Hitchcock and Poulenc

Irrelevant Reviews
#8
Rope (1948)

At the suggestion of a friend, I returned to Hitchcock’s Rope and was shocked yet again by the outlandish flaunting of homosexuality in a film produced in 1948. The plot is not complicated: two WASPy aesthetes kill one of their old prep school classmates (David) and hide him in a trunk. A dinner party ensues, whereby one of the murderers (Philip) is racked by guilt while the other (Brandon) is hoping to get caught by another former classmate, played by James Stewart. Brandon proudly flaunts the rope used to kill David and placed candelabras and linen on the trunk where the body is hidden, while Philip (a professional musician) turns to the piano several times as a means of concealing his guilt or creating a distraction.

The murder serves as a metaphor for sexuality, as Philip and Brandon go through the pageantry of diverting attention to grant friends and neighbors the benefit of a doubt that the evening’s entertainment is just a simple dinner party: curtains are drawn to hide moments of intimacy (such as the murder itself), affairs with women are discussed (though the women are not seen), and despite the being filmed in a large Manhattan apartment, a bedroom is never in view, as the drama only ensues in the dining room, living room and foyer. There is subterfuge, but no ambiguity. Hitchcock’s self-appointed mission to make a film about “it” (i.e. homosexuality) is blatant and obvious, as Hitchcock even went so far as to make sure that both actors were gay, as to ensure a saucy dynamic on screen.

While the cat and mouse game is fun, I found the diegetic use of the piano to be utterly fascinating. Each time Philip is racked by guilt at the sight of the rope, he doesn’t sit down to play just any piece – he plays Poulenc’s Mouvement perpétuel no. 1, chosen by Hitchcock himself because of the constant rhythmic motive and strange harmonies which aptly mirror the machinations of a guilty conscience.

One performance in particular on the screen stands out, as James Stewart puts on the metronome as he interrogates the softer of the two murderers as he plays. Despite the metronome’s steadiness, he continues to rush and struggles to maintain his cool, lashing out that he can’t play along with the steady tick-tock used to expose a musician’s rhythmic flaws.

(It’s interesting to note that Francis Poulenc was also gay, and while living under Nazi rule in Paris used various codes to signify resistance to the occupation in his concerts: poems associated with the resistance were set to music, particularly those by Paul Éluard in Figure Humaine; songs such as “Vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine” were hidden in works like Les Animaux modèles. He was a founder of the Front National (the musical wing, that is) which continued to maintain close ties with banned composers like Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith. Of course, while Mouvement perpétuel dates from much earlier in Poulenc’s career (being composed in 1918), it’s a fitting coincidence that his music should be used in a film bartering in themes of code, behavior and transgression.)

Overall, a great film, only 80 minutes long and an excellent visual (and musical) meditation on the stakes of concealment.


Visconti and Wagner

Irrelevant Reviews
#7
The Damned (1969)

Again and again, I return to the films of Luchino Visconti. Sure, they’re over the top and operatic, but they speak far enough from the past to prove informative. What I love about The Damned is that it is the best artistic summary of some tussles that get overlooked in mainstream Anglophone narratives of the Third Reich.

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From the get-go, the plot includes an exploration of the place of homosexuality in the early Reich. Two characters stand out, pointing to a forgotten dichotomy which arose towards the end of the German Empire and took hold during the Weimar Republic. On the one hand, we have Martin Krupp, the fictional gay son of an industrial millionaire who dresses up like Marlene Dietrich to perform cabaret numbers; and on the other, we have General Ernst Röhm, a real historical figure, famous for being the openly gay leader of the Sturmabteilung until 1934. These two figures typify two strata of thought concerning the meaning of what is was to be homosexual in the 1920s to 1930s. Magnus Hirschfeld’s work, popular among the urban upper middle classes in the 1920s, promoted the idea of a “third sex,” whereby homosexual attraction was a psycho-sexual embrace of gender androgyny or sexual inversion. But contemporary with Hirschfeld was Adolf Brand, who saw the value of homosexuality as being a form of comradery so strong that it eschewed any influence of femininity. Brand’s magazine Der Eigene fused art, poetry, nudism and pieces on sexual hygiene to promote the notion of gay men as fitting a Nietzschean paradigm of the Übermensch. Masculinity and virility were cast in social and hygienic terms, finding resonance among racialists, eugenicists and other pseudo-scientific progenitors of National Socialist thought.

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One might also view Röhm and Krupp as symbols of their respective classes. Röhm was a hero among the lower-middle class and working class brownshirts which comprised much of the SA’s membership, an organization whose leadership is now thought to have been as much 70% ex-communist and perhaps even 25% homosexual by 1933. Meanwhile Krupp’s fictional character hails from minor aristocracy who largely look down on National Socialism’s promotion of economic justice and class equity (for Germans, that is) in the aftermath of World War I and the 1929 financial crash. The SS drew most of its membership from the more affluent end of society, insisting on standards of breeding rather than behavior as the ultimate standard of Aryanism.

The struggle for power between the SA and the SS came to a violent climax, depicted in the middle of the film. Röhm and his men are purged by the SS after a night of orgiastic revelry, murdered in their beds as they hold their lovers. The Night of Long Knives was a watershed, kicked off the formal policy of intolerance of homosexuality in the Reich, despite having previously turned a blind eye. In the film, the double standard is completely apparent, as Martin Krupp is chosen by the S.S. to spearhead the production of armaments for the German military apparatus while Röhm and his lovers are slaughtered. Krupp also reveals himself to be a pedophile who abuses a seven-year old Jewish girl who eventually hangs herself, as well as a sociopath, willing to pull sexual strings with his own mother to take over the family business.

Music plays an important role in any Visconti film. While Krupp’s seediness is expressed in singing a jazzy cabaret tune on the night the Reichstag burned, one of Röhm’s men sings a karaoke rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde as his orgy winds down (simultaneously foretelling his demise the next morning). In the minds of some, this ought to be the other way around. Our kitschy Netflix and Amazon shows love to show that Cabaret culture was the property of outsiders, and that opera has been and will always be some symbol of economic elitism.

tumblr_o0aox9KOis1tmf798o1_1280-1Visconti rightly alludes to a more complicated picture. It’s true that Wagnerian culture held resonance among the upper classes for its advocation of racial purity and visions of totality, but it also had resonance with socialists and those further down the totem pole. Heroes such as Siegfried and Parsifal overcome the circumstances of their births, breaking the shackles of systems which might hold them back, and the neo-Pagan backdrop opts for a reframing of Christian values into something more modern and nativist. But homoeroticism brims beneath the surface as well. Brünnhilde’s femininity is not revealed until after Siegfried has consummated their love (technically, she’s an ungendered Valkyrie). In Parsifal, women’s voices are perpetually peripheral so as not impinge on the Nicodemite fraternity of the Grail Knights. And who can ignore the fact that when Parsifal kisses Kundry, he withdraws in shame only to scream the name of Amfortas?

Visconti has been accused by historians and critics of being “ambivalent” or “indifferent” about his sexuality, though he himself was gay. But if anything is revealed in The Damned, it is a reminder that homosexuality is (and continues) to be indifferent to values, and is mutable and variable to the cultures in which it flourishes. This if course makes us queasy today. Who among us would be proud to acknowledge that Kristallnacht was undertaken by the Sturmabteilung, an organization which aided the rise of National Socialism through the promotion of a politicized interpretation of gender and sexuality? In my mind, it’s importnat to remember that Hitler’s gay purge didn’t start in the bars or brothels, but in his own paramilitary forces. No member of the SA need be memorialized, but the tragedy of the Night of Long Knives can serve as a lesson. Visconti’s voice is one of conscience, reminding us that if we act like sheep, we leave ourselves open to the to the likelihood of being eaten by the shepherd, gay or straight.

 

 


Rivette and Couperin

Irrelevant Reviews
#3
La Religieuse (1966)
(Or Lace, Lesbians & Leçons de ténèbres: A Sequence of Unfortunate Events.)

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In a bleak adaptation of Diderot’s novel completed in 1780, a family from the petty aristocracy dooms their daughter Suzanne to a life in the church to which she openly does not consent. She’s apparently drugged before taking her vows (which she later does not remember), and her first convent is run by a sadistic Mother Superior who is bent on crushing Suzanne through starvation and psychological torture. A lawyer intervenes, and Suzanne is transferred to another (less strict) convent, only to the sexual obsession of the abbess. Another rescue attempt by a priest turns into yet another nightmare as he attempts to rape her. She escapes, but is unable to support herself except through work as a prostitute, leading her to throw herself off a balcony at the very end of the film. (This flick is no way, shape or form, an uplifting watch.)

Musically, it’s interesting to hear how conscious Rivette’s team was of historical specificity with regards to 18th Century French music (especially for a film made in 1966). One can hear the famous “Jod” sequence from Couperin’s Troisieme leçon de ténèbre as Suzanne describes Holy Week celebrations, and the passage of time in various abbess’s chambers include the playing the spinet, where we hear two nuns playing Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux.

Direction: Jacques Rivette
Music: Jean-Claude Éloy
Starring: Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver


Orson Welles (and Nazis)

Irrelevant Reviews
#2
The Stranger (1946)

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I’m curious as to exactly how a Nazi fugitive (played by Orson Welles himself) would be able to adopt a perfect mid-Atlantic accent to rival Angela Lansbury’s in The Manchurian Candidate.

From a modern standpoint, The Stranger offers retrospective insight into how Americans viewed National Socialism and the Holocaust in the first years after the end of WWII. Though being the first Hollywood film to use footage from the camps, the script and production seemingly tiptoe around the ideology of the Final Solution, using vague terms to illustrate Germany’s intent on biological subjugation of other nations, rather than the absolute destruction of a single group of people. At the same time, the extensive denial on behalf of the villain’s wife that her husband could be an ex-SS officer rings alarm bells, pointing to the compromised conscience of United States, who confronted the reality of camps only when it was totally undeniable. In a sense, it’s quite literally a film of its time, as had it been produced even one or two years later, it might have looked very different as the Nuremberg Trials became increasingly complex and politicized (Indeed, the incessant presence of the clock tower inneed of constant maintenance seems an important metaphor for the essentiality of time.)

Perks of the film include excellent film-noiry lighting, a shit ton of clocks and really (and I mean, REALLY) cheesy music.

Direction: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Music: Bronisław Kaper
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles


Depardieu and Dutilleux

Irrelevant Reviews
#1
Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)

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Highly recommended for those with a love for: (1) creepy mysticism, (2) Gérard Depardieu, and (3) the music of Henri Dutilleux (extracts from his First Symphony).

Films about crises of faith can be trite and easy, bartering in tropes of devout individuals who restore confidence in their own sensibilities rather than in someone upstairs. Such is not the case in Pialat’s adaptation of Bernano’s magnum opus, whereby a priest’s obsessive mysticism renders a closeness to God as well as a hypersensitivity to the wiles of evil. The film isn’t really so much about religion, but rather the uncomfortable absence of solace in any human faith, passion or belief when possessed with enough fervor. (There’s a reason it was booed at Cannes.)

Direction: Maurice Pialat
Cinematography: Willy Kurant
Music: Henri Dutilleux
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire