Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Paradise Alley review by Leos Carax

Which film references come to mind when watching Holy Motors? When Denis Lavant is running on the treadmill shooting a machine gun, he's channeling Sylvester Stallone's Rambo. When Mr. Merde is in the Père Lachaise Cemetery devouring flowers, the act is a near-replica of one from Jean Renoir's The Diary of a Chambermaid. When Lavant finally gets home, the monkeys recall Nagisa Oshima's Max Mon Amour. And when Edit Scob puts a mask on at the end, it is a direct ode to George Franju's Eyes Without a Face.

But the film amounts to much more than just film references; in the Cahiers (N.680) review of Holy Motors, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin writes, "The idea that haunts the film is less the death of cinema (which the opening dream of a movie theatre would suggest), than that of beauty itself... With Carax, who is a good Romantic, life is lived for the beauty of the gesture. Because life doesn't have inherent meaning, all that is left is precisely this gesture that can convince to carry on."

Around the time of Holy Motors' release in France, Cahiers championed it: Carax elaborated on the different Lavant mutations in a guest contribution Sacrers Coeurs (N.680), they reprinted Serge Daney's Libération review of Mauvais Sang (N.679), situated Carax within a poetic history of French cinema (N.682), voted Holy Motors the best film of 2012 (N. 684), and used it as a point of reference for the new generation of young French filmmakers (N.688).

This isn't the first time Carax has appeared in Cahiers. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum brings up Carax's early Cahiers career in his article, The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax,
"Still in his teens (he was born in Suresnes, France, to a French father and an American mother in 1960), Carax made half a dozen critical contributions to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1979–80, shortly after starting to make his first short (which was never completed). He began with a passionate defense of Paradise Alley, Sylvester Stallone’s first film as a writer-director, then went on to publish one film festival report (Hyères, including a celebration of a Robert Kramer retrospective), a brief réportage on the shooting of Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), an article about a program of new and old Polish films at the Cinémathèque (Zanussi, Skolimowski . . .), a terse put-down of the French feature C’est Encore Loin l’Amérique, and a brief review of Stallone’s Rocky II."
Carax has more of an affinity with Cahiers as a favoured filmmaker than as a critic - first with Boy Meets Girl, and then Mauvais Sang. The release of Mauvais Sang coincided with Olivier Assayas' Désordre, and Cahiers dedicated an Événement to them (N.389), arguing that they represent a renewal of cinema for the '80s generation of French filmmakers. In the editorial Vive La Crise!, it is written  "Rarely has the French cinema has had such potential to renew itself." In his review of Mauvais SangSur la Terre Comme au Ciel, Alain Philippon proposes how to talk about Carax: "One must, in order to speak, re-give a strong sense to some words, which have become corrupt and have lost their power, especially: poetry, inspiration, a flash of creativity, in one word: emotion." The peak of the Carax-Cahiers connection is the full issue they dedicated to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (N.448).

The following is an original translation of Carax's review of Paradise Alley (N.303). On the review of Paradise Alley, Rosenbaum writes,
"The most important of Carax’s critical pieces is undoubtedly the first. Fascinated with both the pessimism and the nightmarishness of Stallone’s 1978 feature (no doubt assisted by the film’s French title, La Taverne de l’Enfer) — a grim wrestling story about three grown orphan brothers in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946 — Carax writes about both the plot and the film’s texture as if he’s recounting an orphan’s nightmare, clearly responding to both the physicality and the bleak finality of Stallone’s vision in spite of the movie’s humor and its happy ending [...] One can’t say that Carax was the only critic to have responded to Stallone’s style (see, for instance, Richard Combs’s perceptive review in the March 1979 Monthly Film Bulletin), but the nature of his response as a teenage critic in relation to both the physicality and nostalgie de la boue (taste for lowlife; literally, “yearning for the mud”) of his subsequent movies is still worthy of notice."
Paradise Alley bears influence on some of Carax's films, notably his most sober and autobiographical film Pola X (e.g. the limping, reclusive older brother; the Chaplinesque gags), and in the remote setting of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. - D.D.
***
La Taverne de l'Enfer, Cahiers Critique by Leos Carax (Cahiers, September '79)

What will follow are a few phrases about a good film that was poorly released, and which was not even discussed.

1946: Three brothers, the Carbonis, New York city wops, adult orphans, who share the same miserable housing in one of the poorest areas of the city: Hell's Kitchen. Cosmo (S.Stallone) is a hustler, always on the lookout for money that would allow him to leave the neighborhood and become famous; Victor (V for Victory) delivers ice-blocks, his build is just as impressive as his unalterable good spirit - and we'll see at the end that he isn't stupid; Lenny is the oldest, who was crippled in the war, tormented, he knows life (and death: he's an undertaker). It's story is just about this... Cosmo tries to convince Victor to become a professional wrestler in a private boxing ring, the Paradise Alley (of the film's original title). With the money that they would win from the fights, the three brothers could finally move out of this poor neighborhood. Victor would do anything to help his brothers, but Lenny doesn't like the idea: every night, it would mean that his younger brother risks being disfigured for life. Yet he finally accepts and even becomes Victor's manager - renaming him "Kid Salami". Every fight is a victory for the Carbonis, and the money accumulates. But Cosmo and Lenny, go from being brothers to becoming enemies: they both love the same woman and, most importantly, they are in disagreement in regards to the career of their protégé. It's now Lenny who is pushing Victor to fight, more and more, and for more money and stronger opponents, all the while Cosmo would prefer to stop it all before their brother becomes a wreck. For the first time, Victor takes responsibility: he says that he is finished with the ring but agrees to one last fight. Against the frightening Frankie the Thumper (who is in the Stitch Mahon gang, enemies of the Carbonis) for nine-thousand dollars, which is all of the money that they have raised. The fight is terrible, but Victor emerges victorious and the Carboni brothers are reunited.

The press-book indicates that the first version of the script written by Stallone in 1970 was a lot darker. Despite its constant sense of humor and its derision, despite its optimistic ending, the realized film resembles a long nightmare. The neighborhood and nighttime scenes, the lighting, its fixed shots (there is practically no camera movements) and violence (too frequent), all participate to a mise-en-scène that is codified like a nightmare. On this point, the image (a success) is clear; from rooftop to rooftop, Cosmo and a member of the Mahon gang are racing; the scene is filmed at night, slowed-down, and edited into fixed shots; each alleyway that they jump over (shot from the position of the street), offers a reverse-shot, a trou d'air that tempts the runner; their faces are deformed by the exercise. And all the shots of the film share a similar style, an effort to push towards extremes, but slowed down, empty and struggling. We ask ourselves more and more, employing more and more strength - to the point of  laughable exaggeration - but the fixed shots keeps us on location. The characters struggle to reach the end of each scene and Stallone's camera never helps them, on the contrary. Lenny must make it through the dance hall with his cane in hand to recover the woman that he lost; Cosmo cannot get home without being harassed (slowly) by some thugs (which we never really see and that he gets rid of by blindly hitting them: the entire neighborhood is a vast nightmare); Victor is forced to arm wrestle the strongest opponents, he has to carry a huge block of ice up an endless staircase, without counting all of the fights that he goes through (from scene to scene, his face is always getting worse). In Stallone's cinema, each scene is either won or lost. 

Paradise Alley is an orphan's nightmare (see again Laughton’s extraordinary The Night of the Hunter if you want to grasp what's an orphan film: the spectator’s identification can’t be more profound than with the character of the orphan, the child alone in the dark). The parents are dead and the kids are grown up, aged: the "You look old tonight, brother" which is said twice, is the harshest thing said in the film. The characters just repeat themselves, like in a bad dream: we are all bad boys and our parents would not be proud. Stallone adds: but at least we stay together. After his victory and right before the closing credits, Victor embraces his brothers, exclaiming, "I like it better when we are brothers." This optimistic ending takes a lot of nerve. Cosmo, Lenny, Victor, each one has their turn to be the "brain". This union is their raison d'être. Just like the enfants du placard - half-orphans - they share family and childhood secrets: (Lenny knows how to make Victor invincible, by whispering a few words in his ear.).

The only way to stay brothers, is to bet on winning together. Not to fight a war but, for example, to have a wrestling match. And it is the scene of the final match, where Victor and Frankie the Thumper fight intensely, each one for their family. Each of the two bodies take many hits, some of them right in the face. The catch of the whole situation, just like it's with cinema, is that it's rigged and we know itStallone takes his pleasure - a pleasure that is first, childish - to film this trick for what it is. His film is a great film; it's cinema. And if people did not go to see it, they have lost a good opportunity to love the cinema.

Leos Carax