“Reading Manny farber is like hitting one’s funny bone. It’s shocking and uncomfortable and yet at the same time strangely delightful.”
Manny Farber - Carbonated Dyspepsia (1968)
A big sour yawn pervades the air of movie theaters, put there by a series of tired, cheerless, low-emotion heroes who seem inoculated against surprise, incapable of finding any goal worthy of their multiple talents. The yawn is built into people who seem like twins though they are as various as the teetering scriptwriter in Contempt, the posh master crimester of The Thomas Crown Affair, and that ultimate in envy and petulance who is the philosophy professor approaching middle age in Accident. Each of these three heroes (Michael Piccoli, Steve McQueen, Dirk Bogarde) shifts constantly in a voluptuous way between mobility—driving trickily in flashy little cars, making fast-cut repartee while rushing into an airport—and its opposite, the most deadening kind of innocuous living.
The disenchantment that sweeps over the theater is also caused by a series of technicians who are quite literally emptying the screen of conventional tension and rules. These technicians, who range through a realistic cameraman (Raoul Coutard) whose ability for candidness seems mercurial, a master of concision in sciptwriting (Harold Pinter), and a bite and bitterness director (Luis Bunuel), seem totally cynical about the pre-1960’s notion of good and/or profitable movie creation. The Coutard-Pinter technician has contrived a lighter-the-better film, in which the attack is on the industry and the middle class, and the method includes turning the action toward the spectator, using people as walking-talking editorials, making positional geometry of the most mundane, piddling actions.
Accident is filled positional constructs, one centered around an omelet whipped up at midnight, a nice kitchen crisscrossed with anger, embarrassment, brutal rudeness, as well as paths of action. Similar geometry, exercises, in movement using the screen as a floor, are setup around the packing of a suitcase and hedge-clipping. Band of Outsiders, a parody of a sex triangle, its people not real, but more like fleas, is also crammed with ricochet movements; a Madison danced in a two bit bar with its nonsense trio led by Sami Grey, building a spacious rectangle over and over, punctuating the construction with a witless hop and clap at one corner, and a foto stamp at another.
One of the funnier scenes last year involved a zinged-out Albert Finney, comatose on the living room sofa, blearily looking at the Telly. “Charlie, you look awful. Don’t you get any sleep?” Charlie, hangdog, gets up, heads for the bedroom. The seedy-sexy Billie Whitelaw says: “Charlie, come back here and sit down.” He returns just as docilely as he left. This is a very low-key, high-humor scene; the bemusing things come mostly from positioning, the automatic moves that Charlie perpetrates every time his tough, all-woman ex-wife goes into her top-sergeant act. There is also something perversely sardonic about the lush-sour woman, an incongruous health addict wearing satin on a zoo-farm in the country, appearing more spent and ravaged than the city-corrupted Charlie.
Charlie is one of the many reputedly gifted and successful he-men who, poleaxed by the ironies and vagaries of life, appear for most of their screen life with a creased and deflated expression. This face, which might seem to be thinking of Black Power, McCarthy’s chances, or what they mean by “the art of the Real,” is more likely chewing on the question: “What can I do with myself for the two hours between now and dinner?”
The Stare has devoured a great deal of screen time in movies. Benjy the Graduate, ex-college-magazine editor and track captain, leads a split life on screen; half the time he’s hung up between Mrs. and Miss Robinson, the other half he’s at half mast: a flattened silhouette, descending an escalator, staring at a fish tank or lying on a raft silhouetted against the pool.
The Stranger, a man who takes quick naps on his feet while eating, sitting vigil over his mother’s coffin, is a handsome office worker in Algiers. Bereft of ambition, there’s always the definite feeling that this escapist intellectual, as torpid as they come, is working and living below his mental structure. This is one of the most interesting performances, so filled with the materials of sensuality and lassitude. Mastroianni not only does the curious, innocuous routines that now make up the life of the Inactive Hero, but he gets the most intense sybaritic pleasure from simply a smoke after lunch, a swim, the dozing-off ride on a bus, or the slow movement of the street below his beaten-up hotel room. He is a snake, slowly, luxurious unwinding. But in the midst of this tantalizing sensual, pleasure-driven acting, and below the staring, is the frightful aspect of bottomless emptiness, aimlessness.
Actually, it could be said that the whole riverbed of films shifted somewhere in the early 1960’s, at the time of Antonioni’s rise, when the rudiments of nausea, apathy, jaundice, heart soreness were examined by actors. Movies suddenly became slower fast-flowing linear films, photographed stories, and, surprisingly, became slower face-to-face constructions in which the spectator becomes a protagonist in the drama. In 1961, while actors like Jeanne Moreau in La Notte were sinking into self-absorption, miserable doubts about their past careers, the movie became determinedly psychological and, more important, the face of the screen as well as the actors emptied, flattened out. Now, whole characterizations, like those of the active-passive duo in Persona, tied together in an identity struggle, are based on a kind of prolonged staring, not only at life but into oneself. What is more exciting is that the movie has almost accidently arrived at the beauties of the one scene in Persona, comprised of Bibi Anderson in a 1950’s bathing suit, a sunny courtyard scene, and not much action. The whole drift of the scene is based on flat, yawning stretches of skin, silence, sunlight, and, behind it all, particularly, is The Stare.
Although used to put a virtue-wins-out pulp story, like Graduate or Band of Outsiders, in the area of sensitivity and conscience, the stare is much more interesting for what it means in movie technique. When this pensive, larger-than-life profile, back of the head, or full face, fills the screen with a kind of distilled purity, the image becomes purified abstract composition, a diagram, and any soul-searching is secondary. The movie, in a mysterious fashion, diverts at this moment from the clutter and multiplicity of story-telling, naturalism, to a minimal condition. The screen is reduced to a refined one-against-one balance, and the movie’s excitement has shifted strictly into a matter of shape against shape, tone against tone.
Prior to the 1960-62 outburst of debut films, the material of the screen-shadow, people, the sound, too—gave the comforting sense of a continuous interweave of action in deep space. Today, an elementalism has taken over. When the pointed starkness of a Greek statues is moving slowly against a flat, bludgeoning stretch of blue sky (Contempt), it is similar in syntax to the flat eroticism of Faye Dunaway’s silky stride and body as it is seen as one all-over matlike shape against the loneliness of a 1920’s Dallas street. In both cases, a kind of primitive block-against-block composition is being worked for a singing, coloristic impact.
The movie today has been turned around, flattened out, the most obvious signs of this re-arrangement being the prevalence of pictures within pictures: instead of one continuous image, the scene appears to fragmentize: an evil husband watches witchlike activities on a TV screen; his wife worries about the shadow-rimmed square on the wall where a portrait once hung; a revenge-driven bride, camouflaged by make-up and wrong wigs, appears to come together in a drawings and paintings; the teenaged careers of an intellectual circle are recounted in still photographs; an unconfident husband mimics and discusses the brashness of the Dean Martin gambler in Some Came Running; a homely peasant wife plasters a fashionable brassiere ad against her body. In effect, this image-within-image marks the advent of a movie that is no longer an evolving scene but singular confrontations between actor and spectator (a psychological effect that is not a great deal different from the question-answers confrontation that goes on in therapy between psychiatrist and patient).
There is now a distrust of unity, continuity, and it shows itself in what appear to be calculated thrusts at the spectator. These synthesized fragments, placards of propaganda, are often precious editorials that seem isolated, self-contained, aimed at the audience’s soul. Groups of decaying Kiwanis types displayed in fancy hotels like a Natural History exhibit, motel rooms loaded with vulgar energy-savers, computers and IBM machines, highways that are diseased and sign pocked with modernity, material (nuns, wigs, orgiastic discotheques, splendiferous luggage) that has a built-in scene-satirizing point, bloody sports events, all-night supermarkets, the carrying of unlikely mirror-bed-tuba objects through crowded streets, an alienated person wandering in an industrial wasteland, standing against an empty wall.
Sometimes, these dislocated items represent the Muck of the Establishment, sometimes they are Escapes from it, but they are always treated as a kind of magic.
In one film, the image slides from sports cars and their owners in Esquire clothes into an idol effect: a Negro in white coveralls who tends cars in an underground garage. This somber, statuesque attendant is examined as though he held some crucial message: seated in a chair against a wall, looking somewhat like an electrocution victim.
Julie Kohler’s scarf and Bubble’s balloon are escapes from the labyrinth; in structural terms, they are film-within-film segments in which the movie abandons story progression and talks directly to the spectator. A white scarf billows over a French seacoast town, a pastel journey, overextended and precious, that ends when the straight line of a jet crosses the soft-focus image. Pre-figured in some wall prints earlier in the film, an aerostatic Goya balloon comes to rest at the end of a film. The mesmerically improbable object, plus the perfect pastoral landscape, draws the gutted hero out of his lethargy into a more promising life.
Nausea is everywhere in movies today. Yet, there is a great distance between this negative feeling on screen and the anti-Establishment nihilism that has made such thought-provokers as a clean, grace-filled sort of gorgeous, cartoony, facetious film (Contempt), a beautifully grainy, intimate, limpid survival fight (Persona), and another movie of real suffering (Accident) that is clever, delicate, and urbane with the most elegant infighting in acting between Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker.
For both the nullity rampant in movies today as well as the simplistic image, the most advanced and volcanic are the latest from the Warhol factory. Behind Nude Restaurant, Bike Boy, and particularly, 4 Stars, is a morbid, flesh-bound, self-reviling vision: the films crawl with an obsessional pursuit of rancid pleasures. By just presenting rambling Ondine or National Velvet as isolated, spoiled fruits, stripping away their connections to personal drama or outside world, and by languidly exposing jig-acting situations (tangled bodies on a mattress, gargantuan make-up scenes, a crazy telephone scene with a witchlike gypsy, her maddening horsey smile flashing on and off like a neon sign), the picture becomes a drum-beat of the film concept that the Moment’s the thing, and, also, that what’s Now is pretty sickening.
There is no story-telling form imposing its pressure on the screen. When Brigid Polk, hippopotamus of sin, sprawls in a bathtub in white bra and blue jeans, and talks to someone just outside camera range about the drug-curing scene in different hospitals, the image is free, for itself, and wide open: the spectator, as well as the actor, can almost vegetalize inside the frame. Everything is stopped as the movie engulfs itself in a fuck-off atmosphere. With giggling hysteria, fag expressions, the most pathetic bravado voice, she explodes the screen outward by giant abandon and cravenness. The camera milks the paleness of her slack flesh, a cheap cotton brassiere cuts into the doughy torso, the image is the most underrated phenomenon in films: a blast of raw stuff.
It’s not only Brigid Polk or her counterpart Jason in the underground film firmament, but their flesh-obsessed self-exposure (both diarylike and diarrhetic in that bits of decaying self are flung out) has become a standard role in films everywhere. This confessional acting is abetted by a voyeur camera which does not enhance, but feeds on, every flaw: the actor stands crucified in front of the camera. A detective’s wife turns a seduction scene into a flat head-on encounter with the audience a pinched and dried Lee Remick under a humiliating light, seems disrobed for a flagellation rather than a love scene. Truffaut’s Bride, supposedly a male-gobbling Mata Hari, is tortured by an insensitive wig-maker and her own recalcitrant, slipping flesh. She becomes a series of static parodies filling the screen, stark presentations, almost processed before your eyes of someone’s middle-aged aunt. Good or bad doesn’t matter in a screen presence that comes across like an Easter Island sculpture: the Dread C. Scott performance of a kook-hooked brain surgeon isn’t actually a performance: a tortured larger-than-life face seems to be dazed as it moves occasionally right or left.
As soon as these versions of the Underground Man and Oblomov start reviling and revealing themselves, the spectator is hooked. While bathing him in remorse, the picture cathartically immolates him in a new kind of connection to the screen. What happens is that everything becomes open ended: time is untempered and boundless; characters are left enigmatic, full of the complexities of a single moment; photography is deliberately raw, uncentered, violently push-pulling against the confines of the screen.
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