Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) + Blissfully Thai's Ploy (2007)

To add to an already thundering chorus, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) represents one of the more subtle, successful and indeed suitable applications of 3-D technology amid the current rebirth of the spectacle-oriented form: utilizing the augmented medium's palpable depth-of-field and tapping into its higher capacity to articulate volume, Cave of Forgotten Dreams conveys a feeling of the enclosed space's supreme vertical restrictions, while tracing the ample 30,000-year-old figures as they spread across the rippling stone. Though even in two dimensions it would  be possible to glean the genuine beauty of the Chauvet cave's nascent human representations - art attained a level of substantial accomplishment, it would seem, very early in its development, not unlike the point that cinema reached in the work of Auguste and Louis Lumière - the picture's powerful immersive impression, its admirable elucidation of one of the world's most singular places, in both its boneyard present and its proto-cinematic past, would wane without the technology's third dimension. Yet, even with this appropriately organic expansion of film form, Herzog understands that his art remains an experientially limited object as his non-fiction narrative sharply shifts momentarily to a master perfumer who processes the restricted setting through his prodigious sense of smell. 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams sustains its self-reflexive spotlight on the cinematic art form through the picture's concluding passage, whether it is the director's early apology for his crew's presence in the frame or Herzog's citation of movement within and over the interior's multiple iterations of animal form. Indeed, the discovery of a vaginal figure occasions both comparisons between the libidinal end of cave painting and motion picture representation, while affording Herzog the opportunity of procuring a pornographic form of suspense in the lead-up to his graphic reveal. However, it is in the aforementioned closing scene, the film's "Postscript," where Herzog's self-consciousness becomes most conspicuous and cloying, as the director speculates on the mind of a mutated albino crocodile in his own signature manner - one it should be added that has long since become an irritating elite-pop culture cliché. Herzog's ravings burst the beautiful spell cast by the film's incantatory Chauvet setting. Though it is a misstep surely, an "unforced error" in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, it is a strategy, nevertheless, that issues from the film's internal logic: Herzog's characteristically unhinged warning doubles the crooked little finger of art history's earliest auteur.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams accordingly joins fellow 2010 alum, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Lives, in detecting the origins of the cinematic medium within humankind's oldest form of artistic expression. The latter work, last year's best, will be presented May 22nd as part of the New York-based Asia Society's "Blissfully Thai" series (with Thailand's finest filmmaker scheduled to participate in a Q&A session following the screening of his dense masterpiece). Last night, "Blissfully Thai" opened with a screening from the second leading figure of the Thai art cinema, both in international reputation and on the level of artistic achievement, Pen-ek Ratanaruang. The rarely-presented Ploy (2007), from a screenplay by the director, finds Pen-ek working at approximately the same higher level of artistry that the filmmaker displayed previously in major-works 6ixtynin9 (1999) and Last Life in the Universe (2003) - and in formal territory that is familiar equally to both. In Ploy, as in Last Life in particular, Pen-ek belatedly suffuses an undifferentiated dream surreality within what had appeared an objective, existential present; the Pratt Institute-educated Pen-ek, like the "exquisite corpse" work of his Art Institute-trained countryman Apichatpong, borrows substantially from the West's Surrealist tradition. In thus subverting waking reality, Pen-ek manages to navigate generic registers, in the memorable pattern of 6ixtynin9, transforming Ploy over time (and from set-piece to set-piece) from marital melodrama to soft-core romance to serial-killer thriller.

Ploy's surreal strategies likewise register the picture's broader attempt to manufacture the liminal experience of "jet-lag" shared by the film's married travelers. With Ploy's narrative largely confined to a Thai hotel in the hours immediately before and after daybreak, Pen-ek adeptly instantiates the muddled cognition of the moment; Ploy provides a crystalline portrait of sleep deprivation at dawn, when the bright white light of the early morning sun suddenly begins to blaze below a set of bulky hotel curtains. Pen-ek's work is no less infused with erotic feeling, with Apinya Sakuljaroensuk's eponymous nineteen year-old the primary conduit for the film's inscribed, very palpable heterosexual desire - even as its most explicit sexual encounters prove the products of Ploy's subjectivity. While further correspondences to Apichatpong and Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) obtain in the hotel's corridors especially, Ploy herself seems to suggest foremost the reincarnated presence of Faye Wong in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994), with a pointed allusion to the expiration date of a romance a strong confirmation of the reference. Indeed, Wong, as scholar Broad has noted likewise, offers a valuable point-of-comparison for the highly achieved, if more middle-range art-cum-entertainment cinema of Pen-ek.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Modern Romance (1981) & Albert Brooks's Reinvention of the Comedy of Remarriage

Having celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its release this past March, Albert Brooks's minor masterpiece Modern Romance (1981, Columbia) remains perhaps the definitive post-classical era reinvention of the Comedy of Remarriage, even if its marital restoration is nothing more than hinted at as a future possibility in the third of the picture's three concluding comedic titles. In fact, the film's literal marriage likewise appears only in this same set of on-screen updates, with the divorce following one month later - as is stipulated in title number two. Modern Romance accordingly plays as a slightly displaced, contemporary revision of the classical form, whereby the couple's break-up (that is, Brooks's Hebraic Robert Cole and Kathryn Harrold's W.A.S.P. Mary Harvard's) stands in for the sub-genre's defining marital split; their subsequent on-screen reunion - and retreat into California's Connecticut equivalent, Idyllwild - consequently marks marriage two and a second Midsummer's honeymoon. That their second on-screen tour as a couple - one of many the viewer presumes - ends in yet another split, however, gives lie, or at least modernizes the sanctifying break-up and reunion template of the studio period Comedy of Remarriage. In Brooks's later incarnation, the Catholic-coded faith that Cary Grant  finally develops in ex-wife Irene Dunne within The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey; 1937, Columbia) never seems to materialize.

Brooks's inveterately suspicious Cole displays a no more flattering indecisiveness, revealing itself primarily in Cole's unending stream of break-neck reversals. Throughout Modern Romance, Brooks's Cole immediately follows basically optimistic declarations with pessimistic about-faces, whether in conversation with his assistant film editor Jay (Bruno Kirby) or as he monologues ceaselessly at home. The latter passages not only serve to reflect Robert's discomfort in being on his own - while, of course, also facilitating Brooks's unique, especially verbal comedic style - but they additionally set up one of the screen's most excessively deferred punch-lines (outdoing even the strategy's greatest exponent Jacques Tati): when Cole thereafter picks up a date in his ubiquitous sports car, the two sit silently in his front seat as they set out for dinner. His verbal torrent, as such, has stopped, thereby transforming the aforementioned passages of verbosity into an elaborate set-up for the pair's awkward, wordless drive. Robert consequently pulls back in front of his date's apartment complex - changing, or perhaps more accurately, making up his mind - without another word, until he confesses to being unprepared to re-enter the dating world.

Brooks's characterization ultimately proves both courageous and commendable in the very lack of positive values bestowed by the writer-director - and especially in Brooks's willingness to eschew facile growth for his protagonist Robert. Brooks, likewise, does not permit himself scenes in which he is able to demonstrate an intellectual superiority to augment his lack of moral or interpersonal intelligence, save perhaps for his encounters with James L. Brooks's director. (James L. is directing a George Kennedy science-fiction vehicle that that provides the negative image of the Albert's real-world take on contemporary romance.) In these exchanges, film editor Robert possesses the practical common sense that the filmmaker lacks, thus endowing the former with an inherent superiority. Then again, as James L. Brooks's character shares Albert's real-life directorial professional, this apparent break with the picture's character strategies in reality provides another instance of the writer-director-actor's self-deprecating humor. Robert is never really allowed to be in the right, except when it means that the film's director is acting irrationally. The Albert Brooks of Modern Romance accordingly emerges as the most singularly self-critical hyphenated screen persona this side of Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan recasting in Sudden Impact (1983, Warner Bros.).

Modern Romance shares further qualities with those of the actor-director's corpus.  For one, Brooks's film represents a commensurate attempt to grapple with its historical moment. (At the time of this writing, Brooks has just authored his first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, extending this strategy within the current debt crisis.) In the case of Modern Romance, this effort crystallizes in the fundamental, intrinsically contemporary flaw that continuously destroys Robert and Mary's relationship: that they, two work-oriented professionals in separate industries - unlike His Girl Friday's (Howard Hawks; 1940, Columbia) newspaper man and woman - have nothing in common. Second, the very fact that Brooks attempts to remake a 1930s-era battle-of-the-sexes generic archetype shares with Eastwood's recent efforts to renew the screwball form in The Gauntlet (1977, Warner Bros.) and Bronco Billy (1980, Warner Bros.). Brooks's film is no less than saturated in both Hollywood's past and in the workings of its post-studio present.

Finally, and most notably of all, Brooks utilizes a classical shooting strategy that like his compatriot only rarely shows markers of post-classical, intensified forms of continuity. In Modern Romance, Brooks always seems to cut unobtrusively on rhythm. The director introduces spaces through mobile establishing shots that segue into medium two's, which themselves become over-the-shoulder shots and their reverses. When Brooks does experiment with telephoto lensing - when Robert decides to get in shape on an outdoor track - the technique is utilized so that Brooks is able to run toward the camera, before peeling off in the direction of a nearby phone booth in a moment of characteristic reversal. In other words, when Brooks varies his formal strategies, as he does in this instance, the result is a visual joke; film style is placed in the service of comedy in Brooks's comparatively classical (post-classical) disassembling of the Comedy of Remarriage. In spirit at least, Brooks, like Eastwood, belongs to classical Hollywood's immediate aftermath - rather than to the afterglow of New Hollywood. Despite Brooks's Heaven's Gate punchline (Michael Cimino; 1980, United Artists).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Foolish Wives by Sergius Karamzin: Manners, Manipulation and Modernism in von Stroheim’s Monte Carlo

           For much of the scholarship surrounding Erich von Stroheim’s filmmaking, biography has taken precedence over the works themselves.  That researchers would emphasize the director’s life story is by no means surprising, given both the extraordinary trajectory of his career and also the fact that none of von Stroheim’s films survive in their intended form.[1]  Indeed, few filmmakers of the silent era could claim an entrance as auspicious as von Stroheim’s: biographer and scholar Richard Koszarski has argued that “until the coming of Orson Welles, Blind Husbands [1919] was the most impressive and significant debut film in Hollywood history.”[2]  Then again, von Stroheim would be out at Universal within three years, after being fired during the production of Merry-Go-Round (1923).[3]  The director’s termination closely followed his completion of Foolish Wives (1922), which the studio billed as “the first real million-dollar picture.”[4]  Subsequent to Merry-Go-Round, the director commenced shooting of Greed (1924) at Goldwyn, which like Foolish Wives survives only in badly-mangled versions – though its reputation coupled with the film’s remaining elements were enough to secure seventh place in Sight and Sound’s 1952 Critics’ Poll, and fourth place ten years later.[5]  Following Greed, the director would make four additional films at four separate studios, before beginning his second career as an actor-for-hire.  In this final phase of his professional life, von Stroheim experienced some success, teaming with Jean Renoir, one of his most esteemed followers, in La Grande illusion (1937), before creating another of his best-remembered characters, Max von Mayerling, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).[6] 
         Testifying to the seductive nature of the von Stroheim’s biography, it would seem natural if not necessary to qualify the above acting successes with the claim that von Stroheim remained “unhappy” in the final decades of his life, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith does in his Oxford History of World Cinema capsule.[7]  Certainly this impulse confirms the power of the narrative represented in von Stroheim’s life: namely of a victim, or better yet, of an isolated genius destroyed by the studio system.  Of course, von Stroheim not only courted this interest in his personal biography, but in fact manufactured an interest in his life that would extend beyond the screen: as the well-documented story goes, von Stroheim was no ‘von’ at all, but an Austrian Jew who immigrated to the United States in his earlier twenties.  Yet, in the countless interviews that the actor-director conducted until his death in 1957, von Stroheim never wavered from his insistence that he was of noble lineage, as he similarly embellished his Austrian military career and even his Jewish ethnicity.[8]  Surely, von Stroheim manufactured a public persona in much the same fashion that he created his fictions.  Any study of von Stroheim the artist, therefore, should require an attention to this additional creation – that is, to Erich von Stroheim.
            Still, as compelling a figure as von Stroheim is, what commends his study, ultimately, is less the details of his biography than it is the art he produced (even in the fragmentary form in which the work has been preserved).  Among these films – or “skeleton(s)” of films[9] – few more forcefully demand artistic reassessment than does Foolish Wives, a film whose controversy von Stroheim was never able to escape.  While the narrative surrounding Foolish Wives focuses upon von Stroheim’s well-documented extravagances, the product on the screen “astounded” Jean Renoir, who admitted to seeing it “at least ten times.”[10]  Fellow émigré director Ernst Lubitsch made reference to the film in the both the setting of his 1930 musical Monte Carlo, and also in a small detail wherein one of the gamblers rubs a hunchback for good luck.  Furthermore, one may cite the press that accompanied the film, which though mixed overall, featured more than its share of accolades: the Evening Telegram called it “the most extravagant of all American films, and also one of the most absorbing”;[11] Mae Tinee of the Chicago Daily Tribune remarked on the “tapestried perfection of the whole”;[12] and Fredrick James Smith of the Los Angeles Times claimed that “we have never observed more brilliant direction.”[13]  
            However, Mr. Smith later added that “we have never noted such a lavish instance of a director losing perspective and grip upon his story,”[14] while a reviewer for the New York Times noted that Foolish Wives “could have been made with much less architecture without losing its essential dramatic quality.”[15]  A second reviewer writing in the Los Angeles Times likewise argued that “there is a great deal to find fault with in the matter of continuity, drama and theme.”[16]  Thus, the most common criticisms leveled against von Stroheim begin to crystallize: specifically, that the director failed to attended to the dramatic qualities of the photoplay, while succumbing to every imaginable extravagance in the production of his film.
Certainly, none of these criticisms warrant our neglect of Foolish Wives as an aesthetic object today – particularly if we refuse to define film as essentially theatrical or even as filmed theatre (a preconception belied in many of the reviews listed above).  While some of the concerns of earlier reviewers remain evident – for instance, the opinion that the film’s editing and continuity are inadequate – it is important to qualify these observations.  In the case of the film’s cutting, it is essential to note the fact that von Stroheim’s picture was reduced from a “perfect” thirty reels to the “scrappy ten-reel print” of its general release, which indeed mitigates reviewers’ criticisms of the director’s inadequacy in this regard.[17]  As a matter of fact, that it was in this mangled form that both Renoir (in 1924) and Lubitsch saw Foolish Wives should further refuse any claim that our materials deny a proper appreciation of von Stroheim’s film as an art object.  Actually, our Foolish Wives is more complete – since its reconstruction by the American Film Institute in 1979 – than were any of the versions screened since its reduction to ten reels, immediately after its premiere in 1922.[18]  In short, we are better equipped to assess von Stroheim’s art presently than we have been at any point since its initial, troubled release.
Consequently, what follows is precisely this, a consideration of Foolish Wives as an aesthetic object, which was the product of a single artistic will.  This final caveat is especially necessary as few films of its time can equal the importance placed on the identity of its creator.  As the aforementioned New York Times reviewer put it, “more than is the case with most other photoplays attributed to an individual, this production is the work of Mr. von Stroheim, for he not only wrote and directed it, but is by far the most conspicuous figure in the cast.”[19]  Yet, it is not simply that von Stroheim occupied the aforesaid positions, but that the narrative itself refers to his role as the film’s creator, and more precisely to von Stroheim’s agency as a manipulator of the narrative.  Indeed, this theme of manipulation will be emphasized in the following essay, particularly as it confirms the work’s highly-advanced reflexivity.  At the same time, Foolish Wives is very much a film of its context, which would seem the natural point of departure.  It is only after these circumstances are detailed that the film’s exceptional qualities will be considered.

European Manners in the Aftermath World War I
            Foolish Wives opens on a close-up of a roulette wheel, followed closely by the title, ‘Monte Carlo, Europe’s playground – irresponsible and gay as ever when the Armistice was signed.’  Thus, von Stroheim immediately establishes not only the luxury of the resort, but the film’s setting in the aftermath of the First World War.  Indeed, while this context is common in Foolish Wives, it is a theme that is often removed to the background of von Stroheim’s film.  For instance, in the picture’s first establishing shots of the resort community, von Stroheim includes two men being pushed past each other in wheelchairs.  Thereafter, we see a veteran passing on his crutches and a truck filled with soldiers, which likewise features a wounded serviceman.  In a later scene located in the City’s poorest quarter, von Stroheim films a young girl also on crutches and a young boy wearing a combat helmet, though again they form little more than the background for a visit by Karamzin.
Of course, it is the film’s emphasis on luxury that is the more ubiquitous stage for the film.  Following the above-noted imagery and title, for example, von Stroheim’s narrative shifts locations to Villa Amorosa, the seaside residence of three supposed members of the Russian aristocracy, Her Highness Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George), Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch) and Their Cousin, Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim).  We are introduced to the “cousins’” opulent lifestyle during a breakfast that features Karamzin drinking his “eye-opener” of ox-blood and eating his caviar “cereal.”  Prior to their meal, we first see von Stroheim’s Karamzin firing at targets, which is an activity he repeats subsequently in one of the grand seaside casinos.  In this latter instance, Karamzin and his fellow aristocrats hunt for sport, firing at doves as they are released from metal cages.  Importantly, this is a motif that Renoir will later reprise in the justifiably famous hunting scene that serves as a centerpiece to the director’s masterpiece, La Règle du jeu (1939).  As in that film, this gesture of human brutality is a condemnation of war, though rather than prefiguring the direction of European society, von Stroheim’s film directly references the experiences of Europe’s recent past. 
Further, the hunting scene reveals not only the brutality of the society, but its misplaced values as well.  For example, Mrs. Hughes (Miss Dupont as the twenty-one year-old wife of an American diplomat) looks on Karamzin’s success in this activity with favor, while regarding her husband’s unwillingness to participate as a deficiency in his manners: “This [ignorance] is revealed during the pigeon shooting scene, when, in closeup, she smilingly admires Karamzin for the senseless killing of several birds but looks down on her husband, who does not participate as he disapproves of this decadent pastime.  Her contempt of her husband is expressed by a high-angle point-of-view shot.”[20]  As Nora Henry puts in it conjunction with the above quotation, she is “ignorant of true values.”[21]
This displacement of moral standards is further articulated during the scene following Karamzin’s arrival in Monte Carlo.  Upon his entrance, the highly-decorated Karamzin dutifully salutes his fellow soldiers, albeit distractedly, before ignoring another veteran as his thoughts turn toward Mrs. Hughes.  Once with the diplomat’s wife, another lone veteran populates the background quietly; the gentleman comes into view when he refuses to pick up Mrs. Hughes’ book.  At this point, Mrs. Hughes takes his refusal to help as boorishness, as compared with Karamzin’s continental manners.  However, when Mrs. Hughes later learns that he is an armless veteran, she apologizes to the gentleman, tenderly placing his jacket over his shoulders.  Thus, von Stroheim undercuts the virtue of manners, suggesting not only their superficiality in the present setting, but the complicity of Europe’s aristocracy in the destruction of the Great War.  This wounded soldier represents the truth of the prior conflict, against which Karamzin’s participation – as a “Capt. 3rd Hussars Imperial Russian Army” – is revealed to be counterfeit.  That is, Karamzin either served in an honorific position that did not present the dangers faced by the wounded veterans, or like von Stroheim himself, Karamzin falsified his military experience.   

Out Griffith-ing Griffith
Before continuing on to the film’s various other themes, it may be worth considering first the director’s primary artistic context – that is, as a student of D. W. Griffith’s.  To begin with, von Stroheim participated in the shoot of The Birth of a Nation (1915), making his film debut as an extra (“the man falling off the roof”).[22]  He followed this debut with parts in Intolerance (1916) and Hearts of the World (1918), where he also served as an uncredited technical advisor.  While certainly this limited collaboration does not entail influence, von Stroheim’s films from the beginning manifested a technique similar to the master’s, with their reliance on analytical editing – including an emphasis upon close-up views. 
However, even in this perfunctory style, Griffith’s impact is not clear.  For a more definitive example of the director’s influence, one might consider the following passage: von Stroheim pairs a scene emphasizing the difficulty experienced by Mr. Hughes as he removes his gloves with Karamzin’s flawless European mores.  Hence, von Stroheim utilizes a technique that is similar to D.W. Griffith’s intellectual editing in A Corner in Wheat (1909): while Griffith makes an argument by intercutting sequences featuring a gilded aristocracy with those of starving peasants, von Stroheim compares the manners of Karamzin with the clumsiness of Mr. Hughes’ gestures.  Thus, the director further establishes Mrs. Hughes’ psychology, even if the narrative’s progression does not represent the woman’s perspective per se.  Instead, von Stroheim produces the basis for his protagonist’s attitudes in his comparative editing strategy.
 Actually, Griffith’s influence is evident often within von Stroheim’s filmmaking: an Evening World critic even claimed that von Stroheim “out Griffiths Griffith.”[23]  In this regard, the sequence following Mr. Hughes’ visit to the Russians’ private casino is instructive: Karamzin sneaks Mrs. Hughes a note that pleads with the married woman to meet with him privately; Mrs. Hughes excuses herself with a headache; she calls on the Count; her husband then takes leave of Her Highness Olga and Princess Vera; in the meantime, Maruschka the maid, who earlier had been asked to prepare for a female visitor, sets the manor of fire; this forces both Karamzin and Mrs. Hughes to jump from a soaring tower; and so forth.  Thus, von Stroheim carefully establishes a series of concurrent spaces – that is, he utilizes Griffithian parallel editing – which produces the tension of these sequences, particularly for instance when Mr. Hughes’ drive home coincides with his wife’s call to Karamzin.  In other words, Foolish Wives mimics the structure of any number of the director’s films, including The Drive for Life and The Lonely Villa (both 1909), where drama is produced from the uncertain moment of a traveler’s arrival: will he find his wife absent, will he find them together, or will something else occur?  Certainly, von Stroheim’s handling of this passage demonstrates a profound debt to the earlier master.
           
“A Veritable Mephisto of Evil”
            Tellingly, when faced with a chance to reveal true courage during the arson scene noted above, von Stroheim’s Karamzin jumps in advance of Mrs. Hughes.  On the ground, Karamzin claims that he jumped first to show Mrs. Hughes “how,” which understandably is met with derision.  Indeed, this detail underscores another of Foolish Wives’ more remarkable qualities: namely, von Stroheim’s thoroughly unredeemable characterization of Karamzin.[24]  Surely, the military interloping detailed above is far from his most grave offense.  For this, one must turn to his deceit and abuse of a series of women, including his ‘cousins,’ Her Highness Olga and the Princess Vera; Mrs. Hughes; Maruschka, the maid whom he agrees to marry, and whose life savings he plunders – before she attempts to kill Karamzin and his woman friend; and perhaps worst of all, the half-witted Marietta, whom it is suggested he rapes in one of the film’s final scenes.  In earlier incarnations of the film, in fact, von Stroheim was even more brutal.  For instance, in the film’s original form, Karamzin impregnated Maruschka, who gave birth prematurely before jumping to her death.[25]  Of course, von Stroheim’s themes ran afoul of period censors and incurred the condemnation of more morally-sensitive critics.[26] 
In a sense, these criticisms are not without justification, given the film’s identification structure, which it could be argued invites spectator to share in Karamzin’s vices.  In his first extended encounter with Mrs. Hughes, for example, von Stroheim’s camera lingers along with Karamzin’s gaze on Mrs. Hughes’ uncovered calves.  Thus, when Mrs. Hughes covers her ankles after a reverse to Karamzin’s gaze, she is hiding her legs not only from Karamzin but from the spectator similarly.  Likewise, the viewer shares in Karamzin’s voyeurism as both stare at Mrs. Hughes’ naked back through a hand-held mirror.  Then again, it is not simply the attractive Mrs. Hughes who von Stroheim shoots in this fashion, but the dim Marietta as well: von Stroheim films Karamzin’s first look at the slow young woman in a tilt running from her toes to her face.  Consequently, von Stroheim cuts to Karamzin licking his lips in response.  Moreover, throughout this sequence, Karamzin puffs on a long (decidedly phallic – and indeed erect) cigarette that reappears in the film’s many seduction scenes.  As such, von Stroheim invites his spectator to share in the debauched thought process of his licentious protagonist.

“Free, White, and Twenty-One”
As far as Mrs. Hughes is concerned, it is worth stating that she is by no means innocent when it comes to Karamzin’s advances.  In the aforementioned passage, where Karamzin first encounters Mrs. Hughes reclining with her book, the latter lies with her legs uncovered.  Far from being a passive recipient of Karamzin’s leering eyes, Mrs. Hughes actively courts the Count’s attention: “Sitting in good view of her, [Karamzin] sees that she is hardly interested in her book but rather is slightly bored and obviously ready to flirt; she looks around inconspicuously and pulls up her skirt to show her legs.”[27]  Thus, the process of looking featured in this sequence becomes two-sided – Karamzin (and the spectator) looks, while Mrs. Hughes knowingly receives, and perhaps even encourages this gaze.  Moreover, this act of looking and being looked at will be reversed shortly when the lady watches Karamzin converse with a mutual friend, who seems delighted to chat with the Russian.  She becomes the active agent, the spectator in this sequence, with von Stroheim no less aware of the fact that he is being looked at. 
Furthermore, this sense of active (or independent) agency extends to Mrs. Hughes’ relationship with her husband.  When she is challenged by Mr. Hughes on the matter of her “friendship” with Karamzin, the lady responds that she is in fact “free, white, and twenty-one.”  Certainly, when one considers this proclamation in light of contemporary marital patterns, it becomes clear that her threat carries genuine force.  As Charles Musser points out in his essay on “The Comedy of Remarriage,” the number of divorces per year doubled from 83,045 in 1910 to 167,105 in 1920.[28]  In the period of 1914 to 1918, the average number was 111,340, while in the three years that followed, the per annum rate jumped to 155,070 – another forty percent increase.[29]  Therefore, as Musser argues, it becomes possible to speak of a “quantitative crisis” in the number of couples being divorced in the late 1910s.[30]
In this environment, the comedy of remarriage was born in films like Cecil B. DeMille’s Old Wives for New (1918), Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920).[31]  While none of von Stroheim’s films properly conform to this genre, the theme of the “blind husband” – obviously, the title of the director’s first film and a phrase repeated in Don’t Change Your Husband – occurs throughout his early work.  That is, like in DeMille’s comedies, von Stroheim’s dramas emphasize the impermanence of the marital union: in Foolish Wives for instance, Karamzin argues that “yes – husbands are stupid; with them a woman won is a woman secure.”  As such, von Stroheim’s films share many of the anxieties of these early comedies of remarriage, though significantly, they refuse to repeat the breakups featured in DeMille’s comic cinema.  In von Stroheim’s cinema, marriage is tested but ultimately remains in tact.  Indeed, in films like Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives it is the seducer who is judged: in both cases – each of which conclude in the character’s death during its film’s climax – the seducer character is played by von Stroheim.

Epistemology in Foolish Wives
While it is true that von Stroheim’s protagonist does not escape his comeuppance at the conclusion of Foolish Wives, it remains true otherwise that Karamzin is granted superior knowledge throughout the film.  Importantly, von Stroheim refuses to allow his spectator to take comfort in his Karamzin’s mistakes.  Instead, we share the character’s epistemological range, which itself exceeds that of the film’s supporting characters.  In this way, von Stroheim flatters his spectator by providing his viewer with more information than those being manipulated in his picture.  As a point of comparison, one could compare von Stroheim with his student Lubitsch, even if in the case of the latter, no individual character shares Karamzin’s nearly omniscient point-of-view.  In the case of Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), for example, the two co-worker protagonists (played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan respectively) engage in a pen-pal relationship without knowing that it is with one another.  However, Lubitsch provides the viewer this information before either Stewart or Sullivan is aware of the other’s identity.  This manipulation of the spectator and protagonists’ epistemological ranges lends the situation its gravity: on the one hand, we see that they would and should be together, while on the other we witness the petty arguments that could derail their corresponding chances at happiness. Thus as in Foolish Wives, the spectator knows more than the films’ more sympathetic characters, thereby establishing the narrative’s dramatic gravity. 
Then again, unlike in Lubitsch’s work, the viewer occupies the same position as the picture’s least sympathetic figure.  For example, when Karamzin scams Maruschka out of her life savings, we see the Count wet his finger, which he proceeds to drip on the table as if being brought to tears.  Significantly, we do not see the falling water from Maruschka’s point-of-view, which therefore assures that we do not misconstrue the dripping water as his tears.  Instead, von Stroheim makes it clear that we are watching Karamzin manipulate the maid.  Likewise, during Count Karamzin and Mrs. Hughes’ trip to the country, von Stroheim establishes a similar gap between the viewer and von Stroheim’s knowledge on the one hand and Miss Dupont’s on the other.  Here, von Stroheim makes Karamzin’s fabrication of the situation unambiguous from the outset: “The Count knew the country so well, he was soon able to get himself – ‘hopelessly lost!’”  Shortly we see the pair in the midst of a squall, fumbling to find their way – though we also see the Russians’ dog freely traveling through a space that the animal seems to know quite well.  Indeed, Karamzin ties a note to the dog, which it dutifully returns to Olga, even as the couple is forced to stay in a squalid cabin.  (In other words, the dog reinforces the contrivance of the situation.)  Moreover, we soon learn that Karamzin is no stranger to this latter locale; it would seem that the Count frequently gets himself “hopelessly lost” in the vicinity of this cabin.  However, fate intervenes with the arrival of a monk and his Saint Bernard, thereby thwarting Karamzin’s designs.  Nevertheless, von Stroheim uses our knowledge of his nefarious plotting to create the comedy and/or drama of this incident, even if he is stopped in the end.
A similar utilization of this strategy occurs in a subsequent exchange between von Stroheim and Mr. Hughes, where Karamzin informs the cuckold husband of his devious intentions.  That is, when Mr. Hughes asks Karamzin about a letter that the Count is authoring, Stroheim’s character tells him that he is “writing a love letter” to Mrs. Hughes.  Mr. Hughes laughs at this suggesting, reassured with respect to Karamzin’s motives – because, of course, no one could be so audacious as to write a love letter to another man’s wife, and then tell him about it.  Yet, this is exactly what Karamzin does, as von Stroheim makes clear to his spectator.  To be sure, the director again constructs an encounter around our knowledge of his character’s willful misbehavior; we are not allowed to be deceived by Karamzin, whatever we may think of his conduct.  Indeed, we are spectators to Karamzin’s taunting of those in an inferior position of knowledge. 

 “Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim”
            Of course, the ultimate purpose for von Stroheim’s provocation is to secure the trust of Mr. Hughes.  With her husband out of the way, even if only temporarily, Karamzin is free to finesse a large sum of money from Mrs. Hughes.  To do so, Karamzin must convince her of his situation’s immediacy, which he succeeds in doing through the guile of his performance.  Indeed, Karamzin’s success as a con man is dependent on the quality of his acting throughout, which effectively draws the spectator’s dimension to the act of performance in Foolish Wives.  In other words, we might say that von Stroheim’s film is about acting to the extent that this characteristic is repeatedly foregrounded.  That is, von Stroheim’s narrative operates on the basis of the spectator’s awareness that the Russians’ are successfully (or not so successfully) deceiving Monte Carlo’s elite.  In short, performance drives Foolish Wives’ narrative.  As Richard Koszarski puts it, Karamzin’s acting actually directs the story: “Karamzin can be considered the ‘director’ of this story, setting in motion little scenarios involving the cousins, Maruschka and Mrs. Hughes, always with himself at the center.  He continually moves the action of the picture by his own outrageous playacting.”[32]  Thus, Karamzin’s facility in shaping the narrative reflects the agency of the character’s interpreter, von Stroheim, who is of course the film’s true manipulator.
Nevertheless, Foolish Wives’ reflexivity is more clear elsewhere.  Returning to the first meeting of Karamzin and Mrs. Hughes, the latter is reading a book entitled “Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim,” with the following passage highlighted:
To the average American, written or unwritten codes or honor and etiquette and are unessential, as, in his tiresome chase after the dollar, he has no time to cultivate that, for which the European mainly lives.  In his battle of wits fought for commercial superiority the fatigued body forgets sometimes to react even to the most primitive and fundamental laws of politeness.
As such, the director focuses his own participation in the film’s manipulation, emphasizing his agency in shaping the attitudes of the female protagonist.  Importantly, the book does not read “Foolish Wives by Sergius Karamzin,” which would maintain the diegetic integrity of the picture, but again lists von Stroheim as author.  Thus, it is this extra-textual agent who shapes attitudes, and as result, Karamzin can only respond in approval – pointing to the passage, Karamzin replies, “very good.”  In other words, it is not Karamzin alone who manipulates the narrative, but von Stroheim in his respective roles as both the Count and also as the film’s maker.  To be certain, the very theme of manipulation serves to define the director’s craft as it entails a similar shaping of events: both von Stroheim and his character Karamzin manipulate events to achieve their intentions.  As a consequence, Foolish Wives reveals its scaffolding as a work of cinema that relies on both direction (von Stroheim and Karamzin) and performance to shape and guide the narrative.   
In other cases, however, von Stroheim’s reflexivity simply refers to the film as film – or to its filmic sources.  For example, when we first see von Stroheim as Karamzin, he is taking target practice at his seaside villa.  Von Stroheim cuts from a long to a frontal close-up of his character, where he is firing toward the camera.  Thus, von Stroheim explicitly references Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), though importantly the director subsequently undercuts the reference: von Stroheim’s Karamzin appears to look around the camera, as if it is blocking his view of the target.  As such, von Stroheim calls attention to the presence of his camera, thereby reaffirming the film’s self-consciousness in this separate aspect.  Likewise, the existence of the book calls attention to the film’s own fictional construction apart from any narrative agency.  That is, Foolish Wives undercuts the realism that is otherwise so pervasive throughout the film.

A $12,000 Realist “Whim”
            Before parsing the implications of the above paradox, it would seem necessary to discuss, even if only briefly, the film’s realism.  In this respect, the film’s opening sequence would seem instructive, particularly for the details of its actualization.  For these sequences, the director and his crew traveled three hundred miles from Universal City (the location of the reconstructed Monte Carlo) up the California coast to Del Monte, at considerable expense to the studio and in order to shoot the sequence as a series of interiors and exteriors.[33]  As a result, von Stroheim succeeds in replicating not only the vistas of the Riviera, but indeed its physical atmosphere as well.  From the initial scenes in the Villa, wind ruffles the curtains of the mansion, passing through its enormous marble columns and mingling with the burning incense.  When the narrative transitions to Monte Carlo, the wind continues to blow, rustling the feathers of a military officials’ helmet, disturbing the flags that decorate the city, and sweeping across the surface of the pond during the squall that strands Karamzin and Mrs. Hughes.  While none of these details signify anything in particular, collectively they indicate the director’s interest in reproducing the verisimilitude of the events to the smallest detail. 
            This interest is perhaps most spectacularly represented in a detail Koszarski mentions during his account of the production.  Quoting the pressbook, the author notes that von Stroheim “demanded the glass so that his cameras could catch the reflection of the massive Hotel de France, and the famous gambling Casino.”[34]  The publication continues: “This directorial whim for absolute realism cost Universal $12,000.”[35]  Similarly, the director’s penchant for total verisimilitude extended to the reflections captured by his monocle, including the pattern of nocturnal light and shadow produced by the shudders of Marietta’s bedroom.  In other words, von Stroheim an interest in detail that far exceeded the exigencies of narrative, on the basis of which so many reviewers of the time criticized the director.

Conclusion
            Indeed, it is this emphasis on minutiae that has long been the director’s aesthetic legacy, for better or for worse.  Von Stroheim’s construction of a realist mise-en-scène through the accumulation of details, has been that single element of style that has most impacted future directors.  As Renoir puts it, citing the effect of seeing Foolish Wives ‘at least ten times,’ “I began to look around me and was amazed to find quantities of subjects both intrinsically French and perfectly adaptable to the screen.  I began to realize that the movement of a scrubwoman, of a vegetable vendor, of a girl combing her hair before a mirror frequently had superb plastic value.”[36]  In short, von Stroheim’s strove for the “utmost honesty” in his aesthetic.[37]
             Hence, the relationship between the director’s obsessive attention to detail and Foolish Wives’ extraordinary reflexivity begins to appear less paradoxical.  That is, each attempts to reveal truth, be it in the reproduction of the world exactly as it appears, or in the disclosure of the art’s scaffolding.  In other words, von Stroheim attempts not only to show us a world that looks just like ours, but also how he has created this world.  It is in this respect that Foolish Wives surpasses its own age: that is, in terms of the film’s continued references to its author and the act of authorship that his contribution connotes, von Stroheim’s picture resembles no era so much as it does the nouvelle vague.  (None of this is to suggest that reflexivity is otherwise absent in the period’s filmmaker.  Rather, it is Foolish Wives’ obsessive interest in its own authorship that recalls other eras.)  For instance, when one compares Foolish Wives to the films of Jacques Rivette (such as Celine and Julie Go Boating [1974] or The Story of Marie and Julien [2003] for example), it becomes clear that both share an emphasis on the process of fiction – of how films are made – expressed through a fundamentally classical structure.  Similarly, von Stroheim’s self-consciousness echoes that of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema, where cinematic form is continually interrogated.  In other words, von Stroheim, like Rivette or Godard, reflects cinema’s modern phase, instantiated by the self-consciousness that reversed classical illusionism in the middle part of the century.  That is, if modernism in painting materialized when painters began to signify their work’s own painted-ness around the turn of the century, cinema’s mirror stage represents a similar turn in the history of the art form – which owing to the medium’s late development, occurred some fifty years after Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907).  Thus, von Stroheim’s significance as a filmmaker begins to far excel the details of his biography or even those of his mise-en-scène.  Through a close analysis of Foolish Wives, another picture of Erich von Stroheim starts to emerge: that is, a portrait of the director as the cinema’s first modernist.


[1] That is, when they survive at all: both The Devil’s Passkey (1920) and Walking Down Broadway (1933) remain lost, though the latter was reproduced as a series of eighty stills by von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski and William K. Everson in “Stroheim’s Last ‘Lost’ Film: The Making and Remaking of Walking Down Broadway,” Film Comment, May-June 1975, pp. 6-19.
[2] Richard Koszarski, Von: The Life & Films of Erich von Stroheim (New York: Limelight Editions, 2001), p. 41.
[3] Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Oct. 8, 1922; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881-1985), p. 16.
[4] This phrase appears in an advertisement for the film preceding its January 1922 release.  New York Times (1857-Current File); Jan. 16, 1922; ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2003), p. 16.
[5] The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1952: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/history/1952.html and The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1962: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/history/1962.html.
[6] Von Stroheim earned a ‘best supporting actor’ Oscar nomination for his semi-autobiographical portrayal of this has-been director cum chauffeur, though it is important to remember that “the Hollywood establishment absolutely hated Sunset Boulevard and refused to support it in the voting” (Koszarski 334).
[7] Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Erich von Stroheim” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Nowell-Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 54.
[8] Koszarski notes that von Stroheim went as far as to fudge his military records when applying for military reserve duty in 1930 (Koszarski p. 7).  Similarly, von Stroheim made no mention of his Jewish ethnicity when he began calling on third wife Valerie Germonprez: “Von Stroheim was always a practicing Catholic when Valerie knew him; it was decades later before she learned any different” (p. 33).
[9] Apropos of Foolish Wives, von Stroheim stated that version shown at New York’s Central Theater was “only the skeleton of my dead child.”  Quoted in Thomas Quinn Curtiss, Von Stroheim (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), p. 131.
[10] Jean Renoir quoted in André Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. François Truffaut (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 152.
[11] New York Times, Jan. 13, 1922, p. 21.
[12] Mae Tinee, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963); Oct. 8, 1922; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849-1985), p. G1.
[13] Fredrick James Smith, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 15, 1922, p. III27.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “The Screen,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 1922, p. 15.
[16] Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 16, 1922, p. III4.
[17] Koszarski, p. 94.
[18] Arthur Lennig gives a detailed account of the restoration that he supervised in Stroheim (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press, 2000), p. 142-5.
[19] New York Times, Jan. 12, 1922, p. 15.
[20] Nora Henry, Ethics and Social Criticism in the Hollywood Films of Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2001), p. 31.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Koszarski, p. 17.
[23] New York Times, Jan. 13, 1922.
[24] Edwin Schallert in the Los Angeles Times called Karamzin “a veritable Mephisto of evil” and entirely “bogus inside and out” (p. III4).
[25] Lennig, p. 137.
[26] Lennig quotes von Stroheim thusly: “Since that first showing of Foolish Wives I have seemed to walk thru vast crowds of people, their white American faces turned toward me in stern reproof.  My ears have rung their united cry: ‘it is not fit for the children!  Children!  Children!’… [I had] not one thought for the children, any more than [did] Hugo, or Voltaire, or Shakespeare, or any writer of intelligence and sincerity.”   Lennig then adds that “Most of the male critics disapproved the film on moral grounds (p. 147).
[27] Henry, p. 30.
[28] Charles Musser, “The Comedy of Remarriage” in Classical Hollywood Comedy, Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 287.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Koszarski, p. 99-100.
[33] The “Villa Amorosa” alone cost $25,000.  In total, the director spent more than $400,000 on Foolish Wives’ sets.  Ibid., p. 86-87.
[34] Ibid., p. 87.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Renoir, p. 152.
[37] Koszarski, p. 139.