Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

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Three Italian Giallo Films

I may have lived almost half my life (obviously this is a vague metric, but let’s be optimistic and just assume 40 is a median), much of it as an ardent fan of cinema, yet there are vast swathes of the seventh art which have passed me by. One such blindspot is the horror genre, and of this the so-called giallo films of Italian cinema (the word means “yellow”, from the covers to the pulp crime novels popular in the country at the time) are a particular mystery: for all their exploitational slasher origins, many of them are highly praised by critics for their artistic and narrative playfulness (as much as they are decried for their lapses into misogyny, though this could equally apply to much of slasher horror, surely). Directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava are frequently cited, the baroque titles of whose opuses have long taken up a small corner of my brain, even as I’ve never seen any of them. Therefore, I thought it only sensible to accept a recent opportunity offered by a horror-cinema-loving friend to visit and watch a number of these films back-to-back, with appropriate food, drink and enthusiastic company.

The pretense for this event was my friend Matthew coming across a film called Death Laid an Egg (1968) deep in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s filmography, and indeed this is the oldest (and perhaps oddest) of the three films we watched. It also has the most bankable stars of the three, with Trintignant and Italian actor (and 50s sex symbol) Gina Lollobrigida both receiving starring roles. In some ways, it seems to fit in more closely with trends in European art cinema, taking its cues as much from Michelangelo Antonioni’s architecturally-framed elliptical modernist narratives on the one hand and trippy, hippy late-60s head films on the other, as much as from traditional horror or crime genre tropes. It also features less overt violence towards women than the other films, though the staging of the opening shots does strongly imply that Trintignant’s poultry farmer Marco has a penchant for murdering prostitutes, which is the motivation for a plot against him and his wife Anna (Lollobrigida) by his cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). The idea of Trintignant and Lollobrigida as farmers isn’t in the end as absurd as that may seem, for the film is interested in a more coldly futuristic idea of the role, manipulating genetics and engineering the perfect animal from a lab, rather than mucking out cages or suchlike. The latter stages of the narrative are all set out in a rather maddeningly opaque way, such that it’s easy to miss some of the final revelations, but as a whole the film is nicely controlled.

More traditional, then, is Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another rather oblique title which hints at perversions in its small-town Italian setting. A number of boys have been murdered, and a big-city reporter, Andrea (Tomas Milian), comes to town, with his tight jeans and archetypal 70s moustache, digging into the events. The film offers a number of possible suspects for the murders, including a mysterious witch-like woman (Florinda Bolkan), a hermit, a simpleton and a young priest, amongst others. The film is pretty sharp on indicting religious-based repression and the power of the local church and police authorities to turn local anger into murderous vendettas. It also gets over a good sense of atmosphere for its story, with outbreaks of gory violence to move things along.

However, best of the lot is the now-admired and acknowledged classic Profondo rosso (or Deep Red, 1975) directed by Dario Argento, towards the end of the first classic period of giallo filmmaking. A recent Blu-ray edition captures the beautiful cinematography of this slow-building mood piece, which features recurring sequences languidly panning across mysterious items in extreme close-up, not to mention an unfussy set design with a bar right out of Edward Hopper. The plot has jazz musician Marcus (David Hemmings from Blow-up) investigating a gory murder of a psychic, and his ensuing chase folds in all kinds of supernatural mystery to tinge the horror premise. Indeed, there’s a prominent role for a particularly spooky house which hides dark secrets (as such houses always seem to do). Despite its length, it all moves along without excessive flab, albeit taking its time to build up the eerie atmosphere nicely. It’s one of the few horror films I’ve seen that even I feel would repay multiple viewings, but Argento is clearly well in control of his craft by this time. A high point for Italian cinema of the 1970s.


La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)
Director Giulio Questi | Writers Franco Arcalli and Giulio Questi | Cinematographer Dario Di Palma | Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin | Length 90 minutes

Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)
Director Lucio Fulci | Writers Gianfranco Clerici, Lucio Fulci and Roberto Gianviti | Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi | Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento | Writers Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi | Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller | Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi | Length 126 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Lotte in Italia (Struggle in Italy, 1971)

It feels like a difficult thing to come to this film, however much of Godard’s 1960s output you’ve seen (or even Tout va bien or his later work from the 1980s on), because it’s so much a part of a movement and a heavily-politicised time in both his life and that of cultural institutions in Western Europe. What we have here is Godard (with his occasional collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin) working within the “Groupe Dziga-Vertov” collective (named for an important early Soviet filmmaker and theorist), making agit-prop pieces seeking to contextualise and free the worker from a bourgeois framework. Needless to say, too, it’s all very densely allusive and, as has long been Godard’s way, anchored very much by written and spoken texts (here, in Italian with another layer of French translation). The film is structured in three parts with Paola (Cristiana Tullio-Altan) seen first in various situations attempting to espouse a radical ideology, in the second part learning how her actions are framed by bourgeois ideology, and in the third reintegrating her actions with reference to the means of production. Or at least, this is what I think is going on, but it would probably require someone with a sustained understanding of the political struggles — and perhaps a few more viewings — to articulate it more meaningfully. In terms of this progress of thought, there’s a lot of to-do about the black leader which breaks up the various scenes of Paola at the start, later replaced by images of workers in factories, while the voiceover draws attention to the artifice of the film itself. Throughout, faces are largely eschewed in favour of showing actions, with the camera (this work presumably done by Godard and Gorin themselves) tending to frame body parts. It’s a provocation, of course, but it marks a stage on Godard’s filmic evolution.

Screening alongside this film are the Ciné-tracts made by Godard, from a series of 41 three-minute silent black-and-white short films intended to be distributed cheaply around the country and to prompt a dialogue about state power and control. Although unsigned, Godard’s shorts have been identified and take the form of slyly punning text written on a collage of still photographs showing dissent and activism. Standing apart from these is Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (credited to Godard and artist Gérard Fromanger), which simply but effectively films a painting of a French flag in which the band of red paint slowly leaks across the flag like blood, vividly coloured and graphically striking.


RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 February 2016

Lotte in Italia (1971)
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin [as “Groupe Dziga-Vertov”] | Starring Cristiana Tullio-Altan | Length 62 minutes

Ciné-tracts (1968) [#7-10, 12-16, 23, 40]
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard [uncredited] | Length c33 minutes (3 minutes each)

Ciné-tract numéro 1968 (1968)
Directors Jean-Luc Godard and Gérard Fromanger | Length 3 minutes

One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968)

It doesn’t seem as if this film collaborating with iconic 1960s rock band The Rolling Stones was particularly planned (it came together rather spontaneously when Godard visited the UK for another, failed project), but the work Godard has created from it fits in rather well with his ongoing politicisation following his end-of-days/end-of-cinema screed Week End. It re-examines the very fundamentals of artistic creation while looking towards certain increasingly urgent political themes that were developing even as the film was in production.

The film was shot in London in June 1968 as the Stones were recording tracks for their Beggars Banquet album, and specifically the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. This track has as its narrator Lucifer and recounts his involvement with a history of political violence right up to the present day (Robert Kennedy was assassinated even as the song was being recorded, necessitating a change to the lyrics). At the same time, with les évènements of May 1968 in France fresh in his mind, Godard’s sloganeering and agitprop tendencies have never been more in evidence. The film is punctuated by brief shots of a mysterious young woman spray-painting slogans around London, on cars, pavements, buildings and even the windows of the Hilton hotel, stuff like “CINEMARXISM” and “FREUDEMOCRACY”.

More substantial are extended scenes — almost skits in their jokey sketch-like quality — which unfold in long, measured tracking shots of student radicals and political protest, which form part of the structure of the film alluded to in the title (the documentary scenes of the Rolling Stones creating their track vs the staged scenes of radicals destroying civil society). The most prominent of these skits feature the Black Panthers, holed up in a junkyard alongside the River Thames (just under the Battersea rail bridge). Members of the group declaim political theory, including liberationist texts about the necessity of freeing themselves from the power of the white man and his language, though the first we hear deals rather more directly with the soul of black music (a wry nod towards the appropriation of a black rhythm-and-blues idiom in popular music such as that exemplified by the Rolling Stones themselves). These scenes wrap the texts up into a discourse of violence — guns are thrown around, and some (white) women dressed in white shifts are held at gunpoint and seen spattered with brightly-coloured crimson blood.

The counterpoint to this is the interview of “Eve Democracy” (played by the director’s wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky), wafting around a forest glade being followed by a camera crew. She may seem to embody ideals of peace, reinforced by the rural, sylvan setting, but her responses to the interviewer’s elaborate questions are never other than “Yes” or “No”, and finally, as the revolutionary rhetoric becomes too forceful, she flees. The other scene featuring white protagonists is set in a bookshop, its walls lined with pulpy novels laden with sexual, racial and political themes, comics and pornographic magazines. The customers pay by giving a long-armed fascist salute to the proprietor (who also reads from a revolutionary text) then slapping two long-haired Maoist militants sitting in the corner of the room.

The film questions the very notion of authorship that had underpinned Godard’s career over the past decade. The studio scenes showing the Stones recording their track lay bare the repetition and boredom underlying artistic creation, as members of the band and their entourage try over and over again to establish the basic elements of the song (the drum beat, the lyrics, the guitar sound, the backing vocals, et al.). Stylistically, too, these scenes seem to lack a certain coherence, with the camera just panning around endlessly in lieu of a script to follow. Just as the process by which the text is authored is revealed here, so the interstitial sketches work hard to erase the idea of authorship — very little is said that is not quoted or read from a text, and interviewers and camera crews are a constant presence. The final scene, which is itself of a film crew creating a shot, ends with a woman’s dead body hoisted aloft on a camera crane, and so the film’s reflexivity has folded back in on itself.

The film was in the end retitled after the song it featured (and added a coda with the final studio version of the Stones song, much to Godard’s disgust), but either version has a lot of productive material that reflects the turbulent times in which it was made. The pose with regard to authorship, not to mention the rambling discursive methods used, makes it a difficult film to watch at times, but it certainly marks a forceful break with the rest of Godard’s 1960s work and looks forward to the continued formal experimentation of the 1970s.


© Connoisseur

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (as “Tony Richmond”) | Starring The Rolling Stones, Anne Wiazemsky (as “Anne Wiazemski”) | Length 97 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 28 July 2004 (also on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently at home on DVD, London, Saturday 21 September 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good


Next Up: Most of Godard’s 1970s was taken up with experimental televisual work and overt political films, with the exception of the bigger budget Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. You can see a common thread uniting his earlier works with this one, but it again has a radical structure and is co-directed by theorist and academic Jean-Pierre Gorin.