P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

Guilty Pleasures[1]

Niels Weisberg

...when I saw Lilith I said to my wife, "We’ve just seen Robert Rossen’s last film. When a man achieves that degree of perfection, he has to die. As Becker did after Le Trou." And now he is dead. When I told Lino Ventura that Rossen was a little old man over sixty years old, he just couldn’t believe it.

"What? The man who madeThe Hustler?" He was right, of course: The Hustler was the work of a thirty-year old.

Jean Pierre Melville (1968)

Vincent, François, Paul et les autres is life; and Claude Sautet is vitality.

François Truffaut (1974)

In the introduction to their recent book, European Cinema, Jill Forbes and Sarah Street deal with aspects of the relationship between European and American cinema. They admit that their undertaking is complex: "…the central question which this book raises but naturally does not answer: What, if any, are the common features of European cinema?"[2] And they ask other questions, e.g. "Is European cinema a collection of national cinemas, some more vibrant and successful than others?… (D)oes the more open narrative often favoured in European cinema allow for more mobile conceptions than elsewhere?…Is it, as Nowell-Smith suggests, wedded to realism?"

Two years earlier in his introduction to Hollywood & Europe,[3] Geoffrey Nowell-Smith had argued that post-war European cinema, threatened by the fact that Hollywood was (and is) the biggest fabricator of fantasy, had responded by offering counter-fantasy (e.g. comedies, horror), but more often than not

realism, a commodity deeply rooted in European culture and well adapted to the circumstances in which the industries found themselves. It could be inexpensively improvised. It suited a tradition in which artists were respected as individual purveyors of truth, and it offered a national-cultural distinctiveness, a mirror of everyday reality not provided by the fantasy factory.

(Besides realism, Nowell-Smith argues that European cinema offered "an alternation between modernism and "heritage" filtered through the classics of European literature.")

In the post-war decades, the European art film with its loose narration, ambiguous characters and open ending was seen as more realistic than Hollywood’s classic norm: tight, goal-oriented, cause-effect narration. The art film had subjects from everyday life, ordinary people in unglamorous, ordinary settings, often (relatively) unknown actors enacting parts as anti-heroes rather than traditional heroes, engaged in realistic (i.e. uncensored) sexual relations.

The art film was only a part – and a small part – of European film production, since the popular genres attracted a bigger audience, but the art film was better subsidized by the state, promoted at festivals and exported.

And this has led to the assumption that art cinema is too heterogenous to be considered as a genre analogous to the tradional ones; perhaps it is better to explain it as a marketing device, played in art cinemas, and seen due to its foreignness, so much more as "it is perfectly possible, indeed quite common, for a film which is sold as "popular" in its home territory to be designated "art" when exported."[4]

Two more factors – which could be termed cross-fertilization – complicated the relationship between the two continents further: there has been a steady influx of European film-makers to Hollywood since the 1920s – and many American film-makers have acknowledged their inspiration from European cinema.

Thus the division of Europe into a number of national states, each with its own cultural characteristics, and the low distribution of European films in Europe itself (only 10 per cent of European films are screened in another European country) make a definition of one European cinema too diffuse and heterogeneous in the attempt to characterize the relationship between Hollywood and European cinema in any other way than already stated – in other words: industrial big business film production versus small, craft-based productions partly seen as "an artistic alternative to crass commercialism."[5]

Instead I will draw attention to two movies, sadly neglected in Anglo-American film literature.[6]

Vincent, François, Paul et les autres (Claude Sautet, France 1974)
This film is about three middle-aged men, all facing a mid-life crisis. They are frustrated by how badly they have realized themselves – and by how frayed their friendship has become in spite of their mutual Sundays together.

Vincent (Yves Montand) owns a small machine shop, but faces bankruptcy. His young mistress leaves him, and his wife, from whom he is separated, wants a divorce (the film is somewhat ambiguous about the cause, though most certainly he is the one to blame).

François (Michel Piccoli), a doctor, lives in a chilly marriage with his wife and children; she openly cheats on him, and his reserve and cynicism, a cover for his trading the ideals of his youth for money, put a strain on the friendship.

Paul suffers from writer’s block after his first successful novel and now makes a living by writing second-rate articles.

So they all try to adapt to what they have become and the uncertain future ahead of them – by accepting their tragic shortcomings and by admitting that they must give up their hopeless struggles.

Their wives all seem much stronger and wiser than they are (a theme which Sautet returns to four years later in Une histoire simple).[7]

Paul is the only one of the friends who has a warm, solid relationship with his wife, and therefore (or is it the other way round?) he confides his failure as a writer to her, and she accepts it without reservations.

François’s wife leaves him because their marriage is beyond repair and because she falls in love with another man, but François, accepting his failure, slowly opens up to his friends and places new confidence and strength in their friendship.

Before his final decision to sell his machine shop, Vincent visits his wife – almost by instinct as a last way out. Though she refuses to resume their marriage, she offers him financial help.

Failure, in one way or another, is common to all three friends – old age is just around the corner, and real happiness is only a memory. In a brilliant scene Vincent looks at an old photograph of the three friends, young and smiling, dancing with their wives, and for a glorious moment the black-and-white photo becomes alive – with music. But the next moment, after an ugly cut, Vincent – and we – are back in troublesome everyday reality.

This melancholic, episodic, slice-of-life film ends in a beautifully relaxed and somewhat optimistic tone: without money and his machine shop, without his wife or his mistress, without any guarantee of seeing the next morning dawn (a heart attack was a warning) Vincent gives up fighting against his hopeless situation, against time.

Instead he decides to live – with his friends and with the small though somewhat unrealistic hope that one day his wife may return to him: because – in the words with which Sautet has him end the film – "On ne sait pas, avec la vie" (You never know, about life).

The Hustler (Robert Rossen, USA 1961)
The structure of this film is organized around a number of pool games – five altogether – that turn out to be decisive for Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman). They demonstrate his obvious talent for playing pool, but at the same time they reveal his (lack of) character. Like a classical drama, the film can be divided into five acts, each ending with a game of pool.

The main theme of the film is a young poolplayer’s ambition for success, for becoming the best, and for earning big money. The consequences of his ambition are the loss of friendship (Charlie/ Myron McCormick), the loss of love (Sarah/Piper Laurie) and finally his dehumanization (Bert/George C. Scott).

Sarah and Bert become the expression of two opposing instincts – or forces – in Eddie’s life, and in the way it solves the conflict the film demonstrates that those instincts cannot be reconciled. Thus the film is in line with a great many American films having the same theme/conflict. Most often the films will focus on the "winner" and the consequences of success and money that he (very seldom she) suffers as a result, namely loneliness, insecurity, and grief.

The opposite of this is the happiness that the individual may obtain through a modest (bourgeois) life, based on love, compassion, and frugality. This conflict/contradiction is a classic in Hollywood ideology: it serves as compensation and comfort for everyone who has not obtained the wealth and success which is invariably shown as the greatest goal in life – the fulfillment of the American Dream.

By definition, as it were, the "winner" must be a bad guy, for only through recklessness and callousness can material goals be reached. Paradoxically, some "winners," namely the nice heroes (e.g. Eddie), actually can obtain success while simultaneously remaining decent human beings. This conflict /contradiction is – like the myth of the poor rich villain – also a staple in Hollywood ideology. A case in point is the Western hero who even though he may be forced into becoming a murderer, and as such adopting the methods of the villains (but being better than them, of course) still remains "innocent". His moral integrity is not tainted by murder since he fights for the common good!

In The Hustler, Bert Gordon is the classic "winner" – and thus also "loser" in terms of humanity. As arch-villain, he alone bears all the blame. He is the embodiment of the struggle for power, the power of the game, over other human beings, the power that money can buy. He is the brutal ringleader, the capitalist who uses other men’s talents and creativity for his own personal ends and economic gain. His impotent relationship to other people is evident in his apparently joyless seduction of Sarah and in his insecurity when confronted by Eddie with her suicide during his final game against Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).

Sarah, his opposite, represents the love and humaneness that perish when confronted with him. In one of the only scenes set in outdoor surroundings, far above the city, Eddie has just had the plaster removed from his hands, and here Sarah shows her understanding of how important it is to Eddie to reach for the top as a pool player: She alone sees his enthusiasm at mastering the art of playing as something which is valid in itself because it gives life meaning.[8]

In contrast to Bert, however, she is not characterized as being unambiguously "good"; her loneliness in the small, cluttered apartment, her fondness for drinking, her life-lies (e.g. about the wealthy lover) and her latent self-destruction (which manifests itself after she has given herself to Bert) turn her into a character more complex than the stock "innocent" heroine. Her physical handicap, her limp, becomes the symbol of her existence. Contrary to the male protagonists who are mentally handicapped, her handicap is visible. But her deep understanding of Eddie and her exposure of Bert gives her superiority over them, just like her ambition of becoming a writer establishes her as their opposite. However, she does not have the strength to go against their male world, and her final message, written in large letters on the mirror: perverted, twisted, crippled is both a verdict on herself as well as on the world that Bert represents.

Through Sarah’s death, Eddie – who throughout the film constantly has been called a "loser" by Bert – wins a victory which raises him above the traditional "winner-loser" level. The victory at pool over the old master Minnesota Fats reestablishes his status as a true Hollywood hero: by withdrawing from the game as the master he may, almost magically, retain his innocence – after having regained it. Neither his status as hero nor his role as redeemer of the inherent contradictions of the myth will ever be questioned.

Obviously Bert Gordon plays a crucial role in Eddie’s life, but other men play important roles too, especially Minnesota Fats, Eddie’s great idol. In spite of the fact that he has sold his soul to Bert, Minnesota Fats still emerges as a positive figure because of his humanity, his fair-play attitude and his prowess at pool. Charlie, Eddie’s first teacher and "manager," is a discount version of Eddie with regard to talent and ambition, and in the film he is one of the "costs " of Eddie’s striving for success. He – as well as Bert – may be interpreted as father figures , but primarily Minnesota Fats is such a figure (Cf the anagram Fats-Fast! ("Fast Eddie")). Eddie must beat this father figure in order to be able to develop as a human being, as a man, and as a player. The game against Findley in Louisville can be interpreted as the final step but one in his progress towards male independence. The homoerotic tendencies of the character of Findley are hinted at, e.g. through the decor of his billiards room and through his southern accent, which also connotes decadence. Eddie’s victory over him represents victory over the "feminine" side of Eddie’s personality (in the terminology of the film: the loser side). Eddie has passed his rite of initiation and his final victory over Minnesota Fats is the logical confirmation of this. He is able to break loose from the corrupt/corrupting world of pool, and his subsequent exclusion from this world is thus not necessarily tragical.

The world of pool is an extreme male universe – complete with homosexual overtones, as mentioned above – and with its underlining of traditional male values: competition, the importance of winning (cf the popular saying "Winning is not important… it’s everything"!), the respect paid to professional skills, but also the acceptance of "hustling" as a legitimate behaviour.

The closed world of pool is a sports world in which the inherent ideology is (male) competition as the foundation of life, and victory as its highest goal. The sports world becomes a metaphor for American capitalist society. All through the film Bert is the evil capitalist – and in the end he becomes even more disgusting by banning Eddie from all big pool halls in the USA (for life) – the capitalist has also become an imperialist. In her showdown with Bert at the hotel in Louisville, Sarah remarks that Bert was "a Roman." Thus Eddie’s struggle for independence becomes a political, democratic struggle, worth fighting, even though the ending very realistically – and pessimistically – shows us that the struggle has very high costs.

This denunciation of American ideology no doubt reflects Rossen’s important position as one of the key screenwriters of Warner Brothers’ social-problem pictures of the 30s, which were critical of the economic and social injustice of contemporary society, and his subsequent personal involvement in the HUAC hearings.[9]

Son of The Hustler
European art cinema has a certain tendency toward social-critical films, but more as the works of a group of directors (e.g. Visconti, Godard, Widerberg, Loach) than as a general tendency. Hollywood producers focusing on the bottom line have almost suppressed left-wing tendencies[10], and the man to follow in Rossen’s footsteps must surely be Oliver Stone. In what other American mainstream directors’ films can you find lines like: "The richest one-per-cent of this country owns half our country’s wealth" (Wall Street) and "You’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you?" (Wall Street) and "The government tricked them (the soldiers) into going 13,000 miles to fight a war against a poor peasant people with a proud history of resistance, who have been struggling for their own independence for a thousand years. I can’t find the words to express how the leadership of this government sickens me…" (Born on the Fourth of July).

Robin Wood, in an (as always) excellent article[11], has stated about Stone:

(I)n the most literal sense, his work so far is structured precisely on the absence of an available political alternative, which could only be a commitment to what is most deeply and hysterically tabu in American culture, a form of Marxist socialism. There is a curious paradox here which Americans seem reluctant to notice: Lincoln’s famous formula, supposedly one of the foundations of American political ideology, "Government of the people, by the people and for the people," could only be realized in a system dubbed, above all else, "un-American" (American capitalism, as Stone sees very clearly, is government by the rich and powerful for the rich and the powerful).

To reserve the term "art cinema" for European films alone is totally misleading, if by art is meant an artistic standard. What is important is the relevance of a film’s message and the craft with which this message is told by its director and crew.

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1 The title of this article on two of my favourite movies is taken from Film Comment's series of articles by various people writing about their favourite movies. Being an elderly, happily married man I shall refrain from commenting on Mr. Irons' sexual observations as printed on p. 5. However, should an innocent young student happen to read this issue of p.o.v., may I point out that Mr. Irons's parts in rather dubious film productions such as Malle's Damage, Cronenberg's M. Butterfly, and Lyne's Lolita do not necessarily vouch for sound judgement.

2 Jill Forbes & Sarah Street (eds.), European Cinema. An Introduction. Palgrave 2000, p.xii f.

3 Geoffrey Nowell-Smith & Steven Ricci (eds.), Hollywood & Europe. Economics, Culture, National Identity 1946-95. British Film Institute 1998, p. 13.

4 Jill Forbes & Sarah Street (2000) p. 40.

5 Ibid., p. 42

6 Neither film is included in the BFI 360 classic films list. In recent Danish film literature Chr. Braad Thomsen includes The Hustler in his book Drømmefilm, Gyldendal 2000, p. 171-174.

7 Could this be Sautet's comment on the 70s as the decade of masculinity in crisis and of emerging feminism?

8 In the same scene Rossen expertly suggest that their affair is doomed: in the beginning of the scene they are shown together in two-shots, but from Sarah's line "You're not a loser, Eddie. You're a winner," Rossen cuts between them in single close-ups - and they are not shown together in the same frame any more in this scene.

9 Cf Alan Casty, The Films of Robert Rossen. Museum of Modern Art, 1969, pp. 28-32.

10 Rossen wrote, directed and produced The Hustler on the East coast.

11 Robin Wood's article on Oliver Stone in Nicholas Thomas (ed), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 2, (2. Edition), London, St James Press, 1991, p. 808-810. Cf also the expanded version, "Radicalism and Popular Cinema - The Films of Oliver Stone" in cineACTION no. 23, Winter 1990-91, pp. 60-69.

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