Gatherings at Country Houses, Day 1: Talking Bout Our G-Generations

Stephin Merritt, who is (1) an awesome musician and lyricist, (2) the main provider of the soundtrack to J’s and my relationship, (3) best friends with Claudia Gonson* on whom I have a crush liek whoa, and (4) a close imaginary friend of J’s and mine,** is curating a festival of films from the imaginary genre Gatherings at Country Houses in NYC this weekend.

J and I are not rich, young, energetic, and/or devoted enough to get the plane to NYC for this, but we do love film festivals of imaginary genres,*** so we are watching along at home in Bristol, and blogging about the films hoorah!

Last night: And Then There Were None and Chinese Roulette.

(Oh – it might help to know, when reading these reviews, that Jenny and I are a cross-generational pair: Jenny was born in 1948, three years after And Then There Were None, and I was born in 1975, a year before Chinese Roulette.)

And Then There Were None (Rene Clair, 1945): Ika’s review

We’d actually seen this fairly recently when we were watching all the Agatha Christie films we could find. (You know the plot, right? Ten people go to an island and all get murdered, one by one, in an increasingly claustrophobic process of elimination and guess-the-murderer.) It is completely amazing; one of the most stylish films I’ve ever seen, and a stunning season opener/introduction to the imaginary genre, partly because it really is about the house. The action, the character interaction, and the visual beauty of the shots are all framed and determined by the space of the house – I’m thinking of moments like the dinner party when the beautiful girl goes upstairs and the camera, like the remaining men at the table, watches the ceiling while we listen to her footsteps on the floor above and then to her scream. Or the moment when the doctor and the judge decide to team up against the rest, and we see them lean in towards each other across the billiard table in the light of a cigarette lighter. Or the moment when we follow the coiling thread of Emily Brent’s knitting yarn from where it dangles through the banisters, along the corridor, into the bedroom where it falls from her dead hand. (We never see any of the bodies whole or close-up in this murder mystery, just a shoe or a hand or a pair of binoculars; ten set-pieces, ten symbols of death.)

Also some glorious, semi-self-aware moments of class difference. The ten people on the island are eight upper-class guests and two servants, a married couple called Mr and Mrs Rogers, and after Mrs Rogers (who’s the cook-housekeeper) dies on the first night, it’s absolutely taken for granted that Mr Rogers will take over her duties despite his inability to cook. So there are all these moments where he comes in all blasted and pale and swaying with grief and saying ‘Sorry, breakfast isn’t ready yet’, and all the upper-class voices murmur: ‘That’s all right, Rogers, we quite understand’, and then sit there like bumps on logs until he goes and gets the breakfast. After Rogers is murdered, the two female guests take over kitchen duty: ‘Very stupid to kill the only servant!’ exclaims the stunning butch top Judith Anderson. ‘Now we can’t even find the marmalade!’

And Then There Were None (Rene Clair, 1945): Jenny’s review

This was a brilliant opener – not just set in a country house but on an island, giving us the ‘world of its own’ effect squared. The owner wasn’t there and the staff were killed off or demoralised early on, so it became the Marie Celeste of country houses, drifting on the water without anything to give it context and purpose, apart from the random guests, who were all types observed from outside, not centres of consciousness. The black-and-white cinematography, which turned the guests’ faces into artefacts decorating the house, also highlighted the overall shape of the rooms and the general architecture rather than being distracted by colourful detail (although there were enough iconic salvers and candelabras and pool tables to keep country-house aficionados happy, as well). And the camera kept pulling back and admiring the house from a distance, which, along with the writer’s (or director’s) cheerful contempt for the mechanics of the crime story plot, gave the impression that the house itself was the instigator of the action. I’ve read the book and seen the movie before but even so I was almost convinced at one point that the murders would turn out to have been committed by the sinister stone urns, like stylized pine cones or triffids, that kept lurking at windows and on the edges of the external shots…

Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976): Ika’s review

Oh, look, arthouse films make me wriggle and kick like a teenage boy. I do think it is a bit boring and pretentious to not like arthouse – and actually there are tons of arthouse movies I do like, it’s just that it’s a genre that I have a very low tolerance for unbrilliance in (and I can’t help be reminded of the Fast Show sketch [Youtube link] which destroyed arthouse for my generation, just like Ovid’s pisstakey Amores destroyed love elegy for his generation.) But on the other hand, I get a bit baffled and cross in movies which are beautiful and engrossing, but in which it’s unclear what’s really at stake and how real the characters are supposed to be. Which was very much the case with this one, I thought. It was visually immersive and enthralling in a way that And Then There Were None really wasn’t: like being pulled into an immersive, organic, multisensorial world, where And Then There Were None was like looking at a beautiful engraving: clear, diagrammatic, but abstract and remote. And I enjoyed it all moment by moment, but the point of the whole escaped me, partly because it was very pointedly psychological but the characters were absolutely unreal, and the whole thing centres on a disabled character who is drawn with all the sensitivity and realism of the girl in Morrissey’s November Spawned A Monster. So it was hard for me to find a position from which to watch it, where I could take all the characters as sort of allegorical but still care enough about them for the question of who gets shot to matter. For instance, there’s a moment where Angela, the beautiful rich white teenage girl who walks with crutches says to the servant boy: ‘Would you ever sleep with a cripple?’ and I think we’re supposed to think about how sad it is that no-one will ever sleep with the beautiful rich white teenage girl because she walks on crutches, whereas I just think OF COURSE tons of people will sleep with you, you are incredibly beautiful! So that moment didn’t make any sense to me, but in a really different way from the way in which lots of the rest of the film didn’t make sense – deliberately, suggestively, imagistically, like the fantastic moment when Angela’s governess borrows her crutches to dance on/with them to 70s German synthpop. And I suppose I never felt that the film was really in control of that clash of registers/realisms, that the clash itself was really obtrusive but I couldn’t make any sense of it. So I actually got upset in the sadistic psychological gameplaying at the end, but I got the feeling that the film seemed to want me to be keeping a greater distance from it than I was, and thus it didn’t make space for my upsetness.

In short, I think actually Stephin Merritt said it best in his introduction to the film on the festival website:

Chinese Roulette is one of Fassbinder’s most sadistic movies, as his camera whirls tauntingly around the actors and glass cabinets while they play elaborate psychological games (onscreen and off) in a mansion so bleak it looks like an indictment of something… but what?

What, indeed?

It was a brilliant pair with And Then There Were None, though: I think if I’d just watched it on its own it would have completely passed me by, but seeing it in that context, as a 70s twist on an Agatha Christie theme, gave it a certain awesomeness. In the first movie, the characters are being picked off one by one, and guilt/blame/paranoia circulates through all of them as we have no idea who is guilty and who is innocent, who’s a perpetrator and who’s a victim: and it was as though that movement continued and intensified into the second movie, which starts off as a comedy-of-manners about the jaded adulterousness of the bourgeoisie**** and builds towards the unleashing of murderous rage and resentment. So Rene Clair’s brilliant claustrophobic direction gave me a pathway into Fassbinder which I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Nice.

Chinese Roulette: Jenny’ss review

I hadn’t actually seen Chinese Roulette before but I’m part of its original target audience: as a middle-class lefty queer, I used to head off dutifully to see the latest transgressive Fassbinder movie. So my first response was a wince of embarrassed nostalgia or, more specifically, a sense of how badly it had dated. The hypermodern furnishings inside the old Schloss are now available from Ikea and the way the Schloss has been gutted to accommodate clear plastic chess tables and drinks cabinets now looks more like sad vandalism than a titillating contrast between inside and outside. The silent, beautiful women and the Eurotrash businessman seemed to come straight from 1960s advertising, as did some of the basic social assumptions. The businessman owns or employs everyone else in the movie, but Fassbinder hasn’t bothered to find an actor who can match the women’s performances, because he takes the man’s centrality as given. And when I’m asked to accept that a girl with a brace on her leg could plausibly be seen as a monster, I’m relieved that political correctness has run mad since then.

To begin with, I felt doubly distanced from the movie, first by the embarrassed nostalgia, and secondly by the boredom that mid-range arthouse tends to produce in me – ‘yes, you’re examining all of this very slowly, but why?’ By the end of the movie, however, I felt oddly churned up and alienated (and not in a Brechtian way). When I tried my usual imdb therapy, all the comments assumed – and in retrospect I agreed that Fassbinder had also assumed – that the adulterous couples were adding to their decadence when they socialised together in a civilised fashion and their brace-wearing daughter, who tricked them into confronting their infidelity, was an evil manipulator. I realised I’d been watching the film through my 70s glasses, seeing Fassbinder as endorsing that decade’s received wisdom that polyamory was easily achievable and bringing family secrets into the open was a heroic act. Caught between these two interpretations of the film, I felt kicky and uncomfortable until we went back and reread Stephin Merritt’s comment:

it looks like an indictment of something… but what?

*There is not enough Claudia Gonson love in the world. For why???

**You know, like in Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield says he’d like to call up certain authors on the phone and talk to them. Probably if he really rang them up they would say FUCK OFF I AM WRITING, and assuredly if we really rang up Stephin Merritt he would say something similar, and that is the difference between a real author and an implied author. So Stephin Merritt is not really our friend, but implied-Stephin-Merritt is our imaginary friend, as in the Society of the Friends of the Text.

***A couple of years ago we had a cross-age-relationship film festival, including Eban and Charley, for which Stephin Merritt wrote the soundtrack. Truly all life is linked in a holistic web.

****ADULTERY what even is that.

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2 Responses to Gatherings at Country Houses, Day 1: Talking Bout Our G-Generations

  1. Anna says:

    This was fascinating to read. Oh, The Fast Show. What a brilliant show that was/is.

  2. inez b says:

    so we are watching along at home in Bristol, and blogging about the films hoorah!

    Hoorah from me too!!

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