Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Fiction

It's that time again, when I offer a brief survey of my favorite books, music, movies and television first experienced during the past year.

18th- and 19th-century fiction

As should be no surprise to regular readers of E & I, literature of the 18th and 19th centuries dominates my end-of-year list of favorites:

Eliza Haywood: The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751)

Haywood's novel-writing career spanned three decades and major shifts in style and sexual culture. Earlier I wrote about her first novel, Love in Excess (1720), which displays the influence of the amatory fiction of Aphra Behn. The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless seems to be influenced less by literary models and more by Haywood's own experiences.

To escape conflict with her new stepmother, Betsy flees to London and to the protection of a family friend. Her free behavior leads several men-about-town to make assumptions about her profession (followed by crude sexual advances), and alienates her suitor Mr. Trueworth. 
'I wonder,' continued she, 'what can make the generality of women so fond of marrying? — It looks to me like an infatuation. — Just as if it were not a greater pleasure to be courted, complimented, admired, and addressed by a number, than be confined to one, who, from a slave, becomes a master. . .they want to deprive us of all the pleasures of life, just when one begins to have a relish for them.' (Vol 4, Ch. 3)
Betsey seems very modern in her determination to live as she pleases, and it is not only in the 18th century that women have encountered difficulties in doing so. When she is trapped into marrying an incompatible man, Mr. Munden, it seems impossible that she will ever be united with a man of true worth. In featuring an error-prone but sympathetic heroine, Miss Betsy Thoughtless anticipates the novels of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen.

Charlotte Lennox: Henrietta (1758)

Charlotte Lennox was most famously the author of The Female Quixote (1752), a parodistic novel about the dangers of too much novel-reading. Henrietta (1758) is about dangers of a different kind. Henrietta, an orphan, travels to London, where she is made the object of multiple unscrupulous schemes on her body and her reputation. She must rely on her wit and steadfast principles to escape the many traps set for a young woman living in the city without family protection or fortune.

And Henrietta has a proposal scene that may remind you of another, more famous one:
'I see (resumed he) that I have not been happy enough to inspire you with any tender sentiments for me. Pardon me, miss Courteney, but I must be so free as to tell you that if you were not prepossessed in favour of another person, the proofs I have given you of my affection would not be received with such indifference.'
'There needs not any such prepossession,' replied Henrietta, vexed at this hint, 'to make me receive with indifference the proofs you have hitherto given me of that affection your lordship boasts of. Am I to reckon among these proofs, my lord, the insult you offered me at Mrs. Eccles's, and the strange declaration you made me in the country?'
'Ah, how cruel is this recapitulation now!' cried lord B—: 'do I not do justice to your birth, your beauty and your virtue, by my present honorable intentions?'
. . .'Well, my lord,' replied Henrietta, who had listened to him with great calmness, 'if ever I was in doubt of your intentions, you have clearly explained them now; of them, and of the sentiments you have avowed, you may collect my opinion, when I declare to you, that if you had worlds to bestow on me, I would not be your wife.'
'Is this your resolution, miss Courteney?' said his lordship.
'It is, my lord (she replied) . . .It is interest by which I am influenced, when I refuse your offered alliance, because I am sure I could not be happy with a man whom I cannot esteem.'
'Hold, madam, hold,' interrupted lord B—, 'this is too much: I have not deserved this treatment, but I thank you for it; yes, from my soul I thank you for it: it has helped restore me to my senses; I have been foolish, very foolish, I confess. . .The best apology I can make, madam (said he) for the importunate visit I have paid you, is to assure you I never will repeat it.' (Vol. II, Ch. VI)
It seems clear that Jane Austen drew on this scene for Darcy's first, impulsive proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Charlotte Smith: Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788); Celestina (1791); and The Old Manor House (1793)

In my post on Charlotte Smith's novels, "What have I to do now but to learn to suffer?", I wrote,
To paraphrase Chekhov, if in the first volume there's an orphan in a castle, in the last volume it will be revealed—spoiler alert!—that the orphan is actually the legitimate owner of the castle. On the way to this revelation (and true love. . .) there are false accusations. . .unwelcome attentions. . .misunderstandings, duels, hazardous sojourns in foreign lands, midnight pursuits, and fateful (and highly coincidental) meetings.
Smith was another influence on Jane Austen; as I wrote,
If Emmeline looks back to the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, Celestina looks forward as well to the novels of Jane Austen. Once again the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family. And once again the son of the family in which the heroine was raised falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby.
For the many other parallels between Smith's novels and Austen's, please see the full post linked above.

Stendhal: Le rouge et le noir (Scarlet and black, 1830)

Did Stendhal go to my high school? His picture of the game-playing, insincerity, and deliberate cruelty in the romantic relations between men and women takes me back to my teens. Julien Sorel, a handsome and ambitious young man from a working-class background, tries to make his way in Parisian high society. When the daughter of his rich benefactor falls in love with him, Sorel decides that he must keep her off-balance by pretending indifference; as soon as she is sure of him, she'll treat him with the same disdain she lavishes her other fawning suitors:
After a short moment's silence, he managed to control his heart enough to say in an icy tone: '. . .It's not your position in society that's the obstacle, but unfortunately your own character. Can you promise that you will love me for a week?' 
(Ah! let her love me for a week, a week only, Julien murmured to himself, and I shall die of joy. What do I care for the future, what do I care for life itself? And this divine happiness can begin at this very instant if I will, it depends entirely on me.)
Mathilde saw he was thinking deeply.
'Then I'm altogether unworthy of you,' she said, taking hold of his hand.

Julien embraced her, but at once the iron hand of duty gripped his heart. If she sees how much I adore her, I shall lose her, he thought. And before he withdrew himself from her arms, he had resumed all that dignity that befits a man. (Ch. 31; translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw)
The feelings Julien inspires, and his inability to accept them without calculation, will ultimately have tragic consequences both for himself and for the women who love him. Scarlet and Black is also a portrait of a corrupt and venal society fixated on appearances over substance, one which in some ways may remind you of our own.

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)

The endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce pits family members against one another, souring natural affections and drawing even those with good intentions into obsession and self-destruction. A harrowing vision in which the all-enveloping miasma of the legal conflict is reflected in the murk of the outer world:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. . .Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. . .Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

. . .The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth. (Ch. 1)
In 2005 Bleak House was made into an excellent BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring Gillian Anderson, and E & I favorites Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin.

George Eliot: Daniel Deronda (1876)

Written a few years after Middlemarch, this was the last novel Eliot completed. The hero of the title finds himself torn between his complicated feelings for the capricious, pleasure-loving Gwendolen Harleth and his growing love for the orphaned Jewish refugee Mirah Lapidoth. As he delves deeper into the mysteries of his origins, it becomes apparent that Daniel has more in common with Mirah than he at first suspects.

Eliot's fictional treatment of the "Jewish Question" and the stirrings of Zionism in late-Victorian England has divided critics since its appearance. Their opposing positions are encapsulated by F. R. Leavis, who famously thought that all the Jewish episodes should be cut out and the novel renamed Gwendolen Harleth, and the first translator of the work into Hebrew, who included only the scenes featuring Mirah and her Zionist brother Mordecai.

I hope that, without being accused of philistinism, I can express the feeling that the scenes featuring the saintly Mordecai in particular can sometimes go on too long. But that is a very minor issue in a great novel. Daniel Deronda is a powerful work that deserves to be more widely read and appreciated. In 2002 it was also made into a wonderful BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring E & I favorites Romola Garai, Jodhi May, and Amanda Root, which I wrote about in the post "Why BBC literary adaptations are so delightful: Daniel Deronda edition."

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary, translated by Eleanor Marx (1856-57/1886; Eleanor Marx is pictured above)

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, Emma Bovary takes poison.

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, the first English translator of Madame Bovary, Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, took poison.
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. (From Eleanor Marx's introduction to her translation)
For more on the parallels between Eleanor Marx and Emma Bovary, please see "These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx

For a comparison of Eleanor Marx's excellent English translation of Madame Bovary to three other highly-praised versions (by Gerard Hopkins, Francis Steegmuller, and Lydia Davis) please see "The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary

Contemporary fiction

Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf, 2017)

This, only Roy's second novel after 1997's Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things, is almost Dickensian in its outrage at injustice. Roy peoples her story with striking characters, such as Anjum, a Hijra who raises an abandoned child and makes her home in a graveyard, and Tilo, a woman who, caught up in larger conflicts, tries to remain true to herself.

The unhealable wound at the novel's center is Kashmir, a beautiful land where thousands of people have died and no side can claim the moral high ground. As Tilo writes in the novel, no doubt echoing Roy's own sentiments,
I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's lots to write about. That can't be done in Kashmir. It's not sophisticated, what happens here. There's too much blood for good literature. (p. 288)
But it is not only in Kashmir that there is injustice and violence. When Tilo chooses to have an abortion she is required to have someone else—preferably the father—sign the consent form for general anesthesia. She decides to have the operation without it, and passes out from the pain. When she wakes up, she is in the general ward.
There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. . .Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Dehli there was no war other than the usual one—the war of the rich against the poor. (p. 398)
The title of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not entirely ironic. There are moments of joy and of human connection and solidarity. A community of misfits, of the rejected and the rejecting, forms in spite of the relentless social, political and economic pressures that pit people against one another. Roy's clear-eyed and dispassionate dissection of the hypocrisies, deceptions and brutalities practiced even by those who claim to be fighting for justice makes for harrowing but urgent reading; her powerful prose and vivid characters make her work emotionally compelling as well.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 4

À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931)

In a 1931 essay entitled "The Talkies Talk Too Much," René Clair wrote,
I am dreaming of the conflict between the visions of a man's soul and the mechanization of life which daily grows more potent. I visualize a dreamer, a romantic, a vagabond, and I want to set him in my film against a background of tremendous mechanism. [1]
In À nous la liberté, the dreamer, the romantic, the vagabond is Emile (Henri Marchand). When we first meet him he is in prison, sharing a cell with Louis (Raymond Cordy). Prison life is regimented, surveilled. The men are marched everywhere in lockstep while stern guards observe their every move.

Strict silence is enforced among the prisoners, whether at the workbench (where they are making children's toys—objects that symbolize innocence and freedom) or at the prison mess hall. It is a system intended to crush hope.

The workbench:

The prison mess:

But Emile and Louis have a plan: with smuggled implements they are cutting through the bars of their cell in a bid to escape. As Emile—standing on Louis's shoulders so that he can reach the window—is cutting through the bars, he cuts himself. Louis binds Emile's wound with his handkerchief. The prison scenes unfold without dialogue, but Clair portrays the almost tender relationship between Emile and Louis with visual economy.

When they make their break, Louis is able to heave himself over the prison's inner wall, but Emile is spotted and the alarm is sounded. Emile realizes that by the time he makes it over the inner wall to join Louis they will both be caught. He throws the rope to Louis with the cry "À nous la liberté!"; they both realize that Emile is sacrificing himself. Louis gets away; Emile is recaptured and returned to the prison (and, no doubt, a longer sentence).

On the outside, we follow Louis's progress in a series of dissolves that cover a few minutes of screen time and years of diegetic time. We see him transformed from a sidewalk record salesman into a phonograph shop proprietor, the owner of the "Palace of Records" (a vast emporium with a fleet of logoed delivery trucks and lackeys to light his cigarettes and open his limousine door), and finally into the boss of a huge phonograph factory employing armies of assembly-line workers.

The factory day is remarkably similar to that of the prison. Long lines of men in uniform, watched over by guards:

The assembly line:

The cafeteria:

A vagabond is lounging in a field near the factory, leaning on his elbow and loafing at his ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

His view is soon blocked by the boots and uniforms of two representatives of law and order. They have a message for him, one echoed by businessmen, politicians and schoolteachers:

School, work, and prison: institutions of confinement, coercion and enforced conformity.

The vagabond, of course, is Emile, who has finally been released from prison, and who must be helped by the two policemen to see that work means liberty.

Emile ultimately finds his way to a job in the phonograph factory, but his dreamy nature, suspicion of authority and inability to perform the repetitive work at speed bring cascading chaos to the regimented and Taylorized efficiency of the assembly line.

Emile is hauled before the boss for punishment. To his amazement, the boss is his old cellmate. Louis pretends not to recognize Emile; taking him to his private office, Louis tries threats and bribes to get rid of him. But when Louis notices that Emile's wrist has been cut, he binds the wound with his handkerchief, as he'd done in prison, and his fellow-feeling returns:

Emile reawakens Louis's conscience, and helps him to realize that being a big boss is also a form of imprisonment. Both men want to find a way to regain their freedom, but discover that it is not attainable without difficulties and sacrifice.

The rich man who is alternately cold and warm towards his vagabond companion may remind you of Chaplin's City Lights (1931), while the chaos on the assembly line may suggest Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). In fact, Clair's production company, Tobis Film, sued Chaplin over the similarities between Modern Times and Clair's film. Clair refused to participate in the suit; he admired Chaplin and was deeply embarrassed by the plagiarism accusations against him. It's also clear that if there were any borrowings, they went both ways. Chaplin, in fact, said that he had never seen Clair's film, while Clair stated in an interview with Le Soir that "I, myself, owe him very much; and besides, if he has borrowed a few ideas from me, he has done me a great honor." [2]

Clair would go on to write and direct two more films in France, Quatorze Juillet (Bastille Day, 1933) and Le dernier milliardaire (The Last Billionaire, 1934), neither of which I've had the opportunity to see. In the mid-1930s he moved to England and made two films with producer Alexander Korda, and as World War II loomed he travelled to America and directed films in Hollywood, including The Flame of New Orleans (1941, with Marlene Dietrich), I Married a Witch (1942, with Veronica Lake), and And Then There Were None (1945, with Roland Young). He returned to France after the war and continued to make films until the mid-1960s; he died in 1981 at age 82.

Perhaps Clair's wartime American period will be the subject of a future post. But À nous la liberté remains his great masterpiece, and essential viewing. It is available on DVD and via streaming through the Criterion Collection; the Criterion Collection DVD also includes Entr'acte, discussed in the first post in this series.

Other posts in this series:
The early films of Rene Clair part 3: Le Million (1931)
The early films of Rene Clair part 2: Sous les toits de Paris (1930)
The early films of Rene Clair part 1: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1928)

  1. Quoted (with slight modification) in Celia McGerr, René Clair, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 101.
  2. Quoted in Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Abrams, 2003, p. 225.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 3

title card

Le Million (1931, directed and written by René Clair, after a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud)

Michel (René Lefèvre), like all artists, is perpetually broke. But in the middle of a confrontation with the local merchants to whom he owes money, Michel discovers that he has hit the jackpot: the lottery ticket he bought with his last sous matches the winning number. Of course, the attitudes of his creditors are immediately transformed: suddenly nothing is too good for Michel. They just want to see the ticket, to confirm Michel's good fortune.

How do we know you have this ticket?

Realizing that he must have left the ticket in the tatty old jacket he'd asked his long-suffering fiancée Béatrice (Annabella) to mend, Michel rushes to her place—only to discover that the jacket has been taken by Père-la-Tulipe (Paul Ollivier), a rag-picker who hid in her apartment when he was being chased by les flics.

Would you mind if I kept the jacket?

The race is on to find the jacket and recover the winning ticket.

But before Michel reaches Père-la-Tulipe's secondhand shop (which is really just a front for his high-tech gang lair!) the threadbare jacket has been sold to Ambrosio Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco), a singer appearing at the Opera Lyrique in the (fictional) Les Bohémiens. The jacket is perfect to complete his costume—so authentic!

I'm all set to sing The Bohemians in this costume

Everyone descends on the theater to find the unsuspecting Sopranelli and his jacket: Michel and Béatrice, who is a dancer in the opera; Michel's opportunistic roommate Prosper (Louis Allibert), who wants to grab the ticket for himself; Prosper's new girlfriend, the equally opportunistic Vanda (Vanda Gréville); and Père-la-Tulipe and his henchmen.

Backstage before the curtain rises Vanda and Béatrice separately enter Sopranelli's dressing room; each makes a play for the lottery ticket, without success:

Beatrice and Vanda fumble for the ticket

Vanda, seeing which way the wind is blowing, then makes a play for Michel:

Vanda kisses Michel

Witnessing Michel's apparent betrayal, the distressed Beéatrice flees onstage. Michel follows to try to make up with her. But at that moment the curtain rises, Sopranelli and his diva Madame Ravellina (Odette Talazac) enter, and the feuding lovers are trapped behind the scenery.

The feuding lovers hide

Sopranelli and Madame Ravellina launch into the opening duet, "Nous sommes seuls" (We are alone). The lyrics provide ironic commentary on the lovers' situation; as Michel and Béatrice sit silently amid the artifice of the stage, anything but alone, the tenor and soprano sing "Truth is what we find here."

Truth is what we find here

And because the lovers must remain silent, they can only "speak" through the words of the duet:

Thou lovest me not, I who love thee
I lack the force to resist thy pleas

As the opera characters reconcile, so do the real-life lovers hidden behind them:

The two couples kiss

And they are not the only ones who are moved by the music; members of Père-la-Tulipe's gang, in the audience, also find it affecting:

The gang cries

Clair portrays the power of opera to transcend its means of production. We witness Sopranelli's vanity, his bickering with the diva, the bored stagehands who create the magical theatrical effects (the falling blossoms, the waxing moon), and the patent artificiality of the sets. Nonetheless, emotional truth is indeed what we find here.

But there's work to be done: the lottery ticket still hasn't been found. Michel and Prosper sneak out onstage during the performance disguised as extras in a crowd scene, and in the middle of an aria begin a tug-of-war over the jacket (Michel and Prosper are in the broad-brimmed feathered hats):


Mayhem follows (and for good measure, a parody of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), as one character after another grabs the jacket and tries to escape with it, only to be tackled by the others).

If Sous les toits des Paris was inspired by street-singers, Le Million is not only set in the world of comic opera, but makes use of its techniques—including occasional songs. Père-la-Tulipe's henchmen begin their meeting by singing a rousing anthem of class solidarity:

We take back the spoils of social injustice
Other songs interspersed throughout the film tell the story or comment on the action, as if giving voice to the musings of the characters' consciences. It's all very clever and funny, as is the ultimate fate of the lottery ticket.

But despite the film's many virtues, the comic-opera ambience also makes it ultimately feel a bit lightweight. Père-la-Tulipe's gang may find themselves tearing up at the opera; we're in no danger of doing the same over the fate of Michel, whatever it turns out to be. His world is too unreal, and Michel himself is a bit of a heel, with an artist's wandering eye (and hands, and lips). He will probably make Béatrice miserable. Apart from under-appreciated Béatrice, only two other characters earn our sympathy: Père-la-Tulipe, who upholds the thieves' code of honor, and an increasingly exasperated cab driver (Raymond Cordy), whose comic despair mounts along with the unpaid fare on his long-running meter.

Clair may have recognized that Cordy's rumpled Everyman was one of the best things about Le Million, because he cast him in next film as well, his masterpiece.

Next in the series: À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931)

Last time: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 2

Rene Clair

One striking thing about René Clair's The Italian Straw Hat (see René Clair's early films part 1) is how few intertitles it has, even though it is the adaptation of a play. Clair not only found visual means to convey information that in the play would have been related in dialogue, he introduced visual jokes (such as the clip-on tie and the tight, unfamiliar dress gloves and shoes) that tell us about the social status of the characters.

Like many other silent film directors, Clair dreaded the arrival of sound, which he called "the monster." In May 1929 he wrote,
Can the talking picture be poetic? There is reason to fear that the precision of the verbal expression will drive poetry off the screen just as it drives off the atmosphere of the daydream. The imaginary words we used to put into the mouths of those silent beings in those dialogues of images will always be more beautiful than any actual sentences. The heroes of the screen spoke to the imagination with the complicity of silence. Tomorrow they will talk nonsense into our ears and we will be unable to shut it out. [1]
But like some other directors making the transition to sound (Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind, as does, thanks to a friend, Fritz Lang) Clair found innovative ways to juxtapose sound and image. And he looked for stories to which sound would add an essential dimension.

Opening scene of Sous les toits de Paris

Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930):
At the time I was shooting my second or third silent picture, I heard a circle of street singers in Paris, on my way home from the studios. I thought how sad it was that I had no sound with which to make a picture. Four years later, sound came, and I returned to my street-singers idea. [2]
The film Clair wrote and directed was Sous les toits de Paris, in which the street-singer Albert (Albert Préjean) pursues the flirtatious neighborhood beauty Pola (Pola Illery). She agrees to become his fiancée, but unluckily Albert is arrested. He refuses to rat out the guilty thief whose stolen goods he is caught holding. (That he doesn't even particularly like the thief is beside the point; class solidarity is more important than personal feelings.) While Albert is sitting in a cell, Pola turns to Albert's friend Louis (Edmond Gréville) for comfort. When Albert is released, he learns the unwelcome news that Pola and Louis are in love. In the final shots of the film, he is back selling songs on the street, looking for another pretty girl.

In the silent Italian Straw Hat Clair's camera was often fixed; from the first moments of Sous les toits de Paris the camerawork is fluid. The film opens with a slow, continuous tracking shot that takes us from rooftops to street level. We hear voices singing the title song, first faintly and then increasing in volume as the camera approaches. It's soon revealed that what we're hearing is Albert leading a group of passers-by in the refrain from his latest number, "Sous les toits de Paris" (the songs were composed by Raoul Moretti, with lyrics by René Nazelles).

Albert (Albert Prejean)

As Albert leads the group in another refrain Clair pans up the side of a building, and we see the reactions of the residents on each floor: a pretty young woman (whom we will soon discover to be Pola) who is drawn to the music and the singer; a boy throwing spitballs at the crowd; a man exasperated by the noise; and a newlywed couple enjoying the impromptu concert. Later, as evening falls this same day, Clair will pan back down the building and we will hear each of the residents whistling, humming, singing, or picking out on a piano this opening song. Sound is essential to the gentle humor of these sequences, as the song is passed from person to person.

Pola (Pola Illery)

But where sound is inessential, Clair is reluctant to employ it. In his 1929 essay on sound film, Clair reports watching the recent release of Show Boat:
'Remember your father, remember your past, remember the old boat, etc.,' the old prompter in Show Boat said, to a weeping Laura La Plante. I stuffed up my ears, and then saw on the screen only two troubled people whose words I no longer heard: the vulgar scene became touching. [3]
To avoid banal recitation, throughout the film Clair gives us sequences where the dialogue is unheard. In the opening scene a pickpocket (Bill Bocket) working Albert's streetcorner crowd rifles Pola's purse, despite Albert's attempt to mime to her what's happening.

Pickpocket Bill (Bill Bocket) steals money from Pola's purse

After Albert finishes the song he pursues the thief, and they get into an argument in which we only hear their first exchange. Soundtrack music accompanies the rest of the scene, in which Albert takes the money back from the thief and heads after Pola. She has just met up with her dandyish boyfriend Fred (Gaston Modot), and they discover that her money has been taken. Fred goes back to confront the thief, but instead of threatening him, shakes his hand: Fred, we've just discovered, is the leader of the thief's gang.

Fred searches the thief and finds a purse on him; meanwhile, Albert catches up to Pola and pretends to have found her money on the sidewalk. Fred returns and offers the purse to Pola, who shakes her head: it's not hers.

The first triangle: Albert, Pola and Fred (Gaston Modot)

Fred shrugs, pockets the purse and walks off with Pola; the thief catches up to Albert and their argument continues, only to be ended by a sudden friendly embrace as a gendarme walks by. The action and the relationships among the characters are completely clear, and it all occurs without our being able to hear the dialogue (which in any case we can supply without effort).

Another scene shows Clair's ability to use sound to tell a story without visuals. Pola has been locked out of her apartment (Fred has stolen her key), and warily accepts Albert's invitation to stay at his place. When Albert turns out the light and crawls into bed next to her, the screen is almost completely dark, but we hear Pola's angry remonstrances and Albert's rather unconvincing protestations of innocence.

Pola: Will you leave me alone!

Eventually the light comes back on, and Albert is rubbing his face ruefully: he's evidently been slapped. Ultimately they both choose to sleep on the floor, on opposite sides of the bed.

When the alarm goes off in the morning, there's another visual joke: Albert, on the floor, fumbles around and presses the heel of Pola's shoe, and magically the alarm is silenced—

Albert presses Pola's shoe

—because Pola (who has gotten back into the bed during the night) has found the clock on the nightstand and turned it off.

Clair also uses unexpected diegetic sounds to avoid the obvious. During Albert's fight with Fred over Pola, the sound of a train roaring past drowns out the sounds of struggle. Later that same night, when Albert fights with Louis over Pola, they are in a bar where a record of Rossini's William Tell Overture is on the gramophone (and starts to skip).

When the two men reconcile, their conversation is shot through the glass pane of the bar doors, and so once again the dialogue can't be heard. (Shooting an unheard conversation through a window was a technique later borrowed by Sacha Guitry for his comedies.)

Louis (Edmond Greville) reconciles with Albert

In Sous les toits de Paris Clair used sound as a dramatic element and reconceived his approach to direction to adjust to the new medium. It was also the first in Clair's series of now-classic comedies set in the streets and cafés of working-class Paris and drawn from the lives of ordinary Parisians.

Next in the series: Le Million (1931)
Last time: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1927)

  1. René Clair, reprinted in Cinema Yesterday and Today, Dover, 1972, p. 144.
  2. Quoted in John Kobal, Gotta Sing Gotta Dance, Hamblyn, 1970, p. 85.
  3. Clair, Cinema Yesterday and Today, p. 144

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 1

In 1924 the Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia wrote a scenario and designed the sets and costumes for a two-act "instantaneist ballet" entitled Relâche (Cancelled), with music by Erik Satie. Picabia planned for the ballet to have an "entr'acte cinématographique," a film shown between the acts. He outlined a series of situations and asked a little-known young filmmaker, René Clair, to direct.

The previous year Clair had directed his first feature film, Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep), in which a group of adventurers wander through a Paris where time has been frozen by a mad scientist's immobility ray. The film's theme and visuals may have appealed to Picabia and prompted his invitation to collaborate.

Entr'acte (Intermission, 1924) consists of two sections: a brief introduction shown before the ballet featuring Satie and Picabia firing a cannon at the camera/audience, and a longer section that was shown between the acts. The film features various kinds of photographic effects (double exposures, moving in and out of focus, stop-motion animation, rapid pans and zooms, positioning the camera at odd angles, slow and reverse motion, etc.). A bearded ballerina doing leaps and pirouettes is shot from below a glass floor; matches crawl onto a man's scalp and burst into flame; Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray play chess on a rooftop until they are washed away by a torrent; a paper boat sails over the roofs of Paris as though they are storm-tossed waves.

A hunter (Clair himself?) shoots an egg, releasing a bird, and is in turn shot by Picabia and plummets from a roof. A funeral procession leaves a church, bounding in slow motion behind a hearse pulled by a camel. The hearse slips the harness and rolls through the streets; as it picks up speed, the members of the procession jog, then sprint after it to try to keep up. Finally, the coffin falls out of the careening hearse; the hunter climbs out, dressed as a magician. Pointing a wand at each member of the procession, he makes them disappear. He waves the wand over the audience, and then turns it on himself. As he fades from view, "Fin" comes onscreen, and then a man (Picabia?) bursts through the screen. He lands face down on a sidewalk; when he is kicked he flies back through the screen in reverse motion.

The provocations and incongruities of Entr'acte clearly influenced other experiments in Surrealist filmmaking. It seems also to have inspired later purveyors of absurdist humor: the funeral procession sequence, with its leaping mourners and runaway hearse, is like a silent Monty Python sketch. Picabia said that Entr'acte "respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter." [1]

Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1927, adapted by Clair from the play by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel):

In the opening minutes of Clair's film, a wandering horse munches on a straw hat it finds hanging on a bush in a park. Concealed by the shrubbery is a married woman (Olga Chekhova) having a rendezvous with her lover, a hotheaded Hussar (Vital Geymond). With her hat half-eaten, the woman can't return home to her husband without uncomfortable questions being raised. So the adulterous couple follow the owner of the horse to his home and demand that he replace the hat or face the wrath of the Hussar.

So begins a day in which the horse's owner, Fadinard (Albert Prejean), will be caught in a cascading series of misadventures, not least because it is his wedding day. His unsuspecting bride Helène (Maryse Maia) is increasingly bewildered by his distracted air and frequent disappearances as he races against time to find a substitute hat, while Helène's irascible father (Yvonneck) thinks that Fadinard is getting cold feet.

This must have seemed like time-worn material even in 1928. Clair does enliven the proceedings by incorporating a bit (though not enough) of the surrealistic visual sensibility of Entr'acte: there's a fantasy/nightmare sequence in which Fadinard imagines the slow-motion defenestration of his chairs, and the mass abandonment of the house by the rest of his furniture. There's also a sequence in which, as Fadinard tells the cuckolded husband (Jim Gerald) the story of the ruined hat, the scenes are portrayed as though melodramatically enacted on a theater stage.

But most of the action is shot by a fixed camera that, as Iris Barry has suggested, may have been intended to suggest the style of early movies (the action is set in 1895, the year of the Lumiere Brothers' first film screening). Or perhaps the fixed frame is intended to evoke the experience of sitting in a theater watching the play. Either way, the visually static direction can feel at odds with the comic action.

In translating the dialogue-driven play into a silent film Clair devised a series of running gags featuring recalcitrant objects—which include a myrtle plant, a clip-on tie that won't stay clipped, a blocked ear trumpet, an uncomfortable new pair of shoes, a missing glove, and a stray hairpin—that cause their owners recurring problems over the course of the day. But for this viewer, at least, the repeated jokes eventually wore out their welcome. At 105 minutes the film lacks the relentless pace that farce demands. Instead of irresistible laughter, the movie evokes the occasional rueful smile.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the film the straying wife has received a replacement for her half-eaten hat (in a way that we'd predicted in the first moments of the film), the potted myrtle has finally made its way into the home of the newlyweds, the ear trumpet has been unblocked, the bride's father has exchanged his tight new shoes for the cuckold's comfortable broken-in pair (a lewd joke?), and the missing glove has been found (the donning of gloves is also suggestive). . .

The gloves and the shoes

. . .but what about the hairpin? The bride's cousin inadvertently drops it down the back of Helène's wedding gown as she's helping her dress, and it keeps poking her throughout the day. Somehow, though, Clair forgot to wind up this running joke at the end of the film. It would have made the perfect ending: when Fadinard and Helène are finally alone and able to embrace on their wedding night, Helène should have flinched as the hairpin made its presence known once more. The placing of the pin on the nightstand would have been the perfect image of the happy resolution of all the day's distresses. Clair simply missed the opportunity.

Although Clair disapproved of movie adaptations of books and plays, after the success of Un chapeau de paille d'Italie his next film (and last silent feature) would be an adaptation of another Labiche comedy, Les Deux timides (Two Timid Souls, 1928). But it was with his first sound films that he broke through to international success, and they will be the subject of part two of this series.

Next in the series: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the roofs of Paris), Le Million, and À nous la liberté (We shall be free)

  1. Steven Higgins, Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 104.