The Gilbert Adair files

Memories of youth, anticipations of maturity

Editor’s note:

These two Sight & Sound pieces are retrospectively interesting for the way they foreshadow Gilbert Adair’s future creative achievements. He would, of course, have been blissfully unaware that less than 25 years after reviewing Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979), he would be writing The Dreamers (2003) for him, based on his novel The Holy Innocents (itself a decade away). However, was the idea that became Adair’s novel Love and Death on Long Island (1990, filmed by Richard Kwietniowski in 1997) germinated when he saw The Outsiders, which initially spawned this enraptured paean to the incisive fossa?

— Michael Brooke

La Luna

La Luna

Reviewed in Sight & Sound Winter 1979/80, page 56

As valid a test as any of a director’s talent is how he shoots the moon. In his latest film Bertolucci employs it with surprising economy and discretion: no more than in a half-dozen shots, never crescent-shaped, never a neon sign of itself, never rhyming, as it were, with June. La Luna, in an exclusively climatic sense, is predominantly sunny in texture, with the moon viewed at first as a mere emblem, a logo, almost, of the genre to which, in spite of appearances, the film belongs: romantic melodrama. Or rather ‘mielodrama’, as Bertolucci has himself termed it, from the Italian word for ‘honey’. During the pre-credit sequence, as his mother, an American diva who has changed her name to Caterina for professional reasons (Jill Clayburgh), dances the Twist on the verandah of a Mediterranean villa, the child Joe smears his face with honey; later he is seen riding in a basket on her bicycle beneath the moon, making one think of ‘honeymoon’ or, in Italian, ‘luna di miele’.

Other moons abound, however: the ball of wool in which the child entangles himself – one might again say ‘smears’ himself – as he toddles away from his mother, detaching himself from the orbit of her body for the first time. It reappears at the end when Joe revisits the villa in search of Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), whom he now knows to be his true father and whose arms are outstretched for his mother (Alida Valli) to wind the wool securely back into a tight little ball. There is the Count di Luna from Trovatore and ‘Clair de Lune’ on the piano. No less developed is the ‘honey’ theme, through Joe’s addiction to heroin (signalled early on by his sniffling at table) and the wavering line he chalks along the walls as he wanders through Rome. Outside the womb, the film would seem to be saying, is a labyrinth into which man departs, forever seeking re-entry; and La Luna describes the process by which Joe painfully rediscovers himself and, returning to the ‘primal scene’, unravels the moon.

Bertolucci, it is clear, can never wholly betray his post-Nouvelle Vague origins, as witness this need to furnish an authorised reading of the film as it unfolds. La Luna is both enriched by and encumbered with a metaphorical, referential apparatus, now fatuously ‘cultural’, as with the allusion to Debussy, now powerfully suggestive, as with the honey in the prologue. Added to which are numerous layers of personal and artistic autocitation: riding on his mother’s bicycle is reportedly the director’s own earliest memory of childhood; there is the obsession with Verdi, familiar from The Spider’s Stratagem and 1900, and with Parma, which is where Caterina calls on her old voice coach.

On a more subtle level, La Luna is dialectically related to Last Tango in Paris, where two other alienated beings explored each other physically and psychically. The new film shifts from New York to Rome to Parma, from luxurious apartments to an open-air amphitheatre; but, fortified by the battery of signals and references, the token gestures towards Freud and Lacan, it soon acquires the claustrophobic, suitably incestuous atmosphere of Last Tango’s hothouse apartment. Though mother and son, Caterina and Joe form a real couple, constantly at each other’s throats and crotches; and La Luna is, perhaps, the first film to portray incest, if not quite as a viable sexual alternative, then as comparable, in all its splendours and miseries, to any other union – for the purposes of dramaturgy, at least.

That it becomes so credible is in large part due to the extraordinary rapport established between Jill Clayburgh and Mathew Barry as Joe. At the beginning Clayburgh strikes one as lacking in the kind of inner resources demanded by the role; but her feisty New York manner usefully undercuts the plot’s more outrageous excesses, and when high Cs are called for – as in the scene where she herself, as it were, must spoonfeed Joe with heroin – she is more than capable of reaching them. (I refer to the ‘operatic’, not the literally operatic aspects of the film, which are less convincing due to a slight mismatching of dubbed singing voice and physique.) Barry, in an even trickier role – it is he rather than Clayburgh who is filmed as the object of desire – admirably conveys the character’s alternating bouts of violence and tenderness.

In fact, the whole film advances by a series of abrupt changes in tone, unlike The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist, which were basically linear narratives strained through a nonlinear editing style. Since La Luna outwardly respects conventional chronology, it should be obvious that Bertolucci was not aiming for the kind of coherence to be gained by precise formal and psychological motivation. In one scene, for example, Caterina and Joe are driving through the countryside until brought to a sudden halt by a flat tyre, a minor mishap to which Joe reacts as if his mother had tried to kill him. She laboriously replaces the tyre but, as she is about to get into the car, Joe drives off. Whereupon, she is picked up by a passing motorist (Renato Salvatori) and driven to an inn, whose proprietor is inexplicably plying Joe with fine wines. After flirting with her rescuer to arouse Joe’s jealousy, she abruptly drops him and leads Joe into a back-room to make love. Needless to say, the scene ends with Joe quite brutally slapping her. Abruptly, inexplicably: throughout the film, the spectator is uneasily aware that anything may happen.

To a certain degree, of course, this kind of behaviour is a commonplace of modern cinema where random slapping, say, or hysterical laughter has become almost the norm. But much of La Luna is played successfully for comedy, and all of it is aerated by the sheer grace of Bertolucci’s mise en scène. Not only in the set-pieces – though the Trovatore sequence is the best of its kind since Susan Foster Kane’s farewell debut – but simply in the way he films a boy riding a skateboard, the closing of a door, the moon in the evening sky. In elegance, rapidity of execution and perfection of expression, Bertolucci is the cinema’s Stendhal.

The Outsiders

The Outsiders

Reviewed in Sight & Sound Autumn 1983, page 287

Writing about Tootsie in the Summer 1983 issue of Sight and Sound, Nick Roddick confessed to being a trifle envious of those of his colleagues of whom nothing more was expected, in a review of the film, than “I laughed and laughed.” Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders is not a comedy, anything but. In fact, it’s a melodrama, a melodrama made specifically for the attention of teenagers, a real two-handkerchief (or maybe two-sleeve) weepie. But though of unquestionable interest to all those who have followed the director’s career with sympathy – especially when coupled, as it will be, with its forthcoming sequel, the black and white, reportedly Camus-inspired (!) Rumblefish – it’s doubtful whether anyone not actually moved to tears by the predicament of its youthful principals will profit in the least from a critic’s attempts at illumination.

The film is dedicated to the librarian and students of the Lone Star Junior High School in Fresno, California, who petitioned Coppola to adapt their very favourite book (by S.E. Hinton, whose novels are apparently required reading for schoolchildren in both the United States and this country). “I wanted to make a movie about youth, and about belonging,” Coppola has said, “belonging to a group of people with whom you made identification, and where you felt real love. Even though those boys were poor and, in a way, insignificant, the story gives them a kind of beauty and nobility.” In the event, his mise en scène not only lends Hinton’s crazy, mixed-up kids (the dated jargon is perfectly appropriate here) ‘beauty and nobility’, it transforms them into angels. The Outsiders is a CinemaScope stained-glass window (Panavision, to be precise, but Coppola has clearly been influenced by the dynamic, mannerist CinemaScope framing of Nicholas Ray, whose Rebel Without a Cause is this film’s obvious model).

The promotion of Johnny, Dallas, Ponyboy and Sodapop to the plane of angelism has been effected – aside from the casting of the various young actors, all of whom have strikingly noble and beautiful features – by the application of two recurring motifs, one of almost textbook artfulness, the other more latent and therefore more insidious. The first, as every schoolkid seeing the film will realise, is that of ‘gold’ – gold, however, not as a symbol of valuative immutability but as the ultimate, nostalgic trace of evanescence, be it the evanescence of an afternoon in late summer or of youth itself. The theme is picked out in the Stevie Wonder ballad ‘Stay Gold’, orchestrated in Frost’s poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ and finds its most poignant expression in the injunction of the dying Johnny to Ponyboy, the latter’s hair now dyed blond for the purposes of disguise: “Stay gold!” As visual correlatives, there are the gorgeous Oklahoma sunsets that punctuate the narrative and the warm flesh tints of all involved. Toutes proportions gardées, none of this is very different from the gold of a Fra Angelico altarpiece.

Of the other motif, I propose only its synecdochical (and no doubt whimsical) emblem. Coppola’s film is a homage (unwitting or witting, it’s hard to say) to one of the most charming if unsung glories of the human face, the narrow, moist little furrow which separates the nose from the flowing, monogrammed M of the upper lip, and which, I believe, is called the incisive fossa. The great period of the incisive fossa was, of course, the 50s and 60s, what with Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause and, in West Side Story, Richard Beymer (along whose 70mm fossa one felt like running barefoot). Seldom since that period has a film camera lingered so amorously on it, on flaring nostrils, on the tiny highlight of a satiny lower lip and the soft liquidity of an adolescent’s eyes. The Outsiders, indeed, verges on the homo-erotic (toppling over once and for all with the image of Ponyboy’s clumsily but glamorously peroxided curls); and its commercial success in the United States ought to give rise to some reflection. For though, by Coppola’s own account, Rumblefish was intended as the ‘art movie’ of the pair, what we have here is one of the most overtly aesthetic, art-for-art’s-sake films in Hollywood’s history, a faux-naïf Pre-Raphaelite mural in which angels with dirty faces but immaculately pure hearts burn with a hard, gemlike flame before being snuffed out in their prime. Reader, I cried.

See also

Introduction: Michael Brooke introduces our Gilbert Adair tribute trove (December 2011)

Early reviews: six of Adair’s early capsule reviews from the Monthly Film Bulletin (1979-80)

The rubicon and the rubik cube: Adair on exile, paradox and Raúl Ruiz (Winter 1981/82)

One elephant, two elephant: Adair’s reviews of That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl (Summer 1981)

Meandrous expeditions: Adair’s reviews of Stalker and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Winter 1980/81 and Winter 1982/83)

Adair on music: reviews of Amadeus, Carmen and Ginger & Fred (Spring 1985, Spring 1986 and Monthly Film Bulletin March 1985)

The Nautilus and the nursery: Roland Barthes’s [sic] April-Fools paean to the Carry On cycle (Spring 1985)

Double takes: Heurtebise: Adair’s pseudonymous contributions to Sight & Sound’s Double Takes column (Winter 1984 to Summer 1985)

Favourites: select Adair celebrations of Jean Cocteau, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and Robert Bresson (Autumn 1981; Spring 1985; Summer 1987)

Gilbert Adair’s Top Ten films (September 2002)

The Dreamers reviewed by Ginette Vincendeau (February 2004)

Last Updated: 23 Dec 2011