Monday, August 21, 2017

Neo-Tosh

Patrick Brion isn’t just a TV voice, he’s an educator. By following Sunday night’s transmission of Marie-Antoinette with King Without A Crown, he showed us why it was in all seriousness that the American cinema of the thirties felt the obligation to also take on the legacy of Europe and the Old Regime (queens, kings, courts and other fripperies). Marie-Antoinette (1938) is a lazy hotchpotch directed by Van Dyke, decorated by Gibbons and with Shearer mincing about in the lead, and King Without A Crown (1937) is an educational short film, directed by Jacques Tourneur and probably concocted on the basis of Jack Conway’s Tale of Two Cities (1935). 
It’s the ending of Tourneur’s little film (as elliptical and convoluted as a mock Raoul Ruiz in search of mock TV) which provides the key to the gross piece that preceded it. King Without A Crown relates the story of Eleazar Williams, one of the innumerable possible Louis XVII’s, an American clergyman by profession. The film closes on an image of a cinema audience and a voice-off thundering: ‘Could there be a descendent of the Dauphin among you!?’ One realises that in these conditions, Barrymore’s Louis XV in Marie-Antoinette is particularly ill-advised when he proclaims the famous ‘After me . . . the deluge!’. This imbecile should have said: ‘After me . . . MGM’. 
It is in the name of this putative American Louis XVII that in 1938 (a year after Thalberg’s death) the smart, upstart Hollywood of MGM takes on the wife of Louis XVI. You only have to have Marie-Antoinette played by Norma Shearer, the Thalberg widow out of a comic strip drawn by Greuze, to leave the audience not knowing which way to turn between the (supposedly sublime) concept of the queen and the (decidedly shopgirlish) bearing of an actress’s body. This rather Brechtian trick is well known. While the petty bourgeoisie of in-house stars gets the king and queen parts, the proletariat of in-house extras plays the grimacing part of the French people (that is to say, the vilest sort of plebs there is). An improbable aristocracy and an unspeakable people are thereby subsumed into the otherwise crude hierarchy of the Hollywood star system. 
Marie-Antoinette is one of those films where the American dream (the middle-class one) is clothed in the old noble garments of European history. The charm of these films is also their limitation, for if you can manage to believe that Tyrone Power is Axel Fersen, it’s still better that he doesn’t have too many scenes to play. 
One TV magazine recommended to watch this film with a curious glance, as a kitsch item. For all those wearied of this smarty-pants approach, Marie-Antoinette remains in 1988 the toshy film is was in 1938 (and the savoir-faire of Van Dyke – who at the time became known as the man for working wonders with the impossible – changes nothing). In 1988 it has merely become a neo-tosh item, and what’s more, difficult to watch. One minute (like a good little Frenchman) it’s a matter of being a stickler for historical truth and raising eyebrows at the frivolities of the script. The next, it’s like watching an unwitting documentary on the unpalatable Norma Shearer with her way of acting for the camera and never with her co-stars. 
In cinema, a good film is a film that can yield up perhaps two or three readings, depending on different periods and audiences. A bad film yields only one: the first. And since, forty years on, there is nobody in the audience who is imbecilic enough to read the film as its original audience did, all that’s left is recourse to the ‘kitsch’, that mock second reading whose byword could be ‘bring your own sandwiches’. 
This doesn’t stop Marie-Antoinette from having the average qualities of American film-making and for these characteristics to function in such a void that they’re in plain sight for everyone. For example, the way of making anything follow on from anything, willy-nilly, as if was just simplistic cause and simplified effect and there was nothing more important than hysterically joining up the links in an endless chain, of no interest to anyone anyway, with neither start nor finish. One character alone, though, suspects that this story is scarcely worth the trouble of being lived and divulged, and this is the worthy Louis XVI, played by Robert Morley, all pouts and whites of eyes. There’s a moment when Van Dyke (whose specialty is more the adventure film) gives way and films the future Louis XVI nearly beating up Louis XV-Barrymore as he sits there, pox-ridden in his armchair. An unexpected bit of body contact. We can breathe. 

First published in Libération on 18 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Translator’s note: the French title is ‘néo-cruche’. ‘Cruche’ is a derogatory name for a stupid person. I've kept the translation 'neo-tosh' (from Cinema in transit) which isn't ideal but difficult to replace.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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