Bright Lights Film Journal

The Connectitrons Are Coming! But wait a minute, weren’t they here all along?

Hugo

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 . . .

With a film-streaming facility now connected to our TV, it’s possible to trawl, among other things, through huge shoals of 1950s sci-fi. But booster rockets of some sort are needed to give me the heart, brains, and courage to see unexpectedly beautiful beings at work in spheres far beyond their home genre. So for anyone expecting a discussion of, say, The Day the Earth Stood Still, now’s the time to catch a space vehicle that really is going your way.

For the inconvenience, please blame Professor Brian Cox: a generation down the line from Carl Sagan, in a British TV lecture he recently repeated the trick of making millions of viewers feel a lot more science-minded than they suspected. But it was his account of Pauli’s Exclusion Principle that made a special impression on me, explaining that — at its most compact level — each discrete bit of matterexcludes the presence of its neighbour in the same space. Now, if we take Nature as an infallible moral guide, it would seem that this argues for a bleakly isolationist worldview. But, on the contrary, Watson, the logic of Pauli’s Principle is that each bit of ur-energy makes way for its neighbour and, in so doing, sets up waves of infinite connectedness between all things . . .

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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If “good” films need to be both of their time and retain the potential to go beyond it, what exactly can the Connectitrons do to help? Quite a lot, it seems — especially if we’re not looking for out-and-out miracles of relevance. For example, in The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948), we have any number of subtly-present good aliens who take an improbable mixture of farce and crime thriller and turn it into a slow-burn classic. My own first appreciation centred on the musical soundtrack — even telling myself that its provider, Victor (“When I Fall in Love”) Young, was alone in salvaging what would otherwise have been a forgettable piece of whimsy. And there’s no doubt that Young’s contribution bears all the marks of positive alien intervention. For the rest, we can speak of good acting and photography; a plot with a quasi-realistic time-structure; and — driven on by Laughton’s nasty newspaper nabob and his relationship with Ray Milland’s workaholic reporter — we can’t overlook the horribly relevant issue of job availability. We could even mention the irrelevant-looking counterpoint of Elsa Lanchester’s eccentric artist, whose role turns out to be less than entirely unworldly. Yet, compared to sexier and darker films of the period whose survival seems self-evidently guaranteed, it’s hard to say exactly why all this ever worked, much less why it’s still winning over new audiences.

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.

The point is that even my wonderful Rivette has pursued a style that’s often suicidally sui generis. We’re speaking of at least one film that ran for ten hours or more. And I just don’t see how such eminently ignorable self-indulgence is ever going to work as a “riposte” to the worst of Hollywood. (In Rivette’s case this has threatened to become a rant about Stephen Spielberg and, amazingly enough, no-one else.) Staying with Wiki, Rivette — now well into his ninth decade — has recently been editing down many of his films for a new set of releases. But in Wiki what really caught my eye — its frantic wanderings guided, no doubt, by the nicer kind of Connectitron — was mention in a list of known influences of a certain Denis Diderot. Without veering off into another Wiki entry, I seem to recall how interested Diderot was, not just in eighteenth-century dictionary-making, but in the daunting challenge of building a philosophy that could evoke the unphilosophical,unstructured nature of Reality itself. Nevertheless, take on the challenge he did, even if it meant occasionally dabbling with le drame and la litterature.

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.