Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Artist Manifesto #1: Jean Renoir

In order to consider film seriously, one would have to first accept the precept that film directors are artists (or at the very least, believers in the possibilities of art) - once established, it is easier to locate, as in the work of all artists, an idea resident in their marrow. Often times, exclusively.

La Chienne (1931) / Jean Renoir

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Dominatrix and Her Client

Detour (1945) / Edgar G. Ulmer

Both of Ulmer’s two well-known films feature a detour that is of enormous consequence within the events of the narrative – in essence, both Black Cat and Detour exist as ‘what if’ situations, i.e., the fundamental truth of their being coerces the audience to posit an alternative narrative permutation as hypothesis. But there is a catch: in Black Cat, the accident of the vehicle at night that forces the tourists to stray from their original path and deposit themselves as guests at the house of Hjalmar Poelzig is merely a geographical diversion; naive young American lovers unwittingly drift off into unknown, sinister alien territory. The film is bathed in similar tourist-paranoia; the Eastern-Europeans are creeps, played by actors who most famously embody (in other films) two of the most notorious pop-culture villains and their accents are their chainsaws. Even so, it isn’t as moralising as the backpacker-horror films of American 70s or those of the Australian 00s – it is still sympathetic towards its protagonists and doesn't punish them for straying off the normal or the tread path (horror for all its transgressions is a conservative genre; comedy for all its assurances, a radical one). 

It is the other film which exists as a great moral thesis - an unreliable narrator and a loser pianist Al Roberts intimates to us the details of his journey from New York to Hollywood to marry his dull girlfriend, aspiring actress Sue. On the way, he says, everything that can go wrong, does. A man gives him a lift and later, dies in the car itself. He decides to take off with the car, having assumed the identity of the dead man and with the intention of disposing off the car once he makes it to Hollywood, but on the way, he meets Vera, a woman who happens to see through his masquerade and threatens to blow his cover unless he becomes her accomplice in crime. Later in their hotel room, he causes the murder of Vera too - by accident, he insists. Ofcourse, you could take a lot of this on face-value as a viewer and believe Roberts’ version, but if one were to put it under scrutiny, it reveals very willing participation in all the scandal that he comes across. Firstly, with his passenger dead, it doesn’t even occur to him to perhaps locate a hospital; instead, he disposes his body off like a real pro and takes off merrily with the money and the car. Then, he offers a pick Vera up at the petrol station (why, you charmer!) – even later, when he discovers the black heart that beats inside the woman, he decides to go along for the ride, like a willing accomplice, never using force or coercion or blackmail or simple wits to get out of the situation. Instead, he submits to her – theirs is a keen psycho-sexual relationship, that of a dominatrix indulging her client; after all, both of them are role-playing too. In that, he only pretends to be a victim of fate (‘no matter which way you run, fate will find a way to trip you’, goes one of his thousand laments, he is a pretty whiny jerk) but actually, he brings it upon himself.

The operative question here, therefore, could be as to what the titular 'detour' indicates. It is certainly not a geographical one, considering he moves rather steadily and singularly towards Hollywood. It is also not a detour from his original plans, because he adapts them as he goes along - he is in it for the ride, an extended bachelor party before he becomes a routine American. Thus, it is a detour from conventional morality – a diversion from traditional notions of faithfulness and loyalty, of a rejection of avarice and care for the fellow man – Al Roberts is a cheater, a deserter and a conman, even if he’d rather pretend otherwise. The period of the film’s production also ensures that he is punished for this detour – if it were the 70s, Al and Vera would have escaped with the money to Mexico.