Thursday, April 14, 2016

Like Being in Love with a Buzzsaw

There's this way people have of dividing films into two camps -- in a way that implies one is better than the other, although I suppose that goes without saying -- that has been popular for a long time and which drives me totally batshit. Once so divided, the camps are "plot-driven films" and "character-driven films." The idea, I suppose, is that when a film's narrative is driven mainly by plot mechanics, it is therefore a worthless chunk of shit when set next to a film that's really just about people. The problem as I've always seen it, when this division is used on modern films, those films labeled "character-driven" are quite often films in which specific characters move through a plot that may be loosely or tightly constructed, but is still a plot, and the characters are the characters because of how they react to or are affected by that plot (this being also more or less what happens in "plot-driven" movies). So when discussing or judging or thinking about movies, typically I've never gone for this sort of thing.

On the other hand, Howard Hawks.  Though the great director was no stranger to working with plots, even complex ones -- the plots to comedies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby hardly take a second to breathe; plus, you know, The Big Sleep and everything -- but his unique signature can be found in what Hawks super-fan Quentin Tarantino refers to his "hangout movies." This term has most famously been applied to Hawks's Rio Bravo, but is in fact best exemplified by his follow-up to Rio Bravo: 1962's Hatari! While Rio Bravo does have a bare sketch of a plot (and an engaging one) used to bring its characters together, Hatari! doesn't. In that film, Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett establish a group of characters, a job, and a location, and for 157 minutes invites the audience to watch it all just colorfully exist. Hatari! is truly, almost radically plotless. Though the exoticism of the African locale and of the job the characters have to do (capturing animals for zoos, etc.) are not insignificantly engaging, the film is almost entirely, purely character-driven. One of very, very few films I've ever seen that earns that description. Classic Altman looks almost like House of Games by comparison.

But Hawks had already done this, and even more gracefully, over twenty years earlier. In 1939 Columbia Pictures released on of that legendary film year's true masterpieces with Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks's light but weighty, balletically, grinningly serious adventure about airmail pilots in South America. Just released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, if Only Angels Have Wings wasn't almost eighty years old it might play like a supremely confident rebuke of the currently accepted wisdom that the mark of a good film is that every scene moves the plot forward (although, to reiterate, and just as an aside, Hatari! walks up to the prone body of that accepted wisdom and steps on its neck).

The film begins with Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a singer/piano player/all-around entertainer arriving in the South American port town of Barranca. She's supposed to be there only for a layover, but very soon she becomes caught up in the whirlwind existence of Barranca Airways, the airmail service owned by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), who also manages the restaurant-nightclub out of which Barranca Airways operates, and managed by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), a seen-it-all pilot whose attitude to the dangers he and the other pilots face on a daily basis Bonnie soon learns seems to mask, but in fact reveals, a deep humanity. Within about twenty minutes of her arrival, Bonnie has already witnessed the death of a pilot when his plane crashes trying to land on the runway outside the nightclub. His former comrades eat the steak he ordered before he had to fly an emergency mail-run, and pretend he never existed. Disgusted at first, Bonnie very quickly learns this isn't heartlessness; it's a means of staving off heartlessness, and panic.

The cast of Only Angels Have Wings is filled out with a host of ringers, from Allyn Joslyn as pilot Les Peters (I actually think Joslyn's casual naturalism is one of the film's secret weapons) to Rita Hayworth in one of her earliest roles, as Judy MacPherson, an old flame of Geoff's, to, as the two most crucial characters in the film outside of Geoff and Bonnie, and perhaps even including Geoff and Bonnie, Thomas Mitchell as Kid, Geoff's right-hand man, and one-time silent film star Richard Barthelmess as Bat MacPherson, Judy's husband. Bat arrives in Barranca looking for a job as an airmail pilot, but his reputation for cowardice due to an incident years ago in which he abandoned Kid's brother to die, is known to everyone in Barranca Airways, and his request for work is met by everyone with mockery, anger, and disdain. "I don't think even you can spoil good liquor," Geoff says to him (the script by Jules Furthman, based on an original story by Hawks, is as sharp, funny, and moving as that writerly era ever produced). But Geoff takes him on anyway. So the film has a villain! Except, no.

It's strange to me that Barthelmess would only make three more films after Only Angels Have Wings before retiring from acting, having failed to carry his silent film-stardom over to talkies. Because he was too low-key, perhaps? I don't know, I was unfamiliar with him prior to this, but I think his performance here is extraordinary. It's so tamped down, too, and to play Bat's shame and determination to work pitched so low, and still stand out among the big, wonderful, Hollywood presences of Grant, Mitchell, and Arthur, strongly indicates that his instincts for film acting weren't confined to one style. In any event, I must now stress that the appearance of Bat (and Judy) comes maybe halfway into Only Angels Have Wings, and as great an impact as it has on the film, and the characters, it plays in the film as just another of the things that happens in the world of Barranca Airways. A very dramatic thing, to be sure, but one that doesn't overwhelm the film's last hour. Though Bat, and Kid, turn out to be the guts of the film, this reveals itself only gradually. It doesn't become plot; it becomes incident.

There are some iffy plot things -- or anyway, there's one -- that keep Only Angels Have Wings from going full Hatari! But otherwise the films are two of a kind. The audience is at first introduced to an environment they would most likely never know, and then they are immersed in it. It's a matter of atmosphere as much as it is character, to be honest, but either way the viewer lives among the characters. To say a film is absorbing is to pay it a compliment, and Hawks's films is almost literally absorbing.

Friday, April 8, 2016

I Have Snakes in My Fingers

In 1929, the French writer Jean Giono published his first novel.  Originally called Colline, in 1930 it was translated into English under the title Hill of Destiny, the last two words of which, once you've read the book, turn out to be utterly meaningless. They should have stopped at Hill, which in fact is what "colline" means in French. And that blunt stamp of a word -- without even a "the" -- also helps to prepare the reader for the strange starkness of Giono's brief story.

In fairness to whoever chose Hill of Destiny for the English translation, I can sort of understand, or anyway I have a theory about, why they did, however much the decision may reek of confusion and cynicism. One of the unusual things about Hill (which has just been reprinted by NYRB Classics, under that title) is that, while I don't for a second believe Giono was thinking along these lines, the fact is that his book, which comes in at just over 100 pages, reads, at least on a plot level, as a kind of environmental horror story, one of those "the Earth shrugs us off" pulp classics that were popular in the 1950s through, say, the 70s (and are becoming popular again now). It was impossible, frankly, for me to read Hill and not think of it as a work of horror, and I believe, at least now, almost ninety years after its initial publication, that facet of it is one of it's chief pleasures. That this take on Hill would probably make Giono, who died in 1970, roll over in his grave is not something I have any control over.

All of the action in Hill takes place in an area called the Bastides, "the remnants of a hamlet" which is located "in the frigid shadow of the mountain range of Lure." Early on, Giono lays out his dramatis personae, and does so concisely, there not being all that many personae:

Married couples live in two of the houses:
One belongs to Gondran le Mederic. He married Marguerite Ricard. Her father, Janet, lives with them.
One belongs to Aphrodis Arbaud. He married a woman from Pertuis.
They have two little daughters, one three, one five.
Then there are:
Cesar Maurras, his mother, and their young welfare worker.
Alexandre Jaume, who lives with his daughter, Ulalie. And finally, Gagou.
So they're an even dozen, plus Gagou, who throws off the reckoning.

Gagou is a mentally handicapped man who comes by his name through saying no other word than "gagou," Which is a genre trope -- in fantasy, not in horror so much, but anyway think of Hodor from  A Song of Ice and Fire and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (Gollum says a lot, but his name derives from a meaningless, hacking noise he makes). Anyway, his place in Hill is not quite the same as that which is occupied by Martin and Tolkien's characters.

Presently, Janet, Gondran's father-in-law is obscurely injured -- is he caught in a flood of sluice waters? Does he have a stroke? Whatever the case, he becomes an invalid who regularly spews forth a barrage of insane words, which nevertheless strike some, especially Gondran and Jaume, as obscurely, but terrifyingly meaningful. He says to Jaume:

"The toad that lived in the willow has come out.
"It has the hands and eyes of a man.
"A man who's been punished.
"It made its home in the willow, out of leaves and mud.
"Its belly is full of caterpillars. But it's still a man.
"It eats caterpillars, but it's a man, you only have to look at its hands.
"It runs its little hands over its belly to check itself out: 'is it really me,' it's asking itself, 'is it really me?' It has good reason to ask, and then it cries when it's certain it really is him.
"I've seen it crying. It's eyes are like kernels of corn, and the more it cries the more music it croaks through its mouth. 
"One day I asked myself: 'Janet, who has any idea what he did to be punished like that, to be left with only his hands and his eyes?' 
"These are things that the willow would have told me if I knew how to talk its language. I tried. But there was nothing doing. It was as deaf as a fence post."

Later, a cat appears, and Jaume speaks to the men in the hamlet. He tells them that he's seen this cat before, many times before. Every time he's seen it, two days later something terrible has happened, including the suicide of his wife. Most of the terrible things would be referred to now, literally or figuratively, as "acts of god": floods, lightning strikes, etc. And perhaps, the suicide of Jaume's wife applies there as well.  Eventually, the men of the hamlet decide that Janet is not simply raving, nor is here merely a dark prophet: they come to see him as the agent of their potential destruction, and plans are made for dealing with him.

Hill becomes most literal about its intentions in a section when Gondran goes hunting. He has no particular goal other than to bring back food, yet in the course of things he senselessly kills a lizard. After graphically describing the act, Giono writes:

He thinks about Janet and he cocks his eye at the little pile of brown dirt still twitching over the crushed lizard.
          Blood, nerves, suffering.

          He's caused flesh and blood to suffer, flesh and blood just like his own.

          So all around him, on this earth, does every action have to lead to suffering?

          Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals?

          Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder?

          It's true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill.

          And when he scythes, he slays.
So that's the way it is -- is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, leveling everything in his path?
So it is really all alive?
Janet has figured this all out ahead of him.
Everything: animals, plants, and who know, maybe even the stones, too.
So, he can't even lift a finger anymore, without unleashing streams of pain? 

Giono's biography presents him as a very political artist -- a lifelong pacifist, including during World War II, he was falsely accused of collaborating with the Nazis -- and this first novel shows that off as well. His depiction of the natural world in Hill is fierce and unforgiving regarding what he viewed as the destruction of it by humanity. So fierce and unforgiving, in fact, that his argument seems to be, as implied in the passage quoted above, that nothing anyone does, not even taking a step or taking a breath, will not bring death down on something. It's hard to react to that in any way other than choosing between continuing on as you were, or sitting still until you rot. As such, if Hill is an activist novel, it fails: what exactly do you expect me to do, then?

As a bleak piece of horror writing, though, Hill is quite effective. Eventually, there is death as the curse proves real, and a bitter irony at the end that fits the tradition of Poe and Saki and Roald Dahl and EC Comics. It's not a rare thing to use genre (if that's even what Giono was consciously doing) as a prop for Something Meaningful. It's also not rare to use horror to express hopelessness.