1950s, Famous Firsts, Polish cinema, War

A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

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Director: Andrjez Wajda

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

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The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

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Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema, trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

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Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

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Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

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The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

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Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

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It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

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Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo.

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A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

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1980s, Australian cinema, Famous Firsts, Horror/Eerie

Bad Taste (1987)

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Peter Jackson

By Roderick Heath

In the depths of a governmental office, a shadowy bureaucrat, upon hearing a report of an alien invasion, dispatches his operatives from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service (AIDS) to the scene of the landings, a small coastal town called Kaihora (which is Maori for “hungry”). The two agents on the scene, Barry (Pete O’Herne) and Derek (Peter Jackson), contend with the silent, stupid, blue-shirted men hanging around the town who prove to be the predatory aliens. One chases Barry through the deserted village, until Barry pulls out his .44 and blows its head off. Nerdy but ballsy Derek (“Dereks never run!” he declares) has captured another alien and has him safely suspended over a cliff edge with a rope around his ankle. Whilst awaiting the Service’s two muscle men, Ozzy (Terry Porter) and Frank (Mike Minett), nicknamed “The Boys,” Derek worries about an invasion of “extraterrestrial low-lifers” spreading beyond the town and attacking large cities, though he concedes the idea of them exterminating Auckland isn’t too objectionable.

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Soon Barry is being chased by a bunch of the alien goons. Derek fights off a trio of them, only to be hurled off a cliff by his alien prisoner to shatter his skull on the rocks. The Boys try to intercept a relief aid collector named Giles (Craig Smith) who’s due to go door to door in the town, before he gets captured. Giles escapes the town by the skin of his teeth, only to be caught when he seeks refuge at a large colonial house that is now the aliens’ base of operations. He’s left to marinate in a giant pot by the alien leader, Lord Krum (Doug Wren, voice of Peter Vere-Jones). Krum and his goons have landed on Earth in search of new taste sensations for Krum’s galaxywide chain of fast food restaurants, and they’ve slaughtered the whole population of Kaihora for treats that Krum thinks will help him regain the lead in the market: “McYabbalo’s Fried Boobrat won’t know what hit them!” Giles is going to provide their celebratory feast. But they didn’t reckon on the amazing competence of The Boys in comparison to their own amazingly feeble skills (they’re all “third-class workers,” Krum admits), and Derek, his shattered skull strapped back together with his belt, returns to the fray in order to give these intergalactic yahoos a taste of their own menu.

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Bad Taste is an exemplar of a dream that drives aspiring filmmakers the world over: an essentially homemade film made with sweat and duct-tape that displays enough energy and invention to start its director towards Oscar-garlanded triumph and riches. Bad Taste was the product of four years’ incessant, no-budget labour by Jackson and friends from school after work and on weekends, and funds from his day job as a trainee newspaper photographer. The production utilised homemade camera apparatus, including a crane and Steadicam harness; rockets that ran on fishing line; models made of cardboard; and foam-rubber alien masks baked to hardness in Jackson’s mother’s oven. Early sequences were filmed on a hand-cranked camera that allowed shots of no longer than 30 seconds, and most of the sound was added in post-production. As the production dragged on, the proposed storyline changed several times, and the concept stretched from a 20-minute short to a feature. It was finally finished with funding from New Zealand government film boards.

The movie Jackson and his mates patched together was a surprise success at Cannes, and swiftly became a true cult classic for gore and action aficionados. But a sense of proportion ought to be maintained. Bad Taste begins shakily and never quite makes you forget its backyard origins. The acting is largely shocking, the sound often badly post-synchronised, the narrative initially barely coherent, the score tacky, and, though Jackson’s gore-as-hilarity approach is as revivifying as it is in his subsequent, far more polished Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive, 1992), the jerry-built script’s humour is hit and miss. I’m not entirely sure if the film should be lauded for being as successful as it is in light of the distended, penniless production and the constantly altered storyline and script, because the truth is that it barely hangs together.

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And yet it’s a doggedly admirable film in that it’s obviously the work of an original, dedicated, and prodigiously talented creator. The familiar quirks of Jackson’s eye, with his love for wide-angle lenses used up-close to give his action an overlarge immediacy, and his swooping, physically forceful camera motions edited together with surprising sharpness and dexterity, are startling in such a context. It’s very difficult to describe how Jackson uses grotesquery as high comedy, but as skulls erupt, sledgehammers lodge in foreheads, spines are torn out and wriggle, guts are trodden on, and bowls full of green vomit are consumed with relish, it’s hard to stop laughing.

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The first part of the film begins so awkwardly, with its (perhaps deliberately) superfluous prologue and subsequent early scenes lacking an effective internal rhythm, that it threatens to prove a mere slapdash curio. But as the film finds it groove (right about the point when some money was finally injected into the production), it pays off with a lengthy, funny, well-filmed combat between humans and aliens, employing some deftly clever effects, such as those homebake latex masks and some wittily employed model work. The film’s imitation of a rollercoaster-like ideal of action movies is far superior to most action movies. The aliens, once revealed, are not only grossly ugly, but they also amble along like large apes with their swollen shoulders and buttocks jutting out of their clothes.

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Because it’s never even vaguely scary and not really tense either, Bad Taste works best as a comedy, sending up and mimicking a host of other genre entries and adolescent obsessions with a smirk on its face. It’s also a very antipodean piece of work in its way, extracting humour from the low-rent, arse-end-of-the-world vibe of it all. The Boys tear around in their souped-up Ford (“I told ya you should’ve gotten a Holden!” Terry rebukes Ozzy when it breaks down), listening to head-banger music that drives the aliens crazy. Evil alien overlord Krum irritably dismisses the heroes as “wankers” and describes them as a mob of “right arseholes” for killing his workers. The generic riffs are plentiful, from the deflation of macho men Ozzy and Frank, as when Ozzy gives a cigar to a wounded Frank, only to snatch it back when Frank tells him he doesn’t smoke, to the hordes of aliens who, unlike similar movie menageries of disposable Indians or Nazis who prove to be mysteriously bad shots, are easily wasted because of a well-defined lack: they’re too dumb to shoot straight. But the neat, satiric core—that the aliens are intergalactic fast food moguls visiting upon humans the sort of exploitative, consumerist carnage they dish out to other species—is not pursued as anything more than a broad joke.

Which is, by and large, a good thing: Bad Taste’s near-unique pleasure is in its lack of pretension and determination to let its audience in on the fun. The constant barrage of Jackson’s references and sly gags realise an almost MAD Magazine-like air of zany, culturally diverse attentiveness, as if, down at the edge of the world, all the world’s influences become refuse to be remade by the imaginative schlockmeister.

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When Jackson revisited the same style of outrage in Brain Dead, he to a certain extent recycled the approach of his debut, but also perfected it. References to it dot later works, like the hero’s car in The Frighteners (1997) and the look of the leader of the Orcs in The Return of the King (2003). Another consistent career motif Bad Taste revels in is the notion of the scrawny, deceptively nerdy hero winning through, as Derek runs rampant with his chainsaw, finally dispatching Krum in a coup de grace that sees him high dive and lance Krum’s head with the war cry, “Suck my spinning steel, shithead!” When he finally ends up wriggling about within Krum’s hollowed-out body, his head emerging from Krum’s ruptured loins, he cries “I’ve been born again!”—a notion repeated in a more Oedipal consummation in Brain Dead. Jackson, who plays Derek with a degree of amusing competence, also plays the alien Derek has taken prisoner, which leads to the utterly confounding sequence in which Jackson is fighting…himself. Derek is last seen drifting off into space on the spaceship (still in the shape of the house), threatening Krum’s home world: “I’m comin’ to get the rest of yez!” Such could have been Jackson’s warning to Hollywood.

Bad Taste is in very bad taste. I recommend that only people of good taste watch it.

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1960s, Drama, Famous Firsts, Foreign, French cinema

Paris Belongs to Us (1960)

Paris nous appartient

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Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable.

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Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito). Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall.

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Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?

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Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.

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In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill.

The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life. And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole.

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That things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.

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Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.

As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blowup, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.

Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.

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1960s, Drama, Famous Firsts

Famous Firsts: Greetings (1968)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Brian De Palma, writer, editor, and director; Robert de Niro, actor.

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By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma, one of the greatest stylists amongst contemporary American cinematic masters and one of the most misunderstood, made several short and unreleased independent films in the 1960s before finally seeing the light of day with the cult comedy Greetings, based in the common experiences and paranoias of three Greenwich Village hipsters. Although he and his actor friend Robert de Niro had collaborated on The Wedding Party nearly five years earlier, that film was not released until after Greetings, which became the work that announced the actor’s career. Greetings, with its rough, occasionally flaccid technique and amateur-night production values, can be hard to penetrate. Several sequences grind on in shapeless, improvisatory fashion, relying more on the skill of the actors to keep them sustained than on cinematic effect or decent writing. But De Palma’s sensibilities are certainly emergent, except that the guise is that of a satiric comedy, rather than a thriller or war movie, and there’s ingenuity and intelligence in Greetings, qualities that make it crucial to understanding De Palma’s later work.

Greetings%206.jpeg

Greetings is a series of related character vignettes, often announced with episodic title cards, involving three bohemian pals. Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden), who walks into a bar and provokes a fight with the black patrons, and gets the crap knocked out of him. His motive? An unscientific attempt to make himself unfit for his upcoming army physical. His companions Jon Rubin (De Niro) and Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham) advise him on better tactics, suggesting he come on like he’s gay before Jon suggests he use his own tactic: posing as a genocidal right winger. Jon and Lloyd keep Paul awake for days, bombarding him with dirty stories, until the examination to make sure he’s in terrible condition. Paul fails his examination with flying colours and sets about trying to find himself a mate. He signs up with a computer dating service that sets him up with women variously insulting, bonkers, or larcenous, and mostly flat-out horny.

Lloyd is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, and this constantly distracts him from pressing matters (at one point he dresses up a woman he’s made love to in a suit and tie to illustrate, for a rant at the camera, a hole in the Warren Report). Inspired by a conversation with an artist (Richard Hamilton), and having watched Blow-Up (1966) one too many times, he enlarges portions of photos from the assassination scene, perceiving shapeless blotches as rifle-wielding killers. In his job at a book store, he encounters a paranoid man who claims to be Earl Roberts (Peter Maloney), nephew of Lee Harvey Oswald’s boarding-house manager, now believing he is pursued by government agents.

Greetings%205.jpeg

Jon is drawn toward becoming a voyeur, and conceives a form of installation art he calls “peep art.” In the same bookstore, he spies upon a young woman named Linda (Ruth Alda) who shoplifts several volumes. When it seems she’s been caught, Jon dashes to the rescue, paying for what she’s taken. Linda’s so grateful she makes a date with Jon, only to be roped into his project, which is to capture a facsimile of a woman undressing on her own in an apartment. Distracted from a ’Nam vet’s (Richard Landis) account of his time in the service by a drop-dead beauty (Carol Patton) at a party, Jon shadows her about Central Park, but gets caught up talking with a pornographer (Allen Garfield) who pesters him until he buys a dirty movie. Finally, Jon’s own attempt to get out of the draft with a Nazi act is a flop, and he’s shipped off to Vietnam, where he’s still trying to get women to enact his fantasies.

Greetings offers mostly modish student-movie tricks, such as sped-up, silent-movie-like inserts where characters cavort in the streets or have sex, that are a long way from the perceptual and emotive orchestration of his later greater works. Only vaguely present is the emotional kinesis, balanced somewhere between ardour and sadism, that drives his most memorable stories and characters. There are occasional shows of impish technique (such as Paul’s third date, which also purports to be Garfield’s porn reel, “The Delivery Boy and the Bored Housewife”) that aren’t half as dynamic or poetic as those employed in Martin Scorsese’s equally rough-and-ready Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967). It sits apart from other early works of De Palma’s Movie Brat generation that take in similar settings and ideas. It’s not, like Who’s That Knocking a vivid work by a tyro trying to capture elusive psychological moods and ethnic specifics, or a flashy piece of attention-seeking pop, like Francis Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1967). Nor does it have the lyricism and scope of Arthur Penn’s draft-dodger epic, Alice’s Restaurant or the urgency of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969).

Greetings%204.jpeg

To be fair, Greetings’ budget was rock bottom, even lower than Penn’s and Coppola’s films. It is a counterculture document, but in a ground-level, distracted, self-critical fashion, attentive to the sights and sounds of its era, yet more caught up in analysing new habits in perceiving the world. It’s also a cinephile’s work that bears relation, in a way, to the films of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, with its three heroes as screwball foils interacting with a specific environment, surviving, and contending with the forces that assail them. Nonetheless, the film does have a specific political and social idea to communicate. It’s not found in scenes such as when Lloyd encounters a zealous radical magazine seller, or in the draft-dodging hijinks. Lloyd’s paranoia, Jon’s fetishist interest in realising voyeuristic fantasies, and the way these tendencies cross-pollinate in efforts to capture the obscured truth on film reveal the leitmotifs of De Palma’s career. It’s easy, for instance, to point to Lloyd’s constant citation of Blow-Up and his general obsession with assassination and political skulduggery and note that both inspired Blow Out (1981).

Greetings%202.jpeg

Several sequences, like the opening credits in which the camera follows Paul in his search for a place to get beaten up or when Lloyd is mysteriously assassinated and tumbles down the ramp of a modern edifice, evoke De Palma’s later propensity for using long, intricate interactions with physical environments to set his story in play. The most notable example is the bookstore scene, in which two different storylines and five different characters’ disparate actions are observed in relationship. Hanging out, absorbing, theorising, girl-watching—De Palma admitted his adolescent habit of frequenting art galleries trying to pick up girls inspired the epic opening of Dressed to Kill (1980) as much or more than Hitchcockian film theory—are the major activities of his heroes, and these reflexive pursuits also infuse De Palma’s work. Jon’s sighting of Linda between a rack of books both celebrates ordinary male ogling and fuses it with a fascination with her criminality and Jon’s morally ambiguous complicity (Jon uses the leverage he gets over Linda in her gratitude for saving her) that entwines a power game with the act of watching.

Greetings%203.jpeg

If in thrillers like Dressed to Kill, Body Double (1984), or Femme Fatale (2002), he found a way to explore the same elements in a way that entertained audiences, even at his most apparently frivolous, De Palma remained a political filmmaker. His occasional return to the material and feel of Greetings (even his most recent film, Redacted [2007], is, in many ways, a return to the guerrilla aesthetics and radical perspective of his debut) confirm this. In De Palma, things always have to be looked at twice, at the least because nothing is ever found at first glance. It’s a theory Lloyd, in a comic fashion, lives and dies by. When he has the photos of the grassy knoll enlarged, the girl who does this for him dismisses the images she perceives as white blotches, but he insists they contain meaning: his blackly amusing fate seems to confirm that he was right.

This motif of the witnessed, the unperceived, and the gulf between the two, correlates constantly to the done and the undone, the action and the failure to act. Hence Jon’s growing obsession with voyeurism both provides him with a way of watching, controlling, and using the world, and also confirms a curious impotence in dealing with that world. Early in the film, the men’s fixation causes them not to notice when the girl Paul has just made resentfully steals stuff from them and then walks out.

Greetings%207.jpeg

The film’s two most crucial sequences involve Jon’s fixations on women. In the first, he prods Linda into taking part in one of his “peep art” projects in a sequence shot entirely from the perspective of someone watching her undress on her bed through a window. The window becomes the movie screen, and the slow strip both fulfills and excoriates the erotic fantasy; the constant dialogue between Linda and Jon evokes a strangely fraught game between the watcher and watched, male and female, audience and act, as Linda and Jon’s differing agendas fuse to come to the desired result. In the end, Jon steps through the frame and joins Linda on the bed, shattering and consummating the dirty dream all at once.

That this has political relevance, and is not merely a semantic spin on movie watching, is revealed in the “episode” “Two Ways of Looking at Vietnam.” De Palma presents at several junctures in the film footage of people on television talking about the war. When he juxtaposes one such safely boxed, edited experience with the veteran’s bizarre anecdotes, De Palma employs a specific cinematic touch, as the camera representing listening Jon’s perspective, removes focus from the vet and fixes on the blonde roaming through the party: Jon will swiftly leave behind the vet and the party to rejoice in the sheer act of watching her. Jon’s taking his eye off the ball, as it were, renders him vulnerable, but his desire is all-eclipsing. This gets him no further than ending up with a dirty movie reel in hand.

In both halves of the episode, the omnipresent, grim fact of the war is obscured by modes of perception. Jon’s transformation into a filmmaker and a peeping tom confirms both his involvement and impotence in worldly affairs. He finally gains sexual satisfaction with the woman he asks to take a picture for a false passport (so he can escape the draft), but misses his chance to escape. When we last see him, he is a GI in the field being interviewed on TV, captured both by the box and the war on it, lost in his very own fantasy world, still trying to put it over, this time on Vietnamese farmer girls. In contrast, Lloyd’s obsession sees him constantly shattering the fourth wall and then literally annihilated by his fantasy. It’s finally a kind of solipsism that De Palma detects and unravels in these men, a solipsism as destructive as the variety LBJ reveals in his TV broadcasts.

Greetings%209.jpeg

The cast is uniformly effective, including the great Garfield, future “Bud T. Chud” Graham, and Warden, who, oddly enough, never made another film. But it’s De Niro who eventually made the splash. That De Niro plays the weird, but important Jon and not the lovelorn Paul or obsessive Lloyd, both pays tribute to his obvious talent and also seems to undercut his definite star quality and voluble capacities. It’s De Niro’s tautly self-contained quality that is rare and interesting; even when simply engaged in reading a book, he projects intelligence and character. Free of any Method twitchiness, he nevertheless anticipates his casting as Travis Bickle, an even more dissociated, obsessive, porn-fixated outsider and Vietnam vet than Jon—a reminder, indeed, that De Palma would continue the adventures of Jon as a returning, even more warped veteran in a sequel, Hi Mom! (1970), and would then work on developing Taxi Driver as a project.

Grade
Famous%20Firsts%20Promising.GIFPromising

Standard
1960s, Drama, Famous Firsts

Greetings (1968)

Greetings%201.jpeg

Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma, one of the greatest stylists amongst contemporary American cinematic masters and one of the most misunderstood, made several short and unreleased independent films in the 1960s before finally seeing the light of day with the cult comedy Greetings, based in the common experiences and paranoias of three Greenwich Village hipsters. Although he and his actor friend Robert de Niro had collaborated on The Wedding Party nearly five years earlier, that film was not released until after Greetings, which became the work that announced the actor’s career. Greetings, with its rough, occasionally flaccid technique and amateur-night production values, can be hard to penetrate. Several sequences grind on in shapeless, improvisatory fashion, relying more on the skill of the actors to keep them sustained than on cinematic effect or decent writing. But De Palma’s sensibilities are certainly emergent, except that the guise is that of a satiric comedy, rather than a thriller or war movie, and there’s ingenuity and intelligence in Greetings, qualities that make it crucial to understanding De Palma’s later work.

Greetings%206.jpeg

Greetings is a series of related character vignettes, often announced with episodic title cards, involving three bohemian pals. Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden), who walks into a bar and provokes a fight with the black patrons, and gets the crap knocked out of him. His motive? An unscientific attempt to make himself unfit for his upcoming army physical. His companions Jon Rubin (De Niro) and Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham) advise him on better tactics, suggesting he come on like he’s gay before Jon suggests he use his own tactic: posing as a genocidal right winger. Jon and Lloyd keep Paul awake for days, bombarding him with dirty stories, until the examination to make sure he’s in terrible condition. Paul fails his examination with flying colours and sets about trying to find himself a mate. He signs up with a computer dating service that sets him up with women variously insulting, bonkers, or larcenous, and mostly flat-out horny.

Lloyd is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, and this constantly distracts him from pressing matters (at one point he dresses up a woman he’s made love to in a suit and tie to illustrate, for a rant at the camera, a hole in the Warren Report). Inspired by a conversation with an artist (Richard Hamilton), and having watched Blow-Up (1966) one too many times, he enlarges portions of photos from the assassination scene, perceiving shapeless blotches as rifle-wielding killers. In his job at a book store, he encounters a paranoid man who claims to be Earl Roberts (Peter Maloney), nephew of Lee Harvey Oswald’s boarding-house manager, now believing he is pursued by government agents.

Greetings%205.jpeg

Jon is drawn toward becoming a voyeur, and conceives a form of installation art he calls “peep art.” In the same bookstore, he spies upon a young woman named Linda (Ruth Alda) who shoplifts several volumes. When it seems she’s been caught, Jon dashes to the rescue, paying for what she’s taken. Linda’s so grateful she makes a date with Jon, only to be roped into his project, which is to capture a facsimile of a woman undressing on her own in an apartment. Distracted from a ’Nam vet’s (Richard Landis) account of his time in the service by a drop-dead beauty (Carol Patton) at a party, Jon shadows her about Central Park, but gets caught up talking with a pornographer (Allen Garfield) who pesters him until he buys a dirty movie. Finally, Jon’s own attempt to get out of the draft with a Nazi act is a flop, and he’s shipped off to Vietnam, where he’s still trying to get women to enact his fantasies.

Greetings offers mostly modish student-movie tricks, such as sped-up, silent-movie-like inserts where characters cavort in the streets or have sex, that are a long way from the perceptual and emotive orchestration of his later greater works. Only vaguely present is the emotional kinesis, balanced somewhere between ardour and sadism, that drives his most memorable stories and characters. There are occasional shows of impish technique (such as Paul’s third date, which also purports to be Garfield’s porn reel, “The Delivery Boy and the Bored Housewife”) that aren’t half as dynamic or poetic as those employed in Martin Scorsese’s equally rough-and-ready Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967). It sits apart from other early works of De Palma’s Movie Brat generation that take in similar settings and ideas. It’s not, like Who’s That Knocking a vivid work by a tyro trying to capture elusive psychological moods and ethnic specifics, or a flashy piece of attention-seeking pop, like Francis Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1967). Nor does it have the lyricism and scope of Arthur Penn’s draft-dodger epic, Alice’s Restaurant or the urgency of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969).

Greetings%204.jpeg

To be fair, Greetings’ budget was rock bottom, even lower than Penn’s and Coppola’s films. It is a counterculture document, but in a ground-level, distracted, self-critical fashion, attentive to the sights and sounds of its era, yet more caught up in analysing new habits in perceiving the world. It’s also a cinephile’s work that bears relation, in a way, to the films of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, with its three heroes as screwball foils interacting with a specific environment, surviving, and contending with the forces that assail them. Nonetheless, the film does have a specific political and social idea to communicate. It’s not found in scenes such as when Lloyd encounters a zealous radical magazine seller, or in the draft-dodging hijinks. Lloyd’s paranoia, Jon’s fetishist interest in realising voyeuristic fantasies, and the way these tendencies cross-pollinate in efforts to capture the obscured truth on film reveal the leitmotifs of De Palma’s career. It’s easy, for instance, to point to Lloyd’s constant citation of Blow-Up and his general obsession with assassination and political skulduggery and note that both inspired Blow Out (1981).

Greetings%202.jpeg

Several sequences, like the opening credits in which the camera follows Paul in his search for a place to get beaten up or when Lloyd is mysteriously assassinated and tumbles down the ramp of a modern edifice, evoke De Palma’s later propensity for using long, intricate interactions with physical environments to set his story in play. The most notable example is the bookstore scene, in which two different storylines and five different characters’ disparate actions are observed in relationship. Hanging out, absorbing, theorising, girl-watching—De Palma admitted his adolescent habit of frequenting art galleries trying to pick up girls inspired the epic opening of Dressed to Kill (1980) as much or more than Hitchcockian film theory—are the major activities of his heroes, and these reflexive pursuits also infuse De Palma’s work. Jon’s sighting of Linda between a rack of books both celebrates ordinary male ogling and fuses it with a fascination with her criminality and Jon’s morally ambiguous complicity (Jon uses the leverage he gets over Linda in her gratitude for saving her) that entwines a power game with the act of watching.

Greetings%203.jpeg

If in thrillers like Dressed to Kill, Body Double (1984), or Femme Fatale (2002), he found a way to explore the same elements in a way that entertained audiences, even at his most apparently frivolous, De Palma remained a political filmmaker. His occasional return to the material and feel of Greetings (even his most recent film, Redacted [2007], is, in many ways, a return to the guerrilla aesthetics and radical perspective of his debut) confirm this. In De Palma, things always have to be looked at twice, at the least because nothing is ever found at first glance. It’s a theory Lloyd, in a comic fashion, lives and dies by. When he has the photos of the grassy knoll enlarged, the girl who does this for him dismisses the images she perceives as white blotches, but he insists they contain meaning: his blackly amusing fate seems to confirm that he was right.

This motif of the witnessed, the unperceived, and the gulf between the two, correlates constantly to the done and the undone, the action and the failure to act. Hence Jon’s growing obsession with voyeurism both provides him with a way of watching, controlling, and using the world, and also confirms a curious impotence in dealing with that world. Early in the film, the men’s fixation causes them not to notice when the girl Paul has just made resentfully steals stuff from them and then walks out.

Greetings%207.jpeg

The film’s two most crucial sequences involve Jon’s fixations on women. In the first, he prods Linda into taking part in one of his “peep art” projects in a sequence shot entirely from the perspective of someone watching her undress on her bed through a window. The window becomes the movie screen, and the slow strip both fulfills and excoriates the erotic fantasy; the constant dialogue between Linda and Jon evokes a strangely fraught game between the watcher and watched, male and female, audience and act, as Linda and Jon’s differing agendas fuse to come to the desired result. In the end, Jon steps through the frame and joins Linda on the bed, shattering and consummating the dirty dream all at once.

That this has political relevance, and is not merely a semantic spin on movie watching, is revealed in the “episode” “Two Ways of Looking at Vietnam.” De Palma presents at several junctures in the film footage of people on television talking about the war. When he juxtaposes one such safely boxed, edited experience with the veteran’s bizarre anecdotes, De Palma employs a specific cinematic touch, as the camera representing listening Jon’s perspective, removes focus from the vet and fixes on the blonde roaming through the party: Jon will swiftly leave behind the vet and the party to rejoice in the sheer act of watching her. Jon’s taking his eye off the ball, as it were, renders him vulnerable, but his desire is all-eclipsing. This gets him no further than ending up with a dirty movie reel in hand.

In both halves of the episode, the omnipresent, grim fact of the war is obscured by modes of perception. Jon’s transformation into a filmmaker and a peeping tom confirms both his involvement and impotence in worldly affairs. He finally gains sexual satisfaction with the woman he asks to take a picture for a false passport (so he can escape the draft), but misses his chance to escape. When we last see him, he is a GI in the field being interviewed on TV, captured both by the box and the war on it, lost in his very own fantasy world, still trying to put it over, this time on Vietnamese farmer girls. In contrast, Lloyd’s obsession sees him constantly shattering the fourth wall and then literally annihilated by his fantasy. It’s finally a kind of solipsism that De Palma detects and unravels in these men, a solipsism as destructive as the variety LBJ reveals in his TV broadcasts.

Greetings%209.jpeg

The cast is uniformly effective, including the great Garfield, future “Bud T. Chud” Graham, and Warden, who, oddly enough, never made another film. But it’s De Niro who eventually made the splash. That De Niro plays the weird, but important Jon and not the lovelorn Paul or obsessive Lloyd, both pays tribute to his obvious talent and also seems to undercut his definite star quality and voluble capacities. It’s De Niro’s tautly self-contained quality that is rare and interesting; even when simply engaged in reading a book, he projects intelligence and character. Free of any Method twitchiness, he nevertheless anticipates his casting as Travis Bickle, an even more dissociated, obsessive, porn-fixated outsider and Vietnam vet than Jon—a reminder, indeed, that De Palma would continue the adventures of Jon as a returning, even more warped veteran in a sequel, Hi Mom! (1970), and would then work on developing Taxi Driver (1976) as a project.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, British cinema, Espionage, Famous Firsts

Dr. No (1962)

Dr%20No%208.jpg

Director: Terence Young

By Roderick Heath

Dr. No was more than just the first entry in a successful film series: it came at a point when a new type of pop culture was colonising the cinema screen. From Maurice Binder’s dazzling credits and John Barry and Orchestra’s spidery rendition of Monty Norman’s theme, through to the tightly choreographed action, the softcore Playboy-style posings of luscious females, and its hero’s trademarks and traits, whole movies became familiar, repetitive, even iconographic. Dr. No was pitched as a work of aggressively contemporary stylisation. It had been preceded by the Hammer horror films, which, like the Bond films, took stale genre yarns and glossed them with a fresh paint of sex, violence, and a deliberately gaudy style based in previously unfashionable forms, like comic books and serials.

It’s still easy to feel the sheer vibrant force that gripped imaginations right from Dr. No’s opening credits. After the famous gun barrel opening depicts Bond as a silhouette, both anonymous and iconic, Norman’s music and Binder’s visuals entwine in an audio-visual frenzy, the titles and background visuals dancing to the music, giving way to literal, rotoscoped dancers, and then to the “three blind mice” stalking their way through the streets of Kingston, pursued by their own theme song. The substance of the film is infused with a musical quality, and the narrative that follows leaves behind any sense of psychological or political substance for a tale that reinvents the term “melodrama.”

Dr%20No%20paperback.jpgWhen, in the early 1950s, former naval intelligence officer, Lt. Ian Fleming, began to write a fast-paced, pulpy, adventure novel, his chief ambition was to earn some extra dough to support his new wife, who subsequently referred to his scribblings as “Ian’s pornography.” That novel, Casino Royale (1953), was liberally adapted from some of his wartime experiences, and like the best of his subsequent series, it was a curious melding of tactile realism and sheer fantasy, the humdrum and the ludicrous. Fleming’s influences were patent: Bulldog Drummond, the prewar version of the wop-bashing gentleman-roughneck, with dashes of Richard Hannay and Philip Marlowe, some Somerset Maugham for the more serious inflections, and, in Dr. No, the sixth book in the series, a nod to Sax Rohmer, creator of überfiend Fu Manchu. If you watch wartime British films like Secret Mission (1942) and The Adventures of Tartu (1943), you can see the Bond formula was transferred from them virtually intact. Fleming’s books, then, with their winking character names and cheeky narrative quotes, were close to being pop art already, but they also had a quality of taciturn melancholy and disillusioned professionalism that writers like John Le Carré and Len Deighton would make the dominant keys to their spy yarns.

Fleming’s creation lived in the contemporary world, but he was looking back to the blood-and-thunder tropes of his youth, the ambitions of his manhood, and an ethic that began vanishing even as his species of male called itself the winners of World War II. Bond, his hero, considered his most precious possession to be his 1932 Bentley; he likewise held onto his prewar ideals whilst reaping certain benefits of the modern world, in which all that marriage and moral malarkey had become passé. In planning to adapt Fleming’s books for the screen, cunning producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, director Terence Young (something of a London swinger who found an avatar in the Bond character), and chief screenwriter Richard Maibaum (a Hollywood veteran), decided to throw out thorny politics and replaced SMERSH, the Soviet assassin’s bureau that provided villainy in most of the early novels, with SPECTRE, the terrorist group Fleming had created for the failed earlier film project that he turned into the much-litigated Thunderball (1961).

Dr%20No%207.jpg

This team also set the series down the path toward becoming the elephantine, purely comic-book spectacles they’re generally known as. It’s possible they chose the Fu Manchu-inspired Dr. No as the first film precisely for its relative absurdity. In coming back to the Bond films after a long time, I’ve found that few hold up even as quick-paced fun. But the first few entries retained the plots and much of the grit of Fleming’s stories, and held some real dramatic integrity: the first half-dozen films have a roughly contiguous plot as Bond battles the forces of SPECTRE, concluding in the best of the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which even pulls off the feat of having its hero married and then widowed tragically. Its relative failure and the bland impact of Connery replacement George Lazenby meant that from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) on, any dramatic layering in the series went out the window.

Dr%20No%202.jpg

Dr. No is dated in many ways, and yet has aged better for its relative modesty and gamey rigour. It begins by going to great lengths to give its hero a suitably indelible introduction. British agents Strangways (Tim Moxon) and Mary (Dolores Keator), are assassinated in Kingston, Jamaica. Half a world away in London, in a splendid visualisation of a fantasy version of intelligence services teeming with trained specialists keeping watch on a complex world, MI6 operatives within the cover organisation of “Universal Exports” monitor radio signals from all over the world. When their agents in Kingston fail to report in, an official is sent to fetch James Bond, agent 007, from Le Cercle club, where he’s dueling at baccarat with sexy society dame Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). The sequence is artfully shot and edited so that Sylvia’s opponent is not revealed until he utters “Bond, James Bond,” lighting a cigarette and cocking a brow, his theme tune throbbing momentarily.

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Connery is instantly impressive, and unique—polished and poised, and yet his dark Celtic brow and his semiconcealed Scots accent offer a whiff of the wild, of a man hunting, even in fashionable circumstances, for any existential thrill on offer. This introduction should serve as a reminder that Daniel Craig’s edition of Bond isn’t actually as far from Connery’s as Roger Moore’s fashion-brochure lounge lizard. Later, when Connery strips off his clothes and gets into action, it’s entirely believable that the fellow who plays at gentleman playboy is actually a creature capable of brute force and feral rage. His boss M (Bernard Lee, inimitably crusty) dispatches him to Jamaica to find out what’s happened to Strangways and Mary, and whether their disappearance has anything to do with the sabotaging of American space shots, suspected of being accomplished with high-powered radio beams directed from somewhere in the region.

Upon arrival, Bond finds allies in CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and Strangways’ islander helper Quarrel (John Kitzmuller). He also witnesses manifestations of a terrifying menace, as one assassin takes cyanide rather than be taken captive, and a girl who pretends to be a newspaper photographer would rather risk a broken arm than talk. One of Strangways’ chums, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), a mineralogist, buried evidence of radioactivity on Crab Key, an island that is the strict private property of the mysterious part-Chinese Dr. No. When Strangeways discovered that evidence, Dent, as No’s agent, arranged Strangways’ killing and now is ordered by the omnipotent No to do the same to Bond. Bond survives and kills Dent, then travels to Crab Key with Quarrel to investigate the island. That’s when he meets Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the breathtaking naturalist’s daughter who strides out of the water singing a calypso tune.

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Honey is still often voted the Bond girl to end all Bond girls (although personally I find Andress well outclassed by the likes of Diana Rigg and Eva Green, who can actually act). Lusciously formed and yet innocent, her virginity taken in rape, Honey later avenged herself on her assailant by sticking a black widow spider in his bed. It’s an interesting contrast (Connery’s expression whilst listening to her account is amusingly queasy) with No’s earlier attempt to kill Bond by putting a tarantula in his bed: both heroine and villain use the same method, but for widely divergent reasons. Orphaned by her father’s death at Dr. No’s hands, Honey makes her living poaching rare shells, but also accidentally draws the attention of No’s operatives. Soon Bond and Honey are trapped on the island, running from his guard and his “dragon”—actually a marsh buggy with a flame-thrower that roasts Quarrel—before they are captured and subjected to the compulsory educational seminar about the villain’s motives and plans. No is played by Joseph Wiseman, whose snake-eyed cunning and sibilant contempt for lesser mortals makes him the first and still one of the most impressive Bond villains, crushing objets d’art with his mechanical hands, running using a disturbingly monkeylike gait, and dismissing Bond as a “stupid policeman” for holding onto moral notions.

The final raw clash between Bond and No that ends near the boiling waters over an atomic pile, encapsulates a significant aspect of the series: No’s metal gauntlets are literal forms of the hand of brutal, technological power that the Bond villains always wield. No’s ultimately beaten by Bond’s eminently battered flesh because Bond can climb out and No can’t. For all his sophistication, Bond always represents the strength of the unreconstructed man. His civility is a skin he sheds easily. He eats, drinks, loves, and fights entirely for the right to do all those things where and when he likes, unlike his opponents, who always seem to be trying to supplant such a life with a world that reflects their own twisted egos. No’s idea of fun is to tie Honey up to be drowned.

Anxiety over the modern world’s shape, the simultaneous glamour and terror of it, lies at the heart of the early Bond films’ great success. Satires like the Austin Powers series poked fun at their tropes without really understanding them—the modish trappings of supermodernity (like the omnipresent collarless tunics and the villains’ chitinous-looking machines of destruction) encoded a fear of the future contrasted with Bond’s primal force and the classic gentility of M’s oak-paneled office.

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Some early ideas, like his trysts with Sylvia constantly being interrupted when duty calls, were quickly abandoned in favour of his constant flirtation with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) (“What gives?” “Me, given an ounce of encouragement.”); others were yet to be put in place, like the precredits sequences, and Q, the MI6 weapons expert, who here is still called by his proper sobriquet of Major Boothroyd and played not by Desmond Llewellyn, but rather Peter Burton.

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Curiously for a Bond film, Dr. No is at its best when being severe and restrained, even quiet, as Bond moves about the Jamaican locales trying to parse what’s going on, and contending with assassination attempts in humid hotel rooms. A lengthy sequence that caps off the first half involves the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), secretary of the Governor and one of Dent’s agents, who tries to lure him into two attempted assassinations. He beds Miss Taro anyway before packing her off to the police, and then settles down to wait for Dent, shooting him dispassionately with not one, but two lethally cold shots. Such stark amorality from a film hero was very new in 1962, but there’s nothing psychopathic about Bond. Instead, there’s a curiously intense emotional satisfaction Bond always derives from such achievements as screwing the woman who tries to set him up, and giving his opponent Dent a chance to turn the tables on him and then, knowing very well he had no chance, coldly executing him for being stupid. There’s a punch here that disappeared from the series before being partly revived by Timothy Dalton and then more fully by Daniel Craig, reminding me that most of all, Bond represents the desire to feel life and death in its extremes, employed for ethical causes but without ethical cares.

Dr. No’s action scenes are pretty ropy (the novel’s best scene, where No tests Bond by subjecting him to a gross experiment where he can try to escape through an agonising series of tests, is rushed and ineffectual here). Bond films that would be wall-to-wall, precision-oiled action scenes were still in the future. Nonetheless, Dr. No’s still a cracking good yarn.

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1940s, Commentary, Drama, Famous Firsts

Citizen Kane (1941)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

“Citizen Kane explicitly invites us to figure out its puzzle but it also constantly frustrates that desire.” — Laura Mulvey

Citizen Kane begins at the end—the death of its eponymous character uttering a word that becomes the object of retrospective investigation. The attempts to understand Charles Foster Kane and his life will be fractured, and Thompson, the journalist attempting to parse the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” never achieves his objective. His failure reflects his realisation of an idea the film has laid out in great detail—that such words as news, truth, biography, history, and remembering, are infinitely flexible, influenced by perspective, time, character, and purpose. Whilst the audience is finally presented with a solution to the puzzle, it returns the arc in a complete reversal to the opening, still “a situation of total ambiguity,” as one of Welles canniest critics, Joseph McBride, put it in 1972.

Susan Alexander Kane’s love of arranging jigsaw puzzles presents the central metaphor—the story resembles such a puzzle. Pieces are disarranged, and one must place them together to construct the full picture. And yet there is not a sense of intellectual and emotional triumph over the unknown and confused. This fragmentation of the traditional holism of narrative is mediated not merely through linear, but also stylistic, displacement. The film evokes familiar genres, but renders them incomplete, warping traditional shape, thereby serving to make us ponder the purposes genres are put to and the traditions they are supposed to service. “The endurance of relatively stable genres is sometimes assumed to by symptomatic of institutionalised inertia, aesthetic stasis and a more general lack of desire for change,” as Negus and Pickering summed it up neatly in their 2004 volume Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value. Perhaps nowhere was this suspicion held to be more accurate than of classic Hollywood.

It can be broadly observed that the detective genre, to which the Rosebud search could belong, or the heroic-journalist genre, in which Thompson, Kane, and Leland could all be traditional characters, generally posit the idea that the truth will out. The clue will be found, crime unearthed. As Julian Symons described it in his landmark 1972 study of the detective genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the shape of social and moral order will be reinforced for the pleasure of those “who have a stake in the permanence of the existing social system.” But in Kane, such certainties are conscientiously erased. Generic quotes in Kane both interrogate, and also utilise, the ideas encoded in these genres.

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The film begins with the mood of a horror movie—Xanadu, a wonderland in the newsreel, but here a prematurely decaying castle fit for Dracula. Why the appropriation of gothic style? The gothic genre’s familiar dead castles and haunted mansions are traps for rancid memory, cultural detritus, and the devolution of the consciousness. We encounter all these things in this “monument to himself.” Xanadu and its trove of art and craft, its chasms of ego-cocooning space, are both godlike and oppressive. This is reminiscent of films with haunted house settings. Take the description in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Movie of Kubrick’s The Shining, probably the greatest modern example of the genre but highly reliant on its classic tropes, with its “twinning of opposites” for a “tortured ego” in such a “space trap”—exactly the same atmosphere Welles conjures for Xanadu. Likewise, Susan’s wraithlike appearance at the end of her opera tour renders her looking much like a vampire’s victim. Again, Kane borrows a generic motif, but there is no monster here, only a dying old man haunted by memory, undermining the motif.

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Still, we never “meet” Charles Foster Kane. We encounter versions of him in biographies and anecdotes, observe his possessions, his dwelling place, signifying the absence of a being. In the newsreel, such men as Thatcher and the labour advocate describe him as both a communist and a fascist, presented as binary opposites in popular discourse. Kane is reinvented even in life according to the needs of others. His wealth, prestige, his sheer scale as an entity not only invite this, but seem to demand it; there is too much of Kane and his world to account in one version.

The dreamlike prologue is followed hard by its stylistic opposite, the News on the March newsreel, which serves vitally important functions. It lays out the agreed facts of Kane’s life, and the audience can access this information during the leaps in period and perspective that pepper the film. We know where each “piece” fits in. It also establishes a thematic schism. The stylisation of the prologue evokes the threat of an unspoken truth, which the newsreel editor, Ralston, senses. The gap between the expressionist dread of the prologue and News on the March seems the distance between artifice and documentation. But this distinction is already rendered hazy. News on the March is supposedly truth unadorned, but is characterised by melodramatic voiceovers, musical cues, and pat title cards. Aspects of Kane’s life are grouped together in the reel to create distinct dramatic acts, bestowing symmetry on Kane’s story, first evoking awe, mystery, exoticism (the tour of Xanadu), epic excitement (Kane’s rise, the expanse of his empire), then, decline and punishment for hubris (associating the collapse of his political career and marriage with his business decline, despite their unrelated causes). The film identifies the news as just another genre, with its own clichés, collusions, and reductions.

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Ralston insists that Thompson cross the distance between journalism and art, to find the key to Kane’s personality, which will give life to this story they wish to conjure. News on the March exemplifies a process that Kane himself set in motion—the dramatisation of news and the manipulation and selective reading of facts. Kane’s propensity for inventing truth, as in whipping up fervour for the Spanish-American war, eventually meets its match as Boss Gettys and the newspapers impugn his private life, a distortion that becomes accepted fact. Kane is totally beaten by his own invention. News as narrative, then, is inextricable with mythology, especially political mythology. Kane invents villains—trust magnates, the potential murderer of a missing girl, the Spanish—to embody certain concepts: the betrayal of the working man, the vulnerability of femininity and the home, the manifest destiny of the United States. This could be described as exactly what genre does—create arcs of cause and effect, and manifestations of ideas, which will then be triumphant or repressed, depending on their nature. Thompson sets about his boss’s glibly conceived mission to deduce the meaning of Rosebud and thus give the newsreel a dramatic fullness through psychological insight. Thompson’s search, however, like the newsreel, skims around the edges of Kane’s life, probing friends, business partners, and his ex-wife in pressing closer to a kind of truth, but then coming up against an invisible barrier—the lack of a heart to the mystery.

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The narrators of Kane may promise a sought-after veracity, but they, too, frame their accounts with slants of preconception. Each lends a kind of coherent shape and essential pitch to their experiences, whilst shutting out other interpretations. Susan, an innocent, perceives herself as the entrapped plaything of a dark prince, enclosed by seemingly arbitrary decisions of will. Hers is a gothic fairytale of girlhood. Leland, an intellectual and a drama critic to boot, assays his recollections as a cautionary tale, complete with observed themes and critical speeches (“That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.”) extrapolated from Kane’s character and experience. Bernstein, who is never associated with any woman except for the passing illusion of perfect beauty decades in the past, is a nostalgic, a hero-worshipper. Susan is a victim. Bernstein is an idealiser. Leland is, as McBride called him, a “romantic … (who) feels and remembers all of the emotional extremes which the other characters are prone to remember only selectively.” And yet Leland has own blind spots.

David Thomson contended in 1996 that “it was Welles’ way later in life to say that, early on with Kane, they had played with a Rashomon-like idea—that of different versions of one central fact, leaving us uncertain of what happened. But they let go gradually, and it was replaced with the overall perspective of all the reports being voices in Kane’s head.” Be this as it may, though the flashbacks might then be called “accurate,” nonetheless, they are still shaped by perspective, by the egos and prejudices offered by the narrators. These people, like the news, select the relevant facts from any experience. There is the consistent theme of the things we miss in concentrating on our interests, actions and objects that are misinterpreted or unnoticed. Rosebud is the singular example of it, yet it is a motif throughout the film.

Leland only remembers Susan’s debut in terms of what happened to him. The actual performance, for him, is a throwaway joke, a sideshow of Kane’s egotism. Susan recalls the awfulness of performing to people, including the prominently contemptuous Leland, who despised her. In his own account, Leland is a moral hero; in Susan’s, he’s a self-satisfied boor. Susan cannot know the import of the letter Leland sends to Kane, seeing it only as a message from a loathsome man. It has context and meaning for us, but not to Susan. Her estranged viewpoint renders the delivery of the torn check and the Declaration of Principles anything but the crushing moral gesture Leland intended.

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Likewise, Susan remembers the sad triumph of leaving Kane, where Raymond sees its aftermath. As with Leland’s letter, this detached sequence presents a fulfillment of other scenes, but removed from the direct flow of consequence. We intuit Kane’s destruction of Susan’s belongings as a condemnation of the futility of objects, and a desperate riposte for an answer to the accusation Susan had made: “You never give me anything I really care about.” His stumbling across the snow globe finally resolves the embarrassing spectacle of destruction because it reminds him of an object, a belonging, a time in life that had an actual, emotional value for him. This means nothing to Raymond, but everything to the protagonists.

The nature of the puzzle, then, changes for each person. Susan’s jigsaws present the journalists, with their love of simplification, and the audience, with our love of neat resolution, with a happy metaphor. Thompson comes to deny the importance of a missing piece, realising that only the whole of Kane’s life is its explanation, and only the man who lived it could articulate it. The film finally slips their perspective and offers an omniscient revelation, which, if David Thomson’s reading is correct, is Kane himself offering the revelation of Rosebud. In terms of technique, it’s a bald rejection of perspective, a final reflex towards the godlike narrators of classical fiction.

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Is Rosebud merely the longing for a lost Eden of childhood with its manifold promise? The sled is not an unheralded revelation. It’s part of a signal legend of Kane’s, as we know from when the Congressman taunts Thatcher in the newsreel about being hit with it. It is not merely a sentimental symbol for Kane—it’s the instrument with which he attempts to ward off the fate that ultimately entraps him. Money enables his genius, and yet also cocoons him from becoming a proper, self-actualising human; he theorises, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Considering how Kane seemed as hemmed in by circumstance as he was a definer of them, and the way he perceives himself as perpetually embattled—“That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em,” he advises Susan when she wants to surrender—it’s easy to see Rosebud not merely as a longing for lost youth but also for the spirit that comes in battling adversity. This spirit has entirely ebbed by the time he signs control of his companies back over to Thatcher’s bank, a scene of his utter defeat in his war with the monolithic world of money and purposeless profit Thatcher ushered him into so many years earlier. The fact that Rosebud still has multiple meanings as a symbol is once again a denial of simple resolution, part of what McBride called the “constant ironic undercutting of the audience’s search for a solution.”

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Such meditations invest the film’s “attack on the acquisitive society” (as Welles described it for Cahiers du Cinema in 1966) with force beyond simple political morality. It’s an enquiry into the degree to which any human is shaped by circumstance, and left unshaped, into free will itself. The discovery of Rosebud intensifies the patterns we have observed. We consider other missing pieces. What impact did the death of Kane’s son, along with Emily, in a car crash, have upon him? This presents a gaping hole in the narrative, a private matter only Kane could speak of.

The ability to tell and shape a story is finally associated with power over the perception and thinking of others. Kane’s and the newsreel company’s manipulations are unified with notions of political might, wealth, and influence. Equally, the fragmentation of story, the self-conscious assault on the totality of narrative and the recognition of perspective, is an intrinsically subversive act by virtue of denying power to the shapers, giving power instead to the receptive interpreter. If the completeness of generic narrative reinforces certain social and moral precepts, the rejection of such completeness, whilst still embracing the idea that the metaphors of genre have value, critiques the shape they bestow on reality.

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The revelation of Rosebud is, then, a final reclamation of Kane’s story for Kane himself, as well as a conduit for our sympathy, if not our understanding. Rosebud reminds us that for all the tales told about him, his innermost self was only communicated to others in enigmatic flashes. From Thatcher’s recollection of “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” to “Rosebud” itself, his mind was his last domain, unknown and unknowable to others. This is the true impact of the refrain of the “No Trespassing” sign; the mysteries of Xanadu and Rosebud have been supplanted by the impossibility of knowing a man’s inner life, a realm beyond the reach of the power of others, to steal from and reshape.

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