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This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at: http://sallitt.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hatari!

The late Stuart Byron once wrote that even John Simon would understand the greatness of Hatari! were he forced to see it ten times. And, after my fifth viewing on Saturday night, I must say that I’m starting to come around to the film's considerable charms.

In a way, Hatari! throws up more obstacles for the Hawksian than for the lay viewer. Hawks’ penchant for recycling familiar dialogue and situations from his previous films starts to take on a ritualized, automatic quality at this point in his career. And the careful interweaving of events that was so impressive in Rio Bravo has given way in the space of one film to the most naked, barely motivated setups, as if Hawks no longer cared a whit about hiding behind the curtain or pretending that events are motivated by forces within the film universe.

Maybe I’ve just gotten used to this stuff, maybe it doesn't bother me so much at this point in my life, I don’t know. Anyway, I come here to praise Hatari!, not to bury it. What struck me most forcibly on this viewing is that, in place of the genre mechanisms that he formerly used as backdrop and jumping-off point, Hawks riffs off of a downright Bazinian conflation of fiction and documentary. Hawks had often revealed in the past his interest in process, in taking a bit of extra screen time to show how things work. (The night before my Hatari! screening, I saw the less distinguished Land of the Pharoahs, the main point of interest of which is watching Hawks and art director Alexandre Trauner practically build a real pyramid over the course of the movie.) But never before or after would Hawks devote so much effort to documenting a real activity – capturing wild animals – or suggesting that the actors playing the hunters were actually performing the job on screen. The characters who climb into specially designed land vehicles and head out on the plains of Tanganyika in search of game are doing exactly the same things as the film crew. Even the most credulous viewer will grasp that Hatari! is its own making-of documentary, a film about the fun of being an actor sent to Africa to camp out and chase animals.

John Wayne’s character, Sean Mercer (maybe Hawks and his writers were thinking of Sean Thornton, Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man – in El Dorado, Hawks would give Wayne the name Cole Thornton) swings toward the harsh side of Wayne’s familiar Hawksian persona. Is this because Wayne could not hide his irascible nature under the duress of wrestling rhinos to the ground? It looks like cinema-vérité when Wayne shoves Valentin de Vargas away during a particularly arduous capture, saying “We don’t need help here.” In any case, this edge of cruelty carries over to Wayne’s inhibited romance with Elsa Martinelli: one notably humiliating verbal skirmish, in front of a group of hunters, leaves Martinelli crestfallen. In reaction to Wayne’s less socialized behavior, the pressure that the group places on him to consummate the romance is correspondingly more direct and angry than in other Hawks films: not since Red River has Wayne come in for such contempt from his Hawksian cohort.

Martinelli, an appealing actress who plays her character, Dallas, a little more daft and wide-eyed than most Hawks heroines, also follows an atypical Hawksian character arc. Dallas is probably closest in conception to Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee in Only Angels Have Wings, in that she is largely marginalized by the neglect of the male protagonist, and can assert herself only through the self-defeating gesture of departing in tears. But something interesting happens to this Hawksian archetype in Hatari!: she finds an identity of her own, as a surrogate mother to animals. Biology asserts itself in a way that is unusual for Hawks: not only does Martinelli exhibit a maternal instinct rarely depicted in his films, but she also descends the food chain and joins the animal kingdom. Falling back on her own resources as romance disappoints her, she is absorbed into nature in the course of her maternal duties, covered in mud, water, paint, oblivious to human interaction. And, just as strangely, her transformation increases her appeal to her hesitant lover and to the group in general. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Martinelli gives her baby elephants a bath in a nearby lake while Wayne secretly follows with his gun to protect her, looking on with obvious admiration. Hawks does not seem uncomfortable with this exaggeration of traditional sex roles, though his career as a whole more often illustrates his pleasure in men and women crossing the gender divide.

One of the best scenes in Hatari! (which is constructed in an unusually modular fashion – it would not have been hard to relocate or excise scenes in the editing room) is a peculiar variation on a bit of blocking that Hawks used two decades earlier. After his capture of 500 monkeys using a rocket and a fishnet, Red Buttons’ Pockets haunts the compound’s common room, drunk and maudlin, asking the other hunters to tell him the story of his triumph over and over again. Wayne and Hardy Kruger are absorbed in a card game, but know that Buttons has earned the right to disturb their recreation, and so do their best to humor him while they play, describing the majestic rise of the rocket as if reading him a bedtime story. I flashed on the completely different scene in His Girl Friday in which the reporters in the news room alternately ignore Molly Malone and taunt her with throwaway wisecracks while they play cards. In both cases, the card players are confronted with a larger-than-life character: Buttons and Molly Malone are out of a different and more expansive movie, emoting theatrically and gesticulating wildly. And in both cases, the card players react with swallowed-up naturalism, muttering about the game under their breath, clearly establishing themselves on a behavioral level that is quieter, faster, more unstressed than the one occupied by their stylized interlocutors. Starting with dissimilar character dynamics and story objectives, Hawks exhibits the same instinct to create a gap between levels of abstraction, and to exploit that gap to heighten the illusion of realism.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Daniel said...

Is it unusual to have two Hawksian women in the same space, as there is here with Martinelli's "Dallas" and Michèle Girardon's Brandy? And what do you make of ultimately pairing Brandy off with Pockets? I hardly find that plot turn heightening realism!

June 12, 2008 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger David said...

I loved this. I was reading trivia about the movie, and evidently a good portion of the soundtrack had to be rerecorded, since most of the animal-handling consisted of John Wayne swearing at the wildlife.

The multiple layers of reality is really interesting: I got that too when I was watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, maybe his most cartoonish film. There, it's inverted: everyone is a caricature, and Jane Russell exists to walk through it all and mutter, mock, and play along (blatantly in the court scene), with nobody really realizing she's not a cartoon woman with the rest of them. It's the usual straight man in a world gone mad (and straight man with a loony sidekick) bit taken to the limit. It's clearly the main influence on Celine and Julie Go Boating (where the trial/spectacle wig-swapping is repeated), but I was thinking of Eddie Valiant in toontown.

Not his most Bazinian film, Blondes, but the fun of exposing contrivances and artificial sets as exactly that is embedded in the story, whereas it seems this more and more becomes Hawks' modus operandi. Which might be why I love Hatari so much: it's all true. Even in the most contrived parts, there's the joy of watching the actors perform--putting on disguises, playing parts, pretending to fall in love. Not that recognizing the actors as actors takes away from buying into the fiction (as in Pharaohs and Man's Favorite Sport), anymore than hearing someone reciting a story takes away from our sense (and suspense) of the story actually happening. It's almost like a great rehearsal diary.

June 12, 2008 at 4:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Danny – seems to me that Hawks will cram attractive women into every square inch of screen space given half an excuse (cf. The Big Sleep). Second-banana female roles include Karen Morley in Scarface, Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings, Dolores Moran in To Have and Have Not, Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep, Marion Marshall in I Was a Male War Bride - and that’s not even going into the late period, where both male and female romantic roles proliferate.

Red Buttons landing Michèle Girardon may not be statistically probable, but I don't think Hawks is especially into that kind of plausibility. The way Hawks plays it, the Brandy-Pockets pairing is somewhat comic, a bit of an exaggeration; and the “Can you believe that?” reaction of the rest of the team, including the spurned suitors, plays off the exaggeration by acknowledging it in lower-key, down-to-earth terms.

David – I agree, Jane Russell definitely serves that “realist” function in Blondes. It's interesting that this kind of opposition of different levels of realism seems to be an issue of style for Hawks, not an issue of character. Jane Russell, or Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, or Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century might exist as a comic abstraction in one scene, and in the next become an in-the-know onlooker. Hawks wants the energy, not necessarily a character schema to go with it.

June 12, 2008 at 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Blake said...

I don't get this about Pockets and Brandy. He is quite an appealing guy, invested with more real charm and personality than either of those other two guys, who are good-looking guys but attraction is about more than that and I think this acknowledges there is some mystery about it. It would make as much sense to wonder why Dallas does not prefer one of the younger guys--she is in their age range more than Wayne's, isn't she? Hawks doesn't care about such things; the women are always the same age in his movies, even as the men get older, part of his fantasy of the Hawksian dream girl, I guess. Pockets and Brandy makes at least as much sense, if you think about it.

Unlike you, Dan, my best viewings of "Hatari" were the first couple, when I was just "learning" Hawks. The kind of circular structure the film has worked against conventional ideas of dramatic narrative and I enjoyed that and to some extent I still do, but that structure now seems more casual to me in this film, as opposed to some of his others. I still think it's a good film, however relaxed. Actors seem to make a difference in Hawks--here I actually don't think he does much with the two younger guys, who work well enough but come over as generic Hawks types. By contrast, Elsa Martinelli, and if I may be so bold to say so, Red Buttons, add a lot.

June 13, 2008 at 3:26 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Blake - to my mind, the issue isn't age - it's Buttons' style of comedy and his image in the movie. Hawks plays the romantic scenes for broad humor: Pockets clowns with his fake injury and grins to his audience, Brandy fusses over him like a caricature of feminine solicitude. Hawks seems to be doing a burlesque of the idea (the myth, I would say) that attraction is mysterious.

My guess is that the phenomenon of aging male leads being cast opposite young women had as much to do with box-office considerations as with Hawks' fantasies.

June 14, 2008 at 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Blake said...

I didn't mean to imply it was Buttons' age in the Pockets-Brandy pairing. Yes, he's a comedic figure, but I just don't think that takes him out as an appealing man. But I was only referring to Wayne/Martinelli re "age" so sorry for the misunderstanding.

There's a tendency in Hollywood for younger women to be cast opposite aging male stars, of course--an example that was always talked about was Audrey Hepburn and the parade of male leads in most of her classic films.

But this does go much further in Hawks and has an obsesssive quality. I'm not saying this in a mean way--he has a right to be the way he is, and he does make a fair amount of his women quite vibrant, obviously. But there is not a range of women, simply accepted as the women they are, as in the more unambiguously heterosexual John Ford or Raoul Walsh. Hawks likes women but only the specific kind of woman he creates. The more successfully he creates her to conform to his ideal (if you prefer this word to "fantasy"), the more interested he becomes to vivify her in the way he does so well.

I wrote a section of "Saloon Girls and Ranchers' Daughters: The Woman in the Western" about this, like the ones on Ford, Walsh, and Mann, and elaborated on this point, but looking for something to cut completely, I chose that because in order to make the point at all I needed to give a lot of space to talking about male relationships.

David referred to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" as "cartoonish," and I'd suggest this is what happens when Hawks doesn't see a woman in the film whom he can really like. That includes Jane Russell, who might be a parody of the sexually aggressive Hawksian female, as well as Marilyn Monroe. One reason I'm so mild on that film is the reserve I feel he has about both of them, not a feature of his good comedies. The reason I mention Russell is that this is not an actress with whom Hawks succeeded, unlike so many others (he did not direct her in "The Outlaw" by her own statements, only in "Blondes"). It would be easy to say she has no depth and that her other films show it, and that may have been true at this point. But suddenly, in 1955-1956, four films in a row show her playing a dimensional character very well, "The Tall Men" and "The Revolt of Mamie Stover" (Walsh), "Foxfire" (Pevney), "Hot Blood" (Ray). In an interview, she credited Walsh with extra understanding of her character in the first of these films as being of immense help to her.

June 14, 2008 at 12:45 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Blake - I don't believe that Hawks liked putting old men in clinches with young women. All other things equal ('cita - this is my chance to use "ceteris paribus," but I can't make myself do it), I think he would rather have put young men in those clinches - he certainly dug up enough male ingenues over the years, especially in the later films. I think much of the reason that older guys like Wayne and Gable soldiered on as romantic leads was that they made the films more bankable.

I think Russell is quite good in Blondes, myself. I just read a quotation from her in Todd McCarthy's Hawks bio in which she says she learned a lot from Hawks just watching him direct Buetel in The Outlaw, so maybe she liked to praise directors in this way.

June 14, 2008 at 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Blake said...

Yes, Wayne and Gable soldiered on because they made films more bankable, and I was already acceding that point in a general way. And by the way, re Wayne and Martinelli, I actually have no problem with it myself. I readily accept Wayne in romances with these younger actresses--he always makes his part of it believable. He is also an underrated comedian, who seems good at bringing out the humor in these pairings.

I don't agree with you though that Hawks didn't like putting old men in clinches with younger women, and I think you need to look for other reasons for all those hunky male ingenues. That said, from an artistic standpoint, it does seem stimulating to him to have males and females in a film sexually interesting and desirable in similar ways, and now that I think of it that might be one reason why "Red Line 7000" with its sextet
of young men and women in romantic pairings all of similar age works best for me of the late films.

The issue, though, is not the aging male hero, as personified by John Wayne, with whom Hawks himself might identify (in a way he can no longer do as easily with a Hardy Kruger or James Caan). It IS the woman herself, always a dream girl, and indeed almost invariably referred to as "a girl" and not a woman. To me, in his films, she is very fixed in time, cannot be acknowledged at all unless she is at an age where she is at her peak of desirability. She is solely for the present, her past nothing but a few references composed of motifs of old Hollywood genres, and no future that we contemplate beyond her getting the hero's immediate interest.

After I wrote before, I looked up
the ages of Angie Dickinson when she made "Rio Bravo," Elsa Martinelli in "Hatari," Capucine for "North to Alaska" (Hathaway) and Elizabeth Allen for "Donovan's Reef" (Ford), because, for all their differences, these films have in common that it's always John Wayne in a relationship with a younger woman, and always plenty of comedy in the way these romances are treated in the films. As I expected, the four women were all roughly in the same age range, but consider that Capucine in "Alaska" plays a woman who seems more mature even so, not someone one would call a girl--the experience she has in back of her seems not just exposition but something one feels as something lived. It's even more true of Allen in "Reef"--whose character is unhesitatingly seen by Ford as the center of the film and the reason for it. She's not just there to throw herself at Wayne, who spends part of the time being the comic relief with Lee Marvin, even though he is the romantic lead as needed. At the same time, this relationship has deeper and more resonant psychological motivation than the others, in a way that makes good use of Wayne's age--Wayne's character is about the same age as the father who has been long-absent from her life and for whom she has in some way yearned. Without being incestuous, it makes sense that this man of similar qualities as her father would attract her.

It's interesting that of these roles, this is the one in which Wayne himself seemed to question his casting, feeling Ford should have had a younger man playing for it. And that makes me glad Wayne was doing the acting and not the casting.

Dan, I love Howard Hawks, and that has never changed, but he isn't less if we acknowledge there is some complexity of attitude he has toward women--and men, too. In his films he can make them the way he wants them to be, so there is a gallery of vibrant women there, just as some of the male relationships give free play to homoeroticism, in cases where he does see it as an element. But "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" would suggest on its own that there are certain kinds of women, and certain kinds of female behavior, about which he is deeply negative. For such a brightly-colored film, it takes a pretty dark view.

June 14, 2008 at 4:47 PM  
Anonymous Blake said...

I wrote:
Wayne's character is about the same age as the father who has been long-absent from her life and for whom she has in some way yearned. Without being incestuous, it makes sense that this man of similar qualities as her father would attract her.

But I meant to write "similar qualites and experience" (Wayne's
Donovan and Jack Warden's Dedham have similar World War II experience when the latter was the former's commander). And in context, that shared experience is most important of the things they have in common, personal qualities much less so.

June 14, 2008 at 4:56 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Hey, where have I implicitly denied that Hawks might have "complexity" in his attitude toward women?

June 14, 2008 at 5:20 PM  
Anonymous Blake said...

"Hey, where have I implicitly denied that Hawks might have "complexity" in his attitude toward women?"

Fair enough. You haven't.

I think my point about women becoming kind of fixed in type (and age) becomes more pronounced in his later films, by the way. And even if it's a tendency, it isn't necessarily to ill effect.
Remember I first came into this to
defend pairing of Brandy and Pockets as believable, though now that I think of the film, Brandy
herself isn't given too much to do to transcend being that type.

By the way, in the interview I saw, Jane Russell said she regretted Hawks was taken off "The Outlaw" and had wanted to work with him and was glad to have the opportunity later (if she was less enamored of Hughes as director, who can blame her?). But she also said very clearly that Raoul Walsh was her favorite director, and what she said about "The Tall Men" was to explain her reason for this.

That doesn't mean Walsh was best with all women any more than Hawks was. Frances Farmer's attitude toward Hawks was similar to Russell's about Walsh, though sadly she had even fewer good opportunities.

June 14, 2008 at 8:23 PM  

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