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Capital, it fails us now: "The Wages Of Fear" in the post-imperial age

Out of town;

my work takes me out of town.

I empty villages.

I burn their houses down.

I set up factories.

Lay out plantations

And bring prosperity

to the poorer nations.

—Art Bears, "The Song Of Investment Capital Overseas"

After looking at the major works of director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977), one might summarize his worldview thusly: "Everything sucks, except maybe Picasso." His greatest pictures—Le Corbeau, Les Diaboliques, this one—luxuriate in a cynical, pessimistic, practically Hobbesian view of human life, it's varied characters scrambling for advantage in outrageous and almost demented ways. And if true human sentiment and fellow feeling actually do exist, such things are invariably doomed to be crushed by outside forces. As for Picasso, well, Clouzot made a very admiring documentary about the guy.

Aside from Picasso though...bad news all around. Thus it is entirely apt that Clouzot doesn't romanticize or sentimentalize the village of Las Piedras ("the rocks"), the below-the-equator setting (the country is unnamed, and the fictitious village itself was constructed in France) of 1953's The Wages of Fear. Indeed, the picture opens with a closeup of some poor cockroaches tied together, followed by a reveal of the insect's torturer, a scrawny young boy. The images recall the scorpion fight in Buñuel's L'age d'Or, and look forward, of course, to The Wild Bunch; here, they're Clouzot's shorthand that in the place we're going to spend the next couple of hours, life is cheaper than usual. And that Las Piedras is a hell hole.

Still—it's a hell hole that belongs to a particular group of people, and as the jeep whose rear bears the logo "SOC" barrels down a dirt road with zero regard for pedestrians, we know that the whoever's in the jeep does not belong to that group. Clouzot's dog-eat-dog worldview is here buttressed by a blunt, clear-eyed perspective on capitalist imperialism, and the little touches the film provides, blandly articulating its grip on this place and its people, give the film a piquance that's still bracing in today's much-changed world.

We soon learn that SOC stands for Southern Oil Company, and that it's an American concern; where there's oil, Yves Montand's Mario wryly observes, the Americans can't be far behind. And the Americans have their own ways of doing things. When the initially imperious Jo (Charles Vanel), Las Piedras' most recent immigrant-with-a-shady-past, pays a visit to his old buddy Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs), a middle manager as SOC, in a stab at getting some work, O'Brien shows him just how SOC keeps the locals in line: with a private police force.

 

O'Brien and Jo were acquainted, incidentally, as smugglers back in Europe. The contrabandier-going-straight narrative is, of course, one of the perversely romantic narratives of late capitalism.

Wages' world is, obviously, one before the Cuban Revolution, one before Daniel Ortega...one before Hugo Chavez. I do not hesitate to say that there is much about Chavez's regime in Venezuela that is worth taking exception to, and almost every conservative commenter in the United States worth his/her salt has lodged his/her objections a hundredfold. Scratch at the surface below any number of these thinkers, though, and it won't take you long to find that behind their indignation at Chavez's "thuggish" rhetoric and tactics, there is a deeper rage roiling at the very idea that these people...have the nerve...to say no to us. There actually does exist a putatively conservative train of thought that runs thusly: if the actual inahbitants of Central and South America and Africa were too stupid to have any cognizance of the treasures that were right below their feet, well of course then the West had every right to raid their land and take those treasures for themselves...and now that they've finally figured it out, why in hell should the West give them any consideration at all? (Dig into, and around, the writings of Steve Sailer for some pertinent examples of the mindset.)

One scene in Wages depicts some folks who are figuring it out:

Clouzot doesn't linger on the scene; politics are not, finally, his concern. But still. The ingredients all add up to make Wages an ideal picture to revisit in the wake of the much-debated Obama/Chavez handshake. And the new Blu-ray edition of it is a more spectacular experience still.

Precisely why I prefer the grittier, faster-paced and slightly right wing Friedkin remake.
No, I think people hate Chavez because he, like many left wing dictators. is just a thug who uses populism who disguise his tyranny. My favorite anti-Chavez blogger is Thor Halvorssen. Since his mother was shot by Venezuelan state police at an anti-Chavez rally, he has a very good reason for not liking the guy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=channel_page&v=EqVqNDcyC44
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Friedkin’s remake will never get any love. I’ve given up trying to convince dunderheads of it’s powerfully bleak vision. That Art Bears record is choice, however.
I’ve always clung to the perverse notion that Clouzot is actually sympathetic to most of his obnoxious characters. He wants us to perceive all their hideous faults, and still love them as he does. On the Criterion disc of Le Corbeau (or is it Quais des Orfevres?) he says of a heroine, “She’s kind of a monster,” and then grins warmly — revealing terrifying, blackened teeth that look like they’ve been filed to points. It’s a moment that sums up my love of Clouzot. (Also, I have no trust for any world leaders, but I think I would rather, if pressed, live in Venezuela than Bolivia, the South American country the US has had most to do with shaping. Chavez’s leftwing thuggishness is at least a counterbalance to the other kind.)
I agree with David that HGC is genuinely sympathetic to even his most venal creations. He’s a humanist; a grudging one, but still. In fact, over and over I’m oddly reminded of Renoir — Montand and the dying Vanel in the truck are unexpectedly reminiscent of Gabin and Dalio on the road in “Grand Illusion.” In a way, Clouzot forces us to remember that Octave’s full line isn’t “Everybody has their reasons” but “The awful thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.”
What I like about this movie is actually the subtlety of the political content. It feels like Clouzot included it not just to make a point but because it gives the place a real sense of character.

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