By Rob White
From Film Quarterly Spring 2009, Vol. 62, No. 3
Man on Wire (James Marsh)
Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
On August 7, 1974, above the morning commuters, Philippe Petit stepped out on a high wire extended between the World Trade Center twin towers. The exploit brought the French acrobat huge celebrity, token rebukes, and a new life: he became Artist-in-Residence at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York. After 9/11, Petit’s walk gained memorial power. “Once there were two towers,” begins Mordicai Gerstein’s 2003 children’s story, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Square Fish, 2007). But it is one of the many merits of Man on Wire, a near-perfect documentary, that it summons up the walk’s grandeur without spelling out the symbolism. The film has no narration. Lighthearted silent-cinema pastiches do a witty reenactment job; together with TV reports, some plans and drawings, and home movies, they provide a setting for recollections by the garrulous Petit and his assistants, and sublime photographs of that hazy summer Wednesday (many of them taken by Jean-Louis Blondeau, a member of the team who clandestinely rigged the cable). In one snapshot taken from the street, a plane is flying above the WTC. The lines of its wings—and surely also its resemblance to 9/11 photos—may distract us for a moment from what is most breathtaking: the miniscule funambulist, his balancing pole a slender string perpendicular to the tightrope.
Those who witnessed this virtuoso performance were staggered by its audacity and beauty. James Marsh includes a news clip in which, almost expressionless except that at the end he seems unsettled, Sergeant Charles Daniels speaks words of wonder in an official monotone: “I observed the tightrope dancer—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’ … Everyone was spellbound in the watching of it … I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.” Petit stayed out there for nearly an hour, skipping away from the building just when police thought he might be coming in. At a certain point, documented in Man on Wire by Blondeau’s color photo, he knelt down to give the artiste’s open-arm salute. His lover of the time, Annie Alix, was standing below and she seems simultaneously euphoric and distraught, fervent and hesitant, as she recounts the gesture: “It was so beautiful—and, um—when he knelt down—there was a moment when he knelt down and saluted—.” I was, in turn, shaken by Man on Wire; its emotional impact is extraordinary.
The topic that comes round and round in this issue — notably in the pieces by Joshua Clover, Gerald Sim, and Laszlo Strausz — is the conflict between impersonal forces and individual action; the dance and the dancer; the system’s “perpetual motion machine” (to use a phrase from J. M. Tyree’s essay on superheroes) and the personal pirouettes which may or may not be just a part of the machine. The other repeating concern is desire and its many discontents, and the two themes combine in the readings of Ophuls’s La Ronde (now available again on DVD) by D. A. Miller and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. They share a starting point—“Sex is the lowest common denominator” (Nowell-Smith), “the triumph of the sex drive” (Miller)—but where the former finds tenderness, the latter discerns disenchantment, and there are further variations of exegesis besides. One might have called it a critical pas de deux, were it not for the fact that the two writers have not discussed La Ronde with each other.
Our cover feature is Scott MacDonald’s in-depth conversation with Todd Haynes about the intersection of narrative cinema and what Haynes calls the “experimental vernacular.” The interview’s title, “From Underground to Multiplex,” sums up an element of Film Quarterly policy which is conspicuous in this issue: to maintain a wide-ranging, perhaps even promiscuous, coverage, and so move at the turn of a page or two from Milk to Antonio Gaudí, or from Joss Whedon’s Internet musical to Chantal Akerman’s gallery installations.
Near the start of Man on Wire, a TV screen shows Richard Nixon making a statement. (The day after Petit’s expedition, the president resigned.) The screen-within-a-screen conceit is one that appears repeatedly in Frost/Nixon, which also has fake-documentary talking heads and numerous behind-the-scenes shots that visualize the recording apparatus. On two occasions, characters furthermore pause to speak about closeups and, according to James Reston (Sam Rockwell), their “reductive power.” All this self-referential business is no more an exercise in distancing than the framing devices in Stoker’s Dracula — and in its own way Ron Howard’s film is a sensationalist monster story. “David [Frost] had succeeded,” according to the climactic Reston mockumentary speech, in “getting … Richard Nixon’s face, swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.” It is as if we have strayed into the macabre carnival of the films Tyree discusses, where characters’ personality splits and back-story traumas get embodied as mutations and mutilations. Nixon is even given a primal scene of misery (feelings of social humiliation at college—or so he drunkenly discloses in an improbable late-night phone call). The trouble is that, playing the president, Frank Langella is courtly and dignified; rueful and weary to be sure but, so far as I could see, unravaged.
The scarred carnival clown is absent; but then he was never there in the first place. Available on a DVD entitled Frost Nixon Watergate, the key March 1977 session is difficult to parse. From time to time, eyes wistfully far-away, Nixon does offer some genre fiction, though it is melancholic pastoral rather than horror, a slight quaver in his voice rather than the real villainous cackle. The scene is a cabin at Camp David: “The tulips had just come out. I’ll never forget, we looked out across—it was one of those gorgeous days when, you know, no clouds were on the mountain. And I was pretty emotionally wrought-up and I remember that I could just hardly bring myself to tell Ehrlichman that he had to go … I think there were tears in our eyes, both of us.” It is strangely fluent given a lot of stuttering elsewhere, as though it had been rehearsed. Enigmatic in another way is a moment after Frost invites the president to unburden himself (“unless you say it you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life”): Nixon’s eyes roll back for an instant. He might be about to faint. Then he seems to relax into the halting admission of limited wrongdoing. Watching the interview, I gleaned fatigue, fear, secretiveness, maybe grief, steely determination, but there are numerous other possible interpretations—the least persuasive of which may be Frost/Nixon’s claim that we see a self-evident manifestation of moral torment.
“I sort of cracked up,” Nixon told Frost in 1977, but there is hardly a hairline fracture to be seen in the original TV broadcast. The president’s face remains ambiguous or inscrutable, as is often the case in documentary close-ups. Consider a very different, yet arguably emblematic shot from near the end of Man on Wire. “There was something broken probably in this friendship,” Blondeau says, looking back at the disbanding of the tightrope team, and as he does so he suppresses the sobbing that comes with the words, bowing his face against his arched hands to shield himself from the camera. I was touched by the brief sight of this warm, modest, disconcerted man’s sadness and the way his gesture suggests the idea that mostly the close-up may be a kind of cover-up.
In Christopher Nolan’s brilliant version of Batman, The Dark Knight, there are frequent helicopter shots of streets and skyscrapers. They are depersonalizing, somewhat like the swooping aerial views in Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White, in which a visual analogy is made between fleeing horses and men, all of them gun fodder. The sequence, according to Strausz’s analysis of its politics, “sets up an impersonal sphere which functions as a commentary on the disappearance of subjective, personal space under the Communist regime.” By contrast, The Dark Knight gives us, among the more frequent drone’s-eye views, occasional images of heroic individualism, notably when Batman (Christian Bale) stands on the top of buildings to scrutinize the city. He is not the only such figure in this year’s Oscar-nominated movies.
She wears a bonnet rather than a mask, but Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) in Doubt, based on John Patrick Shanley’s own Pulitzer-winning play, is as much of a caped Gotham avenger as Batman. Principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx, she suspects Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may be a pedophile with designs on the school’s only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). She has no proof and has to rely on hunches, surmises, and on how Flynn and the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) respond when questioned. (In the fine scene between Davis and Streep, the nun realizes that Mrs. Miller is ahead of her investigatively.) The principal dragoons a much younger teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams), an idealistic ingénue who worries about due process, much as many viewers will.
Sister Aloysius’s watchfulness is emphasized at the beginning of Doubt. She sternly patrols church during service and a little later she beadily sees a schoolboy recoil from Flynn’s outstretched hand. The observation fires up her suspicion of the priest. For the rest of the film, she only has eyes for him, and Shanley explores the ramifications of such a fierce gaze, especially the resulting clash between ecclesiastical authority and conscience, orthodoxy and skepticism, feeling and reason. In the original play (Theatre Communications Group, 2005), the rational character of Sister Aloysius’s outlook is more explicit. “The heart is warm,” she says, “but your wits must be cold.”
She moves from vigilance to vigilantism and, as she does so, the connections between Doubt and The Dark Knight proliferate. A duet in contrasting vernaculars can be heard between Sister Aloysius and Batman’s mentoring factotum, Alfred (Michael Caine). On unreformability: “Some men … can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn” (Alfred). “A dog that bites is a dog that bites” (Sister Aloysius). On ostracism as the price of dissent and intervention: “That’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make. The right choice” (Alfred). “I will step outside the Church if that’s what needs to be done, though the door should shut behind me!” (Sister Aloysius). In both films the social order is corrupt. Subversive tactics are called for: spying, set-ups, con tricks.
Perhaps the most interesting of numerous small changes made in adapting the play for the cinema is a conversation that occurs in Sister James’s classroom after the pupils have left. Sister Aloysius enters and, after rummaging around, takes a framed photograph of Pope Pius XII out of a desk drawer. When the young nun objects that he is dead (it is 1964), the principal snaps back: “I don’t care what pope it is. Use the glass to see behind you. The children should think you have eyes in the back of your head.” (There is no such picture in the play and the line is accordingly different: “The children should think you see right through them.”)
The Dark Knight’s take on the theme of surveillance is more disturbing and topical. Batman manages to network all the city’s cellphones to create a “high-frequency generator receiver.” Even though he is appalled by it, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) understands the power of this panoptic device which can locate the marauding Joker. “You took my sonar concept and applied it to every phone in the city. With half the city feeding you sonar, you can image all of Gotham.”
Batman’s superpower has, however, a complication: he must outsource his sight in order to hunt. He becomes a kind of cybersentinel—and one depicted as blind, his human eyes erased to leave just a sheen of pale magenta light, his vision wirelessly prosthetic (“Fox, I need picture”) and digitized as Lucius reluctantly operates a computer system which, “null-key encrypted” though it may be, subsumes any individual. The network can look right through Batman now. With newborn machine eyes, is this the same hero who peered down from the towering roofs? Those shots begin to seem like elegiac portraits of a bygone phantom, as anachronistic as Doubt‘s improvised picture-mirror in the age of Facebook and GPS—of volunteered and automated images so blindingly multitudinous that maybe no idea of vigilance can cope with them.