It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single species in want of heart, brains, and courage stands in need of the Connectitrons — or, at least, the good version of these famous aliens. The bad Connectitrons are also important; but the one thing the bad guys don’t lack is media presence. In fact, their problem is not knowing where to draw the line between bad news and the sort of fictional hype that reduces all reality to its unhappiest parts. About the happily functional or, indeed, the intriguingly nonfunctional — the Life that happens while we’re doing something else — such creatures know nothing and care even less . . .
I don’t know if such ideas affect the way Professor Cox watches films, but having seen Hugo just before that lecture, I now have an even stronger sense of connection/exclusion as it plays in Scorsese’s 3D feature. Sticking strictly to the facts, I watched it in 2D in a London cinema along with five other humans, two of whom I knew to be connected to me before I went in. Despite missing the extra D and the crowds that go with it, when the end titles rolled I test-fired that noble old nuclear response, “spontaneous applause.” Except for one beloved old friend — an exile from the Middle East who knows something about nobility in the face of good-connection famines — nobody joined in. Alright, then, with the particle count against us, and despite the fact that Scorsese intimately connects disappointed Old (Méliès) and orphaned Young (Hugo), maybe one of our favourite directors has left out the people in the middle. More likely, though, he’s included them in portraits that aren’t heroic or glamorous enough. The best of these is probably Sacha Baron Cohen’s literally crippled, deeply embittered railway policeman who might, nevertheless, surprise us with his own nobility. (Spoiler alert. Say no more.)
Intellectually, Scorsese also gives us something to chew on by highlighting the interconnectedness of childlike wonder and the workmanlike slog of filmmaking — or, more abstractly, exploring the nature of Artist-as-Engineer. Yet, however technically skilled, however well received the resultant magic, there’s always the issue of longer-term reception: as Scorsese strongly emphasises, Méliès, the most engaging of silent film fantasists and much feted before the First World War, was promptly disowned, even despised, when such lightness of being seemed merely to prod at the wounds of “modernity.”
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My own best guess is that, far from resenting all traces of theatricality, film audiences are in fact deeply geared to appreciate all kinds of self-conscious dramatic devices, from the most straightforward to the most subtle, just as long as they serve the story and don’t get in its way.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible for such devices to be an integral part of the story — even to become the story itself. In America, Tarantino has been frequently — and justly — recognised for exploiting such possibilities, albeit using a handy armature of schlock horror. But making art itself the story and, at the same time, reaching big audiences is probably the toughest job any director can take on. In my own experience, no-one alive is walking this particular walk more originally and skilfully than Jacques Rivette, a quick Wiki of whom puts the start of his long career among the Nouvelle Vagueistes of the 1960s. Before continuing I’ll declare a long-standing love-hatred for Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, etc., etc. Remembering I’m Welsh anyway, the fact that my ambivalence is shared by at least one Gallic acquaintance helps reduce the guilt of being a typically art-hating Anglo-Saxon.
It’s now clear that, given the chance, Diderot would definitely have had a go at making movies — or, at least, anti-films. And though in reality we’ll have to make do with Diderot-Rivette in, for example, Love on the Ground or Jeanne La Pucelle (Parts 1 and 2), there’s nothing second-best about what’s on offer. In the former, Rivette’s devotion to theatre, and especially to actors and actresses, mixes Shakespeare and Pirandello with a dash of Bunuel and, yes, Denis Diderot; and he does so in such a fascinatingly unpredictable scenario that — for the period of the film anyway (a mere two and a half hours) — all these big names seem to become lighter and, if possible, even more magnificent. Perhaps most wonderfully, this audience experience doesn’t come with irritating assumptions about our own lavishly funded bourgeois lifestyle: a simple but deeply felt love of art will do.
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If I’ve overstated Rivette’s general accessibility in Love on the Ground, the risk one takes with Jeanne La Pucelle (Les Batailles/Les Prisons) is to sell this director too short. Since 2009, at much less than lavish prices, these deeply intertwined films have been available on DVD. But what makes them “masterpieces” is the feeling that here, if nowhere else, cinematic art is achieving all it has ever been capable of and more besides — and none of this by testing reception theory to the point of wanton destruction. If there’s a downside, it’s that Rivette has made it virtually impossible to “explain” how he connects with his audience so vividly and freshly via such over-familiar scenarios. Easy to become a bit paranoid about this. And easier still to invoke the aid of the (good) Connectitrons. But it seems all they can offer my forlorn critical cause is a few tiny seconds of screen time. It’s the moment when an exhausted young supporter of Joan’s campaign, hands too stiff and bloody to grip anything in a normal way, struggles to put his helmet back on for another go at some English siege fortifications. He’s sitting down and is about to try and get up when he realises he’s forgotten to pull the chainmail balaclava on before the helmet. So he starts again with the same pair of stiffly opened hands. What’s so hard to explain is not just the quiet realism of all this but the masterly anti-theatre of its presentation. The moment takes only as long as it takes — no rushing through to evoke the disorienting speed of violent action; no slow motion or any other kind of delay to underline human suffering. As with every other moment, Rivette’s use of natural light is absolutely integral to how things feel. As with every other moment, the actors seem totally trusted to do what they have to do. And as with every other moment, we’re looking not at iconic stereotypes nor indeed at can’t-fool-me iconoclasm. Instead, Rivette gets us straight into and, indeed, way past the middle ages, letting us see that the overt differences of technology and worldview — while very faithfully presented — mean far less than the human psychology, basic and complex, through time and space, that connects us all.