Monday, October 22, 2007

10/22: Le chant du styrene; One, Two, Three

Alain Resnais' Le chant du styrene is in form a simple industrial documentary, commissioned no doubt as a straightforward piece intended to explain the process of manufacturing plastic. Resnais, though, was clearly not content to produce the kind of author-less hack work that such a bills-paying project would normally call for. He dedicates the same artistry, intelligence, and depth to this as he had to his Holocaust documentary Night and Fog two years earlier. The film's close-up examination of the industrial processes behind plastics manufacturing is as abstract in its way as the best of avant-garde film. The opening sequence in particular, with its playful tableaux of brightly colored plastic objects on a black background, inevitably calls to mind the work of experimental animator Oscar Fischinger, whose visual symphonies of geometric figures and colored areas are a primary touchstone here. Resnais lends the same eye for composition and color to the many extreme close-ups that show the plastic factory's machines at work, making this a masterpiece of visual design first and foremost. Resnais is playing with light and color and movement, putting cameras right into the machines and observing gears turning at the most intimate levels. His camera's eye is as probing and intrusive here as it could be when confronted by the horrors of the Holocaust or Hiroshima. One suspects, seeing this, that the reason Resnais was able to face such catastrophes so calmly and with such intellectual rigor was the discipline that allowed him to approach each project with the same high level of commitment and thought. In this case, the film is primarily an abstract visual exercise, but it also takes a turn, in the final minutes, towards philosophical inquiry into the repercussions of industrial society. The narration suggests that the process of making plastic from the byproducts of coal and petroleum is akin to creating solid objects out of smoke — a reversal, perhaps, of the socialist slogan "all that is solid melts into air." The final shot of murky water is accompanied by the suggestion, in voiceover, that everything in the natural world could potentially be transformed into something else in the hands (and machines) of man.

It's a marvelous thing when a film can completely change your sense of time, and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three has made me feel like moving at double speed all night. Watching it is an exhilarating experience, probably because you don't so much just watch as get carried along by it, swept up in its non-stop wave of energy and enthusiasm. I'm not even sure it's actually a movie; it feels more like a particularly eager troupe of circus performers stormed into my living room for two hours, made a mess and a whole lot of noise, and stormed out again. It's a wild three-ring extravaganza, all centered around James Cagney as Coca Cola executive C.R. MacNamara, stationed in West Berlin and jockeying for control of Coke's whole European operation. His plans for promotion run into a snag, however, when he's asked to watch over the boss' ditsy, slutty 17 year-old daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) on her European vacation. Unsurprisingly, she almost immediately gets into trouble of the worst kind — at least for a Cold War-era Southern belle — falling in love with and marrying the hardcore East German Communist Otto (Horst Buchholz). As she says herself, with a heavy twang, "This boy, he was in the parade, he said to the police man I shouldn't be arrested, I should be pitied, because I was a typical bourgeois parasite and the rotten fruit of a corrupt civilization. So naturally, I fell in love with him."

The film is packed with one-liners like this, practically bursting at the seams with them, and after a relatively calm opening half-hour that establishes the characters and situations, the pace hardly slackens one iota. Instead, Wilder keeps ratcheting up the tempo, driving his characters into increasingly frantic set pieces as MacNamara fights to salvage a terrible situation. First, he contrives to get Otto arrested, but this backfires when he realizes that the girl is pregnant and he'll need to keep the communist around. Then, with his boss set to arrive in Berlin the next day, MacNamara has to race around, getting Otto out of prison with the help of a hilarious trio of Russian commissars who want to sleep with MacNamara's sexy secretary Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver). The hapless Otto is sprung, but not before he's tortured and forced to confess as an American spy — by making him listen to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" over and over, so I can't say I blame him for giving in. It then falls on MacNamara to convert the militant Otto into a distinguished gentleman, even borrowing him a title from a down-on-his-luck Count, and the film ratchets up into an even higher gear than I could've even thought possible.

By this time, the relatively even-keel beginning has long been forgotten, and Cagney is snapping his fingers, barking orders punctuated by "Next!," his ex-SS assistant is storming in and out of the room, clicking his heels, the coo-coo clock on the wall is constantly going off with Uncle Sam marching out of its window and waving a flag, Otto is having a fit at being transformed into a capitalist, and one of the Russian commissars reappears as a defector, planning to make a fortune selling silver-plated sauerkraut as a Christmas decoration. It's a ludicrous, riotous, non-stop barrage of dialogue and whirling bodies, and Cagney's performance is exhausting to watch. For pretty much the entire second half of the film he's in non-stop motion, his voice roaring and barely even pausing for a breath. The whole thing in underpinned by the famous "Sabre Dance" movement that's been used and overused in so much comedy throughout the years but has never, ever, been used quite as effectively as this, perhaps because in Cagney the music has finally found its match in whirling dervish intensity and sheer speed. This is one of the most fun tour-de-force performances in all of cinema, a careening steamroller of a performance that rolls over anything and everything in its way, and Wilder simply keeps amping up the pace, increasing the tension, juggling more and more balls in a seeming contest to see how much detail he can cram into a scene. It doesn't so much climax as just come to a sudden halt, but before it does, MacNamara's office is a revolving door staging area for the whole tremendous cast to come charging through — lawyers with papers to sign, a host of clothing salesmen and haberdashers, sign painters, the Count who's also the men's room attendant at a local hotel, a reporter in search of a story who happens to have been a former SS commandant, a trio of MPs looking for the woman who'd been walking around Berlin with "Yankee Go Home" tattooed on her breasts (don't ask), Ingeborg in a trenchcoat and slip, hiding her "goose pimples," and even MacNamara's wife who's fleeing this chaos to return home to Atlanta. The scene just gets progressively more and more cluttered, with more going on in every inch of the frame as Cagney dashes here and there and keeps barking the whole time.

The whole thing is such a wild frenetic mess that it's almost a shame when it all finally comes to a rest. But even after the brief and slowed-down coda, the last memory of the film is definitely its steadily quickening pace and the driving pulse of the "Sabre Dance" underneath it all.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

I couldn't agree more about Cagney. is performance in One Two Three is a masterpeice and shoudl be shown to all actijng studetns -- and everyone who complains that "old movies" are "slow." And enormous hit in its time One Two Three has been largely forgotten today. It's not Wilder at his very best but even second tier Wilder is scaling the very heaghts of cinema compared to the CRAP that's put out today. I love that line you quote as spoken by Pamela Tiffen who's just a delight.

The script of Le chant du styrene is by Raymond Queneau whose most famous work is Zazie dans le metro.

It's written entirely in Alexandrines -- rhymed couplets