Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Movies

Louis Malle

Since I am no more inclined to be pious in a movie theater than I am anywhere else, I attended Louis Malle's six-hour documentary, Phantom India, fully prepared to do any or all of the following: eat dinner, fall asleep, read in the lobby, leave early. I had seen the ends of two of the film's seven segments while waiting for the feature at the New Yorker Theater, which owns the distribution rights in this country, and while these were intriguing enough to get me back to the theater for the full treatment, neither induced me to stick around after the feature to see how a segment began. Malle's footage was stubbornly unmelodramatic and unpicturesque. It didn't grip me.

So I didn't really go back to see a film, not even by a director I admire as much as I do Louis Malle. I went back for a documentary on a specific subject. Like the New Leader, or auteur theory, or Gurdjieff, India engages my interest by the magic of opposites-attract, I want to understand them just well enough to dismiss them once and for all. For just that reason, of course, I begrudge such subjects any real time and effort. In six hours, I might devour most of a substantial book on India, but I know better than to believe I'll get around to it. The beauty of movies is that you just sit there. It was my (no doubt shameful) fantasy that in six hours I would learn everything I always wanted to know about India but was too lazy to find out.

I am pleased to report that what happened instead is that I now have a book about India on my reading list. Obviously, my antipathy to India is inspired not by 500 million Indians but by the worst of the Western dabblers, who give them a bad name. Malle takes pains to distinguish himself from the dabblers. In the first segment, he comes upon two young French longhairs near the erotic sculptures of Konarek. They waste several minutes going on about how the Indian people have discovered that peace is freedom from material things. It's only when they turn up again, ill and longing for a French hospital--one reveals that his parents have bought him a plane ticket home, much to the hooting delight of the New Yorker audience--that Malle's rather indulgent disdain for their naivete becomes clear.

Unfortunately, Malle himself goes just one step further, for he perpetrates a cliche that is only slightly less naive. A less romantic man would have entitled the film "India--Land of Contradictions" and let it go at that, but Malle apparently feels compelled to cloak his banality in profound rhetoric. He says that the longhairs are unable to "overcome the contradiction . . . between Cartesian revolt and attempted adaptation to Indian wisdom." For Malle, this conflict--between the integrative tendency of Indian contemplation and the critical bias of European analysis, between natural beauty and human suffering, and within a caste system which both obviates "the manichean conflict of oppressors and oppressed" and reifies the grossest human inequities--is the key to understanding India.

This formula restates the oldest liberal truism, which might be designated the fallacy of the objective reporter. Like most truisms, it partakes of some truth, and for Malle it is clearly felt truth. His immersion in the inertia of rural India, described in his own hushed, hypnotic narrator's voice, is deep and convincing, yet even at his most awestruck he never loses a grip on the naive-Marxist class analysis which is his basic sociological tool. Yet finally the truth is a cop-out, just as it would be a cop-out for an Indian filmmaker to suggest that America, to choose one of a dozen of reasonable possibilities, is both a spacious storehouse of natural splendor and an artificial wasteland.

As often as not, bewilderment by paradoxical complexities is symptomatic of a fear of what lies beyond them. I think that each of the relationships I've just described transcends paradox. The United States could never have become a nation of parking lots if its resources hadn't first attracted land-famished Europeans and then supported their gluttony. And however interdependent India's philosophical strengths and economic weaknesses were thousands of years ago, there is no reason to assume that the interdependence is permanent. I think that's what Malle is really worried about. A fear of what might happen to India's peace if its suffering were to disappear underlies his supposed objectivity.

I have seen three of Malle's other films. I loved two (Murmur of the Heart and Zazie) and hated the other (The Lovers) and was amazed, when I thought about it, at how dissimilar they all were. Murmur of the Heart is a deeply humane domestic comedy and bildungsfilm, Zazie a pataphysical romp, and The Lovers an exercise in unredeemed schmaltz. Yet they do all share one crucial element with Phantom India--their strength is emotional rather than intellectual. Malle is a poet of the informed heart, and sometimes his heart is better-informed than others. What is most striking about Phantom India is that despite my intellectual reservations, and my awareness that Malle's fondness for his paradox means that his film is probably quite unrepresentative of its subject--in the classic fallacy of Rousseau-style primitivism, the ruling class and the petite bourgeoisie get little attention and less respect--Phantom India haunts me. I had originally intended to compare it to a much sturdier marathon documentary, Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity, but in retrospect I can't do it. I keep remembering the extraordinary grace and fluidity of Malle's unselfconscious camera, one of the most unpretentiously eyelike cameras I've ever spent time with. And I recall the gentle, accented English of his descriptions, so much more effective on a sheer vocal and physical level than they are as verbal analysis.

And so in the end I am stuck with a paradox myself, one I'm sure Malle would appreciate. I wonder whether a filmmaker with a braver and more committed theory of India could ever capture its visual reality so effectively. I hope so. But in the meantime, see whatever of this film happens to come your way. I have a feeling that its cumulative effect is geometric--that six hours is twenty times more effective than 50 minutes. In the unlikely event that the entire film should be shown within driving distance, pack some sandwiches and go. But don't plan to sleep. I only managed five minutes all told myself, and I was really tired.


If the 10th annual New York Film Festival was a little dull, it really wasn't the fault of the people who ran it. Movies are in some kind of doldrums and have been for a couple of years. The festival directors did their best certainly--what more can you ask of a film festival than Bunuel, Godard, Truffaut, Morrissey, Rafelson, Bertolucci, Losey, Altman, Satyajit Ray, Teshigahara and Rohmer, among others? Ten years ago the world was a lot less puzzling place and it was easier to approach filmmaking--and just about everything else--with a firm hand and a quick step. Nowadays film revolutionaries no less than other kinds are a lot less sure of themselves. There were neither critical manifestos nor movies of much challenge at this year's festival.

There was, to be sure, a lot of competence. I didn't see every movie, but I saw most of them and the only unalloyed failure was Paul Morrissey's Heat. And, my god, was that ever a tiresome movie. It not only gave me a headache but kept me away from the next day's screenings. I'm a great admirer of Trash and several other Morrissey-Warhol efforts, so I don't think it's just philistinism that keeps me from liking this one. Cinema verite applied to fiction requires actors who are naturally compelling. This time out Morrissey has failed to find them. Joe Dallesandro, especially, is so laid back he might as well be off-screen and (the late) Andrea Feldman is the least attractive movie personality I've ever seen. Nor is Pat Ast any pleasure to watch. It's a mess and I say to hell with it.

Fusion, January, 1973