Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I'm outta here!

Posted By on 05.15.12 at 11:45 AM

Children of Paradises Baptiste, in happier times
  • Children of Paradise's Baptiste, in happier times
It’s a beauty, the final sequence of Children of Paradise, which plays this week at the Music Box in a new digital restoration. Before literally closing the curtain on several unresolved story lines, the movie shows Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) making his way through a carnival crowd in search of his ideal feminine, Garance (Arletty). The camera passes alongside the mob in a dolly shot, which director Marcel Carné sometimes interrupts with long shots that render the people even more of an undifferentiated mass. For three hours the film’s characters seemed larger than life; in a few moments the tide of history pulls them under as swiftly as all the other people of the 1820s.

This sequence—along with the last shot of Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (more on that in a moment)—got me thinking about a certain type of curtain-closer in the movies, moments that not only summarize the preceding events but also shine a new light on them. It’s exciting when a movie raises new possibilities just when you think it’s wrapping up: you end up walking with it awhile after you leave the theater. The final words of Truffaut’s Two English Girls, for instance, mutate the film’s air of nostalgia into something downright morbid: Jean-Pierre Léaud seems to insist that the movie had been staged for his benefit, not for ours. In a very different example, the end of Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare refashions the preceding two hours a the set-up for a bizarre joke, suggesting you should’ve been laughing at it all along.

From earlier in Morocco, an anticipatory shot
  • From earlier in Morocco, an anticipatory shot
The ending of Morocco may be subtler than those of the Truffaut or the Aldrich, but it hit me just as hard when I saw it at Doc Films on Sunday. It was the first time I’d seen the movie, and I wasn’t prepared to be emotionally involved. My memories of von Sternberg’s films center on slats of light, marble pillars, and the glimmer from jewelry: I know they contain human characters, but why reduce the works to such trivial details? Morocco doesn’t stoop to humanism in its final scene, though von Sternberg does hint at a world behind the thick stylization. As Dietrich’s Amy Jolly abandons her life as a cabaret singer to follow the legionnaire she loves through the desert, the camera stays put as she runs towards a dune in the distance. There is no music, only the punishing sound of the desert wind (which even continues over the Paramount Pictures logo and in place of any exit music); the human figures are consumed by the eternal landscape. Von Sternberg hasn’t abandoned his mythic bent for something more realistic, but he’s revealed the myth of Morocco to be much starker than he’d previously suggested. In this final moment, von Sternberg's decadence now seems a veneer for something cold and brutal. By comparison, the last twist of the knife in Children of Paradise feels like a tickle.

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