Writers at the Movies: A conversation with Emmanuel Mouret (French version)

Frédérique Bel, Emmanuel Mouret, and Fanny Valette in Changement d’adresse (2006)

 

[Editor’s note: My recent conversation with French filmmaker and actor Emmanuel Mouret was first published online in an English translation at Bright Lights Film Journal and subsequently in the new print edition of Contrappasso: Writers at the Movies.

Emmanuel Mouret has written and directed seven feature films. He is best known for his romantic comedies Changement d’adresse (Change of Address, 2006), Un baiser s’il vous plaît (Shall We Kiss?, 2007), Fais-moi plaisir! (Please, Please Me!, 2009), and the ensemble film L’art d’aimer (The Art of Love, 2011). Mouret’s new film Caprice has just opened in France.

These elegant comedies typically concern amorous misadventure in a timeless Paris. Mouret is also an actor, and his accomplished comic persona – a bumbling, shy, genial romantic – sets the tone of the films in which he chooses to appear. He frequently collaborates with the actors Frédérique Bel, Ariane Ascaride, Judith Godrèche, Virginie Ledoyen, and Dany Brillant. 

Below is the original French conversation, conducted in the winter of 2014-2015 with the assistance of Arthur Chaslot. Or you can read Theodore Ell’s English translation – M.A.G.]

MÉLANCOLIE COMIQUE: UNE CONVERSATION AVEC EMMANUEL MOURET
MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR: Les critiques cinéma anglophones classent souvent votre travail dans la tradition d’Eric Rohmer et Woody Allen. C’est probablement du journalisme paresseux. En tant qu’acteur et réalisateur quelles sont vos influences, tant françaises qu’internationales?

EMMANUEL MOURET: Mon admiration pour Eric Rohmer et Woody Allen n’est pas fausse, mais d’autres maîtres m’influencent ou, plus précisément, me stimulent énormément. Je pense à Ernst Lubitsch, dont les films constituent une sorte d’absolu, face à ses oeuvres nous nous sentons en communication direct avec un esprit qui nous rend plus intelligent et tolérant que ce que l’on pensait être. J’éprouve une immense sympathie pour certains films de Blake Edwards ou de Billy Wilder. Les comédies de Jacques Becker et notamment Edouard et Caroline, les films de Sacha Guitry, ceux de Truffaut, Ophüls, et beaucoup d’autres. Cependant je dois confesser que j’ai également un goût très prononcé pour le mélodrame, en particulier ceux de Douglas Sirk, John Stahl et bien évidemment Leo Mac Carey qui réussi tout aussi bien dans les deux genres.

ASPREY GEAR: Comment êtes-vous devenu réalisateur?

MOURET: Grace à un désir, que j’avais enfant, de faire du cinéma. J’ai fait très jeunes des court-métrages, j’ai étudié le scénario, l’art dramatique, puis je suis entré à l’école national de cinéma (la FEMIS). Mon film de fin d’études a été remarqué (Promène toi donc tout nu, [1999]), ce qui m’a permis aussitôt de réaliser mon premier long-métrage [Laissons Lucie faire!, 2000].

ASPREY GEAR: Pouvez-vous expliquer comment vous développez vos script? Par exemple, pouvez-vous raconter les origines de Changement d’adresse?

MOURET: Je ne me souviens plus très bien. Je passe beaucoup de temps sur la mécanique du récit, les articulations, la structure, puis je rédige assez vite pour retrouver une certaine fraîcheur. Souvent je pars d’une situation fantasmée et j’en imagine les conséquences. Pour Changement d’adresse, cela devait être : Et si je vivais en colocation avec une jeune femme aussi fantasque, que se passerait-il ? Ou encore : Et si l’on tombait amoureux sans s’en apercevoir, se trompant même de personne ? Mes personnages en général essayent de bien faire les choses, mais leurs sentiments , leurs désirs les tirent ailleurs, alors ils doivent « négocier » avec eux mêmes. Et ça m’intéresse parce que je me reconnais, ça peut être très compliqué et drôle comme douloureux.

ASPREY GEAR: Vous apparaissez rarement en tant qu’acteur dans les films d’autres réalisateurs. Être acteur est-il une priorité pour vous?

MOURET: Pas du tout, je ne me sens pas acteur. J’avais joué dans mon film de fin d’étude (Promène toi donc tout nu) pour faire comme les cinéaste-acteurs, pour voir ce que ça faisait. Mais le premier producteur avec lequel j’ai travaillé voulait me produire un film à condition que je joue dedans. Je l’ai fait, mais pas pour mon deuxième film [Vénus et Fleur, 2004]. Lorsque j’ai donné dans des essais la réplique à Frédérique Bel pour Changement d’adresse, le producteur (celui avec qui je travaille encore aujourd’hui) a insisté pour que je joue dans le film. Je l’ai fait. Depuis je joue assez régulièrement dans mes films. Mais il s’agit d’une exclusivité, je n’ai pas envie de jouer dans d’autres films.

ASPREY GEAR: Pouvez-vous parler des avantages et des difficultés de travailler dans l’industrie du cinéma français en ce moment?

MOURET: Le système de financement français permet pour l’instant la création d’un nombre de long-métrages bien supérieurs à nos voisins européens. Ce système fonctionne plutôt bien, mais il repose évidemment sur une volonté politique qui impose à des chaines de télévisions un investissement de leur chiffre d’affaire dans le cinéma français. Espérons que cette volonté demeure à l’avenir, et que la perte de vitesse de la télévision face à internet soit compensée par ces nouveaux médias, qui par ailleurs diffusent énormément de films sans contre-partie.

ASPREY GEAR: Votre dernier film Une autre vie marque un changement de direction par rapport à vos précédentes comédies romantiques. Que pouvez-vous dire de votre prochain film Caprice? Quels sont vos plans futurs?

MOURET: Caprice est clairement un retour à la comédie, même si certains y trouvent une mélancolie héritée du film précédent. Actuellement je prépare une nouveau film qui s’appelle, pour l’instant, L’amour à deux… quand on est plusieurs. Une mélancolie comique, librement inspirée de la Ronde d’Ophüls.

Writers at the Movies Extra: ‘The Café Lumière at the Hotel Scribe’ by Clive Sinclair

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Place de la Concorde, Paris. Photo CC Roger @ Flickr.

[While we’re on the subject of Writers at the Movies, the theme of our new special issue, here’s a bonus internet exclusive to Contrappasso from Clive Sinclair, one of the issue’s contributors (see Custer of the West). It’s a brief reminiscence of Paris and a place central to the earliest days of cinema.]

CAFÉ LUMIÈRE AT THE HOTEL SCRIBE by CLIVE SINCLAIR

I first experienced Paris in 1963, when I was fifteen, and more plain gauche than Rive Gauche. But I was crazy about Toulouse-Lautrec. So my parents booked a tour to the Moulin Rouge. What they didn’t know was that the tour also included three strip clubs: the Gay Zodiac, La Boule Blanche, and Le Caveau des Oubliettes. In the first a woman undressed behind a back-lit blind, revealing nothing but her silhouette, until she stepped out from behind it stark naked; in the second women disrobed while the band played ‘Blues in the Night'; the third I mention only because of its name. Proust represented one sort of Parisian, but Paris is also a city dedicated to forgetting, to hanging the self on a hat-stand, be it in a nightclub, or that other caveau des oubliettes, the cinema. It so happens that the hotel in which we stayed, the Scribe, was where the whole business began, where the Lumière Brothers first demonstrated their new machine, the Cinematograph, on December 28, 1895. Back in 1963 the Scribe still handed out those oval labels for steamer trunks, and its fin-de-siècle corridors had about them an air of intrigue, even espionage; today the atmosphere is more spa than spy. And its Salon Indien, the room chosen by the brothers to premiere La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon, is now a café named in their honour. The room’s former bombast has been lightened by the ace interior designer, Jacques Grange, and a glass roof. A handsome double portrait of the café’s honourees hangs above a sleek mantlepiece, but it has to compete for attention – at least in the après-midi – with pâtisserie displayed like crown jewels. Beneath a glass bell are brioches and madeleines, and in a glazed cabinet are pink and red mousses, and golden tartlets. Then there is the chocolate. The ganache comes like some sort of sacrament: dark chocolate, warm and molten, fills one-third of a glass; frothy milk sits in a silver jug; and pastries invite dipping and consumption. Popcorn will never do after tea at the Café Lumière. [see The Hotel Scribe, Paris]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles. Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Writers at the Movies: Sarah Berry on Jean Negulesco

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JEAN NEGULESCO: Every Woman Has A Backstory

SARAH BERRY

BY THE END of his filmmaking career in 1970, Jean Negulesco was best known for his glossy, widescreen dramas of the fifties like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Woman’s World (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), Boy on a Dolphin (1957), and The Best of Everything (1959). While these films give depth to female characters who might otherwise occupy the muted space of a stereotyped babe, Negulesco’s earlier films like Humoresque (1946), Deep Valley (1947), Johnny Belinda (1948), and Road House (1948) are specifically concerned to give a voice to heroines with roots in 1930s melodramas and working-girl films.

Hollywood was built on close-ups of beautiful women, but Negulesco’s women talk a lot in close up. And they talk about themselves. An almost comical instance is the film Phone Call From a Stranger (1952), which features Shelly Winters as the person you never want to sit next to on an airplane: she tells her poor fellow passenger the entire story of her life. My recent survey of all the Negulesco films I could find shows that his choice to make Johnny Belinda, a film about a woman who couldn’t tell her own story—was hardly random.

Johnny Belinda is about a woman who works on her father’s farm and mill, and is both deaf and mute (played by Jane Wyman, who won an Oscar for her performance). It’s an excellent film, as well as a bonanza of Lacanian clichés. Belinda’s inability to speak keeps her from being recognized as human—she’s called “The Dummy” and her father and aunt speak to her like one of the farm animals she tends. She’s taught sign language by a local doctor (Lew Ayres, then popular for his portrayal of the kindly patriarch Dr. Kildare), but having been given language, Belinda winds up in a court of law—on trial for shooting a man who raped her and tried to kidnap her son (Johnny).

The film’s title oddly combines the first names of Belinda and her son, as though her new subjectivity is inextricable from her identity as mother of this boy-child. (The film’s German title, by contrast, is “Silent Lips”). Like the otherwise silent Belinda, many of the women in Jean Negulesco’s films are given a fairly powerful voice under his benign directorship.

Negulesco was born the first boy of a wealthy Romanian family in 1900. In his memoir he humorously recounts his father’s rage and despair at first having four girls, who were treated as annoying interlopers in the quest for a male heir. After eight children the father finally had two boys, and as Negulesco writes,

To father, my brother and I were different. ‘My Johnny, our George’—we were the chosen ones, the sons of the richest man on the street. The others were the ‘girls’; he never mentioned them by name. ‘The girls will carry the baskets, the girls will clean the place; the girls should write to Grandma to thank her for the Sunday lunch. Johnny and George will ride with me to the vineyard.’

Negulesco studied painting in Paris in the ‘20s at the height of classic modernism’s popularity. His film career began as a sketch artist at Paramount where his European visual sensibility gave him an eye for “unusual” camera angles. His first significant project at Paramount was to design a “rape with a foreign touch” for The Story of Temple Drake. This 1933 film stared Miriam Hopkins, and, like Baby Face (1933) tells the story of a woman who is raped and forced into prostitution.

Paramount’s goal was to get Temple Drake’s rape scene past censors, and Negulesco’s shot design emphasized the heroine’s vulnerability with a dramatic high angle of her body and close-up on Hopkins’s face but concluded with a discrete fade to black punctuated by her scream.

What’s interesting about Negulesco’s introduction to filmmaking in this context is that the victimized-but-resilient pre-code heroine remains at the core of his characterization of women throughout his career. She emerges in backstories like Helen Wright’s in Humoresque in the course of a matter-of-fact, martini-fueled monologue:

There’s nothing very strange about me. I was married twice before, once at sixteen, once at twenty-one. One was a crybaby and the other was a cave man. Between the two of them I said goodbye to girlhood.

The trauma of being “married” at sixteen is underscored in the film’s climax as Helen prepares to drown herself in the ocean. Taking her final drink, she raises the glass and says “Here’s to love. And here’s to the time when we were little girls no one asks to marry.” Helen’s toughness is both typical of Negulesco’s female characters and resonant with the history of Joan Crawford’s proletarian women’s films of the 1930s.

Humoresque

Humoresque

Rape

“I don’t know how you men get that way, but every time you meet an attractive woman you begin to plan on how and where you can club her wings down.”—Helen Wright in Humoresque

Negulesco included sexual assault scenes in three films among those I’ve seen: Johnny Belinda, Road House, and Three Came Home (1950). In Johnny Belinda the rape is reminiscent of Temple Drake, with noir-esque compositions showing the rapist’s looming figure, followed by a close up of Belinda’s face as his shadow covers it. Belinda’s point-of-view of his leering face is lingered on, however, and the scene is resolutely un-eroticized – unlike that in The Story of Temple Drake.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

In Temple Drake, Hopkins recoils but is displayed in all her sensuousness—even licking her lips ambivalently in close up. Negulesco recounts that during the shoot Hopkins teasingly asked him, “Do I scream? And are my eyes opened in terror of what I see? Or do I close my eyes and let things happen? Jean, do I enjoy it?”

The Story of Temple Drake

The Story of Temple Drake

Throughout Johnny Belinda, Negulesco’s camera often lingers on Belinda’s face, giving Jane Wyman’s expressions time to express subtle shifts in feeling. Shorter than almost everyone on screen, Belinda is nevertheless presented either from eye level or below.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Even in the scene where she’s raped, she’s found by her attacker kneeling beside bags of flour and the camera angle is from her height as he looks down at her.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Between 1946 and 1948 Negulesco made four films for Warner Bros.—Humoresque, Deep Valley, Johnny Belinda, and Road House. Each of them shows Negulesco’s background in European silent-film aesthetics (abundant location shooting and graphic or pictorial composition) as well as a jaundiced social perspective reminiscent of Fritz Lang, particularly in relation to small-town collective bigotry and the oppression and isolation of women.

 

Isolation

Belinda’s isolation is underscored by the town’s condemnation when she becomes pregnant by her attacker. Rural isolation and the inability to communicate are also central to Deep Valley, made just before Johnny Belinda. Written in part by Salka Viertel, Deep Valley, like Johnny Belinda, features cinematography by Ted McCord with extensive location shooting in Northern California. Ida Lupino plays Libby Saul, a young woman whose parents haven’t spoken in seven years, and who herself speaks only haltingly, with a stutter.

The film introduces Libby as she’s woken by her mother rudely yelling for her from a bedroom in their falling-apart house that lies deep in an isolated valley (the mother claims to be an invalid in order to avoid her husband). Libby’s father also treats her as a servant, and as soon as no one is watching Libby slips out to walk through the woods with her dog, which is how she spends most of her time. When Libby comes over a ridge she discovers a work crew from San Quentin blasting the route of a new highway along the coast and through the valley.

Deep Valley

Deep Valley

The metaphorical nature of this violent disruption of Libby’s isolation is played out in relation to human connections and communication. Just as the highway promises to free Libby from the confines of her broken family, the presence of the workmen disrupts the family’s dysfunction and forces confrontations with past trauma.

The trauma at the root of the parents’ silence and Libby’s speech impediment is domestic violence: having witnessed her father hitting her mother, Libby began stuttering while also acting as the only conduit between her parents. In the course of the film Libby loses her stutter by discovering her own desires when she falls in love with one of the convicts in the work crew.

The work crew is first seen from Libby’s point of view, high on a ridge looking down. Several tracking shots feature the glistening upper bodies of the sweating workmen as they labor with pickaxes. Libby lies down on the ridge and watches the men thoughtfully while eating from a bucket of berries she’s picked. One of the men comments that she’s been watching them for the last four miles of their progress along the cliff. She’s particularly interested in Barry (Dane Clark), who stops while drinking some water in order to share it with Libby’s dog, who has wandered down the hill.

Deep Valley

Deep Valley

Libby’s intense interest in the sudden appearance of men in her isolated world plays out in a sequence of point-of-view shots that are clearly libidinal. Like Belinda and several other Negulesco women, Libby is aligned with nature, which is romanticized in the scenes of her enjoying the woods. But unlike the usual silent-melodrama-contrast between nature/female innocence and culture/dangerous female sexuality, Negulesco gives license to Libby’s desires and resolutely refuses to punish her for them. Her presumptive marriage to the “good man” at the end of the film is presented as a logical compromise, a vision of marriage I’ll return to in relation to Negulesco’s 1950s films.

 

Class and marriage

Lupino gave one of her finest performances in her next film with Negulesco, Road House. In it she plays Lily Stevens, and is introduced as a femme fatale who will disrupt the fragile “family” triangle of Celeste Holm as the good sidekick Susie, Cornell Wilde as the hero Pete, and Richard Widmark as a spoiled, maniacal rich kid. Pete tries to reestablish order by getting rid of Lily as quickly as possible, but she refuses to be bossed around or typecast by Pete as a sexual temptress.

What’s brilliant about Road House is how Negulesco revels in the stylistic excesses of noir and lovingly composes each shot of Lily (she refuses to dress down and fit into the rural scene). The film’s fantastic art direction features a modernist nightclub with rustic styling that unfolds improbably like a Busby Berkeley set.

Lily’s backstory arrives after she is assaulted by a drunk while performing as a singer in the road house bar.

Road House

Road House

 

Road House

Road House

Later, with Pete, she turns on the radio to the sound of a plaintive, operatic soprano. Lily tells Pete that her working-class father won a foot-organ in a poker game and wanted Lily to sing opera. She worked days in a factory and practised singing at night while he accompanied her on the organ.

This brief scene completes Lily’s shift from the generic register of femme fatale to that of the Depression heroine, whose primary goals are to survive and to have (in Lily’s case quite literally) a voice of her own that can shape her narrative going forward.

In later Negulesco films, women’s class struggle may be seemingly resolved by marriage. The films he’s best known for from the 1950s reflect that decade’s emphasis on repressing the tensions of film noir and channeling women’s desire in the direction of home, marriage, and motherhood.

Negulesco’s characterization of marriage is interesting in three ways, however. Firstly, he retains a Depression-era sympathy for women’s economic struggles and the practical necessity of marriage in a world of very limited options. Secondly, he presents women’s desire for a companionate marriage of equals in an entirely sympathetic light. Thirdly, women’s sexual desires are never condemned or presented as whorish by contrast with a virginal ideal (one could claim that Sophia Loren’s breasts are the star of Boy on a Dolphin, but she is also a three-dimensional character fighting for her impoverished village, as she points out to her “rich American” love interest).

Wifehood is also presented as work in Negulesco’s films, whether it’s the hard labor of rural women (Deep Valley, Johnny Belinda), or the work of conforming to middle-class social norms in Woman’s World (1954) – a film whose title is simply descriptive, unlike the theme song’s misleading claim that “It’s a woman’s world.” Married or not, Negulesco’s women are always most vulnerable when isolated from other women. While there is often conflict among women, they inevitably join forces in the face of male oppression.

The comedic version of Negulesco’s interest in women’s solidarity is How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, 20th Century Fox’s second CinemaScope film). It’s a remake of the 1932 film The Greeks Had a Word for Them, and retains a Depression-era sympathy for gold-diggers. Lauren Bacall’s character Schatze Page has a hilarious marriage backstory, which she explains to her fellow-diggers Pola (Marilyn Monroe) and Loco (Betty Grable) on the terrace of their sublet penthouse:

POLA
She just got back from Reno

LOCO
Oh, then you must be loaded!

SCHATZE
No, mine was one of those divorces you don’t read about. The wife finished second.

LOCO
But that’s against the law, isn’t it?

SCHATZE
I was absolutely nuts about that guy. You know what he did to me? First off he gives me a phony name. Second, it turns out he was already married! Third, from the minute the preacher said amen, he never did another tap of work. The next thing I knew he’d stolen my television set and given it to a car hop. And when I asked him how about that he hits me with a chicken!

POLA
A live chicken?

SCHATZE
No, a baked chicken! Stuffed!

LOCO
He sounds incompatible to me.

SCHATZE
Well, last time I saw him, I stepped out of the car for a minute at a gas station and had to walk home.

LOCO
Well, I’m surprised you’d ever want to get married again.

SCHATZE
But that’s the point about this whole set-up! Of course I want to get married again. Who doesn’t? It’s the biggest thing you can do in life.

Schatze gazes at a male nude sculpture decorating the terrace, pointedly glances between its legs and turns, raising an eyebrow dismissively.

SCHATZE
But the way most people go about it they use more brains picking a horse at Belmont than they do picking a husband.

LOCO
Do they really?

SCHATZE
It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart.

The scene plays out with the three women distributed across the CinemaScope frame, drinking champagne on their penthouse terrace with the Manhattan skyline in the background as if to illustrate the wealth they have every right to partake in. Schatze’s anti-romantic approach to marriage is presented as Jane Austen-like pragmatism, and Bacall’s appearance is all business. She wears a pencil-skirted grey suit, and her self-determined image resonates with Bacall’s previous films, in which she’d played savvy women who call their own shots and know “how to whistle.”

How to Marry a Millionaire

How to Marry a Millionaire

Men’s status as the owners and controllers of wealth is never presented by Negulesco as deserved or “natural.” Instead, it’s often ridiculed. The best example of this is in Daddy Long Legs (1955), a musical staring Leslie Caron as the French orphan Julie Andre. Fred Astaire plays her anonymous benefactor Jervis Pendleton III, who Julie only knows to be a rich American. Pendleton is a spoiled, self-centered man whose support for Julie comes about coincidentally. He completely ignores her attempts to communicate and foster a friendship with him throughout the film.

In a fantasy musical sequence, Julie imagines him as a grotesquely grinning caricature of wealth dressed as a cowboy with a hat full of gold coins. During her fantasy, Pendleton struts arrogantly across a stage in front of oil derricks and a huge, million-dollar banknote.

Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs

Julie is one of several orphans in the films of Negulesco: Scandal at Scourie (1953) is about adoption, and the heroines of both Johnny Belinda and Lure of the Wilderness (1952) lost their mothers as children. Negulesco himself adopted two daughters after his wife Dusty suffered repeated late miscarriages, the first during production of Johnny Belinda. In Daddy Long Legs, the fact that orphaned Julie winds up marrying her wealthy benefactor is presented as entirely justified, if not-at-all convincingly romantic.

 

Marriage and sexuality

Schatze’s assessment of the nude statue’s manhood in How to Marry a Millionaire underscores the down-side of marital pragmatism, however. Part of the pleasure of Negulesco’s 1950s films is that they accept the apparent necessity of marriage for women, but always with a wink or sigh at the inevitable sacrifices involved—including sexual freedom.

One can easily ascribe a queer subtext to Negulesco’s ensemble women’s films like How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Came Home. The latter film, based on Agnes Newton Keith’s memoir of surviving a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Borneo, features an ensemble cast of women who, separated from men, bond with and support each other. Agnes’s close relationship to fellow inmate Betty is particularly emphasized, and when Agnes is attacked by a would-be rapist, Negulesco has her successfully fight him off (kicking and screaming for Betty even as she’s dragged by the legs and thrown in the bushes) until Betty arrives, prompting the attacker to run away.

Negulesco’s own heterosexuality was ambiguous in spite of his reputation as a playboy. Clearly many women loved his company (including, famously, Marilyn Monroe), but when Negulesco cites Harry Cohn calling him a homosexual, his playboy reputation is overtly used in self-defense. Negulesco also made four films with Clifton Webb and two with Agnes Moorhead, both of whom were widely known in Hollywood to be queer, so regardless of his own orientation he was well-exposed to non-hetero-normative perspectives on life and marriage.

The Negulesco films that strike me as the most ambivalent about marriage are Three Coins in the Fountain and The Best of Everything. Unlike the women in How to Marry a Millionaire, those in Three Coins are looking for love, not just financial security. They are professional secretaries with enough independence to sign up with an agency and ship out to Italy on their own. Anita (Jean Peters) lusts after Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) while the prim but equally desiring Maria (Maggie McNamara) takes a more calculated approach to getting what she wants (Prince Dino di Cessi, played by Louis Jourdan).

Dorothy McGuire gives a fascinating performance as Frances, the expatriate personal secretary of author John Shadwell (Clifton Webb), and in many ways their relationship is already like a marriage. He relies on her completely, but is also emotionally aloof and sees no reason she should want anything more in life than what they already have together. The most intriguing thing about this sexless marriage (which, of course, becomes an actual marriage at the end of the film) is that Frances is presented in every scene as an elegant, well-dressed and desirable woman.

Anita, Maria, and Frances in Three Coins in a Fountain

Anita, Maria, and Frances in Three Coins in the Fountain

Anita is, like the man she falls in love with, sensuous but less classy than Frances; Maria, as her name indicates, dresses like a convent girl; Frances, seemingly the old maid of the trio, is also the most elegant and it’s not at all clear why she loves a man who just wants her to continue being his secretary. The lack of any desire on his part couldn’t possibly be more apparent, and the only compensation seems to be their similar tastes and education.

The redeeming aspect of this relationship, however, is their longstanding friendship. Seen meta-textually as an example of the marriages made by queer men and women to avoid social stigma, the pairing makes perfect sense. What’s missing is a clearer perspective on Frances’s romantic longing: she has no backstory. She’s also given no last name and is listed in the credits as “Miss Frances,” a strange absence that suggests permanent maidenhood.

The trio’s friendship in Three Coins doesn’t imply, as it does in How to Marry a Millionaire, that “the girls” are more important than their men (who will simply deliver a meal-ticket for sexual services rendered). Similarly, female friendships are important in The Best of Everything, but take a back seat to work and men. The Best of Everything is based on Rona Jaffe’s memoir of working-women’s hardships in 1950s corporate Manhattan, a milieu whose male-centric power structure and sexism has more recently been richly detailed in the television series Mad Men (2007-present, AMC).

The three main female characters share a small apartment: Caroline (Hope Lange), April (Diane Baker) and Gregg (Suzy Parker). They work at a mass-market publishing firm under Amanda (Joan Crawford), playing a dragon-lady-executive. The story’s title is definitively ironic by the end of the film, given the following outcomes: Caroline has given up a hard-won executive position in order to marry an alcoholic, April loses her pregnancy after being jilted, and Gregg goes mad and falls to her death after her lover refuses to marry her. Even boss-lady Amanda seems emotionally doomed, having given up all hope of companionship in order to stay in the job she loves.

The Best of Everything

The Best of Everything

 The Best of Everything, with its muted Mondrian-themed corporate office cubes, moves its characters through various confined spaces and social roles, none of which offers much pleasure or freedom, particularly when compared to the Rome of Three Coins in the Fountain. The most inviting space in the film is the cocktail bar on the ground floor of the office tower, and, given the narrative, this seems a likely refuge for most of the characters.

After the happy-go-lucky How to Marry a Millionaire, Negulesco’s colorful wide-screen films are emotionally darker than his 1940s black-and-white ones—an exception being Boy on a Dolphin (1957), which is notably not set in the U.S. The Best of Everything and Woman’s World are so bleak they even take pity on the men of corporate America. Scenes of therapeutic backstory sharing fade away, as though there is hardly any point. Self-determination and fulfillment, in Negulesco’s 1950s America, seem illusory.

Mad Men, season 1, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, season 1, episode 6, “Babylon.”

 

Works Cited

Jean Negulesco, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

SARAH BERRY writes on film, media, and cultural studies, and designs interactive multimedia projects. She is the author of Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood (2002).

Writers at the Movies: ‘Twelve Short Takes on Montgomery Clift’ by R. Zamora Linmark

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Twelve Short Takes on Montgomery Clift

To preserve the original formating of this poem, the poem is presented as a PDF file.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

zamora linmark

R. ZAMORA LINMARK‘s latest poetry collection, Pop Verite, is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press. He has just completed his third novel titled These Books Belong to Ken Z. He is the Distinguished Visiting Associate Professor in Creative Writing at University of Miami and is currently working on a sequel to his first novel Rolling The R’s which, in 2016, will be twenty years old.

Writers at the Movies: ‘A Letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila’ by R. Zamora Linmark

Photo CC Ree Dexter @ Flickr

Manila. Photo CC Ree Dexter @ Flickr

A Letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila

“The place just fucking smelled of cockroaches. There’s no sewage system in Manila,and people have nothing there. People with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth. We shot in a real psychiatric hospital…”
—Claire Danes to Premiere magazine

Dear Claire—
It is ghastly indeed: this city
crowded with cockroaches and people
who walk without legs, drive long
chrome-plated coffins without arms,
and stare imperiously at you
without eyes. Not to mention
squatters sleeping on stilts,
island panhandlers, again without arms
and legs, highway beggars,
again without eyes and hair,
and sidewalk dwellers whose walls
are painted with huge signs
reminding people not to dump trash,
piss, shit. By the way,
how was San Francisco? Are you now
back in the East, Boston or Manhattan,
that is? I am forever still in Manila,
writing you with much concern
because the City Mayor has called
an emergency meeting to ban
the showing of all your movies,
including Les Misérables. The papers
and glossy fashion magazines are
christening you “Unknown,” “Uncouth,”
“Uncultured,” “Unconscious.” Word
has it that Brooke Shields is here, too,
gambling at Heritage Casino on Roxas
with fishermen and politicians.
Is it true? Is she with André?
Are they still together? But
what you said about this city
of roaches and missing extremities
are bold impressions I cannot hold
against you, for first time travelers
from First World countries all undergo
cultural seizures here; tics
of the mind responsible for setting
off a series of generalizations
and assumptions about bugs,
blindness, and amputation. Not
excluded from this list are Filipinos
in America, like cousin Jennifer
from Daly City, Tito Bert in Wichita,
and Tita Joan in Pasadena. Claire,
I would like to invite you back
to Manila. Make another movie.
A romance, and not one filmed in a psycho
ward. Do it with Matt—Damon or
McConaughey or Broderick, but
preferably Dillon. Or Why not
Matt Mendoza, Manila’s own
achy-breaky heartthrob? And bring
with you, once more, your dollars,
your talent and, this time,
crutches and roach spray.

***

Hear the poet introduce and read this poem for the launch of Contrappasso: Writers at the Movies (April 10, 2015).

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

zamora linmark

R. ZAMORA LINMARK‘s latest poetry collection, Pop Verite, is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press. He has just completed his third novel titled These Books Belong to Ken Z. He is the Distinguished Visiting Associate Professor in Creative Writing at University of Miami and is currently working on a sequel to his first novel Rolling The R’s which, in 2016, will be twenty years old.

Writers at the Movies: After Douglas Sirk’s ‘Written on the Wind’ by R. Zamora Linmark

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After Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind

What past isn’t dark? Whose secrets don’t bruise?
Let’s start with the son: a profligate playboy, the booze-
soaked President of the Society for the Prevention of
Boredom, so filthy rich he dusts mornings with
a yellow sports car, uses a bourbon glass for an ashtray,
flies thousands of miles without looking at the sky
for a steak sandwich, and snatches from his down-
by-the-river best friend the soul-searching career-
comes-first-before-the-altar girl. He seduces her
with a hot pink hallway, a lavender suite, red-carpeted
walk-in closet, but finally wins her over with the midnight
blue of Miami. They marry. All is fine until the annual
visit to the doctor (or did it start much before that,
when the wind swept dead leaves into the mansion?)
Regardless, his year-old sobriety ends and childhood
nightmares of whiskey bottles and molestation flashbacks
return. He wakes up, sweating, too terrified to curse
his dreams. This morning, he cries like a baby
to his wife, keeps asking how can he ever give her
a child when he’s sleeping with a silver gun
under his head? A bedroom door slams. It’s his sister,
home alas, and smiling at the mirror—the taste of
the gas station attendant still ripe on her tongue.
She, too, has her drama and mottos—”I’m allergic
to politeness” and “I’m just plain filthy period!”
to nurture; her hobbies—back-alley lusts and wallowing
in elbow-length gloves and strapless gowns. With
the fireplace she lights a cigarette, stands before
the portrait of unrequited love, hesitates, puts on
a mambo record, then disappears beneath a see-through
sunset-orange chiffon gown. But the past, no matter
how rich and powerful, is as useless as their old man,
the oil tycoon who cannot buy out his children’s miseries
nor his own magnificent clichéd death, tumbling
down a winding staircase while his son grieves
for a lost child and his dancing daughter blasts the trumpet
solo so loud destiny cannot stop it, except perhaps
those almost-lost afternoons by the river when mulberry
juice passed for kisses, swimming was in the raw,
and tree trunks were skinned perfectly into hearts.

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

zamora linmark

R. ZAMORA LINMARK‘s latest poetry collection, Pop Verite, is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press. He has just completed his third novel titled These Books Belong to Ken Z. He is the Distinguished Visiting Associate Professor in Creative Writing at University of Miami and is currently working on a sequel to his first novel Rolling The R’s which, in 2016, will be twenty years old.

Writers at the Movies: ‘Custer of the West’ by Clive Sinclair

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CUSTER OF THE WEST
by CLIVE SINCLAIR
(Originally for the Custer Association of Great Britain, 2012)

REVIEWING Custer of the West upon its release in 1968, Showguide (a precursor of Time Out) informed its readers that: “The script of the film— based on several years of research—has been splendidly written by Bernard Gordon and Julian Halevy, who delved into a private library of more than a thousand books, folios and letters to find their facts.”

The review is quoted in Bernard Gordon’s memoir—Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist—which admits a less scholarly genesis. Walking along Madrid’s “main drag” with Philip Yordan—boss of the European script factory in which he toiled—Gordon was informed that his next task would be to write a motion picture about George Armstrong Custer. The news was not well received.

“Custer?” said Gordon. “My God. All I know about him is that he was an Indian killer, and the Indians finally killed him at Little Big Horn!” Yordan shrugged, and Gordon continued: “Who in this day and age would want to make a film hero out of someone who did his best to butcher Indians?” “I don’t give a damn about Custer or the Indians,” said Yordan. All he was interested in was the fact that he had been paid to produce a film about Custer.

Gordon died in 2007, but his writing partner Julian Zimet (who—also being blacklisted—used the pseudonym Halevy), lives on in Rome, in an apartment he shares with his wife Anna Maria (Primo Levi’s sister). At 93 some of his senses are failing, but not his memory. And his tongue could still run a marathon. Nor has it lost its sting. “The first thing you should know,” he said, “is that Gene Autry was a prick. A prick and a shit both.”

Raised on the east coast, Zimet had ventured to Hollywood early, and then, by dint of perseverance and native talent had risen from script reader to script writer. Among his early sales was Sierra Sue, a vehicle for Gene Autry. Not only did he write it, he also found himself advising the director how best to shoot it, at least until its star noted his presence. “I don’t want any Jew spies on my set,” said Autry.

On the other hand the government thought him patriotic enough to be drafted (though prompted by Joseph McCarthy the powers-that-be eventually came to share Autry’s opinion). When the witchfinders decided to dignify prejudice with judicial authority, Zimet elected to quit America: he had no intention of naming names, as other quasi or real communists had done, but he had no wish for martyrdom either. First he went to Mexico, then Italy.

It was from Rome—many years later—that he travelled to Madrid to work with his old comrade, Bernard Gordon, on the Custer project. By 1966, the year in question, Vietnam was beginning to dominate the political agenda. One major side-effect was that it overturned the authorized version of America’s past, in particular the conquest and colonisation of the West. The few Westerns that went into production were made with reversed polarities; the Indians were now freedom fighters—the Viet Cong in warpaint—and the US Cavalry the militant arm of colonial oppression.

It was these changing times that prompted Gordon to say to Yordan: “Fine. Let’s do a film about Custer, a really modern film that tells the truth about him and the whole American policy at the time.” Policy which—it went without saying—found its modern equivalent in Vietnam. But Yordan had no interest in contemporary relevance: “It’s people like you with your antihero ideas who are ruining Hollywood! We’ll just figure a way to turn Custer into a hero!”

Even so, the finished movie is far from innocent. Robert Shaw was cast as Custer, and Mary Ure—his wife—as Libbie. According to Zimet, the actor was even more determined than the script writers to view Custer through modern eyes. “The original brief was to turn out a typical Western sainted hero martyr script, which Gordon and I duly delivered,” he told me. “But Robert Shaw figured he would make it over to suit himself. Which he did. He turned Custer into a sadist of Shakespearean depth.”

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Gordon, in his memoir, implies that he retained some of his original scepticism, and gives the leading man only a secondary role in shaping Custer’s character: “Production stumbled along on Custer as Julian and I tried to give the Indians a fair shake. Robert Shaw was helpful. A bright man and a fine writer, he approved of our point of view of that the Indians were victims right to the end. He even wrote one speech for Custer… that made this point sharply.”

Either way, Shaw had no time for either Gordon or Zimet. According to the latter, he regarded the pair as “American philistines,” to be treated with contempt. As far as Shaw was concerned movie-making Hollywood-style was little better than a criminal enterprise. This disdain was extended to the director hired by Yordan. As a matter of fact both scriptwriters were also unimpressed by the appointment of Robert Siodmak, a former Hollywood insider, now involuntarily retired, and so eager to work that he would (in Zimet’s words) “have agreed to direct the telephone book.” “Why are you hiring Siodmak?” he protested to the producer. “Why do you want a broken down, dying man, when you could have a splendid new director such as Lindsay Anderson?” “You jerk,” said Yordan, “Siodmak is a name I can take to the bank.”

In Hollywood Exile, Gordon elucidates this terse response: “We need a star or we have no deal,” said Yordan. “We have no script to show to a star, so what do I do? I go to Robert Shaw and ask him to do the picture. He wants to be helpful. But without a script, how can he agree? I tell him I’ll get him an experienced director. How do I get a respectable director to take the job? I still have no script. I find out Siodmak is hungry. He has an impressive track record, but he’s out of work in Switzerland. The phone isn’t ringing. He’s dying to do another picture and pick up another fee. So I get Siodmak and I’ve got Shaw—and I get the four million bucks to make a picture.”

Similar considerations lay behind the casting of Sgt Mulligan, a character who appears out of nowhere, has a couple of big scenes (in the second of which he pleads with Custer for his life, forfeit on account of desertion), and then vanishes as if he had never been. Mulligan owed his brief existence—was enlisted—because Yordan felt it necessary to attract another star name, to put on the marquee and in advertising. Enter Robert Ryan, who took the money, said the lines crafted for him by Zimet, and ran.

“Shaw took care of the battle scenes himself,” recalls Zimet. “Siodmak preferred directing ballroom scenes, which he had done so often in his long career they required no invention. What he didn’t anticipate, as he choreographed fifty couples, was that the actor—whose intervention was designed to give coherence to the scene—would go crazy, punch him in the chops, and walk off the set. I was already working on another project, but Yordan insisted that I write some lines for a minor actor, which would account for the miscreant’s absence. This would allow the ballroom scene to continue, save having to locate the crazy or drunk actor, and save having to reshoot. While Siodmak kept the dancers in motion, I rehearsed the new actor in his role, and tailors stitched together a bespoke uniform. Within minutes he burst upon the scene, apologised on behalf of the government minister for his absence—due to a crisis in Washington—and announced an impending honour for Custer. It was a weak solution, but it saved a lot of money. That’s show business for you.”

In short, the producer, having cooked up a deal to sell a Custer movie (with profits assured in advance), had no real interest in whether the end product was any good, let alone historically accurate.

When John Ford made My Darling Clementine he boasted that his friendship with Wyatt Earp guaranteed authenticity, then went on to set the film in the wrong year, and kill off both Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton before their time. No such claims were ever made for Custer of the West—pace Showguide—so scholarly analysis would be as useful as using a tomahawk to scalp Yul Brunner.

Even so there is one howler that cannot pass unremarked. The movie contains no reference to either Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, and the entire Lakota nation is only mentioned en passant. Instead the uneducated viewer is led to believe that Custer’s nemesis was Chief Dull Knife (who, in reality, thought it more politic to sit out the conflict), and his primary antagonists the Cheyenne. At one point Custer confronts Dull Knife with the following piece of realpolitik: “I’ll make it very simple for you. The fact that we seem to be pushing you clear off the earth is not my responsibility. The problem is precisely the same as when you Cheyenne decided to take another tribe’s hunting ground. You didn’t ask them about their rights. You didn’t care if they had been there a thousand years. You just had more men and more horses. You destroyed them in battle. You took what you wanted, and right or wrong, for better or worse, that is the way things seem to get done. That’s history. I’m talking about history. You are a militarily defeated people. You are paying the price for being backward. And whatever my personal feelings, and I don’t say I have, there’s nothing I can do to change all this. Do you understand?” In fact, of course, it was the Cheyenne who were driven from their ancestral lands—including the Black Hills—by the Lakota.

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If the movie has no place in the lecture hall, how well does it fare in the movie theatre? Like the 7th Cavalry it stands or falls on the performance of its star. At least Robert Shaw’s hair is the right colour. And he looks sufficiently like the ‘boy general’ who sat for Matthew Brady that the portrait hanging on the wall of his quarters does not appear out of place. Moreover the sadistic impulses that Shaw sought to emphasise are only apparent in a few scenes, all of them early; for example, he orders his new command to run in circles until—one by one—the men drop. But as Shaw’s performance progresses sadism becomes less and less Custer’s defining characteristic; he becomes more complex, and his impersonator more beguiled, as though a dybbuk—the General’s—had taken up residence within.

This internal conflict becomes manifest in his behaviour: natural justice, personal liberty, and romanticism versus manifest destiny, military discipline, and patriotism. It is best expressed during a scene in which a representative of the military-industrial complex demonstrates the efficacy of a new weapon: a gatling gun mounted upon an armoured railway carriage. Custer—a chivalrous man—recoils in horror: “War isn’t just killing, you know. It’s a contest. It’s a man against a man.” Later he has the following exchange with Libbie: “If this is the future, I don’t want any part of it!” “Where does that leave you?” “With the Indians!”

In which case the final battle represents the psychological struggle made flesh and blood, as the irreconcilable positions take up arms against each other. The movie began with a montage of Civil War charges, and it ends with a civil war made personal. This dualism finds further expression in the contrasting characters of Custer’s two fellow officers; Benteen and Reno. Jeffrey Hunter plays Benteen as a “bleeding heart” liberal, forever expressing the other side’s point of view, whereas Reno is presented as a gung-ho racist.

The pivotal moment—when Custer is most himself—occurs when he is summoned to Washington to appear before a congressional committee. Obviously the scene could not be shot in situ, and budgetary constraints ruled out reconstruction. “It was inconceivable that we should build a replica of the real chamber and people it with the dozens of representatives and senators in period dress,” wrote Gordon. “Yordan solved the problem economically by having Shaw, as Custer, pose in front of a painting of the crowded congressional chamber. I thought it looked fake but few other people noticed or cared.” Obviously Gordon had not viewed the movie for some time when he wrote those sentences: the backdrop is not the chamber, crowded or otherwise, but the dome itself.

In any event, the important feature is the speech, and Shaw’s delivery of it. “There is no Indian problem,” he says. “There is only a White problem.” The problematic issues par excellence being hypocrisy—treaties broken even as they are signed—and corruption. It is not officers in the field who are growing fat, Custer says, only politicians. “The American people have the right to know who is responsible…” thunders Shaw. “The guilty parties… You are going to have to look right here in Washington. And you are going to have to look in high places. I know the men who are responsible and I am going to give you their names.” I can well imagine the secret smiles of satisfaction on the faces of Zimet and Gordon, for whom (in a different context) the naming of names would have been abhorrent, as Shaw concludes the accusatory speech, the sort of speech they must have dreamed of throwing back in the faces of their persecutors at HUAC.

A curious postscript to the movie suggests that the Committee might have been better advised to look in a different direction for un-American activities. It turned out that Ty Hardin, who played Reno, was typecast. He could have been Clint Eastwood, but instead of directing Unforgiven and being elected Mayor of Carmel, his career went nowhere, and four years after playing Reno, he became the guiding light of the Arizona Patriots, a quasi-fascist militia, and editor of their in-house magazine, which urged Christian patriots to band together, and reprinted antisemitic diatribes. Its members stockpiled weapons and ammo in anticipation of Armageddon. Eventually even the FBI reckoned that these self-styled “freedom fighters” were anything but, and raided their HQ, scattering their members to the four corners.

Like all movies about the Frontier, Custer of the West is a palimpsest, in that it uses the past to comment upon the present. Gordon’s wry joke about how “a couple of blacklisted writers did succeed in smuggling a bit of red propaganda into a Hollywood film… well, redskin propaganda anyway,” is both funny and true. It seems that Custer’s dybbuk—or ghost—is doomed to shuttle between left and right, between martyrdom and villainy, depending upon contemporary circumstances, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Custer Association of Great Britain to stick to the facts.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles.

Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

[The title picture is a detail from the original movie program as reproduced at In Cinerama]

Writers at the Movies: An Introduction

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WRITERS AT THE MOVIES: An Introduction

by NOEL KING and MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

[This is the introduction to our new special issue Writers at the Movies. It contains essays by Luc Sante, Sarah Berry, Richard Lowenstein, Richard Hugo, Clive Sinclair, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, and Anthony May; fiction by Barry Gifford; poetry by Michael Atkinson, R. Zamora Linmark, and James Franco; and interviews with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Emmanuel Mouret, Scott Simmon, and Richard Misek. The issue is for sale at Amazon.com]

I: Literary Cinéphilia

This special issue of Contrappasso on ‘Writers at the Movies’ follows our special ‘Noir’ issue of late 2013. Once again we’ve assembled a collection of poems, essays, fiction, and interviews—some republished, some appearing for the first time. In this instance, the common theme is ‘literary cinéphilia.’

Over the last couple of decades the notion of cinéphilia has taken flight, with many articles, academic books, and trade collections exploring this concept from the beginnings of cinema to the digital age[1].

But the version of cinéphilia on offer here in Contrappasso is a little different. Our take is probably closer to what was featured in Granta’s special film issue (#86, 2004). Highlights of that volume were Andrew O’Hagan’s memoir of his short stint as a film critic (“Two Years in the Dark”) and Ian Jack’s loving recollection of the cinemas of his youth (“The Best Picture He Ever Saw”). Jack’s essay tells of returning with his elder brother to Farnworth to seek out the sites of its vanished cinemas—the Ritz, the Savoy, the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Palace. For Jack and his young friends:

Cinema names seemed independent of any history. They may have been intended to suggest luxury, romance, good birth and breeding, foreign parts, ancient history and therefore to be fitting vehicles for the films showed inside them; escapist images inside escapist architecture. But how many among their audiences could have connected the Hippodrome to horse racing in Ancient Greece, or the Rialto to Venice, the Alhambra, Granada, and Toledo to Spain, the Lido to Mediterranean bathing, the Colosseum to Rome, the Savoy to the Strand, the Odeon to Paris, the Regal to majestic behaviour? Not me, certainly.

We also feel kinship with Parnassus’s special issue on ‘Poetry and Movies’ (#22, Nos. 1 & 2, 1997) with its poems inspired by Godard’s Le Mépris, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and the collaboration between Positif and Projections that generated Projections 4½ (1995), from which we republish Richard Lowenstein’s essay, “Elvis and the Aboriginals.” As it turns out, Lowenstein, a well-known Australian filmmaker, is almost an exception in our line-up of literary cinéphiles; most of the selections in this Contrappasso are by people whose principal creative focus is not cinematic at all but in the areas of essays, poetry, and fiction. You will find writings on film by literary practitioners not usually identified as film critics, and also examples of more recognisably academic-scholarly film writing. We think it’s a happy mixture of some of the best movie writing around.

Some of the pieces collected here focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), Orson Welles’s rediscovered Too Much Johnson (1938), Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1955), and Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West (1968). The approaches vary. Other pieces zoom in on an individual: Eric Rohmer, Jean Negulesco, Claire Danes, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Elmore Leonard, and Emmanuel Mouret. We also explore the kind of cinéphilia that escapes the page and becomes filmmaking itself—see our interview with Richard Misek on his film essay Rohmer in Paris.

Movie-going, our favourite ritual since childhood, is undoubtedly changing. We assembled this collection at a time when viewing a movie via a 35mm print became a sudden novelty. The Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, which has an impressive collection of vintage nickelodeons and magic lanterns, now also displays a 35mm projector as a historical artefact. In 2014 Quentin Tarantino called digital projection, now a fait accompli, the very “death of cinema as I know it.” And he’s not alone in the sentiment. The prevailing nostalgia among cinéphiles is not just for the end of 35mm as an exhibition technology, the disappearance of that comforting flicker of scratchy celluloid through a projector. It’s just another change that has followed the passing of the movie theatre from a space of spectacle, even wonder, into the mundane functionality of the multiplex.

Stephen Barber’s Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End (2010) powerfully outlines the history of cinema as a social space, in particular the slow fade from the grandeur of the early movie palace to ruin and dilapidation. Barber cites twelve cinemas built in Los Angeles between 1910 and 1931, how their facades, “often constructed with premium-quality stone imported from Italian quarries, and intricately carved and decorated with figures drawn from European or Mayan mythologies, both exclaimed the titles of current films on colossal marquees and hoardings, and intimated that the film-going experience was to be a lavish, cultured one.”

Barber says that Broadway in downtown Los Angeles “holds the greatest concentration worldwide of abandoned, but intact, cinemas.” These “once-lavish and luxurious cinemas represented the zenith of technological innovation in their respective moments of construction.” These buildings present “an astonishing litany of names emblazoned on dilapidated but still prominent marquees and signs: the Million Dollar Theater, the Roxie, the Cameo, the Arcade, the Los Angeles Theater, the Palace, the State, the Globe, the Orpheum, and the United Artists Theater.”

As he charts the shift in the social function of the movie palace from its time screening mainstream films to showing “specialist, cult or martial arts films, and finally, pornography,” Barber argues that these changes place a double temporality on the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, such that “the moment at which it served as a riotous all-night site for cult-mania or pornography becomes inseparable from that of its prestigious moment of ascendancy as the venue for searchlight-illuminated star-premieres.” For Barber, “abandoned cinemas form landscapes of disintegration.”

That 35mm projector at the Frankfurt museum was appropriately surrounded by an exhibition of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s stunning large-scale photographs of the United States’ abandoned picture palaces. Annie Baker’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick (2014), is set in a “falling-apart movie theatre in Worcester County, MA.” Its four characters work, watch movies, scam, endlessly toss out film references and play (in this case) three degrees of separation games linking film actors across recondite films. This ‘smallest picture show on earth’ operates in the full recognition that the days of celluloid and analogue video have been replaced by a (fallen) digital world.

Iain Sinclair’s 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (2014), also bears personal witness to the vanished spaces of cinema. The book is a record of a unique film festival in which sometimes unlikely corners of contemporary London—a city suffering ongoing authoritarian usurpation of public space—become ad hoc exhibition spaces for seventy films that have mattered most to the seventy year old author. As ever, Sinclair’s psychogeographical prowl of London provokes memories, in this case of former exhibition sites where his younger self first encountered particular movies.

We hope some of the pieces we have gathered here resonate in a similar way.

Nevertheless, we also acknowledge there is much for the cinéphile to celebrate in the digital era. Access to obscure films is now easier than ever. One of the most ardent surveyors of international DVD and Bluray releases is the writer Jonathan Rosenbaum. We caught up with him to talk about his recent activities.

II: Novelists and Poets

We find no shortage of fiction writers obsessed by cinema. In his introduction to Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies (2000), Jim Shepard makes the case that writers “write about movies… not only because we love them but because their cultural power obligates our response.” In Shepard’s anthology we discover that the late, great Robert Stone liked The Krays (1990), Lorrie Moore likes Titanic (1997) and J. M. Coetzee likes The Misfits (1961).

We like Gore Vidal’s engaging book-length essay Screening History (1992), in which he recalls being spellbound as a boy by Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and await an English translation of Carlos Fuentes’s posthumously published Pantallas de plata (2014), a personal study of Buñuel and others. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) offers a powerful commentary on the movies, on black spectatorship and the representation of race in cinema. It begins by recalling

Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

Don DeLillo is a committed literary cinéphile. His fiction is crowded with movie and television references. In one interview he described his cinematic conception when he starts writing: “I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor…” In 1971, when Nelson Algren reviewed DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, for Rolling Stone, he connected it explicitly to the New Hollywood cinema: “Don DeLillo’s swift, ironic, and witty cross-country American nightmare, as seen through a Scoopic 16mm news camera, doesn’t have a dull or unoriginal line. If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces, or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”

DeLillo has said in several interviews that he was most excited by the movies of the late 1960s when he was first trying to make a living from writing. Some of his earliest stories are in fact literary responses to movies. “The Numbers” was provoked by Godard’s Weekend (1967). DeLillo explained, “I consider this piece of work a movie as much as anything else. Not my movie, however. No, the work is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie.” Another early short story, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” done in a kind of 1960s European art-cinema shorthand, is now available at The Kenyon Review website[2].

Fiction aside, by now DeLillo has published enough essays on film to constitute a short book. His essay “Woman in the Distance” is a brilliant poetic exploration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), a film also greatly admired by Marguerite Duras (see her 1980 interview collection Green Eyes). In the manner of DeLillo’s novels, the Wanda essay has a great opening:

Early in the film a woman in the shape of a white shadow moves in long shot across the bitter gray landscape of slag heaps and mining equipment. It is a scene of phantom beauty: a spacious moment seemingly displaced in a movie that levels every energy at small and local matters. But the scene is only the first component of an equation in the making. That chalky figure in the distance will appear in powerful close-up at the end of the film, face and heart revealed.

DeLillo wrote a short New Yorker piece on star spotting in Rome—its subtitle ‘Movies and Memory’ could be an alternate title for this issue of Contrappasso—and another long essay in Brick, ‘Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,’ which throws together The Fast Runner, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, and a documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. He penned elegant capsule descriptions for the three films he selected and introduced as Guest Director of the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. He chose Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (“A beautiful and disturbing movie of remote landscapes, dreamy scenes of childhood and the advancing shadow of the state… Shot in deceptively serene tones, paced in the rhythms of rural isolation, Spirit of the Beehive exemplifies what Erice calls poetic cinema”), Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) (“With its dangling flashbacks, long takes, deep spaces, and hovering sense of violence, The Passenger is one of the strongest films in Antonioni’s enduring study of identity and apartness”), and Loden’s Wanda (“It might be regarded as the unsung herald of the American surge that sent many fine and famous movies coursing through [the 1970s]”). There was a “lost” aspect to all three films. It was the first time in twenty-five years Spirit of the Beehive had been screened in the US. The Passenger had not been screened for a similar time owing to a bizarre legal situation that required either Antonioni or actor Jack Nicholson to be present at any screening. Wanda, shot on 16mm for a mere $160,000, the only film directed by Loden, only found visibility in recent years when released on DVD.

*

OF COURSE, literary cinéphilia does not automatically denote the composition of fiction or an essay. Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” opens with the invitation: “Come, my love/let’s go to the movies/in the village/ … Old movies/are/secondhand dreams.” The American Frank O’Hara wrote poems about James Dean and penned the marvellous “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the speaker reveals that his main love is not for “lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals,” nor the Catholic Church, nor for “the American Legion” but rather for “you, Motion Picture Industry.” It is for “glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound.” The poem lists many Hollywood stars and describes scenes from unnamed films. The speaker refuses to “prefer Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker” in Tarzan movies, and ends by saying, “Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on.”

Readers of our Noir Issue will recall several distinguished poetic responses to the cinema: Nicholas Christopher on film noir and the HUAC-destroyed career of John Garfield; Barry Gifford’s short evocation of actress Terry Moore (a poem dedicated to, and admired by, Elmore Leonard); Suzanne Loomis’s noir poems; and Jonathan Aaron’s response to Out of the Past.

In this issue we reprint James Franco’s poem in honour of Sal Mineo, two poems by R. Zamora Linmark on Montgomery Clift and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, and two by Michael Atkinson.

III: The Movie Theatre as Social Space

The British Film Institute’s series of ‘Film Classics’ (soon followed by another on ‘Modern Classics’), began a trend in English language film writing: small books, normally between 65 and 150 pages, on individual films. The ‘short takes’ idea was the brainchild of Edward Buscombe, then head of BFI publishing. The concept now exists in many articulations: series of small books on films that fall into the categories of Classic Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press), Australian Film Classics (Currency Press), Queer Film Classics (Arsenal Pulp Press), Pop Classics (ECW Press), and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan). There are also Bloomsbury Film Guides (now discontinued), Wallflower Press’s Cultographies, Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus series, and the Cinetek line from Flicks Books. Certain films appear on more than one of these lists. We also find monographs on individual films outside any publishing series: two notable recent books are Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012) (on Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (2011) (on Ozu’s Late Spring).

With this type of book came a greater emphasis on where and when the authors first encountered the film in question. One example is Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Antonioni’s L’avventura for BFI Film Classics. His first viewing took place in

Paris, in November 1960. I was a language assistant in a lycée in a small town in eastern France. One weekend I drove with friends to Paris—250 kilometres in a Citroen 2 c.v., maximum speed 90k.p.h.—intending to see Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes, and other new French films. First, however, I decided to take a look at the Italian film which had caused all that uproar at Cannes the previous spring: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. For two and a half hours I sat spellbound in the cinema. I was captivated by the film’s lingering rhythms, its decentered images, its listless characters, and especially by Monica Vitti, the star of the film and incarnation of the director’s vision. No film before or since has made such an impression on me as L’avventura did on that occasion. I saw the film again the following day, and went back to Paris three weeks later to see it again—this time with the intention of writing about it.

Similarly, Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997/2006), a very different film book which surveys not one but hundreds of films, orientates the reader with a wonderful description of the author’s first encounter with film noir in a Paris cinema in 1973:

This was a tumultuous time, not just in the Unites States, but also in France, where massive student and labor unrest had emerged that spring. Barricades blocked the steep streets near the Sorbonne, tear gas bit the air, and at particularly explosive city arteries, rubber bullets were being fired into crowds of demonstrators. Still, people were going to work, eating, drinking, making love, and attending the cinema. The theater was located in a narrow side street off the Rue de Rennes in a working class district. Surrounded by tire shops, garages, and a sausage factory, it was improbably named The New Yorker, the letters glowing in indigo neon on the small crooked marquee. So I found myself alone on a hard seat in the rear of a packed smoky theater (with posters of the Manhattan skyline in the lobby) where one could hear a pin drop—so reverential, so congregational was this chain-smoking French audience—and watched Out of the Past.

Jessica Hagedorn’s novel, Dogeaters (1990), features her Filipino characters watching Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) in a Manila cinema. In an email Jessica Hagedorn told us, “The Avenue Theatre, which appears in Dogeaters, actually existed when I was growing up in Manila. My description of it in the novel is inspired by the ‘real’ Avenue and other old-school movie theatres in Manila, like the Odeon.” The narrator of Hagedorn’s novel tells us that her group of friends “affect the casual teenage glamour of Gloria Talbott” in All That Heaven Allows. These characters offer an intriguing take on one aspect of Sirk’s great melodrama: why would someone so evidently wealthy as Jane Wyman’s character bother to drive her own car when she could afford a chauffeur?

Hagedorn’s characters watch a great many other films but avoid the cinemas infested by rats. One character, Romeo, a waiter at “the exclusive Monte Vista Country Club,” goes to the movies “as often as his modest salary” allows. Romeo “would see anything: comedies, Tagalog melodramas, westerns, musicals, and religious extravaganzas like The Ten Commandments, which played to packed houses in Manila for what seemed an eternity. Audiences never failed to clap and cheer each time the Red Sea parted on the giant screen.” Mabuhay Studios is cited along with Lolita Luna’s softcore ‘bomba’ movies (A Candle in Burma, The Agony of Love). Romeo also learns from the movies insofar as he models his hair on “Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Or that decadent Nestor Noraliz in Tormented.” As the Hollywood titles suggest, American movies appropriately align with the modernity represented by US pop culture, and in 1960, when a character returns from the US with a batch of the latest rock ‘n’ roll records—”45s, 78s, 33LPs. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Richie Valens, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee and the Starliters”—the female narrator studiously learns how to do The Madison and The Twist.

Other writers remember other movies and other cinemas. Michael Barker remembers watching Executive Action (1973) “at the Texas Theater in Dallas, a savvy booking if ever there was one—this was the theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended. The marquee proclaimed NOW PLAYING EXECUTIVE ACTION and underneath in big, bold letters OSWALD CAUGHT HERE. I remember kids taking turns sitting in his seat.” Greil Marcus feels a movie theatre “creates an atmosphere of anticipation, it sparks the feeling that, whatever might be on the bill, something extraordinary is about to take place.” Marcus remembers first seeing The Manchurian Candidate “alone when it came out in 1962, at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, California, a Moorish wonderland of a movie house.” He saw it again in 2001 “in the Castro Theatre, an ornately baroque movie palace with a steep balcony and an organ that emerges from a pit in front of the stage.” Leonard Michaels’s terrific essay on being overwhelmed by Gilda (1946) on first viewing, initially published in the Berkeley broadsheet The Threepenny Review[3], is very precise about where his life-changing act of film spectatorship occurred: “I saw this movie in the Loew’s Theater on Canal Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

DeLillo gives a lovely description of his 1960s and early 1970s moviegoing habits:

I went to the movies on weekday afternoons, a movie on a dead afternoon, the merest scatter of people in attendance, always someone reading the Voice in the half murk before the house lights died. In many cases I can recall today where I saw certain movies back then, drifting from The New Yorker Theater one day to the Bleecker Street the next, alert and ever expectant, ready to be taken out of the day, the week, the plodding writer’s one-room life, and into a fold of discontinuous space and time.

In conversation with Lorena Cancela for Otrocampo 7 in November 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that “where and when one is viewing a movie has an inextricable relation to what that movie means, and consequently, no meanings should be regarded as universal or eternal… Movie-going—and therefore film criticism—is a social act.” This is precisely what art critic Lawrence Alloway says in his 1971 book, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964: “The routine of movie-going is the basis of any criticism of popular movies.”

We think what is happening in our different examples is a merging of two perspectives: the first linked to the long tradition of academic-scholarly and amateur accounts of the history of movie-going and of the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, and the second which exhibits a very localized, one-off-film-specific cinéphilia. To the extent that some contributors write about a time when going to the movies—the flicks, the pictures—was a weekly or twice-weekly routine, they often remember a specific cinema. In so doing they confirm the adage attributed to Marcus Loew (whose US theatre chain played MGM’s pictures), “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.” Of course Loew and his viewers knew, as we know, that it is always both.

In an 2003 online interview with Identity Theory, David Thomson spoke of the loss of the tradition of large cinema theaters as distinctive social spaces—or what once were called ‘picture palaces’ in an era when, as the publicity phrase had it, “the show starts on the sidewalk”—in contemporary San Francisco. Thomson doubted whether San Francisco now had more than four cinemas capable of seating 600 or 700 people, and felt that it was important to convey to young people “that feeling I grew up with… that you had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital.”

Patrick McGilligan uses the phrase “film craziness” to describe the cinéphilia that, he says, “was endemic around the country, indeed around the globe, in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” and adds that “the mutant strain found at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had something to do with the unique combination of the long, subarctic winters—from which escape was desirable—coupled with the inviting central location of the film archives in the State Historical Society building.” For McGilligan the film archives were “a treasure trove,” the result of the fact that some “unsung archivist had managed to obtain the United Artists collection, which included… 16mm prints of every Warner brothers, RKO, and Republic motion picture dating back from the early 1930s through to the early 1950s.” He describes this particular viewing venue:

Mornings at the archives, the film crazies would gather to watch whatever some graybeard (i.e. graduate student) had put on the schedule—say, three or four William Wellman films, the earliest, most obscure, most topical titles from his Warner Brothers period.

The room set aside on the top floor of the State Historical Society building was a long, narrow concrete bunker with utilitarian chairs scattered around… Once started, the only interruptions were for reel changes, and we often squeezed in several films, back to back, before lunch. Some of us slurped coffee or chewed gum. Some made loud comments about the film in progress, others watched silently, scribbling notes, gazing intently at the rectangle of light dancing on the wall.

Juan Goytisolo’s wonderful essay, “Cinema Eden,”[4] from a book of the same name (Peter Bush’s 2004 translation is subtitled Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean), begins by saying:

There exists an almost extinct species of cinema whose auditorium, dense atmosphere and original setting stand out more strongly, more glowingly in memory than the meandering plot of their films. My childhood experience was decisive in this respect and casts light on my future fondness for flea-pits that recall those first cinemas I patronized in the neighbourhood of the district of Barcelona where I was born.

Goytisolo remembers a cinema called “the Murillo—the Primavera from the pre-war years—a name it reclaimed in the fifties before being closed down for good and replaced by an apartment block at the point where Paseo Bonanova crosses Calle Angli—and the smaller, humbler Breton, right in the heart of the still rather prim and provincial suburb of Sarria.” He mentions many other cinemas, as his essay goes on to discuss the Eden cinema—”an old down-at-heel fleapit” in Marrakesh—and reveal his fondness for Hindu melodramas and karate films.

Italo Calvino’s superb long essay, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” written at the urging of Federico Fellini, was possibly Goytisolo’s model. In it Calvino recalls the films and stars he saw in his adolescence, a time “when the cinema engrossed me to an extent far beyond anything that came before or after.” The essay, part of The Road to San Giovanni (1990), begins:

There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe twice a day, and those were the years between ‘36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me…

Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week.

Calvino was watching dubbed US films and French poetic realist films in San Remo on the Ligurian coast in his favourite open-air theatre. On the other side of Italy, in Rimini, Fellini was watching films in “the little towns in winter,” where “the movie theatre was like a tiny galaxy, a planet under a spell, a grand passion that seems forgotten today.”

Years later, in Paris, Calvino would go to “tiny, smelly cinemas of the Latin Quarter to dig out films of the twenties and thirties” he “thought he had lost forever,” and also to encounter new films, screenings of contemporary cinema: “I go looking for old films that tell me about my own prehistory or those that are so new as perhaps to suggest what the world will be like after me.”

But of course memorable movie-going doesn’t have to occur indoors. Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film (1994) opens with a description of a screening in French colonial Africa after the First World War. It deftly conveys elegant ironies of a colonialist moment: “A sheet was stretched between posts, the mysterious device was carefully set up, and suddenly, out in the dry night of the African bush, moving pictures appeared.” However, the “African notables and religious leaders,” although obliged to attend lest their absence indicate an unfriendly or rebellious attitude towards their colonisers, “were for the most part Muslims,” and obedient to the prohibitions of their religion against the depiction of the human face and form. They politely took their seats, and when “the lights went down and the first beams flickered from the curious apparatus, they shut their eyes and kept them shut” throughout the screening. Carrière “often wondered what invisible, soundless film was shown during those few short hours.”

The editors of this issue are both Australians who grew up with the presence of the drive-in. In Australia a drive-in could also be used as a ‘walk-in.’ On hot summer nights, if you didn’t yet have a driver’s license, you could sit near the refreshment building, and have a sound box at your table. You would watch children in pyjamas and dressing gowns play in the playground just under the giant screen in front of all the parked cars until the drive-in’s double-bill started. Before the fading of the drive-in as an exhibition site—when the land on which it stood became more valuable to sell off as housing—cinéphiles would often seek out a drive-in screening as the only venue at which a particular film would find release, much as some suburban/neighbourhood cinemas in Australia became the place for the first-release of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Cisco Pike (1972), and some other offerings from the New Hollywood cinema.

Memories of the drive-in also stir fond thoughts of the so-called “Drive-In Movie Critic” Joe Bob Briggs, whose flamboyant redneck critical posture celebrated movies exhibited at Texas drive-ins. We also recall J.D. Reed’s poem ‘Drive-In’, which vividly juxtaposes teenage sexual moves in a parked car while “giant caterpillars are fighting on the screen/waving monster feelers and spitting/plastic drool.” (It nicely echoes Luc Sante’s essay ‘Enormous Bodies in the Night’, which we reprint here.)

Several other pieces in this issue present readers with a similar evocation of exhibition sites, grounding their cinéphilic explorations in the experience of architectural space.

Readers of our Noir Issue will remember the late Morris Lurie’s essay on his unchaperoned visit to see The Maltese Falcon on its first release in Melbourne. He was five years old. Leaving the cinema by the wrong exit, he became confused, caught the wrong tram, and arrived home late only to be chastised his very worried parents. In this issue we republish Barry Gifford’s short story, “The Ciné,” which relates a narrative of a young boy whose father deposits him in a cinema while he does some work around town. Gifford’s poetry and fiction are filled with allusions to movies; his collection of short essays on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films (1998, later republished as Out of the Past) are not just about the movies but peppered with details of his original viewing context. Gifford unashamedly uses the films as launch pads for autobiographical reminiscence, as when his discussion of Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves (1956) prompts the recollection of his mother’s marriage. Gifford’s ‘Author’s Note’ confesses: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagined many of the Cahiers du Cinéma reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning.”

Among the other contributions here that foreground a specific screening venue is Richard Lowenstein’s account of watching an Elvis Presley movie in 1969 in an outback open-air cinema with an audience of Australian Aborigines. We are also delighted to republish American poet Richard Hugo’s ‘The White Line,’ both a beautiful essay on Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952) and an exercise in poetic reminiscence of a specific cinema: George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre in White Center, Washington.

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

IV: Learning from the Movies

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film.” As he sat in his preferred place, the front row, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films, other musicals, westerns, and detective films, it occurred to him that, “In one regard I must be a very modern person since the cinema has such an extraordinarily beneficial effect on me.” Victor Erice said that during his period of being a young boy watching Hollywood movies, it was always westerns he and his friends loved most. And in Neruda’s ‘Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,’ we learn, “Cowboys/make/Swiss cheese of/the dangerous Arizona/moon.”

In the special ‘Movies and Poetry’ issue of Parnassus, Susan Sontag wondered whether “cinéphilia—the name of a very specific kind of love that cinema inspired” had ended:

Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as… it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining… The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

In a short piece at the New York Review of Books blog, poet Charles Simic (who has a poem entitled “Double Feature”) describes one of his earliest movie-going memories, seeing a Buster Keaton film “in World War II Belgrade where I grew up… Neither Nazis nor Russian tanks could stop my mother from going to the movies, and taking me along.” And we agree with Simic when he says, “It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them.” Barber says that cinema going populations worldwide “learned to remember filmically, within the narrative forms and visual cadences of film.”

The Australian writer David Malouf’s essay “Growing up with Stars” recalls many hours spent in the Lyceum and Odeon cinemas. Malouf’s essay is now available in his new collection, Being There (2015), but it was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999, as an ‘edited version’ of a talk he had given at the Seymour Centre near Sydney University. That talk was meant to inaugurate a series of talks by various people on ‘Transformations’ but, as it happened, his was the only one to take place. Malouf’s essay begins:

We grew up with the pictures, we little Australians of 50 years ago, and we grew up with the stars. When we were children Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were still youthful, like our fresh-faced uncles and aunts. Later we grew old with them and they were like ancient cousins. In no other art do we retain this lifelong relationship with its practitioners, this close, almost family, intimacy with figures who are bonded to us in a special closeness because they belong not to our public lives of industry and duty but to that other life we live in our senses, in our imagination, which is irresponsible and free. As the members of a new and popular audience, we were educated, like all popular audiences, by the medium itself. No-one was there to guide us or tell us how it was done. We picked that up on our own; the movies themselves taught us. And we did not have, afterwards, to describe or account for what we had discovered; it was just for us. There in the dark, with just ourselves to please, and with those evocative images to tempt us and so many “situations” to slip into and identify with, we were free, off the hook; no-one was watching. We were watching. This was another sort of education, and if we learned something, it was on our own terms.

Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006) is a wonderfully poetic short film about cinema and childhood, rich with detail about a distinctive historical-national instance of movie-going, the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Madrid, World War II, the utterly terrible real-life images encountered then by children outside their moviegoing world. Don DeLillo, presenting it at Telluride in 2013, said that it “addresses such major subjects as personal memory, the past and the present, history and fiction, and the way in which a movie can assert itself in a young mind as a scary extension of immediate household reality.”

Erice is five years old when he accompanies his twelve year old sister to see a Sherlock Holmes film, The Scarlett Claw (1944). The cinema is within a grand building that had briefly functioned as a casino until the prohibition of gambling obliged the building to find other ways of being in the world. Erice refers to his childhood self in the third person, as “the boy,” someone who is having his first ever experience of the social act of moviegoing, who immediately notices that the adults in the audience comport themselves differently from the way he comports himself. The film is affecting him much more strongly than it is these adults who surround him. He recognizes that “they knew something he didn’t.” The cinematic unknowingness of Erice’s five year old—”But what was an actor? The Boy didn’t know exactly.”—matches that of Lurie’s five year old persona wondering about his viewing of The Maltese Falcon: “Would it have been good if I had understood it?” In the extended interview included on the DVD, Erice says he didn’t see the film again for forty years. This first traumatic experience of cinema caused him to develop a dread of postmen and letters, a fear not in the least assuaged by his sister, whom we presume chose this film, taunting him at bedtime by whispering, “the postman is coming!”

Film posters figure strongly in Erice’s film, beginning with a large wall poster of The Mark of Zorro (1940). Later Erice presents posters of the other films he might have been able to see that particular first week of his filmgoing life. His research revealed what else was on release that week: Gene Tierney in Henry Hathaway’s Sundown (1941) and Hedy Lamarr in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). But it was The Scarlett Claw that changed his life. During an interview exchange (a DVD extra), Erice alludes to the criticism of Serge Daney and the way Jean-Louis Schefer’s L’homme ordinaire du cinéma reverses the phenomenological trope of a child watching a film; instead, these are “films that watched our childhood.” Erice also reveals that the first film that prompted him to write about it was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—once again a film about childhood and a childhood obsessed with cinema.

In several of his other comments Erice is in synch with Malouf, Sontag, Calvino and Simic on the idea of the movie theatre as a para-educational institution, one which, in Erice’s case, helped a Spanish resident of a country whose borders were closed, whose citizens daily experienced attacks on their liberty, whose experiences of political and clerical censorship were ongoing and profound, discover that moviegoing, with a nod to Casablanca, made them “citizens of the world.” These probings of cinema as an education outside school and its pedagogy suggest a cinematic spin on Bruce Springsteen’s line from “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

The remarks from Calvino, Sontag, Goytisolo, Malouf, and Erice point towards nationally specific remembrances of the international act of movie-going. Similar offerings are to be found in Serpent’s Tail’s collection Seeing in the Dark.

V: Movies and their Critics

In Maria de Medeiros’s informative and amusing documentary Je t’aime… moi non Plus: Artistes et critiques (I Love You I Love You Not: Artists and Critics, 2004) a wide range of directors and critics are interviewed at the Cannes Film festival and asked what they think is the relation of the film critic to the filmmaker. We learn that in Spain film critics are paid much more than opera or art critics. At one point Gérard Lefort insists that “film criticism is a literary genre.” Inevitably many directors (from Almodovar to Cronenberg) express pugnacity and disdain for the critic, and some Spanish and Brazilian critics tell funny stories of being physically attacked (on the street, in restaurants) by directors unhappy with a review they have received. The late Alexander Walker, to whom the film is dedicated, tells of having his face slapped twice—on both sides—on UK national television by director Ken Russell. Russell used a convenient weapon for the slap, the newspaper that had carried Walker’s negative review of The Devils.

We hope that the pieces we have assembled here avoid those kinds of confrontational oppositions. To conclude by reiteration, what many of these essays seem to us to do is contribute in a positive way to two developed areas of film criticism and film history: on the one hand the concept of cinéphilia, and on the other the history of movie-going as a distinctive social practice with significant historical, regional and national variations. We like the description put forward by Lawrence Alloway in Violent America, and his take on how best to capture the compelling particularity of the act of movie-going or of a specifically memorable cinematic encounter. Alloway says that I Walk Alone and other ‘movies of the second half of the 40s’ were ‘the first movies that I saw that I still remember’. He says he hopes his film criticism will

hold onto its source in the original act of movie-going. The critical notions to be discussed are not those I had as a regular, not to say compulsive moviegoer, but I do not want to lose that early feeling, the capacity for identification, that made me see I Walk Alone several times when it was first released.

ENDNOTES

[1] See for example:

Antoine de Baecque and Christian-Marc Bosséno, “Constructing the Gaze: An Interview with Jean Douchet,” trans. Timothy Barnard Framework : The Journal of Cinema and Media 42 (2000)

Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb, Cinéphilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, vol. 1: 2009 & vol. 2: 2012)

Joe Bobb-Briggs, Joe Bobb-Briggs Goes to the Drive-in (New York: Delacorte Press, 1986)

Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond, ed., Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990)

Philip French, I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinéphile (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)

Christian Keathley, Cinéphilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005)

Martyn de Konig and Matte Hagener, Cinéphilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2014).

Jacques Rancière, “The Gaps of Cinema,” Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2012), available at: http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-gaps-of-cinema-by-jacques-ranciere/

Rasha Wadia Richards, Cinematic Flashes: Cinéphilia and Classical Hollywood (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinéphilia (London: BFI, 2008)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2010)

[2] See www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/don-delillo-342846/

[3] It is now available at sensesofcinema.com/2002/female-glamour-and-star-power/zipper/

[4] The essay is available at www.theguardian.com/film/2004/mar/06/film

WORKS CITED

Nelson Algren, “Review of Americana,” Rolling Stone (August 5, 1971)

Lawrence Alloway, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976) (New York: Vintage International, 2011)

Michael Barker (Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics), “Guilty Pleasures,” Film Comment (July-August 2003): 8

Italo Calvino, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” in his The Road to San Giovanni trans. Tim Parkes (New York: Vintage, 1994): 25-50

Lorena Cancela, “Jonathan Rosenbaum: A Life at the Movies: An interview,” Otrocampo 7 (November 2002)

Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film (New York: Pantheon, 1994)

Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: The Free Press, 1997) (Expanded edition from Counterpoint in 2006)

Don DeLillo, “That Day in Rome: Movies and Memory,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 76-78

Don DeLillo interviewed by Adam Begley: ‘The Art of Fiction No 135’, The Paris Review (1992), available at: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1887/the-art-of-fiction-no-135-don-delillo

Don DeLillo, “Woman in the Distance,” Black Clock 4 (2005): 56-59

Don DeLillo, “Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,” Brick 74 (Winter 2004): 96-105

Don DeLillo, “The Uniforms,” Carolina Quarterly 22, (1970): 4-11

Don DeLillo, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” The Kenyon Review 28, 3 (1966)

Marguerite Duras, Green Eyes trans. Carol Barko (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990)

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Vintage, 2012)

Barry Gifford, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films (New York: Grove Press, 1988)

Barry Gifford, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Jose Goytisolo, Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean trans. Peter Bush (London: Eland Books, 2003)

Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1990)

Morris Lurie, “Introduction to Adulthood,” Meanjin 59, 1 (2000): 51-53

David Malouf, “Growing up with the Stars,” The Sydney Morning Herald “Spectrum,” (March 13th, 1999) and in Being There (Sydney: Knopf Australia, 2015): 48-58

Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling (London: Nottingham Hill Editions, 2011)

Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Leonard Michaels, “The Zipper,” in Susan Sontag, ed., Best American Essays 1992 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992): 244-252

Granta 86: Film (Granta Books, 2004)

Greil Marcus, The Manchurian Candidate (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 48-49

Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997)

Projections 4 and ½ in Association with Positif ed. William Donohue and John Boorman (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

Tony Maraini, “Fellini Interview,” trans. A. K. Bierman Bright Lights Film Journal 12 (1994): 33-37, and Bright Lights Film Journal 14, (nd): 33-37

Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 147, 155-157, 159

David Naylor, ed., Great American Movie Theatres (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1987): 18

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” trans. Margaret Sayers Peden

J. D. Reed, “Drive-In,” in his Expressways (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969): 12

Charles Simic, “When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night,” available at: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jan/18/when-movies-kept-us-awake-night/

Charles Simic, “Poetry in Unlikely Places: Review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda., ed. Ilan Stavans,” The New York Review of Books (September25, 2003), available at Javous Arcades Project (Monday, May 9th, 2011), http://javous308.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/poetry-in-unlikely-places.html

Iain Sinclair, 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (London: Volcano Publications, 2014)

Susan Sontag, “Century of Cinema,” in Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997): 23-29

32nd Telluride Film Festival Program (September 1-5, 2005)

40th Telluride Film Festival Program (August 29-September 2, 2013)

David Thomson, “Interview with Robert Birnbaum,” Identity Theory, available at: http://identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum82.html

New Double Issue launch on 10 April!

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

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Roll camera…

Contrappasso starts its 4th year with a DOUBLE ISSUE.

Writers at the Movies, edited by Matthew Asprey Gear and guest Noel King, brings together many kinds of artists who have been captivated by film: its imagery, history, personalities and political edge. Across essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography, the contributors are James Franco, Emmanuel Mouret, Sarah Berry, Barry Gifford, Michael Atkinson, Luc Sante, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Lowenstein, Anthony May, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Simmon, Clive Sinclair and the late, great Richard Hugo.

Companion issue Contrappasso #8 takes the journal’s adventures in international writing further and wider, with its biggest selection of new fiction and poetry, from nine countries.

There’s an interview with Filipino authors F. H. Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, plus stories by Pasion-Flores, US authors Rick DeMarinis and Kent Harrington and, in a Contrappasso first, a long-overdue translation of Argentine modernist author Roberto Arlt (with translator Lucas Lyndes)…

…plus the most poetry in any Contrappasso issue, with work by Nicaragua’s Blanca Castellón (translated by New Zealand’s Roger Hickin), Spain’s Alicia Aza (translated by J. Kates), China’s Lu Ye and Geng Xiang (translated by Ouyang Yu), New Zealand’s Kerrin P. Sharpe and Mary Macpherson, the UK’s Bill Adams and Richard Berengarten, the USA’s Floyd Salas and J. Kates, and Australia’s Elias Greig, Philip Hammial, Travis McKenna, Sascha Morrell, Tony Page, Sarah Rice, Frank Russo, Page Sinclair, Alex Skovron, Paolo Totaro, Lyn Vellins, Luke Whitington – and one of the last poems by the late, much-missed Morris Lurie.

This Contrappasso DOUBLE ISSUE presents the most writers so far, across the widest range of fields.

And… cut.

from Issue #6: Poetry by Stuart Barnes

Photo (CC) Tim Parkinson @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Tim Parkinson @ Flickr

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i[]m[ ]perfect

The hair an eyrie that threatens to top
…………-ple the skinny neck that labours to brace
…….the face inconspicuous in spite of
………the flushed Greek nose, the left eye crazier
than Alastor Moody’s, the mouth as red
………….as a paper cut’s blood (ouch!), the ears blue
……zombie war trophies, the comical Ken
……..doll moustache that floats over the gruesome
trunk’s straggly black hair, spindly limbs (the right
…………arm annunciating scars like Billy
……….Corgan’s), the curved average junk deprived
……..of turtleneck, the mole on the inner
…..right thigh (a lump of shit: taunt of so-and-
………so), the ingrown nail on the big left toe.

*

 

Sal 

The holding of golden hands, or the pit
…..stop at what was probably a beat? No,
..no. The jungle gym kiss, the cuddle? No,
no. Freedom? No.
…………………………Something more innocent

….triggered her bark at the bone transmitter,
..annoying paranoiac, Guardian—
….self-appointed—of The Lake and The Park.
..The station issued a cagey car.
…………………………………………….Your

skin—darkest, purest—the element, they
………..confessed, obsequious porky
…………………………………………………..police
who laughed while needlessly taking details,
asked pardon for that woman’s most fatal

….call.
…………Fury, ghormeh sabzi, in my gut.
Allahu Akbar! Blindfolded, we fucked.

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

Stuart Barnes’s poetry has appeared widely in publications such as Assaracus: A Journal of Gay PoetryCordite Poetry ReviewGoing Down SwingingMascara Literary ReviewOtolithsPoetry Ireland Review, SeizureSoutherlyVerity LaThe Warwick Review and The Weekend Australian Review, and is represented in the anthologies The Night Road (Newcastle Poetry Prize 2009), Short & Twisted 2010Time with the Sky (Newcastle Poetry Prize 2010), fourW twenty-three and fourW twenty-four. In 2014 he was Runner-Up for the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript. He is poetry editor of Tincture Journal, co-poetry reader for Verity La, and slush reader (poetry, flash) for One Throne Magazine. Twitter @StuartABarnes, Tumblr spines, jackets, sleeves (stuartabarnes.tumblr.com)