A fluffy romp with a sobering truth: relationships and your twenties may end, but neither signals the end of the world
Editor's Note: RogerEbert.com is proud to reprint Roger Ebert's 1978
entry from the Encyclopedia Britannica publication "The Great Ideas Today," part of "The Great Books of the Western World." Reprinted with permission from The Great Ideas Today ©1978 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
It's a measure
of how completely the Internet has transformed communication that I need to
explain, for the benefit of some younger readers, what encyclopedias
were: bound editions summing up all available knowledge, delivered to
one's home in handsome bound editions. The "Great Books" series zeroed
in on books about history, poetry, natural science, math and other fields of study; the "Great Ideas" series was meant to tie all the ideas together, and that was the mission given to Roger when he undertook this piece about film.
Given the venue he was writing for, it's probably wisest to look at Roger's long, wide-ranging piece as a snapshot of the medium at that point in time. It does not describe movies today—except for certain stylistic tendencies that have persisted—and its observations about TV in relation to movies don't have much resonance anymore. In the late '70s, there were only three broadcast networks (four if you counted PBS), no cable and no home video, and TV's main goal was to keep you watching so that you caught some of the commercials, which is why most of it was bland and horrible. In subsequent decades, the better forms of scripted TV have become more ambitious and complex, even as all forms of TV, like cinema, have been annexed by online media, becoming just another form of "content."
Roger's description of the stylistic battles happening within cinema, between so-called "invisible" storytelling and the more self-conscious, provocative sort of filmmaking practiced by international art house directors and their American acolytes, should likewise be considered snapshots of that moment. They have since been joined by all manner of other tensions: between "fast" and "slow" cinema, and movies that respect spatial relations and those that aren't interested in such things, to name just two topics that modern movie bloggers fight about with some regularity. (It's a bit funny to see Roger describing Martin Scorsese's filmmaking style as "frenetic," considering that Scorsese's 1970s movies now seem as stately and measured to us as John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" probably did to the generation raised on "Jaws" and the original "Star Wars.")
Nevertheless, this is a valuable and in many ways astonishing piece, not just for the aesthetic and historical ground it covers (especially the final sections on Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" and Robert Altman's "Three Women"), but for the way it exemplifies Roger's gift for explaining complex ideas in plain language that you didn't need to be a film scholar to understand. There are sections on the movie theater's role as a secular version of religion, a sacred space where strangers congregate to escape or confront themselves and their world, and sections on the basics of composition and what the position of objects within the frame does to your sympathies. Some of the more basic notions at the heart of this piece are still argued about, on film blogs and in the comments sections of reviews on this site: Should movies try to examine morality and teach lessons? Is there such a thing as pure entertainment, devoid of political content? Is a movie whose style calls attention to itself more valuable, or "artistic," than one whose style goes unnoticed by the majority of viewers?
Throughout, we see Roger grappling with the mission itself: how to explain a medium as vast, contradictory, sometimes maddening and always, mainly visual as movies, by way of comparing it to other, often more exclusively literary art forms? "Why do we insist on forcing all films into paraphrasable narratives when
the form itself so easily resists narrative and so many of the best
films cannot be paraphrased? Shouldn’t we become more aware of how we
really experience a film, and of how that experience differs from
reading a novel or attending a play?" he writes. Though he admits to being daunted by the prospect "that one medium must be discussed in terms of another"—not just because it's hard, but because it always seems to somehow devalue movies—he rolls up his sleeves and makes a heroic effort anyway, and comes up with something close to a summation of the state of that art at that moment in history.—Matt Zoller Seitz
BEYOND NARRATIVE: THE FUTURE OF FEATURE FILM by Roger Ebert
The movies probably inspire more critical nonsense than any other art form, and they are also probably looked at and written about with more ignorance. That may be a tribute of sorts: We assume we require some sort of preparation for the full experience of a work of painting, music, or dance, but film absolutely encourages us to let go of all our critical facilities—our self-consciousness, even—and simply sit back while pure experience washes over us.
It seems to follow that the bad movie directors are the ones who call attention to their work in self-conscious shots and self-evident strategies. The good ones, on the other hand, would seem to be those who, having an instinctive affinity for the medium, know how to let their movies flow, without the distractions of easily visible strategies. John Ford, so long ignored as a serious film artist, used to tell his interviewers again and again about “invisible cutting,” by which he meant filming and then editing a picture so smoothly that the narrative momentum meant more to the audience than anything else.
The mass movie audiences of the 1930s and 1940s would probably not have known what to make of Ford and his theory, but they knew that they liked his movies and those of the other great Hollywood craftsmen. They were also much less interested in the camera work than they were in whether the hero would get the girl. They were, to that degree, successful audiences, because they were passive ones. They let the movie happen to them, and no other art form encourages or rewards passive escapism more readily than film.
Maybe that is why movies have been held morally suspect from their earliest days. Great freedom of speech battles were fought and won for books such as Ulysses, but few people thought to apply the First Amendment to the movies. Of course movies could, and should, be censored!—just as Congress could, and should, exempt professional baseball from the protections of the Constitution. Movies were almost like drugs; they contained secrets, they could prey on us, they could influence our morals and our lives. If we were Catholics in the years before Vatican II, we even got up in church once a year and raised our right hands and took the pledge of the Legion of Decency and vowed to avoid immoral films. No other venue of possible transgression (not the pool hall, the saloon, not even the house of prostitution) was thought seductive enough to require a similar public pledge.
The movies were different. For most of us, in the first place, they were probably deeply associated with our earliest escapist emotions. We learned what comedy was in the movies. We learned what a hero was. We learned (although we hooted as we learned) that men and women occasionally interrupted the perfectly logical things they were doing, and…kissed each other! And then, a few years down the line, we found ourselves turning away from the screen to kiss our dates—for surely more first kisses have taken place in movie theaters than anywhere else. In adolescence, we tried out various adult role possibilities by watching films about them. We rebelled by proxy. We grew up, lusted, and learned by watching movies that considered so many concerns we did not find included in our daily possibilities.
During all these years of movies and experiences, though, we never really took the movies seriously. They found their direct routes into our minds, memories, and behavior, but they never seemed to pass through our thought processes. If we finally did, in college, subscribe to the fashionable belief that the director was the author of the film, and that one went to the new Hitchcock and not the new Cary Grant, we still had a sneaky suspicion that a good movie was a direct experience, one to be felt and not thought about. Walking out of the new Antonioni, Fellini, Truffaut, or Buñuel and meeting friends who had not seen it, we immediately fell into the old way of talking about who was in it, and what happened to them. It rarely occurred to us to discuss a specific shot or camera movement, and never to discuss a film’s overall visual strategy.
Movie criticism often fell (and still falls) under the same limitation. It is the easiest thing in the world to discuss a plot. It is wonderful to quote great lines of dialogue. We instinctively feel a sympathy for those actors and actresses who seem to connect with sympathies or needs we feel within ourselves. But the actual stuff of the movies—shots, compositions, camera movements, the use of the frame, the different emotional loads of the various areas of the screen—is of little interest. We may never forget what Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in Rick’s Cafe Americain in "Casablanca," but we have already forgotten, if we ever knew, where they were placed in the frame. Fish do not notice water, birds do not notice air, and moviegoers do not notice the film medium.
That is how the great directors want it. Figuratively they want to stand behind our theater seats, take our heads in their hands, and command us: Look here, and now there, and feel this, and now that, and forget for the moment that you exist as an individual and that what you are watching is “only a movie.” It is not a coincidence, I believe, that so many of the films that have survived the test of time and are called “great” are also called, in the industry’s term, “audience pictures.” They tend to be the films in which the audience is fused together into one collective reacting personality. We enjoy such films more when we see them with others; they encourage and even demand the collective response.
Time will more and more reveal, I think, that the bad directors are the ones whose visual styles we are required to notice. Go to see Antonioni’s "The Red Desert" on the same bill with Fellini’s "8 1/2," as I once did, and you will feel the difference instantly: Antonioni, so studied, so self-conscious, so painstaking about his plans, creates a movie we can appreciate intellectually, but it bores us. Fellini, whose mastery of the camera is so infinitely more fluid, sweeps us through his fantasies without effort, and we are enthralled.
Having made these arguments, I would now like to introduce a paradox: I have taught classes for the last ten years in which we have used stop-action projectors or film analyzers to look at films a moment at a time. We have frozen frames and studied compositions as if they were still photographs. We have looked with great attention at the movements of both the camera and the objects within the frame (trying to discipline ourselves to regard Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as objects). We have, in short, tried to take the cinematic mechanism apart to see what makes it run; we have deliberately short-circuited the directors’ best attempts to make us give up our imaginations into their hands.
In the process, we have considered some of the fundamental rules of cinematic composition, such as that the right of the screen is more positive, or emotionally loaded, than the left, and that movement to the right seems more natural than movement to the left. We have noticed that the strongest vertical axis on the screen is not in the exact center but just to the right of it. (This business of the right being more positive than the left, by the way, seems to be related to the different natures of the two hemispheres of the brain: The right is more intuitive and emotional, the left more analytical and objective, and in the sensual escapism of the narrative film the left tends to give up the process of rational analysis and allow the right to become swept up in the story.) We have also talked about the greater strength of the foreground than the background, of the top over the bottom, and of how diagonals seem to want to escape the screen while horizontals and verticals seem content to remain where they are. We have talked about the dominance of movement over things at rest, and of how brighter colors advance while darker ones recede, and of how some directors seem to assign moral or judgmental values to areas within the frame, and then place their characters according to those values. And we have noticed what seems obvious, that closer shots tend to be more subjective and longer shots more objective, and that high angles diminish the importance of the subject but low angles enhance it.
We have talked about all of those things, and then we have turned down the lights and started the projector and looked one shot at a time at dozens of films, finding, for example, that not a single shot in any Hitchcock film seems to violate a single rule of the sort I have just indicated, but that there is hardly a comedy after Buster Keaton’s "The General" that seems to pay much heed to such principles. We have found that the handful of great films (not the “classics” that come out every month, but the great films) become more mysterious and affecting the more we study them, and that the director’s visual strategies can be read for intent, but no more reveal meanings than would the form of a sonnet betray Shakespeare’s heart. Even so, they provide a starting place if we want to free ourselves from an exclusive, almost instinctive, preoccupation with a film’s plot and move on to a more general appreciation of its visual totality.
One of my purposes, then, will be to discuss some of the technical truths, theories, and hunches that go into a director’s visual strategy. I would like later in this essay, for example, to consider in some detail the strategies in Ingmar Bergman’s "Persona," and particularly the dream (or is it is a dream?) sequence—the meanings of its movements to the right and the left, and the way in which Liv Ullmann sweeps back Bibi Andersson’s hair, and the mystery of why that moment, properly appreciated, says as much about the nature of human identity as any other moment ever filmed. And I will also discuss at some length Robert Altman’s "Three Women" and the ways in which it begins as the apparent record of a slice of life, and then moves into realms of personal mystery.
My approach almost requires that the films be right there in front of us, and one of the problems unique to all forms of written criticism (except literary criticism) is that one medium must be discussed in terms of another. I would like to attempt it, though, in discussing three aspects of film that seem more interesting (and perhaps more puzzling) to me today than they did when I first found myself working as a professional film critic twelve years ago.
The first aspect has to do with the fact that we approach films differently than we did, say twenty years ago, so that we have new ways of categorizing, choosing, and regarding them. The second aspect has to do with a mystery: Why do we insist on forcing all films into paraphrasable narratives when the form itself so easily resists narrative and so many of the best films cannot be paraphrased? Shouldn’t we become more aware of how we really experience a film, and of how that experience differs from reading a novel or attending a play? The third aspect concerns the relationship of the film critic to his audience—but perhaps that will begin to demonstrate itself as we consider the first two areas.
How do we choose, approach, and respond to a film?
That used to be a question with a fairly obvious answer. “Film appreciation” classes were held at which, after it was generally agreed that the photography was beautiful and the performances were fine, the discussion quickly turned to the film’s “meaning.” Bad films were trashy, aimed at the hypothetical twelve-year-old intelligence of what was taken as Hollywood’s average audience. Good films, on the other hand, contained lessons to be learned. John Ford’s "Stagecoach" was dismissed as a Western (worse, a John Wayne Western), but Ford’s "The Grapes of Wrath" was plundered for its insights into the Depression. That both films shared essentially the same subject (a band of people with a common interest attempt to penetrate the West in the face of opposition from unfriendly natives) was overlooked or ignored.
Indeed, “film appreciation” routinely ignored the very aspects that made films different from the presentation of the same source material in another medium. Laurence Olivier’s odd and enchanting approach to "Richard III" was never the issue; such a film was used as a “visual aid” to a more formal classroom study of Shakespeare’s text, when what was needed was aid in seeing the “visual aid” itself. Who had the audacity to suggest that the artist of consequence in the film was Olivier, not Shakespeare?
“Film appreciation” is still often the standard approach in the increasing number of high schools that offer courses in film. But at the university level, more sophisticated approaches are now in vogue. They began to grow possible, I imagine, at about the moment in the late 1950s when we began to hear, all at once, about the French New Wave and its key word, auteurism. A heresy, to which I subscribe, began to invade the general consciousness of more serious filmgoers: What a film is “about” is not the best reason for seeing it the first time, rarely a reason to see it twice, and almost never a sufficient reason for seeing it several times.
The central figures of the New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Resnais, Bresson, Malle) did not come out of the more practical backgrounds of most of their Hollywood and European counterparts. Instead of serving an apprenticeship under an established director or at a commercial or national film studio, they spent their early years in the dark, sitting before Paris movie screens and at the Cinémathèque française, devouring uncounted hours of film. They loved all film (indeed, to love film became so important to them that the influential journal they founded, Cahiers du Cinéma, took as its policy that a film should be reviewed only by a writer sympathetic to it). But most of all they loved Hollywood movies, perhaps because, as Truffaut was later to suggest, their ignorance of English and the Cinémathèque’s policy of not permitting subtitles allowed them to see the film itself—to be freed of the details of narrative content.
In the two decades that followed Truffaut’s "The 400 Blows" (1959), the New Wave directors would go in so many different ways (Chabrol to thrillers, Godard to radical video) that they could not remotely be said to share a similar style. At the beginning, though, they did share a lack of interest in conventional narrative. Their films looked more radical in 1960 than they do today, but, even so, Godard’s "Breathless," his widely hailed rejection of standard cinematic storytelling, came like a thunderclap announcing a storm to sweep away conventional ways of looking at movies.
It was not that directors were invisible and anonymous before the New Wave, or that the French proponents of the auteur theory were the first to declare that the director was the actual author of a film; it was more that many filmgoers themselves, after those watershed years of 1958–62, began to go to a film because of who had directed it, rather than because of who was in it or what it was about. There had always been famous directors; the title of Frank Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above the Title, refers to his own, and the public had also heard of DeMille, Hitchcock, Cukor, Ford, and many of the Europeans. But most moviegoers were not quite sure what a director did: His primary role, in the fictions retailed by the fan magazines, seemed to be casting. After the talent search for the right performer had ended triumphantly, the director’s role seemed to shade off into mystery and half-understood cries of “action!” and “cut!” An Otto Preminger was better known for discovering Jean Seberg in Iowa than for directing "Laura."
But now came an awareness that directors might be making their films to explore personal concerns, to create a movie as personally as a novelist was understood to write a book. The first directors widely understood to function in this way came from Europe. Bergman had his annual battles with his three great themes (the death of God, the silence of the artist, and the agony of the couple). The Italian Neo-Realists cried out against social injustice. The British kitchen sink dramatists and Angry Young Men turned to film a decade later to do the same. Fellini luxuriated in his wonderfully orchestrated processions of desire, nostalgia, and decadence. And then there was the New Wave.
Hollywood directors were not yet, for the most part, thought to operate in the same way. It was easy to see that Bergman was working out personal concerns, but harder to see that Hitchcock’s films also returned again and again to the same obsessions, guilts, doubts, and situations; perhaps the problem was that Bergman, on much smaller budgets, presented his subjects unadorned, while big movie stars and even the accessibility of the English language itself stood between the audience and Hitchcock’s concerns. In any case, during the 1960s the serious film audience (concentrated for the most part in the larger cities and on college campuses) took the key Europeans seriously and tended to dismiss Hollywood movies when they weren’t slumming at them. Thus it seemed that two quite distinct levels had been established on which the medium could function, and that neither had anything much to do with the other.
But then two things happened. One was that in the same decade of the 1960s television consolidated its gains over the movies as a mass medium and ended, for once and all, the mass habit of going routinely to the movies. A survey quoted by Film Quarterly in 1972 found that the average American spent 1,200 hours annually watching television, and nine hours at the movies. Hollywood, its audience shrinking, was no longer making its style B pictures, nor was it required to: Television was a B picture. What was left of the movie audience now went, not to “the movies,” but to a specific film. (Variety, the show business newspaper never shy of new word coinage, named them “event pictures”—films you had to see because everyone else seemed to be going to see them.) Many event pictures were, of course, the sort of dumb but craftsmanlike entertainments any competent director could have made (the better James Bond epics, for example, or "The Towering Inferno," or the "Airport" sagas). But as the 1960s wore on into the middle and late 1970s, many more American directors began to take on profiles as highly visible as the best Europeans. They were “personal filmmakers,” they explained at the college seminars that welcomed them more and more hospitably. To Bergman’s agony we now added Martin Scorsese’s mixture of urban violence and Catholic guilt, Robert Altman’s attempts to create communities on the screen, Paul Mazursky’s sophisticates in self-analysis, or Stanley Kubrick’s systematic exclusion of simple human feeling from his cold intellectual exercises.
The second development was that, while these altered perceptions about films were taking place in the, if you will, more exalted atmosphere of serious films, a quiet academic revolution was taking place down below, in the realm of pulp, genre, and mass entertainment. “Movies” had once been ignored as fit objects of serious academic study. Now, even genre films, along with best-selling paperbacks and comic books, made their way onto the campus, disguised as Popular Culture. The movement was not sponsored by Pauline Kael, the most influential American film critic, but in effect she provided its rationale: “The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have little reason to go.” Great trash? Yes, on occasion, said the popular culturalists, who looked beneath the seamy surface and found the buried structures that revealed the shared myths of our society.
These developments—the rise of auteurism, its adaptation to commercial Hollywood pictures, and a new seriousness about the mass culture—combined by the middle 1970s to alter, perhaps permanently, the way we regarded all the films we attended. It is hard to remember how few serious film critics held podiums twenty years ago (when Time magazine carried more influence, for that matter, than all the rest of the media combined—among the handful of moviegoers who read reviews at all). There were the critics of the New York Times, the Saturday Review and the Harper’s/Atlantic axis; there was Dwight MacDonald in Esquire, there were the lonely voices of the liberal weeklies —and almost all the rest was “reviewing,” “entertainment news,” and unashamed gossip.
And the serious critics were so earnest, finding lasting importance, for example, in Stanley Kramer’s "On the Beach" because of its bittersweet warning of a world killed by nuclear poison and inhabited only by dying lovers whistling “Waltzing Matilda.” Take that film, from 1959, and place it against Kubrick’s "Dr. Strangelove," a savagely satirical consideration of nuclear doom made in 1962, and you can see the beginning of the end of the old American commercial cinema, and then the uncertain birth of awareness in this country of the auteur and the event picture. Many years would pass before this revolution of taste was consolidated, but it is now more or less a fact. There are still stars who sell pictures, of course (who seeing John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" knows it was directed by John Badham?). But the stars now often seek the filmmakers; the “talent search” has been turned around.
This changed way of regarding new films has been, in one way, a good thing. It has created a film generation tuned in to the interesting new directors, to the new actors willing to stretch themselves, to the screenwriters turning away from standard commercial approaches and finding new ways with material, new connections to themes that might touch us more immediately. It has opened up the Hollywood system to newcomers: Altman, Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Mazursky, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Avildsen are among the best contemporary filmmakers, and all of them were not only unknown ten years ago but would have been considered unbankable if they had been known.
Within the industry, the enormous success of Dennis Hopper’s "Easy Rider" (1969) is often cited as the breaking point with the past, the moment when the old Hollywood transferred power to the new generation. If you could go out on location and make a film for less than $500,000 and see it gross more than $40 million, then all of the rules had to be rewritten. My own notion is that "Easy Rider" was something of an aberration, a film with no beginning or ending but with a wonderfully entertaining middle section that served to introduce Jack Nicholson to the non-exploitation-film audience for the first time. Most of the pictures inspired by "Easy Rider" were failures (a Hollywood joke at the time had it that every producer in town had a nephew out in the desert with a motorcycle, a camera, and $100,000). But the same period did give us a film of enormous influence, perhaps the most important American film of the last decade, Arthur Penn’s "Bonnie and Clyde."
It felt new; there was an exhilaration in its audiences that fascinated (and even frightened) the industry, because the people watching "Bonnie and Clyde" were obviously finding things in it that the vast majority of American films had not given them before. It starred an actor, Warren Beatty, who had all but been written off as an example of the old Hollywood of Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and the other packaged stars; and it demonstrated that original material, fashioned with thought instead of formula, could use “star quality” instead of being used simply to perpetuate a star. Its structure was interesting, too, with its two intersecting lines of emotion: "Bonnie and Clyde" began as a comedy with tragic undertones, and then Penn subtly orchestrated the film’s structure so that each laugh was more quickly interrupted by violence than the one before. Finally the film was no longer funny at all, and then, in his final passages, Penn provided such suffering and such bloodshed for his characters that the movie myth of the romantic gangster was laid to rest forever.
Where had he found his structure, his use of disparate episodes linked together by actors, each episode pushing the one after it further down into inevitable defeat? He found it suggested, of course, in the screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton. But I suspect Penn, Newman, Benton (and Beatty and Robert Towne, who also worked on the screenplay) all found it originally in such films as Truffaut’s "Jules and Jim." Their film didn’t copy Truffaut, but it learned from him, and with "Bonnie and Clyde" the New Wave had come to America. It had taken a decade, but the simple narrative film was finally no longer the standard Hollywood product. "Bonnie and Clyde" grossed some $50 million, and a new generation of American directors was set free.
There is something in that enormous box office gross that needs to be looked at more closely, however, especially in view of Variety’s discovery of the “event picture.” The best new American filmmakers were hailed by the critics and welcomed by the studios not simply because they were good, but because they made money. (One of the industry’s oldest adages: “Nobody ever set out to make a good picture that would lose money.”) After a decade in television, Altman’s theatrical film career was properly launched with "M*A*S*H." Scorsese’s gritty, energetic early masterpiece, "Who’s That Knocking at My Door?" (1969) did not find its sequel until "Mean Streets" (1973). In the meantime, he taught, edited, and made an exploitation film. The enormous success of Coppola’s "The Godfather" (1972) followed a string of flops that threatened to end his career, and William Friedkin’s "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" also rescued a career that was endangered by smaller, perhaps more personal films like "The Birthday Party" (based on Pinter’s play) and "The Boys in the Band."
This new generation was faced with a paradox: They were encouraged to use the new cinematic freedom, they were set free to make their own films, and yet the prize was still defined as success at the box office. As Kael observed in an important article for the New Yorker, it was no longer enough to have a successful film, or even simply a good film; the new generation seemed to be going for bust every time, hoping to make the new all-time box office champ. Sometimes they succeeded (Coppola’s "The Godfather," Lucas’s "Star Wars"). Sometimes they aimed and missed (Scorsese’s "New York, New York" and Friedkin’s "Sorcerer").
There have always been two kinds of theatrical cinema (apart, of course, from the nontheatrical, experimental works sometimes called underground films). Years ago, movies were routinely categorized as commercial films, or art films—with no one bothering to define what was meant by art. Little foreign movies with subtitles played in art houses, and big-budget productions with stars played in the movie palaces. Conventional wisdom had it that art was found in the little films and entertainment in the big ones.
But what now? With television preempting routine entertainments, and the best of the new directors moving cheerfully into frankly commercial projects (no matter how good they might ultimately be), is the film marketplace being irreparably fragmented? Must every film have huge grosses to be a success? Must even the subtitled foreign films (no longer often called “art films”) be popular on the scale of "Cousin, Cousine" (approximate U.S. gross: $15 million) to get bookings?
As a daily film critic, I see almost every film of any consequence that plays in this country. I see all the commercial releases, and almost all of the imports, and at the Cannes, New York, and Chicago film festivals, I see a good cross section of the smaller films, domestic and foreign, that are worthy of festivals but not commercial enough for wider release. Much of what I see is, of course, worthless, and most of it is not worth seeing twice. But there are still enough good films left over for me to feel, sometimes more often than you might think, that an entirely different season of films could be booked into the movie marketplace, replacing the films that do get shown, with little loss of quality. These are lost films, films that are the victims of the herd mentality of the American film audience. As the “event film” draws lines around the block, good films across the street are ignored. It has been eight years, for example, since the New German Cinema (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlondorff, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge) has been clearly identified in festival and critical circles as consistently providing the most interesting new movies coming out of Europe. Yet there has not yet been a single commercial success from West Germany in the American film marketplace, because there have been no “events.”
What concerns me is that we may have seen a revolution won, and then lost—that the overthrow of routine “programmers,” and the filmmakers’ gradual liberation from the restrictions of genre, casting, commercialism and style, have been followed with discouraging rapidity by a new set of strictures. The filmgoing audience has been educated to a degree, yes: Subtitles are no longer the curse of death for a foreign film, and offbeat subject matter is now welcomed as easily as it was once shunned; stylistic experiments by directors like Altman (whose sound tracks imitate the complexity of life) or Scorsese (who sets a frenetic, choppy pace for his characters to keep up with) are easily absorbed by a generation saturated by television. But the process seems now to have slowed down if it has not altogether stopped. In the early days of the revolution, I often discovered films being played in nearly empty theaters which nevertheless gave me quiet delight and satisfaction because I knew they had been made by artists with vision and the determination to work it out. This is less and less true for me nowadays. Such movies, if they are made, are for the most part briefly shown and then disappear—or, if they succeed, and last for months, it is for “event” reasons that obscure their real excellence.
We have learned from the New Wave, even if indirectly. We have grown conscious of individual filmmakers, and alert to personal styles. But we have also grown wary of the odd film, the film that is not an event, that leaves some of its viewers filled with admiration and others simply confused. The new freedom from narrative can carry filmmakers only so far before audiences want to push movies back into the old paraphrasable trap: “What was it about?” and, because the pressures of the marketplace have become so intense—because fewer films are made, fewer people go to them, and those few line up in large numbers for only a handful of films—directors face problems when they choose to keep pushing, stylistically. The New Wave as a revolution is twenty years old; its victories are consolidated and taken for granted. But there is still resistance to a new New Wave, the film that does not simply improvise with narrative but tries to leave it behind, to liberate itself from explanation and paraphrase and work in terms of pure cinema.
How should we experience a film?
It has been many decades since art, dance, or music were required to have paraphrasable content, or even thought of in that way. A similar freedom has come more slowly to the theater, and hardly at all to film. Narrative films can have such an overwhelming storytelling force that most filmgoers have become fixed on that level: They ask, “What’s it about?” And the answer satisfies their curiosity about the movie. Movie advertising and promotion executives believe a sure key to box office success is a movie that can be described in one easy sentence:
It’s about a giant shark.
Marlon Brando meets this girl in an empty apartment, and they…
It’s two hours of “Flash Gordon,” only with great special effects.
It’s about the tallest building in the world catching on fire.
It’s about a slum kid who gets a crack at the heavyweight title.
There did seem to be a brief moment, in the late 1960s, when narrative films were becoming obsolete. "Easy Rider," mentioned before, inspired a wave of films with structures that were frankly fragmented. Some of them merely abandoned carefully plotted narrative for the easier, and much older, narrative structure of the picaresque journey; there was a subgenre of “road pictures” in which the heroes hit the road and let what happened to them, happen. Road pictures often functioned as clotheslines on which the director could hang out some of his ideas about American society, at a particularly fragmented moment in our own history. "Easy Rider" itself, for example, contained episodes on a rural commune, a drug-dealing subplot, a visit to Mardi Gras, a scene in which the protagonists got stoned on marijuana around a campfire, and episodes in which stereotyped rednecks and racists murdered the hippie heroes.
Other films abandoned narrative altogether. One of the period’s most popular films, the documentary "Woodstock," never overtly organized its material, depending instead on a rhythmic connection of the music and images at its awesomely large rock concert. Underground and psychedelic films surfaced briefly in commercial houses. The Beatles’ "Yellow Submarine" was a free-fall through fantasy images and music. Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" teased its audiences with documentarylike titles (“To Infinity—and Beyond”) but abandoned all traditional narrative logic in its conclusion.
The films I have mentioned were successful, but most of the period’s nonnarrative films were not. The hugely successful films of the 1970s have all been built on sound narrative structures: "The French Connection," "The Godfather," "Patton," "Chinatown," "The Sting," "Star Wars." Because these films can be understood so completely through their stories, audiences have found them very satisfactory on that level. Nobody has been much interested that some of them ("The Godfather" and "Chinatown," for example) may have richer levels of psychological and visual organization.
It appears, then, that films aimed only at the eye and the emotions cannot find large audiences. Experimental filmmakers can try out fascinating combinations of color, light, pulse, cutting, and sound (as Jordan Belsen did). They can even create works in which the actual cone of light from the projector was the work of art, and instruct the audience to stand where the screen would be (as Anthony McCall has done). But their nonnarrative works play in museums and galleries and on the campus; commercial feature filmmaking and its audience seem as committed as ever to good stories, well told.
I am enough a member of the generation that went to the Saturday matinees of the 1940s to love fine narrative movies (I sometimes list among my favorite films Hitchcock’s "Notorious," Carol Reed’s "The Third Man," and the first Humphrey Bogart classic that comes to mind). But I believe the future of feature films as an art form lies in the possibilities beyond narrative—in the intuitive linking of images, dreams, and abstractions with reality, and with the freeing of them all from the burden of relating a story. I certainly do not believe the day will come soon when large audiences forsake narrative. But I am concerned that three things are slowing the natural evolution of cinema—the eminence of the “event film” (already discussed), our obsessive insistence on a paraphrasable narrative, and the reduced visual attention span caused by over-consumption of television.
My concern about television should be almost self-explanatory. Most of us probably spend too much time watching it. Most of it is not very good. To catch and retain our attention, it has to go by quickly. There are thousands of little climaxes on the networks every night: Small, even perfunctory moments when someone is killed, slams a door, falls out of a car, tells a joke, is kissed, weeps, does a double take, or is merely introduced (“Here’s Johnny”). These smaller climaxes are interrupted at approximately nine-minute intervals by larger climaxes, called commercials. A commercial can sometimes cost more than the show surrounding it and can look it. Made-for-television movie scripts are consciously written with the thought that they must be interrupted at regular intervals; the stories are fashioned so that moments of great interest are either arrived at or (as often) postponed for the commercial.
I have expressed concern about our obsessive love for narrative, our demand that movies tell us a story. Perhaps I should be just as concerned with what television is doing to our ability to be told a story. We read novels for many reasons, E. M. Forster tells us in a famous passage from Aspects of the Novel, but most of all we read them to see how they will turn out. Do we, anymore? Traditional novels and films were often all of a piece, especially the good ones, and one of the pleasures of progressing through them was to see the structure gradually revealing itself. Hitchcock’s frequent practice of “twinning” is an example: His films, even such very recent ones as "Frenzy" (1972), show his delight in the pairing off of characters, scenes, and shots so that ironic comparisons can be made. Is the mass audience still patient enough for such craftsmanship? Or has the violent narrative fragmentation of television made visual consumption a process rather than an end?
Such questions are relevant to a discussion of two of the best films of recent years, Ingmar Bergman’s "Persona" (1967) and Robert Altman’s "Three Women" (1977). I might have chosen a number of other films for a discussion of the nonnarrative possibilities of the medium; I choose these two not only because I think they are genuinely great but because they share a similar theme and so can help illuminate each other.
Neither film was a commercial success. "Persona," to borrow John Frankenheimer’s memorable description of his own "The Manchurian Candidate," “went directly from the status of Flop to the status of Classic, without passing through the intermediate stage of Success.” And Altman’s film barely broke even—although at a cost of a little more than $1 million it was a low-budget production by 1977 standards. Bergman’s film quickly made its passage into classic status; the 1972 poll of the world’s film critics by Sight and Sound, the British film magazine, listed it among the ten greatest films ever made, and it is now considered by many Bergman scholars to be his best. Altman’s film has yet to find what I hope will be its eventual audience. Both films dealt with women who exchanged, or merged, personalities. Neither film ever explained, or tried to explain, how those exchanges took place. For many members of the audience, that was apparently the trouble.
Ingmar Bergman’s "Persona"
After an opening consisting of a quick montage of images (about which more later), Bergman introduces the premise of "Persona." One night, during a performance of Electra, an actress (played by Liv Ullmann) suddenly stops speaking onstage. The next day she tries to shake off her strange silence, but is unsuccessful. The psychiatrist treating her suggests that a summer’s rest in the country might be therapeutic and assigns a young nurse (played by Bibi Andersson) to be her companion. The nurse is apprehensive from the first: What if the actress, so much stronger and more famous, proves to be too much for her?
That is apparently what happens. The two women enjoy a quiet existence together for at time, picking berries, sorting mushrooms, taking walks on the beach. But eventually the silence of the actress draws the nurse into more and more compulsive conversation, including a long monologue in which she describes a youthful sexual encounter on a beach. The actress breaks the confidence by describing the anecdote in a letter to her husband—a letter perhaps deliberately left unsealed. When the nurse reads the letter, she feels so angry and betrayed that she deliberately leaves a piece of glass where the actress will step on it.
When that happens, the film apparently breaks. Bergman, in his original screenplay (which the film itself does not always follow), discusses the abrupt interruption of the images that occurs: “At this point the projector should stop. The film, happily, would break, or someone lower the curtain by mistake; or perhaps there could be a short circuit, so that all the lights in the cinema went out.” And then, continuing in a remarkable passage, he seems to suggest the sort of nonnarrative cinematic effect we have been discussing: “Only this is not how it is. I think the shadows would continue their game, even if some happy interruptions cut short our discomfort. Perhaps they no longer need the assistance of the apparatus, the projector, the film, or the sound track. They reach out towards our senses, deep inside the retina, or into the finest recesses of the ear. Is this the case? Or do I simply imagine that these shadows possess a power, that their rage survives without the help of the picture frames, this abominably accurate march of twenty-four pictures a second, twenty-seven metres a minute” (Bergman, "Persona").
This is his mystical, almost savagely yearning wish for the way his film should affect us. His solution to the print’s “breaking” in the actual film is a visualization of the same impulse: After the screen goes blank, it fills itself again with the arc of the projector lamp, and then the repetition of some of the opening images and some new ones, suggesting that the film has gone back to its beginnings and consciously reconstructed itself, up to the moment of the interruption.
The women now move into a mysterious, long passage of film in which the actress’s personality seems to absorb the nurse’s—or have they been the same person from the beginning? There is the dream sequence I mentioned at the outset (the one, to repeat, that may not be a dream). Two doors, brightly illuminated, are on either side of the screen. A bed is in the foreground. Curtains seem to obscure the views back into either of the doorways. The nurse, with “realistic” behavior, enters on the right, moves to the left, passes through the second door, comes out with a glass of water, drinks, lies on the bed, apparently goes to sleep. A foghorn is heard. Then the actress enters and mirrors the nurse’s movements. Something is said (or is it said?), and the nurse looks up to see the actress standing there. She rises. They embrace, and then turn slowly so that both look directly at the camera. As the actress brushes the hair back from the nurse’s face, the resemblance between the two women (Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson) seems striking.
Later in the film there is a long monologue in which the nurse seems to know personal secrets in the background of the actress: How she feels about her husband, her child, her sex. Bergman shoots the scene twice, once with an unbroken closeup of the nurse, then again with an unbroken closeup of the actress. Then, stunningly, he uses a double exposure to blend the two faces together. And we remember that among the images at the very beginning of the film were those in which a small boy reached out a hand to touch out-of-focus faces on a screen: The faces of two women.
You have observed, I suppose, that I am attempting to do the very thing with "Persona" that I think should not be necessary: I am trying to tell the “story.” But is that really what I have accomplished? What I have written here is so far from describing the effect of the film, the mystery of its strangeness and greatness, that I might just as well not have bothered. There is little possibility of “giving away the ending” with "Persona" because quite possibly there is no ending to give away—simply an organic emotional statement to be gradually absorbed.
There is, to be sure, no end of clues for the scholar determined to make sense of "Persona." Bergman himself tells us it grew out of the most difficult period of his life. After two decades of making films which were often about artists who found themselves creatively impotent, he suddenly found himself in that very dilemma. An inner ear infection made it impossible for him to move without vertigo: “If you asked me to explain 'Persona,'" he once told me during an interview, “I couldn’t. But I know that 'Persona' literally saved my life at the time I was writing it. I was very ill. I hadn’t lost my mental balance, but I had lost my physical balance. I couldn’t stand up or even move my head without nausea. So I started to write down some lines every day, just a few lines, just for the discipline of going from the bed to the table without falling over. As a filmmaker, I could not work if I could not move. Now here was a story about an actress who stopped working one day, surrendered her ability to talk.”
As a functioning filmmaker, he might as well have been paralyzed. And so now we have the autobiographical reference, if we want one. The montage of brief images at the beginning of the film represents his own recreation of his art, and of his ability to function. The first is of the lamp in a movie projector being ignited, and then there are brief cuts from very early films, and shots and images from some of Bergman’s own work (the spider, for example, represents the vision in "Through a Glass Darkly" of God as a spider, and there is a hand being pierced by a nail, and the spike fence from the opening nightmare in "Wild Strawberries"). “I had it in my head,” he says, discussing this sequence with his interviewers in Bergman on Bergman, “to make a poem, not in words but in images, about the situation in which "Persona" had originated. I reflected on what was important, and began with the projector and my desire to set it in motion. But when the projector was running, nothing came out of it but old ideas, the spider, God’s lamb, all that dull old stuff….”
Again, when the film breaks after the actress steps on the glass—that is the moment when the filmmaking tension has become too great to bear, so that Bergman the artist breaks and must start again. (“Inspiration had suddenly dried up on me. That was…when I got ill again, and the whole thing had come to a stop.”) And, near the end, when there is a deliberate glimpse of Bergman’s camera and crew, and then the next scene reveals itself in the camera’s own lens, that is perhaps the sigh of relief of an artist who finds his conclusion in sight.
These are things I know now, and yet I have not begun to get to the bottom of "Persona," even after seeing it perhaps a dozen times, after teaching it many times with the film analyzer, and, indeed, after discussing it with Bergman. But what did I see on the November afternoon in 1967, when I had been a professional film critic only six months and was therefore presumably fairly close to the average, if serious, moviegoer I hoped to write for? In looking back at my own review of "Persona," written the same day I first saw the film, I find the same mystification in my own first response that so many other people feel. “The director keeps reminding us that he’s right there, creating his film before our eyes,” I wrote. “And the distance between his presence and the story he tells is like the distance between what the actress is and what she reveals. The nurse is maddened by the unspeaking actress in the same sense that the audience is frustrated by the movie: Both stubbornly refuse to be conventional and to respond as we expect.”
I suppose I intended that as praise. I awarded the movie four stars, in that conventional newspaper movie review shorthand that also awards "Jaws" four stars. But I did not understand it. Or, more correctly, perhaps I understood it and did not know that I did. I did not find the feeling in the images, because I was staring at them so hard to spot their meanings. I know today, because I have been told, exactly what each of the images in the opening montage represents. But that sort of knowledge is really movie trivia; spiders and ghosts and cadavers and a nail being driven into a hand have visceral meaning if we let them, and Bergman was not putting them in, I suspect, so that the scholars of his work could take them out again and label them. They are there for the viewer to respond to as he wishes.
The story of the two women is also “unsatisfactory” on the narrative level. It began for Bergman, he told me, with the mental image of two women holding each other’s hands, comparing their hands, their faces shaded from the sunlight by big, floppy hats—and that image is in the film. But what of the story of the women that grew up around it? We know, because we are familiar with Freudian shorthand and perhaps took college courses rich in image and metaphor, what such a story could mean. In the hands of another director, it could become a struggle of wills, perhaps, and we could take that home and file it away. But why does Bergman cheat? Those faces merging into one another—is he playing with them, with us, or with his camera? That moment after the dream sequence (if it is a dream), when the two women go out into the yard and both seem to know the actress’s husband, and the actress seems to watch as the nurse pretends to be the actress and is made love to by the husband-—that moment is fine, but it includes a shot, as the three of them stand on the lawn, when the actress seems to move from one position to another in a way that would be logically, spatially, impossible. What is going on here? Does the husband really make love to the actress? Is he there at all? Why can’t this be a nice, standard 1940s psychological drama, with a doctor to come on at the end and explain things to the relieved relatives? (As late as 1960, Hitchcock marred the ending of his masterpiece, "Psycho," by bringing an unnecessary psychiatrist on screen for that very reason.)
My own view of "Persona," developed gradually after all those many viewings, is that the film is intended primarily as a sensual experience, dealing at levels below narrative with the uncertainties we all have about our identities. To “read” it, to pluck its images out and stick them in a textbook or write them on a blackboard, is to commit an act of desecration. I do not mean here to sound anti-intellectual, or to suggest that academic study of such a film is futile. What I mean to suggest is that Bergman’s film can be of most use to us if we allow it to happen to us, again and again, until its rhythms have been fully absorbed and can sooth or anger us as we are freed from its narrative surprises.
Music has that ability; why not film? Most films will not stand up to repeated viewings, but perhaps some of the great ones demand them. As we grow more and more familiar with the images and the rhythms, perhaps the medium grows transparent and we can see through it to the mind of the artist, feel his feelings, and share his fears. If the artist is uninteresting or banal or concerned only with diverting us or making money for himself, that transparency will, of course, be disappointing. But if his insights are truly felt, and if he has (through skill or luck) found the appropriate external forms for them (in the story, the performers, the locations, the camera strategy, the editing, the music, and the art direction), then I believe the film medium is sensitive and flexible enough to become the means of a joining of minds.
Let me return, with that view, to the moment in "Persona" I have described, one of the most sublimely beautiful and moving moments in film history. We are in the bedroom of the cottage. Bibi Andersson enters on the “strong axis,” the point just to the right of the screen’s true center. She moves left, a “negative” direction to our bicameral human brain. She enters the left door, placed on a “weaker” side of the screen. She gets the water, drinks it, moves back again to the right (a “positive” movement) and lies down on the bed, facing right, her body balanced on the strong axis. Liv Ullmann appears in the brightly lit, almost ethereal space behind the same curtains on the right—she seems almost a ghost. She enters the room, repeats Andersson’s movements, and comes to stand just to the left of center (slightly “negative”). She speaks, or does she? We do not see her lips move. Bibi Andersson, apparently asleep, senses a presence in the room. She turns on her side in the bed, sees Liv Ullmann, and rises. The two women approach each other and then turn to the camera—to us. They move so that now Ullmann is on the right, reassuring, “strong axis.” She brushes back Andersson’s hair. Both look at us.
What do we feel? I have read reviews so insipid as to find a lesbian element in this scene. Stupid, yes, but resolutely “reading” the film on its surface narrative level. Or, on the level of abstract visual strategy, the back-and-forth movements of the characters can be read as a demonstration of their individual choices, their positive and negative possibilities, and of how they come to rest on the strong axis as they admit their mutual humanity. But there is still much more there to be discovered.
What I sense after so many viewings is that this is the emotional center of the film. Bergman is permitting the two characters to touch as they so gravely regard us, so that we can experience the duality he sees in all human personalities: The visible and the interior, our public personalities and what we secretly know about ourselves, the differences we have one from another and the fundamental ways in which we are all the same. Liv Ullmann seems to be saying nothing more than “See? How simple!” and then “See! How important!” Bibi Andersson sees. And if we experience the moment deeply enough, we are struck then and there with the clarifying realization that "Persona" is not about an actress who suddenly one day stops speaking: It is a film in which Bergman uses that plot element to free himself from words, so that communication could take place between his actresses (and with his audiences) without the cumbersome necessity for everything to be objectified and explained by dialogue. "Persona" is not a long film. A film in which both characters were permitted to speak might have taken forever to communicate the same meaning—if it could have.
“Did you speak to me last night?” Andersson asks Ullmann the next morning, in a scene obviously intended to be closer to surface reality than the mysteries of the night before. Ullmann’s reply is to quickly shake her head, not to signify “no” but to caution, “don’t ask!”
Robert Altman’s "Three Women"
Robert Altman’s "Three Women," he says, came to him in a dream, and a very complete dream at that: “I dreamed of the desert,” he told me during a conversation in 1977. “And I dreamed of these three women, and I remember that every once in a while I’d dream that I was waking up and sending out people to scout locations and cast the thing. And when I woke up in the morning, it was like I’d done the picture. What’s more, I liked it. So I decided to do it.” All in a night’s dream. Hitchcock has said that when his screenplays are finished, his films are perfect; they become flawed only during the execution. Altman, awakening from his dream, must have felt even more frustrated: "Three Women" was finished, all except for the steps necessary to make it into a movie.
He might have been wiser, perhaps, not to reveal that he began with a dream. His film, like "Persona," lacks a paraphrasable story and cannot be described in such a way as to give it easily assimilated meaning Critics requiring that kind of content have accused Altman of indulging himself, of not bothering to give shape and form to his fantasies. Yet, like Bergman, Altman was uninterested in constructing a Freudian puzzle that we could entertain ourselves by solving. He wanted simply to film his dream. Such indulgences are permitted to the avant-garde—indeed, even are expected and encouraged. But if a Hollywood director takes money from 20th Century-Fox and casts star actresses like Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in his dream, he seems to invite irrational resentments. When the film was shown at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, for example, it inspired a certain degree of anger among Altman admirers who wanted him to make another "M*A*S*H" or "Nashville" instead of entertaining the pretense that he was an art film director.
Altman’s film-dream begins, as so many dreams do, firmly grounded in reality. We are somewhere in the Southwest—Southern California, maybe, at a spa where old people come to rest and take the heat and the waters. Shelley Duvall works as an attendant there and is an almost pathetically pleasant and simple soul who masks her simplicities with the sorts of worldly wisdom to be gained from the women’s magazines at supermarket checkout counters. Sissy Spacek, painfully shy, easily grateful, comes to work at the spa, and Duvall teaches her some of the ropes.
In an early scene that provides the visual (and dream) keys to the entire movie, Duvall has Spacek lie back in the shallow, overheated pool where the old people make their arthritic progress through problematic cures. She takes Spacek’s feet and places them on her own stomach, and then demonstrates how the knee joints can be exercised by flexing first one leg and then the other. As the lesson continues, Altman’s camera very slowly moves to the left and alters focus to follow a diagonal toward the left background, where we see twin sisters, also employees of the spa, regarding the two girls. The twins obviously suggest the twinning that the two major characters will experience before their gradual merging with a third; we will return later to what is suggested by the flexing of the legs. This scene, like so much in the film’s early passages, is so straightforward in detail that we may take it for descriptive realism. It is, though, the dream deceiving itself by seeming to be everyday, routine, and even banal. Contained in the action of the scene and the movement within the shot is the buried content of the film, and we will have to reconsider these moments when we reach the film’s end.
Life goes on in the dry desert settlement. Altman is cautious, however, not to show us too much of it. There is never the sense in "Three Women" that the characters exist in a complete, three-dimensional community, and that is a departure for Altman. Since he first found a wide audience with the easy camaraderie of his battlefield surgeons in "M*A*S*H"(1970), almost all of his films have given us the sense of characters thrown together in common humanity. There is the striking opening reel of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), for example, with its central character (Warren Beatty) riding into town, hardly distinguishable from the other occupants of the saloon he enters. Stars used to be given entrances and used to make them with self-conscious style. Altman allows Beatty to be absorbed in the crowd, the smoke, and the general background conversation. In "McCabe," "California Split" (1974), and "Nashville" (1975) in particular, there is always the feeling of life continuing offscreen; if the camera were suddenly to whirl about 180 degrees, we would almost expect to see more of the life of the movie, rather than Altman and his crew members.
That is very certainly not the case with "Three Women." The locations are few and almost reluctantly admitted into the film. There is the health spa, the parking lot outside of it, a sort of singles residential motel with a pool, a bar with a Western motif and a shooting range and motorcycle cross-country track behind it, a bus station, and a hospital room; nothing more. One striking shot, well into the film, mounts the camera on the hood of Shelley Duvall’s car and then, as the car drives through the desert, almost insolently pans from horizon to horizon to show that nothing more is there. These are dream landscapes and locations, and the two young women have no firm place in them (they are rudely ignored by their fellow workers at the spa—and most especially by the twin sisters).
The action of the film is easily described, although perhaps not very satisfactorily. Duvall, whose idea of the domestic arts is a reliable recipe for “pigs in a blanket” and a file of plastic recipe cards color-coded according to the time each recipe takes, asks Spacek to become her roommate. Spacek accepts, looking around the rather sad, relentlessly conventional little apartment with breathless enthusiasm. She says that Duvall is the most perfect person she has ever met. Duvall, naive herself, is privately stunned at such depths of naiveté in another. They set up housekeeping and begin to make themselves visible to the men in the neighborhood. At this point Altman begins his sly drift from the reassuring reality of everyday details to the selective, heightened reality of a dream, a new reality that is counterpointed by unworldly, fantastic murals being drawn on the swimming pool walls and floor by another woman at the motel, the pregnant wife of the resident manager.
The men in the film are never quite present. They are on the screen, but as if in another dream, another film. They have oddly, disturbingly, deep voices. They rumble. They participate only in male activities of a threatening nature: They are policemen, or they fire guns, or they race their motorcycles, or they drink too much and make drunken, awkward, probably impotent approaches in the middle of the night. There is a social life around the motel’s pool, but the two girls seem invisible to it. Half-heard phrases mock and reject them, and Duvall’s poignant little dinner party (pigs in a blanket, of course) is spoiled when the would-be male guests roar away in their pickup after casually mentioning that they can‘t make it.
As in "Persona," the central point of "Three Women" is arrived at with a conscious break in the film’s flow. When the drunken motel manager comes into the girls’ apartment one night, and Duvall asks Spacek to leave, she does—and attempts suicide by throwing herself off the motel railing into the pool. She goes into a coma. Duvall makes attempts to reach her parents, and a couple finally does arrive at the patient’s bedside. But they are rather like dream parents, so obviously old (the father is played by veteran director John Cromwell, himself 90), that it seems most unlikely they could be real, and they comprehend little. Why is Altman doing this? some of his critics at Cannes asked. Why needlessly complicate the film with “parents” who cannot be this girl’s parents—and then never explain them? But would the film have gained by plausible, “real” parents, who would provide a realistic background for the Spacek character? Or would it have meandered off into explanations and the mechanical working-out of plot points? The dream parents here are so absent, so inappropriate in the vagueness of their presences, that we reach out to them, demand explanations of them—and perhaps that is what one should do with parents in dreams.
The old people return home, Spacek recovers, and then, in a series of scenes as original and daring as anything Altman has ever done, she undergoes a kind of mysterious transfer of personalities with Duvall. It is not a merging, as seemed to be the case in "Persona," but an exchange of power. Duvall smoked cigarettes; now Spacek does. It was Duvall’s apartment; now Spacek gives the orders. Spacek was so childlike earlier in the film that she blew bubbles through her straw into a glass of Coke; now, she finds the capacity to behave confidently, even brazenly, with men. (Duvall’s reaction shot in the scene where this new Spacek personality first reveals itself is, quite simply, a wonder.)
At the same time we begin to grow more aware of the third woman (Janice Rule), the wife of the motel’s manager. She is pregnant, and she seems a little old to be having her first child (Rule was in fact 46 when the film was made). Altman has been cutting to her murals throughout the film, and on a second or third viewing we begin to see that they are not merely decorative, that they provide a sinister counterpoint with their vaguely demon or monsterlike men-creatures. (We should perhaps have been alert to that possibility the first time around; in almost every Altman film there is some sort of exterior running commentary on the action: The public address system announcements in "M*A*S*H," the news broadcasts in "Brewster McCloud," the story of the unicorn in Images, Leonard Cohen’s songs in "McCabe," the background radio programs in "Thieves Like Us," the rambling Geraldine Chaplin commentaries in "Nashville," Joel Grey’s announcements in "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," and so on.)
As the transfer of power between Duvall and Spacek consolidates itself, Rule comes more to the foreground, and then there is a crucial visual connection, leading back to that key opening scene in the pool. The night comes for Rule to have her baby, and she is alone in her cottage. Duvall, having done what she could to nurse Spacek back to health, now desperately tries to assist at the childbirth, screaming at Spacek to telephone for help. Then Duvall places Rule’s feet against her stomach and flexes them, manipulating them with the same method she earlier used to instruct Spacek on the care of arthritic limbs. Dream actions repeat themselves, fold in upon themselves, appear first in realistic settings and then reveal their hidden meanings. At the scene’s conclusion, the baby is stillborn. Duvall turns and sees that Spacek is still standing there, dumbly—or defiantly? She has never telephoned.
Now comes the conclusion, as beautifully mysterious in its way as the one in "Persona." A yellow vehicle, shot by telephoto, takes forever to arrive through the shimmering desert air and reveal itself as a Coca-Cola delivery truck. Inside the Western bar (always before, a source of hostility and male dominance), Duvall now acts the part of the “mother.” Spacek is the “daughter.” The husband has somehow been killed by someone, perhaps even himself, on the firing range. The Coke delivery is accepted. We see the exterior of a cottage, and the dialogue on the sound track suggests that the three women have now established some sort of new community, perhaps a merging or interchange of generations and family roles. “When I filmed the ending,” Altman told me, “I was careful only to stay true to the memory of my dream. Then I kept on discovering things in the film, right up to the final edit. The film begins, for example, with Sissy Spacek wandering in out of the desert and meeting Shelley Duvall and getting the job in the rehabilitation center. And when I was looking at the end of the film during the final editing process, it occurred to me that when you see that final exterior shot of the house, and you hear the dialogue asking the Sissy Spacek character to get the sewing basket…well, she could just walk out of that house and go to California and walk in at the beginning of the movie, and it would be perfectly circular and even make sense that way. But of course that’s only one way to read it.”
The film’s emotional key can be found only in its images; it cannot be read as narrative. The two most important visual links are the scenes in which Duvall places the soles of the feet of each of the other women against her stomach and initiates childbirthlike movements. There are no live births, of course, but in some way we suspect these women have all given birth to one another. We tick off the various female roles they have played, among them, in the film: They have been, at one time or another, an immature teenager, a desperately earnest young homemaker, two physical therapists, a social mixer, a girl rejected for being “not popular,” a bold “single,” roommates sharing sexual jealousy, a would-be suicide, a nurse, a woman rejected by her adulterous husband, a younger girl insolently approached by him, a neurotic, a waitress, a pregnant woman, an artist…and a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother. And not a single one of these personas was seen as such, or related to as such, by any of the men in the film.
What an anthology of women’s roles Altman has given us, by freeing himself from narrative conventions! It might have taken him half a career to say so much about the traps for women in our society, the roles they are forced into and the frustrations they contain, if he had set about doing so in terms of the traditional fiction film. But his dream (for I do believe him when he says it was a dream) suggested the emotional connections, and perhaps logical ones are not really necessary. If Bergman’s film was about the mystery and wonder of identity itself, then is not Altman’s about the self-deceptions that we sometimes try to pass off as our own identities?
Here are three women—or let us say one woman, or even one sentient being. In an attempt to relate, to connect, this being tries on a bewildering, and depressing, variety of the roles available to it. None of the roles connects with others, none provides satisfaction in itself, and none seems to serve any useful purpose. “Woman!” Freud is supposed to have said: “What does she want?” And, to be as bleak as Altman, what can she get? Must she then finally turn in upon herself, absorb all her possible identities, roles, and strategies, and become a young-old-older identity sitting somewhere in a cottage, heard from afar talking among her various selves?
One of the reasons I have selected "Persona" and "Three Women" for extended discussion is that both films represent considerable creative leaps for their directors—important, and even courageous, breaks with their pasts. I would like to discuss each film more fully in terms of the artistic development of the filmmakers.
Both Bergman and Altman began their careers very firmly rooted in the traditions of narrative film. Bergman’s little-known films of the 1940s, for example, owe a great debt to the Italian Neo-Realists. Works like "Ships to India" (1947), with its stereotyped story of misunderstood youth, or "Port of Call" (1948), in which the reasons for an attempted suicide are laboriously examined, have almost nothing in common with the great works their author later created. Bergman has always been interested, one might also say obsessed, with themes involving identity, and especially the identities of female characters, but an early proto-"Persona" like "Summer Interlude" (1950) resolutely stayed on the surface of its narrative about a ballerina tormented by approaching middle age and the inability to perform.
In looking at the more than thirty films Bergman has made in the last thirty-three years, we can witness an artist in the process of discovering himself and his powers. He was not a natural filmmaker, as Fellini might be said to be. Bergman began with studied exercises in social commentary; he borrowed awkwardly from the Neo-Realists; and then he spent the 1950s developing a distinctive style and voice that was sometimes masked by his too-willing use of striking symbolism. The chess game with Death in "The Seventh Seal" (1956), the old professor’s nightmare in "Wild Strawberries" (1957), and the attic apparitions of "The Magician" (1958) will always remain among his most famous scenes, but they are the easy way out when contrasted with the depth, complexity, and emotional power of his consideration of death in "Cries and Whispers" (1972), the dreamlike night in "Persona," or the nightmarish imagined visions of the schizophrenic girl in "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961).
Bergman had to leave his facility for striking symbolism behind if he wanted to penetrate more deeply into the themes that obsessed him, and he did, starting with his “death of God” trilogy of 1961–63 ("Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light," and "The Silence"). The middle film was one of the most visually barren and striking he ever made, with the bleak coldness of its little Swedish Lutheran church in winter and the starkness of the office in which a spiritually impotent minister tried to counsel a suicidal parishioner. The trilogy must have been a spiritual cleansing for Bergman, because after it he left behind, as a subject, his concern with God’s apparent silence. He also left behind (with the singular exceptions of the unsuccessful comedy "All These Women" in 1964 and the black-magical scenes in "Hour of the Wolf" in 1968) any desire to deal with his human subjects except head-on. Henceforth he was to be seen gravely regarding them as individuals, not as elements on a canvas that could also include stylistic symbolic props.
"Persona" was the breakthrough film. It was almost as if he had found the courage to leave behind the trappings—the medieval rituals, the devils, the flamboyant props and fantasies he had heretofore employed—and was determined to deal with his characters unadorned.
I asked him about that when I met him in 1975, during the filming of "Face to Face." He had a little room, long, dim, and cool, like a monk’s cell, across the hallway from the sound stage he was working on in Stockholm’s Film House. It was furnished simply with two chairs, a cot, and a table (upon which rested two apples, a banana, a box of chocolates, and the script). When he was not sure about how a scene was going, he said, his practice was to come into the room, lock the door, and lie down on the cot until the scene was clear in his head.
“What has happened in my recent work,” he said, “is that I’ve grown up. I’ve matured. I’m more interested now in the people themselves. If I believe in anything, I believe in the sudden relationship, the sudden contact between human beings. When we grow up, we suddenly feel we are completely alone. We find substitutes for loneliness—but this feeling of a certain contact, a certain instant understanding between two people, that’s the best thing in life. It has nothing to do with sex, by the way.”
That “sudden relationship” perhaps explains what is seen to happen in the final shot of the dreamlike bedroom scene in "Persona." It can also be seen in "Cries and Whispers," when two sisters (Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin), long at odds with one another, suddenly and compulsively begin to stroke each other’s faces while exchanging words of endearment. And also at the end of the six-part television serial "Scenes From a Marriage" (1974), when the man and the woman (Erland Josephson and Miss Ullmann), separated and divorced for so many years, decide on a whim to spend a night together in a friend’s cottage, “a cottage in the middle of the night somewhere in the world.”
But what can be seen at the same time in Bergman’s visual style, and especially since Persona, is his characteristic use of a particular kind of “two shot” (the cinematographer’s eminently sensible term for a shot containing two people). Again and again, so frequently that it becomes his motif, Bergman places two people within the frame but does not permit them to look at one another. Both look away, or one looks at the other, who looks away. The moments of actual visual contact in Bergman’s films, even those of his earlier years, are astonishingly rare. An underlying tension becomes apparent when all of his films are looked at in sequence, or when the films from "Persona" on are examined with particular care: The characters cannot, or will not, or fear to, communicate openly with one another. The barriers are always there, but then they break down in a rush of vulnerable, even confessional, emotion.
This sort of tension does not lend itself to conventional narrative structure, and especially not to the sort of storytelling to which the commercial cinema usually limits itself. If characters cannot communicate, that is one thing; but if they’re forced to inhabit stories about their lack of communication, there’s the danger of self-defeating boredom, of movies trapped forever inside a Jules Feiffer cartoon. Having abandoned the symbolic stage-trappings, Bergman had to find, to invent for himself, a valid way of dealing with “the agony of the couple,” as he called it. He did so, as I have suggested, by abandoning paraphrasable story lines, by throwing conventional narrative overboard, and by moving instinctively into the worlds of pure emotions, sensations, and dreams.
“No other art-medium—neither painting nor poetry—can communicate the specific quality of the dream as well as the film can,” he told his interviewers in Bergman on Bergman. “When the lights go down in the cinema and this white shining point opens up for us, our gaze stops flitting hither and thither, settles and becomes quite steady. We just sit there, letting the images flow out over us. Our will ceases to function. We lose our ability to sort things out and fix them in their proper places. We are drawn into the course of events—we are participants in a dream.”
Altman, of course, did film his dream. (“Sometimes while I’m dreaming,” Bergman mused a bit later in the conversation quoted above, “I think: ‘I’ll remember this, I’ll make a film of it’—it’s a sort of occupational disease.”) Like Bergman, though, it took Altman many years to arrive at such a point, to seriously consider a film totally set free from narrative structure.
If Bergman is an artist who had to learn, whose early work does not easily hint of the greatness to come, Altman certainly is as well. All of his beginnings were firmly within conventional narrative cinema—and with a vengeance, because he spent the better part of his early career directing industrial and educational films in Kansas City. He made an attempt to break into Hollywood in 1955, when he was thirty years old, with two very easily forgotten films, "The Delinquents" (1955) and "The James Dean Story" (1957). Defeated for the moment, he went back to Kansas City and then allowed himself one more chance to break into fiction film direction. He went back to Hollywood in the early 1960s and directed dozens of segments of such television series as “Combat.” Those segments that can be glimpsed on late-night reruns betray few signs of an individual directorial style; but then, television by its nature tends to force directors into the overuse of closeups, medium shots, and narrative rhythms that can tell a story quickly and simply.
When Altman finally did get another chance at a theatrical feature, he was already forty-three years old and, presumably, well accustomed to working within conventional narrative forms. That is certainly the conclusion to be drawn from his rarely seen 1968 feature, "Countdown," which was all but withdrawn from commercial release after a disastrous New York opening. (Howard Thompson’s review in the New York Times described it as, among other things, “simply stultifying, slack, cliché-ridden, listless, and dreary.”) Warner Brothers cut it down from 101 to 73 minutes for its brief British release, and the shorter version occasionally turns up late at night on television. I have, however, seen the 101-minute version (and even it was cut by the producer, William Conrad, after Altman’s own final cut). "Countdown" might be said to be to Altman’s career what the unhappy "It Rains on Our Love" (1946) was to Bergman’s: evidence that it occasionally pays to persevere on the course one has charted, no matter how discouraging things seem at first.
It is not necessary to discuss the plot of "Countdown" in any great detail (it has to do with the first landings on the moon). What is to our purpose is to notice that Altman directed it in a perfectly straightforward Hollywood narrative style. There is only one scene, at a party, that employs what would later be called the “Altman sound,” the characteristic use of multiple recording tracks to obtain realistically overlapping dialogue. Everything else in the movie could have been directed by any other graduate of the television series of the 1960s. Altman’s next film, "That Cold Day in the Park" (1968), is more interesting (it tells of a repressed woman who establishes a pathological relationship with a younger boy), but, again, it is essentially a conventional film.
Altman’s career was properly launched with "M*A*S*H," in 1970, and it was here that Altman first found his voice and style. Through a coincidence (I was writing a screenplay at the same studio at the same time), I was able to read Ring Lardner, Jr.’s original screenplay for "M*A*S*H"—a screenplay for which he later received an Academy Award, though Altman’s actual film uses only its bare bones. What Altman found at last in "M*A*S*H" was his special feeling for milieu and community. The camera dives into the middle of its muddy mobile field hospital in Korea, and we get to know the characters much as if we had just arrived ourselves. Familiar faces keep turning up. People refer to each other by name until we begin to remember their names. Action in the background helps to establish later action that will take the foreground.
Altman’s notions about communities have been his focal points ever since (with the singular exception of Images, which was anti-community in the sense that its schizophrenic heroine could never be quite sure who was really there in the room with her). Characters whirl about one another in Altman films. Relationships are shown, and are taken for granted, without having been really established. People meet each other during the course of a film and get on better, or worse, as the story advances; in either case they may not be major characters but simply “atmosphere,” as Hollywood calls extras who have dialogue (an example would be the interplay when the country music stars visit the local musicians’ hangout in "Nashville" and wait somewhat uncertainly to be introduced from the audience). Since "M*A*S*H," Altman has apparently not conceived of films in such simple terms as a foreground story and the background needed to sustain it. Instead, he has taken as his subject intriguing groups of people and then has plucked out as his protagonists a few representative examples. This approach to scenario is opposite to the vast majority of feature films made in Hollywood or anywhere else, and it is Altman’s personal solution to the inhibitions of conventional narrative.
We can see this approach developing in the films after "M*A*S*H." Altman handles it awkwardly in "Brewster McCloud" (1970), with its strange tale of a young boy who lives in an unmarked room in the Houston Astrodome and is tutored by a fallen angel as he tries to build wings that will let him fly. Altman, who stands behind all of his later films, insists that "Brewster McCloud" rewards additional viewings, but it has not rewarded mine. Yet it does, like his other films, occupy the center of a community of people, of purposes that are common or crossed. It is not just the story of the boy but of the immediate society which has to decide what it thinks of him. "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," discussed above, is about community almost to the exclusion of narrative. McCabe walks into a smoke-filled frontier barroom with its half-heard conversations, its laconic asides, and becomes one of its regulars. As he attempts to become an entrepreneur through the construction of a bordello and the importation of Mrs. Miller and her troupe of prostitutes, the community carries on its daily affairs all around him. Church services are held. Community baths are taken. When a young boy is shot dead because he was unfortunate enough to find himself crossing a footbridge at exactly the same time as a hotheaded young killer, it is the whole community that absorbs the event, and mourns it. "California Split" (1974) is at pains to place its two compulsive gamblers within a clearly seen gambling community. Altman’s stylistic approach is especially evident here in a scene where the protagonists are shown into a room where a high-stakes private poker game is in progress. Murmurs on the sound track introduce the players, whose long-standing rivalries and friendships are taken for granted: We arrive, as we so often do with Altman, in medias res.
Altman’s most free, ambitious films about communities come in "Nashville" (1975) and "A Wedding" (1978). In both films he almost seems to be testing his limits, daring himself in an attempt to get as many recognizable characters as possible on the screen, and to keep them all established. "Nashville" was not popular in Nashville, where the residents felt the film did an injustice to the city and its primary industry, country and western music. But Altman was not doing a documentary on Nashville; he was using the title, I believe, as a specific for community. And during a mobile era when communities are reformed year by year, he was concerned not so much with the roots of the city and its industry as with the many kinds of people who found themselves drawn there for socioeconomic reasons of the moment. A presidential campaign is in town, and so are several top country singers, back from national tours for recording dates and the Grand Ole Opry. But the city’s dynamic has also attracted such characters as a would-be assassin; a man grieving for his dying wife; a star-struck young woman from the state’s rural areas; her jealous husband; two groupies (one a young soldier, one an eccentric girl from California); an Englishwoman pretending to be from the BBC; a waitress and her man friend; visiting celebrities (Elliott Gould and Julie Christie play themselves); a campaign manager and his advance man; and even an inexplicable magician on a motorcycle (who seems to be an American cousin of the anonymous cyclist who roars at random through many of the scenes in Fellini’s "Amarcord").
Few of these people know each other when the movie begins, and some will not have met when it ends. But many of their paths will cross, their lives will affect one another (if only at two or three removes), and Altman seems fascinated by how this interaction takes place. There is no central character in "Nashville," no person whose fate is more important than another’s, and in this respect Altman was wise to leave the presidential candidate offscreen entirely. If he had brought him on and then had him assassinated, the movie would inevitably have been categorized as “about” political assassination, and the real subject, the haphazard and human interactions of a community, would have been missed.
These larger communities are distilled into the limited and very particular community of Altman’s "Three Women." If in his other films he dared to overpopulate the screen, in "Three Women" he limits himself so severely that many of the actors seem to play more than one character; it might be said that many of the characters seem to contain more than one person. I have mentioned the many kinds of female roles that the three women play at one time or another, adding up almost to a catalog of the most obvious personalities women can offer up for the examination of society. I now want to emphasize Altman’s creative courage in making the film. "Nashville" and "A Wedding" (and the less successful "Buffalo Bill and the Indians") free themselves from conventional narrative but not from the chronological passage of time. "Three Women" is altogether more mysterious, turning inward, turning back on itself, allowing its characters to exchange or alter their basic natures. It is free of all narrative conventions except those such as that sentences must begin before they end. The film is an immersion in several personalities, a turning here and there, from a point of view inside the narrative. In fanciful imagery, "Three Women" is the story of a human soul or consciousness peering through the many windows it finds opening onto an inconsistent but apparently real universe outside.
It is most unlikely, of course, that Saturday-night moviegoers emerge from the theater with such an interpretation in mind, but that is not the point. The viewers most likely to be frustrated or unhappy at the end of the film are the ones who insist that it “make sense”—who require a paraphrasable narrative. Those who allow the film to happen to them in the ways discussed at the beginning of this essay are much more likely to enjoy it, although they would probably be just as hard-pressed to describe what happens in it as the more literal and didactic members of the audience would.
To return to the notion of "Three Women" as an objective representation of a soul/consciousness peering through windows into the world: That is what all of us found ourselves doing at birth, we do it every day, and some of us are really good at it. It is our habit, though, to do the peering ourselves, and to expect that the things we see outside the windows will be objective and consistent enough to permit us to weigh, touch, smell, or hear them, and arrive at decisions about them. Traditional narrative films are objective and consistent, and therefore often eminently satisfying to our expectations. But the film medium is so fluid, flexible, and complete that it makes a altogether different kind of experience possible if filmmaker and filmgoer conspire to let it come about. The capacity of film to be escapist, voyeuristic, sensual, nonverbal, and encompassing is also what allows a film to imply another soul/consciousness looking out through its windows at ourselves. And it is just here that two minds can touch.
"Three Women" and "Persona" are not on the screen to be looked at objectively, and they are not surrogate reality. Through the genius of their makers and the boldness of their designs, they are themselves self-conscious. Permit me a fancy: They are looking back at us.
It is not my purpose here to sound like a mystic who has been to the mountaintop and been shown the truth. I hope I continue for many years to enjoy films that are cheerfully organized around an old-fashioned narrative. I have tried to argue, however, that the two films discussed at length represent moments in the careers of their creators when freedom, real freedom, was found from the restrictions that bind almost all filmmakers and almost all their films.
The freedom to go beyond narrative and engage other human personalities at a level different from the literal and the linear is one that music, dance, sculpture, and painting have always shared. The same freedom also exists in literature, particularly in poetry, but it does not come so easily there, because the word and the sentence have an innate tendency to bring matters back to the particular. It is unfortunate that the cinema, since its earliest days, has drawn more readily from stories, novels, and plays than from other artistic forms (for film, as Kael reminds us, is, along with grand opera, one of the two great bastard arts). Perhaps that is what they are trying to tell us, those die-hard purists who believe silent movies were the art form in its most pure state, and that film sold its soul for sound: That without the words, without that damnable dialogue, you had to tell your story with the visual tools that made movies different from books.
Painters made their fundamental discoveries centuries ago; filmmakers are still making theirs today. The freeing of painting from subject matter—nonrepresentational, abstract art—has already, of course, been reflected in countless avant-garde films. But in terms of how we still look at mass-market narrative movies, a more useful parallel might be drawn between the state of feature films today and the development of attitudes toward art in the Renaissance. Paintings then were supposed to be about something, to illustrate, to lecture, to instruct the common people about the glories of God, the doge, or the Medici. The painters themselves knew better. There is the famous story of Veronese, unveiling his “Last Supper” with its sacrilegious supporting cast of dogs, monkeys, and Germans, and ordered by the Venetian Council of Ten to alter the painting or be put in prison. Unveiling the same painting the second time, Veronese explained that it had indeed been altered: Its title was now “Feast in the House of Levi.” The movie audience today is a mass Venetian tribunal, demanding, whether consciously or not, that movies mean something, and say what they mean, and look as if they mean it.
The irony here is that film is not as effective when it traffics in ideas as when it deals in, and with, emotions. The straightforward consideration of ideas is not as interesting in film as a more oblique approach in which the ideas, whatever they may be, are given emotional content. "Persona" and "Three Women" are obviously filled with ideas that Bergman and Altman have about the nature of character—but at no point does either film refer directly to those ideas. Instead, we are invited to feel what the directors feel, to share their observations, and then to arrive at our own conclusions through the emotional experiences that have been provided for us.
I discussed earlier the rather obvious differences between "On the Beach," which warns us of nuclear peril, and "Dr. Strangelove," which, by making us laugh, employs our laughter as its warning. The most numbing moments in cinema come when a character is made to turn to the audience and give us the dialogue containing the director’s message. Frank Capra found such moments obligatory, and yet they are the very moments when his populist entertainments go flat.
Jean-Luc Godard finally became paralyzed with his messages. When two proletarian garbage collectors face his camera and give us their interminable Godardian/Marxian analysis of capitalist society, we squirm. The same criticisms are made more effectively by purely visual means in "Weekend" (1968), in the famous tracking shot in which bourgeois society is seen at a dead standstill in a traffic jam that goes on for miles.
Godard’s long speeches were defended by critics who said the very length of these speeches, which were filmed in unbroken closeup, were intended as the director’s ironic commentary on ideas in movies. But, alas, that turns out not to have been the case. One of the saddest of recent films is Godard’s "Numéro Deux" (1975), in which the director stands in an editing room, operating a movieola or videotape cassette system on which we see footage involving work, families, and sex in contemporary France. The images are rarely allowed to take up as much as half of the available space on the screen, and the rest is either darkness (making us conscious that we’re watching a movie) or other, smaller images. The film’s very long prologue shows Godard, in shadow, standing in his studio next to a television set, on the screen of which we see him addressing us. He is placing himself at two removes from Warshow’s “immediate experience,” and this scene is, for me, a record of Godard going off the deep end. He speaks of his ideas for perhaps ten minutes, but with the exception of a few scattered observations he never says anything that seems even vaguely sensible. It would be charitable to say he is free-associating; in fact, he’s raving.
My notion is that Godard arrived at this point by determining to convey his political positions in a medium not suited to abstract ideas. If we want to reason, debate, discuss—if we want to marshal ideas and apply them to the discipline of logical argument—the medium in which to do so has existed for a very long time, and it is the written word. But if we want to convey the mood of a time and a place, the look of a setting sun, the subtle flow of feelings across a human face, the way it was to be there and experience it (whatever it was), the medium is film.
That is not to deny that many films, many good ones, have existed primarily as vehicles for ideas. From "The Great Dictator" to "Medium Cool," and in "If...," "Z," "The Battle of Algiers," "Burn!," "Patton," and many more films that come to mind, the director’s primary purpose has been to make us think (and, usually, to think as he does). But these films are good not because of their ideas but because of the artistry at the service of the ideas. To praise a film because it is “correct,” or attack it for being “wrong,” is to miss the point: Even in idea-oriented films, the ideas serve primarily as the occasion for a film’s artistry, and the film’s success or failure will take place apart from them. If a film can make us feel well and deeply, it need not make us think. Or, more correctly, if a film can make us feel, then it can inspire us to analyze our feelings, and perhaps then come to a deeper understanding of their sources, powers, and (yes, now, in this context) their meanings.
In suggesting that the Saturday night audience can hardly be expected to arrive at conclusions about "Three Women" similar to those we have discussed here, perhaps I was implying something more. I was not, I hope, hinting that the film’s audience was somehow dense and unable to experience such a film. I meant that few works in the experience of contemporary moviegoers can have prepared them to cope with films like "Three Women" and "Persona" on the films’ own terms. It is one of the peculiar burdens that serious filmmakers and critics have to bear that mass audiences will cheerfully give themselves over to the sensual delights of "Saturday Night Fever," "Star Wars," or "Jaws," but are wary of granting the same abandon to “art” films. Because films like "Star Wars" give such sharp, immediate, and rewarding emotional experiences, their audiences rarely think to ask what the films might mean, if anything.
It is true, of course, that "Persona" and "Three Women" also provide sharp, immediate experiences (or at least they did for me). But I think their experiences are of a different level. "Star Wars" has as its ambition the creation of escapist experience for its own sake: If the movie makes us feel, if it entertains and distracts us, it has succeeded on its own terms. But the experiences we discover in Bergman or Altman are not so immediately rewarding; they raise questions, sometimes quite disturbing ones, and they will not simply allow themselves to be consumed. For those who find such questions challenging, "Three Women" and "Persona" can be delightful—as puzzles, personality mazes, touchstones of the directors’ own personalities. For those who want only to escape, this more difficult form of experience will be harder to assimilate.
Perhaps I am talking about two kinds of audiences—or moviegoers who will want to join different audiences and different collective states of mind for different movies. The mass audience still seeks experience, pure and simple. I remember a practice that was popular during the reserved-seat engagements of "2001" in the late 1960s. Lovers of the film would mingle with the intermission crowds on the sidewalk, then slip inside to rest flat on their backs on the floor in front of the screen, the more thoroughly to enjoy Kubrick’s space-and-time “light show.” This is consuming a movie in the same way one might consume a roller coaster; while the experience is undeniably entertaining, it is not the way I would suggest to deal with a serious film.
There are, however, great and serious films that require something of the same willing giving over of moment-to-moment consciousness from the viewer to the filmmaker. The better these films are, and the more central to shared human experience, the more readily some filmgoers seem to shy away from them. Ingmar Bergman’s "Cries and Whispers" (1972) is a case in point. I thought it was the best work of the year and said so in an annual review of the year’s films. A reader called to ask: “But should we go to see it?” “Well, yes, of course,” I said. “My friend and I were thinking,” the reader said, “that if it’s really that good, then maybe we’d have more fun going to see something else….”
How does a critic build bridges between what is new, best, and most daring at the movies, and the built-in desire of the mass audience to see the kinds of movies it has known best and longest—and can depend on? Where do the two audiences meet? The daily newspaper reviewer is faced with this dilemma more frequently, and more bafflingly, than writers for audiences who have already made part or all of the journey to those lands where the best new movies reside. There are a great many people for whom going to the movies still means a decision in favor of the new Clint Eastwood film instead of, say, the new Charles Bronson film. There are those who would rather see "Saturday Night Fever" ten times than see "Saturday Night Fever" once and then see nine other films.
I do not mean to reject filmgoing on that level, but I do want to insist that the most original new work will not be found there. It is fine with me if there are two, ten, or a hundred cinemas, but I think we have to understand that the most important new movies will not be coming from the directors who make better and better films in conventional narrative modes, no matter how much we may admire and enjoy what they accomplish. The key films of the coming years, whether or not they are immediately (or ever) successful, will be the ones that explore and try to understand the powerful three-way connection between cinema, emotion, and the mind.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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