Fellini

Aesthetic emotion puts man in a state favorable to the reception of erotic emotion.  Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no longer art.—Remy de Gourmont
Theoretically, the perfect movie would combine Ford's framing, Ophuls' staging, Fellini's pacing, Visconti's production values and Lubitsch's wit.  But who lines up to see theories? 

We don’t have to ask what the best thing is in any art— everybody knows.  What’s the greatest painting if not the Sistine ceiling?  The greatest sculpture?  The greatest play?  The greatest film?  Many people who bother to consider such things would say 8 ½; and indeed who is the axiomatic director but Fellini?
So let us stand the greatest play and the greatest film side by side: the melancholy Dane and the melancholy Guido.  Eternal high-school kid that I am, I’m always looking for a key to Hamlet.   Maybe this is it!

Like Hamlet, Guido is a new kind of man.  Hamlet Senior is modeled
on Achilles, as heroes had been for millennia, and still are.  “Strength and honor” is the salute in Gladiatorthe values associated with the heroic, and with pop culture.  If you’re not interested in tough guys most cinema is meaningless to you.

The ghost walks in armor, and he expects his son to do the heroic thing, because revenge is the epic motive.  Check your TV Guide.  But Hamlet just isn’t Achilles.  He can’t bring himself to kill Claudius—not that he lacks the murderous impulse.  In neighboring Norway Fortinbras, which means “Strong-arm,” is a replica of Fortinbras Senior.  Hamlet catches sight of Junior marching his army through Denmark to attack the Poles, and is full of admiration; but like all the masks Hamlet tries on, it just ain’t him.  No mask fits Hamlet ("I have that within which passeth show") but he can't represent himself without one.  Who can?  He is, as Harold Bloom says, something new.

Same goes for Guido, and for all of Fellini’s men.  When, in La Dolce Vita, Lex Barker punches Marcello for being out all night with Anita, Paparazzo says, “You’re not going to fight back?”  Marcello shakes his head.  No machismo for him.

Hamlet and 8 ½ both persuade us that the inner life can be portrayed on the stage, on the screen.  We had had to project that innerness onto the gestures and speeches of the actors; these works put it in our face. 

Like Hamlet Guido makes a film within a film, if I may so put it.  


Like Hamlet, he lifts his inner torment above the others, and resorts to irony when he deals with them, and indeed with himself.  Each of them is understood, in his respective world, by no one.

Like Hamlet Guido is haunted by his father, who climbs out of the grave and complains about the accommodations.  “How’s my son doing?” he
asks Guido’s producer, but the producer just shakes his head.

Like Hamlet he has an ambiguously erotic relationship with his mother.  


Like Hamlet's, Guido's dream girl turns out to be "a little bore," as he calls Claudia.

Like Hamlet (indeed like Shakespeare), his reality is shattered and lies there in pieces.  He has no synthetic power but in the vibrancy of each piece.  This seems to me a thread in the velvet of Shakespeare's "voice," so to call it, a note of surrender, a dying fall.

Like Hamlet Guido thinks a hundred thoughts, and none of them are really him.

Like Hamlet he’s a comedian, a monologuist, a clown and, like most clowns, a sad one.  The pair of them are self-pitying smart-asses.
Hamlet is a refined man.  He's been played infinitely differently, and several times by women, as Poldy remarks in Ulysses, but as many ways as we can imagine him, we can't think of him as vulgar.  Why not?  He is crass, dishonest, rash, cruel, murderousthere's hardly a disgrace he doesn't commit.  Ah, but that wit of his.  "So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes."  "I see a cherub that sees them."

Same for Guido, who never commits the vulgarity of action; it's all in his mind.  Fellini wasn’t happy with Marcello as his alter-ego, and made him have his chest waxed to be more refined.  I think he’d have preferred an Alain Delon or an Oskar Werner.  “Oh, Maestro, Marcello again?” say the spirits, mocking him (as when do they not?) in City of Women.

Like Hamlet Guido lives in a world of spirits—in his case Italy, where ancient presences from the pagan panoply that underlies Catholicism roam the earth, and know his thoughts.  "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Like Hamlet he's blocked by his contradictions.  “And in my heart there was a kind of fighting.”  Guido answers yes and no to every possible question.  “Do you have children?” says the Cardinal.  “Yes, I mean no.”  This too is post-heroic.  The hero is always yes or no, zero or one: only one man comes back from a gunfight.  “Decide, Guido!” his producer shouts as they view the screen tests; “Choose!”  Guido can’t.  He is not the decider. 

At the station he throws away his collaborator’s ruthless critique of his script, then picks it up and reads it again.  This is a scene he stole from Buster Keaton (Leone used it too, at the beginning of Once upon a Time in the West): the train leaves, his mistress hasn’t arrived, he’s relieved and gets up to go, but as it pulls out there she is in white fur trimming.  “Yoohoo!”  He looks around; does anybody see?

Then he takes her back to his room and has her perform his sexual fantasies.  For once he’s a director who knows what he wants.

Like Hamlet, Guido knows the self is not socially acceptable.  They free us from Christianity—that won’t work for either of them.  Hamlet, murderer of men, torturer of women, frees us from sin, negates sin.  It no longer matters.  Yet we have no doubt of his metaphysical validity.  (I don’t want to say “salvation”—Christianity doesn’t work for me either.)  The redeemer as smart-ass.

And what is Guido if not an impotent god?  Both of these men are open-topped.  They communicate directly with—what?

Happiness, Guido says, is being able to tell the truth without hurting anybody.  His sensuality is all that interests him.  He's not a Christian, saints be praised, but he’s Catholic, and confession is part of his style.  The screen tests in 8 ½ are confessions to his wife.  Everything he does is a confession.  When he goes down into the Dante-esque steam room to interview the Cardinal all he can do is confess“Father, I am not happy.”  “You’re not here to be happy,” says the Cardinal with some justice, but then he quotes Origen, the Church Father who castrated himself: “There is no salvation outside the Church.”  And there is Guido, outside the Church.

Ah, he’s down.  But at the end, the uplift!  “What is this flash of joy that’s giving me new life?”  I have mentioned elsewhere that the Protestant inclines to schizophrenia, and the Catholic to manic-depression.  Guido’s spirits simply lift, and we have his vision of a latter-day Communion of Saints.

But humility, charity—don’t look for them in Hamlet.  Don’t look for them in Guido.  “He never gives, nor lends, nor trusts,” the feminist judges say of Snaporaz.  Early on Fellini worked under the yoke of Neo-Realism, which he subverted at every opportunity.  Social reality interested him not even slightly, but it was the only game in town. 

In Il Bidone Broderick Crawford plays a con man disguised as a priest.  There’s a touching moment when he’s asked to comfort a wheelchair-bound teenager, who tells a sad story.  He shrugs—at her, at the whole movement: “You don’t need me.  You’re much better off than a lot of other people.”  When he and Richard Basehart are milking a village Basehart smiles at an urchin, a perfect Neo-Realist poster, but “You look like a little devil,” he says.  Devils are what we seem to be in Fellini.  “And the bravest of the devils said ‘I’m going to get into the labyrinth!’” Giulietta tells the kids in Juliet of the Spirits.

Not that he took evil seriously.  When the Fascists fill his father full of castor oil, which in fact was their practice, to humiliate him by making him shit himself, the young Fellini, and the older Fellini, think it’s a big joke.  An American bombing raid forces him and his Roman hosts from their dining tables in the street into an air-raid shelter; but you can meet some good-looking women down there.

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” Snaporaz quotes in City of Women.  I don’t know how deeply the Maestro read in Hamlet—he didn’t like to be thought of as an intellectual.  And Toby Dammit, the Englishman in Rome, gives us just enough of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow” to let us know that he’s a tragic Nordic.   These schizos; if you want to get where you’re going you can’t take your head.
Most of us think Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest work, and 8 ½ Fellini’s.  (Thank God for black and white.)  (Thank who?)  Everything else Fellini did is episodic—breaks into episodes that can be eliminated without affecting the story.  This, as Aristotle told us, is bad for business, and relegates those films to what we currently call art-house status.  Only plot sells: not beautiful language, not beautiful shots, not beautiful stars; plot.  Which is to say because, not and then.  The king died and then the queen died, said W.H. Auden, is a story; the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.

In his first solo-directed feature The White Sheik Fellini did give us a unified plot: provincial newlyweds come to Rome to meet his family and she gets lost and winds up with a photo-roman hero she's always adored, played by the superb Alberto Sordi.  (Woody Allen took this for one of the strands of To Rome with Love, and has a Sordi look-alike for the star.  So fond was Allen of the piece that, though it’s only a day-long thing, he edits it in with other strands that carry us through weeks, as if they were happening simultaneously.)

Apart from that one, in Fellini’s work, only 8 ½ is all of a piece.

Of course Guido’s Catholic upbringing has repressed him.  Enter Freud.  To clog the intelligence with an idea is un-Shakespearean, so here ends the resemblance to Hamlet, which may be construed as a systematic flushing of ideas.  We enjoy them as we evacuate, but this is nothing to the postpartum levity; Hamlet, like Guido, feels lighter in act five.  Ideas, to change the metaphor, or perhaps not, are fireworks displays, illuminating the terrain for a momentexisting for their own glory, then vanishing.  (I like the Irish-accent pun in Finnegans Wake: “when they were jung and easily freudened.”)  

Hamlet renounces all precedent, but Fellini is a classicist.  The art historian Kenneth Clark said that one of the aspects of classicism is smoothness of transition.  Few films are as smooth as 8 ½. 

Classicism is Fellini's moral touchstone.  At the end of La Dolce Vita Marcello and his cronies invade a friend’s beach house for an orgy, and when the owner returns he is amused, tolerant; but when they start breaking things he throws them out.  He is a balanced man, a classical man, and we meet him again in Satyricon, the aristocrat who, now that everything is falling apart, frees his slaves, sends his children away to safety and commits suicide with his wife.  Do with the house now what you want.  Does Fellini approve of Marcello's orgy, of Encolpio's ambisexualism, of Casanova's exploits?  Yes and no.

Dante inspires 8 ½ as Piranese, the ultimate designer of labyrinths, does City of Women, and the labyrinth is Fellini's image of human existenceIn the castle maze of La Dolce Vita Marcello and Anouk Aimée make contact by voice through an acoustic whatsit and exchange words of love while she makes it with another guy.  In Satyricon's Cretan-style labyrinth the murderous Minotaur turns out to be a joke.  Like Icarus Guido wants to fly, Toby Dammit wants to fly, Snaporaz wants to fly.

People who argue that Shakespeare wasn't pornographic cannot have read Venus and Adonis.  Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seeme to say so.”  Sounds like he's been there, though.

Fellini's sensuality is all-consuming, and in this he and his compagni are fixed entities.  Change! says Snaporaz to the feminists; Into what?  A  journalist shouts to Guido, “Is pornography the most intense form of entertainment?” Sylva Koscina's performance as the sexy sister in Juliet of the Spirits removes, for the moment, doubt.
Hamlet by contrast is a master of change.  The purity of total change is hypnotic in him, as long as it isn’t moral.  

What a pair of rapscallions!

Of course art is not moral.  Morality is intention.  In Roman Catholic sin-ology the intention makes or unmakes the sin.  In art intention counts for nothing.  You make a film, Jean Renoir said, to find out what it will look like.  In Hollywood movies intention counts for everything.

The only other filmmaker we can compare to Fellini is Luis Bunuel, and both are Freud guys.  For both it comes down to the sexual impulse. Which, sure. Both do fantasy and dream, and blur their borders with reality.

Bunuel is a great poet.  In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie a boy’s dead mother calls to him from the closet where her clothes sway.  As a kid I never had such a strong sense of my mother’s presence as when I went to her closet, opened the door and smelt the perfume.

Bunuel made for me what is the ultimate horror film.  Most people find The Phantom of Liberty funny.  (This is the one where people sit on toilets at the dinner table, and escape to the bathroom to eat.)  But he so accurately gets the entrapment of dreaming, which leads us by association from this to that in a way entirely beyond our control, that it frightens me.

But superb as he is, he is as cold as Velázquez.  Fellini, as I don’t have to tell you, is warm warm warm.  He mocks himself over his own nostalgia, but it’s no less compelling for that. 


Guido is tender.  Hamlet is sensitive, but he’s not tender.  Falstaff is tender.  Lear, at the end, is tender.  Not Hamlet.  (“Think yourself a baby That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling.”) 

To Giulietta’s dismay Federico was active in the field of love, but he didn’t see himself as a man of action: “I am the only one I know,” he once said, “who can admit that it’s all fantasy.”  The man of action he satirized in Casanova.
To his fantasies Fellini gave the classical form of goddess-worship.  The labyrinth is where you don’t know what’s going on.  As the Goddess tells Roberto Benigni’s holy fool in Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon, he’s not supposed to know what’s going on.  “You do not have to understand.  Woe to him who understands,” she says, and she has the last word.  I don't know if that would satisfy Hamlet, but he does, in the fifth act, seem at peace with the divinity who directs him.
The holy fool is a figure Fellini had cultivated in the Neo-Realist days, possibly because Giulietta—indomitable, wide-eyed with wonder—was so adept at playing it.  Does Zampanò abuse her?  All people have value, Il Matto tells her, one holy fool to another.

When Fellini lost interest in his fantasies his films, for me, flattened out.  We want the refugees saved in And the Ship Sails On, but I can’t sit through it, or Ginger and Fred, or Intervista, not again anyway.  In The Voice of the Moon he returns to the holy fool, and it does have moments of charm, but as Rabelais said, “Now my innocence begins to weigh me down.”

Then again, at the end of his life Shakespeare is supposed to have collaborated on Henry VIII.  I can’t get through that either.

I know that when I discuss these things I’ll lose them, and that’s partly why I do it, to exorcise them and free my own voice.

At his best Fellini was the most exuberant, the most generous, the most gorgeous of filmmakers.  And where would we be without gorgeousness?

Bob, what a wonderful piece! Thank you.  I think Fellini would have chuckled
at it, in a good way.  
Thanks again,
Paul Mazursky


Also by Robert MacLean, the "Toby" books,
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords;
Foreign Matter at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
and these, too,
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DE, Amazon IT and Amazon ES;
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES; and
Greek Island Murder at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES.

The Lubitsch Touch

If all the art and literature of the twentieth century, a century that took itself so seriously (though its record for slaughter is hard to match), were dropped into a dumpster, it wouldn’t be worth one work by Michelangelo or Botticelli.  Do you mind if I say that?
Here in our own nervous century we swim in a sea of cultural trash, illuminated by video games that excite the shooters, by pornography that has changed the shape of the human body (it's hairless now, as in fifth-century Greece and the Italian Renaissance; the dicks, even in quiescence, dwarf their predecessors; the breasts, which were out of control for a while, have again become natural), and by the preachings of the evangelists of Success, who promise us transformations (regard their tweets) beyond even the come shots that conclude the ritual sequence of postures in the videos, the actress licking her lips in anticipation.
And yet we ourselves are disembodied, and function with avatars like Mardi Gras masks on sticks.  We are discouraged from actual sex, and urged to cultivate narcissism and the internet, which are strangely aligned.  And indeed, one has learned to fear women who kick-box, or have tattoos.  

Beauty, that royal danger, that puritan's foe, is out of style. Our movie stars exhibit only a serviceable regularity of feature, often not even that, and appear in morality tales as predictable as the postures of the porn stars.
Action films have dwindled into displays of animation; even James Bond has become a cartoon.  And a film by Quentin Tarantino or Tim Burton can ruin the evening.

Love is out of style.  "Alliances" are in style.  Business plans are in style.  Brad Pitt made an entire film about the success of a business plan.  So elevating.  But that's where we are.  People fall in love with business plans.
One wonders what one does like about cinemah, and why one wants to make films, and when I’m in that mood I always think of Ernst Lubitsch.  Now, nobody can make a film like Lubitsch, let’s get that straight, but one can be inspired by him to make something as light as a soufflé, as subtle as a secret, as funny as a fart.

If only.

My favorite Lubitsch movie, Trouble in Paradise, is about a master thief who, in a Venice hotel (Grand Canal Venice, not LA Venice), robs someone in another room.  Then, resuming his pose as a baron, he hosts a dinner in his own suite for a countess he plans to seduce.  “And you see that moon, waiter?  I want to see that moon in the champagne.”  The waiter writes it down: “Moon in champagne.”  When the lady arrives, she and Gaston (his name is Gaston) pick each other’s pockets, discover that they’re both thieves, and fall in love.  And we fall in love with them falling in love.

But don’t expect a “cool” hero.  Suave, yes.  Charming, wow.  But not cool.  “Cool” is eminently a Puritan virtue.  (See Greece versus the Puritans.)  Max Weber tells us that during the English Civil War the Puritans, because of their unemotional determination, were able to ride in strict formation, in cool formation, towards the undisciplined Cavaliers, Musketeer types who relied on gallantry and beer.

Henry James says of Daisy Miller’s first reaction to Winterbourne that she had never seen anything so cool”—the first instance I know of the modern usage, and if I hear it much more I’m going to lose mine.  The attitude is one of detachment and distance, and becomes virulent in the fifties, Elvis and Marlon sneering at it all.  They are outsiders; the first line of Camus’s L'Etranger (The Outsider) is “Mother died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday.”
The opposite thing is best exemplified by the courtier John Denham, who in that same Civil War pleaded for the life of George Wither, a Puritan, “on the ground that, so long as Wither lived, he himself could not be accounted the worst poet in England.”
Gaston is not cool; he is operatic.  His every speech is animated by passion, and he is splendidly overplayed by Herbert Marshall, who lost a leg in World War I, which has to be disguised in the wide shots.  He was nevertheless an accomplished ladies’ man, and along with Peter Lorre and George Sanders, he’s my favorite actor.
 "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored...I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."
A Paris radio news report on one of Gaston’s spectacular thefts is followed by a commercial for Colet Perfume—“Cleopatra was a famous tantalizer, But she did it with her little atomizer!”—and now we’re on Madame Colet herself, the young widow who owns the company and refuses to cut salaries in spite of the Depression (we’re in 1932).  Such a smooth transition.

At the opera Gaston steals her jeweled purse (we never see these thefts happen; action for Lubitsch is vulgar), and when she offers a reward for the purse larger than he could get by selling it, he simply returns it
—and plans to steal her money.  But they fall in love.  And we fall in love with them falling in love.  So now he loves two women.  And that’s the plot.
It moves incredibly fast.  I’ve watched it and watched it and watched it to figure out how it moves so fast.  The credit sequence of The Outlaw Josey Wales moves fast; I’m scarcely a Clint Eastwood guy but I must say it’s a tight little film in itself.   Trouble in Paradise, though, is a whole movie.

Partly it's that Lubitsch delights in ellipsis, which of course is always good for the budget.  I can think of three of his films in which scenes are played out in mime beyond glass.  In Trouble in Paradise a whole evening of seduction is done with voices over an Art Deco clock marking the hours.  Peter Lawford goes into a room to punch Charles Boyer (this is in Cluny Brown), and comes out having lent him money.

What any artist worth the name wants is to avoid Saying Things.  An artist wants to show you something, make you feel something, not Say Something.  If you’re experiencing a piece of art that’s trying to Tell You Something, you’re in the wrong hands.  And yet, who can avoid it?  In Shakespeare the characters, even the speeches, have lives of their own
—they Say Things—but Shakespeare himself is nowhere to be found.  We others, however, speak with our own voices, and commit the sin of Saying Things.

What did Lubitsch Say?  He said, there’s no Mr. Perfect or Ms. Right.  He said, if your wife sleeps with somebody else it’s no big deal.  He said, why make an enemy?  He said
(or rather the little boy in Heaven Can Wait said), if you want to win a girl you have to have lots of beetles.  He said sex, he said alcohol, he said big cigars, all with the utmost refinement.  And he said the over-refinement of being in love, from which all sweet ironies spring. 
In 1917 he made a short based on a Strauss operetta: A Berlin bon viveur who goes out drinking and dancing every night gets a subpoena to report to jail for a day "for disgraceful behavior". But when the cops come for him his wife's lover has to pretend to be him to save her reputation, and the lover does the time.  Meanwhile she disguises herself and goes to the party, and her husband picks her up!  Then the revelation, and from now on he takes her out drinking and dancing with him.

In Heaven Can Wait a rich young man falls in love with a woman and marries her, and continues to have the other women he wants.  He has it all.  Lubitsch loves to show people having it all
—ain't it awful?  And when he's old and dying a beautiful nurse goes into his room and, well, closes the door.  As he tells the Devil (for he has not bothered to report to heaven) "Who could ask for a more beautiful death?"  And here, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, death imitates art: Lubitsch himself died in the arms of a call girl.
Interesting detail: his wife (the character's, not Lubitsch's) leaves him for her parents’ house is in Kansas, and these parents don’t speak to each other; their black servant conveys messages from one end of the breakfast table to the other, and with perfect humor and dignity.  You don’t get much of that in 1942, but that’s Lubitsch.
Clarence Muse
While we’re on the permissiveness that gives such taste to his sauce, he has a Wildean indulgence for embezzlers, and much in common with Wilde, whose people are always finding out that they're not "good"—loveable, but not good.  But this is where Lubitsch begins, not where he ends.  (In fact he made a silent version of Lady Windermere's Fan.)  They both loved everything about being a gentleman, except being a gentleman.

Something in him loves larceny.  In Ninotchka some Russian rubes come to Paris to sell jewels that had once belonged to the Grand-Duchess-in-exile, who's already in Paris, and who keeps a man (Melvyn Douglas), who calls on the boys: “Well, gentlemen, what about my proposition?  “What proposition?  “I just said, let's have some lunch!”  Cut to hookers and champagne, and the deal is developing.  In A Royal Scandal Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead) confronts her embarrassed chancellor over his  embezzling: a little I can understand, she says, “but take it easy!
We might have wished to say the same to our own chancellors, from Wall Street to Athens.

“Everybody and his Aunt Nellie,” as Audrey says in Charade, has a theory of “the Lubitsch touch,” and I have mine.  When Maurice Chevalier died, Lawrence Durrell described his appeal as “tender insolence,” and this says it.  Chevalier came to his Hollywood prominence in Lubitsch’s movies, and embodied the Lubitsch spirit, as did the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson.  I like to think that both of them took fire from Lubitsch.  Perhaps I’m oversimplifying.


Lubitsch's insolence pairs a superior tenderness with a daring attitude to pleasure.   In his own piece on Lubitsch, Peter Bogdanovich connects innocence to sophistication, and I like that; the true sophisticate is a naïf.

And oh, how Lubitsch was imitated!  He founded a whole genre, the screwball comedy.  Everybody tried to be Lubitsch.  His protégé Billy Wilder kept a sign up in his office: HOW WOULD LUBITSCH DO IT?

Pointless.  Wilder himself was too intellectual.  Everything in Jean-Luc Godard—the semiotics, the study of the image qua image, the postmodern mind split off from its referents—it's all there in Wilder.  And that’s the trouble.  Some Like It Hot is a gorgeous film, worth seeing just for Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant imitation.  But in much of Wilder's work the intellectual baggage is heavy.  Intellect is not refinement; intellect can be acquired.  (None of us know what we look like; these things are hidden from us; we can only appreciate them in others.)  And except for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is all intellect, after Irma la Douce Wilder's films become crass.


Trouble in Paradise is a poem.  The effort is always to make poems.

I was about to say that To Be or Not to Be, about actors playing Nazis to escape Nazis, is my second-favorite Lubitsch, but then I thought of his The Merry Widow, another operetta (this one with sound), that's like drinking champagne
—light, bubbly, intoxicating.  I hate decisions.   

In The Merry Widow Chevalier plays a womanizer-as-national-hero, and in his courtroom speech he pleads guilty: "Any man who can dance through life with hundreds of women, and is willing to walk through life with oneshould be hanged!"  The peasants leap up and applaud.  On the other hand, To Be or Not to Be is a winter film; it gives me a cozy feeling that I also feel in Some Like It Hot—a strange kind of warmth, I don’t know what it is, that you only get in black-and white movies.
And it has Carole Lombard, my favorite actress along with Irene Dunne and Margaret Rutherford.  Beautiful as she was, Lombard never took herself seriously.  She said of her great love Clark Gable, “If his pee-pee was one inch shorter they’d be calling him the Queen of Hollywood.”
Sample dialogue with Jack Benny: “It’s becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention—whenever I start to tell a story you finish it, if I go on a diet you lose the weight, if I have a cold you cough, and if we should ever have a baby I’m not so sure I’d be the mother.”  “I’d be satisfied to be the father.”

A distaste for schmaltz is one of Lubitsch’s two great freedoms.  In-love-ness, OK, but you won’t find any of the sentimentalities that inform lesser filmmakers—childhood (invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Christmas (invented by Charles Dickens) or America (invented by Frank Capra).
And he has a Shakespearian freedom from dogma that was singular in the last century: no Freud, no Marx.  Knowledge of psychoanalysis didn’t become general until the 50s, so he was able to spoof it in That Uncertain Feeling without being very deep about it. 

But Marx was the flavor of the 30s—all the kids were communists, real members of the Party, it was the thing, and of course in the 50s McCarthy ambushed them.  Stalin was a hero, Roosevelt was inaugurating revolutionary social programs, and even the future Nixonite John Ford made The Grapes of Wrath.  Not Lubitsch.  When Gaston confronts an outraged Trotskyite he ticks him off in Russian.  (Ah, how the super-hero has changed:
for Lubitsch he was someone who followed opera, knew eighteenth-century furniture and spoke several languages.)

When the rubes in Ninotchka fail to make the deal, Ninotchka herself, an unsmiling puritan from the collective, comes to Paris and encounters Melvyn.  Love, baby.  “GARBO LAUGHS!” said the posters.  But the Countess blackmails her back to Moscow and the Commissar, played, in an inspired piece of casting, by Bela Lugosi.

 Dracula in Lenin drag
To be a communist was to commit the sin of seriousnessbad manners.  But though Lubitsch presented himself as frivolous and easy-going—"the playboy," Graham Geene called himhe had the strength to resist, nay to mock, that whole zeitgeist.  Frank Capra was still selling a socialist vision in the Why We Fight series, and the Germans were attacking our Soviet allies, but even in wartime Lubitsch didn’t join the parade.

Peter Lawford (a young fool), at the outbreak of war: "I'm going to write another letter to The Times."  Boyer (indulging him): "Good!"  "No—no, I'll join the RAF!"  "Better!  Join the RAF.  Rise above The Times!"

Now look, I love Freud and Marx.  They were brilliant men who gave their lives to trying to help people.  But enough!

And I love high spirits.  My own comic novels are inspired by P.G. Wodehouse.  I’ve wandered elsewhere, but I’d rather do comedy than anything else.  And in film, Lubitsch is the master.


Also by Robert MacLean, the "Toby" books,
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords;
Foreign Matter at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
and these, too,
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DE, Amazon IT and Amazon ES;
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES; and
Greek Island Murder at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES.

Germans

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”—Otto von Bismarck

The Germans.  Always a problem.

Under the Celts, Europe was one country.  Under the Romans, under the Church, under Napoleon, under Hitler, Europe was one country.  And now, under Merkel, Europe is, for the moment, one country.

When the Celts had it, it stretched from Ireland to what is now Turkey, and it’s still basically Celtic.  The Germans—Angles, Saxons, Franks, Lombards, Goths, etc.
later settled on the Celts as ruling classes, and gene-testing is revealing that the “English,” for example, are mostly Celts, as the "French" have always believed themselves.   This is in addition to the pockets of more or less “pure” Celts that survive in the British Isles, Brittany, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Venice, which is not an exhaustive list.

The Romans brought North Africa and the Middle East into the mix, as later did Napoleon and Hitler.  But the Romans excluded Ireland, the Picts—and Germany.  Stay on your side of the Rhine, they told the Germans, and when they raided into Gaul the Romans retaliated by raiding into Germania (with a hard “G”), which was as far as the Romans cared, or dared, to go.

Attila
The Germans were never Romanized.  That’s why they’re like that.  And when they (or rather we—see My Racial Profile) got the upper hand, it all fell apart.

Charlemagne almost put it back together, and he did push into Germania.  But to be legitimate he had to be crowned in Rome by Pope Leo, who used him like a rook on a chess board, and influenced politics from Britain to Constantinople.  That's where the power lay, and where it stayed: seven centuries later Vasari tells us that Michelangelo “spoke to the Pope as the King of France would not have dared to speak to the Pope.”
Germania became a collection of principalities, and it is remarkable, to me at least, that this brilliant people produced no literary masterpiece for so much of the modern period.  Martin Luther was a model of German prose (“Sin bravely,” he said; I have that on a T-shirt), but he died in 1546, and until Goethe nothing literary happened, at least nothing exportable.  There had been Winckelmann, but Goethe had to tell me about Winckelmann; I’d never have known. 

Meanwhile, of course, they were writing the world’s music, if I may take the liberty of including Austria in Germania, as Charlemagne did.  Austria had been Romanized; maybe that explains something.

They are a wonderfully clean people, Germans.  In Duck You Sucker, Sergio Leone introduces a German military advisor in Mexico by showing him in his seat on a train brushing his teeth.  Exactly.  In bed with a German you can, and do, go anywhere; in bed with a French or a British person you must proceed with caution.

They do not, however, queue up.  If you’re in line for the ski lift and one or more Germans come down the slope they’ll butt right in at the front and have to shouted at and waved away.  When, in Casablanca, Carl tells Rick that he gave the Germans the best table, knowing they would take it anyway,” he’s not making rah-rah war talk, he's referring to this tendency of theirs to arrogate.
Here’s a better example: when the Nazis were advancing on Paris Clare Boothe Luce was staying at the Ritz, and as they approached, the hotel emptied out.  But she, intrepid reporter (she invented Life magazine), stayed on till she was the last one, and the concierge came up and told her to leave: “The Germans are coming!” he said.  She got out her notepad: “How do you know?”  “They have reservations!”
Ah, but now it gets heavy.  Now we must touch The Subject.  When I was a film professor a German colleague said, “Do you think the world will ever forgive the Germans?”

I didn’t have to ask for what.  I treated this as thinking out loud, and ignored it.  When he persisted I said, “No,” as curtly as I could.
 

“Why not?”  

“For four reasons,” I said, trying to scare him off.

Didn’t work.  He wanted to suffer.  “What's the first?”

“Morality,
I said.  So vague.  What we did to the Indians, what we did to Dresden, what we did to the Italian villages we bombed—Churchill said if we lose this war they’ll try us for war crimes.  But there was a case for it.  You could argue for it.  You could discuss it.  The truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that we were experimenting to see what the effects would be on human flesh.  Harry Truman said we did it to shorten the war and save lives, but we could have done that by blowing up Mount Fujiyama or giving them a show in Tokyo Bay.  Still, there was a case for it.  You could argue for it.  But with the camps you gave us clarity, a relief from the ambiguity we waffle around in, something black and white.  We're not likely to let that go.”

I trusted that would suffice.  But no.  “What’s the second reason?” he said.


“It was a terrible thing you did,” I shrugged.  Why should we forgive you?”  (“You,” notice.  I knew he was standing in for his people.)

He nodded.  “The third?”

“You’ll never forgive yourselves.  Why should we forgive you?”

On the surface he was digesting all this.  “And the fourth?”

“Well, when you say the world, you don’t mean Asia or Africa.  They’re not interested—they’ve got their own histories.  You mean us—the Germanic peoples, including the blond Visigothic aristocracies lording it over the Indians in “Latin” America.  We’re Germans.  You embarrassed the family.  And in family life there’s no forgiving or forgetting.”

Now he was depressed.  I felt bad.  “On the other hand,
I said, one of the great achievements of humankind was landing on the moon, and that was accomplished by a former SS man.”
Another German friend (I know a lot of Germans; they’re going to love this piece) is a painter, an Expressionist.  (Most German artists are Expressionists; it has something to do with horror.)  He was middle-aged before he went to his father and said, “How could you do that?”  I don’t know what the answer was.  Maybe there was none.  Maybe it was unrepeatable.  What could it be?  But the sense of a curse lingers, on the people and on the land.

And Angela Merkel works under that curse.  When France and Germany conceived the Euro-dream in 1951 it was to make sure Germany wouldn’t attack France again.  Simple as that.  The aim of the Union is to put an end to war in Europe, which a glance at history will show is continual here.  Simple as that.  But once again, Germany dominates. 

The trouble is, Europeans can’t do anything.  It's endemic.  British incompetence is as monumental as it is dignified, from the top down.  A Canadian woman who transferred to the London branch of her company confessed to me, “You just want to push them!”

A Frenchwoman, lounging topless by the Greek sea, said to me, “You Americans [for her I was willing to be an American], you act [inviting me, as it were, to action]; we French are dreamers.”  Quite right.  Don’t ever try to get anything done in France.
 

When Portugal and Spain and France and England were young barbaric countries they conquered empires.  Those war lords Ferdinand and Isabella were burning down university towns in the suave Muslim civilization of the time, even as they were sending Columbus off to augment their holdings.  But that was then.  These days it takes a Napoleon or a Hitler to actually do something, and of course the results aren’t always ideal. 

A friend of mine—actually he’s not a friend of mine, I’m not even speaking to the son-of-a-bitch—anyway, he’s a yacht skipper.  You rent your yacht for a vacation and he brings the crew and sails it where you want to go, and when you’re out there and something goes wrong, he fixes it with tape and a coat hanger and gets on with it.  But the German clients are standing there with the manual in their hands.  “Yah, but zis iss not za right vay!  Ziss is not—”  They’re by-the-book people, Germans, and they’re trying to force their considerable will on the anarchic non-work-ethic Greeks.  The Greeks have never heard of the book.  (See Greece versus the Puritans.)

One of the problems with Merkel—one, I say, of the problems with Merkel— is that she grew up in East Germany, resisting Soviet thoughts, yes yes, I know, but the eastward look was her horizon.  The Euro-dream is a West-German dream, not a Merkel dream.  She has not explained to her voters that if they break the Mediterranean countries there’ll be no market for what they make, and the Greeks, as a matter of patriotism, are already refusing to buy anything made in Germany.  Nor has she mentioned that if they don’t pump their precious money into those countries their own euros won’t be worth much anymore.

M'ma!
The Greeks suspect the Germans, who, it must be conceded, rarely do anything without a plan, of forcing them to privatize their companies and sell them cheap so Germans can buy them; and to cut salaries so the new owners will have a low-rate labor force.

And the Greeks, rather than ruin themselves at German command, are playing for time—one of the things they do best.  “Wait,” they love to say.  “I don’t want to wait,
shouts the Nordic, and the German in me sympathizes.   “Wait,” they say. 

Now they will lean their chins in their hands and watch the German economy crumble.  Then we’ll see where we are.



Also by Robert MacLean, the "Toby" books,
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords;
Foreign Matter at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon ITAmazon ES and Smashwords; 
and these, too,
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DE, Amazon IT and Amazon ES;
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES; and
Greek Island Murder at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FRAmazon DEAmazon IT and Amazon ES.