Wednesday, October 10, 2007

10/10: Godard shorts; The Night of the Hunter

Jean-Luc Godard is certainly the one director whose work I keep returning to most often, and whose films are continually rewarding no matter how many times I may watch them. And there is no work of his that I return to more often, or get more out of, than his 15-minute short De l'origine du XXIe siècle (Origins of the 21st Century). This compact but powerful work is Godard's condensation of world history, from 1900 to 1990, into a stream of images from both cinema and newsreels (the latter mostly of war, which is for Godard the defining characteristic of our common history). Everywhere in Godard's oeuvre he has been concerned with history and war and the place of film in both, but nowhere else has he so concisely and poignantly summed up these concerns.

The film is a masterpiece of montage, both visually and in terms of audio, as the opening amply demonstrates. The film opens with a color-saturated video image of a country road, with a man playing a violin in the center of it, and an operatic aria playing on the soundtrack. Then the music abruptly cuts off, a woman screams, bombs go off, and Godard cuts to an utterly unforgettable, haunting shot of a refugee bus slowly gliding through the darkness. The soundtrack completely cuts off here, giving the bus an eerie quiet in which to carry its sad cargo into black. From there, Godard begins counting down the 20th Century, starting in 1990 and progressing in 15 year increments. As he counts down, he flashes the year on the screen in one of his usual intertitles, then assembles a complex montage of what he presumably believes to be representative images for that year. This is a history of the 20th Century in terms of death, war, and cinema — tellingly, it is only in film clips that Godard allows any hope or pleasant imagery to appear. At one point, he quotes the famous image of a child riding a tricycle from Kubrick's The Shining, blending it together with an image of a jeep full of refugees, with a young child bundled up in the back. The two images fit together remarkably well in terms of their unified sense of motion, but the contrast between them lies in the sense of freedom and childhood in the filmic image, whereas the refugee child is passive, a passenger in its own life rather than the driver.

This is just one tiny example of the rich levels of commentary working throughout Godard's short film. He repeats the idea — first articulated long before, in Alphaville — that the State is the opposite of love, and for Godard love is primarily a cinematic love, a love of images. It is in this sense that he most convincingly puts forward cinema as an opposing force to the cruelty and destruction that are everywhere apparent in this film. But in other ways, he is suspicious of cinema, allowing its images to blend in with the newsreel documentaries so that fiction and reality become indistinguishable. This too, he seems to be saying, is a legacy of cinema, a darker legacy, the legacy of forgetfulness and ignorance of the world outside. And there is no more powerful cure for such ignorance than a few minutes spent with Godard's powerful, thought-provoking essay-film.

Je vous salue, Sarajevo is even more concise, weighing in at just 2 minutes long, and its purpose is singular and extraordinarily focused. The whole of the film consists of a single photographic image from Sarajevo, which Godard at first presents only in segments, only showing the full photo at the very end of the short. The voiceover advances the idea of an opposition between art and culture. The latter, Godard says, is everywhere, and consists of the bland and meaningless ephemera of society: television, tourism, fashion. Art, for Godard, is comparatively rare, and he names a few practitioners of it in each medium (in film, Antonioni and Vigo). The film advances the idea, supported by the single image that makes up its visual component, that art is linked with living, with the plight of people in sites of ethnic cleansing like the Balkans. The culture, the monolithic commercial emptiness that surrounds us all, is the opposite of life; European culture allowed the atrocities of Sarajevo, while European art might provide a response, a solution, an idea about the atrocities. The photo, when it is finally seen in full, turns out to be a soldier poised above some refugees who are lying on the ground; he is about to brutally kick them. Nearby, two other soldiers walk by without even looking. In the course of the film's brief few minutes, Godard dissects this photo, focusing in on its details in an attempt to understand it. He zooms in on the faces of the two disinterested soldiers, who ignore the brutality going on just a few feet away. He zooms in on a rifle, a symbol of power and violence. He points out the cigarette in the hand of the kicking soldier. This is a very short film, but in this small timeframe Godard is able to craft an interesting examination of an incident of violence and its links to the world that surrounds it and created it.

The Night of the Hunter is one of those strange, creepy, ineffable films that always lingers with me long after I've seen it. Revisiting it, I always get sucked in once again by its utterly unique atmosphere, and discomfited all over again by its unexpected tonal shifts. In actor Charles Laughton's one directorial turn, he ably blends elements of film noir, horror, fairy tales, and religious allegory into one of the most unique films ever to come out of Hollywood. Robert Mitchum is uncanny as the evil preacher Harry Powell, who travels the country looking for widows to rob and murder so he can continue preaching "God's word." Mitchum is a true terror, mostly because on the exterior he seems like such a good fit for the chirpy, apple-pie-and-church-meetings small-town community he finds himself in. When he arrives, looking for the widow of a man he met in prison, in search of the $10,000 he believes she has, the town embraces him as a true man of God and eagerly sets about getting him hitched to the young widow (Shelley Winters). This is a terrifying role for Mitchum, who inhabits his crazed preacher with a mix of creepiness and lunacy, exuding oily charm when he needs it, but otherwise speechifying with a self-righteous smoothness that always conceals a threat.

Mitchum's character is an avatar of Puritanical sexual repression and religious hypocrisy, a theme that Laughton returns to again and again in this film. On the wedding night, Winters goes to Mitchum to join him in bed, and he braids her down as corrupt, telling her that her body is meant only for procreation. Laughton emphasizes Winters' isolation in the bedroom scenes through the design of the room, which is tall and sparsely decorated, and the expressionist lighting that divides it into light and dark. When Mitchum gets up out of bed, he steps up into a shadowy area that bisects his body, turning his upper half black until he switches on a light. Winters is embarrassed, belittled, and when next time we see her it's in a remarkable revival scene where, framed by torches and sweating profusely, she extols an eager crowd to forgo sin as she has. Mitchum's sexual intimidation is frightening enough, but he really dominates in the scenes with the children, who are at the film's core. Indeed, in the second half, after Mitchum murders Winters and the two children escape, the film unexpectedly changes tone and becomes something quite different, a kind of grim fairy tale as viewed through the kids' eyes.

The kids set out on a raft, fleeing Mitchum, and in this segment Laughton amps up the already considerable stylization of the film. At this point, he utterly abandons any pretenses of realism, and embraces the children's point of view. The trip down the river away from Mitchum becomes a fantastical ride through an Edenic wonderland, complete with animals watching the youngsters float by. These animals are the only slightly realistic touch in an otherwise wholly constructed world, where the sets are blatantly cutouts with no physical presence, and the moon is a slice of paper hanging overhead. The no-budget fakeness of these surroundings is enhanced by the stark lighting, which makes the water glisten and sparkle but turns buildings and trees along the water's edge into pure black silhouettes. Even Mitchum, a foreboding presence giving chase, becomes a silhouette, glimpsed in the distance riding a horse and crooning a spiritual song that acquires menace when associated with his character.

In the final segment of the film, the tone shifts again once this fable-esque river odyssey, with its shades of Huck Finn, is completed. In this segment, Lillian Gish shows up as the saving angel who sweeps up the kids into her protective custody, guarding them against Mitchum's steady advance. Just as Mitchum's figure represents an exaggerated evil, so Gish is an exaggerated (and also religious) good. The film's good versus evil theme is epitomized in the scene where Gish sits with a shotgun across her lap, guarding against Mitchum, who sits outside waiting and singing. She sings back over him, drowning him out with her own religious melody, both of them bathed in shadows. It's an archetypical showdown, a collision of two opposing religious views — the sexually repressive, moralist authoritarian versus the loving, nurturing, forgiving realist. This is the central conflict at the heart of Laughton's film, though it's by no means the only theme explored in this unmatched classic. By fearlessly blending genres and even inventing a few of his own, Laughton crafted an enduring masterwork of the American cinema, although perhaps unsurprisingly it was received so poorly at the time that Laughton could never direct another film again. That's a true shame, but at least this film has survived its initial reception and been rightfully elevated to its true place as one of the most original films of its time, or any other time for that matter.


DavidEhrenstein said...

The Night of the Hunteris is quite simply the greatest of all American films and isn't likely to be equaled anytime soon. What you recognize as "fake" in the decor comes off as "real" in the film in terms of the fact that it's all a half-remembered nightmare. Laughton saved all the takes and many years ago Elsa Lanchester gave them to the UCLA film archives. In recent years there have been screenings of the outtakes (about an hour's worth of them), which are quite a revelation in that they show Laughton directing the actors in them. He's the sole of patience with little Sally Jane Bruce who keeps forgetting how to turn and deliver a line in one scene (a difficulty of motor skills for a child her age.) She clearyl adores him and beams when finally managing to please him. In the wedding night scene we see the master shot of Winters before the mirror but she's not there for Mitchum's close-up. Instead it's Laughton who reads the line as Mitchum,laying in bed snpas out his reply Laughton says "OK Mitch, we're still rolling , repeat it read the second part faster than the first," and Mitchum does it just like that. They were in total rapport with one another. Quite a sight to see. I do hope the archive makes a selection of these outtakes available on home video.

Ed Howard said...

Completely agreed, and well-said David. The patent fakeness of the scenery during that raft ride is quite clearly deliberate, and only enhances the film's already considerable air of a nightmarish fairy tale. The first half of the film isn't exactly a model of realism either, but the cutout buildings and paper moon of the second half have a fantastical, theatrical quality that isn't quite as present before that point. It's as though the children have stumbled away from Mitchum and directly into a dream landscape.

One other thing I forgot to mention in the review proper, was the cartoonish aspects of Mitchum's performance, which really struck me this time around. When he's shot by Lillian Gish towards the end, he runs away hooting and wailing and I get the distinct impression that he's "doing" Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. It's kind of disquieting.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's a means of cutting him down to size. Mitchum appaears an overwhelming force of Evil in the fil's first part, but in the second the seemingly slight Gish completely overpowers him.

The film's other force of Evil is Evelyn Varden. She pushes Winters to marry Mitchum and pushes the children to accept him. At the end she's the first to lead the lynch mob.

AJB said...

I love the review Ed, very enlightening. I feel the story of the film's history is just as interesting. I wrote a little about it in my very new blog. I hope you manage to read it.

I'll definitely be returning to yours.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, AJB, that looks like a good article.