by Ashley Naftule
“People never know more than one side of reality. Why? Because they only see one side of things. But I see all sides… because I see… “in the round.” That allows me to be everywhere at once. Everywhere.”
There’s one moment from Citizen Kane that’s lingered with me ever since I first saw it. It’s the interview with the elderly Bernstein (played by Everett Sloane), where he reminisces about a time in his youth when he was on a ferry to Jersey and crossed paths with another ferry heading in the opposite direction: “And on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
It’s a haunting moment, both for the deeply felt emotions playing across Bernstein’s face and imbued in his voice (wistful and resigned, longing for something he can never have), and for how perfectly it captures a universal experience we’ve all felt at some point. That moment when you see someone pass through your life in the blink of an eye and desperately wish that they lingered a bit longer. Maybe because they’re comely and catch your eye? Maybe because they seem really interesting. People who are mere background extras in your life, but you can tell by the way they carry themselves that they’re on their way to an adventure. That they could be a part of a much larger and more interesting story than the one you inhabit.
Watching movies can invoke the same feeling. There are moments where I’ll watch movies and wish that the filmmaker shouted “TAG! YOU’RE IT!” and passed the narrative onto a different character entirely. It’s why the Mos Eisley Cantina scene is so iconic – all these weird, distinctive looking aliens. What’s their deal? Who are they? The film isn’t about them, but there are times where I watch A New Hope and wished that the camera didn’t follow Luke’s posse into space – that it stayed put and maybe followed the band as they tried to hustle up gigs on a broke-ass desert planet. Or chronicle the adventures of Walrus Guy as he tries to rustle up enough credits to buy a replacement cyber-arm.
Ok, the Expanded Universe did this kind of thing, but we’re not gonna talk about the EU, ok? Unless we’re talking about Thrawn. Or Mara Jade. Or the Rogue Squadron books. Or “Dark Empire” & “The Truce at Bakura”. Actually, let’s talk about the EU sometime, shall we?
There is a line of films, however, that follows that “TAG! YOU’RE IT!” impulse. One of the best is Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, a masterpiece of Surrealistic vignettes. The film utilizes a bold structure that should be intensely frustrating: Every time the story in a section of the film starts getting REALLY interesting, the film immediately shifts gears to a different story entirely and NEVER goes back to resolve the previous story. It’s like watching the setup to a series of jokes that cut out before we get to the punchline, or eavesdropping on murder mysteries that drop the curtain down before we find out who did it.
Characters that appear as minor figures in one story walk off and become the protagonists of another. There is the sense of a baton being passed from scene to scene, as we hop from one hilarious and bizarre situation to another. The Phantom of Liberty is one of Bunuel’s most expansive-feeling films – just as his The Milky Way packed an entire history of Christian heresy into one movie, his Phantom touches base on almost every Surrealistic trope, perversion, and tangent imaginable. By constantly shifting focal points, it maps out an entire insane world for us in only 104 minutes.
The Phantom of Liberty
Another master of Merry-Go-Round movies is Richard Linklater, whose Slacker and Walking Life deploy a similar structure. Slacker hews close to the Phantom: the world of the film is constantly expanding. We don’t backtrack and reconnect with anyone we’ve met — we’re constantly meeting new people, as one person breaks off from a conversation, wanders the streets of Austin, and passes the baton on to someone else. This structure gives us the sense that we’re bearing witness to an entire subculture of laidback philosophers, paranoids, and bon vivants living in Linklater’s Texas. The chief difference between his approach to the merry-go-round and Bunuel is that we often do get a payoff in the conversations in Slacker – the focus tends to shift right when things are about to get tedious, not when they’re about to get really interesting.
Waking Life is a bit different from its predecessor. It starts as a tag game (and features appearances by many of the folks that appeared in Slacker, shifting POVs and scenes until the film starts pushing Wiley Wiggins to the forefront as its main character. It has a plot that reveals itself at the halfway mark — while it occasionally wanders to focus on other people, it always swings back to Wiggins and his struggles in “the dream world.” The world of Waking Life spins, just like Slacker and The Phantom of Liberty do, but it revolves around one person.
While both Bunuel and Linklater have pushed this format in surprising and rewarding directions, neither man could claim credit for kicking the trend off. That laurel sits on the brow of Max Ophüls, whose 1950 adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, was a huge inspiration for Bunuel, Linklater, and several other prominent filmmakers (including Paul Thomas Anderson & Robert Altman, whose Magnolia, Short Cuts, and Nashville films all owe a debt to the merry-go-round structure of La Ronde).
If La Ronde was an HBO series, you could call it Game of Beds. It follows the pairing offs and partings of ten characters in Vienna. There’s a prostitute, a soldier, a nobleman, a bored housewife, a mistress, a husband, a housemaid, an actress, a poet, and a young man who loves quoting Stendhal. Some characters are married to each other; others are seeing each other while stepping out with other people at the same time. The game of tag plays out from couple to couple – starting with the Prostitute and Soldier. One character breaks away to mingle with someone else, and we hop from pairing to pairing until the conclusion of the “dance”. The circle completes itself when the drunken Count, awakening in the Prostitute’s home after blowing off a rendezvous with The Actress, stumbles home with his prize greyhound and barks at The Soldier to salute him as they cross paths on a bridge.
Acting as the MC, chief voyeur, and literal crank-turner of the merry-go-round these characters ride on is a nameless man played by Anton Walbrook. Walbrook’s character here is a 180 from the stormy, intense impresario he played in The Red Shoes – his MC is bemused and enchanted with “the art of love”. He helps facilitate the encounters by playing a carriage driver, the waiter at a private dining room, a servant, and crops up everywhere. He doesn’t pass judgment on the lovers and their passing fancies and whims; he just watches and comments on them, like he was Uatu The Watcher perving on people from the moon.
One of the things that makes La Ronde stand out today (apart from the elegance of its structure) is how nonjudgmental it is. Characters from both sides of the gender aisle cheat on each other, play the field, and break promises. They follow their bliss, even when it breaks hearts or breeds bad decisions. Walbrook’s Watcher just shrugs at what fools these mortals be and has a matter of fact attitude about their dalliances: these things happen, he says. It’s no big deal.
Whether or not you agree with that sentiment doesn’t change the fact that that’s a pretty revolutionary approach to depicting romance and sex on film, especially for a movie made in 1950. La Ronde doesn’t dwell on consequences or bother to moralize — it’s more interested in depicting the mania and excitement that overtakes people when that new love rush of dopamine hits. It’s that carefree attitude that got the film briefly banned in New York when it came to the States and eventually triggered a court case to get the ban overturned.
Interestingly enough, the judgment-free approach is an Ophüls addition to the story. In the original Schnitzler play, the transmission of venereal diseases was a grim part of the “dance.” Neither pregnancy or sickness rears their unexpected heads in the film and it is all the better for it.
The film also has a refreshingly egalitarian approach to the sexes. Both men AND women are shown to be lusty and eager to play around. Ophüls often makes misogyny a running punchline in the film. Time and again, we see men acting like fools and watch the women in their lives run circles around them. Like the young man, unable to perform in bed at first (depicted hilariously as a cut back to Walbrook on the merry-go-round, turning the crank and trying to get it started up again), quoting Stendahl despondently to his married lover (who is pretending not to have already read the book); or that same woman’s husband, who refuses to share stories about his past conquests (even though his visibly excited wife is asking him to) because it would sully her “purity.” And then there’s the young Count, who shares his plans for an evening of romance with The Actress, who brushes aside his grand gestures and plans by insisting he bed her RIGHT NOW in her room. The women in Ophüls movies know what they want and aren’t afraid to get it, whether through blunt talk or manipulation.
La Ronde also serves as a great introduction to Ophüls’ sumptuous style and mise en scene. The lush B&W cinematography, the intricate costumes and attention to detail in the setting, and most of all: his use of barriers. The characters in La Ronde, while they are carefree and free spirited, are constrained by their surroundings. They’re often shot in between bars, through windows or blurry panes of glass. Shadows, doorways, vases on foregrounded tables, cabinets, and all sorts of other objects pop up to create distance between characters. In a way, everyone in the film is free to sleep with who they want, but they are trapped by social mores, class, and convention. The bored housewife will never leave her husband, her husband’s Madonna-Whore complex prevents him from giving his wife the proper fucking she deserves, and on and on the merry-go-round of stay-in-your-lane turns. The film never has to spell out these cages they’re in, because they use LITERAL cages in the mise en scene to illustrate this.
One of the best examples of this approach is the vignette between the husband and wife. They lay together in separate beds. Ophüls camera drops down so that a clock positioned between the beds is foregrounded. A clock hand ticks back and forth, shifting from husband to wife and back again. It volleys like the ball in a tennis game, setting up a neat conversational rhythm between the pair, as they lob and repel each other’s advances and requests. It’s a simple framing of the scene that speaks volumes about their relationship and history together.
The granddaddy of Merry-Go-Round movies, La Ronde still feels fresh and contemporary in 2017. As an example of immaculately constructed mise en scene and tight story structure, it’s hard to think of many other films that can top it. And with performances by so many great French actors (including Simone Signoret as the Prostitute, Danielle Darrieux as the Wife, and Children of Paradise star Jean-Louis Barrault as the Poet), it shows how so much can be accomplished in terms of crafting a memorable performance with just a limited amount of screen time.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I got to go dig out some Expanded Universe novels from my storage unit.