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Author Biography: Jonathan Rosenbaum is film critic at the Chicago Reader, author of Moving Places (1995) and Placing Movies (1995), both published by California, editor of This is Orson Welles (1993), and a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee.
Say the Right Thing (DO THE RIGHT THING)
It's readily apparent by now that Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING is something of a Rorschach test as well as an ideological litmus test, and not only for critics. It's hard to think of another movie from the past several years that has elicited as much heated debate about what it says and what it means, and it's heartening as well as significant that the picture stirring up all this talk is not a standard Hollywood feature. Because the arguments that are currently being waged about the film are in many ways as important as the film itself, and a lot more important than the issues being raised by other current releases, it seems worth looking at them again in closer detail. Ultimately most of these questions have something to do with language and the way we're accustomed to talking about certain things—race relations and violence as well as movies in general.
We all tend to assume that no matter how imprecise or impure our language may be, it still enables us to tell the truth if we use it carefully. Yet the discourse surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING suggests that at times this assumption may be overly optimistic—that in fact our everyday language hasbecome encrusted with so many assumptions that it may now be inadequate for describing or explaining what is right in front of us.
Consider, just for starters, the use of the word "violence" in connectionwith Lee's film. Some people have argued that the movie espouses violence, celebrates violence, treats violence as inevitable, or shows violence as therapeutic. (At one of the first local preview screenings of the movie, in Hyde Park, a paddy wagon was parked in front of the theater before the movie even started.) All these statements refer to instances of violence that occur toward the end of the movie, but none of them appears to be referring to all of these instances, which include the smashing of a radio with a baseball bat by the pizza parlor proprietor, Sal (Danny Aiello); a fight between Sal and the owner of the radio, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); the killing of Radio Raheem by white policemen who arrive on the scene to break up the fight; the throwing of a garbage can through the front window of the pizzeria by Mookie (Spike Lee), a black delivery boy who works for Sal; the subsequent looting and burning of the pizzeria by several nonwhites in the neighborhood; and the putting out of the fire by firemen, who knock down some people with the force of the water hoses. To make this list complete, one might also include the incident that sets off all the subsequent violent events: Radio Raheem entering the pizzeria after it's officially closed for the day with his ghetto blaster turned up to full volume, accompanied by two angry blacks who have previously been turned away from Sal's establishment for making disturbances—Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith).
No one appears to be arguing that the movie treats all of these events positively, so there must be an underlying assumption that not all of these events are equally violent. The "real" violence, according to this discourse, turns out to be the destruction of white property (the throwing of the garbage can, the looting, and the burning)—not the creation of a disturbance (the blasting of the boom box), the destruction of black property (the smashing of the boom box), the fight between the two characters (Sal and Radio Raheem), or the destruction of a human life (the killing of Radio Raheem).
I don't think that the people making these arguments automatically or necessarily assume that a pizzeria is worth more than a human life, but I do think that our everyday use of the word "violence" tends to foster such an impression. There are times when our language becomes so overloaded with ideological assumptions that, however we use certain terms, they wind up speaking more than we do.
Stepping outside the immediate context of the film for a minute, consider the appropriateness of terms like "black" and "white"—terms that we've somehow managed to arrive at by default rather than through any sharpening precision in our use of language. The evidence that our senses give us is that so-called white people aren't white at all, but varying gradations of brown and pink, while most so-called black people in the United States are varying gradations of brown and tan. Thus the skin tones in question aren't nearly as oppositional as the words that we use make them out to be. (It could be argued that capitalizing "black" only increases the confusion by further validating the concept behind the term as opposed to the visual reality.) A major reason that "Negro" ceased to be an acceptable word during the 60s was the belief that it was a "white" word and concept; unfortunately, "black" is a term that makes sense in a racial context only in relation to "white," and if "white" is itself a questionable term, "black" or "Black" only compounds the muddle. (Consider also the consequences of this metaphysical mischief when one adds to the discussion Hispanics and Orientals, who are commonly regarded as neither white nor black, and Native Americans, who are arbitrarily designated in our mythology as red.)
I'm not arguing that we should go back to terms like "Negroes" and "Caucasians," or that an arcane term like "colored people" is any better than "black" (it's often been pointed out that "whites" are "colored," too). The point is that we've reached an impasse in the language, and it ensures a certain amount of metaphysical and ideological confusion regardless of what we say.
So far I've been speaking exclusively of verbal language. When it comes to the conventions of film language and what's known as the cinematic apparatus as a whole—the institution that regulates the production, distribution, exhibition, consumption, and discussion of movies—we may be in even deeper trouble, because the movie-related conventions that we take for granted aren't nearly as self-evident.
To start with one very general example of this, consider the way that most TV critics talk about movies. If the movies released this year were ten times better than they actually are, or if they were ten times worse, the discourse of these critics would be more or less the same, because the critics' functions in relation to this output would be identical. A major effect of this kind of reviewing is to keep the movie market flowing and to make the offerings of every given week seem important—a process that usually entails forgetting that last week's offerings were made to seem equally important. The critics' mission is not to educate us about the movies but to guide us toward some and warn us off others. Movies are either worth seeing or not worth seeing, and every week there are a couple of each.
Another example, this one more to the point: Many critics have commented that the expression "do the right thing" means something different to every character in Spike Lee's movie, but not very many have agreed about whether the movie itself presents its own version of what "the right thing" is or might be. Many people believe that Mookie's throwing of a garbage can through the pizzeria window is Spike Lee's version of "the right thing," but they arrive at this belief through a passive acceptance of certain movie conventions.
Spike Lee plays Mookie himself, and even though everyone knows thatLee doesn't deliver pizza for a living there's an understandable impulse to interpret his role as that of the hero or protagonist, according to the usual conventions governing writer-directors who double as actors (Woody Allen, for instance). In addition, there's a temptation to interpret the filmmaker's presence in the role metaphorically and autobiographically; for example, Mookie works for a white boss, and one could argue that Lee depends on "white"-run studios for the distribution of his movies (even though he insists on retaining "final cut," which gives Lee an autonomy that Mookie lacks). An even more basic assumption is that all commercial movies have heroes and villains and therefore take relatively unambiguous stands about what's "the right thing" and what's "the wrong thing" in any given conflict.
But what if DO THE RIGHT THING doesn't have any heroes or villains? What if it doesn't propose any particular action as being the right thing? What if, in fact, it postulates—as I believe it does—that given the divisions that already exist in the social situation the film depicts, it's not even possible for any character to "do the right thing" in relation to every other character? If the language that we speak is such that it can only express relative truths rather than absolute truths, it isn't difficult to extrapolate from this that the cinematic apparatus that we take for granted is similarly tainted.
Even some of the most intelligent commentary about the movie suffers from certain built-in assumptions about it, which stem from unacknowledged assumptions about movies in general. Terrence Rafferty's review in the July 24 issue of The New Yorker, for example, which manages to avoid or refute much of the nonsense that has been circulating about the film elsewhere, still falls into the trap of imputing certain motives to Spike Lee that exist outside the film's own frame of reference.
"Raheem certainly doesn't deserve his fate," Rafferty argues, "but without [Sal's] inflammatory racial epithet"—Sal calls Raheem a "nigger" at the peak of his rage—"Lee would have a tough time convincing any audience that Sal deserves his." Rafferty is assuming here that Lee wants to convince the audience that Sal "deserves" to have his pizzeria burn down—an inflammatory accusation whose truth seems less than self-evident to me.
Rafferty continues with a string of rhetorical questions:
Does Lee really believe that . . . any white person, pushed hard enough, will betray his contempt for blacks? Does he believe, for that matter, the tired notion that anger brings out people's true feelings? And does he also think that lashing out at Sal because he's white and owns a business and is therefore a representative of the racist structure of the American economy is a legitimate image of "fighting the power"? If you can buy all these axioms smuggled in from outside the lively and particular world this movie creates, then DO THE RIGHT THING isthe great movie that so many reviewers have claimed it is. But if you think—as I do—that not every individual is a racist, that angry words are no more revealing than any other kind, and that trashing a small business is a woefully imprecise image of fighting the power, then you have to conclude that Spike Lee has taken a wild shot and missed the target.
This sounds like impeccable reasoning, if one accepts the either/or premise and believes that Lee is smuggling these dubious axioms into his movie. But in fact the axioms and the smuggling both belong exclusively to Rafferty. The movie shows certain events happening and certain steps leading up to them; these events include one supposedly levelheaded pizzeria owner blowing his cool and a group of angry blacks trashing his establishment. At no point does the movie either show or argue any of the three axioms cited by Rafferty; at most, one might intuit that some of the film's angry black characters associate their trashing of the pizzeria with "fighting the power," but there's nothing in the film that suggests that they're right about this; nor does the film say that Sal is exposing his "true feelings" or that Sal is the equivalent of "any white person." Indeed, the movie takes great pains to show that the characters who tend to talk the most about "fighting the power" in less hysterical situations—Radio Raheem, Buggin' Out, and Smiley—are relatively myopic and misguided, and are seen as such by their neighbors; it also takes pains to establish Sal as a complex, multifaceted character who can't easily be reduced to platitudes.
Rafferty claims that one must accept questionable axioms to find DO THE RIGHT THING a great movie. I would argue, on the contrary, that the film's distinction largely rests on its freedom from such axioms—a freedom that is part and parcel of Lee's pluralistic view of all his characters. This view simultaneously implies that every character has his or her reasons and that none of them is simply and unequivocally right. To seize upon any of these characters or reasons and to privilege them over the others is to return us to the paradigm of cowboys and Indians, heroes and villains. We've lived with this either/or grid for so long, it's probably inevitable that some spectators will apply it even on that rare occasion, such as this one, when a filmmaker has the courage and insight to do without it.
In place of either/or, Lee gives us both/and—epitomized by the two quotations that close the movie from Martin Luther King, Jr. (condemning violence), and from Malcolm X (describing situations when self-defense may be necessary). Some people have argued that Lee's refusal to choose between these statements proves that he's confused, but this argument only demonstrates how reductive either/or thinking usually turns out to be. The film's closing image is a photograph of King and Malcolm in friendly accord, not in opposition, and if the past of the civil rights movement teaches us anything at all about its future, then surely this future has a sizable stake in the legacies ofboth men. To view those legacies as complementary rather than oppositional is part of what Spike Lee's project is all about.
Let's look at Lee's pluralism at the point when it becomes most radical—when the character who is the closest thing in the movie to a villain (without actually being a villain) is placed in a position where the audience is most likely to agree with him. The character in question is Sal's son Pino (John Turturro), an unabashed racist who despises working in a mainly black neighborhood, which he refers to as "Planet of the Apes." ("I'm sick of niggers. . . . I don't like being around them; they're animals.") The moment in question is at the height of the pizzeria trashing, when the rioters are tearing Sal's establishment to shreds and raiding the cash register in a manic frenzy (certainly a far cry from anything one might call a heroic image). At this point the film cuts to a shot of Sal with his two sons watching from outside; Sal is screaming, "That's my place! That's my fucking place!" Then there's a cut to Pino watching the orgy of destruction with disgust and saying, "Fuckin' niggers."
It's easy enough to interpret this shot as the stock response of a mainly one-note character. But if one were to assume the vantage point of Pino and then select a single instant in the movie when his viewpoint came closest to being emotionally vindicated, or at least partially illustrated, for most people in the audience this would conceivably be the precise instant that Lee has chosen. For about two seconds, Pino is allotted the privilege—a relative privilege, not an absolute one—of saying the right thing.
Just as Pino is the closest thing in the movie to a villain, Mookie is the closest thing to a hero. He occupies the space and the relative prominence in the film that would normally be accorded to a hero, but in spite of his overall charisma, his actions and attitudes are far from heroic. As Lee himself remarked to Patrick McGavin and myself in an interview earlier this summer, "He wants to have a little bit of money in his pocket [and] do as little work as possible." (Some viewers have complained that few of the characters in the movie are shown working, apart from the cops, the Korean grocers, and the workers at the pizzeria; these viewers seem to have overlooked the fact that the film takes place on a Saturday.) Mookie's sister, Jade (Joie Lee), who helps to support him, and his Latino girlfriend, Tina (Rosie Perez), who feels neglected by him, both deride him constantly through the film for not living up to his responsibilities, which include concern and care for his infant son, Hector.
Mookie's two major interests appear to be money and baseball; and while he is the only character in the film who serves as a link between the black and white people in the neighborhood, no one in the movie seems to regard him as a role model—with the partial exception of Vito (Richard Edson), Sal'syounger son, a relatively sweet-tempered but not especially strong character who regards Mookie somewhat as an older brother in preference to Pino (which further intensifies Pino's racial enmity). In comparison to his sister, Mookie seems utterly lacking in ambition, and although most of the people on the block seem to like him—Sal says that he regards him as a son, and both Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) show a parental concern for him—no one apart from Vito can be said to look up to him, and there's certainly no hint that Vito's support extends to Mookie's eventual act of violence.
The only decisive moment in the film when Mookie appears to act on behalf of the local residents rather than in his own private interests—discounting the interests of Sal and his sons and the local policemen, none of whom lives in the neighborhood—is when he sparks the riot by throwing the garbage can. But while Mookie clearly sets off the violence that follows, he doesn't participate in it, and there's no indication that he revels in the destruction either (which means the loss of his own job); near the end of the sequence, he can be seen sitting with his sister on the curb in front of the charred ruins, looking disconsolate rather than triumphant about what's happened. Nor can it be said that he is suddenly made into a hero by his one violent act; when Mookie is seen with Sal the following day haggling about money, there is nothing to suggest that he has grown or been changed by the experience of the previous night—his behavior is exactly the same as it was before the riot.
The two most insightful remarks I've encountered so far about DO THE RIGHT THING haven't appeared in print; they've come from phone conversations with two friends and fellow critics who happen to be, respectively, the Los Angeles and New York correspondents for Cahiers du Cinima, Bill Krohn and Birinice Reynaud. Krohn views the film itself as a conflict between discourses, an approach that he traces back to Jean-Luc Godard in films of the 60s like LA CHINOISE and 1 + 1 (the latter known in the United States as SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL), films that were similarly misunderstood twenty years ago because people assumed that the violent discourses they contained—from French Maoists in LA CHINOISE and from black radicals in 1 + 1 —were necessarily and unambiguously the views of Godard, rather than simply discourses that he was provocatively juxtaposing with other discourses. (Whether Lee has been directly influenced by Godard is a secondary issue, but it's worth noting that two unorthodox uses of editing in Lee's film are distinctly Godardian: Mookie's initial greeting of Tina with a kiss is shown twice in succession, and there's a similar doubling of the action, from two separate angles, when the garbage can goes through the pizzeria window.)
Birinice Reynaud believes that the basic conflicts in the film are ethical rather than psychological—particularly the conflict experienced by Mookiethat leads to his throwing of the garbage can. The shot that precedes this action is probably the most widely misunderstood in the film; people who think that Mookie's action seems to come out of nowhere may be thinking this because they're misreading what's happening in the shot. Immediately after the police cars leave the scene, carrying away Buggin' Out (who is visibly clubbed by a policeman as the car drives away) and the dead body of Radio Raheem, the camera pans slowly from right to left past a crowd of onlookers in front of Sal's pizzeria. The people in the street are horrified and enraged by what's just happened, and most of them—in fact, all of them who are speaking—are addressing Mookie, who is standing offscreen, in front of the pizzeria with Sal and his two sons.
In part because of the unrealistic and highly stylized nature of the shot—each character delivers a pithy comment in turn as the camera moves past him, rather like the TV interview with combat soldiers in FULL METAL JACKET—it's possible to misread the shot as a group of angry blacks who are simply addressing the camera. To be perfectly honest, I misread the shot in this way myself the first time I saw the film, although what the characters are saying is clearly addressed to Mookie: "Mookie, they killed him!" "It's murder!" and so on. The police are no longer around, and implicitly these characters are all asking Mookie what he's doing standing with the only white people in sight. Ethically speaking, they're all asking Mookie to do the right thing, and he responds accordingly.
But according to what has already been established in the film, there is no absolute or absolutely correct choice available to Mookie; whatever move he makes will at best be "right" for some of the film's characters and wrong for some of the others. He has been forced, in short, into an either/or position that falsely divides the world into heroes and villains—the world, in short, that most moviegoers seem to prefer.
If the audience members cannot think or feel their way into Mookie's position, and can't experience the challenge of those taunts about whom Mookie stands with, then Mookie's act of violence will seem rhetorical and contrived—an act that the film is imposing on the situation from outside to make a polemical point. But for any spectator who agrees to identify with Mookie and his ethical crisis, the moment assumes a certain tragedy—not a tragic inevitability, because Mookie could simply quit his job at this point rather than pick up the garbage can, but a tragic ethical impasse.
It's been reported that a major reason why DO THE RIGHT THING failed to win any prizes at the last Cannes film festival was the objection of Wim Wenders, the president of the jury, that Mookie didn't behave more like a hero. Wenders's implied critique is that Lee should have made Mookie into a role model, superior to every other character in the film—a character who would exalt the either/or principle, which would imply, in turn, that the world is as simple a place as most movies pretend that it is, where simple and unambiguous choices are possible. The world of Rambo, in short—a world that is, curiously enough, not normally accused of fostering and encouraging violence to the degree that Lee's film has been.
Ironically, it is the moment at which Mookie throws the garbage can that he comes closest to functioning as a Rambolike hero—and closest to demonstrating how false and reductive the notion of such simpleminded heroism can be in a world as cluttered, splintered, and confused as ours. If role models are needed, martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X seem much better choices—not to mention Mister Seqor Love Daddy (Sam Jackson), the local disc jockey whose patter periodically serves as narration; his most important message on a very hot day is for all of the characters to cool off.
—Chicago Reader , August 4, 1989
Interruption As Style:
Buquel's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
REPORTER: Who are your favorite characters in the movie?
BUQUEL: The cockroaches.
—from an interview in Newsweek
"Once upon a time . . ." begins UN CHIEN ANDALOU, in mockery of a narrative form that it seeks to obliterate, and from this title onward, Buquel's cinema largely comprises a search for an alternative form to contain his passions. After dispensing with plot entirely in UN CHIEN ANDALOU, L'AGE D'OR, and LAS HURDES, his first three films, and remaining inactive as a director for the next fifteen years (19321947), Buquel has been wrestling ever since with the problem of reconciling his surrealistic and anarchistic reflexes to the logic of story lines. How does a sworn enemy of the bourgeoisie keep his identity while devoting himself to bourgeois forms in a bourgeois industry? Either by subverting these forms or by trying to adjust them to his own purposes; and much of the tension in Buquel's work has come from the play between these two possibilities.
Buquel can always tell a tale when he wants to, but the better part of his brilliance lies elsewhere. One never finds in his work that grace and economy of narration, that sheer pleasure in exposition, which informs the opening sequences of GREED, LA RHGLE DU JEU, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, REAR WINDOW, SANSHO DAYU, and AU HASARD, BALTHAZAR. On the contrary, Buquel's usual impulse is to interrupt a narrative line whenever he can find an adequate excuse for doing so—a joke, ironic detail, or startling juxtapositionthat deflects the plot's energies in another direction. A typical "Buquel touch"—the "Last Supper" pose assumed by the beggars in VIRIDIANA—has only a parenthetical relation to the action, however significant it may be thematically. And lengthier intrusions, like the dream sequence in LOS OLVIDADOS, tend to detach themselves from their surroundings as independent interludes, anecdotes, or parables. For the greater part of his career, Buquel's genius has mainly expressed itself in marginal notations and insertions. To my knowledge, his only previous attempt at an open narrative structure since 1932 has been LA VOIE LACTIE—a picaresque religious (and antireligious) pageant, much indebted to Godard's WEEKEND, which came uncomfortably close to being all notations and no text, like a string of Sunday school jokes.
If LE CHARME DISCRET DE LA BOURGEOISIE registers as the funniest Buquel film since L'AGE D'OR, probably the most relaxed and controlled film he has ever made, and arguably the first contemporary, global masterpiece to have come from France in the 70s, this is chiefly because he has arrived at a form that covers his full range, permits him to say anything—a form that literally and figuratively lets him get away with murder. One cannot exactly call his new work a bolt from the blue. But its remarkable achievement is to weld together an assortment of his favorite themes, images, and parlor tricks into a discourse that is essentially new. Luring us into the deceptive charms of narrative as well as those of his characters, he undermines the stability of both attractions by turning interruption into the basis of his art, keeping us aloft on the sheer exuberance of his amusement.
Seven years ago, Nokl Burch observed that in LE JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE, Buquel had at last discovered Form—a taste and talent for plastic composition and a "musical" sense of the durations of shots and the "articulations between sequences"; more generally, "a rigorous compartmentalisation of the sequences, each of which follows its own carefully worked out, autonomous curve."* BELLE DE JOUR reconfirmed this discovery, but LE CHARME DISCRET announces still another step forward: at the age of seventy-two, Buquel has finally achieved Style.
Six friends—three men and three women—want to have a meal together, but something keeps going wrong. Four of them arrive at the Sinichals' country house for dinner, and are told by Mme Sinichal that they've come a day early; repairing to a local restaurant, they discover that the manager has just died, his corpse laid out in an adjoining room—how can they eat there ?—so they plan a future lunch date. But each successive engagement is torpedoed: either M. and Mme Sinichal (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stiphane Audran) are
"Two Cinemas," Moviegoer , 3 (Summer 1966).
too busy making love to greet their guests, or the cavalry suddenly shows up at dinnertime between maneuvers, or the police raid the premises and arrest everyone. Don Raphael Acosta (Fernando Rey), Ambassador of Miranda—a mythical, campy South American republic resembling several countries, particularly Spain—arranges a secret rendezvous in his flat with Mme Thivenot (Delphine Seyrig), but M. Thivenot (Paul Frankeur) turns up at an inopportune moment. The three ladies—Mmes Sinichal and Thivenot and the latter's younger sister, Florence (Bulle Ogier)—meet for tea, and the waiter regretfully announces that the kitchen is out of tea, coffee, alcohol, and everything else they try to order. Still other attempted get-togethers and disasters turn out to be dreams, or dreams of dreams. At one dinner party, the guests find themselves sitting on a stage before a restive audience, prompted with lines; another ends with Don Raphael, after a political quarrel, shooting his host; still another concludes with an unidentified group of men breaking in and machine-gunning the lot of them.
At three separate points in the film, including the final sequence, we see all six characters walking wordlessly down a road, somewhere between an unstated starting place and an equally mysterious destination—an image suggesting the continuation both of their class and of the picaresque narrative tradition that propels them forward. Yet if the previous paragraph reads like a plot summary, it is deceptive. The nature and extent of Buquel's interruptions guarantee the virtual absence of continuous plot. But we remain transfixed as though we were watching one: the sustained charm and glamour of the six characters fool us, much as they fool themselves. Their myths, behavior, and appearance—a seductive, illusory surface—carry us (and them) through the film with a sense of unbroken continuity and logic, a consistency that the rest of the universe and nature itself seem to rail against helplessly. Despite every attempt at annihilation, the myths of the bourgeoisie and of conventional narrative survive and prevail, a certainty that Buquel reconciles himself to by regarding it as the funniest thing in the world.
Interruptions, of course, are a central fact about modern life; as I write this in a friend's apartment, the phone has been ringing about once every two paragraphs. Using this sort of comic annoyance as a structural tool, Buquel can shoot as many arrows as he wants into our complacencies about narrative, the characters' complacencies about themselves. He exercises this principle of disruption in a multitude of ways, in matters large and small: in the opening scene at the Sinichals' house, Florence's dopey, indifferent, comic-strip face drifts irrelevantly into the foreground of a shot while other characters chatter about something else behind her, and similar displacements of emphasis abound everywhere.
Take the last attempted dinner. It begins with a red herring that leads us to suspect poisoning ("I prepared the soup with herbs from the garden"); theconversation is broken off for a cruel exchange with the maid about her age and broken engagement; and while M. Sinichal demonstrates the correct method of carving lamb, Florence stubbornly insists on pursuing her deadpan astrological profile of Don Raphael. After the gang breaks in to shoot them all, our sense of their total demise—a Godardian image of overlapping corpses—is interrupted when we realize that Don Raphael has hidden under the dinner table, and is reaching for a piece of lamb. Still crouching under the table, he bites savagely into the meat—a comic-terrifying reminder of the dream in LOS OLVIDADOS—and is finished off by a final blast of gunfire. Lest we suppose that this is the last possible interruption, we next see Don Raphael waking up from his nightmare. He gets out of bed, goes into the kitchen, and opens the refrigerator to take out a plate of veal.
Every dream and interpolated story in the film carries some threat, knowledge, or certainty of death—the central fact that all six characters ignore, and their charm and elegance seek to camouflage. Ghosts of murder victims and other phantoms of guilt parade through these inserted tales, but the discreet style of the bourgeoisie, boxing them in dreams and dinner anecdotes, holds them forever in check. To some extent, Buquel shares this discretion in his failure to allude to his native Spain even once in the dialogue, although the pomp and brutality of the Franco regime are frequently evoked. (The recurrent gag of a siren, jet plane, or another disturbance covering up a political declaration—a device familiar from Godard's MADE IN USA—acknowledges this sort of suppression.) But the secret of Buquel's achieved style is balance, and for that he must lean more on irony—an expedient tactic of the bourgeoisie—than on the aggressions of the rebel classes; when he sought imbalance in L'AGE D'OR, the revolutionary forces had the upper edge. An essential part of his method is to pitch the dialogue and acting somewhere between naturalism and parody, so that no gag is merely a gag, and each commonplace line or gesture becomes a potential gag. Absurdity and elegance, charm and hypocrisy become indistinguishably fused.
Another form of resolution is hinted at in the treatment of a secondary character, Monsignor Dufour (Julien Bertheau), a bishop who is hired by the Sinichals as a gardener ("You've heard of worker-priests? There are worker-bishops too!"), and figures as clergy-in-residence at many of the abortive dinner parties. Late in the film, he is brought to the bed of an impoverished dying man—a gardener himself—by an old woman who asserts that she's hated Jesus Christ since she was a little girl, and promises to tell him why when she returns from delivering carrots. Dufour then proceeds to attend to the dying gardener, who confesses to having poisoned the bishop's wealthy parents when Dufour was a child. Dufour kindly and dutifully gives him absolution,then lifts up a nearby rifle and shoots the man through the skull. Thus Buquel appears to arrive at the conclusion that Catholicism, far from being the natural opponent of Surrealism, is the ultimate expression of it; and it seems strangely appropriate that after this scene both the bishop and the old woman with her promised explanation are abruptly dropped from the film, as though they've suddenly canceled each other out.
Writing in 1962, Andrew Sarris remarked that Buquel's "camera has always viewed his characters from a middle distance, too close for cosmic groupings and too far away for self-identification." The singular achievement of Buquel's crystallized style is to allow both these viewpoints to function—to let us keep our distance from the characters while repeatedly recognizing our own behavior in them. Cryptic throwaway lines, illogically repeated motifs, and displacements in space and time give the film some of the abstractness of MARIENBAD, yet the richness of concretely observed social behavior is often comparable to that in LA RHGLE DU JEU. A similar mixture was potentially at work in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL—the obvious companion film to LE CHARME DISCRET, with its guests unable to leave a room after finishing dinner. But despite a brilliant script, the uneven execution left too much of the conception unrealized.
Undoubtedly a great deal of credit for the dialogue of LE CHARME DISCRET should go to Jean-Claude Carrihre, who has worked on the scripts of all Buquel's French films since LE JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE: the precise banality of the small talk has a withering accuracy. Even more impressive is the way that Buquel and Carrihre have managed to weave in enough contemporary phenomena to make the film as up-to-date—and as surrealistic, in its crazy-quilt juxtapositions—as the latest global newspaper: Vietnam, Mao, women's lib, various forms of political corruption, and international drug trafficking are all touched upon in witty and apt allusions. Fernando Rey unloading smuggled heroin from his diplomatic pouch is a hip reference to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and much of the rest of the film works as a parody of icons and stances in modern cinema.
Florence's neuroticism—as evidenced by her loathing of cellos and her "Euclid complex"—lampoons Ogier's role in L'AMOUR FOU; Audran's stiff elegance and country house hark back to LA FEMME INFIDHLE; while Seyrig's frozen, irrelevant smiles on every occasion are a comic variation of her ambiguous MARIENBAD expressions. And as I've already suggested, Godard has become a crucial reference point in late Buquel—not only in the parodies and allusions but also in the use of an open form to accommodate these and other intrusions, the tendency to keep shifting the center of attention.
A few years ago, Godard remarked of BELLE DE JOUR that Buquel seemedto be playing the cinema the way Bach played the organ. The happy news of LE CHARME DISCRET is that while most of the serious French cinema at present—Godard included—seems to be hard at work performing painful duties, the Old Master is still playing—effortlessly, freely, without fluffing a note.
—Sight and Sound , Winter 19721973
Polanski and the American Experiment (BITTER MOON)
Fairly late in WHAT? (1973), Roman Polanksi's least seen and least critically approved feature—an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate 'Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti—the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, and then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands. Immediately recognizing the piece, she joins him, performing the bass part. After a rose petal drops from the bowl of flowers on the piano onto the keyboard, which also happened before, the wide-eyed heroine has an epiphany.
It's so strange—this keeps happening to me more and more often. You know that strange feeling that all this has happened before?
You mean dija vu?
Yes—that odd feeling that the moment we're living now we've already lived before.
Sort of. But in this case it's not just a feeling. This really has happened before.
Not in exactly the same way, though.
Yes, exactly: your knuckles—Mozart—the rose petal.
It wasn't the same, I tell you. You can't bathe twice in the same river because it's never the same river—nor the same bather.
Sometime between my first viewing of Polanski's BITTER MOON at the Toronto film festival last September and my second, late last month, WHAT? became available on letterboxed video at Facets Multimedia, and I had another look at it. (Before this, it had only been available in an atrociously recut and shortened version, marketed as a porn item called DIARY OF FORBIDDEN DREAMS.) Though the much less ambitious WHAT? is lighter in tone and accomplishes a good deal less than BITTER MOON, it is still a crucial precedent, not only for its highly personal musings and self-reflections and its frank depictions of kinky sex but also for the distinctive way it treats these matters formally, using an intricate rhyming structure in which everything of importance seems to happen twice—though "not exactly." There are even textual connections between the movies: at the end of WHAT? the heroine, departing on a truckful of pigs in a rainstorm, yells out to her lover (a pimp played by Marcello Mastroianni) that she may be headed next for Istanbul—which is precisely where two of the major characters in BITTER MOON, traveling on a luxury liner, are headed; and BITTER MOON also ends with a rainstorm. (On the other hand, the thematic variations in WHAT? are basically formal whereas those in BITTER MOON are primarily emotional.)
Moreover, WHAT? received the same sort of apoplectic critical rejection in some quarters as BITTER MOON has, no doubt for related reasons. Back in 1973, the International Herald-Tribune reviewer was so beside himself that he even got the title wrong and reviewed WHAT? as WHY? And in the New Republic last month, Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing three recent Hugh Grant films, referred to BITTER MOON as "swill," ranking it far below FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and SIRENS.
Different strokes for different folks. Personally I find BITTER MOON riveting and energizing as few other recent movies have been, but I can guarantee you won't emerge from it with any songs in your heart or any cares and worries lifted; in fact, it's blacker and in some ways bleaker than any Polanski movie to date. It's also probably his best movie since CHINATOWN (1974), made only four years before he fled the United States.
Although Polanski regular Girard Brach worked with him on the scripts of both WHAT? and BITTER MOON, the latter film has two other writing credits as well, and is based on a French novel of the same title by Pascal Bruckner, which I haven't read. Perhaps just as pertinent is what happened to Polanski between the two films. After pleading guilty to having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl and submitting to six weeks of "psychiatric evaluation" in a California state prison—and fearing an extended sentence, since the press washaving a field day with his case—he escaped to Europe, where he's lived ever since. None of his three subsequent movies—TESS (1979), PIRATES (1986), and FRANTIC (1988)—has had a fraction of the success of his two Hollywood hits, ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and CHINATOWN. In the late 80s he married Emmanuelle Seigner, a French actress roughly half his age, the leading lady in both FRANTIC and BITTER MOON; about a year ago they had their first child, a daughter. (His former wife, Sharon Tate, was pregnant when slain in the brutal 1969 Charles Manson murders.)
In short, you might say Polanski has certain things to feel hopeful as well as bitter about: he may have a reputation as a pervert and be unable to return to the United States, but he has also remarried and recently become a father. All these things are clearly inscribed in BITTER MOON, a film that seems virtually driven by a desire to settle his various accounts—entailing an autocritique that's as ruthless and scathing as any committed to film, a portrait of Polanski's own macho perversity calculated to produce shudders. With its American, English, and French characters representing the three cultures he has known since he left Poland, it's probably his most personal and emotionally complex movie to date.
The brilliantly designed structure of BITTER MOON is above all novelistic, with particular reference to the nineteenth-century novel (TESS, one should recall, is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles ). This tale-within-a-tale is set onboard a ship, which suggests Joseph Conrad, and told to a rather square and inhibited English Eurobond salesman named Nigel Dobson (Hugh Grant), who suggests Lockwood in Wuthering Heights . This framing device is central to the film's meaning; formally, we get a taste of it even before the story begins, behind the opening credits: the camera moves back slowly from a view of the passing sea until a porthole gradually enters the frame and encloses the picture; then the camera moves forward again, past the porthole, and finally pans left to a young English couple standing on deck, Nigel and his wife, Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas).
Celebrating their seventh anniversary, Nigel and Fiona are headed for Istanbul, and plan to fly to Bombay from there; clearly the idea behind the trip is to rejuvenate their marriage, although an Indian acquaintance onboard (Victor Bannerjee), a widower traveling with his little girl, gently mocks Nigel's notion of India as a place to find "inner serenity." Later he remarks, "Children are a better form of marital therapy than any trip to India." (The way third world exoticism is enlisted to spice up sex, marital and otherwise, is a subtle but telling theme throughout the movie.)
When Fiona excuses herself to go to the ladies room, the camera remains on deck with Nigel—establishing at the outset that his is the controlling viewpoint in the framing story. Fiona fails to return, so Nigel goes looking for herand discovers that she's helping a young French woman named Mimi (Seigner) who has apparently fainted. That night, after Fiona retires early to their cabin, Nigel finds Mimi in more glamorous attire in the bar, dancing alone to "Fever." After she briefly flirts with him, then sarcastically rebuffs him as she leaves, pronouncing him dull, he encounters her husband, a wild-eyed American named Oscar (Peter Coyote) seated in a wheelchair on deck. Immediately picking up on Nigel's attraction to Mimi, Oscar says, "Beware of her—she's a walking mantrap," then adds, indicating the wheelchair, "Look what she did to me." Getting Nigel to help him back to his cabin, which he explains is separate from Mimi's, Oscar invites him in, baiting him with his curiosity about Mimi; handing him a drink, he proceeds to tell the first of what will be four lengthy chapters in the movie's tale-within-a-tale—the whole story of his relationship with Mimi in Paris.
Oscar, a failed, unpublished novelist living in Paris on a trust fund, expresses himself throughout in an ornate purple prose that is one of the movie's most useful and ambiguous narrative devices. It's often so purple as to seem bad writing, hence easy to dismiss (and tempting to hoot at); but it also fully expresses the reckless, romantic intensity of a bored sensualist who's willing to delve into passions that Nigel—the squirming, voyeuristic surrogate for our own puritanical inhibitions—can scarcely even think about. This uncertainty about Oscar's prose style extends to the story he's telling: Is it simple pornography or a cautionary moral tale, a turn-on or a turnoff, or something between the two? Nigel himself isn't sure, and Oscar needles him about this in the same way that Polanski needles us, gleefully and sadistically poking holes in his/our hypocrisies. Compounding our uncertainties are Oscar's problematic reliability as a narrator (which Mimi throws into question) and the fact that we can't always be sure if the flashbacks we're watching are exclusively Oscar's account of events or Nigel's imagining of them.
Each time we return to the events onboard, in between Oscar's chapters, the situation between Nigel and Fiona shifts correspondingly, as Nigel becomes more and more attracted to Mimi. So it's clear early on that Oscar's tale isn't an idle amusement; it's a narrative with immense consequences, and part of the film's power as storytelling is to convey this sense of urgency. You might say that, like musicians, Oscar and Polanski are playing on our uneasy curiosity, and the piece they're playing is a four-part symphony in sonata form, complete with theme and variations. (Readers who don't want any plot points given away are urged to check out here.)
The first movement details the birth of passion and the first flush of love between Oscar and Mimi—an erotic romance involving a chance meeting ona bus, Oscar's efforts to find Mimi again, a second meeting, and a first date at a plush Thai restaurant, culminating in lovemaking at dawn in front of his fireplace. (If the heroine's sexual escapades in WHAT? recall the old Playboy comic strip "Little Annie Fannie," this scene is virtually "The Playboy Philosophy" made flesh, conspicuous consumption and all: a carefully prepared but ignored breakfast tray is as important as the fireplace.) Mimi promptly moves in, and what follows are a few sexual games but not much more; the first hint of the darkness to come occurs only near the end, when Mimi begs Oscar to let her shave him with his straight razor and accidentally nicks him (a moment that recalls a scene between Lionel Stander and Frangoise Dorleac in Polanski's 1966 black comedy CUL-DE-SAC).
The second movement begins when Oscar describes a kinky turn in his relationship with Mimi: on a skiing vacation, she began urinating on the TV set in their hotel room, and he suddenly felt moved to lie under her and drink her urine. His description—we don't see the scene—is a fair sample not only of his overripe prose but also of the third world trappings that seem increasingly necessary to their affair, already signaled by the Thai restaurant and Mimi's candlelit performance of "exotic" dancing in the first movement. "I experienced the orgasm of a lifetime," Oscar says to Nigel. "It was like a white-hot blade piercing me through and through. This was my Nile, my Ganges, my Jordan, my fountain of youth, my second baptism." "Look," Nigel says, "I think I'm probably as broad-minded as the next man, but obviously there are limits." "Stop twittering, Nigel. I'm sharing a revelation with you, dammit. I'm trying to expand your sexual horizons." This leads into a proper flashback of other kinky sexual games (with Oscar's straight razor employed in one as a prop) and the couple's first crisis, when each provokes sexual jealousy in the other at a bar, followed by more sexual games, which now yield diminishing returns. (Furnished with a recording of barnyard noises and a pig mask, Oscar comically deflates one fantasy by talking, implying that sexual fantasies can be undone by words. Yet it's Oscar's words that increase Nigel's attraction to Mimi; and between the third and fourth movements Mimi notes to Nigel of Oscar, "I leave the words to him. It's all he has left.")
In the third movement—ironically narrated while Oscar lies on his bed and Nigel sits in Oscar's wheelchair—things get decidedly uglier. Oscar describes the decline of his sexual interest in Mimi, followed by fights, recriminations, and Mimi leaving, then coming back and begging him to let her stay on any terms. The infidelity, mental cruelty, and other, escalating forms of humiliation her return unleashes in Oscar are truly harrowing, and the thematic variations that dominate this movement are mainly deeroticized, ghoulish replays of previous events. At a breakfast in the first movement, Mimi splashes milk on her breasts for Oscar to lap up; the scene's comic-orgasmic climax is toast springing out of a toaster. At a breakfast in this section, Oscar is disgusted when Mimi drinks milk directly from the bottle, and the "comic" orgasmic climaxof another scene occurs when Oscar, being serviced by a prostitute, winds up choking her poodle. Finally, after Mimi becomes pregnant and Oscar forces her to abort the child, he proposes a vacation for the two of them in Martinique, then sadistically leaves her alone on the plane just before it takes off. (This is where we discover the source of the film's title: "I could picture her looking out the window at that beautiful moon—the same one I could see, but it didn't look the same to her. . . . To her it must have been poison. To me, sweet as a peach.")
The final movement, which I won't recount in detail, occurs years later, when Mimi returns to Paris and takes her revenge on Oscar: paralyzed from the waist down, he comes fully under her sadistic control.
Where do we, as spectators, stand in relation to all this? Though I can't vouch for the responses of women—this is essentially a tale told by one man to another, albeit one in which the two women register much more sympathetically than the two men—my guess is that male and female viewers alike stand in many places in succession, none of them entirely comfortable, most of them pretty unsettling. And of course the shipboard machinations that surround these four movements, holding them in place and sometimes altering their meanings, offer another tense form of narrative striptease, mocking Nigel's responses and our own while contributing a mordant counterpoint to the serial flashbacks. (At the climactic New Year's Eve party on the ship, the increasingly cadaverous Oscar sports a fez—a final third world reference in this account of the Ugly American abroad, exercising his much-vaunted freedom.)
As sexual games turn into games played for keeps and the abuser becomes the abused, every repeated event becomes the infernal rhyme of its predecessor: Mimi kicking over Oscar in his chair as part of a playful sexual charade becomes Mimi viciously kicking Oscar in his wheelchair across the same room. Each lover winding up in a hospital bed becomes the occasion for the hatching of further macabre cruelties. Whether we take BITTER MOON as camp comedy or serious horror story, as pornography or cautionary moral tale, we're implicitly rejecting half the experience the movie offers to go looking for solace in the other half, which we aren't likely to find. What we have to settle for, finally, is Polanski's dry, scary, and ultimately confessional commentary on the perils of the American experiment itself, the so-called freedom of the individual played out in psychosexual terms and staged with French and English participants—a French-English coproduction whose ideal spectators are troubled Americans, and uneasy, childless lovers.
—Chicago Reader, April 4 , 1994
Excerpted from Movies as Politics by Jonathan Rosenbaum Copyright © 1997 by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Excerpted by permission.
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|How to Live in Air Conditioning||1|
|1||The Politics of Form||9|
|Language, Representation, Narrative||11|
|Say the Right Thing (Do the Right Thing)||13|
|Interruption as Style: Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie||22|
|Polanski and the American Experiment (Bitter Moon)||28|
|Utopian Space and Urban Encounters||35|
|His Mistress's Voice: Akerman's Night and Day||41|
|Seen and Unseen Encounters: Kieslowski's Red||47|
|Chance and Control||55|
|Altman and the Spirit of Improvisation (California Split)||57|
|Lies of the Mind (Talking to Strangers)||60|
|Classification and Genre: Musical Ghettos||67|
|On Latcho Drom||69|
|Four Books on the Hollywood Musical||75|
|2||Entertainment as Oppression: The Hollywood Apparatus||79|
|Entertainment as Oppression||81|
|Missing the Target||91|
|Spielberg's Gentiles (Schindler's List)||98|
|The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars||105|
|Jack Reed's Christmas Puppy: Reflections on Reds||110|
|A Perversion of the Past (Mississippi Burning)||118|
|Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray||125|
|Vietnam, the Theme Park (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse)||134|
|Sexual Discourse (The Piano)||140|
|Hollywood Radical (Malcolm X)||145|
|Ace Ventura Reconsidered||154|
|The World According to Harvey and Bob (Smoke, the Glass Shield)||159|
|Stupidity as Redemption (Forrest Gump)||166|
|Allusion Profusion (Ed Wood, Pulp Fiction)||171|
|3||Issues of Ideology||179|
|The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax||183|
|No Stars, a Must-See (The Plot Against Harry)||195|
|The Rattle of Armor, the Softness of Flesh: Bresson's Lancelot Du Lac||201|
|The Functions of a Disease (Safe)||208|
|England on the Inside: The Films of Mike Leigh||213|
|The Significance of Sniggering: Zwigoff's Crumb||223|
|Jean Eustache's La Maman Et La Putain||231|
|Film Writing Degree Zero: The Marketplace and the University||234|
|Tribal Trouble (Atom Egoyan's Calendar)||244|
|Us and Them (Blood in the Face)||249|
|Feudal Attraction (Ju Dou)||257|
|The Vision of the Conquered (Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August)||264|
|Searching for Taiwan (The Puppet Master)||269|
|Inner Space (Tarkovsky's Solaris)||276|
|Tribal Scars (Sembene's Black Girl)||284|
|The Seven Arkadins||291|
|Tih-Minh, Out I: On the Nonreception of Two French Serials||303|
|His Twentieth Century: Godard's Histoire(s) Du Cinema||318|
|Pages from the Endfield File||323|
|On Second Thoughts (Marker's The Last Bolshevik)||338|