Archive for Rene Clair

The Sunday Intertitle: A Story of Industry

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2022 by dcairns

“Never had I known that these mechanical sounds could be arranged to sound so beautiful. I regarded it as one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have heard.” ~ Charles Chaplin on Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM (1930).

The idea that MODERN TIMES is a rip-off of Rene Clair’s A NOUS LA LIBERTE! is absurd, I think. Nobody credits it nowadays, and I feel bad for Clair that he had friends who urged him to sue. I think Chaplin probably saw it and was influenced a little, but apart from both films featuring conveyor belts, there’s nothing in it.

Given that Chaplin had expressed wild enthusiasm for Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM, it’s tempting to suppose that he might have been influenced by THAT film, which deals with Stalin’s (rather successful) initial five-year plan, and is set in the Donbas region of the Ukraine, with which we are now all so sadly familiar. Vertov has for too long been seen as a one-hit wonder, with everyone falling over themselves to praise MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (students tend to enjoy it far more than Eisenstein’s silents) and ignoring everything else. Buy the box set, it’s worth it! ENTHUSIASM shows an experimental approach to sound that perfectly compliments Vertov’s use of picture cutting. It’s a sound movie that eschews dialogue in favour of musical use of real sounds, and one can imagine Chaplin being inspired by this to likewise make a full sound film that still relies on pantomime, not verbiage.

However, we are all beholden to the ideas our minds come up with. Chaplin’s film resembles neither Clair’s (whose formal qualities are strongly influenced by its being a kind of operetta-film) nor Vertov’s (which is about montage, whereas Chaplin is about mise-en-scene, and more than that, performance).

Chaplin does, however, start his film with a montage idea, but it’s far more Eisensteinian than Vertovian: the comparison of workers using a subway with sheep being herded (to the slaughterhouse?). Think Kerensky the mechanical peacock in OCTOBER. Rather than going back and forth to create a visual fugue in which man and machine-bird merge into one idea, Chaplin just shows us sheep and then workers. Because once you’ve told your joke and made your point, you want to move on.

Chaplin continues in a vaguely Russian mode for a few seconds more: the factory, a glass painting and then lovely METROPOLIS-style sets, and the boss, monitoring work via 1936-era CCTV (also a METROPOLIS idea, I think), introduced with a cluster of newspaper-cartoon satirical signifiers: he’s doing a jigsaw, taking a pill (digestion, we presume) and reading the funnies. Tarzan features prominently, though Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers might have been more fitting, given the high-tech moderne settings.

And then the film changes mode completely, handing over the reins to Chaplin the actor, who will be the centre of sympathy and interest, rather than the common herd around him, making this not really a communistic film, because Chaplin can’t really get excited about the collective. His American side comes out in his individualism. Which is good, because it stops MODERN TIMES being a polemic — it’s anti-dehumanisation, but it’s not FOR anything, except Charlie. The human element personified.


Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2021 by dcairns

A weekend double-bill of Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and Fritz Lang’s LILIOM provided food for thought, as well as entertainment and awe.

It feels certain that P&P were familiar with the earlier film, and as a cultured Hungarian, Emeric Pressburger was probably familiar with Ferenc Molnár’s source play. But the fact that Lang ends his film with a closeup of teardrops, which then find their way into Powell’s film, makes me think that the movie was at the back of somebody’s mind.

The concept of bells ringing in heaven also recurs from Lang to the Archers, and the whole idea of the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a very specific concept, seems to have been ported over. True, Molnar & Lang portray the place as a police station — the way the film’s carny antihero (Charles Boyer) might imagine it — and P&P give us something more benign, a kind of anticipation of the welfare state.

“Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience,” says Peter D. Carter (David Niven), when asked about his politics. The Archers were nothing if not High Tory, it pains me to admit (I’m indebted to Andrew Moor, author of Powell & Pressburger, a Cinema of Magic Spaces, for the information that Pressburger was in the habit of sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, even in wartime if memory serves, a detail Moor considered absolutely to absolutely clinch the filmmaker’s arch-Tory tendencies). I imagine, since AMOLAD was originally intended as a propaganda film during the last days of the war, with the intention of demonstrating that the USA and the UK can overcome their differences (“We were all getting along fine,” Powell was told, “until we started winning.”), the filmmakers would have been at least somewhat party to the great secret project, chaired by Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing, to prepare Britain for a Labour government. So the version of the afterlife portrayed, where there are no differences in rank (an enlisted man calls his officer “brother” when he learns this), and where everybody can do the job he likes, might be the film’s fantastical prophecy of Britain’s future. Carter on the afterlife: “I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if only we’d listen to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus, with all our earthly problems solved, but with bigger ones worth the solving.”

We were talking about influences. And not just political ones. I’m struck by the similarities with a work by another writer-director team, Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert, LES VISITEURS DU SOIR. Both films feature emissaries from the afterlife (but in the French film they come from Hell) who can stop time, a fairly distinctive idea. But it’s far from certain that, with the war raging, P&P could have seen P&C’s film. I guess there was just time: France was liberated in autumn 1944, AMOLAD was shot at the end of 1945. How quickly did the backlog of French movies shot during the occupation get seen in Britain? I would imagine not very quickly and not very completely, but Powell would have been greatly interested and he probably would have had better access than just about anyone. So a direct influence seems possible.

If the influence wasn’t direct, then France should still get some credit because the first time-stop/fermata film I can think of is René Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT of 1925, which I’m certain Powell & Pressburger knew. Powell was actually working in movies in France in 1926. And so it seems not chance alone that explains the fact that Conductor 71, P&P’s heavenly emissary, is a Frenchman.

Ten Little Indians and One Little Frenchman

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2021 by dcairns

Rene Clair said that AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was a film which meant nothing to him, was completely impersonal. I quite like Rene Clair but I’d make a poor adherent, because ATTWN is one of my favourites of his work — I like LE MILLION and IT HAPPENED TOMORROW and LE SILENCE EST D’OR and LES BELLE DE NUIT and LA BEAUTE DU DIABLE too. The others I’m OK with, but I wouldn’t get too excited about A NOUS LA LIBERTE, personally.

Funny, I just belatedly blogged about IMPACT, which we had in our little watch party (anyone wanna join?), and then last week we ran this, which is also a Harry M. Popkin Production. One thing about Harry, he favours the starry cast — though more like, colourful character actors than big names. This one has a helluva house party, with Louis Hayward, June Duprez, Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Roland Young, Mischa Auer, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard. It’s really a shame to bump them off one by one, but then, it is anyway, whenever that kind of thing happens.

Maybe Clair’s disengaged attitude led him to unusual flippancy, but his camera goes pushing through outsized keyholes, and a flashback is narrated by one character, leading to a moment of post-prod ventriloquism when his VO syncs to the lip-movements of a previously slaughtered guest…

Dudley Nichols’ witty script also has the chain of characters spying or eavesdropping on one another, eventually looping back on itself, a peeping ouroboros — a gag later originated by Blake Edwards. I can imagine “Blackie” really enjoying this fairly outrageous comedy — maybe my favourite Agatha Christie screen adaptation, along with WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. The rogue’s gallery is fab but so is Louis Hayward, whose arch amusement suggests perhaps he really was responsible for the massacre of natives in East Africa, or was it South Africa (the script is inconsistent on this point)? Not many male leads could have pulled that off in 1945, or would have wished to. Hayward had just gotten back from the war (Pacific theatre), I guess, but shows no trace of the mental scars that would haunt him.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE stars Simon Templar; Princess; Mr. Gogarty; Mr. Scratch; Mr. Cosmo Topper; Boris Callahan; Enobarbus; Mrs. Danvers; Emperor Franz-Josef; and another Princess.