A selection of the films below are showing on MUBI in the series Perfect Failures.
I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free
— Bob Dylan, "Murder Most Foul"
Failure is on a lot of people’s minds right now. I know I’m thinking about it a whole lot. Failure to make the most of a societal shutdown, a ceasing of regular activity; failure to adequately capitalize on time that would certainly be better spent reading long novels or doing fifty push-ups before breakfast. Failure to stave off boredom and uncertainty, misery and fear, at least to the extent that you can do anything with yourself or go on living. These movies are different kinds of failures. They are baldly audacious projects rejected by the public or movie critics or both, not just failures to corral your own emotions into doing a reasonable day's work. We hold many of their makers in greater esteem today than contemporaneous taste-makers did. These directors probably felt something like the frustration and abandonment of a springtime in hopeless quarantine once these things went public and shit hit the fan, only a hundredfold. We, at least, are spared the public humiliation of a high-profile disaster, the decoupling of a career, or the lethal wrath of studio executives, whose money these guys and girls lost a whole lot of.
But despite the fact that these failures are ultimately of a different character to the nagging failure to achieve even minor, everyday victories in the midst of this pandemic, there is something to relate to here. I have long felt affection for wounded movies, whether already revitalized by the adoration of some kind of niche audience or still as forgotten as they have always been. When I was early in my cinephile adolescence, nothing quite beat the rush of stumbling upon some such disaster and finding that I was super into it. The more eccentric and roundly rejected the project, the quicker the younger, more eager version of myself was to rubber stamp it as a certified overlooked masterpiece. As I rewatch these same movies today, some of which were once genuinely axiomatic for me, I find that I identify more with the failure itself, with the out-of-time-ness. My curiosity is stirred by the eccentricity; I stay up at night pondering the implications of some of the more frankly bizarro decisions that I can’t conceive these old masters ever making with all their marbles in place.
More often than not, these movies’ obvious problems and limitations look less and less like signs of misunderstood genius. Looking at some of them again in the context of this series, the same details that once read as marks of insuperable genius to me as a burgeoning movie buff now betray the manifest misjudgments of their makers. But I have also never been less interested in perfection and never more stirred by these miscalculations, many of which suggest genius better than any slick, bravura single-take set-piece ever could. What can you learn about history and the history of an artform from it? Did Billy Wilder ever make as fascinating and as melancholy a movie as Fedora (1978), a misshapen, often painfully goofy and over-egged call back to several pasts each vanishing from sight seemingly all at once?
I’m pulled in closer by these movies, now more than I ever have been. For one, I recently had quite a shock revisiting Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). On the last day of 2019, I had the crazy good fortune to see it in 35mm here in Prague. I had only been living in the city for a few months. December was a tough month to bear, but calming streaks of light had finally started to appear through the cracks in a wall of depression. My mind had cleared somewhat. Incidentally, that was the day the Chinese government first reported the appearance of a new form of pneumonia to the World Health Organization. And so, in retrospect this screening looks symbolic to me. “Would the next decade of my life be like this?” I asked myself gleefully, feeling like fifteen-year-old me watching the film for the first time on a letterboxed DVD. Would I really now, finally, be surrounded by audiences like this one, roaring—roaring!—at a movie I had always loved defensively, as if sheltering a fugitive from the law and putting my freedom on the line?
Though the audience responded as if they were watching a masterpiece, my thoughts were moving in the opposite direction. I love the film, of course. But it had never looked weirder and less like a film that would work for a full house: all the strange, mismatching edits, the horrifying interior design, Marlon Brando lagging far behind Sophia Loren in the Presence Department, the nagging feeling that, for better and for worse, this one movie had one foot planted in the garish 1960s and another in the 1910s, an era of filmmaking that may as well have been thousands of years before, given the disparity between popular artistic trends of the two periods. Yet all this made it more moving than ever when Ogden (Brando) implores his wife (Tippi Hedren) not to rush to judgement of Natasha (Loren), whose life of poverty and desperation as an enterprising immigrant Chaplin obviously identified with in a profound way. Feeling that as a gesture, in 1967, by an aged master horribly out sync with the present moment, speaks to Chaplin's role as the twentieth century’s most prominent artist of the penniless, a historical connection that arises from a moment that would be throwaway or anachronistic in virtually any other context.
I realize today that delusions of perfection can only get you so far; all that needs to be perfect is the disparate fragments of failure themselves.
Always (Steven Spielberg, 1989)
Even Steven Spielberg has his off days. By the outset of the nineties, the man had proved himself to be arguably the most successful directing and producing juggernaut for at least thirty years. He had already started to experiment the decade before with explicitly serious-minded B-sides to his blockbusters, perhaps as a way of testing himself or perhaps, as these movies have always been marketed, as an outlet for his darker artistic side. As received wisdom goes, Steve has only slipped up a few times: with 1941 (1979), with Hook (1991), and with Always (1989). Maybe Amistad (1998) or the second Jurassic Park (1997) if you're feeling particularly catty. Those others, somehow, have endured, whether as a subject of reappraisal or fascination; Always, on the other hand, has been forgotten in a hurry. It was a joint effort, made with all the good intention in the world. Ever since Jaws (1975), Spielberg and Dick Dreyfuss had fantasized about remaking Victor Fleming's mawkish wartime melodrama A Guy Named Joe (1943). In their retelling, it would be a story of valiant, driven pilots on a dangerous mission to extinguish forest fires, allowing Spielberg-Dreyfuss to each explore a spectrum of human emotion and to make the nuanced portrait of masculinity they had always striven for. The film is a hodgepodge of conflicting styles, beginning with a beautiful Altman-esque sequence in a bar where the pilots enjoy the company of the women in their lives and peaking with a horrifyingly sentimental trip into what is, I guess, Spielberg's treacly vision of heaven. All of Spielberg's films are clashes of conflicting impulses. But though he is usually more successful at papering over these contradictions, I have always found his movies to be chilling in the way they burrow into my subconscious. That is, both cynical and manipulative and yet also far too accomplished to dismiss. Always strikes me as a rather more honest vision: uneven and prone to excess, yet reaching for depths of sentiment that his other films only plunder in moments of the ugliest calculation.
A Countess From Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin, 1967)
Some perfect failures are the inevitable product of popular filmmakers aging out of commercial relevance. These movies are the fossilized remains of instincts rendered faulty with the passing of time and the heralding of new filmmaking trends. The 1960s was the one craggy coastline upon which so many of the titanic artists of the commercial cinema of the prior thirty or forty years finally ran aground. In this decade, whatever remaining claim they had to the mantle was wrenched from their grasp in disastrous fashion. There was no more prominent such a figure than Chaplin, and no more career-ending a shipwreck than 1967's A Countess From Hong Kong. In classic perfect failure fashion, the uniform rejection of his movie traumatized Chaplin to the extent that for the remaining decade of his life he never produced another. The twenty years before Countess had seen one critical and commercial failure after another for Chaplin, as well as his forced exile from the country that had once symbolized his liberation from a life of poverty and his rise to unparalleled stardom. Despite being in color and widescreen, the movie could well have been made in 1918. Chaplin’s rejection of not merely the trends of the sixties, which by 1967 were just bursting onto the scene in spectacular fashion, but also the trends of the fifties, forties, thirties, and even twenties make this a fascinating kind of failure. All alone, it is hard to think of a more apt metaphor for this epic mismatch of historical styles than the uncomfortable central performance of Marlon Brando, who at the time was the mumbling, spontaneous, interioristic antithesis of Chaplin’s infinitesimally rehearsed vaudevillian mugging. Anyway, did I mention that this is my favorite Chaplin film? The one I return to most, handily. I do so most of all to witness once again that exquisite close-up of Sophia Loren in the final scene, sat by the window of her hotel restaurant, the shimmering sea reflecting in her wet eyes as she, like a character from a silent film whose very thoughts connect her across continents and over oceans to the man she loves, imagines this man, dear Ogden, departing for America without her?
A Couch in New York (Chantal Akerman, 1996)
While watching A Couch in New York (1996)—or looking at a publicity still like the one above—it is easy to imagine the rosier, funnier movie that most of the people on set probably thought they were making. And if you squint, it really does resemble Sleepless in Seattle (1993), the decade’s paradigmatic romantic comedy. Seeing that cultural touchstone in an unlikely setting, on a beautiful 35mm release print with French subtitles at the Locarno Festival, only emphasized its uniqueness. Beneath the chemistry of its two stars and the old timely pep of its script is a surprisingly rigorous movie about the experience of spending long periods of time talking over the telephone. When these things are de-familiarized through a process like shifting filmmaking mores or a revival in an unusual context, their peculiarities are exposed like bone beneath muscle. With A Couch in New York, this process is embedded into the experience of watching the film in any context. The lack of chemistry between its stars and the deliberately anachronistic style, which is slower and more deliberate than viewers then or now are accustomed to, only call attention to it as a skeleton of a film. Once you settle into its rhythms, it betrays its secret essence as an altogether more lucid look at cipher-like characters, typical of Akerman's work; mysterious creations whose unknowable quantities are filtered through the apparatus of archetype. Akerman movies are usually about stripping back artifice to reveal the odd beauty of a walk, a gesture, a corridor, or—here—the artfully-designed movie sets that purport to be the characters' homes. She just didn't always convince big time French moneymen to pay lavishly for her to do so.
Fedora (Billy Wilder, 1978)
Another Old Man Movie, though discrete from Chaplin’s. There the aging auteur is happily oblivious to the trends of the prior 40 or 50 years of cinema; here Wilder is, on the other hand, yearning for a past beyond his reach. Fedora, his penultimate film, seems like it was directed by one of the characters of Sunset Boulevard (1950), a connection made explicit in the recasting of William Holden as protagonist. The bitterness of Wilder's celebrities from that earlier film, once-great artists who wake up one day as anachronisms, becomes a wistfulness when embodied by Wilder himself. Besides a few broadsides—most notably against "young men with beards running around with handheld cameras"—Wilder is of an altogether more restrained, melancholic temperament than usual. Which in turn makes all the wacky Old Man excesses even more revealing. His spare mise-en-scène and rather touching emphasis on the aging process as an organizing theme do more to express a desire for an inescapably disappearing Golden Age than do most of the more explicit and better organized call-backs to that earlier period. Give me this creaky beauty any day of the week.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
The most famous of all perfect failures, Frank Capra's beloved 1946 film's enduring popularity is in many ways a direct result of its commercial failure. Upon release, it was deemed a major disappointment. The loss contributed to Capra's production company, Liberty Films, being gobbled up by Paramount. Years later they indifferently passed on the rights to the movie to one company, who then sold them on again to National Television Associates, a subsidiary of Republic Pictures that was amassing a catalog of second-tier movies for television syndication. An error in the NTA's filing, perhaps only possible with a then-forgotten title like It's a Wonderful Life, meant that only the rights to the original story upon which it was based were renewed in 1974. So for years the movie was a cheap option for television stations to run at Christmastime; this famously gave it a second audience that soon grew to love it and regard it as one of the greatest of all films. But over the years, It's a Wonderful Life has undergone a second transformation in my mind, one more stark to me than this twist of history and circumstance. Though I love it more than ever, today I can't see It’s a Wonderful Life as anything other than a disturbing fantasy, both nihilistic and somehow celebratory. It’s a distinctly American mix, and far weirder than anybody remembers these days. Capra's basic idea, that the world would wilt and shrink into disarray, with the more sinister and vicious aspects of humanity bubbling to the fore, without the good will, optimism, and charisma of a single person strikes me as one of the wildest, most deranged, and nihilistic in the history of the cinema!
Perceval le Gallois (Éric Rohmer, France, 1978)
Éric Rohmer is best remembered for his other films of the 1970s. Those were the horny, intellectual arthouse hits that made his name, and whose cultural capital he spent—not so successfully—making Perceval. Bugged-out and hyper-serious experiments like this one, of which there would be only a handful in subsequent decades, are not major aspects of Rohmerian legend. “It is not so much the theme that interests us here, but the text, one of the most beautiful in French literature, and for which the cinema can provide an audience it no longer has.” Doesn’t that sound like something Jean-Marie Straub would say? When watching Perceval, which is an extraordinarily faithful transposition of Chrétien de Troye’s unfinished 1190 novel Perceval, le conte du Graal to the cinema, it is hard not to imagine that, had Rohmer got his way, the dude would have made a lifetime worth of these movies. It is such a unique vision, so meticulous and atypical, overwhelming in its stylization. He had rolled the dice just a couple of years before with the German language historical adaptation The Marquise of O... (1978) and won a Jury Prize at Cannes for it. You can understand why he would want to leap even further into the unknown. Without its failure, we might not have had the two subsequent cycles of breezy parables of the everyday, the comédies et proverbs and saisons, low budget films whose existence is probably owed to this elaborate recreation of Arthurian mythology as film maudit.
Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, USA, 1995)
Few films have undergone as dramatic a rehabilitation as Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Over the last twenty years, the 90s' most prominent critical and commercial disaster has risen like a Phoenix from smoldering ashes, buoyed above all by a significant rise in Verhoeven's personal stock. Defending the film as a serious work of art is now so hip that you could conceivably defend it at a dinner party in the Upper East Side of Manhattan without your fellow guests laughing you out of the room. Indeed, these people—providing they are not tragically unhip—will likely listen to your broadsides with polite amusement and may even offer their own counter theory of its subversive view of American Capitalism. Looking at it again though, Showgirls remains something of a puzzle. What to make, for instance, of the famous rape scene at the climax that arbitrarily punishes a character Verhoeven has gone out of his way to portray as Good Hearted, slavishly so? Is this a nihilistic admission that the world is as brutal a place as backstage of a Vegas topless show? Is that really that biting an observation for Verhoeven to have made, and that worthy a springboard for an elaborate critical reappraisal of this infamous disaster? Verhoeven's impulse to mock, to skewer, to explode cultural contradictions in a way that reeks of the satirical springs from the same place as his excesses, complicating both. The subversive agent here is indeed Verhoeven, though perhaps what makes it subversive is his insistence on sending up his own depravities. He glories as much as anybody in this stuff, happy to implicate his own pretensions in the entire spectacle. He's happy to spend so much money making the least sexy movie ever made; happy to go to very nasty places to score a cheap point; happy to mix good and bad, perceptive and tin-eared, broad and subtle, elegant and laughable. He wants to make an anti-capitalist movie so bad he's willing to throw the obviousness of it in your face. What makes Showgirls so brilliant and so endlessly involving as a perfect failure, even more so than Verhoeven's more overtly successful maudits, are these contradictions, this relentless unpredictability. It is like it never occurred to him that good taste was something worth striving for; he's too busy making an ass of the whole show. Verhoeven's like Elizabeth Berkeley's Nomi Malone. Sure, both are wildly off the charts. But try taking your eyes off either.