Par avion ad astra
If the 1940s was a golden age, most of us born then would probably admit to having blinked and missed it. On the other hand, amid all the grey austerity there was something going on which, with hindsight, suddenly looks quite interesting. Or rather, this is what hit me after watching Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fete (1948).
To put things in a wider context, there are plenty of Anglo-Saxons out there whose lifelong love affair with France began with Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s most famous alter ego. I haven’t touched the sacred relics myself, but I believe, for example, in the seashells gathered from the very beach where, in 1953, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was made.
I didn’t have to know that Francois, the village postman in Jour de Fete, was a precursor of Hulot to be ready for fun. But, thrilled as I was by the BFI-restored colour print, I was also braced from moment to moment against an “inevitable” shattering of the onscreen magic. Even if the slapstick didn’t pall, surely I’d notice something wrong in the portrait of the village — a lick too far of innocent togetherness, perhaps. Mostly, though, I was afraid that Tati’s exuberance, often on the brink of stealing the show, would draw too much energy away from the film’s central focus on village life.
In the event, if ever a film disappointed the cynic in me this was it.
Though the idea seems a bit odd applied to comic mayhem, I put the achievement down to supreme discipline on the part of all concerned: following Tati’s zenlike example, the ensemble really has got its act together; and what’s more it’s a film that knows when to stop — another of Tati’s gifts not possessed by every cinema genius.
Among many understated delights, I remember the stall-holders at the onerous-sounding Jeu du Regle. This was a shying-for-prizes sideshow with — as far as I could tell — no other purpose beyond contrasting the body language of the couple behind the counter: he’s brash, mobile, and cheerful to a fault; she, though silent and motionless, seems irritable to the point of menace. For students of humanity, this is a moment of completely adult gratification, and just plain funny as well.
Meanwhile, involving Francois and his bicycle in evermore crazy attempts to match airborne American postal services, the formal plot is hardly satire at its most sabre-toothed. If there’s a “statement” here at all, it’s certainly more uplifting than France Good/America Bad; and surely the underlying point is that this community will go on believing in its own survival, with or without flying postmen. In the context of the time, the truly amazing thing is that Follainville has somehow survived Fascism, Communism, and War itself as though they were passing showers of rain.
In recent times, Europe has seen some controversially upbeat cinematic attempts to re-work these big mid-century themes. Among the first and still the best of these, Roberto Benigni’s La Vita e Bella (1997) dives right in to treat War and Peace as a sort of Tati/Tolstoy co-production. Results are always going to be mixed in this unlikely new genre. A careless manner here will greatly offend some people, while the new fairy-tale lightness will simply be lost if the direction offers too many careful clues. This latter “offence” is apparent in Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful (Un Monde Presque Paisible (2002) set in Paris in 1946. Nevertheless, one gets the point that relief is not always strangled by guilt for those who survive terrible events.
Much closer to real events, and in that sense better able to make the same point, Jour de Fete cuts through all the stereotypes of post-war gloom without losing adult credibility; and this probably defines its bigger achievement. I’ll also remember for a long time the gems of visual comedy, the best of which for me involved scenes of a runaway bicycle. Forget multi-vehicle pile-ups involving million dollar budgets — how on earth did they get that riderless machine to stay upright for so long, rolling not just in a straight line down the high street, but curving serenely away around a bend in the country lane?
Light-spirited energy, a dash of social comment — Jour de Fete could be described, if somewhat reductively, as Keaton or Chaplin on some pretty decent vin rouge. But, since over-analysis doesn’t improve our enjoyment of comic timing and observation, for the moment I’ll do Tati the favour of leaving things at that.
* * *
The Aviator (2004) also put me in mind of all things mid-20th century — most obviously its obsession with The Mad Charm of Velocity. Though “contrasting,” even with “starkly” hardly begins to describe the differences between Scorsese’s epic and Tati’s frenetic way of Romancing the Slow, both film-makers possess an unusually convincing ability to think and feel through the medium of film. One might even see them as equally ardent chroniclers of their time; and, since chroniclers give themselves freedoms denied to historians but acceptable in artists, I think the connection is apt.
One clear difference here is that, as a bio-pic The Aviator has more to lose than a fiction untainted by comparisons with reality. Interestingly enough, the latest clutch of film biographies seem to have gone boldly toward this old problem, unashamedly ignoring any attempt to get all their facts straight, however unbalancing this might be. The new confidence is on show in Marc Foster’s Finding Neverland (2004) and James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005). Making the point all too plainly, Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) is a noble failure in this regard. Like those upbeat tales of atrocity, the genre itself has innate problems; and, from the evidence, it seems if you must make a bio-pic, it’s better to wait till your subject is dead.
By comparison with Jour de Fete, I watched The Aviator with no expectation of disappointment following on the heels of delight. An excess of joie de vivre is never likely to be Scorsese’s Achilles heel. Especially after Gangs of New York (2002) I’d have been shocked if Scorsese and DiCaprio had missed new opportunities for goriness when they teamed up again.
Meanwhile, any account of Howard Hughes’s life was always going to be an informative experience for me; but, strangely enough, The Aviator turned out to have at least one moment of comedy which Tati himself could not have bettered. This comes in one of many scenes designed to show Hughes’s approach to a challenge: namely, always to emerge triumphant and — even more eccentrically — never to do so by resorting to foul play.
Here, he takes on the Board of Censors in defence of The Outlaw — made in 1941 and not generally released for almost a decade. It seems the rival studio MGM had more to do with the film’s problems than the sexual mores of the time; but it’s Hughes’s argument for allowing the film a certificate which proves so memorable.
Jane Russell’s cleavage having ostensibly caused all the fuss, we see Hughes at a Board hearing with a well-paid but hapless scientist (Ian Holm) dragged along to demonstrate Jane’s innocence. Holm’s character has no idea beforehand that this will be his task, not least because he’s being employed as a specialist on weather conditions rather than women’s breasts. Nevertheless, armed with a set of measuring callipers thoughtfully provided by his boss, he goes through with some ‘science’, examining a group of large-scale boob-shots, also provided for the occasion and theatrically unveiled by the director himself.
Even the bewildered boffin gets the point that vast amounts of bosom had been offered to the public gaze before the rise and rise of Russell. But, unsurprisingly, no successful impression is made here on the censors. Rather than any great service to the plot, the comic bizarrerie of it all is, in fact, the real point — a subtlety I sometimes miss in Scorsese.
To be clear about this, I have no quarrel with the director’s sense that grand themes, straightforwardly addressed, are enough in themselves to intensify and hold one’s interest. Literate and violent at the same time, Scorsese’s trademark may, indeed, remind some of us as much of Shakespeare as of Verdi.
Strictly cinematically, the view we’re given of young war veteran Travers in Taxi Driver (1976) owes a lot to Brando’s Terry Malloy in Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). And still at the level of conscious influences, the literacy of the piece also leads forward to Dennis Hopper’s “Don’t you fuckin’ look at me” in Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Subjectively, however, De Niro’s character, with his super-polite — “Well, y’see, Miss Betsy” — reminds me of Presley and his good ol’ boy persona. Taxi Driver also gets me thinking of the dark mixture of realism and artiness in Edward Hopper’s paintings; and again I think of Presley and the sensibility that produced “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956).
The lyrics of that song famously borrow from a newspaper report of a suicide note — “I walk a lonely street,” Reality and art collide in a reverberating particle accelerator, eventually impacting on millions of young listeners, so much so that they all remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard that song on the radio; and then, finally — in terms of influence and artistic legacy — what? Except as comic pastiche, neither Presley nor anyone else could follow this lead.
For those who have ever pondered such matters — and then wisely got on with more urgent business — I offer this thought: at least one of the song’s co-writers, Mae Boren Axton, was personally and professionally deep into films, as well as music. Apart from the usual complex interplay of cultural forces, there seems to me now something distinctly cinematic about that epoch-making song. Artistically then, “Heartbreak Hotel” is not only unique in the history of popular music but may just be Presley’s best movie!
It’s intended as a compliment to Scorsese to show that he can evoke such personal responses. Meanwhile, especially with art director Dante Ferreti on board, I can hardly deny the scenic grandeur of his films; and when these combined qualities remind me of great novels I have known, I won’t insist that Martin is all macho dross.
Certainly, any reserve I may still feel isn’t about overblown rhetoric automatically ruling out deeper emotional force: one has only to think of the Met’s famous 1991 production of Aida to knock that aside. Trying to pin my doubts down more exactly, I find at least some of them have to do with a view of cinema acquired in the ’60s while catching up on mid-20th century classics like Bicycle Thieves (1948) and — strongly influenced by de Sica — Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). These — particularly the latter — don’t just flirt with domestic detail, they dedicate their entire lives to the demanding God of Small Things.
* * *
As a fan of the 19th-century American novelist Herman Melville, I can look at The Aviator and find Scorsese, the novelist manqué. But, relevant though it is, Captain Ahab’s obsessiveness in Moby Dick doesn’t seem the most important connection here. What really strikes me is the hint of Scorsese, the artist, allowing his gifts to roam and at the same time be contained — not tamed or diminished — by reality-based stories. In Melville this is seen best in White-Jacket or the World in a Man-o-War, and even more poignantly in Billy Budd.
Meanwhile, if Scorsese’s work has been too open to the charge of treating women as little more than male trophies, the portraits of Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner in The Aviator beat this rap hollow. I recall the scene in which a very sick Hughes is being tidied up for senate hearings by a Miss Gardner in the unusual mode of nurse; in these unlikely circumstances — and not for the first time — he asks Ava to marry him. DiCaprio’s request is made with exactly the right amount of compulsive sincerity; and Kate Beckinsale’s reply has just the right kind of blunt sympathy: “You’re too mad for me, Howard.”
Scorsese’s approach to mental illness is not heavily Freudian and, in this sense, is in keeping with modern sensibilities. Even so, opening shots of a boyhood bath-time are there to connect a mother’s fears over Typhus germs and Howard’s more crippling grown-up fixations. Whether this is good psychiatry or not, it’s true to the thinking of the era. Added to that, half a century ago — whatever their mothers told them — speed merchants in Europe and America were often considered fair game by the media as suitable cases for treatment. Donald Campbell, for example, who died on Lake Coniston in 1955 when Bluebird crashed at 300 mile an hour, was suspected of a “death wish” due to an unhappy relationship with his father, Sir Malcolm — also a famous record-breaker.
The fact that Donald once said it was hard living in his father’s shadow was enough to feed the analysis mill for years, even though Campbell — unlike Hughes — never actually locked himself away for months at a time while collecting, among other unusual hobbies, carafes of his own urine. In the ’40s and ’50s Howard Hughes was surely a trauma come true for the psychiatric industry. More seriously — and more relevantly for a Scorsese movie — the great American icon doesn’t seem to have been protected, either by mental health problems or enormous wealth, from life’s inherent brutality. (Compare this view of mental disability with, say, that of Norwegian director Petter Ness in Elling, 2001, where the fictional protagonists follow a slightly smoother, state-aided path.)
This is a good moment to note that, in The Aviator, Scorsese’s interest in grandness of scale for once looks absolutely appropriate, having a moral as well as a physical edge. Though, as in Taxi Driver, we are often inside the head of the central character, The Aviator hints successfully at a bigger reality in which all individuals have to live their lives. For another fine example of this in world cinema, I think of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu (1952); and it can hardly be overstated how big a trick this is to pull off in any book, film or play. Having just made a crypto-novelist of him, I realise that Scorsese can actually reach me more deeply as a dramatist. Though in the plays of Harold Pinter it’s pushed much further towards abstraction, the same potent mixture of menace and articulacy is absolutely central for both artists.
As already suggested, Scorsese himself wants us to notice influences like Kazan — and, less happily, Vincent Minnelli (New York, New York). Pinter by contrast has had to distance himself from beloved Jacobean masters like Webster — mostly due to the difficulty of writing modern plays in iambic pentameter. (The near-forgotten career of Christopher Fry makes the point painfully clear.)
* * *
This leads me back to where I began, with Jacques Tati and his own unerring sense of what does or doesn’t work. Here I’m praising the master by imitating the symmetry of Jour de Fete , which begins and ends with a boy from the village skipping along behind the wagons which had brought the fete to town. As it happens, Mizoguchi’s Oharu has a symmetric scene of its own: the heroine is alone at night in a temple where shadowy ranks of haloed Buddhas are stacked to the ceiling. At one level the repetition is there to remind us that Oharu remains on life’s relentless wheel. But Mizoguchi doesn’t actually end his film quite so unambiguously. After a long series of very dramatic ups and downs Oharu is, in fact, last seen slowly hobbling on to face whatever else fate may have in store. Scorsese’s film also stops at a similarly ambiguous moment: still afflicted by mental health problems — here symbolised by a nervous tic which makes him repeat things over and over — the aviator has just taken off in Sprucegoose, the giant seaplane they said would never fly.
Meanwhile, a cynic might say that all these symmetries and ambiguities are thrust on directors by the less than totally aesthetic considerations of their commercial backers. In this light, the word ‘master’ just applied to Tati is not, perhaps, the easiest to use. “Auteur” doesn’t seem much of an improvement, either. Be that as it may, it also seems proper to note that none of the people mentioned here are — or were — more concerned about being correctly addressed than about the quality of their work.
Unfortunately, even for mild-mannered sceptics, this only returns us to the issue of workaholics and their Ahab-like obsessions. Akira Kurosawa, who had an infamous reputation for being jealous of the film-maker’s art, once said that not to have seen the films of Satyajit Ray was to have lived and never seen the sun or moon! This gives a clue to the Brahmin-like confidence shared by both men and clearly shows the impact of film-makers on each other’s careers. But, almost casually for such an intense statement of faith, it goes further still to suggest the importance of cinema in all our lives.
Depending on what stories one hears, any of the artists discussed — including Tati — could no doubt be condemned to the wrong side of a line that divides serial killers from the rest of us. Yet all of them have produced work judged at some time or other to be “sublime.” For me, such sublimity depends on the view they offer of a bigger space than the one in which we feel, not just trapped on a wheel, but entirely isolated in our sufferings. If connecting us more closely with each other is mastery or auteurship, I don’t really care, as long as we still get the chance — especially on cloudy days and moonless nights — to witness the attempt.