Over time it becomes more and more obvious that as a species humans really aren’t much more than a bunch of monkeys. And our monkey brains, motivated with banana dreams of sex and dominance, exist presently in the weird position of having to submit our furry natures to cool white plastic and wires and perfectly measured sheets of metal; that is, the sophisticated process of technologized civilization. Only since it hasn’t actually ironed out all the wrinkles in our messy monkey brains the arbiters of civilization wind up obsessing over how things should be, ought to be; they hope that by talking about things in sparkling, cleansed terms everything will eventually become wonderful: i.e. the mindset of “appropriateness”, which of course eventually just turns into another pernicious form of passive monkey dominance. The best movies often bring this tension between civilization and crude desire directly to the surface due to an explicit, and, one often learns, illicit combination of technology and flesh. From Kubrick to Peckinpah to Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard, the icky socio-zoological primate facts are right there for us to watch, shaped and edited into dreams of light. And it is fun knowing these directors often actually had the problems thematically inherent in their films happening right on the sets, with squirmy results.
Last year two books, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard (Richard Brody, Metropolitan Books, May 2008, 720 pgs.), and Spellbound by Beauty Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (Donald Spoto, Harmony Books, Oct 2008, 352 pgs.), gave us an intimate, sordid and creepy view of human nature on the job; the ways power can corrupt; how film directors often live on a very gray line, at an even odder remove from life than writers do. Brody’s book Everything Is Cinema is a rather dense but rewarding book about possibly the most important director of the last fifty years. I remember the first time I saw one of Godard’s movies very distinctly, a short in an omnibus collection of various directors called Aria (1987). Two women weilding knives wander around a gym filled with dark muscular men pumping iron who seem to be totally oblivious as the women mime stabbing first one weight lifter, then another. I thought, wow, this is really weirdly amazing, but I couldn’t quite say why; in fact I’ve never really been able say why Godard’s movies are so good. In any case I soon learned the homoeroticism of the piece was something of an anomaly for Godard, since most of his famous films usually concern remote glassy whorish girls who think in terms of pulp and luxury items (with the exception of the shallow Maoist girl in La Chinoise, who is simply unreachable). Godard’s reputation over time has slumped for a lot of critics but not for me. His bizarre mix and matching of tones, poetry and gags, politics and absurd horrors, still make for some of the most exciting movie-watching I’ve ever experienced. Who cares if statements like “we’re the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” are really nothing more than shallow sixties shorthand when you get Anna Karina juking it up in the fine film Vivre Sa Vie, or Brigitte Bardot wearing the same dark wig as Karina had in the earlier one, bickering with her husband Paul in a vague passive aggressive scene that goes on for nearly twenty minutes in Contempt?
Of course we may occasionally stop to wonder why, for instance, Godard kept casting his wife Karina and every other actress he got his hands on in the roles of whores, molls, betrayers and robots. Especially since the Karina we see in the films, a slim lovely little creature, doesn’t seem so much like a brazen as she does a game girl playing for the camera. In Brody’s book we learn that Godard, frustrated by desire, generally tended to think of women as being shallow and unromantic; when women didn’t want to go to bed with him or get married this usually confirmed for him that they were politically empty and artistically corrupt. Shortly after their marriage Karina cheated on him with an actor during work on different director’s picture; Godard managed to keep her from leaving him, but started punishing her passive aggressively in the plots of his films. For instance we learn that in Vivre Sa Vie, Karina’s character, a whore who abandoned both her husband and child for unfulfilled dreams of fame, was originally supposed to live at the end; after the infidelity Godard decided to kill the character off, which, amazingly, so disturbed the young Karina she attempted suicide! His obsession was such that he tried to foist Karina onto everything around him for some time, including Bardot’s image in Contempt. By the time of their last film together, he made Karina’s working conditions as difficult as possible, no longer speaking to her directly, but using intermediaries, which often had her in tears. There are so many twists and turns to Godard’s ideology, sexuality and aesthetics (he developed a surprisingly knotty and nutty kind of anti-Semitism in the eighties and nineties for instance) that I could never do the man justice, so I highly recommend Brody’s admirable book. It’s odd knowing that the strangest most whimsical choices in Godard’s movies derived from a kind of iron-hard, ironically un-ironic seriousness.
Godard’s fixation on Anna Karina of course naturally echoes that of Alfred Hitchcock’s for the image of cool blonds, as embodied by Grace Kelly and the sleek, bird-like Tippi Hedren, the last in the line. Although at this late date most of us probably already think we know everything we ever needed to about Hitchcock’s guilty feelings toward women Donald Spoto, the best selling author of one Hitchcock bio (The Dark Side Of Genius) and an important book of criticism of the director’s work, has returned to the subject again with Spellbound by Beauty. It’s a slim book, conceptually and structurally. Each chapter discusses Hitchcock’s treatment of actresses during the production of his many films, which gives the book a spotty and episodic feel. We get speculations about whether or not Hitchcock, as he told many people, really had sex only one time in his life, resulting in his daughter Patricia, and how much this may or may not have played into the dark subject matter of the movies; his treatment of actresses as mannequins in need of careful make overs; his manner of keeping them on edge with disconcerting dirty jokes or by whispering obscene things in their ears just before the cameras started to roll. Spoto quotes so many people using the word “sadist” to describe Hitchock’s attitude that at times we may find ourselves wanting to quibble with the term. The best, most interesting, most troubling things in the book, though, are the later portions involving Tippi Hedren. Htichock, to control Hedren, apparently took to spying on her, had staff follow her and keep tabs; was jealous of the attention she gave her daughter; made it clear to male costars Rod Taylor and Sean Connery that under no circumstances should they even think about touching her between takes. This developed into very explicit sexual harassment. He used his power over her career (she was bound in a seven year contract to him) as a crude way of keeping her under his thumb, trying to force her into a sexual relationship with him, whatever that would have meant for Hitchcock. Spellbound is not a great book. The insights, as Spoto sums them up, seem uncomfortably banal (“In giving form to his fantasies,” Spoto writes, “Hitchcock explored and exposed things not only in himself but also in others,” etc.) yet it’s a quick entertaining read for Hitchcock geeks, if only to get at the statements he took from the actresses themselves. Through their words we spy that very recognizable type, the director as a modern version of the feudal monkey, -he doesn’t use clubs or swords or guns to make others serve him, but cameras.
Most films, I think, tend to fall into two categories: either they’re medieval fairy tales wherein ancient bromides are slicked up with the latest technological suavity or else they’re consciously arty, delicate refined trinkets which seem like little more than an attempt to efface the yuck of life through the rigors of taste and stylistic restraint. Aren’t the best films the ones that allow our ongoing battles with our enfoibled natures to play out directly on the screen? Maybe it requires being in the thick of those nasties to bring any art to them. One wouldn’t think so, seems counter intuitive as they say, but literary and cinematic history is simply chock full of men who fall short of the glory of their own art. I should name names here but I’m not going to. Maybe that’s because the oppositions I’ve set up, and which emerge not fully thought out from both the books I read, simply show the blurry sliding of uncomfortability that occurs whenever you try to foist your own unconscious moral qualms on very individualized experiences.