaspar Hauser, is a part-time schizophrenic ”in real life”; Klaus Kinski is a bizarre personality both in and outside the films; the actors in Heart of Glass are hypnotized throughout). Blockage, awe, dis-ease—these reactions link Herzog’s work to the expressionist tradition. He is able to turn a landscape or a figure into an expression of oddity, separation; his gaze isolates and makes strange, more strange in fact than that of the original expressionists. They separated their work from the natural world and painted the world they wanted inside the studio, creating an extreme chiaroscuro that helped provoke a perceptual anxiety (an effect Herzog achieves in Heart of Glass, the film that closely approaches the visual and acting styles of the expressionists). Herzog achieves somewhat similar results by the prolonged gaze upon distant, natural landscapes, shots held so long that the natural becomes artificial and troubling. It is a technique that he in fact learned from one of the last of the expressionists, F. W. Murnau. In Murnau’s Nosferatu the artificial settings are punctuated by shots of actual landscapes, and while these are never held as long as Herzog holds his shots, they showed him a way of delivering up the natural world so that it is perceived as obdurate, unpliable, unknowable. Perhaps Herzog’s remaking of Nosferatu is somewhat less interesting than we would expect it to be because he demonstrated what he had learned from Murnau’s film before remaking it. His Nosferatu is a direct homage to a kind of filmmaking he had already been practicing and, with the exception of Klaus Kinski’s reading of the central role—his melancholy rat’s face giving the vampire a despair missing in Murnau and all other film versions of the Dracula myth—he does not add to or deepen the myth to any great extent. The film does not completely evoke the original nor find its own style, suffering from too conscious an attempt to pay homage rather than intelligently extend an influence.

196Perhaps the problem with Herzog is that he seems to insist on denying his own intelligence by adopting the guise of the romantic, attacking rationalism, evading analysis, dealing with history and psychology almost exclusively in the forms of allegory, and most concerned with anomalous states of mind and perception. His subject is always the outsider, the individual or group alien to the rationally constructed bourgeois world, whose strangeness makes the world strange by his or their presence. Even in Stroszek (1977), his one fiction film that does deal with the modern world, Herzog is more interested in observing the absolute alienation of his three unlikely German immigrants (one simpleton—Bruno S. again—one little old man who studies animal magnetism, and one prostitute) from the flat American midwestern landscape and its flat inhabitants than he is in understanding it. As I have said, Herzog’s eye is obsessively drawn to otherness, and his preference in observing the strange and bizarre is to let it remain inviolate and make the rest of the world other by its very presence. Nature and society remain untouched by the appearance of the shadowless other. At the end of Aguirre, the imprisoning camera eye swoops wide circles around the raft upon which stands the lunatic conquistador, surrounded by the dying and dead and overrun by monkeys. Despite the movement, despite the allegory of the fascist personality contained in the narrative, the final image entraps the character and the spectator’s comprehension of him in stasis. History is canceled by wonder—even admiration for the heroic madman.

197In Heart of Glass, Herzog attempts to create an allegory of the rise and fall of industry. The inhabitants of a nineteenth-century glassmaking town become crazed because they have lost the secret of their manufacturing process. A seer voices apocalyptic visions of the death throes of capitalism. But just as the megalomania of Aguirre becomes more attractive to Herzog than the prophecy of fascism inherent in the megalomania, so the mysterious breakdown of the town in Heart of Glass (and the manifestation of that breakdown in the zombie-like actions of the hypnotized players) becomes more attractive than a comprehension of economics and its cultural effects. Herzog gets caught up in a fascination with obsession, with the attraction to megalomania, and he short-circuits his allegory and his prophecy.

198François Truffaut in his film The Wild Child (1969) attempts to understand the ramifications of bringing language and reason to a child who has known neither most of his life. The film is about education and learning, the need to give up nature, and the melancholy nostalgia for the life of nature that is given up. The mise-en-scène echoes the rusticity of D. W. Griffith, as Truffaut parallels his character’s acquisition of language with the simple visual language of early film. In Every Man for Himself and God Against All, whose subject is an individual who has been locked in a dungeon, perhaps since birth, Herzog attempts to assume the point of view of the half-formed man, suddenly released upon the world not knowing language or reason, and to 1 understand what the rational world of the nineteenth century can learn from him. The answer, he finds, is nothing. Kaspar Hauser becomes an obstacle the bourgeois world must overcome, and the world for Kaspar becomes an extension of his dreams. The form of the film slides the internal and external worlds into one another, and Kaspar gets stuck in a prison house in which kindness and brutality become two poles of incomprehension. In his version of the wolf-boy myth, Truffaut has his wild child almost educated by the bourgeois world; Herzog is content that the world will never be educated by the child-like mind.

199Finally, there is a certain self-satisfaction that determines Herzog’s films. Beyond the discomfort, the awe, even the semi-hypnosis they tend to create through the long-held shots of sublime landscapes, they are works very content with themselves—a phenomenon that further connects them with the expressionists (and perhaps with romanticism in general), whose films never inquired about their own nature; whose images were silent about their genesis and meaning. Of all major contemporary European filmmakers, Herzog is most willing to allow his images to stand uninterrogated; to allow them, and the carefully selected music he insinuates under them, to generate amazement, promote reverie, and frustrate analysis. His films, like his characters, are without shadows, and, like the landscape of Fata Morgana, without deeper meaning. His images are astounding, but his discourse is attenuated. The films are more incantations than narratives.

200Herzog has taken the movement from neorealism to modernism to a curious dead end. He de-politicizes the neorealist image so that observation becomes its own end. His landscapes and his inward looking characters suffer our gaze but take no cognizance of it, make no response. The modernist thrust, in either its Brechtian or its non-Brechtian mode, is to make the image accountable to our perception of it and permit a mutual interrogation to occur. Even the most simple gesture, such as the frame­by-frame slow motion that Godard uses in Sauve qui peut (La Vie), reveals a desire on the filmmaker’s part to excite desire in the viewer to consider the complexities of the illusion that film is (that life is). Herzog has rerouted this desire back to an acceptance of mysteries and the mystery of film.

  • 81 Herzog in Berlin, Film Comment, 13 (September-October, 1977), 38.

201But, after saying all this, I must point out that Herzog does share the modernist’s ability to disturb the spectator, to force him or her into dealing with some elements of the imagery, even if the result is frustration when the images do not yield to coherent analysis (as opposed, for example, to Straub and Huillet’s images, which will yield after much work). Those images are so well made and seductive that it is impossible to dismiss them, no matter how banal their content proves to be. There are few filmmakers who can turn the simplest image—like the blowing wheat field that opens Every Man for Himself and God Against All or the shot of Bruno S. gazing at a newborn infant in Stroszek—into an evocation of awe and strangeness, or who can make the most complex images—like the one that ends Aguirre or those that close Heart of Glass—suggest the eternal ambiguities and contradictions of a Faustian desire. But it is precisely the embracing of such eternal ambiguities that I find troubling. Herzog’s is a cinema of impasse. The provocation of ambiguity, the ironies of the yearning hero frustrated by the rational controls of the social order or the irrational controls of nature are attractive to any of us still suffering the remnants of romanticism. But these provocations and ironies and the desires of doomed heroes, when allowed to go unanalyzed, invite us to remove ourselves from a world in which ambiguities must be sorted out and understood, and in which ironies provide only temporary refuge. Amos Vogel once wrote about Herzog’s films, ”To reveal a metaphysical element in life or art without becoming a reactionary is one of the challenges of the day.”81 Herzog just barely meets the challenge. Neither a metaphysician nor a reactionary, he creates a romantic, allegorical universe which excites the eye and threatens to muffle the mind.

202Most of the filmmakers I am discussing have tried with varying success to attack the old romanticism of form and content and to dislodge the notion that form is the glass that permits us to gaze into a world of passions and mysteries, yearnings and transcendings. Herzog is by no means attempting to re-create the old zero-degree style, but he is trying to promote cinema as something of a magic glass that can reveal the extraordinary beyond our ordinary vision. Filmmakers like Fassbinder and Godard, Chabrol and Buñuel, Antonioni, and many others we have yet to discuss, attempt to show that in the ordinary lies the possibility for cinema to reveal the complexities of reality, a reality constituted by the intersection of cinema with our own experience, each addressing the other without mystifications. From the various formal concerns of these individuals has come an understanding that film is not limited to mere description or to the simple transmitting of moral platitudes. Nor must it be dedicated to the opulence of spectacle, to entertainment by excess. Rather, film can set itself the role of examiner and revealer of things hidden. Not mysterious things, though perhaps those things that societies and their politics have a stake in making mysterious. As filmmakers have begun to reveal that theirs is a work of artifice, of making images, they have also been able to reveal what makes up images—both those of film and those of our day-to-day lives. In the process of interrogation film has reflected back to us the questions that it had—until the mid-forties—largely ignored. In revealing the methods of its looking it is able to reveal things not looked at before by film. This work of demystification has helped us regain control over what we see, and see where we can exercise some control.


1 Bertolt Brecht, Against Georg Lukács, trans. Stuart Hood, New Left Review, no. 84 (March-April, 1974), p. 51.

2 Roy Armes argues that the modernist movement in film connects directly to the sophisticated image-making of the silent era. The Ambiguous Image (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 7-8. For a slightly different view of the relationship of form and content in postwar cinema, see Dudley Andrew, André Bazin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 180-82.

3 Cf. Burch, Theory of Film Practice, pp. 36-37.

4 Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, trans. Stanley Godman, 4 vols. (New York: Vintage Books, n.d.), IV: 244. See also Willett, Art and Politics, pp. 108-10.

5 Margot Kernan pointed this out to me.

6 Cf. Rhode, A History of the Cinema, pp. 117-55.

7 Stig Björkman, Torsten Nanns, and Jonas Sima, Bergman on Bergman, trans. Paul Britten Austin (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973), p. 29.

8 Social History of Art, IV: 250.

9 Ambiguous Image, p. 14.

10 See Andrew, Bazin, for a discussion of postwar film culture in France.

11 The most important analysis of the effects of the gaze in the shot/reaction shot style is Daniel Dayan, The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, in Nichols, Movies and Methods, pp. 438-51. The essays on point of view in Film Reader, 4 are also helpful. See also Nick Browne, The Spectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach, Film Quarterly, 29 (Winter, 1975-76), 26-38. My reading of the film parallels Thomson, Biographical Dictionary, pp. 494-95.

12 What Is Cinema?, 11: 98.

13 The notion of closed form is similar to that of Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976), pp. 94-103.

14 The notion of making strange, re-situating the familiar objects of the world so that we perceive them differently, is a central concern of Russian formalist criticism. See Fredric Jameson, The Prison House of Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 50-54.

15 What Is Cinema?, I: 27.

16 Ibid., p. 26.

17 Ibid., p. 35.

18 Ibid., pp. 35-40.

19 Jean Narboni in Jonathan Rosenbaum, ed., Rivette: Texts and Interviews, trans. Amy Gateff and Tom Milne (London: British Film Institute, 1977), p. 81.

20 See Brian Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), pp. 16-31.

21 Narboni in Rivette, p. 81.

22 The notion of the enigmatic code in a narrative, that which prods us into continuing by making us wonder what will happen, comes from Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

23 See Jonathan Rosenbaum, Tatis Democracy, Film Comment, 9 (May-June, 1973), 36-41; Lucy Fischer, Beyond Freedom and Dignity: An Analysis of Jacques Tatis Playtime, Sight and Sound, 45 (Autumn, 1976), 234-39 (with an afterword by Rosenbaum).

24 Analogue and digital theories of language and communication are numerous and complex. One source is Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 189-90.

25 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p. 90. The monologue in the film itself is somewhat different.

26 For the concept of play in the film—and a reading which is generally close to this one—see Alan Thiher, The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1979), pp. 166-79. Thiher also recognizes the subversive activity in modernist film.

27 Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad, p. 12.

28 Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 8.

29 See Peter Wollen, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1972), pp. 155-74; Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), pp. 69-103.

30 Cf. Thomson, Biographical Dictionary, pp. 566-67.

31 The Cinema of Marguerite Duras: Sound and Voice in a Closed Room, Film Quarterly, 33 (Fall, 1979), 25.

32 Bergman on Bergman, pp. 29, 32.

33 Godard on Godard, ed. Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, trans. Tom Milne (New York: Viking Press, 1972), pp. 146-47.

34 Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Praeger, 1971).

35 In 1957, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote a monograph on Hitchcock, one of the first large-scale studies of an American filmmaker. Published in English as Hitchcock: The First Forty Four Films, trans. Stanley Hochman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979).

36 John Hesss analysis, La Politique des Auteurs, can be found in Jump Cut, nos. 1 and 2 (May-June, July-August, 1974), 19-22, 20-22.

37 Truffaut, A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, in Nichols, Movies and Methods, p. 234.

38 Astruc, The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo, in The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), p. 22.

39 James Monaco draws interesting parallels between Astrucs notions of writing and those of Roland Barthes. See The New Wave (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 8-9.

40 Godard on Godard, p. 175.

41 Ibid., p. 28. And see Monaco, New Wave, pp. 104-7.

42 Godard on Godard, p. 39.

43 Ibid., p. 40.

44 Ibid., p. 173.

45 For Claires Knee, I didnt look for locations to fit a story I had written; I found the places first and it was only afterwards that I wrote the film. Quoted by Rui Nogueira, Eric Rohmer: Choice and Chance, Sight and Sound, 40 (Summer, 1971), 122.

46 Joe Miller and Barbara Bowman were helpful in this discussion of The Marquise of 0.

47 Robert Phillip Kolker, Angle and Reality: Godard and Gorin in America, Sight and Sound, 42 (Summer, 1973), 132. Jean-Marie Straub said that his film on the life and music of Bach, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, was his contribution to the fight of the North Vietnamese against the Americans. Quoted in Richard Roud, Jean-Marie Straub (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), p. 71.

48 E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study of the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969).

49 Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), p. 74.

50 Against Georg Lukács, p. 50.

51 Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), p. 37.

52 A Short Organum for the Theatre, in ibid., p. 193.

53 Screen 15 (Summer, 1974) contains a number of articles on Kuhle Wampe. For the theatre of Piscator and Brecht see Willett, Art and Politics, pp. 149-58.

54 Short Organum, p. 201.

55 Film Language, p. 100. For Godards camera practice, cf. Burch, Theory of Film Practice, pp. 119-21.

56 In Jean Collet, Jean-Luc Godard, trans. Ciba Vaughan (New York: Crown Publishers, 1970), pp. 146-48.

57 See ibid., pp. 34-35.

58 Roud, Straub, p. 78.

59 See Jonathan Rosenbaum, Interruption as Style: Buñuels Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Sight and Sound, 42 (Winter, 1972/73), 2-4, and Armes, Ambiguous Image, p. 39.

60 Cf. Roud, Straub, pp. 19-26.

61 For a more detailed study of Bressons recent films see Michael Dempsey, Despair Abounding: The Recent Films of Robert Bresson, Film Quarterly, 34 (Fall, 1980), 2-15. The Devil Probably (1977), Bressons most recent film as of this writing, never got into distribution in the United States, presumably because its producers, believing there existed a large market for such a work, demanded too much money for it.

62 Bressonisms, Sight and Sound, 46 (Winter, 1976/77), 21. Bressons complete text is in Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977).

63 Thomas Elsaesser, The Postwar German Cinema, in Fassbinder, ed. Tony Rayns (London: British Film Institute, 1980), p. 4.

64 Quoted in ibid., p. 8.

65 Much has been written on the financial arrangements that make the work of the new German filmmakers possible. See the Elsaesser article cited above; Hans-Bernhard Moeller, New German Cinema and its Precarious Subsidy and Finance System, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 5 (Spring, 1980), 157-68; Richard Collins and Vincent Porter, West German Television, Sight and Sound, 49 (Summer, 1980), 172-77; Jan Dawson, A Labyrinth of Subsidies, Sight and Sound, 50 (Winter, 1980/81), 14-20.

66 The political climate in West Germany is discussed by Jan Dawson, The Sacred Terror: Shadows of Terrorism in the New German Cinema, Sight and Sound, 48 (Autumn, 1979), 242-45; Jack Zipes, The Political Dimensions of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, New German Critique, 12 (Fall, 1977), 75-84; Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Civil Liberties and Repression in Germany Today, trans. Sophie Wilkins, October, 9 (Summer, 1979), 107-17.

67 David Wilt, Driving the Rough Road: The Outlaw Couple in American Film, 1937-1976, (M.A. thesis, University of Maryland, 1980), analyzes the image of the road in American film.

68 Pierrot Le Fou, trans. Peter Whitehead (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), pp. 28-33. I have slightly modified the translation.

69 Mike Bygrave and Joan Goodman, Meet Me in Las Vegas, American Film, 7 (October, 1981), 41-42; Lynda Myles, The Zoetrope Saga, Sight and Sound, 51 (Spring, 1982), 93.

70 Short Organum, p. 193.

71 See Richard Dyer, Reading Fassbinders Sexual Politics, in Rayns, Fassbinder, p. 58.

72 Quoted in J. C. Franklin, The Films of Fassbinder: Form and Formula, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 5 (Spring, 1980), 169.

73 See Christopher Orr, Closure and Containment: Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Wide Angle, 4/2 (1980), 29-35.

74 Dyer, Fassbinders Sexual Politics, pp. 62-63.

75 Thats one of the greatest films in the world. Fassbinder in an interview with John Hughes and Brooks Riley, A New Realism, Film Comment, 11 (November- December, 1975), 15.

76 The film is full of radio news reports, which, like the broadcast of the soccer match, provide a necessary historical background. The subtitled version does not translate them. My thanks to Peter Beicken for pointing out the significance of the soccer match.

77 Quoted by Franklin, Films of Fassbinder, 174. See also Judith Mayne, Fassbinder and Spectatorship, New German Critique, 12 (Fall, 1977), pp. 61-74; Paul Thomas, Fassbinder: The Poetry of the Inarticulate, Film Quarterly, 30 (Winter, 1976-77), 2-17.

78 See William F. Van Wert, Hallowing the Ordinary, Embezzling the Everyday: Werner Herzogs Documentary Practice, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 5 (Spring, 1980), 183-92.

79 Peter Beicken pointed out the relationship of Herzogs landscapes to one German romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). The notion of a neorealistic expressionism was offered by Maxmillian Schell at an early point in the New German Cinema movement. See David L. Overbey, From Murnau to Munich: New German Cinema, Sight and Sound, 43 (Spring, 1974), 101.

80 Quoted in Alan Greenburg, Heart of Glass (Munich: Skellig, 1976), p. 122.

81 Herzog in Berlin, Film Comment, 13 (September-October, 1977), 38.

Notes de fin

* Many years ago, when I was deeply impressed with Blow Up and head over heels in love with cinema, I visited Maryon Park near Greenwich in London where these sequences were filmed. In the film, it is an isolated, empty, eerie place, with the wind blowing the trees and a strange, indecipherable neon sign hanging over it in the distance. In fact, the park is in the middle of a residential area and not far from the docks, which can be seen from it. There is no neon sign. Except for the addition of the sign and the wind—and the proper green of the foliage—Antonioni tinkered very little with the physical state of this location. He made the place a reflection of his photographers state of mind essentially through the way he chose to compose the image and angle his camera.

* Robbe-Grillets introduction to his screenplay is the best indication of the closeness of collaboration in this work, which is closely related to Robbe-Grillets novelistic practice. But as Robbe-Grillet says, the image-making and cutting were Resnaiss; it is his film. So is the Hitchcock reference.

* An interesting companion piece to Nathalie Granger is Peter Handkes delicate feminist film The Left Handed Woman (1978). Handke is a novelist who has written scripts for the German director Wim Wenders. This is the first film he has directed and, like Duras, he constructs his work in long, carefully composed takes, in which the placement of the figures is crucial. But space in this film is not as enigmatic or as stagnant as in Durass film. In homage to the Japanese director Ozu, Handke makes his space an explanatory extension of his main character and her quest for her self. The films compositions give, in fact, significance to the tired cliché of finding ones space.

* Rohmer was the late starter of the original group. He did a number of short films in the fifties, and in the great year of 1959 a feature, The Sign of Leo, about a man down and out in Paris. The Moral Tales began with two short sixteen-millimeter films, La boulangère de Monceau and La carrière de Suzanne; then came La collection­neuse in 1966, which is really the fourth Moral Tale, though filmed before My Night at Mauds.

* This defiance goes even deeper when we consider the literary sources of the films. Both Une femme douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer, as well as the earlier Pickpocket, which is a rough analogue to Crime and Punishment, are based on stories by Dosto­evsky. Bresson removes all the eloquence and embellishment, though not the irony, from Dostoevskys talkative and self-analyzing characters.

* This picture is similar to a painting Ripley gives Jonathan to restore. The painting is by an artist in New York—played by the late filmmaker, Nicholas Ray—who is supposed to be dead and who forges his own work. The American Friend, which is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote the novel upon which Hitchcock based Strangers on a Train), has a plot as complicated as any in American film noir, from which it draws its inspiration.

* Kings of the Road is dedicated to Fritz Lang, who was a major part of the expres­sionist movement in Germany and made some major noir films in America. A char-acter in the film clips a photo of Lang from a film magazine; the picture reminds him of his father. The photo itself is a production still from Godards Contempt, where Lang plays a very fatherly film director. This intricate complex of allusions is typical of the layers of references in much of Wenderss work.

* Anti-teater was the name of Fassbinders early theater group and production com­ pany. Substitute cinema or theater and it also defines the intent of the early films to counter cinematic conventions.

* Perhaps not every time. There are films in which Fassbinders outrageousness does not yield insight. In Satans Brew and Chinese Roulette (1976), in The Third Gen­eration (1979) and, after a point, in Despair (1977), the bizarre turns to the silly and Fassbinder loses himself in the very lunacy of the events he creates. Curiously, three of these films, very different from one another, try to deal somewhat directly with fascism, and one, The Third Generation, with modern terrorism. The seriousness of the subjects either evades his grasp or is too complex for him to confront head on.

* This may sound familiar. Coppola based Apocalypse Now very closely on the structure of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and even borrowed many of its images.

1 Some historical circumspection is needed here: the American release version is about thirty-five minutes shorter than Rossellinis original cut. Much more dialogue may be present in the original. There is also some comparison to be made between the point of view structure developed in this film and the methods Hitchcock was developing. And Hitchcock, of course, had also used Ingrid Bergman as an actress in Spellbound, 1945, Notorious, 1946, and Under Capricorn, 1949.

Table des illustrations

Légende Aldo (Steve Cochran) and his daughter wander the flatlands of the Po. Il Grido. (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
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Légende Monica Vitti at a window. The figure dominated by urban structures. Leclisse (frame enlargement)
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Légende The static cinematic memory, with and without shadows. Last Year at Marienbad (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
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Légende The Godardian gangster (Jean-Paul Belmondo with Jean Seberg). Breathless (Museum of Modern Art Films Stills Archive)
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Légende Domestic upheaval. La Rupture (Museum of Modern Art Films Stills Archive)
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Légende This page and next: the signs of work. Anna Karina in My Life to Live (Museum of Modern Art Films Stills Archive)
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Légende The Bressonian face (Guillaume des Forêts). Four Nights of a Dreamer (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
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Légende A meeting of cultures, a meeting of cinemas. Nicholas Ray (above); Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper (below) in The American Friend (above: Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive; below: New Yorker Films)
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Légende A gallery of Fassbinder faces: Günter Lamprecht, Gisela Uhlen, Gottfried John, Anton Schirsner, Hanna Schygulla, Elisabeth Trissenaar. The Marriage of Maria Braun (New Yorker Films)
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Légende Above: Marlene, who looks (Irm Hermann). Below: Petra, Karin, and the mural (Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla). The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (both New Yorker Films)
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Légende The famous Bergman two shot from Persona (above: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann), and (below) one by Fassbinder from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (both Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archieve)
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Légende A touching joke: love between Emmi and Ali (Brigitte Mira, El Hedi Ben Salem). Fear Eats the Soul (New Yorker Films)
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Légende Above: the surreal landscape. Herzog’s Fata Morgana(New Line Cinema Corporation) Below: the political landscape. Bertucelli’s Ramparts of Clay (Cinema 5)
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Légende The Herzogian landscape. Every Man for Himself and God Against All (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archieve).
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