Sunday, March 25, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl

I have no desire to defend Leni Riefenstahl, but can somebody please tell Clive James to stop writing about movies? [Registration Req'd] A week or two ago, a level-headed review that was really quite well-written parsed the Riefenstahl problem in the NYT arts pages. The piece, by NYT's regular reviewer Michiko Katukani, herself not exactly a "film person," actually discussed the books in question, managed to register the historical importance of Riefenstahl's work along with the historically evolving arguments about her relative merits as an artist/human being. She distinguishes between the strengths of both authors and suggests how they are similarly valuable by establishing a historical tradition against which the writers are working, and she does just about everything else you could expect from an average book review. Her piece also contained a nicely succinct summation of Riefenstahl's politcal situation, from the new biography by Steven Bach: "the ‘horror of history’ in which her apologists thought her ‘imprisoned’ was a narrative of her own making about which she remained nostalgic and unrepentant. It was richly rewarded and free of any compulsion save ambition. She did not suffer from it but profited and to suggest otherwise — as she often did — is an insult to the millions who died at the hands of a regime she took pride in glorifying, using and enabling.”

That quote from Bach manages to perfectly capture the full repugnancy of Riefenstahl's situation without resorting to discussion-ending insult hurlings.

The last time James wrote about a film book for the NYT, some righteous anger was unleashed on the world wide web. James would seem to be a sort of cosmopolitan catty writer, the kind that keep New Yorker readers entertained and self-satisfied, and yet the sort of snobbery that James wishes to preach is childish, at best. Name-calling, opinions existing only at the far extremes or not at all, adopting a tone that can best be characterized as 'taunting.' And woefully underinformed and incurious. Clive James traffics in generalities and partial information so that he himself may offer the definitive assessment. And in this particular article his judgement inflates its own authority by making his attack on Nazism about the personal deficiencies of one of its foremost figures - and in the process seeming to wage a personal vendetta against his subject rather than offering any sort of useful historical, biographical or artistic critique, though disguising his argument as all three.

Take a look at his Riefenstahl review. Notice how he takes to calling her "Leni" instead of the Times-approved "Ms. Riefenstahl," or how he manages to throw in an insult about her looks (her eyes were "too close together"). (Also notice how he says "cineaste" when he means "cinephile" - it would be nice if writers about film at least accquainted themselves with the basic vocabulary before proclaiming generalities about the entire medium.) Blatantly misogynist and patronizing, the moral of the review is that we shouldn't be thinking about Riefenstahl at all because she was stupid and only got where she was because she used her "feminine wiles" to get there. James paints her as someone who's not quite intelligent enough to have a morally complex response to Germany's crimes against humanity, but she eventually is "distressed" and then starts lying "until people got tired, or old, or died."

For those who aren't insulted twice by any of the above, I believe James is taking (unwittingly, I hope) a broad swipe not only at Riefenstahl (take THAT!) but at Susan Sontag and the feminist movement that adopted Riefenstahl as a pet cause (briefly) when they went looking for significant female film artists and found one in a pure aesthete who, it seemed, didn't care one way or another about the Nazis as long as she got to make her movies. It probably could have only happened when it did, in the late 60s/early 70s, when critics were willing to remove material from its historical situation a lot more readily than they were before or have been since. In essence, James is saying not only that she isn't a good filmmaker (she's got "no real brain" and no talent), but that she slept her way to the top (or, rather, bottom, as James says when claiming she only got her parts by sleeping with filmmakers: "there was no director, however illustrious, whom she could not hurl herself beneath wearing no clothes at all"). Even if you overlook the whole Nazi thing, Riefenstahl was nothing more than a slutty opportunist. Slutty and too dumb to recognize questions of morality - and she wasn't even all that attractive!

Other head-scratching claims include the almost non-sensical one about how this documentarian possessed "almost no sense of story," which he evidences by pointed out that she had to work through a "mountain of footage." To hear James tell it, Triumph of the Will was Albert Speer's film, "Leni" only filmed it. And Olympia offers the opportunity to be catty about her promiscuity once again - it's hardly even a movie, really, it's just a beautiful event that Riefenstahl managed to adequately capture based on the logical choices anyone would have made. The following passage deserves being fully reproduced:

"She wasn’t having a thing with [Jesse] Owens. She was having that with another American, the decathlete Glenn Morris, whom she obliged to add an 11th discipline to his event. But she filmed Owens with loving appreciation. It’s a shameful consideration that no Hollywood director would have been encouraged to do the same, at the time. Owens in repose looked lovely anyway, and on the move he was poetic, but it took a fine eye and a lot of knowledge to get the poetry on film, and Leni knew how to do that with him and with many another athlete. It was only logical for the camera to climb the tower with the diver, for example, but she figured out how to do it.

"Susan Sontag later made a serious mistake in arguing that “Olympia” was entirely steeped in fascist worship of the beautiful body. But it’s nature that worships the beautiful body. Fascism is natural. That’s what’s wrong with it: it’s nothing else. Despite the too often prevailing calisthenic mass maneuvers, as if Busby Berkeley had met Praxiteles, much of the reputation Olympia has for beauty can thus safely be endorsed, but always with the proviso that a lot of the athletic events were beautiful anyway, and that her technical inventions for capturing them would eventually suffer the fate of all technical inventions and be superseded: everything she did in Berlin in 1936 was topped by what Kon Ichikawa did in Tokyo in 1964. Nevertheless, Leni, with her raw material handed to her on a plate, and unhampered by those requirements of invented narrative that she could never manage, had made quite a movie for its time."

Again, why the preoccupation with Riefenstahl's sexuality (or, rather, sluttiness)? Insulting female sexuality is the first refuge for the chauvinist looking to attack a woman, and James can't seem to find a way to criticize nazism without calling its practitioner a nymphomaniac - and I could possibly see ways in which that could make an interesting piece of rhetoric, except that James isn't introducing the whole slut thing to connect perversion to fascism (which is, like, way popular in movies), but just to make Riefenstahl into a sexually marginalized woman. Who should be evidently be ashamed of her (sexual) behavior. Is it just me, or does it sound like Riefenstahl turned James down for a date to the Homecoming dance? (How's that for a personal attack?)

Back to the review. The next sentence is another something a reviewer should be ashamed of. After reading TWO biographies of the woman and writing with such dismissive authority about her, he says that she "had probably always had one eye on Hollywood." Probably? Based on what, exactly? More generalities, this time not even bothering to hide them. And of course this generality conforms perfectly to the gold-digging opportunist narrative he's been cultivating.

Basically, James read two books he was supposed to review, and instead of reviewing them, he did a book report. Almost no relative evaluations of the two works and their strengths and weaknesses, never crediting one book or the other when discussing a piece of information. His familiarity with the topic seems to be based mostly on the two books, but he adopts a tone of total authority. I'm pretty sure that he hasn't seen most of Riefenstahl's films, and that he knows next to nothing about Weimar cinema, about early documentaries, or anything else having to do with film. So, luckily for him, when it comes to having extreme opinions there's not a whole lot of facts or historical information to get in the way. He avoids even attempting to explain why Riefenstahl has remained such a fascinating figure to critics, cinephiles (or, as James would say, "cineastes") and the general public, or why her films, as opposed to all the other propaganda pieces produced during the Third Reich, are still the subject of passionate discussion. Instead of moralistically calling her a "liar" (repeatedly), perhaps he could have explained how Riefenstahl continued to insist on blatant falsehoods even in the face of the most undeniable evidence. She wasn't just a lying, lying liar, her denials became pathological and ridiculous, and her need to rewrite her past would consume the rest of her life. Which is particularly interesting when you think of it this way: Riefenstahl was 31 when she finished Triumph of the Will, 34 at the time of the Berlin Olympics and 43 when she was arrested. She lived SIXTY MORE YEARS, nearly all of which was devoted to attempting to retain the achievements of those twelve years while denying their implications. Yes, there's not a whole lot of moral redemption in there, but there's one hell of a story. Could it be that James has a similar "sense of story" to the one he ascribes to Riefenstahl, i.e. none? He can only describe her in the most hideously exaggerated cliches, and then houses her character in the most rigidly archetypal narrative.

And when it comes to writing about film (which I keep returning to because, really, this is what pisses me off the most) , James is the kind of viewer that undergraduate film textbooks try to address in their introductions, as the authors explain slowly and carefully that films don't "just happen" but are the result of all sorts of choices behind and in front of the camera, in the editing room, during the sound mix, etc. For James, Olympia was "handed [to Riefenstahl] on a plate" and she was the mere technical engineer who executed it. She had "a good eye" for capturing male beauty - which James comes *this close* to insinuating was only possible because she wanted to "throw herself under them."

Also illuminating: "Final Cut, the best-ever book about a film director." Clive, care to fill us in on what other books about film directors you've read? Or which of "Leni"'s films you've actually seen, versus the ones you've read about? And how the hell did you manage to make me feel defensive about Leni Riefenstahl?

My own opinion of Riefenstahl is much less passionate, mainly because I don't buy her bodies the same way I do the bodies of Berkeley or Claire Denis. There's nothing seductive about them - it's a cold beauty, pneumatic (to use Andre Bazin's favorite erotic description, which he swiped from Huxley), overly reverent and concerned with the classical and divine, as if appreciation of the human body required intellectual justification. I think that, more than any other of the filmmakers experimenting with documentary at the time (and this has come up in discussions about Vertov several times in my experience), we can't see her images with the same eyes audiences did in the 1930s. The impact of her compositions is largely lost on me, and I've become far too used to her techniques to be engaged, let alone persuaded, by her propaganda. Triumph of the Will is a sickening experience, truly, and the images, which are fascist to their very core, are disturbing but never stirring.

I do find her to be a fascinating figure, though, and think the documentary on her (The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl) is endlessly absorbing, and there are plenty of reasons why biographers continue to write about her after her death. Personally, I don't hold her in a particularly high place artistically or in terms of historical importance, however, and for me it's important not to exaggerate either of those. The impulse to glorify women filmmakers from the past is certainly understandable and, to a certain extent, necessary. However, it isn't like this problem has disappeared - directing is still overwhelmingly dominated by men and talented women filmmakers rarely get the attention or opportunities they deserve. Better to own up to the problem and figure out how to deal with it (and to keep making the efforts to discover more great women filmmakers - Claire Denis, Samira Makhmalbaf, Agnes Varda, Francoise Romand, Chantal Akerman, Lynne Ramsay, etc) than to only focus on the positive. And if there was ever a filmmaker whose reputation was born of cinephiles only focusing on the positive, it's Riefenstahl.