Thursday, June 5, 2014

Afterlife: Abel Gance's J'Accuse & George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

In 1919, when French director Abel Gance made his anti-war drama J'Accuse, the picture was perfumed with the scent of death, and informed by endless reports he received of his friends dying at the front during WW1. But unlike many anti-war pictures, good and bad, J'Accuse wasn't designed as political agit-prop. "I'm not interested in politics," he would later remind film archivist and author Kevin Brownlow in his book on the silent film era, The Parades Gone By. "But I am against war, because war is futile. Ten or twenty years afterward, one reflects that millions have died and all for nothing. One has found friends among one's old enemies, and enemies among one's friends." Gance had good cause to skirt the expediency of political agendas and reflect more soberly on matters of life and death. He had once been drafted into the French Army Section Cinématographique, but ended up being discharged due to ill-health, which likely spared his life. He would then go on to a film career that would include the tragic drama La Roue (1923) and his landmark epic Napoleon (1927).

Being consumed by thoughts of the dead, especially the war dead, is not unusual for a film director – especially a pioneer like Gance who would along with D.W. Griffith invent a cinematic language that would change the course of dramatic narrative. With this awareness of an emerging art also came the knowledge that moving pictures could provide houses for lingering ghosts who would haunt us for decades. The photograph froze a moment in time, but a movie depicted time in motion, and breathed air into and gave life to the people who were part of the picture. In the years to follow, as actors would become movie stars, their iconic selves – from James Dean in his rebellious red jacket to Marilyn Monroe in her billowing white dress – would fix themselves in the collective unconscious, unchanged by time, and even untainted by their own early, tragic deaths. Where in life, mortality claims everyone; in film, you can live forever and remain fully intact. Somewhere today streaming in cyberspace, James Dean still pleads to be understood by a revolving cast of indifferent adults in what is perhaps another afterlife.

When Gance first conceived J'Accuse (he would remake the film again in 1938), he concocted a romantic drama that would be as sentimental in its conception as his later Napoleon would be. He loved his melodramas painted purple. But Gance was also a man out of his time. If his romantic sensibility hearkened back to a mustier past, his cinematic techniques looked daringly into the future. He might have employed dead stumps of storytelling, but his camera eye could animate those stumps by imagining things yet unseen. In Gance's hands, the screen could fill with images superimposed on each other, sometimes while the screen itself would divide into four sections as if we were viewing the action through a kaleidoscope (like in the dormitory pillow fight in Napoleon); or he could stretch the width of the image to create the first version of Cinemascope with the triptych at the end of Napoleon that gave birth to the possibilities of widescreen not yet conceived in the silent era. The quick cutting and multiple perspectives of the train wreck in La Roue seem today like an everyday part of our contemporary visual culture on satellite news and social media. "Abel Gance's art is the art of frenzy, tumult, climax," Pauline Kael once wrote in The New Yorker. "He dashes towards melodramatic peaks and goes over the top." Without that frenzy, though, Gance's films might have already been stillborn.

Séverin-Mars and Romuald Joubé in J'Accuse
For a good stretch of J'Accuse, nothing seems out of place in this archetypal drama, and nothing quite prepares you for what Gance has in store. Set in the Provençal village in the south of France, the people initially welcome the declaration of war in 1914 and they enlist en masse. One of those soldiers, François Laurin (Séverin-Mars) is a married man, jealous by nature, and who suspects that his wife, Édith (Maryse Dauvray), of having an affair with a local poet, Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé). When he discovers her infidelity to be true, François sends her to live with his parents in Lorraine, where she ends up captured and raped by German soldiers. Curiously, François and Jean also find themselves at the front serving in the same battalion.When Jean is discharged due to ill-health, he finds Édith with a young half-German daughter, a product of the rape, which leaves Édith's father seeking vengeance to retain the honour of the family name. When François returns, he suspects its Jean's child and the men declare war on each other until the truth sends both men back to the front to seek vengeance towards their common enemy. But François gets killed in battle and Jean is driven mad by shell-shock which leads to a vision. And it gives Gance the poetic conclusion he needed for his moral drama.

Gathering the inhabitants of the village, Jean tells them of his vision on the battlefield around a fireplace as if the crackling flames were conspiring to conjure up a ghost story nobody wanted to hear, but couldn't resist. He tells of the hundreds of dead soldiers, scattered like fall leaves across the battlefield, who suddenly arose from their endless sleep to march again. Only not to war this time, but instead to their homes, to confront those they loved to discover whether those loved ones were truly worthy of the sacrifices these men made. As Jean begins his story, the screen suddenly fills with the war dead. Then slowly rising, in the hundreds, they amble down the dirt roads, but the impact they make doesn't grow out of gothic horror. The poetic grandeur of this scene is strikingly similar to what David Fincher achieved in the opening moments of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) when the clockmaker devised a clock that ran backwards so that he could reverse the many deaths of young men on the battlefield which also happened to include his own son. The walking dead in J'Accuse seemed to be marching forward to a time in our consciousness when the television news would show, almost nightly around the world, other marches of young men and women fighting for civil rights, protesting a Southeast Asian war, or turning on tanks invading their country's sovereignty. Only Gance seemed to envision it all before there were TV cameras and mass marches for those cameras to capture.

The war-dead about to rise in J'Accuse

Though Gance's walking dead scene was not designed to scare viewers, but to wake them from their own complacent slumber, the sequence itself wasn't without its own particular horror. "The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving," Gance told Kevin Brownlow. "These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they'd be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty percent had been killed." The sequence, which was shot in the south of France, required over 2000 soldiers on leave to rise from the dead, only to go off days later to their inevitable demise. While the dead in J'Accuse would be content to return to their graves once they knew their sacrifice wasn't in vain, in real life, the truth couldn't be more different. The afterlife of those soldiers are enshrined only in the flickering images of a silent film.

It's hard to say whether George Romero, a young low-budget director from Pittsburgh in 1968, ever saw Gance's J'Accuse, but the film he made in America's most violent year since the Civil War, certainly demonstrates that he might have. In Night of the Living Dead, a grainy, low-budget horror film, the dead get to rise again, only this time they're not back to confront the living, to see whether or not their deaths are worthy, they're here to consume with a relentless intent those who live and then turn those they cannibalize into the walking dead like themselves. "[T]he title of George Romero's film could have been a beatnik poet's metaphor for the 'CBS Evening News'," wrote critic J. Hoberman in his book, Midnight Movies. But the metaphors aren't as explicit as they are in Gance. Despite Romero's own current take on the picture, where he claims every political point in it to be deliberate (as they indeed would be while adding to the diminishing quality of the numerous sequels Night of the Living Dead spawned), Romero found a way to bottle the air that was poisoning the culture. Hoberman argues, and I would say accurately, that Night of the Living Dead seemed to soak up the tumult of the previous four years before it was made. "The previous three years had seen riots and insurrections in the black ghettos of virtually every American city, and in the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King – the symbolic leader of American blacks and the subject of extensive FBI harassment – was assassinated on the terrace of a Memphis motel under circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained," he writes. He goes on to further list, as part of that growing unrest, the huge march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War in 1967, and the student occupation of Columbia University in 1968. Later that year, the murder of Robert Kennedy, the subsequent violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the events in Paris that almost took down the Gaulist government, plus the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, brought the turmoil to a simmering boil.

On the surface, Night of the Living Dead was no more than an independently made horror film which over the years would grow to become a horror classic. The larger question is why? While it's no secret that the fear of being eaten alive is every bit as potent as being buried alive, Night of the Living Dead did more than just tweak a nerve and pinch the gooseflesh the day it opened in October, 1968. Its notoriety grew (as Gance's picture also did) from something more subterranean. The story is pretty rudimentary given its budget of $114,000. In a rural Pennsylvania cemetery, two siblings, Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea), come to visit their late mother. Within moments, a tall, staggering stranger (Bill Hinzman) comes out of nowhere and attacks Barbra. When Johnny is killed after coming to her aid, the stranger pursues her until she takes refuge in an abandoned farm house where she is ultimately trapped with a family, a couple, and a black truck driver, Ben (Duane Jones), who happens upon the residence. For the rest of the night, they battle off the flesh-eating ghouls until the only one left is Ben. But it's his final fate that provides the lethal O Henry finish.

Zombies on the hunt in Night of the Living Dead.
While Romero recognized that most horror films in the Fifties concerned themselves with the dangers of science where creatures would invade from outer space and nukes would turn women into fifty-foot predators, he developed his sensibility out of EC Comics where horror had a more political dimension. (Their 1953 comic, "Judgment Day," was a commentary on racism that featured a black astronaut and it landed EC in hot water with the Comics Code Authority who objected to the hero being black.) Out of Romero's anger over the crumbling culture around him, he devised Night of the Living Dead as a different kind of revolution. "We were going to make a movie about a new society basically swallowing up the old," Romero told Stuart Samuels, the director of Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005). "The old doesn't see it coming because they're too trapped in their own circumstance." While the picture may lack any overt political message, it was the first movie where a black actor was the lead action star without his being black being the point of the story. It is only at his death that the resonance of his race seeps through the material and ties it to the year it was made. But the event that gave that scene further ironic resonance, was something Romero didn't see coming. "[That spring], we finished the film and threw it in the trunk of the car and drove it to New York to see if anybody wanted to buy it and that was the night," Romero recalls. That night that he refers to is the evening of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

The grainy black and white film-making also eerily invoked the evening news which was still largely not seen in colour in 1968, and it gave the film the shocking immediacy of documentary realism. Along with the movie's texture, the hand-held camera work also brought another familiar dimension. "I was trying to intentionally make those scenes look like the news we were seeing from Watts and from 'Nam," Romero explains. And like the evening news, which was filled then with nightly reports of cities burning, and students on campuses in conflict with soldiers and National Guardsmen, not to mention the endless flag-draped body bags of the war dead, Night of the Living Dead depicted a whole culture that was relentlessly stalking the viewer. "The film never wavers from its desire to terrorize the audience and offer no hope at the end," J. Hoberman asserts. "We were living in a country where there was intense polarization and violence and Night of the Living Dead could only be understood in terms of the Vietnam War."  People seemed to understand that from the outset, but it didn't mean it would be embraced for all its shocking boldness. Roger Ebert initially panned it for its brutality. Variety spoke of Night of the Living Dead in terms of "the pornography of violence." But it was the absence of a prurient fascination with violence that denied it that pornographic status and made the film something that's still terrifyingly real today.

Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead

In the subsequent zombie films that Night of the Living Dead surely influenced, including Romero's own sequels, along with the popular TV show The Walking Dead, death has lost its pain and its power to shock. The Walking Dead especially is so fascinated with splattering brains each week and trivializing death in its aftershow gabfest, Talking Dead, that the zombie has been turned into nothing more than a lifeless commodity we continually consume to boost viewership and ratings. If people were fighting for their humanity in Night of the Living Dead, or coming to terms with its cost in J'Accuse, today people appear more to identify with the undead, as if true human feeling had already been gobbled up. The post-modern age has done much to chisel the tombstone of a more romantic and passionate response to death and destruction. Its left in its place a comforting cool cynicism where folks distrust any form of rebellion against the norm. We're so inured to shock now that it's rare that a work of art even has the ability to cause a riot, or perhaps stoke passionate debate. In J'Accuse and Night of the Living Dead, the undead stalk the living as a reminder of what's being lost, and they were made by film artists with a critical voice. The people killing zombies on the screen today, no more animated than the corpses they continually cut down, only come to show us what we've come to accept as human.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. Night of the Living Dead was made in 1967. In the last few decades the most popular horror movie was "Saw". I wonder what that says about the current state of our culture.