Moby Dick

Moby Dick

From its beginning, Cahiers has followed the principle of critiquing "beauties." The critique of a film is ordinarily assigned to the one among us who finds the most arguments in its favor. There is no question of our abandoning this method which, believe us, is the most equitable.

Some of our readers, however, have written to us saying that a disdainful silence is sometimes too generous and that certain "losers," especially those favored by the public, merit a more severe punishment than a two-line execution on the monthly list of films, or several black dots from the Conseil des dix.* That is why we have readopted the system of notes dedicated to works that seem of minor importance to us and that find only detractors or lukewarm advocates among our editorial staff. As for the rest, they have nothing to teach us, except as a part of French or foreign cinematic production that concerns only the industry, as Malraux would say.

In short, there is undoubtedly more to learn from a detailed accusation of certain ambitious, honest works than from a lukewarm defense. Our review's goal is not so much to encourage or discourage seeing such and such a film (this job belongs to the weekly or daily papers) as to add to the thoughts you might have had, or will have, concerning the film. It happens that these thoughts lead us further when they are against a film than when they are for it. In this case, the length of an ordinary critique may seem insufficient, and such articles, like the one that André Bazin wrote on Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon) and Une Fée pas comme les autres or even like this one, find a place in the "general""section of the Cahiers.


Huston, alas?

The failure in question is that of Moby Dick. I know that John Huston's last film had its supporters, but their articles suggest that it did not arouse as much enthusiasm as did Red Badge of Courage or African Queen. We cannot deny his preference for novels. The battle, they say, was not equal. Equal between whom and whom? Between one of the great novelists of the last century and the filmmaker considered by many the best in Hollywood? That indicates a rather poor idea of cinema in general and of American cinema in particular. This idea is implied in the comment of our New York correspondent, H. G. Weinberg, who used [André] Gide's words concerning Hugo: "The greatest American filmmaker? - Huston, alas!"

Let us not get caught in this dilemma. It is too easy to say that either Huston did the best job possible and this is glaring proof that cinema is still in its infancy and that perhaps the domain of poetry shall forever be off-limits or that our director did not have what it takes for such an enterprise; he is simply a man of taste, and taste never took the place of genius. If I had to choose, I would choose the second explanation without hesitation, but I prefer to suggest a third option, which 1hope will have the advantage of better highlighting the obscure relationship between a film and a literary work.


A useless adaptation

I would first and foremost condemn John Huston for his choice. An adaptation of Moby-Dick was not so much impossible as useless. A stroke of genius is a stroke of luck. It doesn't happen twice, and especially in art, "you can't cross the same river twice." Whether the filmmaker kept the novel's form or changed it, he added nothing to the sublimity of a work that is perfect in every respect, and we have placed our discussion at too high a level to consider the arguments that some of my colleagues propose in such a case (that a film can popularize a literary classic and attract new readers). I intentionally said perfect: It is not a matter of a myth like that of Orestes, Faust, or Don Juan, which in the hands of ten different artists can produce ten works of art of equal importance. In this case the filmmaker has no disadvantage compared with the painter, the dramatist, or the novelist. But Melville has nothing of the naive or primitive man, leaving to posterity a still poorly organized work. He is, on the contrary, typically modern, placing his erudition at the service of his experience, conferring - owing to his talent and culture - the dignity of a work of art on a ship's logbook. To bring Moby-Dick to the screen is to treat a subject that has already been treated, to undertake not an adaptation but a remake. What makes such an enterprise so futile is not that Melville's sentiments are unable to be expressed in images but, rather, that of all the world's novels, it is the one that best displays the type of beauty that the screen is most able to highlight: In short, that this novel is already a true film.


The novel and cinema

Huston, therefore, did not aim too high but, more specifically, too well. Of all the American directors, he is - we gladly grant his admirers this - among those who choose the "best" scripts. Such scripts depict the kind of relationships that film expresses effortlessly, those that give their characters, words, and actors' gestures the ambiguity with which the screen sharpens the faintest silhouettes. Huston, then, gave us the "thickest" scripts, but because their thickness was already entirely on paper, the mise-en-scéne could not introduce a new dimension and instead threw this famous literary depth into an ordinary perspective, squashing it, flattening it.

I will not go so far as to say that one can make good films only with bad literature but, rather, with works in which literature did not assume the very task that the filmmaker performs: transforming the myth or the news item into a work of art. And of all the literary genres, the novel is the one that uses for this purpose the means closest to film's. The contemporary novel (I include those of the last century) learned the art of making things almost as visible to us as if they were shown on a screen. Many of the things we have said about cinema and its specificity would almost apply to the novel. Might there be only a difference of degree and not of nature between these two genres? That is what we would be logically led to admit if we assume, as do the admirers of Huston and other "literary" directors, that cinema is leaning toward a kind of novelistic perfection, like a curve toward its apex. Thus it could never go beyond this. But who is to say that there is nothing "beyond?"


Beyond literature

This world beyond is precisely what we try to define in these Cahiers, for better or worse. We do so by praising those filmmakers whom we may have been accused of celebrating too systematically, but who, consciously or unconsciously, have tried to extend the limits of the literary aesthetic by which films are hastily judged. This world beyond can undoubtedly not be reduced to a formula; we may perhaps never find a term to designate it. What is certain, however, is that it derives from the mise-en-scéne and that it appears only when the latter has room to function. When a composer sets a poem to music, he substitutes the song of the verse with another song, different enough so that his project seems futile only if it is truly damaging. In the same way, a play leaves a space between lines that the director fills in his own way. It is revealing that screen adaptations of modern plays have recently been more successful than have adaptations of novels. Does this mean that film is moving closer to the theater? On the contrary, it is because sound, color, and the large screen have made things easier that the adaptation of a novel is riskier today. At the time of silent films there was an important margin left to invention. Now that we can, and therefore must, be faithful, the spectator's demands have increased, at the same time as the filmmaker's freedom has begun to shrink. He is therefore compelled to look in a completely different direction in order to maintain his integrity.


The fantastic and realism

One might say that I am moving rather quickly. The present example does not support such a theory. Two major obstacles make the adaptation of Moby-Dick nearly impossible. The first is the fantastic nature of the tale, and the second is the vivid richness of the style. The novel finds its poetry in these two aspects, which cannot be imitated in film.

My answer is, first, that cinema need not bother with a certain fantastic quality. In this it resembles the novel, which is the genre most enslaved by the laws of verisimilitude. In any case, Moby-Dick respects these laws, except for the evocation of a monster of incredible proportions. By this enlargement, Melville's work gains in epic grandeur, but not in its novelistic quality. But cinema is suited better than any other art to enable daily actions, ordinary things, to attain epic dignity. The example of Nanook of the North or other such documentaries proves this. It was not so much the dimensions of the whale that were important, but its true-to-life quality. Huston would have been better off (it would not have been easy, but this type of film would have greatly benefited from the material difficulty of the shooting) filming real sperm whale fishermen that still are found in the Portuguese Azores,** and not this papier-maché whale worthy at most of a science fiction tale. This betrayal of natural history - based on nature itself - condemned this film to failure from the start. Melville's work is a meditation on an experience, Huston's is a meditation on a book. In no case can the latter substitute for the former.

Yes, film is very capable of portraying a sentiment in every way identical to that inspired by the novel, of showing the type of anxiety unique to stalking a prey, of evoking nature's veiled hostility to human endeavor. It can do it: The proof is that it has done it in the documentaries that I have just mentioned or in the admirable tuna-fishing sequence in Stromboli.


In search of a metaphor

It is useless to continue. I suppose I am preaching only to converts. The second point remains, a matter of another kind of fantastic. How can one express Melville's magical style on the screen? Is the cinema merely an art of reporting, of dry reviewing? Are the heights of poetry inaccessible to it? What is the equivalent of metaphor in film? Maybe we are wrong in conceiving of this equivalence as an exact copy, a reflection. Many filmmakers have pursued it, like Achilles pursuing his tortoise. They did not notice that their art could reach in a single step what the poet attains only by a series of successive approximations. The metaphor comes from language's inability to make a reality concrete. By comparing the incomparable, by systematically using the incorrect term, poets have never ceased to lie throughout the years, but the lie was more respectful of the secret essence of things than were the pale, flat, abstract descriptions of ordinary speech.

Whether by luck or misfortune, the filmmaker is not familiar with this art of felicitous lying. If the failure of attempts by Eisenstein, or more recently those by Abel Gance, show that the filmmaker cannot, without some clumsiness, go from one form, one thing, one sensation, one idea, to another, he is nonetheless entitled to include all the wealth of the cosmos in the briefest appearance, the most insignificant object, the most limited space. The means he uses are innumerable and vary according to the temperament of each director. There are, here again, a thousand ways of lying, but the lie does not center on the same points and appears to us only on second thought. We can see it in Orson Welles, in the adoption of a certain optical dogmatism; in Hitchcock or Lang, in the rigor of a certain visual or spatial rhythm; in Rossellini, in the constant interference of two types of phenomena, physical or moral; and in Renoir, in a certain touch that is difficult to define in words. We have been criticized, and one could say the same of all film critics, for using too "flowery" a style. This is because a film is full of metaphors, and it is difficult to talk about it without using the metaphors implied. Cinema offers us a vision of reality and contains the seed of comparison. A poem bears a potential reality and leads us to it by way of comparison.


Error or lack of imagination?

Of all the means available to him for finding the equivalent of Melville's style, Huston chose the most ordinary and the most dangerous. Of Orson Welles's lesson, he retained only the use of skillful framing, and the student crawls lamentably where the master alone maintains himself by stunt riding. The affectation of the camera angles only highlights the images' emptiness, only makes the numerous special effects more irritating. Because the director is incapable of trusting the power of what he is showing, he summons the resources of a dialogue and a diction that are vulgar imitations of the Shakespearean tradition and that convince us only when Welles himself briefly fills the screen with his great stature.

We find the same mistake in the use of color, as unpoetic as it is unreal. Unlike the painter, the filmmaker does not use color as a material but as fragments of reality itself: He knows neither red nor blue, but only a red boat and a blue sky. Color in cinema is useful only to make the objects' reality more precise, more tangible. It appeals to the touch as much as to the eyes, one more proof that poetry can spring only from the most scrupulously respected truth.


An imported philosophy

Literature has gone a long way since its inception: It has reached the point that certain themes are automatically assigned more significance than others are. Pessimism, absurdity, "failure" are important ideas to modern writers. But although optimism may be outmoded in books, on the screen it is couched in the densest meaning. The portrayal of a success in Le Vent souffle oú il veut*** is no less rich from this point of view than that of an aborted effort. I do not want to infer a rule from one example. The fact remains, however, that film's Olympus is peopled by more benevolent gods than the ones adored by this century's great novelists. Nonetheless, we do not have the right to mock them.

Thus, his mind clouded by a certain literary myth, the most "intelligent"**** filmmaker believes that he has completed the essential part of his task once his script has been written: He needs only to find mouthpieces in his characters for his ideas. Of course, he has experience and knows that the actors must move, and so they move, but only because they have to. In certain scenes of Beat the Devil, Jennifer Jones says her lines while doing stretching exercises: It is a clever idea, but nothing more. Ninety-nine percent of John Huston's shots are based on this model, minus Jennifer Jones's legs.

One last word: I will take an opportunity on this occasion to make amends with John Huston in the name of Cahiers. It is against our wishes that Beat the Devil was deprived of an article, which, written by Pierre Kast, we had every reason to expect would have been favorable. This caricature of a certain film is, in my eyes, our filmmaker's masterpiece. He is more at ease in the satirical apologue than in the epic tale. Not that he rebels against poetry (see the end of Asphalt Jungle), but lyricism is no more his forte than silliness is. To reduce cinema to John Huston is to reduce literature to Voltaire, the author of Candide, but also of the Henriade.

(Cahiers du cinéma 67, January 1957)


*Cahiers' ten-member council
**As Mario Ruspoli's documentary shows us.
***The subtitle of Robert Bresson's film A Man Escaped (Un Condamné a mort s'est échappé)
****"Here is true intelligence (how Huston must laugh and find that bookish, like the little nitpicking of a Hitchcock!)" Bernard Chardére, Positif, nos. 14-15, p. 40.