Tuesday, October 9, 2007

10/9: Meetin' WA; Stalag 17

As a follow-up to King Lear, I re-watched Godard's short film Meetin' WA, a very interesting short in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, who appeared briefly to recite a few lines towards the end of Lear. When I first watched this short, I hadn't seen much of Allen's work yet, and my focus was on Godard's distancing techniques, which are at their strangest and most distracting here. Watching it now, it's more successful than I at first thought, and extremely interesting for the way in which these two very different filmmakers keep slipping past each other without ever coming to terms. In Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen speaks briefly about appearing in Godard's Lear, and though he professes to be a great admirer of Godard and thrilled to have worked with him, he seems to have been largely baffled by the whole thing. He says that he never saw the finished film, but his work on it left him with the impression that it was going to be "a very silly film."

To some extent, that impression seems to have been carried over here. Allen frequently looks bemused and mystified by Godard's probing and esoteric questions regarding the influence of television and the processes of editing and filming. When Godard says that certain scenes in Hannah and Her Sisters seem to have been influenced by the rapid pace of TV aesthetics, Allen can only muse, "It's possible, I don't know." With Godard switching back and forth between English and French (with a translator on hand), the language barrier is clearly an issue, but a more profound gulf exists between the filmmakers in terms of their ideas about film and filmmaking. The most obvious example comes early on, when Godard brings up the use of on-screen titles, which Woody had just recently done, at that time, in Hannah and Her Sisters. Woody correctly points out that, while for Godard such titles are a cinematic device, an image to be used in exactly the same way as an image of a person or a place, in Allen's film the titles were purely a literary device, used much like chapter titles in a novel. This distinction sets the tone for the rest of the conversation, in which it becomes obvious that while Allen thinks of writing as the foremost component of film, for Godard the image must always come first. Even their thoughts about the ideas in their films are diametrically opposed. Allen expresses his regret that the finished film has never, for him, quite lived up to his intentions or his original idea; he is always disappointed by the result because the idea is, to his mind, imperfectly expressed. Godard rebuts him by saying that he used to think this way, but that now he is convinced that he can never know the idea of his film until it is finished. This is the collision of two totally opposite perspectives on filmmaking. For Allen, a film expresses an idea or ideas. For Godard, it is much more complicated: the process of making a film is the process of forming and exploring ideas.

This central disjunction keeps the two filmmakers from ever reaching a real rapport, but it doesn't keep Godard's short from being interesting. He captures, to some extent, the frustrations of communication between incompatible minds, and the half-understood exchange of ideas that results. This idea is enhanced by his fragmentary editing and the mixing in of stills from Allen's films (he seems particularly fascinated by Diane Keaton, who he once wanted to play the love interest in his proposed film about Bugsy Siegel). Ultimately, the film doesn't provide any deep insights, but it's a worthwhile curiosity for fans of either director — though, preferably, both directors. Once again, the only way to see it is a rather shady BitTorrent VHS rip, but it's certainly better than nothing, and image quality isn't too crucial here anyway.

Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 is an interesting but not entirely successful film that, as the opening voiceover declares, sets out to be an unconventional war movie, one that looks at the sad fate of POWs rather than heroics on the frontlines. Set in the eponymous German prison camp during WW2, the film centers on a group of American sergeants in one barracks of the camp. After an escape attempt by two prisoners is foiled by the Germans, the soldiers begin to suspect that there's a spy in the camp. They naturally set their sights on Sefton (William Holden), a cynical and hardened GI who openly trades cigarettes and assorted goods with the German guards and his fellow prisoners in order to enrich himself. Sefton's nakedly self-serving ambitions are a stark contrast to his fellow soldiers' gung-ho idealism and sarcastic sparring with the Nazis. He further sets himself apart with some borderline socialistic remarks regarding a lieutenant from a rich family who shows up in the camp. It's subtle, as it had to be at the height of the HUAC hearings, but Sefton is clearly what could be called "class conscious," though ironically his sharp trading is capitalism at its most unrestrained. In this way, the soldiers' immediate identification of Sefton as the traitor — and the subsequent beating he gets — might be seen as a veiled (very veiled) commentary on McCarthy.

On the whole, though, the film strikes an odd and precarious balance between silliness and seriousness, with the silliness largely winning out for the bulk of the film. The soldiers are constantly goofing around in the camp when they're not plotting escape. They spy on the Russian women who are showering at the adjacent camp — a joke that gets way less funny when one stops to think what might really have happened when Nazis, Russian women, and showers were all in one place. They continually joke with the Nazi sergeant who comes around on rounds, and at one point all the soldiers don fake Hitler mustaches and salute their overseer, yelling out "kaput!" and other German phrases. Much of the rest of the humor is more innocuous, largely involving the characters of Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), whose dim-witted patter and slapstick gags are usually funny but never quite gel with the film's more serious side.

Of the major players, the only one who seems to truly grasp the film's duality is Otto Preminger, who turns in a rare acting role as the vicious camp commandant, Colonel von Scherbach. Preminger alone achieves the balance of silliness and toughness that Wilder was reaching for throughout the film. His performance mingles ambitious jealousy (he aspires to have more than a muddy prison camp under his command) with a real sadist streak and a Germanic campiness that makes him a sheer delight to watch even when he's at his most cruel. He tosses off his lines with a guttural snarl that makes even his most mundane pronouncements sound simultaneously threatening and hilarious. In his best scene, while in the midst of interrogating an American officer, Preminger stalks around in full dress gear and no boots, his white socks padding along the floor. When he prepares to receive a call from a higher-up, he puts his boots on so he can click his heels in a good Nazi salute, even over the phone, and takes them off again immediately afterwards. It's a hilarious scene, with all the humor contained in the smallest touches, handled fluidly so that Preminger's ludicrous actions subtly blend into the otherwise straight-faced interrogation.

Preminger's character most fully embodies the film's dual nature, its shaky balance between the ridiculous and the somber. Everyone else seems to be playing in one key or the other, and the film suffers because of it. There are numerous great scenes here, especially the comedic scenes between Animal and Shapiro, and Holden's glowering dramatic performance (for which he, probably rightfully, received a Best Actor Oscar), but the unevenness of the whole picture is fairly unsatisfying. Wilder's larger points about the scapegoating of outsiders and the value of cynicism in a dark world are largely swallowed up by the film's noisy plot and numerous gags. This remains, in spite of its flaws and incomplete feeling, an interesting and worthwhile film from Wilder. Its performances don't all quite fit together, but individually each one is fantastic, and there are some fine set pieces, both comedic and action-packed, to keep the film constantly entertaining.

1 comment:

Filmbo said...

Actually, the whole film in its entirety can be seen via DAILY MOTION or YOUTUBE from a DVD rip. It certainly makes the subtitles easier to read.