Thursday, November 29, 2012

Preminger - The rules of the game

Otto Preminger's art "is always desperately looking for a place to withdraw into from where it can construct its grandiose architecture."

This is what Serge Daney wrote in one of his first texts, a long review and defence of Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent, published in 1963 (Daney would have been 19) in the second issue of Visages du cinéma, the short-lived film magazine he co-created with Louis Skoreki just before they both (and together) joined Cahiers du cinéma (in 1964).

The text has just appeared in a new book on Otto Preminger bringing together some amazing texts (by Skoreki, Rivette, Fujiwara...). An English translation seems to have been available in a limited number of English prints distributed at the Locarno Film Festival.

I hope I'll be forgiven for reproducing the translation below. Translations of Daney are so rare. Thank you to Kurt Walker for spotting this new translation and transcribing it. I've made some small changes.

The rules of the game
Otto Preminger – Advise and Consent
“By remaining long enough on the iridescent surface we understand the price of depth.” – Gaston Bachelard
Let's concede the following to his critics: Otto Preminger's cinema is cold and, what's more, offers nothing for literary criticism. 
Nothing of what is conventionally called mise en scène. Instead, an implacable and bitter gaze. Those who didn't sense the ambiguity of this gaze, beginning with Laura, couldn't be convinced about the beauty of Advise and Consent and would have even more trouble appreciating how it got there. To say that Advise and Consent is to Preminger what Taira Clan Saga is for Mizoguchi wouldn't convince those who snubbed Saint Joan; but let's also refute this kind of pointless proselytism and concentrate on the pleasure of speaking about a man we love and who is, today, the most important living American filmmaker.
Of course, his films are cold, but we tend to forget too quickly that this coldness is also the soul of decency, which is the right word to describe a man who made Margot cry, who filmed the misery of the Jews and Joan of Arc at the stake.
*
And yet, to excuse Preminger for the sin of being cold and dull is to discover the novelty and importance of his artistic contribution. This excusal would also have prevented quite a few ignorant people from being taken by surprise over the author's desire to adapt Exodus, a decision which could only startle those who think that coldness is a refusal of sentimentality. Nobody has more pity for human misfortune and suffering than Preminger, but, unfortunately for some, this pity is not expressed through some sentimental upheaval. And if Preminger can find a place among the greatest filmmakers, then that is because he endowed his characters with authenticity and truth. But the moment we unreservedly endorse these characters, he goes on and sacrifices them to an idea, for which the actor has to turn into a character, and the actor becomes a symbol.
As a tyrant on set, Preminger had to be pessimistic about his own themes to satisfy us, the critics, who are always haunted by symmetry and in search of patterns. His vision of the world is too complex to stay on such a low level, but it is certainly true that the filmmaker's first task is to recognize the deprivation of the world he is about to describe. 
*
Whether this is a similar world or a parallel world, a sect, a body, a milieu, it is always a world prone to the inevitable processes of damage and death. The only step from the world of drugs to the world of politics, is the step leading from the particular to the general, from the event to its genesis. In the same way, Mizoguchi speaks less of slaves in his early films than of slave-drivers, and less of prostitutes than of procurers. Naturally, Preminger prefers big topics. This is a surprise for those who can't see the culmination of an idea in these subjects, and who think that there is some supplementary trick behind it to decipher. 
It is more convenient to speak here of a milieu rather than of a world, and the best characteristic the world has to offer is isolation. This is, of course, a banal idea. But it is the first milestone, the foundation of what will become the mise en scène, it legitimizes the importance of the interior set design of an oeuvre particularly rich in palaces, chateâux, apartments, gambling halls, courts of justice and other closed places. 
*
That will give us a better basis to understand the importance of setting in Advise and Consent, Preminger's second political film after Exodus, which is its exact opposite. Entomology prevails over epic storytelling without excluding it. These are Preminger's two vocations. Advise and Consent is more like an edgy version of Anatomy of a Murder, this film has the humour, the accuracy, and the precision of a documentary. 
In fact, few artists respect reality as much as Preminger, his only wrongdoing was that of not cutting up stages of life in the usual way: that of only seeing the dark sides of life. It is hard to see how certain people who privilege realism are still not able to touch political or judicial life. Those who object to artistic values cherish the excellence of documentary evidence. There is no doubt that Exodus and Advise and Consent were discoveries for many people.
Preminger's art is first and foremost an art of analysis. His point is to show how mechanisms are at work (the script thus turns into a simple role playing situation); his approach is quasi-scientific, and based on observation. The special effects only serve the annihilating condemnation of the enterprise that make his art possible. 
This art is not free, nor is it in tune with its time. It is always desperately looking for a place to withdraw into from where it can construct its grandiose architecture. A closed world, an impenetrable milieu are defined by a preoccupation for orderliness, as well as by a desire to keep away from reality. Judicial norms, religious dogmatisms, political systems, are fruits of intelligence, but, in isolation, they just become signs that survive even though their signification got lost; in such a way, a trial survives justice. If there is a word devoid of meaning in Anatomy of a Murder, it is the word “justice”, and anyhow, how can there be justice since we never know if Barney Quill raped Laura Manion (Lee Remick)? For that reason, the film has an exemplary value; a mechanism will be repeated until it looses meaning, and those who know best how to use it, win.
*
How to stop oneself from thinking that these environments are the outlines of a game for which the rules are actually laws? All of Preminger's work is a mise en scène of the “homo ludens”, dear to Huizinga. Sometimes the boundaries are blurred and the rule is relaxed  (Anatomy of a Murder and Bonjour Tristesse), and sometimes, on the contrary, creativity and freedom are almost ready to disappear (The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and Advise and Consent). This kind of game presents and propagates abstract structures, images of closed and protected worlds, ideal for practicing competition. These structures transform into behavioural  and institutional modelling. They cannot be applied to the reality they deny, but constitute as many prospects of an ordered universe as needed to replace universal anarchy.
It would be easy to make a list of these “social games” or “intellectual jousts”(1). Games always illustrate pure milieu, or autonomy, where the rules that are voluntarily respected by everyone neither favour nor harm anyone. 
But crisis erupts as soon as someone ignores or abuses the rule. The game doesn't exist if one doesn't play by the rules; and if one refuses them, the milieu itself is jeopardized.
*
Because there are people parallel to these regulated worlds, to these withdrawn organisms (that are structured like a circle, which is Preminger's stylistic device par excellence), who, in Francoise Sagan's words, give things “their exacting meaning”. Reduced to hopeless solitude, these people appear uncompromising when they confront the accidents of reality. They fail to comply with the conventions of games. They are another species, they are pure, they are still capable of serving a cause; from Alexis who dreams of saving his country in A Breath of Scandal, to Robert Leffingwell who only contemplates whether or not to save his own. 
These are wounded characters, but they are straightforward. They are motivated by a need to give themselves a cause, and are governed by lucidity. 
The problem comes up the moment they encounter this regulated world, which is a world of immobility, narrow conservatism (Seab Cooley), satisfaction (Guillion in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell) or idiotic (Stogumber), a world where nothing could possibly depart from rules that have become ceremonial. The mysteries of a ritual.
*
It is not surprising that similar conditions would attract Preminger to Shaw's Saint Joan and to turning the subject into one of his most lucid films. What is it about? The court of the Dauphin (Richard Widmark), a decadent world, withdrawn to itself and to its games, fights for survival while a young peasant woman dreams of resisting the invaders and of crowning the Dauphin. 
These two sides are incompatible. Practical, everyday intelligence and active idealism enter into a deadly conflict. The mise en scène turns into a means of coercion, the trial a set-up, the circle a trao; the circles around Jeanne get tighter and tighter (cf. the farandole in Bonjour tristesse, where Anne (Deborah Kerr) is “trapped”). She will destroy the outer circles but ends up in the middle of a wild mob. Order is saved but Jeanne will follow it. 
Cécile (Jean Seberg) provokes Anne's death through a setup; Zosch (Eleanor Parker) detains Frankie Maclean (Frank Sinatra) in The Man With the Golden Arm. 
In any case, the goal of the mise en scène is to limit the autonomy and the liberty of the actors. Why do we still wonder why Preminger strove for the trial? Is the trial not per definition a mise en scène destined to eliminate personal initiative, where declarations are fixed in advance?
*
Just like the American political system, the mechanisms of any governmental organization should inevitably interest our filmmaker. Compared to Exodus, Advise and Consent is like an assessment, a documentation, a gaze over a mechanism unfolding in front of our eyes. Nobody can escape from the importance and complexity of this mechanism, and certainly not Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton) who represents and takes care of it, ready to unmask those who menace the game by disrespecting the rules.
There are two ways of rejecting the game, either by refusing to play at all or by changing the rules. The result is a deception, a kind of special effect that twists the game and threatens the milieu that has created its rules. Consequently, the foreign element with the desire to interfere, has to be eliminated. Cécile has to kill Anne. Seab Cooley has to do everything to expel Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) from his job as Secretary of State.
One can blame Leffingwell for being too much of an intellectual and for never having cooperated with Congress. Indeed, like Jeanne, he feels the need to devote himself to a cause, and to take a job for which he is best qualified. But he belongs to that rare species of idealists that are detached enough to judge things and to envisage changing them. In order to eliminate him, Cooley uses a setup (Gelman's statement), knowing that Leffingwell will be unable to build his career on a lie. But, as often with Preminger, actions have unexpected repercussions: the eagerness of the president (Franchot Tone) reaches in turn the senator Brigham Aderson (Don Murray) who is allowed to believe, for a moment, that he's in control, before being forced to face the same dilemma and to choose the same solution: renunciation, not duplicity. The young Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), however, whose frantic ambitions lead to Brig's suicide, doesn't avoid his colleague's ostracism; his fault is not so much to have refused to play by the rules of the game but to have changed the rules in his favour. Because he always goes too far, because he doesn't know, unlike Coolie, to distinguish between what is a game and what isn't, he is often ridiculed, which recalls another fanatic: Stogumber in Saint Joan. In the end, the condemnation of the president reveals the same attitude. He is guilty of abusing his power by nominating an unknown as Secretary of State, thus menacing the solidity of the edifice he represents.
The president's death also puts an end to his enterprise, where the two parties play off of each other, and Cooley's triumph is confirmed. Just as in the end of Saint Joan, order is safely restored, and all those that challenged it have disappeared.
*
Considering the themes that have been discussed so far, there's an important idea that might open another perspective: the mise en scène. 
There is Cooley, of course, who, like an excellent tactician calculates the moment where Gelman's (Burgess Meredith) statement will be most effective, but there's also Cécile, who instigates a drama for which she chooses setting and actors. 
In terms of mise en scène, Anatomy of a Murder is Preminger's most complex and exemplary film. This film is neither about justice nor about American society. At the center of the film is a mise en scène that turns into a means, much like it did for Lang's later films, for the artist to think about his art, and also into a disguised confession. 
Many have noticed the resemblance between Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and Preminger himself, it seems though, that rather than simply being a lucky coincidence, we might have to face a true self-portrait which sheds light on both the film and the filmmaker. What is Biegler's purpose? To withdraw completely into a reality out of himself? To let that reality inside, through a trial and through “the ultimate importance he gives to apperances”, and to show reality's truths the way he chooses to. Astonishingly, he accepts Manion's case without knowing what exactly the case is about; how can one not think of the filmmaker to whom every film is a new adventure? To subjugate one's activity to something pre-existing, in this case a murder, in that a novel, is the art of the filmmaker's lawyer; they don't invent things ex-nihilo, but obtain certain results because of certain procedures, meaning mise en scène. This is a job that requires at least as much capability and finesse as the rules of a never-ending game; a trial has its rules (that, like Judge Weaver cunning remarks, change from one State to the next) that are supposed to be followed if one wants to win the game. 
This constraint makes Biegler's final victory even more admirable; his game was mediocre, but he made the best out of the cards he was dealt, which is the privilege of great filmmakers. Many have noticed a fascination as a Premingerian topic, be that's only because hypnotism was another of his favourite topics, but isn't Fascination the goal of every director?
Biegler has to play a role in front of lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara), in front of Laura and Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant). But he wasn't prepared for this role. Even though we know up to what point the lieutenant is violent, compared to Biegler he seems moderate and calm. One needs only to recall the scenes where he literally explains his “role” to him, making him guess the only attitude he's allowed to have. Concerning Laura, he turns her into someone she's not: a good wife, an exemplary woman, he event directs her way of dressing, if it is only to have a dramatic effect when he makes her mess up her hair in front of an audience. Well, at least he has to convince Mary Pilant to witness the scene, and thus to act. 
One should also admire his mastery in calculating and measuring the effects he wants to produce, mostly through humour – he ridicules witnesses and adversaries –, but also through the coup de théâtre (2).
Because he knew how to play by the rules of the game (and the judge is always there to decide what is allowed and what isn't), Biegler won the most difficult victory. But is this merit not analogous to Preminger's? Like his hero, Preminger first has to practice his art on something which precedes and is outside of him (in this case, a Robert Traver bestseller), because he has to reach as large an audience as possible. He might appear vulgar, following his demands of commercial productions, then of super-productions, but his greatness (and that if all great Americans) is to know how to play the best of a bad hand, to make sure that the demands on him become his themes and that his film becomes  a work of art.
*
The film is exemplary in meditating on this mise en scène. The artwork always outlives the artist who can only have control over it for an instant, who can only give it the mark of his imprint before seeing it moving away into an indistinct future. 
We will never know the truth about the rape of Laura Manion, and the protagonists of this drama stay mysterious throughout the entire film. For a while, they have “played” a version of a drama that the director imposed on them, but everything happens as though their own reality is a secret, unknown, and yet burning. Those who think that Anatomy of a Murder is a cold film might be surprised to hear me saying that it is emotional. But can't ice also burn? Preminger's art begins where Biegler's art ends; suddenly Laura is lonely and miserable collapsing on the stairs of her Roulette, to the great astonishment of Biegler who all of a sudden discovers the face behind the mask; behind the revelations of the lieutenant's cellmate, is the lieutenant's rage, which is not pretended and almost touching; Parnell (Arthur O'Connell) is caught between the gaze of Maida (Eve Arden) and Biegler, and asks himself whether to quit drinking. These are moments where time seems to stand still, and where the truth about the characters, that could only be guessed until now, comes out for an instant not defined by artificiality but by reality, not by playing but by life. 
Biegler's as well as Preminger's future resides in an enterprise doomed to failure. The characters, gathered together like chessmen, break away from their role and from the person directing them: the Manion couple leaves without paying the fees, but Biegler doesn't seem surprised. 
This never-ending job is something desperate. Without a doubt, there are more preferable things in life, like fishing or listening to jazz, but it is also a thrill. Knowing and dominating the rules of the game, determining and directing its players, is to impose the marks of demiurge for a while, for a couple of seconds it makes one realize the vocation of the artist.
Preminger like no other, has sensed the fugacity of things, the complexity of people and the necessity to dominate “appearances” to let them live in abstract structures. But in a true return to reality, he saw the danger of replacing the sign with its meaning. This is the drama that nourished this great work over which the bitterness of nostalgic intelligence hovers.
(1) Card games (River of No Return, The Man with the Golden Arm, Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Advise and Consent), roulette (Bonjour tristesse), dice (Porgy and Bess), hopscotch (Saint Joan), fishing (Anatomy of Murder, chess (Exodus).
(2) Even though the second general released doesn't show this, the coup de theatre is Biegler's not Preminger's deed. This version lacks a capital scene distributors aumputated: Parnell's excursion to Sault-Sainte-Marie.
Translated by Moritz Pfeifer. Original French text was first published in Visages du cinéma, issue 2, 1963. Reprinted in La Maison cinema et le monde, 1. Le temps des Cahiers, p. 126-132, P.O.L. English translation is published in Otto Preminger, Capricci, 2012.

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