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Locarno 2018. Looking for Laughs After HUAC

At the festival, a grave adaptation of Sterling Hayden’s anguished memoir is followed by comedies about Nicolas Chauvin and Eddie Cantor.
The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin
The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin
In an earlier dispatch I wrote on the extraordinary documentary Pharos of Chaos, a captivating long-form interview with actor Sterling Hayden that came about when the West German critic and filmmaker, Wolf-Eckart Bühler, tracked him down to get permission to adapt his 1963 memoir, Wanderer. The film that resulted is Der Havarist (1984), and reading about both films in the festival catalog, I assumed that the documentary would be a mere supplement to this feature adaptation, yet the opposite turned out to be true. Pharos of Chaos ranges widely without a lot of historical detail and is reliant—but thereby thrives—on the screen presence of Hayden and bountiful detail of character. Der Havarist, far from a straight staging or telling of Hayden’s life, is more multi-form and Brechtian, using several actors (including Rüdiger Vogler and musician Hannes Waader) to play Hayden by reciting passages from the book, from transcripts, and from what sounds like Bühler’s adaptation of choice bits of the actor's biography, to give a sense of trajectory and inner spirit to the man who was a boat captain and war hero before testifying as a friendly witness for the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings, after which he acted in all the films for which he was known. 
These HUAC hearings, which are based on the fact that Hayden returned from fighting with partisans in Yugoslavia desiring to make the world better and ended up briefly joining the Communist Party, are the focus of Der Havarist, the locus for Hayden’s tortured anguish over the betrayal of naming names. Like many European cinephile-intellectuals who are attracted to old Hollywood films of unusually voluptuous metaphysics like Vertigo, Portrait of Jennie, and Hayden’s Johnny Guitar, Bühler is drawn not just to the facts of Hayden’s life but rather the poetic and moral struggle and mythology of this man, one who betrays his integrity and colleagues and then goes on to play-act the kinds of heroes he was in real life—or used to be, before HUAC. This is all to say that Hayden’s story is fascinating and the figure of Hayden—for Bühler in this film is most interested in him as a figure—as an American workman, hero, betrayal, actor, activist, writer and alcoholic is both scintillating and revelatory. Initially, the bone-dry approach of stiff, document-based reenactment seems to work properly, not only at once narrating and estranging Hayden’s experience, but of course bringing them into the West Germany of 1984 to seek the relevancy of such a maelstrom of political commitment, moral betrayal, professional exorcism, and personal culpability and torment. As such, the film is generally similar to the contemporaneous work of Straub-Huillet, yet it lacks the inner fire that makes their interpretations not just the revelation of crucial information—as it definitely is here—but something else, independent of that, extended and suggestive beyond the original materials. Ironically, Pharos of Chaos is exactly this, whereas the project centerpiece, Der Havarist, while both fascinating and pointed in its own right, doesn’t reach that strange plane of existence of Hayden himself, where fact transforms into a myth that we study for origins and meaning. 
As might be surmised by the above characterization of a great discovery in Locarno, it is unfortunately relatively rare to laugh during a festival, art cinema so often presuming it should approach the world with mirthless gravity—a quality it in fact shares with the prestige pictures of the mainstream. So I was thankful to director Benjamin Crotty (whose last feature, Fort Buchanan, we have shown on MUBI) for the humorous interjection of his new short, The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin. Photographed by celluloid crackshot Sean Price Williams, the film is a silly dramatic monologue of brash nationalism and hyper-masculinity adapted from a text by Joshua Cohen and spoken by the most-likely apocryphal figure of Chauvin, an officer in Napoleon's army and whose name is the origin of the term chauvinism. As played by a terrific Alexis Maneti, who starts the film on stage accepting a non-existent award in his battle-torn uniform, faced begrimed with blood and dirt, before having him trudge through a rural landscape, a castle, and modern-day bar in a prankish, lo-fi melding of past and present France, Chauvin brags to us of his extreme French pride, martial accomplishments, and personal prejudices with a self-reflexive and deeply ironic tongue-in-cheek, telling us to look to Google and Wikipedia for references. Eventually, Chauvin is accused by a ghoulish crusade-era knight of being a fabrication by Parisian intellectuals that has been taken up as French history, if not as myth. Immense fun is had by Maneti relating his compellingly gratuitous but hardly over-exaggerated character to us. While the film’s desire, originating in Cohen’s text, to satirize contemporary right-wing nationalism, xenophobia, fake news, conspiracy theories and other cultural conservatism in France (as well as America, Crotty’s country of birth) is very obvious, this screwy political lark is never less than enjoyable for it. 
The biggest laughs of all were to be found later that evening at The Kid from Spain, a grossly under-appreciated 1932 Leo McCarey comedy starring Eddie Cantor, with a very young Robert Young in a dull romantic role, and featuring several deliciously saucy, wonderfully catchy songs with musical numbers (including a very prominent blackface number) directed by Busby Berkeley working fully in long-leg, sheer-cloth pre-Code mode. Some of that glitz was sadly lost in the murk of the presentation, as the 35mm print shown was a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster with different instances of French and German subtitles, clearly cobbled together from various sources in some kind of archival desperation.
An obvious model for later comedy-and-song productions and such goof-and-heartthrob pairings as Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, the story sends Cantor south of the border, dodging a detective, impersonating a bullfighter and falling victim to the passionate advances of a platinum blonde Mexican, played with charming sincerity and swoony horniness by the Polish-American Lyda Roberti. Cantor, an immensely popular artist of the era, doesn’t have a ton of screen performances to his name. But he’s obviously a total hoot, with a bizarre wide-eyed naïf persona bordering on sociopathy, impeccable comic timing, the look of a Lower East Side tailor’s assistant, and with an indeterminate age that could be placed anywhere between 20 and 60. Like George Burns and Gracie Allen, who co-star in Leo McCarey’s excellent but not particularly outrageous Six of a Kind (1934)—Gracie’s ditzy-smart performance there being a model for Irene Dunne’s unforgettable turn in The Awful Truth—Cantor thrives within the free space for performance that is McCarey’s directorial signature above all else, unlike, say, Mae West in Belle of the Nineties (1934), who enters the frame, perfectly delivers her practiced one-liner, and the film moves on. Whereas in The Kid from Spain, as in McCarey’s other great comedies among which this should be numbered, the scenes linger, the better to open possibilities for humor, social awkwardness, and the natural feel of dramatic looseness. This approach clashes radically with Busby Berkeley's hyper-controlled choreography, and the fact that these two opposite approaches were photographed in this film by Citizen Kane’s Gregg Toland makes this picture an even more enjoyable encounter.

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