29 May 2015
Two Men in Manhattan & Magnet of Doom
Some filmmakers can never make great films outside of their own homeland, native territory or mother-tongue language. The reason for this is completely unknown to me, it seems certain filmmakers cannot create good work beyond their comfort zone. Indeed the exact opposite is also true; many filmmakers have made truly stunning experiences when they rest (temporarily or for long periods) in foreign countries. In my view, Jean-Pierre Melville belongs to the former category, his fascination (obsession) with American cinema and culture pushed him to make “Deux hommes dans Manhattan” (1959) in the United States, and to shoot the exteriors of “L’Aîné des Ferchaux” (1963) there. However, while these films have wonderful elements, certain portions fail in an uncomfortable way. Though it was an imaginary USA being created in “L’Aîné des Ferchaux” (designed from a clever tapestry of studio trickery), many of these components simply do not work for me. These scenes (in particular the ones that truly feed his obsession) are the worst in the film, and it is then unfortunate that they make up the majority. Melville, who I consider to be among the greatest filmmakers of all time, simply failed in these instances. He failed to truly utilise his obsession (American noir, westerns, road-movies) from a painful distance, and so he pursued it directly to the source, and when he arrived at the heart of his fixations he came back empty-handed.
While in other films he pushed his ideas and preoccupations to the furthest point of abstraction, in them a swirling sense of absurdity and an austere sense of Cinema. In these conditions he created masterpiece after masterpiece.
Having said that, there are some magnificent scenes in both “Deux hommes dans Manhattan” and “L’Aîné des Ferchaux ” that can be felt as pure Melvillian efforts with a very poetic touch. Melville is fascinating to me, within him there is a complete sense of Cinema, even as a youth he was an avid cinephile watching up to five features per day, he did nothing but reflect and interact with the history of film. Nonetheless, he was at his finest (and most successful) when he completely ignored the reality of filmmaking and built for himself a personal, disturbing cinematic universe. Cinema is not a reflection of life; it is an echo of your deepest, most personal thoughts. In my view, the aim is not to re-create life but to divorce from it and delve into the dark void.