Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Director's Chair: Cecil B. DeMille - Carmen

This is a significant post for several reasons. It is my fifteenth entry for March, meaning that I have surpassed my output for January and February combined (in other words, The Dancing Image is humming along at full capacity again - though I see the comments have curiously dropped off, unfortunately). It is also my 200th post. And, as you can gather from the title, it is both the renewal and the kickoff of my retitled series, The Director's Chair (formerly known as "THE AUTEURS"). I left off with my conclusions on the work of D.W. Griffith, a logical choice for first auteur. And DeMille, it seems, is the logical second choice, so here we are. Five years after Griffith introduced new craftsmanship into the nascent film industry of New York, DeMille arrived in Los Angeles, future show-biz capital of the movie world, to introduce his brand of flamboyant showmanship into the lifeblood of American cinema.

I've renamed the series "The Director's Chair" because as I look forward to the filmmakers I will (hopefully) cover, I note that many - like George Cukor, or even the highly individualistic John Huston - are not always considered "auteurs." Their projects are highly varied, it is often difficult to discern their artistic "voice" over the course of their career, and they have often been consigned to middling oblivion by prickly auteurists like Andrew Sarris. But I'd like to examine their projects too, and see if I can figure out how they develop over their careers, what consistencies are present throughout, and what the changes and fluctuations tell us about them.

Where does DeMille fit in this rubric? Superficially, he would seem to be the epitome of the auteur: a very definable image (in fact, it is beginning with him that we find many stereotypes of the director which continue to this day), a stardom rare for those behind the camera, and a sensibility which seems present from film to film (maligned as that sensibility may be from time to time). Yet in terms of film style, where the true measure of the auteur is taken, how does DeMille stack up? Commentary on him seems to dry up when it comes to the formal qualities of his work - it's his subject matter and the superficial decoration of his films which receives attention. How did he use the camera, the lights, the editing shears to mould his films? Was there a consistency there? A notable personal style? Or was he simply a glorified name with a run-of-the-mill approach to filmmaking? It's the intention of this series to find out, and I look forward to the task.


I look forward to it, in no small part, because whatever the formal qualities of his mise en scene, DeMille made damn entertaining flicks. Carmen, the earliest of his films I was able to find on Netflix, more than bears out this conclusion. It opens with a figure, cape blowing in the wind, standing romantically atop a rock formation, mountains looming majestically in the background, as a ragtag group of smugglers rows their boat ashore. Right away we're in epic territory, but this is bombastic grandeur, not the sensitive use of scale which we are used to with Griffith. All the elements are there - the location, the costumes, the props - but DeMille seems to be having too much fun to take any of this too seriously.

As the film progresses, he approaches his set pieces with a kid's whiz-bang approach, which was later taken up by his spiritual heir Steven Spielberg. There's something refreshing and honestly American about this ingenuity, a deprecating lack of sentimentality which one suspects will be carried throughout the rest of DeMille's career. Indeed, everyone in Carmen seems to be having a good time (though given DeMille's penchant for tyrannical behavior on set, this may not actually be the case). There's a spirit of the frolic about the film, so that even when it descends into murder, jealousy, and tragedy, it retains its brisk pace and energy.

Some of this may come from the source material. I'm an operatic ignoramus, but apparently the much-beloved Carmen opened (and quickly closed) to poor reviews in the 1870s, and though it eventually achieved fame and praise it was noted for mixing comic and tragic styles within the same opera. Likewise, Carmen takes its ill-fated romances through their melodramatic conclusions with something of an arched eyebrow. In particular, a satirical tone is exuded by the murder-suicide which ends the movie (in apparent defiance of the source, which has the mercilessly teased and manipulated soldier alive and penitent at story's conclusion). Carmen has made it clear to the last moment that she would sacrifice nothing to Don Jose's love for her, and her dying words are, "You have killed me, Jose - but I am free!" When a weepy Jose stabs himself over her corpse, while confessing his loves, it seems a desperate, pathetic, and failed attempt to mimic the pathos of Romeo and Juliet - but it's desperate, pathetic, and failed on his part, not DeMille's, who sees right through it, sending it up by contrasting Jose's languid death throes with Carmen's defiant expiration.

Geraldine Ferrar delightfully plows her way through the role of duplicitous gypsy (though she has been compared unfavorably to Theda Bera in the same role, in a contemporaneous film unseen by me). And until he descends into humiliated torpor, Wallace Reid presents a cheerfully cavalier facade as the doomed soldier. DeMille lavishes the actors with medium shots which give them room to play around in, while keeping them the center of attention. Indeed, for all his epic proclivities and taste for flamboyance, DeMille's shot structure is very traditional, though it belongs more to the tradition of talking cinema (whose style he perhaps invented) than the tableaux-heavy shots of the teens. Within these two-shots, DeMille exhibits a precise (yet not overly finessed) sense of composition and a flair for keeping the pace brisk and engaging.

Indeed, while DeMille rarely shows off in a "Look Ma, I'm discovering the potential of the seventh art" fashion (which I admittedly like as much as the next guy), he constantly impresses with a professionalism which knows when to cut, how much to show, when to indulge, and when to hold back. It's a hidden talent because for all his personal showmanship, young Cecil seems to have preferred the kind of storytelling that wraps you up in the show without reminding you how skillfully it was assembled.

That said, the director does indulge in flamboyant lighting which darkens the set behind the actors, while casting them in an intense glow. And he certainly doesn't hold back when it comes to action, though again it's in a way which draws us further into the tale being told. By action I don't just mean the swashbuckling duel, excitingly staged within the restrictions of a small tavern, or the final battle in the dust in which Don Jose and Carmen lose their lives. I'm also talking about a gloriously leering catfight, in which Carmen mocks a factory girl and the girl rips Carmen's shirt; soon soldiers enter to discover the women with their faces scratched and their clothes half-torn off.

Only at this moment, as she grins wickedly in the wake of her blood-drawing, do we see that Carmen might actually be the villainess of the story. Until then, and again after, we're so taken by her joie de vivre that we tend to think of her as the heroine - as did, one suspects, DeMille, demonstrating his sympathy in the cavalier, rambunctious, impatient movie which surrounds the indominatable figure at its center.

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