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Molly Haskell

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act

Criterion

It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.

You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of January 6

“Pagnol’s roots as a novelist and a playwright show in his intricate understanding of networks, of crosscurrents that whisk the characters away from seemingly nearby finish lines. He has an astonishing grasp of destiny, not as a sentimentally celestial branch of predetermination, but as a series of prisms fashioned by the push and pull between emotion and human-contrived social structures.” A restoration of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy (for he is clearly the prime author, if only the director of the final installment) has Chuck Bowen marveling at the novelistic richness of the films; while Jeremy Carr is astonished by the lifelike, quotidian detail. (“[These] films take their time, making sure to supplant in the drama properly ample space for joking digressions and an informal laze-away-the-day realism. César’s boisterously high emotions are capricious, sometimes in the span of the same outburst, but that variability mirrors the gracefully juxtaposed outrage of the series in general; characters will get angry and breathlessly passionate, but the film itself—grounded, cautious, unflappable—refuses a wholly agitated tone.”

“He is the exile director: a Latin American who made most of his movies in English, French, or Portuguese—and whose aesthetic inhabits an absolute alien territory. His films are drifting, fantastical, introspective, melancholy, erudite, raucous—sometimes telling no story at all, sometimes telling too many. He made so many films, and they so consistently refuse to obey whatever formal rules we’ve come to expect from cinema, that they tend to develop into a blurry whole in your mind.” Adam Thirwell on Raúl Ruiz, of course, flush from a retrospective so partial it doesn’t even feature the movie it was named after, discussing how Ruiz’s narrative tangents and love of tableau vivant open cinema up to stories and visions unapproachable by more conventional means.

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In Black & White: The Women (Pt 1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. By Molly Haskell. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 416 pages. $10.

Too often, one of the nicest things about having a Cause is that it provides cookie-cutter categorizations for almost every occasion. Human beings can be swiftly shuffled into suits of fascism, racism, male or female chauvinism, or whatever other convenient –ism lies at hand. Given the proper brand of cookie cutter, one can avoid confronting practically anything on its own terms—or in terms which stubbornly transcend or evade easy compartmentalization. The world becomes a neater place, less cluttered with complexities and nagging ambiguities when the brandished talisman of a single point of view sends all of disorderly reality scurrying into a series of carefully labeled cubbyholes.

Critics of the arts find cookie cutters particularly helpful in their craft. Art, you know, has that nasty habit of bursting the seams of the most rigorously contrived critical straitjackets—so much so that it’s still a sneaking suspicion of mine that the best response to a work of art is an eloquent silence. Film critics are not immune to the cookie-cutter syndrome—quite the contrary. The German film historian and theoretician Siegfried Kracauer was already drawing on a time-honored set of assumptions when he laced his tome on the cinema, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with variations on a monolithic theme, that being the motion picture camera’s absolute lust for reality and concomitant abhorrence of the fantastic or surreal, anything but the bare, unvarnished Truth. (So much for Méliès and his successors!) It didn’t require much of a critical leap to arrive at the notion that the masses, the salt of the earth, had cornered the market on reality and truth. Social consciousness, documentary verity, became the sine qua non of the great film for many commentators.

Whatever the theory, the best kind of critic approaches a film with an open mind, a willingness to allow its reality to resist the framework of his critical parameters. The bad critic loves his cookie cutter more than that which it seeks to contain and will ruthlessly shape and name the work under discussion to fit the Procrustean bed of his theory. Example: Several years ago, in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael attacked four films—Dirty Harry, The Cowboys, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orangefor their unwarranted and immoral use of violence. Once Kael started wielding that cookie cutter of hers, whole arms and legs of cinematic reality were amputated, discarded as irrelevant; plot and character were distorted, reshaped so as to support her point of view.* On the other side of the fence, auteurists are not always exempt from such solipsism: nondirectorial contributions to a film may be lopped off and ignored so that the lineaments of a distinct and all-encompassing directorial personality may emerge in highest relief. God knows it’s an ongoing battle to approach anything or anyone in that state of vulnerability and receptiveness that permits, even invites, the Other to operate autonomously, to surprise us with its own unique reality. So much safer to go armed with a quiver full of preconceptions with which the most recalcitrant of realities may be “fixed with a formulated phrase.”

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