On second thoughts, leave it on his shoulders.


Alfredo Garcia rears his ugly head in HAUT BAS FRAGILE.

I started watching a not-entirely-perfect DVD of Jaques Rivette’s 1995 musical-mystery HAUT BAS FRAGILE, and noticed a strange effect. At various points the action would sllloooow doooowwwnn, then abruptlyspeedupagain, as if it had fallen behind and needed to catch up. My first two theories were that (1) the film had been shot on elastic instead of celluloid or (2) Rivette had been possessed by the wandering shade of Zak Snyder.

Then I decided the disc had come from a faulty original of some kind, and while the soundtrack seemed to run at a consistent speed, the picture would periodically lose synch and then snap back into place. It’s not a phenomenon I’ve ever observed before.

Rivette — always the innovator.

Doing my best to ignore the abrupt decelerations and accelerations of the cast, I was then surprised and delighted to find a character called Alfredo Garcia, in tribute to Peckinpah, the master of slomo. It seemed like fate was at work. Then, to my further delight and under the influence of M. Garcia, the plot dovetailed briefly into Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club. Since I’ve nothing better to do (apart from nod to the presence of screen goddess Anna Karina in this elegant and unusual movie), I’ll quote you my favourite bit from the book ~

“You say truly that you are in the dark,” remarked Mr. Malthus with more animation. “Why, my dear sir, this club is the temple of intoxication. If my enfeebled health could support the excitement more often, you may depend upon it I should be more often here. It requires all the sense of duty engendered by a long habit of ill health and careful regimen to keep me from excess in this, which is, I may say, my dissipation. I have tried them all, sir,” he went on, laying his hand on Geraldine’s arm, “all without exception, and I declare to you, upon my honour, there is not one of them that has not been grossly and untruthfully over-rated. People trifle with love. Now, I deny that love is a strong passion. Fear is the strong passion; it is with fear that you must trifle, if you wish to taste the intensest joys of living. Envy me — envy me, sir,” he added with a chuckle. “I am a coward.”


Digital camera goes wonky in presence of wonky DVD playing on TV.

55 Responses to “On second thoughts, leave it on his shoulders.”

  1. Nah, it’s a faulty disc.

    Leave us not forget Rivette’s touchstone for Haut/Bas/Fragile was Stanley Donen’s Give a Girl a Break.

  2. He’s a REALLY good director of dance, and there are all sorts of interesting moments where the blocking of dialogue becomes increasingly stylised, sometimes turning into a dance number and sometimes just hovering there. Shame the movement is distorted on my copy.

    I do think it’s a shame he was so timid about getting into full-blown dance numbers earlier in the film. I think it’s better if you just GO FOR IT. But no doubt there was a shrewd plan of some kind that I just don’t get. It’s not like this is Dancer in the Dark: a film made by idiots for idiots.

  3. Rivette like to utilize traditional modes in ways that cut against the grain. For example in Noroit actual murders are rehearsals for faks theatrical murders. In Haut/Bas/Fragile a musical number sudden;ly looms up “out of nowhere.” See also the night club dance scene in Duelle

    And speaking of music. . .

  4. I have honestly never heard of Leslie Hutchinson until today. Thanks IMMENSELY for that link. That story is just unbelievable. It demans not only a film but a trilogy of films to deal with that scope.

    As you say, it’s beyond sad.

  5. Missed this, but hopefully can catch it online or on that fancy watch-old-stuff function on cable TV.

    I think it was you, David, who told me Rivette modelled his camera blocking in Out1 on Charles Walters’, and that seemed really plausible here.

  6. Thanks Arthur. If Che Guevara can get two movies Hutch deserves at least one.

  7. Rivett’s camera blocking in <i.Out 1 is the Hawks plan americain.

    As for Haut/Bas/Fragiule do seek out a Charles Walters short Spreadin’ the Jam (1945), which is about a rent party and utltizes an apartment set (the entire film is a musical number) precisely the way Rivette does. He obviously saw the Walters film.

    Rivette prefers Walters to Minnelli.

  8. ————————-
    Rivette prefers Walters to Minnelli.

    Really…the director of ”Summer Stock”, ”Easter Parade”, ”Lili” over the genius behind ”Meet Me in St. Louis”, ”The Band Wagon”, ”The Pirate”, ”Gigi”, ”Bells Are Ringing”. Walters musicals are good and fun to watch but Minnelli’s are clearly better.

  9. Here’s an interview where Rivette speaks of his antipathy to Minnelli.

    Clearly Rivette’s ideas about filmmaking changed from the period when he was a critic to the one after he became a director.

    Being a dancer himself Walters worked very closely with his performers and was skilful at arranging dances for singer-actors not known for dancing.

    Here’s “Well Did You Evah?” from High Society — one of Walters’ biggest hits. The film needed a number for Bing and Frank, so Cole Porter borrowed from himself. The number was originally written for DuBarry Was a Lady and performed on Broadway by Betty Grable and. . . .Charles Walters.

    Frank could dance. Bing couldn’t. But Walters makes you feel that he could as he knew how to choreograph movement. This greatly impressed Rivette for obvious reasons.

    Walters worked with from time to time. Freeed called on him to stage “The Night They Invented Champagne” in Gigi. He also staged and choreographed what my generation of gay men refer to as The National Anthem..

  10. That’s a great Rivette interview. I disagree with lots of what he says, and some strikes me as bizarre, but it’s all lucid and passionate.

    If I was bothered about who is or isn’t an auteur, Rivette’s explanation would be the one I’d hold up as the clearest (while disagreeing with some of his judgements).

  11. I feel much the same way. But I’m struck by the passage dealing with his disenchantment with Some Came Running — his feeling that Minnelli wasn’t doing anything with the actors. This is the voice of a director. He knows what actors can do, and how to get them to do it. By his lights Minnelli fails.

    Consider by contrast the major scene in Secret Defense in whcih we see Sandrine Bonnaire take a series fo trains. It sounds simple, and there’s no dialogue. But Rivette makes it clear that in the course of this journey she’s made up her mind to kill Jerzy Radzilowitz. This could have been conveyed though dialogue as a simple piece of information. Rivette through Bonnaire makes it something more.

  12. —————-
    I disagree with lots of what he says, and some strikes me as bizarre, but it’s all lucid and passionate.

    I’d say it’s interesting and provocative, which was the stock in trade of the Cahiers-du-Cinema.

    And Minnelli did work with his actors. Frank Sinatra is nowhere better than he is in ”Some Came Running”, that’s true of all the cast. Arthur Kennedy whose performance makes his character more three-dimensional than he would in other films. Even the girl(who seems to be on dope of some kind) who hangs around Dean Martin is a strong presence as is Martha Hyer. And of course Shirley MacClaine. And then in ”Bells Are Ringing” he got the performance-of-her-life from Judy Holliday and that’s one of the best things ever done by any actress.

    I like ”High Society” a lot, lot more than most and while Walters may have been a great choreographer of musical numbers that doesn’t mean that it’s as well done as the way Minnelli does it, all in one take with intense movement on-thru-off screen.

    It seems like a repeat of the usual argument that Minnelli is a stylist interested in decor and not in the actors. There’s sufficient evidence on-screen to negate that.

  13. It’s a very personal subject, one’s reaction to actors. And Rivette’s point is elusive — he admits the actors are all good in Some Came Running, but doesn’t believe they’re performances communcate with each other or have been stylistically unified into a whole. It’s cogently argued but impossible to prove or disprove. One can certainly disagree.

    I’m sure Minnelli worked with Garland — if one didn’t, it’s unlikely one would get a performance at all. And most Hollywood directors lavished attention on their stars. It was a surprise to learn from a Leslie Phillips interview that someone like Cukor (on Les Girls) ONLY bothered with the stars. At least on that film.

  14. Well in Les Girls the stars are really the only thing on screen. And according to his letters Mr. Cukor really had his hands full with Gene Kelly — who was his usual intimidating, pushy self. He adored Kay Kendall of course (whodoesn’t?) but really didn’t care for Mitzi Gaynor, though she comes through admirably.

    Your points about Rivette’s Minnelli-antipathy are quite well-taken, Arthur. Talking about Walters is more difficult as he’s never “showy” in an obvious way –even in his Esther Williams musicals. He’s close to Hawks in this. A compare/contrast of Easter Parade with The Pirate would prove my point. Minnelli is way out on a stylistic limb with peeudo-Spanish kitsch motifs to which Judy responds by having a nervous breakdown midway through producion. On Easter Parade Judy, and everybody else, is firmly grounded in scene, characters and song and dance. She adored working with Chuck — who loved a good dirty joke — but was ambivalent about Vincente, whose mind always seemed to be elsewhere.

    As for getting a performance out of her, she was quite capable of doing so on her own with directors who were little more than traffic cops. Consider Presenting Lily Mars and <i.Girl Crazy — not to mention the multi-auteur insanity of The Wizard of Oz in which she gives a performance that defines the nature of the cinema. It’s startling intimacy (in grotesque surroundings) amazes to this day.

  15. Sir Leslie Phillips reports, with concern, that the only time he ever heard the expression “Shoot the money,” was on Cukor’s face. Cukor can, I think, be forgiven for using it, but in front of the other actors?

    You’re right, obviously, that when she was well enough Garland could emerge from any movie with flying colours regardless of who was directing.

    That’s quite a crazy performance in long take in Zigfeld Follies!

    I’d say Walters had a capacity for showiness, and I’d point to the Pass the Peace Pipe number in Good News, which I feel like watching today (it’s COLD outside!). Those rocketing camera moves are pure joy.

  16. ——————
    A compare/contrast of Easter Parade with The Pirate would prove my point. Minnelli is way out on a stylistic limb with peeudo-Spanish kitsch motifs to which Judy responds by having a nervous breakdown midway through producion. On Easter Parade Judy, and everybody else, is firmly grounded in scene, characters and song and dance.

    But she’s wonderful in ”The Pirate”, sexy and gorgeous in a way she never was elsewhere. The way she sets the screen alive in her ”Mack The Black” number is astonishing(comparable to Nina Mae MacKinney in ”Hallelujah”). Whereas in ”Easter Parade” she shows great comic timing but nowhere as spectacular as that. And even then Minnelli in ”The Pirate” gave her the gift that was her scene where she gives Gene Kelly his come-uppance(which put the fear-of-God regarding women for me) which is totally hilarious.

    Maybe she was ambivalent about Minnelli because he pushed her harder. She didn’t like doing ”Meet Me in St. Louis” because she felt it was like the usual stuff she was doing but Minnelli managed to convince her to take it seriously. She herself called that one of her favourites.

    Besides she also had problems during ”Summer Stock” because of which the famous number with the top hats was shot months later(making it stick out from the film like a sore thumb). ”Summer Stock” has a great performance from her despite the banal storyline.

    She adored working with Chuck — who loved a good dirty joke — but was ambivalent about Vincente, whose mind always seemed to be elsewhere.

    Film directors often give that impression to actors. It doesn’t mean their minds are elsewhere, on the contrary in fact. And the totally composed nature of Minnelli’s films, where decor, camera and actors are totally integrated shows his mind was in fine order.

  17. ————————
    not to mention the multi-auteur insanity of The Wizard of Oz in which she gives a performance that defines the nature of the cinema

    Well the opening scenes in sepia-tone, which includes ”Somewhere over the Rainbow” was directed by King Vidor. That’s the best part of the film.

  18. Arguably. But what Judy does in that scene continues throughou the movie regardless of who was directing.

    She’s an auteur (Well, DUH!)

  19. I’m not as impressed by the bric-a-brac of The Pirate as you are, Arthur. In fact the only number I really like is the finale-reprise of “Be a Clown.”

    As for her playing in the rest of the film Kay Thompson had a one-word description: “Drug-a-roonies.”

  20. “Pass That Peace Pipe” may look showy on the surface, but it’s as tight as a chorus boy’s butt.

  21. Oh Hell, they took it off You Tube!

  22. Damn. I’ll need to reload it. I thought Fox were the only bastards deleting material, this is a Warners release.

    Well, it’s possible to be tight AND showy. As many a chorus boy’s butt has no doubt demonstrated.

  23. ”The Pirate” always seems to unenthuse many people. I don’t know why because it’s always been one of my favourite musicals. Part of that maybe because I came to musicals later than most. I saw ”The Wizard of Oz” as a kid of course but save for ”Over the Rainbow”, I didn’t like any of the other songs. Maybe it’s because I went into it with low expectations and was totally blown away with it. But the more I see it the more I appreciate it’s greatness and skill. Like how Walter Slezak’s character as a freshly bourgeois ex-pirate is a figure that’s comic but we also like him a lot.

    And I also think it’s a rare example of a genuinely feminist musical in that Judy Garland ends up becoming a travelling player and shares an equality with Gene Kelly that’s absent in any other film and then there’s the fact there’s no mention of them being married in the end.

    And I don’t see it’s MGM Carribean and Spain as being any problem to that. It’s not supposed to be a documentary you know.

  24. Neither was Yolanda and the Thief (a total disaster I have an especial fondness for.)

  25. Minnelli’s stylised world isn’t a problem at all, I think the point was maybe he neglected Garland in favour of the look of the film. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it, must revisit. With the nights drawing in, I feel the urge for colourful musicals.

  26. How can he possibly neglect Judy Garland when A) She was his wife at the time and B) She’s one of the main leads of the film. The entire film, ”The Pirate” is structured around her character and her performance, if Minnelli was interested in the look of the film then he’s merely doing his job as an artist. A film isn’t made by actors alone.

    Judy Garland may have felt neglected but then her condition being what it was, it may not be real neglect. John Cassavetes mentioned that when he made ”A Child Is Waiting”, she wouldn’t leave her dressing room for hours until he stormed in. She mentioned that she didn’t want to leave the room because no one had sent her flowers yet and Cassavetes didn’t know how to react to that. He said that it made him realize how fragile she was. Feeling neglected isn’t the same as being neglected. Actors are highly sensitive and emotional people especially in a world as driven by publicity and show-biz as Hollywood.

  27. Well how Judy may have felt personally is a separate (although related) issue from how she was treated cinematically. The Pirate is well-meaning but decidedly strained attempt at “doing something different.” Judy as a naive penny-dreaful-besotted Spanish maiden living in the West Indies is sheep camp, and it’s obvious from many scenes that she knows it too. Kelly gets to do his super-athletic bit and show some thigh. But he’s best suited to hanging with Judy and the Nicholas Brothers. Walter Sleazak is fine as the villain, but he belings in a different movie, IMO.

    Call me a hopeless square but I prefer The Harvey Girls.

  28. ——————————
    Call me a hopeless square but I prefer The Harvey Girls.

    Well you asked for it…

    as a naive penny-dreaful-besotted Spanish maiden living in the West Indies is sheep camp, and it’s obvious from many scenes that she knows it too.

    Exactly which scenes in particular. ”The Pirate” is an adventure story and I don’t think Minnelli and co. thought otherwise. Certainly not as a period film or anything of that sort. It’s like Pepe le Moko with Judy Garland instead of Jean Gabin. Nobody would say that film is about Algeria or a real take on life at the Casbah or even at that period. So how does that make it campy when the film itself already shows intentional self-awareness.

  29. I can’t referee this one as I don’t know the films well enough. Although I’d say that camp can certainly be self-aware, but when it is, it’s not a pejorative.

    Just watched Good News though — WOW!

  30. I have never, for one reason or another, seen “Harvey Girls” in its entirety. I do, however, adore “The Pirate.”

    I remember joking with someone that tjhe only but of “The Pirate” that didn’t work for me was that one shot of the ocean, presumably filmed in Malibu, that’s inserted into the early scene of Kelly and Garland on the jetty. (“1:05” in the link provided by David E, I discover.) It’s an innocuous enough shot … but it calls upon us to believe that these events take place in the real world, which is in distinct contrast to the rest of the picture.

    My response to the picture is much like that of George Zucco when he ogles Gene Kelly: “You — hoo, hoo! — you *fill* the *eye*!”

  31. That’s “the only bit,” of course.

  32. That’s reminiscent of Sternberg’s opinion of his own Anatahan, filmed almost entirely on the sound stage apart from shots of the ocean. “I wish we could have done the sea in the studio too.” I wonder what he made of Fellini.

  33. “Pass That Peac Pipe” is back on You Tube and all is right with the world.

    Do seeThe Harvey Girls in its entirety Chris, ASAP. I see it as an allegory about the founding of West Hollywood by a troop of determiend cater-waiters.

  34. To chris…Actually the effect is the opposite. The shot of the real ocean makes it look totally fantastic, as if it’s from another planet. You can’t sense that in this clip because it’s ripped from a TCM broadcast but see it on a big screen. Manuela is a romantic for whom the world around is unreal and static while the real world for her is exciting and passionate. That’s what makes it very Minnellian since that was at the heart of Minnelli’s concerns. What is real and what isn’t or whether there is something real after all.

    Sternberg’s crack about the water being too real in ”Anatahan” is bogus. People who see that film forget the one-of-a-kind use of newsreel footage early in the film. About the arrival of soldiers back home. Sternberg, it should be noted said that when his reputation was based on him being an aesthete and stylist and not as a film-maker interested in his characters save for themes concerning S&M and associated kinky stuff. The use of the sets created on that soundstage(the same one where Mizoguchi later shot ”The Life of Oharu”) is to create a world with it’s own reality. Yes ”Anatahan” is a film that is realist. It’s a documentary about human emotions and Sternberg is supremely interested in his characters as the final heartbreaking scenes make clear.

    And to David E., nothing there which doesn’t jive with the tone of the rest of the film. Save maybe for Judy’s reaction shots to the waves hitting the rocks which does look as if she’s on a high but the scene that follows is entirely in key.

  35. Admittedly, there are aerial shots of Mount Fuji as the crew fly home in Anatahan. But the airstrip where they land is studio-built with rear projection again, far more unreal than the island they’ve left (especially with the dead characters disembarking from the plane along with the living). The ending feels like a dream!

    Sternberg, perverse to the end, puts forward the notion that he’s disinterested in story and character in his book, while at the same time providing us with autobiographical details that insist upon a reading of his films as being full of personal meaning, where the action and dialogue is loaded with significance. I love that contradiction.

  36. Sternberg was a very pompous man and also very shy. Today people know him as a very arrogant, egotistic man but others, especially Dietrich knew his other side. In Maria Riva’s biography of her mother, there are passages that show a softer side to him. Sternberg could say, “I am Ms. Dietrich” but he could also say “Gary Cooper was the nicest man that I knew!” or praise Borzage to the skies. Sternberg’s tremendous insecurity also led to him using the word “von” as a title. An Austrian Jewish aristocract…has there ever been anything more curious-er? So it ain’t necessarily so that he’d come forward and say that his films are serious and personal.

    The end of ”Anatahan” is about loss and memory. But highly ironic. The mountain on which the film phases loooks like nothing else than the Paramount logo.

  37. The Paramountain! What a lovely thought. So Jo comes home too.

    It’s funny in his book where he tries to explain the “von” by saying a British producer added it to class up his credits, but he can’t explain at all why he chose to keep it.

  38. Maybe he wanted to pass as Stroheim’s son. Spiritually speaking. Von Stroheim began a tradition of fake “vons” right down to Lars von Trier. Von Stroheim pretended to be an Austrian nobleman which fooled most save for Renoir(who mentioned he had to learn German like a schoolboy for ”Grand Illusion”) and Wilder(who said that he spoke German with a lower-class accent). Why couldn’t they be unashamedly bourgeois like Lubitsch is beyond me.

    The only really genuine aristocract great director is Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Italy. Yep, cinema attracts all varieties of oddballs.

  39. Sternberg got the job of semi-mutilating The Wedding March, I think it was. So there was an actual connection.

    Trier came back from his summer break at film school and told everyone to call him “von”. I wonder how many did.

    Not quite the nobility, perhaps, but Don Luis Bunuel was quite high-born, and I’m told that Jesus Franco is the very black sheep of a highly respectable Spanish family. Britain’s Anthony Asquith was a prime minister’s son, the democratic equivalent, I guess. And it seems that Guy Ritchie has aristocratic connections. Terrible thing, in-breeding.

  40. Bunuel’s dad was a wealthy merchant(his business boomed during the Spanish-American war) who nonetheless lived in a poor village at Toledo. So I’d say big fish in a small pond is more apropos. Bunuel had a very bourgeois upbringing(which provided him much first-hand experience for his films). He got into good schools at Madrid(where he was an excellent student).

    Howard Hawks was a kind of American aristorcract, he was very wealthy, very WASP had enough connections to get into Cornell despite having bad grades…but Hollywood being what it was in the 1910’s even he had to start at the bottom as assistant prop-man for C. B. DeMille’s films. Just imagine, Hollywood started of as more democractic and less corrupt than an Ivy League university.

  41. Industry tends to be slightly more meritocratic than university life, since it does actually matter if you can do your job in industry: the business can only support so many son-in-laws.

  42. Whoa, I’m way behind, haven’t seen Haus bas fragile, and don’t know anything about Minnelli or Sternberg or Bunuel’s dad… but I have seen the abrupt slow-down/speed-up sound-out-of-sync effect on a DVD, and it happened when I inexpertly tried to convert a PAL disc to NTSC for a co-worker. Twas John Huston’s THE DEAD, and he told me it ended up looking like one of those late 90’s horror flicks or a TGI Fridays commercial, with all the stupidly-placed speed shifts.

  43. The first shot of Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy is of a plane crashing into a mountain that looks EXACTLY like the Paramount mountain — the logo-image that had just preceeded it.

  44. Probably just as well it happened with The Dead, since there’s very little sudden movement in it.

    Christmas is a good time to get into Minnelli! Sternberg doesn’t really have a season…

  45. Of course the Indiana Jones films have punned with the Paramount logo quite a bit.

  46. Well considering the number of parades and festivals and confetti on display on his films, Sternberg isn’t bad for Christmas. His ”Shanghai Express” is also somewhat Christian(apparently Sternberg was a believer, after WW1, he travelled Europe on a motorbike visiting Churches…maybe for architectural interest…)

    Huston’s ”The Dead”(his very best film) is a great Christmas film. Immensely moving and poignant. The Criterion Collection should put it out, they like literary adaptations and this is the only really film adaptation of Joyce that’s worth talking about.

  47. Agree, The Dead’s a grand film to watch on a quiet evening maybe just AFTER Christmas. You need a peaceful mood.

    I guess Shanghai Express has a Christian side. Marlene’s prayer is mainly effective because it reveals her true character. Can’t see many religious leanings in Sternberg’s other films — despite the piling-up of icons in The Scarlet Empress, it’s a deeply profane piece of work.

  48. I meant that half-heartedly, I am not arguing for religious interpretations of Sternberg. That said there’s the bit in ”Dishonored” where Agent X-27 does a sign of a cross before facing the firing squad. And in ”The Scarlet Empress” which shows the aristocracy and military as venal, the clergy are treated with restraint and respect despite the gags like them anointing the marital bed of Sam Jaffe and Marlene. It’s done with supreme irony though. Then the priest in ”Docks of New York” has a strong presence despite the brief scene.

    Not that I am arguing that Sternberg is Transcendtal or mystical or anything.

  49. I expect that Sternberg uses religion to add flavour to his decadent brews. I don’t remember X-27 crossing herself, but if she does she also puts on lipstick and adjusts her stockings…

    Meanwhile the priest is left holding her cat.

  50. Gremlins is a great Christmas movie.

  51. Yes, almost entirely mean and negative, which is a blessed relief from all that good cheer crap.

    I remember the Harry Alan Towers production of Call of the Wild with Chuck Heston being a good Christmas watch. Great Mario Nascimbene score. He’s underrated, that Mario.

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