G-Money and the classics
I happened to know somehow that Michael Gerardi would soon be watching THE RULES OF THE GAME and I thought back to when I was in my “exhausting the canon” phase, as a young whippersnapper, as he is now. And wondering whether he realized what a corker of a film he was in for, and how many more films he (or any other college student) still has to see for the first time that I now can never see for the first time. It makes you feel old (I turn 40 next week; forgive me). He’s put up several reviews of old classics in recent days, and he’s my reactions to some of them.
INTOLERANCE — Here, I largely agree with Michael. There’s no doubt Griffith’s folly is a masterpiece (with BIRTH OF A NATION, it even establishes the template of “great blockbuster commercial hit” followed by “great film maudit commercial bust”). But as Michael notes, by contemporary standards, INTOLERANCE is hardly “entertaining” at all. And I say that as someone who has seen it in a theater, albeit via projected video. I really think it takes willed self-discipline to get much from INTOLERANCE, which isn’t to say the effort shouldn’t be made for Griffith, the Aeschylus of film-makers. Peter Reiher really captured all the issues involved with silent films in this essay here. As big a silent-film fan as I am, INTOLERANCE is a wee bit primitive to really stand up well on its own feet, in Peter’s words, it requires allowances to be made for it simply because the state of the art is still so young, so close to the 1890s invention of movies. Stat geekery: of my 20 favorite pre-1920 films, only the one at #1 did I rate higher than 8; of my 10 favorites of 1928, at the end of the silent period, every one is a 10 or 9. I think the end of the silent period, 1925-28, lapping over into the silent holdouts of 1929-31 — films like CITY LIGHTS, EARTH, L’AGE D’OR, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, L’ARGENT, TABU — was one of the great eras of film. The 1910s, not so much.
THE RULES OF THE GAME — Here, I’m going to register a disagreement with Michael. Not that it isn’t MUCH more productive to see RULES than THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. Duh. But Michael says that RULES has “violent shifts of tone.” I think the tone of RULES is like the smile on the MONA LISA, one of those endless enigmas that most please in their inability to be pinned down, but which are a large part of what makes the work a masterpiece. I don’t think the tone really shifts that much, because I think Michael overstates how belly-laugh funny it is and/or understates the tragic aura overlying it at every moment. It’s not really a comedy as much as a tragedy told though the conventions of comedy. Oh, there’s no doubt that RULES follows all the rules of the comedy of manners and the boudoir farce — parallelled class distinctions, foppish aristocrats, scheming servants, sex-partner roundelays — while ending in a fatal shooting that’s a triple-mistaken-identity but not even arguably played for laughs, even in the immediate setup. The Mozart overture at the start and the quote from Beaumarchais promises a silly romantic comedy, a la Figaro. Which the film certainly does deliver — in a sense. But a big part about what I find so brilliant in RULES is that it played so consistently ambivalently to me, via that impossible-to-pin-down tone, all through scenes that on the surface sound so comic or serious. The film is mordant without being tasteless; serious without being stuffy; wry without being cynical; rueful without being gloomy. And in the end, accepting it all as inevitable and tragic, without tears. IMHO at least, the film famously keeps that crazily-balanced tone for all 110 minutes.
Take what Michael properly identifies as among the most brilliant scenes ever created — Schumacher chasing Marceau through the chateau while everything else becomes unglued around it. Yes, on a certain level, it’s hilarious, like an enraged Schumacher Fudd chasing a wily Poacher Bugs, while La Grande Dame Christine gets the vapors. But the laughter sticks in the craw for a couple of reasons. For one thing, this scene follows, albeit not immediately, the brilliant rabbit hunt sequence, and the gunshots on the sound mix reverberate back to that unfaked carnage (today’s Humane Society film-guardians would have a fainting spell worthy of a French Grande Dame at that scene). It also has quickly followed the strange Danse Macabre that is one of the most coldly-elegant and chilling scenes I’ve ever seen. And while everything’s spinning out of control, a couple of aristocrats think the Schumacher-Marceau chase is part of the evening’s entertainment. You want to laugh and yell at them at the same time — “what is it, you think this is all about the rules of the game or something.” At every moment, Renoir undercuts his comedy with tragedy — well, maybe “undercuts” isn’t really the word. It’s more like Renoir … well, he said it best himself: “During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story. The result of this ambivalence was the film as it is.”
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