Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.

Schlock!

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film: Godard: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

pierrotDear Meg,

I really am trying to write. Actually, the truth is that I haven’t begun writing at all. I have all the materials I need to begin writing, but there’s this present lack of something in me that leads me to a persistent inability not only to finding my words, but also to having real thoughts. Letter writing has failed me, travel has failed me, adventures have failed me, digging up family ghosts have failed me, I’ve tried all these things in the past few weeks and I find myself unable to write like I once could. It’s terrifying. So now I’ve been watching Godard and some opera (I don’t mean just any ol’ opera, I mean un certain opéra) and hoping desperately that forcing myself to write about these things will bring me quickly back to my senses. If nothing else will, then that’s that, I simply am unable to write ever again and I will have to just be ilwriterishly for ever after.

In the meantime I’ve been reading a lot of old reviews regarding works I’ve been involved with—and it seems to me that critics are quite possibly the dullest bunch ever formed by god, and I can only hope that someday a new sort of criticism will emerge, in which the critic will begin under the assumption that the artist knows precisely what he or she

(must I include ‘or she’–or can I just go along with the old rules of grammar in which the masculine gender is attributed to an indeterminate subject? or am I supposed to switch back and forth, like in the science safety videos where all the kids always have names we’ve never heard before? honestly, Meg, sometimes I can’t even lift my pen because I don’t know what to do with my pronouns! How do you deal with this?)

has created, has made every decision with infinite deliberation. That’s how I always tried to approach creative writing classes, in which I’d assume typos to be artistic statements. That’s how critics should be approaching everything—with a reasonable touch of taste, but mostly with confidence in the artist. Full disclosure: I was a critic for a big newspaper for four years, so I can assuredly say that there are few critical sins I did not leave uncommitted. But I suppose the special hell for critics will look very much like a Ben Franklin arts and crafts supply store.

The thing about these films that so agonizes me is how they speak to such vast numbers of people. The memory of France I most wish to rid myself of is of that smiling idiot and his expensive camera and his  adorable ‘I make websites for a living and go camping on weekends’ outfit photographing Brassai’s old apartment building and the Bunuel/Henry Miller/etc etc etc etc cafe beneath it. I want them to speak only to me. When I saw Jules et Jim originally, in the ‘foreign language lab’ I’d sneaked into so I could borrow the film from the French department and watch it wearing rubber headphones on a tiny yellowed television. The brilliance I drew from it was the following: it was made to be a very long and boring film so that at the very end the audience could be shocked by the casual treatment of death and cremation. Last I saw it I found it unspeakably beautiful, it was a whole world. So with Godard, my introduction to him, all on the large screen, was quite similar, looking for his funny sound-effects, his references to other films, his odd usage of the camera for conveying dialogue, his breaking of the rules. I understood that he was making art for its own sake, not for the sake of beauty, not because he might be able to make things new. I once looked at art as something to only be dissected, to be treated like a vial of blood to be separated and analyzed, to eke out cell-counts and percentages and meaning, when the truth of the matter is that George Michael refuses to get himself checked for HIV because he’s afraid of what the results might be—and if we took some of his blood and scientists analyzed it for every possible measurement it could yield, those scientists would find nothing telling of his sweet singing voice. That’s a proper comparison, isn’t it? Because although George Michael’s HIV status won’t change what he’s accomplished as a singer and what he still accomplishes today, his knowing the status could be helpful in prolonging his life and whatever other good that might effect. So perhaps although treating a film like a picky child treats a chicken leg might be useless in terms of understanding its beauty, perhaps it comes in useful when determining its longevity. But I sure hope not.

My great fear is that with age, if I’m finding these films beautiful now, that I someday might end up like that proto-emo kid in American Beauty who videotapes plastic bags blowing in the wind. He can go to hell too, along with everyone who gathers in big groups and lets go of balloons. But besides that, once you reach the point of finding beauty in plastic bags you’ve probably lost all usefulness to humanity. One needs standards. Here’s a standard: Sri Lanka is actually an island, and its political boundaries are not at all shaped like Vietnam.

“You speak to me with words, and I look at you with emotions.”

This is spoken by the woman to the man in a conversation I feel central to one of Godard’s concerns here, which is the failure of communication between men and women.

Briefly: Belmondo runs off with his babysitter, Anna Karina, and the two of them do what everyone does in Godard films. But they do it while being criminals and committing many crimes it’s difficult to slight them for, also Belmondo gets water-boarded twice without the camera cutting away from him

(which, if you’re counting, means that the actor Belmondo was water-boarded at least as many times as was once claimed of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)–

but what’s most important is that the two of them run away together and there’s never really any motive established except their love for one another (ultimately questionable) and an equally fierce longing for romanticism in life. Do you know what a Carioca is? A native of Rio de Janeiro. Can you imagine how different things would be if  Columbus had thought he’d landed at Rio de Janeiro, and then he’d call everyone Cariocans. It’d be such a mess. Belmondo finds himself at peace when they live by the sea, quite romantic, he reads and writes, she says “I don’t give a damn about books” and declares herself quite bored. By the time they lose each other in a brief accident involving murder, dancing, and water-boarding, I’m led to believe that she didn’t want to stick around, and when they find each other again, I don’t entirely believe in her love anymore.

The problem is that I identify with both of them. How many times a day do I not give a damn about art before rushing and clutching its limp bodies off the floor to cover them with kisses?  I think if anyone else I know identifies, you do, because I’ve seen you take both sides. Is that everyone’s eternal struggle?  I don’t quite know what it is to be a man or to be a woman. I don’t know if I speak with words or with emotions, I don’t know if I look with words or with emotions. I’m afraid I’m quite changeable. What is certain, regardless, is that both their dreams I love instantly—and even their violent ends seem terribly merciful of Godard, because it would be much worse to led them languish in a courtroom.

But to the point: how should I be taking this film? intellectually or emotionally? All the essays in the world don’t change the fact that Brecht consistently found factory workers easily comprehending his plays while intellectuals got it wrong, and got it wrong, and got it wrong. They didn’t begin writing the screenplay for this until the day before shooting began. Yet some assert that every film of Godard’s deserves a book to dissect it. Does it? Or is that too simple and insulting? Is it supposed to be experienced and sensed, or is it supposed to be turned into words? is it supposed to be felt or reduced to concepts? is it meant for everyone or is it only for wealthy undergrads? What does it show me to be attainable in life? What’s most attractive and what’s worth sacrificing? Have I learned anything about myself? I hope so.

Could I have written this better? Absolutely? Could I have? No. I’ve totally failed.

For this I also read Review: [untitled], by Michael Klein. Film Quarterly. 1966. University of California Press, which was a bunch of shit, as most everything ever written about film is apt to be.

In the next thing I write I’ll be writing about Une Femme est une Femme—and I’ll write about the people who don’t deserve to enjoy French new wave cinema and why.

film: Huston: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The-Maltese-FalconIf you didn’t know, I studied film during my first year in college, and finding myself, after one year, too emotionally unstable to continue its pursuit, I switched to studying something else. I didn’t watch another film until 2007–and this was it. Watching it, I suddenly understood many things I hadn’t as an artsy film student trying to “get” Godard’s À bout de souffle, and so I decided I’d watch the classics so I could understand French New Wave. And then I figured, well, I might as well just take things from the beginning since the popular medium began less than a century ago, and that explains why I’m watching all these silents. It’s not because I have a passion for silent film…I’m actually more fond of Bergman and Godard. So…here we have the beginnings of this project.

Okay, so now I’ve seen the whole film. Though not necessarily in the correct order, I’ve seen it, and I’ve begun to pick up on what the defining traits of Sam Spade are–though, if I mean Humphrey Bogart, then I will know after having seen Casablanca. I was prepared this time around to not understand the characters because they speak too quickly, so I kept subtitles on, and I had the pleasure of being able to rewind and watch bits multiple times (Sam Spade pulls the guy’s jacket down over his arms, and grabs the guns from his pocket–how’d he do that?) Now I’ve seen detective films from three different decades: Fantomas, in which Juve doesn’t really have much charisma, so we find ourselves cheering for Fantomas, as heartless as he is, just hoping that his victims will end up alright as often as possible. Nick Charles [The Thin Man], he’s got the charisma, and he’s got the smarts. Juve tends to have things go smoothly, Nick Charles would take a smooth ending and find a reason why it’s entirely wrong, and sneak off to make things more exciting. But for all his quips, and however quick he is in punching out his wife when he determines she’s in the line of fire of the gun he’s about to provoke, he’s still drunk for the whole movie, and always seems but hairs breadth away from being badly damaged. But Sam Spade, he seems like he invented smart one-liners, and he’s so easy with them that he condemns others for using them poorly. Everyone’s against him, and he himself is fallible and a bit immoral, coldly working for money and sex, threatening and extorting and earning our support all the while. He reads people, he reads situations, and one wonders if he’s acting, ever. So, now it’s clear where Godard builds his Michel–who uses Bogart’s character to no good, and begs the question, is there a normative morality? One character modeled on the other, yet with tragic results, despite romantic plots. Perhaps that’s the division between Hollywood and Godard, or of movies and life, or an observation that Sam Spade is only himself when in his home environment, when he knows the tricks of getting through locked buildings and the DA’s by name. Would Sam Spade kill a cop? Perhaps, but he wouldn’t hide afterwards.

film: Pastrone: Cabiria (1914)

“Two hour silent Italian film” sounds frightening. So I’ve been hesitant to watch it, despite knowing its importance in the film world. But tonight I watched it, and was surprised to enjoy it very well. It moved along quickly enough, though the plot seemed bogged down with excessive motivations and plots. I think I possess a better ability to see these films in context than my parents, for I didn’t seem to be amazed or laughing with them, I found the special effects excellent, I found the caricature expressiveness reminiscent of stage acting, and the epic nature rivals any great epic I’ve known, its great sets, trained elephants and tigers, and above all the temple of Moloch and the ceremony of child sacrifice. Knowing its influence will be clear when I begin watching Griffith’s films, I also know that I cannot recognize the extent of the influence without watching its predecessors–but how far back can one possibly begin? I watch this to understand Griffith, to understand everything after, and finally to understand Godard. So it goes.

13 April 2007