If there is a “Lubitsch tradition” in cinema, it is certainly no longer upheld by commercial directors, who have long since abandoned his roundabout form of visual genius. As everybody who knows the films is aware, familiar situations in Lubitsch play out with a strange density; you might call his approach a kind of evasive clarity, an elongated way of measuredly divining the kernel of a scene. As director, he never ran at things head-on, preferring to skirt around the outsides of the frame, layering innuendo upon innuendo until he arrived at a poetic truth that hovered above the basic constituents of what he was filming.
A man revered in his time for crafting the most elegant and crowd-pleasing of Hollywood trifles, his techniques nonetheless find continuity today only in the domain of the structuralist avant-garde. Visual detritus—the leftovers from this artist’s Rube Goldberg narrative machinations—accrues in his films at an astonishing rate: was there a greater director of doors opening and closing than Lubitsch?
From here we proceeded with Objects of My Affection. While not drawing the connection explicitly with his noncommercial descendants, we were drawn to the secret parallels between these two worlds. What attracted Lubitsch to the same extreme focus on objects and spaces divorced from their contexts, tropes familiar from all the structuralist classics that came decades later, was precisely a genius for narrative, the very antithesis of the central preoccupation of experimental film. But, while watching these movies today, it also was as if Lubitsch was emphasizing these objects as something above narrative or metaphor.
Take the clock from Trouble in Paradise (1932), which opens our video: Lubitsch no doubt saw it as a deliciously clever way of superseding tired conventions of the genre as well as a graceful means of suggestion instead of mere depiction. But while that still stands, we were struck by a more mysterious dimension to this monomaniacal emphasis on the object. The clock is of course a shortcut through the trappings of genre, and a particularly beautiful one at that, but it also pugnacious, weird, banal, singular. These Lubitschian flourishes are both the essence of the man’s movies as well as their single oddest characteristic. While it is no doubt part of the largely-settled mythology of this particularly gifted director, we wondered, perhaps foolishly, if it were possible that there were something more to it.