South Pacific

South Pacific

If we judge by our usual criteria, this film is not worth much, even less than Sayonara, after which Logan's popularity plunged. Would the director of Picnic and Bus Stop be merely the least scrupulous of frauds? A patented imitator, delivering, on request, a designer product or a mass-produced one?

Logan's first two films are worth about the same as certain Broadway productions. His fourth gives us a faithful copy of what must be the world's worst genre. The American musical has no reason to be jealous of our Châtelet. Vulgarity wears similar costumes on both sides of the ocean. Such an art, if we can we can use the word art, is not even blessed with the privilege of universality granted to most Made-in-the-U.S.A.products. It is doubtful that South Pacific would be appreciated by French audiences, who are moved by Mariano, not by the ineffable Brazzi, in whom no native of Paris's Belleville would condescend to recognize a compatriot.

Comedy musicals such as the ones done by Minnelli, Kelly, or Donen come out on top by comparison, although they may not need such a comparison to shine. First, they are grounded in good cinematic earth, borrowing only their points of departure from music halls, and flying with their own wings after that. Next, they are works created by refined men, for an audience that is, after all, select. They constitute the aristocratic form of a genre of which we have here one of the most common specimens.

That sums it up, it seems. There is no point in continuing this savage criticism. I will therefore not pursue it any further. The sin of vulgarity is an unpardonable one. And yet, as I wrote in the preceding paragraph, I was plagued by doubt. If instead of common, I wrote popular, the entire argument would crumble, for popular, like rustic or naive, is one of the recognized, established categories of art.

But one could argue that popular is not the correct term, at least in its more noble sense. I will respond, first, that the notion of an aristocratic people seems, at least to me, contradictory. One could then object that I am playing with words, using pages and pages - many more than this review can contain - of examples drawn from the ancients and the moderns, from classicism and romanticism, from cinema and elsewhere, finishing, of course, with Chaplin, who was so good at reconciling the crowd and the more refined. But all in all, the crowd is the crowd, and if we admit a small part of what comes from it, on what grounds can we refuse the rest? That it is in bad taste? That means introducing the idea of a delicacy of the palate, and therefore the existence of a limited circle of connoisseurs, beginning with an aristocracy of art.

What makes my position difficult is that this aristocratic conception is mine, and ours, at Cahiers. Unlike some film buffs, we do not always value the bizarre or the melodramatic, and we do not label filmmakers who display taste and ambition as aesthetes. And yet no matter how warmly we defend this ambitious, uncompromising cinema made of gold and marble, we believe it would be dangerous for film, now on the edge of its intellectual - or if one prefers, its reflexive period - to shut itself up in a tower, haughty with disdain for the still-soft clay on which its foundations are built. Cinema is not too young to die, either from a strong lack of curiosity or from overly thin blood.

To tell the truth, I do not mean to defend South Pacific, only to encourage people to see it. At the Conseil des dix - an expression that must be taken to mean not only council but also counsel - I could not convince myself to mark it with a black dot. A star would not have sufficed, for it is not a film to see "if there's nothing else," as is a contestable work. It is incontestably bad but incontestably interesting.

I know what Bazin would have thought of South Pacific. Allow me to restate one of his arguments, the one with which he defended Cinemascope. "Cinema," he said, "is a functional art. Its existence precedes its essence." This existence was previously accorded to each film, even the worst of films, as a natural attribute. Even in the worst one, there were always those ten minutes so dear to Man Ray, which were worth the bother, which proclaimed the birth of an original art, an art irreducible to any other. Today we cannot deny that it is more and more difficult to watch a bad film: They are superficial, substitutes, fakes, the products of never-ending dismal recipes. If all masterpieces look as if they belong to the same family, all the world's losers carry their inherited blemishes more boldly than do the rejects in Zola's Rougon-Macquart. This is a common phenomenon in the arts. Perhaps it came a bit later to film than to the others. When departmentstore dishes copy Picasso's ceramics, when low-income housing projects copy Le Corbusier, when songwriters of little ditties copy Prévert's or Jean-Paul Sartre's words, one can say that popular art is dead. Art as a whole is quite sick, for throughout the ages it has not stopped borrowing its best material from folklore: tragedy its myths, painting its subjects, music its themes, novels their stories, and so forth. And this is perhaps proof that cinema in its entirety is really Art with a capital A - and therefore less "naive" than some say, because fundamentally it has invented nothing. To take just one example, all the themes in cinema's most fertile and incontestably original branch, silent American comedy - all its gags, one could say - are perfectly sketched, shaped, and staged in the famous Famille Fenouillard* that appeared the year before the Lumiére brothers' first screening and in which most of the episodes - quite an impressive omen - took place in America!

No, it is not true that almost everything deserves comment. What I am saying about South Pacific could never apply to, say, Sérénade au Texas and other pseudo-comedy musicals or operettas filmed by Pottier, Boyer, and company. Whatever we may think of Logan's film, that it is the epitome of infamy, whatever, it still exists. Beautiful or ugly, stupid or subtle, vulgar or distinguished, this film resembles no other.

That is not hard to do, one might say, if you pay no heed to taste or to rules and you are ready to do anything. But that is not so certain: All ink spots look alike, as do all children's drawings: If one haphazardly hits piano keys, the same noise is created. South Pacific is not just anything. There are two reasons for this. The first is, as I have tried to say, that it belongs to the last living branch of an art that we are obliged to call popular, or even naive, though it may be factory made, may have used enormous capital, and may result from the self-serving calculations of people as different from douanier Rousseau or the gallant Méliés as are the producer Buddy Adler, the authors Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the director Joshua Logan. It is imagery, it is conventional, it is postcard-like, all that, but it is just as difficult to create something original in the postcard genre as in cubism or in abstract painting. We may note parenthetically that from a sociological point of view, the film contains a thousand interesting themes concerning the average American's position on political, sentimental, and technical problems. My concern is only with the aesthetics, which furnish sufficient food for thought. South Pacific is therefore definitely cinema, because it contributes a new look, much as did The Cheat after World War I, which nevertheless has not entered the Seventh Art's Parnassus.

What does this novelty consist of? Because I cannot say that it can't be defined - which is what I believe at heart - for fear of being accused of sophism and laziness, I must now mention the second reason, which does not weaken the first. Whether popular or not, a film never springs out of Jupiter's thigh fully armed, and Joshua Logan sharpened these arms with such care that we are forced to use the word art. This film, as we know, was shot using the Todd-A0 process, which alone is worth the trouble of seeing, even if it is true that the Hermitage's auditorium and screen are not adequate to the film. But it is not so much the process in itself that deserves attention (the beginning short serves only to make it seem like a type of Cinerama playing simply on the purely physical impression created by forward movement, an effect that becomes as tiresome as the train of [Lumiére's] La Ciotat) as the remarkably intelligent way in which Logan uses it. What attracted me, but what might have shocked some people, is that the filmmaker makes his new raw material undergo the same treatment as did that in Picnic or Bus Stop. He plays with Todd-A0 in the way he played with Cinemascope in the two others, seemingly against the grain, but in the right direction if we assume that the physical potential of a means of expression and its aesthetic are not necessarily equal and that the close-up, for example, that would have seemed uninteresting in the demonstration reel has an undeniable appeal in the film. Here, as in Bus Stop, the close-up that earlier bored us now astonishes us, as it must have shocked audiences of the first Griffith films. The different uses of the wide screen have certainly made film progress toward photographic realism. This, as Bazin showed us, is an essential realism that nonetheless, in an extreme case, kills art, hence the concerns with Cinerama. Many filmmakers have made the mistake of combating this realism by traditional means (by staging the image) or of believing, on the other hand, that it signaled the death of the classical shooting script, whereas it was not this script that it condemned (that is, the possibility of placing the camera farther away from or nearer to the subject), but the frame itself.

Destroying the frame does not necessarily mean constantly moving the camera and reframing the image, like a reporter holding a camera
in his hand. In this case, the curve of the screen makes panoramas risky, and Logan works with the still shot in principle, if not always in practice. To destroy the frame is also, and especially, to fill it with a set endowed with such a power of fascination and architectural solidity that one forgets the limits imposed by the borders of the screen. I know that though it is natural, this set is in bad taste, and it is undoubtedly quite irritating to see otherwise appealing marine landscapes transformed into gaudy or sweet picture postcards through the combined craftiness of Logan and cinematographer Leon Shamroy. And yet, even under the glare of blinding colored floodlights, which resemble the floods used by James Wong Howe in the night scene of Picnic, in the way that the Gare d'Orsay resembles the Invalides; yet, even at these moments, in that awful sort of colonial garden of the first sequence, we are not sorry that nature, or what is left of it, has not been replaced by painted canvases as in Gene Kelly's ballets. Logan will always know how to use what painters call the "raw material," as degraded as it may be. His film has a sensual charm that is strangely lacking in works ad usum multitudinis, in which symbolism and planning reign, to the detriment of sensation.

I am purposely defending this film's least defensible aspects. As for the directing of actors, the case would be easier, even for Rossano Brazzi, who no longer inspires laughter in this film, having achieved a kind of archetypal beauty. One need only compare his character in South Pacific with the one in A Certain Smile. Watch the acting carefully. You will never find it poor or monotonous, although it is governed by the most unrefined psychology. Particularly rigorous work was done on Mitzi Gaynor and France Nuyen. Both have some charming moments. But they are not my concern...

My sole concern was to maintain an active curiosity in us, cinema lovers, which our exclusive viewing of masterpieces is liable to kill. Luckily there are still times when it is worth being bothered!

(Cahiers du cinéma 92, February 1959)


* Based on a well-known French comic book. In 1961, a film of the same name was made by Yves Robert.